King Edward III
Born: November 13, 1312
Windsor, Berkshire, England
Reign: February 1, 1327 - June 21, 1377 (50 years)
Died: June 21, 1377
Sheen, Surrey, England (Age 64)
Edward of Windsor was born the eldest child of King Edward II and his wife, Isabella of France, on November 13, 1312. The new heir to the throne was brought into a kingdom which was still very much recovering from what was, for all intents and purposes, a civil war, where a group of magnates had taken it upon themselves to capture and execute the royal favorite Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall, a close personal confidant of the king’s, earlier in the year. While the king was deeply saddened by the death of his friend (and indeed spent the next ten years plotting against those who had murdered him), there is no reason to believe that he was not happy with the birth of his son, and the young prince was thoroughly endowed from a very young age. He was created Earl of Chester when just over a week old and was soon granted other various lands within England so that he may maintain his status as the royal heir.
From the summer of 1320 onward, the prince was consistently summoned to parliaments and council meetings as Earl of Chester (though it is doubtful he attended at this point), but he was otherwise confined to a strictly ceremonial role in his opening years. He was still too young to play a part in the civil war of 1321-22, which ultimately saw Edward II defeat his cousin, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, allowing a new group of royal favorites, led by the Despenser family, to take their place at court. It must be assumed though, that Prince Edward grew up with all of the comforts and luxuries that any member of the royal family would be entitled to, receiving martial training and at least an above average education.
Edward would not truly come into the political limelight until the summer of 1325 when his father made the fateful decision to endow him with the duchy of Gascony and the county of Ponthieu and send him to France to pay homage as a vassal of the French king, Charles IV. After the brief and, for the most part, inconclusive War of Saint-Sardos had ended the previous year, the debate over the vassal-overlord relationship for Gascony and Ponthieu came to the forefront of Anglo-French relations and could be ignored no further. Edward II did not want to lose his ancestral territories (Charles IV had already seized the area known as the Agenais), but he also did not care to humble himself before his fellow monarch by travelling to the continent and acknowledging him as his superior. Edward II had already sent his wife Isabella, the French king’s sister, to France in an attempt to come to a reasonable agreement. The two sides did indeed arrive at an agreement, but it was severely lopsided in favor of Charles IV, to the point where Edward II, himself a crowned and anointed monarch, could not bring himself to accept the offer.
It was ultimately decided that, as a way to save his own dignity, Edward II would grant Gascony and Ponthieu to his son, who would then pay homage for them. Charles IV accepted this proposal without a great deal of resistance, and the prince joined his mother in France in September 1325, paying homage to his uncle a few days later. This strategy seemed effective and innocent enough to Edward II at the time, but he was, in reality, creating a highly tenuous situation for himself. Both his wife and heir were now absent from the country in a time when the popularity of his regime, headed by the despotic Despensers, was at an all-time low. The younger Edward could subsequently be used as a political pawn against his father; this would be exactly what would happen.
As it would turn out, Queen Isabella had become just as disillusioned with the Despenser regime as most of the other magnates, prelates and citizens of England. While Edward II seemed to be completely unaware of his wife’s disgruntlement when he sent her to France in the first place, it became blatantly obvious when she outright refused to return to England when she was summoned (even after her duties had been fulfilled), claiming that she feared for her safety while the Despensers remained in power. Further entreaties to Prince Edward personally were equally as futile. To make the situation even more dangerous, Isabella had, at some point, come into contact with one of King Edward’s most dangerous enemies, Roger Mortimer. Mortimer, a powerful lord of the Welsh marches, had rebelled against the king in 1321-22 and was subsequently defeated and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he escaped the following year and took refuge in France. It seems that Isabella and Mortimer bonded over their intense hatred of the Despensers, and their relationship became sexual at some point (though exactly when cannot be pinpointed).
Now that his wife was engaging in an illicit affair with worst enemy, and his heir was in their custody, Edward II had every reason to be nervous. As it would turn out, the king’s fears were supremely warranted. After being shunned by Charles IV, who did not wish to condone his sister’s adulterous behavior, Isabella, Mortimer and the prince turned to Count William in the adjacent county of Hainault. The count reluctantly agreed to provide nominal aid to the rebels (William’s brother John would really be the one helping them) in exchange for the betrothal of Prince Edward to one of his daughters. Isabella was in no position to reject the count’s offer and, therefore, Edward and Philippa of Hainault were formally betrothed in August 1326. Despite the rush and pressure involved in the terms of the betrothal, the union was to be a happy one, and it would last all the way until Philippa’s death in 1369.
The following month Isabella, Mortimer, the prince and the small army they had been provided with landed in England and quickly began gaining further support for their cause. While the details for the invasion are more appropriately discussed in a biography for Edward II, the younger Edward now began to play a bit more of a role in events, though he was still very much under the control of his mother and her lover. Once the queen’s cause began to gather more support, the king and a group of his favorites fled to Wales where they most likely hoped to cross over to Ireland. The rebels interpreted this move as the king absenting himself from the kingdom. Therefore, Prince Edward was designated as keeper of the realm in his father’s absence. This authority lapsed when the king was captured in November, but it was clear that the elder Edward would never be able to rule his kingdom in the way that he once had. After all his favorite’s were executed or imprisoned, steps were taken to deprive Edward II of his authority. Articles of deposition were drawn up, and the king ultimately agreed to give up power to his eldest son, after he was threatened that the latter would be disinherited altogether if he did not comply. On January 25, 1327, the fourteen-year-old prince was formally proclaimed as King Edward III, beginning a fifty-year reign on the throne. Isabella and Mortimer had successfully achieved their coup and the establishment of their puppet regime in the name of the young king, but their authority was not meant to be permanent, as time would tell.
At the age of fourteen, Edward was, according to English law and custom, of an age to rule his kingdom independently. Therefore, there was no need to appoint a regent or protector to rule in the king’s steed until he should come of age. However, it was common knowledge amongst contemporaries that Edward owed his accession to the throne to the two people who had combined to cuckold and depose his father – Isabella and Mortimer. Even though it was not necessary to appoint either to the position of regent, it was clear that the queen mother and her lover would possess a great deal of influence over the new monarch and that the latter would have very little choice in the matter, at least for the time being. Given the fact that Edward was still young and inexperienced in matters of state, there were very few Englishmen who questioned the regent-like power and influence of Isabella and Mortimer.
The king’s tender years were undoubtedly the biggest reason why he played very little role in the business of the first official parliament of the new reign, which was called into session shortly after his coronation ceremony. A continual council was set up to aid the king in governing the realm (as was a common procedure), and many of those who had lost their lands and titles when they had previously rebelled against Edward II were granted full pardons and restored to their possessions, including Roger Mortimer. With all of this preliminary business out of the way, the self-proclaimed regents of England focused their attentions on foreign affairs. In Gascony, English forces that had been left in the duchy marched into the territory that the French had conquered during the War of Saint-Sardos and seized it back. This act threatened the already-fragile peace between the two kingdoms. Therefore, envoys were sent to Charles IV in France to prevent the situation from getting too out of hand; the result of the mission was the Treaty of Paris, a document which would prove to be highly detrimental to English interests in Gascony.
The primary stipulation of the treaty was that the English crown would only possess the territories in the outlying vicinity of the coastal cities of Bayonne and Bordeaux, while all other areas that once made up the greater part of the old duchy of Aquitaine (including those which had recently been re-conquered) were to be under the direct control of the French. As can be imagined, this peace agreement was heavily criticized in England. To make matters worse, the Scots, apparently in an attempt to take advantage of a regime that was still gaining its footing, were doing what they did best during that time period – raiding the northern English counties. An army was swiftly mustered to do battle against the Scots, but the campaign would prove to be fruitless for the English royal forces. The only real action that occurred was when the Scots took the English by surprise and routed them at the Battle of Stanhope Park in July 1327. Though the encounter was little more than a skirmish/raid, Edward himself was nearly captured, and the English morale had been thoroughly shattered. Both armies departed back to their respective realms soon after.
In the midst of the unsuccessful Scottish campaign, troubling rumors were surfacing back in England that a number of men still loyal to the deposed Edward II were plotting to break their former king out of prison and place him back on the throne. This had prompted Edward’s captives to transfer him to the more secure location of Berkeley Castle, but it not prevent further plots from surfacing. Mortimer knew that he would not be able to maintain his new status as the most influential man in the realm as long as Edward II was still alive, as there would always be someone who would be willing to stir up rebellion in his name. Therefore, it came as a surprise to no one that the old king’s death was announced on September 21, 1327. Though we will most likely never know the full truth as to what the circumstances were behind the death of Edward II, there is no lack of evidence that he was murdered under direct orders from Mortimer himself. The younger Edward’s reaction to his father’s death is not recorded, but it must be assumed that he was saddened by it, even though it had the effect of further legitimizing his own regime. Yet, at the same time, the murder of Edward II completed Mortimer’s effective usurpation of royal authority, including taking the former king’s place in the queen’s bed. And this was an offense that Edward III could allow to go unpunished for too long.
With the old king apparently done away with, and with the new king’s marriage accomplished in January 1328, attentions were again focused on the situation in Scotland. At this point, having failed to subdue the Scots on the battlefield, Mortimer and Isabella pushed for a permanent peace settlement with their unruly northern neighbors. The result of these negotiations was the Treaty of Northampton (known to the Scots as the Treaty of Edinburgh). Almost immediately unpopular within England, the treaty stipulated that Scotland was to be acknowledged as a sovereign nation, completely independent of the English crown, with Robert Bruce as its monarch. To seal the deal, Edward’s sister Joan was betrothed to David Bruce, the four-year-old son and heir to the King of Scots. The regime of Edward III had now been handed another humiliation at the hands of the young king’s increasingly overwhelming “regents.” Mortimer and Isabella, however, did not stop at ratifying treaties that were detrimental to English interests abroad when it came to asserting their authority over the king. During his time in power, Hugh Despenser the Younger had built himself a massive powerbase in the Welsh marches which had become nearly the equivalent of his own personal kingdom. After the fall of the Despensers, most of these lands were ultimately granted to Mortimer, easily making him the most powerful lord within the marches. He had, for all intents and purposes, taken the place of the younger Despenser in both wealth and power, as well as in unpopularity.
To add further prestige to his status, Mortimer had a new title created specifically for himself: Earl of March; the title was meant to show his new dominance within the region. In raising himself to the status of earl (the highest title in the English peerage at the time), Mortimer had effectively surpassed Hugh Despenser the Younger in power, extravagance and assertiveness over the crown, as the latter very well could have pushed to have himself created Earl of Gloucester but chose not to go so far. The new earl’s swift rise to prominence within the peerage and the royal household gained him the reputation as the second-coming of the Despensers, the very men that he had removed from power just two years earlier. Most significantly, Mortimer had gained the enmity of Henry, Earl of Lancaster, the brother of Thomas of Lancaster, who had been executed for treason after he unsuccessfully rebelled against Edward II in 1322, paving the way for the rise of the Despensers. Both Mortimer and Lancaster began to muster troops and make preparations for a possible conflict. The conflict came to a head in January 1329, and armed conflict was only just avoided when the two sides decided to allow cooler heads to prevail. A crisis had been averted, but Lancaster’s rebellion proved that the Mortimer regime was no more popular than that of the Despensers, and civil war could erupt just as easily. Meanwhile, the king found himself further indebted to his mother’s lover, to the point where he was now seriously contemplating ways to have the newly-created earl removed from his high horse.
The downfall of Roger Mortimer can be said to have begun in the fall of 1329 when rumors began to float about that Edward II was still alive and was ready to reclaim his throne. One of the primary magnates who seems to have believed that these rumors contained an iota of truth was the late king’s half-brother Edmund, Earl of Kent. Soon after the Winchester Parliament of March 1330, Mortimer, suddenly and without warning, had Kent arrested and charged with treason. Evidence (which may or may not have been valid) was brought forward by Mortimer that supposedly proved that Kent was guilty of conspiring against the crown by assisting to put his brother back on the throne. The royal uncle was then forced to confess his crimes and was sentenced to death by the court, which was, not surprisingly, headed by Mortimer. At first, no one was willing to perform the execution on a member of the royal family. Therefore, Kent was finally executed by a random, common member of the royal household. To add further insult to injury, Mortimer then proceeded to divide Kent’s forfeited estates between himself and his followers. If the king had thoughts of removing Mortimer from power before this event, he now had the drive he needed to make his thoughts reality; most historians indeed consider the Earl of Kent’s execution to have been the final insult that Edward was willing to accept from the autocratic Mortimer, and action now needed to be taken.
By this point, Mortimer was universally unpopular and must have been viewed as a hypocrite, if nothing else. After all, he had accused Edward II of losing his inherited territories in Scotland and Gascony, yet Mortimer had made treaties that eliminated, or severely weakened, English influence in these territories. Mortimer had also labeled the Despensers as ruthless tyrants who would do anything to further their own cause. Yet, since the fall of the Despensers, Mortimer had effectively replaced them as the most powerful lord of the Welsh marches and held similar influence over the king. Anyone who dared go against him (most recently the Earl of Kent) was done away with, just as was the case with the Despensers. The king himself now began to realize that Mortimer was morally and financially destroying the kingdom to fulfill his own selfish desires; it was time for him to go. Events came to a head at Nottingham Castle, where a council meeting was being held, in October 1330. It was here that Mortimer, almost certainly suspecting treachery on the part of the king, denied entry to Edward and his party (which consisted of various minor noblemen). The royal party was ultimately able to make their way into the castle through a secret passage, and they proceeded to arrest Mortimer and kill several of his followers, despite adamant protests from Isabella. The following month, a plethora of charges were brought up against the earl, most of which were fairly accurate. He was subsequently found guilty of treason and executed as a traitor, sans quartering. After three years of bending to the will of his mother and her lover, Edward was now finally free to begin his majority rule, and he intended to take full advantage of his newly-won freedom.
With the unwanted influence of Mortimer now permanently eliminated, Edward was free to focus on undoing some of the unpopular policies that the so-called “co-regent” had put into effect. Quite possibly the most widely hated of Mortimer’s accomplishments was the Treaty of Northampton with the Scots, a document which Edward undoubtedly wished to rid himself of so that he may follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Edward I, the so-called “hammer of the Scots,” and help ease the pain from his father’s disastrous defeats in the northern kingdom. He was in a strong position to achieve this goal being that the situation in Scotland had changed dramatically since the ratification of the treaty. The powerful Robert Bruce had died in June 1329 and was succeeded on the throne by his only son – the five-year-old David II. Until the new king reached his majority, Scotland was to be under the rule of a series of regents. Even still, Edward had to be careful in the way that he went about renewing hostilities with his northern neighbors, as he did not want to be seen as the one who had broken a major peace agreement.
An opening came near the end of 1330, when Edward wrote to the King of Scots (who also happened to be his brother-in-law) and requested that certain lands in Scotland be returned to their rightful English owners, as had been stipulated in the Treaty of Northampton. After the Scots delivered a rather crass reply to what appeared to be a reasonable request, the lords who were attempting to win back their lands (appropriately known as the “disinherited,” just like the group of the same name who had been stripped of their lands in the aftermath of the Second Barons’ War in the reign of Henry III) decided to take matters into their own hands, most likely with the king’s blessing (at least privately). Publicly, Edward was in the midst of preparing for a major campaign to Ireland, where the political situation was always relatively volatile.
The rising of the disinherited lords created a doubly precarious situation for the Scots considering the fact that they had in their company one Edward Baliol, the son of John Baliol, who had ruled as King of Scots from 1292-96. After being chosen to ascend the vacant Scottish throne by Edward I as part of Great Cause, John had been deposed by his own people because he had proven the he was nothing more than a pawn of the English crown. Ultimately, Robert Bruce took the initiative and had himself proclaimed King of Scots in 1306. Being that his father had once sat on the Scottish throne, it came as no surprise that Edward Baliol was looked at as a feasible alternative to David Bruce. The disinherited, and soon Edward III himself, intended to take full advantage of this fact. Edward’s plans for an Irish campaign were suddenly interrupted when Edward Baliol and the other disinherited lords won a substantial victory against the Scots at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in August 1332. Three Scottish earls and whole slew of other noblemen were killed during the battle, and Baliol was proclaimed as King of Scots in its aftermath.
Edward promptly set aside his plans to travel to Ireland and made the somewhat controversial decision to throw his support behind the claims of Baliol and the disinherited. Baliol sweetened the deal for the Edward by promising to acknowledge English suzerainty over Scotland (i.e. that the Kings of England were rightful overlords of Scotland). He also vowed to put a majority of the lands on the Anglo-Scottish border, including the strategic border town of Berwick (which had been lost to the Scots fifteen years previously), under direct English control. These offers were indeed enticing offers for any King of England to refuse, but many members of parliament were skeptical of conducting a full-scale campaign into Scotland, citing the disastrous endeavors of Edward II. Edward III, however, was not his father, and he was able to appease his skeptics sufficiently enough so that the campaign was able to go forward. By the time Edward had completed the mustering process for his invasion of Scotland, the momentum had, to a certain extent, been returned to the Bruce loyalists.
Just a month after being proclaimed king, Edward Baliol had been forcibly removed and forced to flee to England, allowing the Bruce loyalists to take back the lands that the English had seized after their victory at Dupplin Moor. After they had sufficient time to reorganize themselves, Baliol and a number of English lords launched another attack into Scotland in the spring of 1333 and promptly laid siege to Berwick Castle. Soon after, they were joined by Edward III and his own forces. By the time summer arrived, it was clear that the Scots had no choice but to go to the relief of Berwick if they wanted to prevent it from returning to English control; this would turn out to be a fateful turn of events for the Bruce loyalists. Despite the superior numbers of the Scots (their army was about double the size of their opponent’s), the English were more determined and better armed. At the ensuing Battle Halidon Hill, the English handed the Scots a crushing defeat. No less than six Scottish earls were killed during the encounter, and Edward III had won the first of his great pitched-battle victories. Baliol was placed back on the Scottish throne and, in the months that followed, he fulfilled the promises that he had previously made to the Edward III. Berwick and much of the Scottish lowlands were ceded to Edward and Baliol performed liege homage to the English king, officially acknowledging himself as the latter’s vassal, requiring him to provide military assistance, when needed, based upon the principles of feudal law. For the time being, David II had no choice but to accept the regime change and fled to France with his wife and a group of supporters for his own safety.
Edward III had indeed achieved a significant victory but, as his father and grandfather had previously discovered, the Scots were persistent and greatly valued their freedom and independence; it would be a daunting task to keep them subdued for any extended period of time. Almost immediately after establishing his authority in the Scottish Lowlands, Edward began to face problems. The lands that Edward had been granted by Baliol were not worth as much as had been believed, there were various land disputes between the English lords who had begun the war in order to press their personal claims and there were internal conflicts within Baliol’s own administration. All of these issues made it relatively easy for the Bruce loyalists remaining in Scotland to assert themselves and take advantage of the situation. In September 1334, they succeeded in chasing Baliol out of the kingdom, for the second time, and proceeded to attack English-held castles. Edward III briefly journeyed to Scotland in December to attempt to put down the rising, but to no avail.
The king embarked in a more substantial campaign in the summer of 1335, this time with Irish assistance. While there was no real action on this campaign, Edward successfully halted the attempts to put David II back on his throne through shear intimidation, by destroying everything in his path within the Scottish Lowlands. This enabled him to reinforce a number of his castles in the region. Believing the situation to be under control, Edward departed Scotland. In November, however, the cause of Edward Baliol suffered yet another setback when a force under the command of David of Strathbogie was defeated by Bruce loyalists at the Battle of Culblean. To make matters worse, Philip VI of France was making substantial entreaties in favor of David II, who was still his guest. Not wanting to gain the enmity of the powerful King of France, Edward agreed to sit down at the negotiating table. It seems though, that Edward underestimated the seriousness of the situation (or perhaps he simply did not care), as he put a proposal on the table that he could not possibly have expected the Scots to accept: Edward Baliol was to rule as King of Scots during his own lifetime, with David Bruce succeeding him upon his death. In addition, Bruce would have to acknowledge Edward III as his rightful overlord. As expected, the proposal was promptly rejected. Edward interpreted this as impudence on the part of David II and decided to conduct yet another campaign into Scotland.
This time, the English forces acted with unusual savagery, engaging in a scorched earth policy that was virtually unprecedented and burning the city of Aberdeen to the ground. The king was again able to reinforce his lands in the Scottish Lowlands, but he was forced to return south soon after when it became apparent that Philip VI was lending more support to the cause of David II. There was genuine worry of French raids on English coastal cities. By 1337, Edward was forced to focus his attentions on the rapidly deteriorating relations between England and France, very much putting his interests in Scotland on the backburner and allowing the Bruce loyalists to gradually take back the lands they had lost since their defeat at Halidon Hill. Edward Baliol was swiftly becoming a nonentity by this point, and this most certainly must have aided Edward III in his decision to focus more on the growing conflict with the French. While it cannot be said that Edward completely abandoned his Scottish ambitions, he had adapted a very different mindset in the closing years of the 1330s – one that involved an invasion of France.
The Anglo-French conflict that came to the forefront of European events in 1337 has widely come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War, and it would continue, intermittently (and with significant territorial changes on both sides), until the English were finally expelled from Gascony for good in 1453. Though this was by no means the first time the crowns of England and France had clashed, it is fairly easy, in retrospect, to dissect a majority of the issues that led to the outbreak of hostilities at this particular point and time. When Charles IV, the last direct-line Capetian King of France, died sonless in 1328, there were a number of viable candidates to succeed him on the throne. Edward III was one of these candidates, being that his mother, Isabella, was the sister of Charles IV, therefore making Edward a grandson of King Philip IV of France. However, though not officially mentioned at the time (and indeed not brought to light for decades to come), France was a kingdom that utilized the Salic Law, which stated that the succession of the crown could not pass to, or through, a female. Under this law, Edward’s claim had no substance at all. On top of this fact, the French had no desire to be ruled by the King of England.
Therefore, Charles IV was ultimately succeeded by his cousin Philip, a member of a cadet branch of the Capet dynasty known as the house of Valois (and a grandson, in the male line of King Philip III). Edward’s youth (he was indeed only fifteen years of age at the time), political inexperience and the fact that he was still in the process of establishing his authority in England prevented him from mounting any serious challenge to the accession of Philip VI to the French throne, but this did not stop his precocious mother Isabella from briefly bringing her son’s claims to Philip’s attentions. These rival claims set up a tense relationship between the two monarchs from the very beginning, and there were no contemporaries who were surprised when hostilities eventually broke out. To make matters even worse, Philip VI almost immediately pressed a subject that was equally as delicate: Edward’s responsibility to pay liege homage to him for his French fiefs, as was stipulated in the Treaty of Paris of 1259. Edward duly paid homage to Philip VI for Gascony and the northern county of Ponthieu in June 1329, but did not perform the act of fealty to the proper satisfaction of the French king. The issue for Edward was most likely the same as it had been for his father – he did not want to be seen as too submissive to a fellow crowned and anointed monarch.
Complicating the situation even further was the fact that the status of several territories within greater Aquitaine (i.e. areas outside of Gascony, such as the Agenais) remained highly ambiguous. Louis IX had ceded these territories to Henry III as part of the 1259 Treaty of Paris, but they had been seized by Charles IV during the brief War of Saint-Sardos earlier in the 1320s. The English had taken back several of these lands, but Isabella agreed to another Treaty of Paris (in 1327) which apparently stated that they were to be returned to French control. All of this ambiguity only further aggravated an already perplexing situation for both sides. According to the English, Edward III had paid Philip VI homage for all of greater Aquitaine (including Gascony, the Agenais, and several other territories) and Ponthieu, while the French believed that only Gascony and Ponthieu were included in the oath and that the Agenais, Limoges, Cahors and Perigueux would remain in French hands. As time would soon tell, Edward’s rather half-hearted oath of fealty and the ambiguity of the disputed territories did not sit well with Philip VI.
When Edward chose to ignore a series of deadlines assigned by Philip IV to perform “proper” homage for his fiefs, the latter declared him a contumacious vassal and marched into Gascony with an army, seizing a number of lands. In order to cool the situation, Edward travelled to France in person to reassure Philip that he indeed acknowledged himself as a vassal of the French crown. While specific details of this secretive meeting are fairly obscure, it appears that there was genuine effort to make peace. In the meeting’s aftermath, a marriage alliance between the English and French royal houses was discussed, and the two monarchs made a preliminary agreement to jointly go on a crusade to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, neither of these proposals would ever come to fruition, as both men viewed one another with deep suspicion and could therefore not agree on specifics.
As the 1330s progressed, relations between the two kingdoms only deteriorated further. Philip VI insisted on involving himself in the Anglo-Scottish conflict by providing moral and military support to the Scots, as well as allowing David II to spend his temporary exile from his kingdom in France. The French king was indeed making full use out of the so-called Auld Alliance, a Franco-Scottish agreement originally put into effect in 1296 which stated that France and Scotland would defend one another against their mutual enemy, England, when necessary. While Edward did not want to face the full wrath of a combined Franco-Scottish force, the peace settlement that he suggested (where David II would succeed Edward Baliol as King of Scots upon the former’s death) could not have been expected to be taken seriously. A further antagonism between the two monarchs was Edward’s harboring of one Robert of Artois, a French nobleman who had been expelled from the kingdom by Philip VI over a land dispute. Edward refused to extradite Artois despite repeated entreaties from Philip. By 1336, war between England and France was seemingly unavoidable, and both sides duly began to make preparations.
Edward took a page out of his grandfather’s playbook by forming alliances with the rulers of the duchies and counties on France’s eastern border (Edward I had done the same during his unsuccessful campaigns in France in the 1290s) and began levying taxes and taking other financial measures to pay for his grand venture. The first physical hostilities came in November 1337 when an English force attacked the island of Cadzand on the north coast of France. This seems to have excited Edward to the point where preparations for an invasion of France were now accelerated; he arrived at the city of Antwerp in the Low Countries in July 1338. The king’s goal at this point seems to have been to reap havoc on the French countryside in an attempt to make it seem that Philip VI was an inadequate leader who could not protect his own people. Unfortunately, events did not play out the way that Edward had planned, as many of the financial measures that he had put in place to fund his expedition fell through; his allies in the Low Countries and Germany were hesitant to provide him with assistance without payment. Though Edward travelled to meet the Holy Roman Emperor to receive the position of vicar-general of the empire (which gave him a certain amount of authority over the imperial fiefs), his financial difficulties lingered, and many of the king’s skeptics began to grow restless.
When Philip VI discovered that the English crown was near financial ruin, he immediately put plans in motion to capitalize on his opponent’s weakness. While Edward argued back and forth with his ministers over money, Philip set to work on staging attacks on the southern English coast and the Channel Islands, causing a great deal of damage, particularly to the town of Southampton. To make matters even worse, French forces were marching into Gascony, while the Scots (with French assistance) were attacking Edward’s lands in the Scottish Lowlands. As all of these attacks were being conducted, Edward was seemingly paralyzed in his Antwerp base, and he could still not work out a compromise with his administration back in England as to what the appropriate action would be. After coming to a financial arrangement with the home administration (which would prove to only be a temporary fix), Edward was finally ready for his first military adventure on the continent in the early fall of 1339.
As Edward marched through France, he continued the scorched earth policy that he had utilized during his Scottish campaigns, causing considerable damage to the French countryside. Philip VI most certainly had the numbers advantage over the Anglo-Imperial forces, yet he still refused to do battle with his enemies, even when the opportunity arose. This may have been a wise move, considering Edward had shown himself fully capable of defying the odds and defeating larger armies, but it made the French king appear cowardly and as unable to keep his own subjects safe from foreign invaders. Being that there were no real conflicts in Edward’s first foray into France, this alone had to be chalked up to a victory for the English cause. While this brief journey helped Edward (slightly) redeem himself in the eyes of his critics, the king would soon find out that his problems, particularly those of a monetary nature, had not gone away – they had only been exacerbated.
In January 1340, Edward took the Hundred Years’ War to the next level when he had himself formally proclaimed as King of France in the city of Ghent and proceeded to style himself as such from this time forward. In making such a controversial proclamation, Edward had turned the war from a dispute over the duchy of Gascony into an all-out fight to decide who was the rightful sovereign over all of France. Up to this point, Edward had only shown nominal interest in the French throne. However, Edward’s sudden change of strategy should not be taken to mean that he felt that he had a legitimate chance of becoming King of France; he indeed knew that his chances were remote at best and, even if he were successful, he would never truly be secure in his position. The Ghent proclamation seems to have been conducted so that Edward could add more legitimacy to his cause and to help persuade his allies in the county of Flanders that it was him, not Philip VI, that they should be fighting for. If Edward were the acknowledged King of France, the Flemish would technically not be rebelling against their feudal overlord – they would be fighting for him.
This was not a terrible strategy on Edward’s part, but it still did not solve his dire financial issues and did not make his allies any less anxious to be paid for their services. The king now faced the formidable task of selling his new plan of action to the peers and commons back in England. Forced to leave his pregnant wife and two English earls in the Low Countries as surety that he would fulfill his financial obligations, Edward departed for England to persuade his subjects to grant him further subsidies to fund his increasingly quixotic war against the French the month following his proclamation as King of France. While Edward was able to attain a fairly sizable grant of taxation from his subjects (through a great deal of bullying and other persuasive techniques), he was forced to make a number of concessions that were not particularly beneficial to his authority within his kingdom. These concessions involved everything to reforms in the taxation system, to the increasing of royal responsibility for debts incurred (during wartime in particular), to the simple reconfirmation of Magna Carta, among other stipulations. Edward was not particularly pleased with the compromise he was forced to agree to (particularly since it hampered him somewhat when it came to taxation), but he knew he had little choice in the matter considering the immense debt which hung like an albatross around his neck and his desperate need for ready cash.
By this point, Edward was all too anxious to return to the Low Countries to continue his war effort and leave the political haggling to his ministers in England. Despite some of his most influential councilors advising against his departure (claiming that he did not yet possess the financial or military means that he needed to engage in his grand scheme of taking the French throne), Edward departed his kingdom in June 1340, not knowing that he was soon to win the first of his great victories of the Hundred Years’ War. In the weeks and months leading up to his departure, Edward had been hearing mixed news from the continent. While he was happy to hear that his brother-in-law, Count William of Hainault, had defected back to his cause, he was less than pleased to discover that two of his most important captains, the Earls of Salisbury and Suffolk, had been taken captive by the French. Worst of all, Edward was informed that a sizeable French fleet was awaiting his arrival off the coast of Flanders in order to prevent him from landing safely and joining his continental allies.
The French plan of forcing a naval engagement seemed like a good idea at the time considering the fact that their fleet was significantly larger than that of the English. However, Edward was determined to use this to his advantage, and he skillfully planned a retreat as a decoy, only to return and surprise his enemies. The ensuing Battle of Sluys was, to say the very least, an exceptionally bloody encounter, and the casualties on both sides were well into the thousands. In the end, it was English who prevailed, thanks in large to the support of their large contingent of archers, who made ample use of the long bow. It is believed that French casualties amounted to over fifteen thousand – more than triple that of the English. Many more suffered moderate to severe injuries, including the king himself, whose leg was seriously wounded. With this glorious victory at sea, Edward had swiftly reversed his fortunes in the war with France and had thoroughly silenced (at least for the moment) his critics back home who had advised him not to depart the kingdom. When the king finally landed and joined his allies, they marched into France and promptly laid siege to the castle of Tournai. The army of Philip VI was about to raise the siege, but the French king was advised to sue for peace, and the two sides ultimately agreed to the truce of Esplechin in September.
After his victory at Sluys, Edward maintained the upper hand in the conflict to an extent, but he was now about to find out that his grave financial situation had still not gone away; it had indeed, if possible, become even worse. Edward now found himself trapped within the city of Ghent, a place that he had borrowed from extensively. For his problems, he blamed his regency council back in England. Leaving behind his wife, Edward escaped the city in secret with a small group of followers. When he arrived in England, he immediately began to take out his anger on his ministers, purging many of them from the administration. The man who destined to absorb a majority of the king’s wrath was his head councilor, Archbishop John Stratford of Canterbury. Edward blamed him for the failure of the collection of the various taxes which had been granted in past parliaments, which were meant to fund the king’s increasingly expensive war, and also for the archbishop’s failure to properly advocate the war itself. Stratford had, in reality, been one of the king’s staunchest supporters and had saved his reputation on many occasions by doing his best to justify an extended period of high taxation for what seemed to be an unrealistic military enterprise. Most contemporaries agreed that the archbishop did not deserve to be persecuted simply for doing the job that the king had assigned him to do.
Edward aggressively pursued the archbishop, but Stratford defended himself vigorously, refusing a summons to appear before parliament to answer for his actions and claiming that he was part of a witch hunt led by a selfish and unreasonable monarch; he was not wrong in making such bold statements and was careful not to make it seem as if he was stirring up rebellion against his rightful lord and king. Edward was, of course, infuriated at the archbishop’s impudence and continued to launch attacks on him. When Stratford finally decided to make an appearance before parliament, he was disgracefully barred entry; even after he was admitted, the archbishop was treated scornfully by a number of the king’s men. Overall, the sympathy was in the prelate’s corner. After some initial hostilities, Edward drastically softened his position towards his top advisor, paving the way for a group of moderators to step in and bring about a peaceful solution to this grave political crisis. In May 1341, Edward and Stratford were publicly reconciled, to the relief of all the members of parliament. The situation had severely humbled the king, who was forced to acknowledge that even an anointed monarch had limitations. In the aftermath of his quarrel with Archbishop Stratford, Edward, as a sign of good faith, agreed to enact a law which stated that no peer of the realm, temporal or spiritual, could be arrested without due cause and must be given a fair trial before parliament.
Over the following months, Edward’s financial situation gradually improved, and he was able to gain back much of his political clout. This allowed him to annul the recently established law pertaining to the trial of peers and to go after the archbishop again. Though Edward was now clearly the one with the political advantage, and Archbishop Stratford was indeed in a much weaker position, the king decided to be lenient with the prelate and stated publicly that many of the accusations that were previously levied against him were without warrant. All in all, Edward was successful in demonstrating that he was no political weakling as his father had been, and also that he was able to treat his opponents with leniency even when he was in an advantageous position, as his father had been unable to do. Stratford was returned to his rightful place on the council, but he never again wielded the influence he once had. In the end, Edward had turned what was originally a bad situation into a sizeable political victory and must therefore be declared the winner of the domestic crisis of 1340-41.
When the dust settled from what was to be Edward’s most serious political crisis of his reign, he had proven himself to be the spitting image of his grandfather, Edward I, who had survived a similar conflict in the 1290s, also brought upon by harsh taxation due to his own French campaign. Contrarily, Edward had shown himself to be the antithesis of his father, Edward II, who had been humbled on several occasions by his political opponents in the church and the peerage. Having regained his footing on the domestic front, Edward was now anxious to transmute this success to the foreign front, and that meant engaging in yet another, and hopefully more successful, expedition to France. The situation on the continent, however, had changed somewhat drastically for the English king. After coming to an understanding with Philip VI, the Holy Roman Emperor had stripped Edward of his position of vicar-general of the empire, causing him to lose a majority of the allies whose lands fell under the emperor’s jurisdiction. Obviously, it was in Edward’s interests to now look into new sources of assistance for his next ambitious campaign into France.
An opportunity came along, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, in the semi-autonomous duchy of Brittany in the extreme north-western portion of France. In April 1341, Duke John III of Brittany died childless, leaving two rival candidates to squabble over who would be the duchy’s next leader. Philip VI put his support behind Charles of Blois, who was married to the late duke’s niece (and was also the French king’s nephew). Naturally, Edward supported Charles’s rival, John de Montfort, the half-brother of John III. When Montfort travelled to Paris to negotiate a settlement with Philip VI, he was promptly imprisoned for refusing the terms the French king offered. This aided Edward in his decision as to whether or not he should provide military assistance to the Montfort faction and marked the beginning of the Breton War of Succession. Ironically, both Edward and Philip VI were supporting candidates who were contrary to their own public policies on the subject of succession. Philip VI believed that he was the rightful King of France because he was the closest heir to Charles IV in the male line, while Edward pressed his claim through a female, his mother Isabella. In the Breton War of Succession, Edward supported the man who was the closest male-line relative of the deceased duke, while Philip VI supported a candidate who was pressing his claim as the husband of one of the duke’s female relations. This major reversal of policy gives us evidence that neither Edward nor Philip VI felt all that strongly about the particular reasons for their respective claims to the French throne, showing themselves to be pragmatists who would support any policy that benefited them politically.
After months of planning, three separate English contingents departed for Brittany and achieved varying amounts of success. The first army, under the Earl of Northampton, was able to decisively defeat a French force at the Battle of Morlaix, but another naval contingent, commanded by Robert of Artois, was defeated as they attempted to lay siege to Vannes castle. Artois himself was killed in the engagement, ending the life of a man who had been a major cause of the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War. Edward’s own force, which had intended to besiege Vannes from its land-locked side, had to settle for conducting sporadic raids on various Breton towns. After the English made sizable territorial gains, the Pope interceded and brought about a peace between the two sides in January 1343. Under the terms of the truce, John de Montfort was to be released from French custody, and Edward was allowed to keep the lands which he had conquered within Brittany, making it an advantageous agreement for the Anglo-Montfortian allied forces. Over the following three years, Edward concentrated simultaneously on domestic and foreign issues, revamping his administration while also making preparations for yet another campaign to France. Philip VI made this decision fairly easy for the English king, as he had failed to live up to his side of the peace agreement of 1342 by continuing to hold John de Montfort prisoner (he would remain in French custody until March 1345, when he escaped captivity and fled to England).
By the spring of 1345, Edward had decided to replicate his strategy of the Breton campaign of 1342 and launch a three-pronged attack to the continent: The Earl of Northampton would lead a force into Brittany; Henry of Grosmont, the soon-to-be Earl of Lancaster led his contingent into Gascony; and Edward himself was set to lead an army to a yet-to-be determined destination. When the armies began to depart England for their respective destinations, they achieved various degrees of success, or lack thereof, just as had been the case with the Breton campaign three years earlier. In Gascony, Henry of Grosmont was making astounding progress against the French forces in the region, defeating them at the Battle of Auberoche and going on to take back a number of the lands of the greater duchy of Aquitaine which had been in French hands since their confiscation during the War of Saint-Sardos – over twenty years ago. The Earl of Northampton was not enjoying nearly as much success in Brittany, and the sudden death of John de Montfort badly hurt the English cause in the region. His son and heir, the future Duke John V, was only five years old, leaving the Montfort faction in a state of disarray for the time being. Edward’s own force was badly delayed in its departure from England. The king was forced to make a spontaneous trip to Flanders to reassure his allies in the region that they were making the right choice in supporting his claim to the throne of France, and he did not depart to his destination, which would turn out to be Normandy, until June 1346. The journey was to be a fateful one and would result in Edward’s most glorious victory to date, making it well worth the wait.
Edward’s decision to land in Normandy was almost certainly a surprise to Philip VI, who expected him to land in Brittany or Flanders, where he had a greater support system. It appears that Edward won an important Norman baron over to his side, which allowed him to arrive safely in a duchy that was under the control of Prince John, the son and heir of the French king. It is not known as to what the English king had planned for this campaign. While some historians will argue that he merely wanted to expose Philip’s inadequacies as a leader by continuing his scorched earth policy (as he had done in 1337-38), others claim that, from the very beginning, Edward’s intentions were to force his French counterpart to engage him on the battlefield. It would be the latter scenario that would ultimately come to pass. As the English army marched further into Normandy, they faced relatively little opposition. They soon approached the important city of Caen, which they sacked. The citizens of Caen suffered badly as a result of their king’s failure to provide them with proper aid as women were raped, important prisoners were taken and held for ransom and homes and businesses were plundered en masse. This path of destruction continued as the English forced proceeded westward, apparently looking to attack Paris itself, the heart of the French monarchy. Edward, however, knew that he did not have the resources to take on such a daunting task, and he made the significant decision to march north in order to receive reinforcements and much-needed supplies.
The English were able to fight off a contingent of Philip’s forces at Blanchetaque, allowing them to cross the River Somme into Edward’s ancestral county of Ponthieu, which had previously been seized by the French. It was here that Edward would win the most significant victory of his long reign. At the end of August 1346, the time had finally come for the English and French to engage in a decisive encounter on land. At the Battle of Crecy, the French army of Philip VI was devastatingly defeated by a significantly smaller English force. In the aftermath of the encounter, the Duke of Lorraine, six counts and the blind King John of Bohemia (a French ally), among others, lay dead on the battlefield, and a number of important French noblemen were taken prisoner; English losses were comparatively small. The English victory can be attributed to two primary factors: their advantageous position on the field and the debilitating effect of the longbow, which allowed them to eliminate large numbers of their enemies swiftly, and with deadly accuracy. Edward’s decisive defeat of the French lifted the spirits of his subjects, who were overjoyed to be hearing of significant progress in the war with France after suffering years of crippling taxation to fund it, and thoroughly silenced his critics – and further martial success was soon to follow. Brimming with confidence and looking to capitalize on his glorious victory at Crecy, Edward made the decision to continue his march north and lay siege to the important, strategically-located coastal town of Calais. Edward’s primary reason for taking on such a difficult task is simple: He wanted to create a foothold for himself on the northern French coast in which he could land safely whenever he chose to do so. Less than two weeks after their victory at Crecy, the English forces settled down outside the well-fortified town for what was to be a yearlong siege.
In the month following the commencement of the siege of Calais, Edward’s confidence and the morale of his troops were about to become even more inflated. With Edward away on the continent, David II (who had returned to his kingdom from France in the summer of 1341) kept up his end of the Auld Alliance, which stated that Scotland and France were obligated to come to each other’s aid when attacked by the English, and began staging raids into the northern English counties. An English force, consisting of primarily northern lords and their retinues, immediately set out to put a stop to the devastation of their lands. At the ensuing Battle of Neville’s Cross, the northern lords soundly defeated their Scottish counterparts, once again utilizing longbow archers to overcome their numerical disadvantage. It would have been difficult for the result of the battle to have been any worse for the Scots, as two earls were killed with numerous others taken and held for ransom. The biggest prize by far though was the capture of the King of Scots himself. David II was promptly put under comfortable living conditions in the Tower of London, where he would remain a prisoner for more than ten years. The decisive loss at Neville’s Cross and the subsequent capture of their king threw the Scots into a temporary state of shock, and it allowed the erstwhile pretender Edward Baliol, who had been laying low in England since his most recent defeat, to march into Scotland with a sizeable army to attempt to win back the kingdom he felt was his by right.
While all of this was occurring, the Earl of Lancaster was continuing to make substantial progress in southwestern France, gaining back even more territories that had once been part of the greater duchy of Aquitaine, which had been under English control in the twelfth century. Edward, meanwhile, remained at the siege of Calais. While it cannot be said that the English forces were without their problems (many soldiers were indeed lost to various illnesses that had sprung up in the camp), they were certainly in a strong position to ultimately take the important fortress. To show that they were in for the long haul, a miniature town and marketplace were actually set up outside of Calais. As the siege continued, mixed reports gradually poured in from various other parts of the continent. The Breton War of Succession continued to rage on, and the English could claim a substantial victory when Charles of Blois, the French-backed candidate for the ducal title, was captured after his defeat at the Battle of La Roche-Derrien; he was subsequently sent to join David II in the Tower of London.
Edward received less encouraging news from the Low Countries, where his allies in the region were deserting him in droves. These allies, however, had long been financially burdensome to the English crown and were therefore expendable. The fact that they transferred their support to Philip VI was no cause for celebration for the English, but Edward had proven that he could accomplish a great deal on his own by this point. By the summer of 1347, the citizens of Calais were suffering greatly due to a lack of basic necessities. Upon hearing about the critical situation in the town, Philip VI arrived nearby with a force to attempt to relieve it. However, the English were in a much more advantageous position and refused every peace offering the French offered them. In August, Philip VI knew that there was nothing further he could do for the unfortunate town and departed, leaving it to its fate. Days later, the citizens of Calais surrendered to Edward and were promptly expelled from their homes and stripped of all their worldly goods as punishment for their prolonged resistance. Edward now had the safe landing spot on the northern French coast that he so desired, capping off a wildly successful campaign in France and cementing his own image as a great leader and military commander.
The mood in England in the immediate aftermath of Edward’s great victories at Crecy and Calais was decidedly celebratory – and rightfully so. Unfortunately, this euphoric state was not meant to last, and the English people were about to be subjected to the full wrath of the worst natural disaster they had ever encountered – the Black Death. The Black Death was a particularly lethal form of the bubonic plague, most likely transported from somewhere in the eastern world, that had been rapidly working its way through continental Europe. When the plague arrived in England in the summer of 1348, its effects were catastrophic. It is believed that anywhere from thirty to fifty percent of the kingdom’s population succumbed to the disease. Besides the massive loss of life, the Black Death had the adverse effect of reaping havoc on England’s economy. The manual labor force had been so severely depleted that those who were left felt they could charge employers exorbitant rates for their services. While it is true that manual laborers were not treated, or paid, particularly well under normal circumstances, and they were therefore somewhat justified in demanding more money when their services were in high demand, it was simply not affordable for most employers (except perhaps the very richest) to pay double the amount they were used to paying for labor.
The fact that the peasantry was also calling for the abolition of serfdom, a very useful (even if immoral) form of free labor heavily utilized by lords, meant that employers in general were in a very difficult position even after the plague dissipated in the summer of 1349. In response to this crisis, Edward pushed through a piece of legislation that has come to be known as the Ordinance of Laborers. The primary stipulation in the Ordinance was that pay rates were to remain where they had been before the outbreak of the plague. As can be imagined, this law was highly popular amongst the upper classes and employers but dangerously unpopular with the commons and the general labor force. Instead of attempting to find some sort of middle ground that would have benefited the lords and the peasants alike, Edward had passed a law that was blatantly lopsided in favor of the wealthier citizens of the country. Though he would not live to see the long-term results, Edward had (albeit inadvertently) laid the foundation for the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which his grandson and successor, Richard II, would be forced to deal with.
Another event which took place during the time of the Black Death was Edward’s founding of the Order of the Garter. The order was meant to mimic, on a smaller scale, the knights of the Round Table of the legendary King Arthur, and the order’s members were expected to uphold the standard codes of chivalry. While the Order of the Garter continues to be a prestigious and exclusive club to be a part of even to this very day, nearly seven hundred years after its foundation, certain historians will question as to why Edward decided to go along with its founding while his subjects were suffering so greatly from the ravages of the Black Death. It was indeed not a time of celebration, feasting and jousting, all of which went along went along with the order’s foundation. The only real explanation is that Edward himself was deathly afraid of the plague’s effects and needed a distraction – a sort of fantasy land in a world that was in a very dark place. Luckily, the king survived the Black Death unscathed, and the day-to-day functions of English government and society returned to relative normality soon enough. Yet, when all is said and done, we cannot help but think that Edward could have been more sympathetic to the sufferings of his subjects during this brief but frightful time. It was indeed one of the low points of his otherwise successful tenure as king.
As can be imagined, the English were anxious to capitalize on the success that they had achieved in 1346-47, while the French were eager to avenge their losses. Unfortunately for both sides, the Black Death assured that hostilities would have to be halted until at least the end of 1349. Edward was undoubtedly stir-crazy by the time the plague finally subsided, and it should come as no surprise that 1350 was a fairly active year for him. In January, he and his son, another Edward (who had recently established himself as a brave soldier at Crecy, despite his youth), travelled over to Calais and were able to successfully defend their new conquest from a French attempt to retake it. When Philip VI died in August, Edward was unable to capitalize on the accession of the new King of France, John II, who had begun his reign with a number of unpopular political moves that did nothing to endear him to his subjects. He was, however, able to achieve a major victory in the English channel against a fleet of assumedly hostile ships from the Spanish kingdom of Castile, an ally of the new French king. The naval Battle of Winchelsea was a fairly bloody encounter, similar, but on a smaller scale to the Battle of Sluys ten years earlier, and it helped strengthen the English reputation as champions of the Channel.
In early 1352, the English gained control of the town of Guines, a few miles outside of Calais, much to the chagrin of the French, who were angry that the English had broken the truce that was in effect at the time. Guines, like Calais itself, would remain in English hands until it was retaken in 1558; the towns and their immediate surrounding areas would come to be known collectively as the “Pale of Calais.” Events in Brittany, where the Breton War of Succession still continued after more than ten years, were somewhat mixed, but they undoubtedly favored the English. As the English effectively ruled over most of the duchy in the name of the underage John de Montfort the younger, Blois supporters began to became restless. This led to the murder of Sir Thomas Dagworth, the English lieutenant of Brittany, as well as a Blois victory at the purely symbolic Battle of the Thirty. The English, however, retook the momentum when they defeated a Franco-Blois force at the Battle of Mauron in August 1352. As all of these events occurred, the English could also boast of continuing to maintain the upper hand in Aquitaine.
The years 1353-55 were consumed almost exclusively with peace talks between Edward and his various nemeses abroad. During this time Edward indeed showed himself to be a true master at the negotiating table, and he thoroughly demonstrated that he was a pragmatic, as well as an ambitious ruler. This is proven by the fact that, when negotiating for peace settlements with Scotland and Brittany, Edward was willing to completely disown his allies in those respective regions – if it meant creating a better financial situation for himself. In Scotland, Edward does not seem to have had any interest in continuing his attempts to put Edward Baliol on the throne and opened up negotiations with representatives of David Bruce in earnest. The king also began talks with Charles of Blois to make him the new Duke of Brittany, while ignoring the claims of his previously endorsed candidate, the young John de Montfort.
These negotiations, however, were nothing compared to the prolonged talks between Edward’s representatives and those of John II of France. John was undoubtedly anxious to prove that he was a more formidable king than his father, Philip VI, had been, while Edward was looking to extract the most advantageous position for himself on the continent as possible. One of the initial offers from the English was that peace could only come (along with Edward’s renunciation of his claim to the French throne) at the price of Edward holding Aquitaine, Ponthieu, Calais and the areas that he had conquered in Brittany in full sovereignty, meaning that he would not need to pay liege homage to the French king for these lands. If this offer was not humiliating enough for the French, Edward upped his demands in subsequent offers, stating, at various points, that he also wanted control over Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine and Flanders. Clearly, Edward was not particularly serious about peace with France. While his fellow monarch gave him no real reason to hope for a settlement, it is unlikely John himself would have been willing to accept anything reasonable; he was far too set on avenging himself on the English for the embarrassing defeats they had inflicted upon his father.
War between the two sides was now inevitable, and Edward proceeded to plan a two-pronged attack on France. An army led by Prince Edward was to journey to Gascony, while a force led by the king himself would land in Calais in the north. Edward III’s army does not seem to have accomplished much except further devastation of the French countryside. However, the deteriorating situation in Scotland required the king’s attention, and he departed France in November 1355, just a month after he had arrived. The supporters of the Bruce regime had seized back all of the lands in the Scottish Lowlands which had been granted to Edward by Edward Baliol over twenty years earlier and were in the process of laying siege to the castle of Berwick. Edward III marched north at lightning speed and lifted the siege on Berwick, before proceeding further into Scotland, pillaging and destroying on a massive scale and burning a sizeable portion of the major city of Edinburgh to the ground. So much fire was utilized on Edward’s march in Scotland that the expedition itself has come to be known as “Burnt Candlemas.” Yet, even after this merciless march of destruction (which seems to have been more a display of superiority by the English king than anything else), Edward seemed more geared towards peace with the Scottish regency. At the behest of Edward III, Edward Baliol renounced his claim to the Scottish throne; this paved the way for a definitive Anglo-Scottish peace treaty that would come about the following year.
The real story of 1356, however, was to involve Edward the Black Prince (the name later given to Prince Edward) and his forces in south-western France. It appears that the prince was by no means reluctant to encounter the French on the open battlefield, but he seems to have been at least content to continue his father’s scorched earth policy and to make the French king appear unable to protect his own subjects. This Prince Edward most certainly accomplished this, and he was aided by the Duke of Lancaster, who quickly crossed over to Normandy (though he was not without his departure delays and was, at one point, diverted to Brittany), took part in some raiding and pillaging and retreated before the French had the opportunity to retaliate. The wild card in this part of the Hundred Years’ War was the figure of King Charles II of Navarre, who was not only a king in his own right, but also a powerful French lord who possessed his own claim to the throne of France as a grandson of King Louis X (albeit through a female line, putting him in a similar position as Edward III). Over the course of the peace negotiations, Charles II had switched his allegiance between the English and the French on several occasions. He now seemed, at least for the time being, to be firmly on the English side; this was helped along by the fact that John II had imprisoned him and confiscated some of his French lands. As deceitful of a man as the King of Navarre was, he helped give the English a distinct advantage in the campaign of 1355-56, even if they lacked the numbers that the French possessed. However, the French army, under the direct command of King John, was effectively able to neutralize Lancaster’s army, isolating that of the Black Prince in the process.
In September 1356, the prince was forced to do battle against a significantly larger French army in the county of Poitou; the result was to be in his favor, to say the very least. If the pitched Battles of Halidon Hill and Crecy were the encounters which established Edward III as a formidable military commander, the Battle of Poitiers represented the Black Prince’s moment of glory. Despite the French numerical advantage, the battle was a decisive English victory. Two French dukes and a plethora of other lesser noblemen were killed during the encounter. More importantly, there were a slew of important prisoners taken after the battle, including an archbishop, nine counts and King John II himself. As later events would prove, the Battle of Poitiers would represent the apex of success on the battlefield for the English during this first part of the Hundred Years’ War; Prince Edward could now boast of following in his father’s footsteps when it came to winning glorious victories on the battlefield; and Edward III could now proudly proclaim that both the Kings of Scotland and France were his prisoners. The people of England indeed had reason to celebrate and be proud of their king and his eldest son in the fall of 1356.
Now in possession of his two greatest enemies, Edward felt, and rightfully so, that he was in the supreme bargaining position when it came to negotiating peace treaties with both the French and the Scots. Unsurprisingly, the four years following the Black Prince’s spectacular victory at Poitiers were dominated by these negotiations. While John II was treated with all the respect due to a fellow monarch while he remained a prisoner in England (just as David II had been for the past ten years), Edward meant to make the best of his situation and to milk the victory at Poitiers, and the chaotic situation it inevitably caused in France, for all it was worth.
Before he did this, however, Edward felt that it was finally time to settle the situation with David of Scotland. This resulted in the Treaty of Berwick, ratified in October 1357. The terms of the treaty were certainly open to interpretation – to say the very least. While the primary stipulation was that David II was to be released in exchange for an exorbitant ransom (the English were indeed asking for over sixty thousand pounds) to be paid in installments over ten years, there was no mention as to whether Scotland was to remain an independent kingdom or to be held as a fief of the English crown, leaving the situation just as ambiguous as it had been when Anglo-Scottish conflict began nearly thirty years earlier. The English did agree to abandon all claims to Edward Baliol and officially acknowledge David II as the rightful King of Scots, but the situation remained highly precarious considering the fact that the latter was in his mid-thirties, still childless and estranged from his wife. All in all, the Treaty of Berwick, while technically ending the Second War of Scottish Independence, did very little for either side. The Scots received an heirless monarch who barely knew his own subjects, and the enormous ransom that came with him, while the English did not make any territorial gains or extend their influence into Scotland. It also must be believed that they secretly conceded that they would only receive a fraction of the ransom money that they had asked for (even though there was, supposedly, a stipulation which stated that the Scots could only retain their independence if the ransom was paid in full). We cannot help but believe that, after ten years, Edward simply wanted to relieve himself of what was, for all intents and purposes, a very expensive guest.
The negotiations with France, for the release of John II, would not be as cut and dried - by any stretch of the imagination. With the momentum at the negotiating table clearly in Edward’s corner, it came as no surprise that the first draft drawn up, the First Treaty of London, in January 1358, was heavily lopsided in favor of the English. The document called for John to be released for an astronomical ransom of over six hundred thousand pounds and for Edward to hold the greater duchy of Aquitaine (as it had existed when it first came under English control in 1154), as well as Ponthieu, Montreuil and the Pale of Calais in full sovereignty, without any homage whatsoever owed to the crown of France. If these stipulations were not humiliating enough for the captive King John, the English did not even make any mention of Edward renouncing his claim to the French throne. Clearly, Edward was showing no mercy to his vanquished foe.
The English king’s position was further strengthened by the fact that the situation within France was deteriorating rapidly, where the regent, John’s eldest son and heir, the dauphin Charles, was facing a rebellion from political reformer Etienne Marcel, as well as a peasant’s revolt (known commonly to history as the Jacquerie). Oddly enough, it was the untrustworthy Charles of Navarre that played a crucial role in putting down the Jacquerie, only to march on Paris and join forces with Marcel against the dauphin’s regime. Unfortunately, Marcel’s murder soon after put Navarre in a much more difficult situation and forced him to plead for an alliance with the English. Edward agreed to provide nominal aid to the traitorous King of Navarre, and the latter proceeded to cause mass destruction throughout northern France, putting further pressure on King John to come to terms with the English. Just as Edward was preparing to launch yet another full scale invasion of France, John intervened to sue for peace. This resulted in the Second Treaty of London, a document that was even more detrimental to French interests than its predecessor. The Second Treaty stated that, in addition to the territories discussed in the First Treaty, Edward was also to hold Normandy, Maine, Anjou and Touraine in full sovereignty and to become overlord of Brittany, essentially restoring the entire Angevin empire of his ancestor, King Henry II. The terms of this treaty were obviously ruinous for the French, and indicate that Edward was not truly serious about coming to terms with his enemies, but John II felt he had no choice but to concede to his English counterpart. However, the dauphin Charles refused to be privy to his father’s conciliatory policies and rejected the treaty outright.
This prompted Edward to put his plans for another invasion of France into action. This campaign began in earnest in October 1359 when Edward and a sizeable (and well equipped) army arrived on the continent. The strategy for this expedition seems to have been fairly straightforward: To lay siege to the city of Reims (the place where Kings of France are crowned) in order to symbolize that Edward still intended to pursue his claim to the French throne if he was not given satisfaction in the inevitable peace treaty between the two kingdoms; and to force the dauphin into a pitched battle so that he may embarrass him, just as he had done to his father and grandfather at the respective Battles of Poitiers and Crecy. Apparently, Edward was in an overly optimistic mood when he plotted this course. By the beginning of 1360, the siege of the well-garrisoned Reims was abandoned and, to make matters worse, the English army was decimated by illness. This did not prevent Edward from marching directly on Paris in the spring of that year, but he was still not able to achieve his primary goal: to bring the French forces onto the battlefield. Though the dauphin undoubtedly looked cowardly in refusing to engage in a pitched battle with the English, his strategy proved to be a wise one, and he would not be subjected to the same devastating defeats that the French had suffered at Crecy and Poitiers. Edward was in no position to lay siege to a major stronghold such as Paris, yet he remained in high spirits until his army was further depleted by a massive storm, bringing him back to the negotiating table in a far less advantageous position than he had been in the aftermath of Poitiers.
This resulted in the Treaty of Bretigny, which stipulated that King John was to be released at a reduced ransom of five hundred thousand pounds and that Edward was to rule over greater Aquitaine, Ponthieu, Montreuil and the Pale of Calais in full sovereignty. The agreement was still a sizeable victory for Edward, whose primary goal seems to have been to establish a semi-autonomous kingdom in south-west France. King John gave his approval for this tentative agreement, and he was transferred to English-controlled Calais so that the peace agreement could be finalized. It was agreed that John would be released from English custody after one hundred thousand pounds of his ransom was paid and that there would be a ceremony in which the French would give up sovereignty to the territories which they had promised to secede to the English. Simultaneously, Edward would drop his claim to the throne of France, as well as any claims he had to Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Touraine. The situation in Brittany was to be resolved in a separate treaty. Overall, the Treaty of Calais is seen as a personal success for Edward, but it was relatively unpopular amongst the subjects of the French and English crowns. In France, there was obvious discontent over the fact that land was being given away to their enemy (i.e. the King of England), while in England there was disappointment that Edward was giving up his French claims even after he had promised some of his captains that they could keep the lands they had taken in their various campaigns throughout France. Ultimately, the Treaty of Calais would prove to be nothing more than a temporary fix, which would solve nothing.
Events in the decade or so following the ratification of the Treaty of Calais proved just how delicate the agreement was. French troops still remained in parts of Aquitaine, while English forces continued to occupy parts of Normandy, the Ile de France and other areas that were off limits to them under the terms of the treaty. Additionally, while the French had been prompt in their initial payment of King John’s ransom, the payments quickly became overwhelming as the kingdom struggled financially due to their various defeats in the Hundred Years’ War, as well as the civil rebellions that had plagued the nation for some time. These issues did nothing to solve what was perhaps the most important issue: the mutual, and simultaneous, surrender of sovereignty in the territories which each side had agreed to give up all claims to at Calais, an event which neither side could seem to set a date for.
All of these complications, and the months of inactivity that went with them, gave Edward exactly the ammunition he needed to commit two highly antagonistic moves, which he may have had planned from the very beginning. Firstly, he declared that all of Aquitaine was now under his direct control, despite the fact that the French had not yet surrendered sovereignty of the region, and upgraded it from a duchy to a principality. To strengthen his position, Edward sent the Black Prince to rule in his stead as Prince of Aquitaine. In a move that would have more far-reaching consequences, Edward also decided to negotiate the release of a number of the more important prisoners from Poitiers with the hostages themselves, as opposed to directly with King John. These prisoners included two of John’s sons, Louis of Anjou and John of Berry, as well as his brother, Philip of Orleans. After a dummy proposal to settle the dispute of the ransom and the renunciations of sovereignty put forward by the English was outright rejected by the French (which was almost certainly the strategy, considering its outrageous terms), Edward began his negotiations with the royal hostages, cajoling them into excepting a treaty which stipulated that they would be released on parole in exchange for convincing King John to speed up his renunciations of sovereignty in the English-occupied areas, as well as paying more of his ransom, a hefty portion of which was still due. Sandbagged by the English, John and his advisors had no real choice but to accept the agreement, at least tentatively. The French royals were transferred over to Calais in the late spring of 1363 so that the agreement could be finalized, but a major complication arose when, several months later, John’s son Louis of Anjou took it upon himself to flee his captors and return to France. While the other prisoners did not follow suit, King John was ashamed of his son’s dishonorable actions, and agreed to deliver himself over to English custody to stand as a hostage until a final agreement was reached. John indeed returned to England in January 1364, but his health swiftly declined, and he died in captivity that April. His eldest son succeeded him as Charles V and, as had already been established, he was a man who was far less amicable than his father – a fact that did not bode well for Edward and his ambitions of an English continental empire.
During the 1360s, Edward’s primary goal was very much to consolidate and solidify the power that he held in his continental possessions, as well as the territories within the British isles which he claimed sovereignty over. He made attempts to set up his second surviving son, Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, as the head of a semi-autonomous lordship of Ireland, and continued to push for a Plantagenet prince to succeed the still-childless David II of Scotland. Both of these enterprises proved highly unsuccessful. Ireland turned out to be a fiscal headache, filled with unruly inhabitants who had no interest in direct English rule (which could not have been a major surprise), while the Scots appeared to be rallying around David’s nephew, Robert Stewart, to ultimately succeed him should he die without a direct heir.
The situation in the newly created Principality of Aquitaine would not prove to be any more fruitful of an endeavor. While the lords of Aquitaine were, initially, somewhat enthusiastic of having a man such as Edward the Black Prince, the victor of Poitiers, as their leader, the prince would soon enough prove himself to be a subpar administrator. By involving himself in the various conflicts of his neighboring kingdoms, the prince brought Aquitaine (which was supposed to be a self-supporting appendage of the English crown) to near financial ruin. The most disastrous of Prince Edward’s enterprises was his involvement (which his father gave permission for) in the Castilian civil war in neighboring Spain. With the English throwing their support behind the sitting monarch, King Pedro “the Cruel,” it was only natural that the French would provide aid to the rival candidate, Pedro’s illegitimate half-brother, Enrique of Trastamara. The Castilian campaign began with a great success, as the Anglo-Spanish forces decisively defeated the forces of Enrique of Trastamara at the Battle of Najera in the spring of 1367. While Najera in generally chalked up as another (and the last) of the Black Prince’s great victories on the battlefield, the euphoria that existed in its aftermath was to be short-lived. King Pedro was unable to provide recompense to the Black Prince for the massive expenditures he had incurred in the Najera campaign. As can be imagined, this only furthered the prince’s financial difficulties, forcing him to levy a number of unprecedented taxes on a region that was notorious for its autonomy and its exemptions from ducal, or royal, authority. This would be a major contributing factor to French success in the region in the subsequent decade.
Edward did have considerably more success in Brittany, an area he had been invested in since the outbreak of the Breton War of Succession in 1342. In September 1364, the English-backed candidate to rule the duchy, John de Montfort (now in his mid-twenties), decisively defeated his only significant rival, Charles of Blois, at the Battle of Auray; the latter was killed on the battlefield, effectively making Montfort Duke of Brittany. Charles V had no choice but to accept the situation, but expected the new duke to pay homage to him. Instead, Montfort acknowledged Edward as his rightful overlord, creating yet another source of tension between the Kings of England and France. It was Edward’s success in Brittany that helped encourage him to attempt to extend his influences into other semi-autonomous regions on the continent.
In this case, the English king wished to assert his authority in the regions of Burgundy and Flanders via the most common of diplomatic tools: the marriage alliance. Negotiations for an Anglo-Flemish alliance dragged on throughout the decade, and the primary obstacle would be Pope Urban V’s reluctance to grant a dispensation for the marriage of one of Edward’s sons to the daughter and heiress of Count Louis of Flanders. At one point, Edward even went so far as to marry his son Lionel of Clarence into the ruling house within the Italian duchy of Milan so as to put him in a position to put pressure on the Pope. This strategy seems to have been working at first (Pope Urban moved his court farther away to prevent a conflict), but it ended abruptly when Prince Lionel died suddenly in the fall of 1368. In the end, Edward’s Flanders enterprise proved fruitless, and the count chose to give his approval for the marriage of his daughter to Philip of Burgundy, one of Charles V’s brothers. The dire financial situation in Aquitaine, Edward’s failure in Flanders, continued French deference of the late King John’s ransom payments and the general lack of compliance (on both sides of the Channel) with the terms of the Treaty of Calais all made a renewal of Anglo-French hostilities virtually inevitable by the close of the 1360s.
Out of all of the problems that existed between the French and the English at the closing of the 1360s, it would be the highly volatile situation in Aquitaine that would prove to be the most toxic for Edward’s regime; all other issues seemed to be secondary. With disillusionment with the Black Prince’s administration at an all-time high, Charles V took a page out of his ancestor Philip Augustus’s playbook and came to the aid of the disgruntled Aquitainian lords by promising to hear their complaints against their English overlord and to do what he could to reestablish their precious local customs, traditions and general autonomy. In order for this strategy to be effectively utilized, Charles would have to establish that Edward indeed held Aquitaine as a fief of the French crown; he would then need to declare the Black Prince a contumacious vassal who deserved to be punished accordingly – via complete seizure of his lands. This was easier for Philip Augustus, who (in 1204) was able seize Normandy, Anjou and large portions of Aquitaine from King John under the terms of the Treaty of Le Goulet, which had acknowledged that John held these territories as a vassal of the King of France. If John did not fulfill his obligations as overlord to his own tenants (and these tenants complained to their supreme overlord, the King of France), Philip had every right to deprive him of his lands. However, under the terms of the 1360 Treaty of Calais, Edward was to hold Aquitaine in full sovereignty, with no homage whatsoever owed to the French king, making the example of Philip Augustus and King John quite irrelevant. Unfortunately, it was not that simple, as neither John II or Charles V had ever officially renounced their sovereignty to Aquitaine, being that a date could never be decided upon to go along with Edward’s mutual renunciation of his claim to the French throne. To say the very least, the status of Aquitaine in 1369 presented a major crux for the both the French and the English.
The crafty Charles V planned to use the general ambiguity of the situation to his own benefit and encouraged the disgruntled Aquitainian lords to rebel against Plantagenet rule. In the spring of 1369, without due warning, Charles began his attacks on Edward’s lands on the continent. Less than a month after these attacks commenced, Charles had succeeded in conquering the entirety of the English-controlled county of Ponthieu in the north of France. The sudden conquest of Ponthieu undoubtedly caught the English off guard, but Edward and his ministers were swift in their response, and an army led by the king’s third surviving son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was able to successfully defend Calais (the next most obvious target in the north) against a French assault. Edward himself was set to lead another army onto the continent to compliment that of his son, but the death of Queen Philippa in August 1369 quashed this journey, at least for the time being. While John of Gaunt’s army must be given some credit for saving Calais, which had become an extremely important launching point for any English expedition into France, overall the campaign of 1369 was not worth the immense financial cost that it accrued and only put the English in an even more vulnerable position against the rejuvenated French.
The English position in France was deteriorating so rapidly that Edward actually made the decision to send an army to assist his sometimes-ally, Charles of Navarre, with the goal of stirring up trouble and distracting Charles V from his attacks on Aquitaine, which were escalating. This campaign, which took place in the summer of 1370, was not destined for success, and an English force under the command of Sir Robert Knolles was decisively defeated at the Battle of Pontvallain (in Touraine). Meanwhile, the situation within Aquitaine was going from bad to worse. A force led by John of Gaunt and his younger brother Edmund of Langley was sent to relieve their elder brother, the now-ailing Black Prince, but with little success, as the French continued to chip away at English control in the principality. The Black Prince, in no physical condition to engage in a prolonged conflict, surrendered Aquitaine to John of Gaunt and returned, in shame, to England.
Furthermore, in what seemed like a move of pure desperation, Edward did his best to keep the alliance with Castile alive, despite the fact that Pedro the Cruel had been assassinated in March 1369. In an attempt to revive what was now, for all intents and purposes, a dead end, Edward agreed to the marriages of his sons, John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley, to the late King Pedro’s two daughters. The marriages did indeed take place, but neither proved to be fruitful (though John of Gaunt would later press his claim to the Castilian throne through right of his wife), and the French-backed Enrique of Trastamara remained on the throne, putting Aquitaine in an even more precarious position. Taking advantage of the vulnerable position the English were in, a Franco-Castilian army and naval force launched a two-pronged assault, by land and sea, on the important coastal town and castle of La Rochelle. Edward III and the Black Prince meant to lead an army to relieve the beleaguered city, but were prevented from doing so by inclement weather, much to their chagrin. La Rochelle soon fell into French hands, and important parts of Aquitaine – including Poitou, Saintonge, Angoumois and the Agenais – followed swiftly in its footsteps throughout the fall of 1372. This was the last time that Edward, or his eldest son, would attempt to personally engage in a military campaign.
John of Gaunt led another force to relieve the troubled, and greatly reduced, English principality in the spring of 1373, but this achieved little. The English certainly caused plenty of devastation on their travels but were unable to gain back any of their lost territories and could not draw Charles V and his forces into a pitched battle as Edward III and the Black Prince had been able to do so effectively with Philip VI and John II. Gaunt’s army departed the continent in the spring of 1374, leaving Aquitaine to its fate. By this point, English-control of Aquitaine had once again been reduced to the region of Gascony, a narrow coastal strip which encompassed the significant port cities of Bayonne and Bordeaux. This area, together with the Pale of Calais and the scattered parts of Brittany which they still occupied (the French had chased the English out of this region as well, despite the fact that John de Montfort maintained loyal to Edward) made up the extent of Edward’s possessions in France. Knowing that his financial and military resources were spent for the time being, Edward had no choice but to negotiate a truce with the French and to attempt to muster as much of the Treaty of Calais as possible. The two sides, as well as papal moderators, met at Bruges in an attempt to come up with a reasonable peace treaty that would leave everyone happy. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and the status of Anglo-French relations remained highly volatile and confused during the final years of Edward’s reign, with only a few temporary truces keeping the peace.
By the declining years of the reign of Edward III, both the king and the Black Prince suffered from various ailments which were ultimately to bring about their respective deaths. The Black Prince never seems to have recovered from illnesses which he contracted while campaigning in Aquitaine and Castile, whereas the king seems to just have been experiencing the pangs of old age, as he was now in his sixties. It was the lack of leadership and inspiration from these two once-valiant men, combined with the death of many of the experienced generals who had aided in the past victories in the war with France, that played a large role in the decline of English fortunes on the continent. This collapse of effective authority also extended into England’s domestic affairs, where the kingdom struggled financially due to the massive expenses that had accumulated from the defense of the continental territories. To make matters worse, with the king and prince virtually incapacitated, a small group of greedy and ambitious courtiers were able to exert an unusually large amount of influence over the realm’s affairs – eerily similar to the closing years of the reign of Edward II, which resulted in Edward’s own premature accession to the throne.
The top man within England’s government at this time was, by far, John of Gaunt, who acted in a regent-like role to his ailing and increasingly lethargic father. While he was far from popular (and would perhaps be even less popular in the next reign), it was a small group of ministers and courtiers who were the least popular of all. These included William Latimer, the royal chamberlain; Richard Lyons, the Warden of the Mint; and Alice Perrers, the king’s own mistress, among others. With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the kingdom’s dire financial situation and the undue influence wielded by these upstart favorites became the primary topics of discussion at the so-called Good Parliament of the spring and summer of 1376. John of Gaunt was the main royal representative at the proceeding, while the commons quickly found a voice to represent them in the person of Sir Peter de la Mare, who went on to serve (albeit unofficially at first) as the Speaker of the House of Commons, thereby creating this now-well-known office. It was the commons who had the upper hand when the Good Parliament first opened, and they absolutely refused to agree to any new grants of direct taxation without serious reforms to the general system of taxation, as well as the royal household and finances. In the sometimes heated exchanges that followed, the commons repeatedly requested that Latimer, Lyons, Perrers and others be removed from their positions of influence and punished for their offenses, which consisted of varying degrees of corruption, malfeasance and misleading of the king. Gaunt did yield to the will of the commons by setting up a continual council of lords and prelates that was to be consulted anytime a policy decision needed to be made, but this did not stop them from proceeding with their destruction of the king’s hated favorites. Alice Perrers was banished from court (though was still able to keep the many estates that the king had awarded her); Richard Lyons was imprisoned; and, most significantly, William Latimer, on top of being put in prison, became the first victim of the impeachment process by the House of Commons. John of Gaunt and his enfeebled father had no choice but to agree to these sentences.
The proceedings of the Good Parliament, which up to this point had not been to the benefit of the king and his followers, were brought to a screeching halt by the tragic, yet unsurprising, death of Edward the Black Prince on June 8. A period of mourning ensued for the great victor of Poitiers and the man who had been heir to England’s throne for the past forty-five years. As can be imagined, the death of his eldest son and long-time heir only sent the already-infirm king into a deeper depression – one that he would never quite recover from. This deprived the commons of a man who had been somewhat of a champion against royal corruption (and therefore hurt their cause) and, more importantly, it meant that the nine-year-old Richard of Bordeaux, the Black Prince’s only surviving son, was now heir to the throne of his elderly grandfather, who most contemporaries knew could not possibly live much longer, paving the way for the uncertainty that came with a minority reign. When parliament resumed two weeks later, it was back to business as usual. The commons continued to push for more dismissals from the king’s extended inner circle and brought forth an unprecedented number of petitions to be considered. Clearly, the Black Prince’s death had not slowed down the commons’ momentum to any great extent. By the time the Good Parliament came to a close in July, Peter de la Mare and the commons could indeed claim a significant victory against their royal opponents – even if it was one that would not last for any extended period of time.
Neither the king nor John of Gaunt were, understandably, very happy with the results of the Good Parliament, and they most certainly felt as if royal authority had been encroached upon. Therefore, it came as no surprise that, soon after parliament was dissolved Gaunt (and to a lesser extent the king, whose health continued to be poor at best) went about reversing the reforms that the commons had forced on him. Both William Latimer and Alice Perrers were granted pardons and returned to royal favor, and Peter de la Mare, that champion of the commons, was arrested and imprisoned without any charges being levied against him, making it more than apparent that he was being held as a political prisoner. The resurgence of royal authority continued into the so-called Bad Parliament of January – March of 1377. It was here that John of Gaunt secured official pardons for all of the hated ministers and courtiers that had been condemned at the Good Parliament (even as Peter de la Mare remained in prison) and also cajoled the commons into agreeing to the first of several (and ultimately fateful) poll taxes to help fund the apparently inevitable return to war with France.
At the Bad Parliament’s conclusion, the commons no doubt felt as if they had the wind knocked out of their sails by John of Gaunt and the royalists – a complete reversal from the Good Parliament of the previous year. It must be assumed that the king himself played a very minimal role in the events of the Bad Parliament, if he played any role at all, and that John of Gaunt had virtual control of the day-to-day functions of government at this point. Edward’s last public appearance was at the annual Garter feast to celebrate the chivalric order that he himself had created three decades earlier. The king’s health continued to decline in the coming months before he finally gave up the ghost on June 21, 1377, at the age of sixty-four, after a reign of fifty years. His ten-year-old grandson succeeded him as King Richard II.
Assessment and Analysis
In the six hundred years plus since his death, Edward III has been widely considered to be one of the most successful rulers of the Middle Ages. While it is true that his character suffered during the period of the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, where a number of historians discredited him as the second coming of Richard the Lionheart – a careless adventurer who cared nothing about personally ruling his own kingdom, - praise of Edward’s regime has indeed been nearly universal. This should come as no surprise for a number of reasons. Firstly, Edward did not have a prestigious predecessor whose footsteps he felt the need to follow in. The disastrous reign of his father, Edward II, was indeed not a very hard act to follow. Secondly, glorious victories on the battlefield have always been considered fodder for historians, and Edward could boast of at least five of these, which were won by his commanders or with him personally on the field. Finally, Edward was able to achieve the ultimate goal of any medieval monarch: Unity at home and successful enterprises abroad against his enemies. These facts, combined with a number of others, helped to make Edward a formidable figure in his own time, and they continue to aid his reputation to this very day.
Oddly enough, as successful of a ruler as Edward was, he was not particularly unique. In other words, he is not a historical personage that can necessarily be put into a category of his own, as later English monarchs such as the Tudor monarchs Henry VII, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I certainly could be. This is not to say that Edward III had no unique qualities, but it would seem that Edward III sought to replicate the successful reigns of his ancestors and predecessors more than anything else. There are two past English kings that immediately jump out at historians when searching for comparisons to Edward III. The first was Edward’s grandfather, Edward I. Both men could be credited with glorious victories on the battlefield. Edward I will always be remembered for his successes at the Battle of Evesham during the Second Barons’ War, as well as his substantial victory against the Scots at Falkirk. His grandson is best known for the English victories at Halidon Hill, Sluys, Crecy, Neville’s Cross, Poitiers and Nejara. Both men can also boast of fighting off potential civil wars: Edward I during the 1290s when he faced widespread disaffection from his barons over his harsh taxation policies and funding over the disastrous Flanders campaign and Edward III when he faced similar uproar in the early 1240s. Unlike their respective fathers, who both faced serious civil rebellions during their respective reigns, Edward I and Edward III were able to use their political skills and strong personalities to unify their subjects against a common enemy – the Scots and the French.
A comparison can also be made between Edward and his more distant ancestor, the twelfth century monarch Henry II. During Henry’s thirty-five year on the English throne, he not only served as King of England, but also as Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Anjou, as well as nominal overlord over Brittany and parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Edward very much sought to imitate the vast “Angevin empire” of Henry II and came surprisingly close to doing so. After the English victory at Poitiers, the boundaries of the duchy of Aquitaine, which Edward claimed full sovereignty over, looked suspiciously similar to where they had been during Henry’s reign. Also like Henry, Edward claimed to be the rightful overlord over Brittany, Scotland and Ireland (Wales had already been annexed into the English crown, courtesy of Edward I). It comes as no surprise that, in various peace treaties, Edward requested to be granted full sovereignty over Normandy and Anjou as well. The case can be made that Edward actually sought to surpass Henry II in his imperial ambitions, as he also sought to become king of all of France (though Henry did not possess the legitimate claim which Edward did). Both men are undoubtedly regarded as early English colonialists of a sort, and the two of them must have been thought of during the time when Britain was one of the major colonial powers on earth.
Whereas Edward certainly must be credited for being a strong ruler, he was not invincible, and he most certainly faced a number of significant problems during his long reign. Besides the administrative crisis of 1340-41, Edward faced financial difficulties throughout much of his time on the throne, mainly due to the enormous costs of funding his various campaigns in Scotland and France, in addition to the cost of defending the territories he had conquered. Edward I most certainly faced similar problems during his reign. As was also the case with his grandfather, Edward’s successes in Scotland and France did not last. Edward I had never really achieved any great deal of success in France, but had twice conquered Scotland. Yet when his life and reign were at an end, the Scots had rallied around their new king, Robert Bruce, and a very volatile situation was left for the martially inept Edward II. Edward III’s conquests were primarily confined to France, where he was able to claim that he ruled over the greater duchy of Aquitaine, Ponthieu and the Pale of Calais and was nominal overlord of Brittany. By the end of his reign, he could only boast of holding Gascony, Calais and a considerably weaker hold over Brittany, as the French had thrown their support behind their own king, Charles V.
When summing up the life and reign of
Edward III, we as historians must conclude that Edward had simply outlived his
success. By the close of the 1360s, many of the great military commanders which
Edward had counted on over the years were either dead or soon to die, and the
king and his valiant son, the Black Prince, were already of a frail and sickly
nature. This lack of effective leadership is, undoubtedly, the major cause for
the collapse of the English position on the continent and of the rise of the
hated favorites that would dominate England in the closing years of the reign. Both
Edward I and Henry II faced similar difficulties in the closing years of their
own reigns, with Edward suffering from a rejuvenated Scottish kingdom and Henry
facing a rebellion from his own sons.
In the end, it is difficult to claim that Edward’s reign was not a success. His victories at Halidon Hill and Neville’s Cross, at Crecy, Calais and Poitiers and against Mortimer to claim his throne for his own will always far outshine his later defeats. He did not suffer a Bannockburn as his father had, nor was he deposed as his grandson, Richard II, would be. If there can be any lasting blemish on the record of Edward III, it would be his bad policies following the Black Death, which would indirectly help instigated the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, as well as his advancement of all of his younger sons, which many historians will agree was a major cause of the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century. But being a ruler is more than winning glorious victories on the battlefield. It is more about pragmatism, and these policies were most certainly pragmatic at the time. Edward always seemed to know when to be the dramatic adventurer and when to be the pragmatic policymaker. It is these qualities that helped him restore the prestige of the English monarchy that many contemporaries believed had been destroyed by Edward II. This is what the great Edward III will be remembered for.
References & Further Reading
Bothwell, J. S. The Age of Edward III
Hewitt, H. J. Organization of War Under Edward III
Johnson, Paul. The Life and Times of Edward III
Minot, Laurence. Poems on Interesting Events in the Reign of King Edward III
Mortimer, Ian. The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation
Ormond, W. M. Edward III
Ormond, W. M. The Reign of Edward III: Crown and Political Society in England, 1327-1377
Packe, Michael and L. C. Seaman. King Edward III
Prestwich, Michael. The Three Edwards: War and State in England
Rogers, Clifford J. The Wars of Edward III: Sources and Interpretations
Waugh, Scott L. England in the Reign of Edward III