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Edward III and the Triumph of England, By Richard Barber: Book review


Edward III is back in fashion. Since the 1950s there has been a revolution in historical thinking that has restored Edward – who reigned from 1327 to 1377 – to the reputation he enjoyed in the days of Henry V and Henry VIII. Recent biographers have cast him as the very model of medieval monarchy: "the perfect king" and "Edward the Great".

At the heart of Edward's reputation stands his success in a series of wars against the French. His defeat of Philip VI of France at Crécy in 1346 was followed by the capture of Calais, which remained in English possession until the time of Mary Tudor. A decade later Edward's son, the Black Prince, took prisoner Philip's son, John II, at the Battle of Poitiers.

These spectacular military successes transformed England's reputation in Europe and rendered Edward III, in the words of one of his subjects, "the most powerful king of all the world". Edward's great scheme of a new Plantagenet empire stretching from the Scottish Highlands to the Pyrenees may have been nothing more than an empty fantasy. But for a while in the glory days that followed the victories of 1346 and 1356, all things must have seemed possible.

Richard Barber's book focusses on both the battle of Crécy, and the establishment, two years later, of the Order of the Garter. The Garter proved Edward's most lasting legacy, surviving as the senior order of chivalry in the United Kingdom. Even today, the order provides a powerful sense of Edward's vision.

The importance of the Garter in the history of monarchy and nation has prompted countless generations to investigate and debate the circumstances of its foundation. Contemporaries were themselves quite confused, and by the 16th century there was a garbled myth that the order had its origins in a scandalous royal dalliance with the countess of Salisbury. It is now acknowledged that the emblem of the order, far from being an item of ladies' underwear, actually represented a miniature sword belt.

The order was primarily military in context: it commemorated the extraordinary achievements of 1346 and celebrated the particular valour of Edward and his generals. Barber concentrates on three aspects of his subject: the martial culture of Edward III's court, the founding members of the Garter, and the original function of the Order.

Barber has brought together old and new research to forge an important new account of Edward III's remarkable career as king. His analysis of the Order of the Garter reveals that any true understanding of modern British institutions relies on a proper appreciation of the Middle Ages.