'The Uncertain Death of Edward II' by JS Hamilton

I'm really pleased to see - at long, long last - that an academic is prepared to put his neck on the block and try to argue against my EHR article, which demonstrated that there was no sound information basis to the reports of Edward II's death in 1327 and that he was still alive in 1330. Until now, there have been no methodologically detailed responses, just Professor David Carpenter's blinkered refusal to believe my analysis in an unrefereed book review in The London Review of Books and a few smatterings from old and not very wise codgers in the unpublished nooks of the antiquarian world and the letters page of the TLS. Professor Hamilton is a respected historian and a fluent writer, and so I am pleased to have something clearly expressed on which to come back. The only problem is that he's chosen to publish his answer in a very obscure internet-only journal to which many university libraries do not subscribe (History Compass 6, 5 (2008) pp. 1264-1278). However, paying for online access is worth it - it's only a few dollars - and by so doing you will see the methodological limitations of the traditionalist camp.

The traditionalists' preferred method - the only one available to them - is here laid out clearly. It amounts to taking each detail and subjecting it to questioning, finding ambiguities, setting aside my reading of the evidence, promoting their own as 'more likely' (in their opinion), ignoring the new inconsistencies thereby created, and coaxing the reader to a complacent view that, because aspects of my work can be called into question, the traditional narrative is automatically rehabilitated. This is the equivalent of pulling apart a mountain and showing how each stone is actually very small, and concluding that the mountain never existed.

The most basic problem is a failure to recognise that my argument is based on flows of information, not specific pieces of evidence. Relying on individual pieces of evidence is a weak approach, for any document can be misleading or wrongly interpreted. My method was to test the strength of the information available to the people who created the evidence: a theory of historical information which most historians see as being very straightforward and logical. The method has proved very effective in demonstrating that the accusations of sodomy against Edward II were of a political rather than a personal nature, and likewise the accusations of rape against Edward III. The same method has been effective in showing that Henry IV gave the order for his cousin Richard II to be murdered in 1400. However, when this powerful analytical method is used to show that Edward II did not die in Berkeley Castle, some academics get nervous. Professor Hamilton is certainly among them.

Let me illustrate. In my EHR essay, published in December 2005, I identified that the only sources for the announcement that Edward II died were two letters sent from Berkeley Castle by Lord Berkeley on 21 September 1327 which arrived at Lincoln, where Edward III and his mother were staying, during the night of 23/24 September 1327. The news was circulated the next day. There was no check on the information about the king's death at the time. Therefore all the evidence for the death was created as a result of the information in those letters. That the person who sent them stated three years later that he had not heard about the ex-king's death forces us to question whether the original information was correct.

Hamilton sets about trying to refute this in two ways. He questions my reading of Lord Berkeley's statement that he had not heard about the ex-king's death. And he speculates that there was some other, later verification of the identity of the corpse buried as that of Edward II. What follows is a more detailed look at the points he raises.

1. Lord Berkeley's statement.
Lord Berkeley testified that in 1330 he had not heard 'about the death' of Edward II. The actual words are nec unquam scivit de morte sua usque in presenti parliamento isto (nor did he [Lord Berkeley] ever know of his death until this present parliament [of 1330]). Hamilton interprets this as meaning that Lord Berkeley did not know the circumstances of the death. But even if his interpretation is correct, it does not add up to a reliable basis for concluding the king had died, or that any of the subsequent evidence for the death was grounded in the reality of Edward II's dying. For a start, his translation (that Lord Berkeley was simply saying that he did not know the circumstances of the death) implies that in 1327 Lord Berkeley sent his letters informing Edward III about his father's death without first investigating the circumstances. This is highly unlikely, as Hamilton is himself aware, for in support of his explanation he speculates "is it too much to imagine that Berkeley received Gurney and Ogle, agents of his father-in-law [Roger Mortimer] along with a verbal commission to ask no questions of them?' (p. 1271). Of course he doesn't answer this rhetorical question. But he should have at least tried, for the answer is obviously yes, such circumstances are too much to imagine. Thomas Gurney was a retainer of Lord Berkeley himself, not Lord Mortimer, so if he was sent to murder the ex-king in his master's castle, without his master's knowledge, even though his master was responsible for the man's safe-keeping, he was both endangering his master's life and betraying his trust. There is no evidence that Berkeley ever regarded Gurney as betraying him (in fact he protected him in 1330, when Gurney was accused of murder). Secondly, and even more significantly, it would not have been Lord Berkeley's letters that conveyed the information to Edward III about the death of Edward II if he had been instructed to 'ask no questions'.

There is another reason to regard Hamilton's interpretation of nec unquam scivit de morte sua... as wrong. Whatever was meant, the words are an expression of doubt, not confidence or reassurance. As Lord Berkeley said, he did not know. So the phrase cannot safely be assumed to mean 'yes, he definitely died, no doubt about it, and I am just uncertain of a few of the details', as Professor Hamilton would have us believe. Anyone unsure of this only needs to look at the quotation in context. It was a response in parliament to the question of how Lord Berkeley wished to acquit himself of responsibility for failing to keep the ex-king alive and safe - not how did Edward II die - so the response would be a non-sequitur if interpretetd in line with Hamilton's theory (Question: 'how do you wish to exonerate yourself of responsibility for the death of a man entrusted to your safe-keeping?' Answer: 'I don't know the details of how he died'). Whether Berkeley knew the details or not, he would still have been guilty of failing to keep the king safely.

Before moving on to the other aspect of Hamilton's failure to engage properly with my arguments, I have to note that all of the above objections were anticipated and discussed in my EHR piece, on pages 1186 and 1190-2. It is very disappointing to see that Professor Hamilton has ignored all this analysis. Had he read my EHR piece properly, he would have realised there are already strong arguments against these speculative alternative interpretations, and my arguments have already passed a high-quality peer-review test. The peer referee consulted by History Compass clearly did not read my work properly - otherwise this would have been pointed out to the editor. What we see here is an example of group-think: an over-eagerness to disparage my work by a self-refereeing peer group who are individually and collectively threatened by it. It is not a serious engagement with the key elements of my research.

2. Speculation that there was later verification of the identity of the corpse.
Hamilton's justification for relying on the traditional narrative comes down to an assumption that, because Edward III could have checked the identity of the ex-king's corpse after September 1327, he must have done so. He accepts that this did not happen in September, before the news about the death started to be circulated, but thinks that it may have happened at a later date. However, to sustain this line of argument he has to ignore a number of pieces of evidence to which I drew attention in my EHR article. For instance, he lays aside the issue of the body being embalmed (and encased entirely in cerecloth and unrecognisable) on the grounds that, although Edward I was entirely enclosed in cerecloth, there is no eye-witness statement that Edward II was. He ignores the fact that there is no eye-witness statement that he wasn't, or that he was treated differently from his father. He ignores the fact that the cerecloth covering the face of the embalmed Richard II in 1400 had to be cut away so the dead king could be recognised. He also ignores the important fact that there was an eyewitness at the funeral who later believed Edward II was alive, namely the earl of Kent, which implies that the identity of the body was concealed. So Hamilton's speculation that this later identification took place results in nothing but a failure to see evidence to the contrary. This is disturbing, coming from a professor of history, and marks a particular nadir in this long-running debate.

As unbiased readers of my work will know, I find the information streams from the sources for the ex-king's survival at Corfe significant. These include the information about Edward II's survival circulated by the earl of Kent - and its credibility among people such as the archbishop of York and the bishop of London - and the information circulated by Lord Pecche. With regard to Kent's information, Professor Hamilton dismisses this by returning to the age-old myth that the man was unreliable. He 'did not have a good reputation during his life'. I agree that Kent was not the brightest star in the sky but he was not stupid. As I pointed out in my EHR piece, he was appointed a military leader and an ambassador by Edward II. He was certainly not so stupid as to believe a dead man might be alive on the strength of a rumour circulated by a friar. If he had been that gullible, the archbishop of York, the bishop of London and various other lords and knights would not have believed him. Hamilton's sole evidence in this respect is a modern entry in a 2004 biographical dictionary - the ODNB - which was, of course written some years before my detailed reconsideration of Kent's career in my 2005 EHR piece. Once again, as with the cerecloth issue, Hamilton does not engage with my detailed work; he simply ignores it, along with all the contemporary evidence I cite. His argument therefore amounts to setting aside the contemporary evidence demonstrating Kent's merits in favour of out-dated views from the 1990s which happen to accord with his opinion. This is not history, this is prejudice.

You would have thought that Professor Hamilton's ignorance of my arguments concerning Kent's information would be embarrassing enough; but he exceeds himself when it comes to considering John Pecche. You may be aware that I argued that, as Lord Pecche was custodian of Corfe Castle, it is unthinkable that he did not check that the supposedly dead Edward II was actually inside, and alive, before endangering his own life and those of many of his friends by spreading the news and taking part in a plot to restore him to the throne. Astoundingly - utterly astoundingly from a professional historian - Hamilton dismisses this as 'speculative at best'. Heavens above! Pecche was the custodian of the castle until 1329; he was not just any disillusioned lord; and there is good evidence to show that he informed the ex-king's friends that Edward was there; he was even arrested for doing so, when the Kent plot unfolded. It is simply pushing the bounds of credibility too far to say that he rebelled in the name of a supposedly dead man without first checking his identity, when it was within his power to do so. The implication of what Professor Hamilton here is saying is that he (Hamilton) would have expected a rebel NOT to check his facts prior to taking action. This is not rational - although one has to note that it is precisely what Professor Hamilton has done several times in this article.

As is clear from the above, this is not an open-minded revisiting of the evidence. It is still less an engagement with my EHR article. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the anti-revisionist prejudices I wrote about in History Today as long ago as March 2004. Hamilton simply ignores aspects of my work which he cannot present in a questionable light, or passes over them with some airy dismissive wave and a statement that it is 'tenuous at best' or 'cannot be proved'. Some examples of this are given above, but let one more indicate the bankruptcy of his argument. On p. 1271 he states 'whether Edward III knew that any part of Berkeley's testimony was a lie is incapable of proof'. If he had read my original work closely, he would understand that we can be certain that Edward III did know Berkeley was lying in 1330 regarding his whereabouts on 21 September 1327. We know this because Edward III accepted Berkeley's changed alibi that he had not been at Berkeley on the night of the supposed death; yet as we have seen, it was Lord Berkeley's letters from Berkeley Castle that informed the king of his father's supposed demise. Therefore, by accepting the changed alibi (that Lord Berkeley was at Bradley, not Berkeley, at the time), we can be certain that Edward III accepted what he knew to be a lie - unless one wishes to speculate that Edward had forgotten how he heard of his father's 'death'.

The form of Hamilton's argument, in which the historian interprets selected pieces of evidence to suit his desired conclusion, has not been seen as intellectually satisfactory for decades. Anyone who doubts me needs to read basic works like RG Collingwood's The Idea of History (1949), EH Carr's What is History? (1961), GR Elton's The Practice of History (1967) and more recent works by postmodernists like Keith Jenkins, traditionalists like Richard J Evans, and critical theorists like Hayden White. No one approves of the selective use of evidence to support a pre-judged conclusion. No one should be allowed to argue against a detailed scholarly narrative simply by ignoring the evidence which does not accord with his or her opinions. The discipline of history has been weakened enough already by postmodernists without academics producing works which are methodologically flawed. As for Edward II's fate, I would urge doubtful readers to look again at my note summarising the information threads concerning the death, which, brief though it is, is more finely attuned to the information flows which took place and are evidenced than Hamilton's work, which is full of speculative doubt taken as evidence. I'll return in detail to this subject in my book of essays on medieval information next year - Medieval Intrigue and the Nature of Historical Evidence to be published by Continuum, probably in 2010 - and if I find the time I'll do a full critique on this website. But in the meantime do read Hamilton's piece and work it out for yourself. The only shame is that it should fall to such an amiable man to put his neck on the block. He's bravely trying to cover up the cracks in this area of historiography for other academics, who are still in denial - and not so brave.

Ian Mortimer
4 October 2008,
revised 7 October 2008



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