Saturday, 26 March 2011

David Starkey’s ‘Crown and Country’.

This book was one of my Christmas treats. I’ve always had a huge respect for Starkey, ever since I first saw him as a ‘witness for the prosecution’ in Channel 4’s ‘The Trial of Richard III’. I’ve subsequently watched all his television documentaries and read many of his books. I won’t review the whole book here, but I found his ‘take’ on Edward II and Piers very interesting. He starts, not surprisingly, by comparing Edward II with his father, and points out, rightly in my opinion, that whoever followed Edward Ist was in for a difficult time. He refers to the differences in character – the usual contrast between the warrior king Edward Ist and the ‘rustic pursuits’ Edward II enjoyed. Apart from the similarity in looks between father and son, they also shared a terrible temper.

Edward’s fascination for Piers is described as his ‘major personality flaw’, and that he only had ears and eyes for Piers. Exploring the relationship between the pair, Starkey affirms that no contemporary source explicitly says they were lovers – ‘but they probably came as near as they could’, and cites the well-known quotes, that Edward’s feelings for Piers was ‘the love, that surpasses the love of a woman’, and the infamous ‘David and Jonathan’ quote.

Much is made of Edward’s coronation oath, whereby he promised of uphold and defend ‘the laws and rightful customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen’. Therefore, the nobles saw the loyalty to the monarchy and not to Edward himself. They disapproved of Edward and Piers behaviour – Starkey says they were ‘breaking the rules’, and thus offended the nobles who saw themselves as the keeper of the rules. I particularly liked this quote from Starkey – ‘ Piers mockery of the nobility was the classic response of the outsider confronted by the clique of crusty old insiders’. The nobles, older members of this clique, saw it as their right to have their values and sensibilities to be respected by all – even the king. Membership to their clique was exclusive and limited, to those with the ‘right background’. ‘Their attitude was of course selfish and class-ridden’. Which begs the question, what if a member of the senior nobility had been Edward’s ‘favourite’? Would a homosexual relationship with a senior noble have been accepted? Would Edward have been left in peace? Or would powerful factions have been created? My opinion is that whoever Edward had become besotted with, whatever class he came from, factions would surely have sprung up. A king’s mistress could wield very little power at court, but a male lover was something else.

Although Starkey describes Edward as grief-stricken after the death of Piers, he sys the loss ran deeper than this. It was an affront to his kingship. ‘Gaveston was the thing in the world that had mattered most to him. But he had not been powerful enough or feared enough, to protect his life or avenge his death’.

Of course, Edward swore vengeance on the killers of Piers, and he would eventually take revenge on his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster. Edward and Piers had ‘gone along’ with exiles when threatened, but always with the intention they would re-unite. There’s no doubt in my mind that some nobles, namely Warwick and Lancaster, decided to assert themselves over Edward by murdering Piers. As well as ridding themselves of someone who thumbed his nose at them, they struck right at the heart of the king’s authority.


Susan Higginbotham said...

I'll have to look for that one!

Susan Higginbotham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Higginbotham said...

Is this "Crown and Country"? I couldn't find "Crown and Nobility" under Starkey's name.

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds great! Like you, I love the line about 'the outsider confronted by the clique of crusty old insiders'!

Anerje said...

Sorry Susan - and David Starkey - it is Crown and Country! oops - serves my right for not checking! Well worth having!

Anerje said...

Kathryn - that's such a great quote, isn't it? Sums up the situation really well!