Chronicles and Politics in the Reign of Edward II
By Wendy R. Childs
Leeds Studies in English, NS 41 (2010)
Introduction: Historians have tended to give more weight to sources such as governmental and legal records than to chronicles, not least because so many survive. They open up areas of history impossible to access through chronicles alone, and they also provide a much more precise and detailed political narrative. But chronicles have their own value. They record events that made little impact on central records, reveal attitudes and comment on personalities. Moreover, as Tout said, to read records and chronicles side by side is to see how accurate the chronicles were. This reflects chroniclers’ views of the importance of history as much as their sources of information. Some wrote polemics and eulogies, but, for most, contemporary history was a serious business. Their inherited classical ideas, reinforced by Christian views that events on earth manifested God’s purpose, meant that history must be accurately recorded if posterity was to learn from it. They therefore sought good information; the best of them sifted it carefully; and when it was doubtful, they said so.
For the reign of Edward II chronicles offer numerous insights. Take the incident of John of Powderham, who claimed in 1318 to be the rightful king of England. This apparently minor incident offers a vivid glimpse of court politics. While the king joked and suggested making Powderham court jester, the queen and barons saw him as a serious threat during a period of tense political negotiations with Lancaster and successfully demanded his execution. The only clear record reference to this event is an order to deliver John of Exeter from the gaol in Northampton, where he was imprisoned for saying he was the king’s brother. Otherwise, we are entirely dependent on chronicles.
Far more important in the political narrative, and somewhat unexpected, is the chronicles’ value for Edward’s deposition. There is plenty of information in official records that it happened, but not for how it happened. Since there was no court of record that had the authority to depose a king, there were no procedures, no recording clerks, no formal rolls. The chronicles both provide a probable chronology and offer vivid pictures of the meetings, including one at which Thomas Wake waved his arms like a conductor to bring in the acclamation of the people at the appropriate time. With their comments on character chronicles also play a part in the discussion of why the deposition took place. It may be partly explained by the events in the reign steadily ratcheting up tensions and hatred, but these alone are not sufficient explanation, as the formal accusations against Edward show.
To justify the deposition, his opponents attacked not only his failed policies but also his personal failings. Records show how contentious the charges of failed policies were. For instance, the claim that Edward II lost Scotland ‘which his father had left him in peace’ was utterly false. Edward I was still campaigning when he died in 1307. Again, the claim that Edward oppressed his baronage refers to the executions after the battle at Boroughbridge in 1322, but execution was a justifiable punishment of traitors (although mercy might have been more becoming in a king). Edward’s failures were thus not as clear-cut as the accusations allege, and it is possible to find areas of success, ignored by the accusations. By 1326 the treasury had been refilled, Edward had overcome internal dissension, the Scottish border was stable under truce, and the Gascon crisis (which can be seen as just another skirmish in a long-running problem) had a sensible solution in making the prince of Wales duke of Aquitaine. Why then, in the face of Isabella’s coup, could Edward not rally support? His personal failings were clearly as important as his actions. The list of failings in the accusations included incompetence, over reliance on others, greed and cruelty, but were they as contentious as the accusations over policy? For an assessment of character, chronicles again come into their own.