Saturday, 3 May 2014

Oh dear, new book, old prejudices......

‘One of the best examples of the brutal and brainless athlete established on a throne’ – Thomas Federick Tout.  So begins the chapter on Edward II in Desmond Seward ‘The Demon Brood’, a history of the Plantagenets.  It might be a new book on the Plantagenets, but the same old bias regarding the reign of Edward II is present.
  The chapter on Edward is called ‘The Changeling’, and begins with the Battle of Bannockburn before delving into Edward’s character.  There isn’t a kind word for Edward.  He was ‘incapable of facing the world without a strong man at his side, invariably someone whom everybody else detested.’  Edward was a weakling all his life, terrified of his father with crippling self-esteem.   Later in the chapter, Seward says that Edward was ill-equipped to be king because of his panic attacks – erm, what panic attacks?  Edward is portrayed as some sort of shambling wreck.  Apparently even his beard hid his 'weak face'.  Huh? 
 Regarding Piers Gaveston, the old prejudices soon surface.  So we get the re-hashed story of Edward giving him the ‘royal’ title of Earl of Cornwall, which had been promised to his younger half-brother – not true.  Piers making off with all the wedding presents – again, not true.  Oh, and of course Edward jumping ship to race through the surf and embrace Piers in front of a horrified Isabella, Edward’s new wife.  He wrecked the Coronation banquet by burning the food and keeping Edward all to himself. 
 Seward  denies the relationship between Piers and Edward was that of lovers.  He sees Edward totally dependent on Piers because Piers had the ‘front’ and confidence he lacked.  And it’s here that the most distasteful description of Edward – and Piers – appears – Piers dominance ‘is the power of a strong mind over a weak one and the support he gave to a man who suffered from panic attacks – not unlike the reassurance given by an understanding male nurse to a mental defective’.  Yes, you read that right!  Worst of all, he says the chroniclers of the time thought Edward was mentally incompetent to rule.  Annoyingly, he quotes from various chronicles but uses ‘modernised English’ to do so, as if the reader couldn’t cope with the actual version.  He speeds through history without offering full explanations.  We’re not even told that Edward Ist banished Piers – just that Edward recalls him after his father’s death.  So no mention of exile number 1.  Exile number 2 is because Piers has been pilfering the royal coffers, and Edward dares not refuse his exile – without fully explaining Piers’ role in being sent to Ireland.  Exile number 3 is due to Piers giving the king bad advice and stopping the magnates from seeing the king.  The magnates also apparently demanded he take all his ‘hangers on’ with him.  On his return, Pembroke was sent to ‘capture’ Piers –  this is how it is written.  And then Piers gets sick and Edward leaves him at Scarborough, where he surrenders to Pembroke.  Piers’ fate takes only a paragraph.  It’s all written in a style I can only call ‘chatty’, as if someone is recounting a précis of the daily news.  I can’t believe this is actually meant to be a ‘serious’ history book.  Another annoying aspect is quoting from Victorian historians - who have done an awful lot of damage to reputations and are hardly the most reliable sources. 
 I’ve given up reading the rest of Edward’s chapter, and not sure I’ll be able to bring myself to read any more of the book.   

Ok I read the last page of Edward's chapter - unsurprisingly it's the red hot poker story.


Kathryn Warner said...

Ugh! :( I haven't read that one, and never will. My blood pressure can't take it! So much fail! He grew his beard to cover his 'weak face' - that's the lamest part of the whole silly nonsense for me. Except for calling him a 'mental defective', of course, which is just grossly offensive. Ugh ugh ugh! How do this hideous rubbish get published?

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Dear God, that sounds terrible. I guess the author takes his readers for some morons, who will not conclude that a constant criticism and nothing more is a little bit too much. Not to mention these hideous, highly offensive words. As far as I'm concerned, I always tread carefully with such treatment of historical figures.

Poor Edward and poor Piers. I really feel sorry for them both.

Anerje said...

Kathryn - I knew you'd be furious! Actually, anyone with a keen interest in history would be. Oh, and we get the 'Piers' mother was a witch' bit as well. Regarding Piers exile in Ireland, it isn't made clear how clever and determined Edward was to keep Piers near to him. We're told the magnates banished him there and Edward 'didn't dare refuse'. Hmmm.

Anerje said...

Kasia - I think you've hit the nail on the head - readers are treated as morons. And I'm glad we all agree how offensive are the words used. I really feel sorry for Edward - there is not one positive word for him.