Ian Mortimer


The Perfect King
About writing the book

This one was tough. Writing about a king is ten times harder than writing about a magnate. This is partly because people expect you take on board all the politics of the reign, as well as all royal patronage, and everything else that happens in and around the throne. The scope is thus limitless. Add the fact that this king reigned for fifty years, and you'll see what a challenge it was to write the first full-length biography of the man for more than a century, and to do so in no more than twelve months.

It seems strange now to look back on how hard I was working then. Having written the draft of Greatest Traitor in seven months, I handed it over to the publisher in January 2002. I then spent the next twenty-two months researching and writing a PhD. This was eventually submitted in February 2004. By the time of the viva voce examination, on St George's Day, 23 April 2004, I had already spent six months researching and writing Perfect King, and had completed the first 100,000 words.

My average working day was between fourteen and fifteen hours, six days a week. Sometimes it was even longer. Considering the level of concentration required, that length of time staring at a screen is very draining. In one particular week, during part of which I wrote the Appendix Eight with all those calculations about the descendants of Edward III, my shortest working day was 16.5 hours. The intensity was difficult to deal with but I was locked into it, unable to escape. What happens is that you begin to live vicariously. Your subject's delights become your own. Indeed, I continued thinking about Edward and his situation in my sleep. Often I would wake up with a new idea and start writing in the middle of the night. In the introduction to the book I describe the experience as 'an escapeless nightmare'. But it was glorious too. Far from being 'all work and no play', it was a constant delight. And the battles! Heavens, the scope for the imagination to go wild was hugely exciting.

I particularly remember sitting down to write about the battle of Poitiers. How does one write about such a battle? Here's how. First you read all the sources you will use. Plan out which ones you trust at which points, and have them all on hand. Do not actually write anything, however. When you have the order of events in your mind, and your sources all on hand, open a bottle of whisky. The leaders at the time would have drunk a draught of wine before the battle, but the purpose is much the same. Where you are going, you need to lose your inhibitions. There is no room for hesitation. Don't drink too much though, for the same reason as it would have been foolish to drink too much on a battlefield: everything is at risk. Now, turn on the CD player and listen to something stirring and very, very loud, such as the 'Dies Irae' from Verdi's Requiem. And as the trumpets sound, and the music gathers for that charge, you start to imagine what it must have been like to be at Poitiers. You know what happened, more or less. Now you have to visualise it. And when you have it in your mind, and you can hold back no longer, that is when you start writing.

At the end of the book I was utterly exhausted. It had taken exactly twelve months, working about ninety hours a week. I did not know whether it was a good book or a bad one. I sent it to my agent, Jim, and Professor Mark Ormrod, the world's leading scholar on Edward III. Both wrote back encouragingly. Jim was 'kind of stunned' and described it as 'amazing, fascinating and compelling'. Mark Ormrod congratulated me on 'a superb job balancing narrative and critique', and made a number of observations which he felt I should consider. It was only then that I felt it was over, this titanic task of writing about Edward III. In the space of forty-one months I had researched and written more than 700,000 words, in The Greatest Traitor, my two-volume PhD, half of the Modern Literary Papers in the University of Exeter Library, The Perfect King, seven academic articles and a dozen or so book reviews and magazine articles. A few days later, I heard that I had been awarded the 2004 Alexander Prize by the Royal Historical Society (the most prestigious prize open to a younger scholar in the UK) for my work on the seventeenth-century medical revolution. I could breathe the air of the twenty-first century again, and forget the fourteenth for the time being. I took two months out to write a spy novel for my eldest son as a way of relaxing.

My two favourite memories about writing the book are both to do with my family. One day I walked into our bedroom. My wife was reading the typescript of The Perfect King. there were tears running down her cheeks. I looked at the thin clutch of papers remaining in her hands. 'Queen Philippa's dying?' I asked, and she nodded. And at that moment I knew the book was what I had hoped it would be. There are many fat history books out there with twelve hundred footnotes, but not many of them pack an emotional punch.

My other favourite memory was something a friend told us. She had had an appointment at the school where my then five year-old son, Alexander, was a pupil. She waited in the classroom for the teacher to arrive. While waiting, she noticed three small boys outside the window, in the playground. One of them was Alexander. The first small boy suddenly punched the air and exclaimed 'I'm Batman!' And rushed around in circles. The second small boy did likewise, shouting 'I'm Spiderman!' at the top of his voice. Then Alexander threw his fist in the air and yelled 'I'm Edward the Third!' If I needed reassurance that my work has value, then I got it at that moment, in Edward III, superhero.