Here the glory of the English; the flower of past kings; the form of future kings; a merciful king; the peace of his peoples; Edward III, completing the jubilee of his reign; an unconquered leopard; victorious in battle like a Maccabee . . . he ruled mighty in arms; now in heaven let him be a king.
So (in translation) run the verses around the tomb of Edward III in Westminster Abbey, erected soon after his death in 1377. Edward, the initiator of the Hundred Years War, the victor of Sluys and Crécy, the conqueror of Calais, achieved legendary status in his lifetime, and was long revered after his death. Dr Johnson, in his poem London, called on 'illustrious Edward!' to survey the current crop of degenerate Britons: 'Lost in thoughtless ease, and empty show . . . the warrior dwindled to a beau'. Perhaps the only comparable hero in British history has been Churchill, and as with Churchill, Edward's reputation survived a long period of dotage. In the 19th century, as Ian Mortimer shows in the introduction to his new biography, Victorian rectitude and a preoccupation with constitutional history caused feelings about Edward to change. Bishop Stubbs, 'peering down on the Middle Ages from the twin heights of an episcopal throne and a professorial chair', as Mortimer puts it, condemned Edward as 'ambitious, unscrupulous, selfish, extravagant and ostentatious'.
LRB 7 June 2007 | PDF Download