Middle English Word of the Moment

Monday, December 22, 2008

A verray, parfit gentil king (part 3): Froissart, Edward III’s public relations manager.

Part the third of a three-part post on The Perfect King and his Eyes of Flash, and the reason why I started them in the first place. Here are parts one and two.

So, if it’s all about the PR, Froissart was doing Edward III a good service. He was working for Edward III’s decidedly less martial grandson, in a court that was arguably falling away from the Arthurian ideals that Edward III had seemed to realise:
His Scottish and Irish campaigns notwithstanding, Richard was seen as a military failure in comparison to his father, the Black Prince, and, more especially, in relation to his grandfather, Edward III. Unlike Edward, who had painstakingly developed support for the war in France – and thus political support for himself – Richard embarked on a quest for peace … But the virtues of peace were contrused by Richard’s detractors as symptoms of the failures of warriors; as many chronicle accounts have it, in Richard’s court, a chivalric knight was not a fighting knight. Instead, the king was said to surround himself with his friends and favourites, with ladies, and with foreigners ... Ricardian knights are still vigorous and powerful, but this energy is misdirected toward the wrong place, the bedroom rather than the field, and deployed in the wrong way, with language rather than deeds. [1]
It was therefore very much in Froissart's interests as an employee (in the loose sense) to present his patrons and the whole Ricardian court with an image of the past that was at once perfect and glorious, and recognisably real. Ideals must be upheld, but they must also seem attainable, and not contradict the memories of anyone who still remembered the events recounted. Froissart’s Edward III fits perfectly into his world of martial prowess and honour, heraldry and chivalry and national (or bi-national) glory. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he emerges as the epitome of this world, simultaneously held to and upholding a higher standard of it than anyone else. Froissart’s pen creates a chronicle, but also an adventure story, and a world that can contain and exult it. Every age, every social group, perhaps every person, has a similar world: a reflection of what the world in which we wish we could be set. Froissart creates that for Richard II’s court, creates a worthy setting for the king’s legend of a grandfather, and a grandfather worthy of that setting.

So, Froissart could do the PR gig with no problems. But the portrayal of Edward III as the epitome of Arthurian ideals wasn’t his idea. It was Edward III’s[2]. The man who created the Order of the Garter, who managed at age seventeen to not only draw together the support to overthrow his mother and Mortimer but to actually keep hold of those threads and build the support base that he did, who dealt with such sleight with the lingering shadow of his father’s deposition and possible murder, who combined the arms of England and France, was no amateur at self-representation. And remember whose son he was[4]:

... when the king sent his son to France, he ordered his wife to return to England without delay. When this command had been explained to the king of France and to the queen herself by the messengers, the queen replied, ‘I feel’, she said, ‘that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, holding fast to the practice of a life together, and that someone has come between my husband and myself and is trying to break that bond; I declare that I will not return until this intruder is removed, but, discarding my marriage garment, shall put on the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee.’ [5]

This accusation and the complementary image of Isabella as suffering widow were developed in various speeches and proclamations. By appearing to embrace gender norms, even as she took a lover of her own and led an army against her husband, she effectively turned the blame for the breakdown of the royal marriage on Edward and his (arguably) more scandalous affair[7]. And throughout her time in France and the subsequent invasion, she showed flare for public relations that tends to be obscured nowadays by the absolute debacle that arose when she and Mortimer were secure and appeared to forget that they had any need of it. Isabella’s mourning weeds, her care to keep her adulterous relationship with Mortimer out of sight, to identify her cause with Thomas of Lancaster (killed in 1322 for rising against Edward and the Despensers, but now widely regarded as a saint), to visit shrines as she travelled “as if on pilgrimage” [8], to stay on the right side of the populace and to present herself as a rejected wife anxious to save the country for its rightful heir, formed masterful and effective propaganda. And the boy who was to be Edward III was there, saw it all, and – clearly – learned.

So, Edward III seems to have been just as capable as Froissart at presenting an inspiring vision of reality and of himself. The idea of his reign as a golden age of chivalric perfection (at least prior to the return of the Black Death) was not purely Ricardian nostalgia – although that probably helped – but was an image that Edward III conceived of and worked for. How much artistic licence do we allow Froissart, then, in his depiction of individual scenes like the aftermath of the siege of Calais? Is the scene he depicts the sort of scene Edward was likely to have enacted? In its general scope? in precise details? at that time and place? If so (to any of those), how much was it embroidered or altered in the telling? Because it isn’t the historical accuracy of the scene that matters so much as the story: what people heard, how they heard it, whether the audience is Froissart’s or the people to whom it may have been recounted in Edward III’s time. It is a display and a fantasy, power designed to be seen and recounted, an allegorical enactment of the theoretical process of justice, whether or not he and Philippa actually performed this in real life. It is how he (or Froissart, or Richard II) wanted the process and the nature of kingship to be understood, perhaps in order that they might understand that this is what happens in the arena of justice, this is what kings are, even if they never actually see this for themselves. A way to read their own experiences of the actual king, perhaps.

So the question is a fairly straightforward one: how far was this image of kingship deliberately constructed according to existing tropes of idealised majesty? The complication lies in trying to find a subject, to turn that sentence into the active voice. I think it wouldn’t be too controversial to say that Froissart was intentionally portraying Edward III’s actions and manner in this way; but to what extent was Edward himself doing the same thing?

[1] Federico, Sylvia, “The Place of Chivalry in the New Trojan Court: Gawain, Chaucer and Richard II,” Place, space, and landscape in medieval narrative, ed. Laura L. Howes (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007), 172. Incidentally, a page earlier she makes a similar comment about the bedroom, with reference to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Troilus and Criseyde: “…the intersections of historical place and chivalric identity ... [are] two of the main issues of concern in the chronicles of the late fourteenth century. These texts identify martial failure as a central element of Richard’s rule and further assert a relationship between the misdirection of knightly prowess and the physical site of its occurrence: the bedroom is where Ricardian chivalry is lost.” (171) I’d qualify this with a resounding “Step forward, Erec and Enide”, which rather stars the emasculating bedroom some time before anyone could possibly have been concerned about Richard II (or even Richard I), but it is an interesting point which is certainly not invalidated by the fact that Chrétien de Troyes got there first. Suddenly I have an urge to explore every bedroom scene in Ricardian literature. I imagine the Wife of Bath’s bedroom and the wedding bed of her fictional knight would both contribute to and cheerfully twist any conclusions I could make.
[2] Actually, one could blame Roger Mortimer for the magnificent Arthurian-themed tournaments he held while he was ‘regent’ at Isabella’s side, at which he actually represented Arthur himself at least once[3]. One can always blame Roger Mortimer for anything. Someone usually does.
[3] Cue vague, incomplete citation: I read this either in the first chapter of Ian Mortimer’s biography of Edward III, or the last few of his biography of Roger Mortimer. As I have access to neither now, I can’t check page references, but: The greatest traitor: the life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England, 1327-1330 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2003), and The perfect king: the life of Edward III, father of the English nation (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006).
[4] No, not Edward II’s. Well, indisputably Edward II’s, unless you buy into the theories that he was actually Edward I’s bastard after a really, really long pregnancy, or that Roger Mortimer was hopping into Isabella’s bed a lot earlier than is in any way feasible. But Edward II, whatever his other qualities, was resoundingly rotten at public relations.
[5] Vita Edwardi Secundi: the life of Edward the Second: re-edited text with new introduction, new historical notes, and revised translation based on that of N. Denholm-Young, eds. Wendy R. Childs and N. Denholm-Young (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005). 243.
[7] Ormrod hints at this when he argues that both Edward II and Edward III worked to “rehabilitate [Edward II] both as heterosexual and king... through the representation of the marriage of Edward II and Queen Isabella as a normal and functional relationship, disrupted not by the intervention of Piers Gaveston and the Despensers but by the queen’s own adultery with Roger Mortimer and by her usurpation of kingly power and prerogative”. (27) (“The Sexualities of Edward II”. The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, eds. Gwylim Dodd & Anthony Musson (York: York Medieval Press, 2006. 22-47.)
[8] “... quasi peregrinando” Annales Paulini, in Chronicles of the reigns of Edward I and Edward II, ed. William Stubbs, (London: Longman, 1882). 314.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Enjoyed reading these!

Ceirseach said...

Thank you - I wasn't expecting anyone but me to bother! :)

Anonymous said...

Oh well, in that case let me chime in too and say these are very good posts, deep but navigable and animated with an enthusiasm for the material. The more I read of Australian medieval bloggers the more it scares me how advanced you all seem to be given your stage of study...

Lady D. said...

I shall enjoy catching up on your posts over Christmas Ceirseach - they're always such a good read! I'm afraid I've been a bit overwhelmed by work and stuff these last few weeks so have been a bit lax on blog-visits ;-)

I hope you have a great Christmas down under and I hope that 2009 will be fab for you too!

Ceirseach said...

Thank you! I really don't think I am terribly advanced - I keep being terrified by how much I don't know, as well as excited by it. And also guilty that I've never, for example, read Piers Ploughman all the way through (I've read all the bits, just not sequentially).

But I think I can definitely ascribe to a few brilliantly inspiring teachers the urge to explore and learn in the field, and also the sense of urgency and necessity, that extra heads are needed, that I can actually make a meaningful contribution in my lifetime and give something back to the people and the community that fires me up so.

Plus, you know. Edward III. Who can't get enthusiatic about him? :)

Ceirseach said...

Merry Christmas (retrospectively - living in Parentland leaves one rather lax about actually getting to the computer, never mind reading things) to you too, Lady D. :) Likewise to the intending to catch up on your latest posts! And thank you - I only ever bother to write to please myself on my blog, but it's lovely to think that there are actually some people out there for whom this counts as interesting. They're so rare in the non-electronic world, the world where we can't just sort through people by their interests with a click and decide which ones we want to talk to. :)