Edward II (2010)

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Edward II

By J.R.S. Phillips (1940-  )

(John Roland Seymour Phillips)

Emeritus Professor, University College Dublin

Commissioning Editor: J.J. Scarisbrick

Book Editor: Robert Baldock

Four years pass since the publication of the previous new Yale English Monarchs - George III in 2006 - but Edward II is the first in a flood of new titles. Published in 2010 in hardback (March in the UK and June in the USA) and 2012 in paperback. This book was listed in some of the Methuen-published books in the series at least as far back as the late-1980s and therefore was commissioned by the then series editor J.J. Scarisbrick. A 1989 reprint of Edward the Confessor, for example, lists Phillips' book as forthcoming. Most of the work on it on the publishers' side of the ledger was done by Robert Baldock.

Professor Phillips had the difficult task of examining not only a medieval king, elusive as they always are but also, as he states in his introduction, “a man who did not fit neatly into the traditional and acceptable categories of a medieval monarch”. Therein lies the greatness of this biographical study, a detailed and thorough account of one of England’s most un-kinglike kings. His conclusion is that while he was not heroic or successful Edward was unjustly labelled a useless king and his poor reputation is amplified by the vitriol inherent in the politics of his day.

J.S.Hamilton (Baylor University, Waco, Texas) reviewed this book in The English Historical Review, Vol. 126, No. 520 (June 2011) and found this an engaging study, “a complex and nuanced picture of the king and his reign”. The study was found  to  challenge many stereotypical notions to present a portrait of a king too able to be ignored. Phillips shapes his account by discussing the reputation of the king, discussing the weakness of some of the criticisms of Edward and the context in which they are made. Hamilton comments that Phillips examines an often overlooked aspects of his life - his relationship with Isabella, although the possibility is suggested that their relationship may initially have been more practical than romantic.

Phillipp R. Schofield (Aberystwyth University) in History Oct 2011, Vol.96 (no. 324) is also complimentary of the work, commenting that Phillips "...is prepared to move away...from a more traditional narrative to introduce relatively new or traditionally less-examined features of the reign." His key finding though is that "One of the most compelling aspects of the volume is Phillips' desire to test the standard view of Edward II's kingship. His is not an attempt to rehabilitate Edward but rather to ask that we at least give him a fair trial. Phillips' view is, in essence, that Edward has not been judged by reasonable standards..."

This book is another example of why the English Monarchs series is compelling for history readers. Phillips joins a number of authors in the series whose task it was to re-evaluate the reputation of a monarch; to think clearly about why Edward, in this case, was given a "bad press", and to lead the profession in coming to a different or even iconoclastic conclusion about the nature and history of the subject of the biography. Phillips is not the only recently published author to ask for a reconsideration of the reputation of Edward II and rightly so. Contemporary accounts can and often are written from a perspective of self-interest and to condemn Edward because that was what was recorded in his day is no longer satisfactory. Phillips is not shy of pointing out Edward's flaws, but equally he constructs a history where positive aspects of Edward's reign are brought into view. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. Rarely was Shakespeare's observation so apt as in the case of Edward II.

Yale 2010 / 2012

and Kindle (UK & USA)

Book Number: 23

Cover: Photograph from Edward’s tomb in Gloucester Cathedral.

Futher reading:

Readers wishing to get a Scottish perspective on the reign of Edward II should turn to the 2014 Yale title ‘Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots’ by Michael Penman. This biography compliments well this 2010 biography of Edward II, Robert the Bruce’s adversary.