Books I’ve Read This Week: Medieval Monarchs

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 13: Medieval Monarchs This past week, I read five more titles in the Penguin Monarchs series, immersing myself in the reigns of England’s thirteenth and fourteenth century kings, historical figures whom I know well from the research for my 2015 book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada. Although the Penguin Monarchs books all follow a similar format and length, the authors adopt a variety of approaches to the material including the chronological narrative, analysis of key themes in each reign and a focus on the central event or legislation of the monarch’s reign. In addition, to reading fresh perspectives on medieval English monarchs, I read a history of the world that focuses on the ideas and trade that traveled across Asia to Europe along the Silk Road.  Here are this week’s reviews.

#86 of 365 Henry III: A Simple and God-Fearing King by Stephen Church

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 29, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Review: An excellent analysis of King Henry III’s reign in the context of the legal reforms that occurred over the course of the thirteenth century including Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest and the Provisions of Oxford. The First and Second Barons’ war are discussed in detail, illuminating the weaknesses of Henry III’s rein including his long minority and his later patronage of his extended family at the expense of his barons. There is less attention devoted to Henry III’s relationship with his wife and children, which was much more harmonious than the personal lives of his predecessors. The political activity of Henry III’s influential queen, Eleanor of Provence, however, is noted at various points in the book. I would have been interested to read more about Henry III’s lesser known building projects as his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey was part of a larger series of architectural initiatives that shaped the development of Windsor Castle and Tower of London.

#87 of 365 Edward I: A New King Arthur by Andy King

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 29, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 144 pages

Review: A short, political biography of King Edward I that captures the contradictions within the king’s life and reign. Edward was an admirer of the legend of King Arthur and confirmed Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, making a public show of consulting his leading subjects through regular parliaments. However, Edward also annexed Wales, invaded Scotland and seized lands belonging to his subjects on dubious pretexts. As king, Edward favoured brutal, theatrical punishments for those defied him including hanging, drawing and quartering for the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Llywelyn and imprisonment in an outdoor cage for Mary, one of the sisters of future Scottish king Robert the Bruce.

This book is primarily a political biography with Edward’s close relationship with his first wife, Eleanor of Castile and conflicts with his heir, the future Edward II, summarized in the first chapter. Nevertheless, there are bursts of Edward’s Plantagenet temperament throughout the text, especially his contempt for a member of the Bruce family who asked for Edward’s support and received the reply: “Have we nothing better to do than win kingdoms for you?” The author concludes that Edward was an effective medieval king but also details his ruthlessness and greed.

#88 of 365 Edward II: The Terrors of Kingship by Christopher Given-Wilson

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 144 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 30, 2018

Review: An engaging overview of the life, reign and fall from power of King Edward II. While the previous two books in the Penguin Monarchs series, concerning Henry III and Edward I, focused on law, politics and war, Given-Wilson devotes time to Edward II’s personality and interests in an effort to explain his difficulties as king. Edward’s sarcastic wit, enthusiasm for pursuits considered unbecoming for royalty such as swimming, rowing and roof thatching, close relationships with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the younger and conflicts with his barons are discussed in detail. The events following his overthrow (and speculation concerning his death) is passed over quickly but there is an extended discussion of his place in modern popular culture.

#89 of 365 Edward III: A Heroic Failure by Jonathan Sumption

Format: Hardcover, 112 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: March 30, 2018

Review: A short critical biography of King Edward III with a strong focus on the Hundred Years’ War. Sumption provides an especially negative portrait of Edward III’s approach to finances, arguing that he paid for his wars in such a haphazard fashion that three of his barons, who acted as guarantors for his loans, spent time in debtors prison. Other aspects of Edward III’s reign receive less attention. The Black Death plague is only mentioned in passing a few times even though it caused tremendous social change in Edward III’s kingdom and resulted in the deaths of three of his dozen children. The Six Statutes are not discussed and I would have liked more analysis about the culture of his court. Edward III’s plans for his sons are discussed in the text but not his daughters. A good introduction to certain aspects of Edward III’s reign but not a comprehensive biography.

#90 of 365 The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 672 pages

Dates Read: March 31-April 1

Review: I agree with the author that the study and teaching of history should move beyond national boundaries and encompass a more global perspective. The first half of the book is very engaging, discussing various eastern cultures including the Mongols, the Byzantine Empires and Kievan Rus and their impact on western Europe as trade goods and ideas traveled up and down the Silk Roads. I found that the book lost a bit of focus in the second half as there is an extended digression concerning European exploration of the Americas and then the narrative moves out of central Asia for extended periods to discuss British, American and Russian foreign policy, particularly relations with the Middle East. There are some compelling chapters in the second half, such as the analysis of Russia’s impact on global affairs in the nineteenth century, but overall, I enjoyed the medieval chapters more than the modern ones.

#91 of 365 Richard II: A Brittle Glory by Laura Ashe

Date Read: April 3, 2018

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Review: Most titles in the Penguin Monarchs series provide an introduction to an individual monarch’s life and reign but this short biography of Richard II is best enjoyed by readers already familiar with the key events and people of the time period or, at least, have seen a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Ashe adopts a strictly thematic approach, analyzing Richard II’s reign through the lens of parliament, church, battlefield and London. The literary culture of Richard II’s time (and Shakespeare’s time) is woven into the text with extensive quotations from primary sources.

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