King Edward III of England is a pretty fascinating guy – especially if, like me, you have a deep and abiding interest in the Middle Ages. This surprisingly successful king, although that’s quite a simplified interpretation, managed to overthrow the rule of his mother and her lover as a teenager, laid claim to France, which started the Hundred Years’ War, and founded the Company of the Garter, a chivalric order which still survives unlike so many of its contemporaries. He was also the father of Edward the Black Prince (a name which is too awesome not to use, even though he was not called this during his lifetime), one of the most intriguing historical figures in England for me. In this work of history, Richard Barber not only looks at Edward and his reign, but those who surrounded him, inspired him, and succeeded him.
Of course, I loved it. I’d been looking forward to this book ever since I heard about it, particularly because I was already familiar with the historian who wrote it. It was right on par with my expectations. I appreciated so much the approach that Barber took – this isn’t a biography of Edward. It’s a complete view of everything happening around Edward, putting him firmly in the context of the period. This, for me, far more than historical fiction these days, gives me a feel for the period. It’s about the battles and tournaments, the personalities that filled the court, the literature that these people read and which inspired and taught them about their world. It’s really difficult to separate Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, his queen, from the obsession that the Victorians had with the Middle Ages, but Barber does his best and pulls out as much history away from that as he can manage.
Among this is the surprising discovery of how little we actually know about the founding of the Order of the Garter, or its history in the early days. Chivalric orders sprang up in this period in a number of countries, and Barber looks at each of these and tries to find out where Edward got the idea from, who might have been in that order, and why – ultimately, drawing the conclusion that it sprang in some form from the battle of Crecy, which we learn about in as much detail as we can manage. Barber goes so far as to research the layout of the battle and the tactics that might have been used by the English to gain the spectacular victories that they did, which was really fascinating and something I hadn’t read about before. There are a lot of primary sources here and Barber doesn’t hesitate to quote directly, with often large portions of pages taken up with excerpts giving us a huge amount of insight.
In addition, the book isn’t particularly dry, although as with every bit of history I’m obsessed with, your opinion on this may vary. I’d think it would be perfectly readable and enjoyable for someone who might be looking to move on from historical fiction to something based more on primary sources and fact. I loved it, and if you are interested in tournaments, battles, and the high middle ages, this book is definitely for you.