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Edward III: W. M. Ormrod describes the career of the king whose fifty years on the throne are best remembered for his wars with France and Scotland, and his foundation of the Order of the Garter. (Cover Story).

EDWARD III (1327-77) HAS A CLAIM to being the earliest English ruler to celebrate his golden jubilee publicly. Born in 1312, and succeeding to the throne at the age of fourteen in January 1327, Edward ruled for fifty years and six months. He did not break the record of longevity established in the previous century by Henry III, but in the late Middle Ages his sheer endurance, as well as his many substantive achievements, made him, in the eyes of many, England's greatest monarch.

That reputation was rendered all the greater by the contrast between Edward and his immediate predecessor and successor, both of whom lost the throne, and their lives, through the wilful abuse of royal authority. For all the difficulties of his early regime and the dissensions of the last years of his life, Edward kept England free from baronial rebellion for over forty years--one of the longest periods of domestic peace experienced in the Middle Ages.

The major issue that has faced historians of the reign since the nineteenth century is the price that Edward paid to secure this political harmony. For a long time, it has been assumed that the success of the regime was a consequence of Edward's ability to direct the martial energies of his subjects towards his wars in Scotland and France and of his willingness to compromise the power of the crown in return for the financial grants that made those wars possible. More recently, however, the nature and achievement of his domestic policies have been reassessed, and some historians would now argue that he established a new constitutional and moral authority for the monarchy based in the principle of consensual government.

In 1327, the prospects for the English monarchy seemed bleak. Edward II had been forcibly removed from the throne by his wife, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, but it soon became evident that this unscrupulous pair intended to rule in as partial and arbitrary a fashion as the deposed king. It was perhaps fortunate for Edward III that his youth protected him from direct criticism during the early, difficult, stages of his reign: although no formal regency was established, it was evident to everyone that the reins of power were controlled by Isabella, and there was significant and growing sympathy for a king thwarted in his intention of providing beneficent rule.

Isabella and Mortimer did particular damage through their pursuit of peace with England's enemies. Although arguably they had little choice, it was under their direction that the English crown acknowledged--for the first time--the legitimacy of Robert Bruce as King of Scots, thus preventing any reassertion of Edward I's claim to direct sovereignty over the northern kingdom. And it was through their machinations that the crown purchased a costly peace with France in 1327. These were bitter blows to the pride of the English polity, and had a formative effect on the young King: certainly much of his later warmongering needs to be seen as an attempt to rebuild the international reputation of his throne and his kingdom.

Edward's early marriage at the age of fifteen, to Philippa of Hainault in 1328, and the birth of their first child, Prince Edward (known to posterity as the Black Prince) in 1330, were important events in the passage of the King from adolescence to maturity, and it became increasingly anomalous that he should be deprived of the right to rule in person. In October 1330 he took his chance, and ambushed Mortimer during a council meeting at Nottingham Castle. Parliament was immediately summoned, providing a suitably solemn venue both for the trial and condemnation of the offending earl and for a public statement of the nobility's corporate will to provide the newly-established King with trustworthy service. The political mood of the early 1330s was thus optimistic and expectant. In fact, Edward gave little impression of having a coherent agenda for domestic governance during these years: the kinds of fulsome statements of policy that had marked the beginning of Edward I's reign were not part of his early vision of monarchy. Where he really found a sense of purpose was in the pursuit of war.

In 1332-33 Edward III lent support to a group of northern English lords who had railed against the terms of the Anglo-Scottish peace and wished to recover their rights to lands north of the border. In 1333 he led an army in person against the Scots and defeated their army at Halidon Hill, driving the boy-king David II into exile in France, setting up his own nominee, Edward Balliol, as the new ruler and insisting that Balliol perform homage to him. Quite what Edward III had in mind for Scotland is uncertain: although he committed considerable time and resources to establishing Balliol's regime during the mid-1330s, much of this activity seems, in hindsight, to have been an attempt to prevent Philip VI of France from capitalising on his alliance with the Scots and thus threatening the security of England on two fronts. Certainly in the 1340s the King's interest in Scotland diminished: although David II was defeated and captured at the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346, Edward made no real attempt to reinforce Balliol's position and instead entered into prolonged and somewhat dilatory negotiations for David's ransom.

Philip VI's aggressive attitude towards England was itself the product of long-standing tensions between the English and French crowns over the status of the duchy of Aquitaine. This large and profitable corner of south-western France was the last major element of the former Angevin empire still in Plantagenet hands, but since 1259 (Henry III's reign) had been held by Edward's predecessors as a feudal dependency of the crown of France. Edward was evidently drawn towards the argument, developed by English diplomats since the 1290s, that England should regain full sovereignty over the duchy, and presumably realised that this would not be achieved without a fight. But it was Philip VI who really precipitated the outbreak of war in 1337 by accusing Edward of flouting his duties as a vassal and confiscating Aquitaine. Neither side can really have appreciated the longevity of the hostilities on which they thus embarked, and which their successors continued intermittently down to the end of the so-called Hundred Years' War in 1453.

The early years of the French war were characterised by unprecedentedly heavy taxation, long and fruitless diplomacy, and military stalemate. Not surprisingly, Edward III's English subjects grew restive and by 1340 there were concerns about imminent popular uprisings. Edward did little to assuage fears by adopting the title of King of France early in 1340. It seems likely that he did this solely for strategic purposes, as a means of challenging head-on Philip VI's claim to suzerainty over Aquitaine, but it caused sufficient concern that Edward was forced to issue a statute guaranteeing the constitutional separation of his two kingdoms. What really accounted for the change in the King's fortunes and made the war popular in England was the outbreak of political conflict in Brittany and Normandy during the 1340s, which allowed Edward the opportunity to intervene in a number of important French provinces, to establish footholds for his military forces, and thus to embark on the widespread destruction of the economic infrastructure of northern France. The greatest of his so-called chevauchees, in 1346, led him through Normandy, brought him close to Paris, produced the great English victory of Crecy in August and culminated, in the following year, in the capture of the strategically important town of Calais. The prestige--and the booty--that accrued to English armies in the 1340s persuaded most of the political classes in England that the war was now sustainable and generated high expectations about the King's ability to make good not only his right to Aquitaine but even his claim to France itself. The capture of Philip VI's successor, John II, by the Black Prince at Poitiers in 1356 not only heightened such expectations but also appeared to offer the opportunity of bringing the war to a final, and resounding, finish.

There has been much debate among historians as to what Edward III thought he was doing in entering into negotiations, first with the Scots and then with the French, over the release of David II and John II. By arguing that ransoms ought to be paid for their safe delivery, Edward was of course accepting that the two men were in fact legitimate kings. On the other hand, it is possible that he was trying to have his cake and eat it, using his powerful position as the captor of kings to extract huge ransoms from their respective realms, while at the same time retaining a residual claim to his dynastic rights in those lands. This complicated strategy may itself have been encouraged by Edward's large brood of sons, whom he hoped to place in positions of responsibility in various parts of his larger empire and who wished to renew the wars in Scotland and France when it suited them. In the event, the attempt rebounded on Edward. His thoughts that the childless David II might be sufficiently grateful as to accept one of the English princes as his heir came to nothing, and in 1360 he found the French more than capable of playing similar tricks by refusing to give up the sovereignty of Aquitaine until Edward himself had formally renounced the throne of France. The political community in England thought that it had got what it wanted out of the Treaty of Bretigny of 1360: that is, the restoration of English control in south-western France, continued control of Calais, and a ransom for the release of John II that would enrich their king and bring prestige to his realm. But in 1369 the diplomatic settlement finally collapsed and Parliament was forced, as it had been in 1337, to accept the reality of outright war.

Not surprisingly, the stunning successes of the French and (to a lesser extent) the Scottish wars during the 1340s and 1350s had a fundamental impact on domestic politics. Although the war remained, for the generality of the King's subjects, an excuse for the appropriation of their manpower, foodstuffs and money, the scale of fighting and the burden of direct taxation was significantly reduced from the 1340s, and except at the height of the plague there is little evidence of resistance in the shires to the King's fiscal demands. From the mid-1340s, Edward enjoyed huge revenues from the customs and subsidies on overseas trade (chiefly the duties on the export of English wool), which for a time persuaded both him and his subjects that the war was actually being financed by an international economy hungry for English-grown produce. In the event, this exercise in political economy proved naive: international trade adjusted to accommodate these high levies and none of Edward's successors was able to make as much money from the taxation of trade. At the time, however, the system was thought in England to be to the advantage of the agrarian economy, the merchants, and the King alike.

This sense of mutual benefit also extended to more general issues about the government of the realm. There were particular concerns at the beginning of the reign over public order. Violent crime, especially that perpetrated by organised gangs, was thought to be on the increase, and the crown's device of offering personal pardons to criminals in return for military service was widely believed to have generated cynicism and contempt for the mechanism of royal justice. The Black Death of 1348-49 created further concerns, as those members of the labouring classes who survived were considered to be demanding outrageously high wages, living lives of luxury and ease, and thus threatening the material and moral superiority of the traditional elite.

The answer that the King and the political community found to these problems was to devolve responsibility for the maintenance of the law upon the landed aristocracy in the countryside and the mercantile oligarchies in the towns, by appointing these men to standing commissions of the peace with authority over an increasingly wide range of criminal actions and economic activities. Although the commissions of the peace as they exist today have a history stretching back into the later thirteenth century, it was really during the reign of Edward III, and especially during the period 1344-62, that the justices of the peace became a permanent and significant feature of the judicial system. There are some historians who continue to believe that the late medieval justices of the peace acted as a kind of mafia, appropriating the King's peace for the pursuit of their own personal and class interests; but increasingly it is now argued that the placing of such power in the hands of the elite had the effect of mobilising the energies of the political classes, and especially the gentry, in the service of the state and creating within these groups a much keener sense of responsibility to upholding the authority of the crown.

The last years of Edward III's reign undoubtedly represented a falling away from the great achievements of the mid-century. In an age when many members of the nobility succumbed to the perils of war or pestilence, Edward's own longevity became increasingly remarkable. Many of his contemporaries among the aristocracy died in the early 1360s, and perhaps mindful of his own mortality, Edward chose to mark his fiftieth birthday on November 13th, 1362, by creating new noble titles for three of his sons and by issuing a general pardon. This idea of publishing a kind of amnesty in connection with a particular event in the King's life was the first substantive expression of the idea of a secular jubilee in England, and would be picked up again at the fiftieth anniversary of the King's accession. Meanwhile, however, the political stability of the regime was called into question after the re-opening of the French war in 1369. Both the King and the Black Prince gradually withdrew from active leadership; the war went badly, and necessitated a particularly heavy bout of taxation; and the court and council became dominated by a small group of nobles and merchants who were held to be exploiting their positions of influence for personal profit.

The sense of disillusionment that permeated the realm in the 1370s found expression in the so-called Good Parliament of 1376, at which the Commons, acting through the first recorded Speaker, Sir Peter de la Mare, laid formal charges against a group of courtiers and insisted that the accusations be heard before the Lords in their capacity as a high court. They thus stumbled unwittingly on the process known as impeachment. The death of the Prince of Wales during the assembly, coupled with intense suspicion of his younger brother, John of Gaunt, generated widespread concern over the succession and revealed tensions even within the royal family and the central administration. The Commons refused to concede any more direct taxes, and entered a long list of complaints about what they saw as the generally parlous state of the government of the realm. Parliament was the King's creature, and the experience of the previous generation had shown that, under careful management and favourable external conditions, it could usually be expected to bend to the King's will. Edward's own removal from the capital before the end of the session not only denoted his descent into the prolonged illness that would eventually kill him but also indicated the root of the political problem: effective royal leadership had collapsed.

The Good Parliament is a set piece of English constitutional history and the real sense of shock that it generated both in the court and in the country is not to be denied. But it is also worth noting that this, the most serious of Edward III's political crises, was one almost entirely devoid of physical violence: none of the nobility, whatever their political persuasion, showed any sign of taking up arms in the summer of 1376. Furthermore, many of the acts of the Good Parliament were undone in the course of the following months. Medieval kings had the power to annul actions forced upon them against their will, and in practice there was little that the remaining opposition could do to deny the King his rights. When a new parliament assembled in January 1377, therefore, the political mood was a good deal more subdued and the crown had relatively little difficulty in re-asserting its authority. In part, indeed, this may be attributed to Edward's achievement of his jubilee: in order to understand how the undoing of the acts of the Good Parliament could itself be represented as an act of political reconciliation, we need to pay proper attention to the element of ritual theatre involved in the announcement of the fiftieth anniversary of the King's accession.

Edward III's jubilee occurred on January 25th, 1377, just two days before the opening of parliament. The King was detained from attending the assembly by his continued ill health, but the chancellor, Adam Houghton, made an elaborate address in which he set out to the political community the benefits that they might enjoy from the royal anniversary. Just as the King had supposedly purged himself by setting aside the acts of the Good Parliament and restoring himself to his rightful authority, so now the body politic, if it reconciled itself to the King's will, could expect to enjoy the (unspecified) application of the royal grace. In response, the Commons requested the issue of a new general pardon, updating and expanding that of 1362. The text of the resulting statute made explicit the link with the fiftieth anniversary of the King's accession and thus began a tradition whereby special occasions in the life of the monarch were commemorated with these special marks of royal favour. The English crown had, in effect, adopted a secular equivalent to the plenary indulgences offered to those pilgrims who travelled to Rome at a time of the jubilee: now English men and women had a home-grown and practical parallel to indulgences in the form of a remission from liability to the King's justice. Between 1377 and 1399, some 10,000 copies of this general pardon, duly confirmed and extended by Richard II, were issued by the royal chancery.

There is little evidence to suggest whether, and how, the jubilee and general pardon of 1377 were celebrated. Given Edward III's fragile state of health and absence from parliament, it perhaps seemed unsuitable to make too much of the event--though the Lords did come out of Westminster Palace to cheer the King on his way as he was moved by barge down the Thames to Sheen, and the end of the assembly was marked with a great banquet paid for by the royal household. The royal family may have made something of the jubilee when it gathered at Windsor a few months later for the St George's day celebrations. In the country at large, however, the mood seems to have been muted: there is little indication that town authorities ordered festivities to mark the occasion, and the leaders of the Church were now more concerned with ordering prayers for the King's fragile health than with organising services of thanksgiving for his survival. Their concerns were well founded, for Edward was to die on June 21st, 1377. In the end it was not his jubilee, but his funeral, that offered the opportunity for a proper public commemoration of a remarkable king.

Medieval chroniclers and versifiers tended to regard personal longevity, like fecundity, as an expression of divine favour. Edward III, with fifty years on the throne and five sons who grew to adulthood, scored well on both fronts. In the generations that followed his death, there developed something of a cult around Edward (only gradually surpassed by that of Henry V), and which placed due emphasis on the sense of stability and harmony within his long reign. Not everyone was entirely convinced by this mythmaking. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham, for example, concluded his lengthy and fulsome eulogy of Edward with some bitter comments on the King's mental and moral frailty towards the end of his life. In particular, Walsingham could not forgive Edward for having betrayed the memory of the deceased Queen Philippa by taking to his bed, and to his counsels, the controversial Alice Perrers. Modern historians, for rather different reasons, have also emphasised the apparent fragility of a regime that crumbled so quickly when dynamic personal leadership and success in foreign war fell away in the 1370s.

Yet there were other aspects of Edward's regime that were much more substantial and enduring. The structures of royal finance and of royal justice established during his reign continued for the rest of the Middle Ages and beyond; Parliament confirmed its control over taxation and its special status as the place where the crown promulgated statutory legislation; and, in spite of a claim to the French throne that remained in the titles of his successors until 1802, Edward placed new emphasis on the Englishness of his monarchy and thus promoted a closer cultural identity between crown and people. It was these achievements, even more than his better-known reputation as a military strategist and war hero, which allowed his reputation to survive the vagaries of historical taste and to remain the subject of so much research and interest today.


Michael Prestwich, The Three Edwards: War and State in England, 1272-1377 (Routledge, 1990); W.M. Ormrod, The Reign of Edward III: Crown and Political Society in England, 1327-1377 (Tempus Publishing, 2000); Anne Curry, The Hundred Years War (Macmillan [now Palgrave], 1993); Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War: vol I, Trial by Battle; vol. II, Trial by Fire (Faber and Faber, 1990, 1999); Scott L. Waugh, England in the Reign of Edward III (Cambridge University Press, 1991); Anthony Musson and W.M. Ormrod, The Evolution of English Justice: Law, Politics and Society in the Fourteenth Century (Macmillan [now Palgrave], 1999); J.S. Bothwell, ed., The Age of Edward III (Boydell & Brewer, 2001).

W.M. Ormrod is Professor of Medieval History at the University of York.
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Author:Ormrod, W.M.
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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