Published in 1979, this short novel about Edward II - it's less than 200 pages long - is out of print, but easily available in online bookshops at a very low price. It's the third volume in Dymoke's The Plantagenets series, after A Pride of Kings and The Royal Griffin (about Edward II's great-aunt Eleanor, who married Simon de Montfort) and before Lady of the Garter (about his niece Joan of Kent). I adore this tacky cover of Lion of Mortimer, and this one of Lady of the Garter, which is the copy I have of the book.
The novel's title is confusing and puzzles me somewhat, as it has little to do with the Mortimers, and features instead Edward II's friend Sir William Montacute (died 1319), his son of the same name who is the future earl of Salisbury, and his wife Elizabeth de Montfort as viewpoint characters. Lion opens in May 1306, just before the mass knighting of nearly 300 men including Edward of Caernarfon and the elder William Montacute, and closes just after Edward III's arrest of Roger Mortimer at Nottingham Castle in October 1330 (as novels about Edward II almost always do).
The Lion of Mortimer is a reasonably good place for a reader keen to learn more about the reign of Edward II to start: it's a fairly basic - hardly surprising, given its lack of length - overview of the era with little in-depth characterisation, and a decent and easy to follow (though dated) narrative of the main events. My favourite scene of the novel is the first one: William Montacute, decked out in all his court finery, walks down to the river Gade near Langley, and spots "a solitary man rowing a small boat strongly against the current, muscled arms pulling well at the oars, broad shoulders moving smoothly under peasant fustian, the May sunshine glinting on a head of thick curling russet hair." This turns out to be the prince of Wales himself, Edward of Caernarfon, who is further described in the scene as a "tall, healthy-looking young man" and "passionately addicted to physical exercise"; a lovely introduction to his eccentricity and unusual rustic hobbies, and the enormous strength remarked on by chroniclers.
Edward and William proceed to a vividly-described feast at his manor of Langley, where many of the important players are introduced to the reader: Roger Mortimer, the young lord of Wigmore, who has "an air of suppressed intensity" and is "not a man to cross"; Hugh Despenser, very young and insignificant as yet, though already heartily disliked by Mortimer; and of course Piers Gaveston, who "came from Gascony and knew how to dress, how to carry himself; he had a natural grace but there was an insolent turn to his head, an arrogance in his smile." Edward's face glows whenever he looks at Piers. Over the next few pages we also meet, among others, Piers' nemesis the earl of Warwick - whom he mocked as the Black Hound of Arden - who has "a habitual and uncontrollable dribble of saliva trickling down his chin," Edward's cousin and enemy Thomas of Lancaster, loathed by his wife Alice de Lacy, and Edward's queen Isabella, a beautiful but haughty young woman with a habit of writing to her father every time anything annoys her, which is pretty often.
Unfortunately, the rest of the novel doesn't entirely live up to the promise of its excellent beginning. It moves at a breakneck speed; the first fifty pages cover the period from May 1306 to Edward's coronation in February 1308, which leaves only 140 pages for Dymoke to write about the period up to October 1330. Piers Gaveston goes into exile and returns with dizzying rapidity, the queen is pregnant and Edward - yawn - abandons her at Tynemouth to save Piers, Piers dies and Edward grieves for half a page, then suddenly it's Bannockburn, then suddenly it's 1318 and the king and queen have three children. And so on. Many of the most interesting and important events are not dramatised: for instance, we see Edward's son the young duke of Aquitaine through the eyes of his friend William Montacute the younger in Hainault in September 1326 just before the invasion of England, and the next scene is Edward II in captivity at Kenilworth Castle months later, grieving for the Despensers, whose executions we never saw. Some pages later at Berkeley, Edward is foully mistreated and then murdered by red-hot poker, scenes I find very hard to read. (I console myself with the thought that this mistreatment almost certainly never happened.)
There's little original in Juliet Dymoke's re-telling of Edward II's story, but it does cover the period well, and of course it's not her fault that scholarship has moved on considerably since she wrote it. The portrayal of Edward as a man totally unsuited to his position, unable to change and unable to see what is wrong with the way he behaves, is well-written and plausible, and fits in with what we know of him. I found Isabella irritating more than anything else, but then, I'm not generally given to finding Isabella sympathetic or likeable, so the portrayal of her may well affect other readers entirely differently. There are some lovely vivid scenes in the novel, with Piers Gaveston's jousting tournament at Wallingford in December 1307 and Edward meeting visiting dignitaries while digging a pond at Langley stripped to the waist and muddy being particular favourites of mine. I also enjoyed seeing the story through the eyes of people who rarely appear in fiction about this era. In short, The Lion of Mortimer is a quick easy journey through Edward II's turbulent reign and is well worth a read, especially as you can pick it up for a mere penny on Amazon.