Edward Plantagenet III (1312-1377)

Relation to me: 18th Great Grandfather

Edward Plantagenet III was the King of England from the 25th of January 1327 until his death in 1377. He was known for his military successes and restoring royal authority after the disastrous and unorthodox reign of his father, Edward II. He had transformed the Kingdom of England into one of the most formidable military powers in Europe. Edward’s long reign of fifty years was the second longest in medieval England. His reign would see the vital developments in legislation and government, in particular the evolution of English parliament and the ravages of the Black Death.

At the age of just fourteen, Edward was crowned as the King of England, when his father was deposed by his mother, Isabella of France and her lover Roger Mortimer. When he was seventeen years of age, he led a successful coup against Mortimer, the de facto ruler of England, and Edward began his personal reign at that time.

After his successful campaign in Scotland he declared himself the rightful heir to the French throne in 1337, but his claim was denied. This would start what would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. After some initial setbacks the war went exceptionally well for England, with victories at Crecy and Poitiers that would lead to the highly favorable Treaty of Bretigny.

In his later years however, Edward’s reign was marked by international failure and domestic strife. This was largely due to Edward’s inactivity and poor health. Edward III was a temperamental man, but he was capable of unusual clemency as well. In some ways he was a rather conventional king, whose main interest was warfare. He was also admired in his own time as well as for centuries to come. By Whig historians, such as William Stubbs, Edward was denounced as an irresponsible adventurer. This point of view has been challenged in more recent times by modern historians, who credit him with some significant achievements.

Edward’s Early Life

Edward was born at Windsor Castle on the 13th of November 1312. In his younger years he was more often referred to as Edward of Windsor. His father, Edward II’s reign was a problematic period in English history. One source of contention was the king’s inactivity and repeated failure in the ongoing war with Scotland. Another issue of controversy was the king’s exclusive patronage of a small group of royal favorites. With the birth of a male heir in 1312, Edward II’s reputation temporarily improved in relation to baronial opposition. To bolster the young prince’s independent prestige further, the king had him created the Earl of Chester at just twelve years of age.

Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

During 1325, Edward II was faced with the demand of his brother-in-law, Charles IV of France, to perform homage for the English Duchy of Aquitaine. The king was reluctant to leave the country, as discontent with him was once again brewing domestically, in particular over his relationship with his

Philippa of Hainault

favorite, Hugh Despenser the Younger. Instead, the king had his son created the Duke of Aquitaine in his place and sent him to France to perform the homage. The young man would be accompanied by his mother, Isabella, who was the sister of King Charles. Edward III was supposed to negotiate a peace treaty with the French. While he was in France though, his mother conspired with the exiled Roger Mortimer to have Edward II deposed. In order to build up diplomatic and military support for their venture, Isabella would have her son engaged to the twelve year old Philippa of Hainault. The invasion of England was launched and Edward II’s forces ended up deserting him completely. The king was then forced to relinquish the throne to his son on the 25th of January 1327. Edward III, the new king, was crowned on the 1st of February 1327.

It was not long before the new reign was also met with problems that were caused by the central position at court of Roger Mortimer, who was now the de facto ruler of England. Mortimer would use his power to acquire noble estates and titles. His unpopularity would grow with the humiliating defeat by the Scots

Nottingham Castle
Nottingham Castle

at the Battle of Stanhope Park and the ensuing Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton that was signed with the Scots in 1328. The young Edward III also came into conflict with his guardian and Mortimer knew that his position in relation to the king was growing precarious and he would be subjected to Edward’s disrespect. Tensions increased after Edward and Philippa, who had married in York Minster on the 24th of January 1328, had a son on the 15th of June 1330. Eventually, Edward chose to take direct action against Mortimer, and aided by his close companion William Ontagu and a small number of other trusted men, Edward took Mortimer by surprise at Nottingham Castle on the 19th of October 1330. Mortimer was executed and Edward’s personal reign began.

Edward’s Early Reign

Edward III was not satisfied with the peace agreement that made his name. The renewal of war with Scotland would originate in private, instead of being a royal initiative. A group of English magnates, known as The Disinherited, who had lost their land in Scotland by the peace accord, staged an invasion of Scotland and won a great victory at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332. They tried to install Edward Balliol as the new King of Scotland in David II’s place, but Balliol was soon expelled and forced to seek the help of Edward III. The English king responded by laying siege to the important border town of Berwick and defeated a large relief army at the Battle of Halidon Hill. King Edward re-instated Balliol on the throne and received a substantial amount of land in southern Scotland. However, these victories proved to be hard to sustain, as forces that were loyal to David II would slowly regain their control over the country. In 1338, Edward was forced to agree to a truce with the Scots.

One reason for the change of strategy towards Scotland was the growing concern for the relationship between England and France. As long as Scotland and France stayed an alliance, the English were faced with the prospect of fighting a war on two fronts. The French would carry out raids on the English coastal towns, which led to rumors in England of a full-scale French invasion. In 1337, Philip VI confiscated the English king’s duchy of Aquitaine and the County of Ponthieu. Instead of seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict by paying homage to the French king, as his father had done, Edward responded by laying claim to the French crown as the grandson of Philip IV. The French rejected this on the basis of precedents for agnatic succession that was set in 1316 and 1322. Instead, they upheld the rights of Philip IV’s nephew, King Philip VI, an agnatic descendant of the House of France. Thereby setting the stage for the Hundred Years’ War. In the early stages of the war, Edward’s strategy was to build an alliance with the other Continental princes. In 1338, Louis IV named Edward vicar-general of the Holy Roman Empire and promised to support the English king. As late as 1373, the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 was established and would form the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance. However, these measures produced only few results. The only major military victory in this phase of the war was the English naval victory at Sluys on the 24th of June 1340, which would secure the English control over the Channel.

Meanwhile, the pressure on the kingdom caused by Edward’s expensive alliances led to discontent at home. The regency council at home was frustrated by the mounting national debt, while the king and his commanders on the continent were angered by failure of the government in England to provide sufficient funds. To deal with the situation, Edward himself returned to England, arriving in London unannounced on the 30th of November 1340. Upon his arrival he found that the affairs of the realm were in disorder, he purged the royal administration of a great number of ministers and judges. These measures didn’t bring any domestic stability though. A standoff ensued between the king and John de Stratford, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Stratford’s relatives, Robert Stratford, the Bishop of Chichester and Henry de Stratford were temporarily stripped of their titles and imprisoned. Stratford claimed that Edward had violated laws of the land by arresting royal officers. A certain level of conciliation was reached at parliament in April of 1341. It was here that Edward was forced to accept severe limitations to his financial and administrative freedom, in return for a grant of taxation. Yet in October of that same year, the king repudiated this statute and Archbishop Stratford was politically ostracized. Due to extraordinary circumstances in April, parliament had forced the king into submission, but under normal circumstances, the powers of the king in medieval England were virtually unlimited, a fact that Edward was able to exploit.

Historian Nicholas Rodger called Edward III’s claim to be “Sovereign of the Seas” into question. He argued that there was barely any Royal Navy before the reign of Henry V. Despite Rodger’s view, King John had already developed a royal fleet of galleys and tried to establish an administration for these ships and ones that were arrested, and privately owned ships were pulled into the royal/national service. Henry III, his successor would continue this work, notwithstanding the fact that he, along with his predecessor, had hoped to develop a strong and efficient naval administration. Their endeavors would produce one that was informal and mostly ad hoc. A formal naval administration would emerge during Edward’s reign, composed of lay administrators and headed by William de Clewre, Matthew de Torksey and John de Haytfield successively with them being titled, Clerk of the King’s Ships. Sir Robert de Crull was the last to fill this position in Edward III’s reign and had the longest tenure in the position. It was during his time that Edward’s naval administration would become a base for what evolved during the reigns of successors such as Henry VIII of England’s Council of Marine and Navy Board, and Charles I of England’s Board of Admiralty. Rodger also argues that for the majority of the 14th century, the French had the upper hand, apart from Sluys in 1340, and perhaps off Winchelsea in 1350. The French would never invade England and France’s King John II would die in captivity in England. There was a need for the English navy to play a role in this and to handle other matters as well, such as the insurrection of the Anglo-Irish lords and acts of piracy.

The Fortunes of War

By the early 1340s it was clear that Edward’s policy of alliances was too expensive and yielded only few results. The next few years saw more direct involvement by the English armies, including in the Breton War of Succession. However, these interventions would also prove fruitless at first. A major change came in July of 1346 when Edward staged a major offensive, sailing for Normandy with a force of 15,000 men. His army would sack the city of Caen and then marched across northern France to meet up with English forces into Flanders. It was not Edward’s initial intention to engage the French army, but at Crecy, just north of the Somme, he found favorable terrain and chose to fight an army that was led by Philip VI here. On the 26th of August, the English army would defeat a far larger French army in the Battle of Crecy. Not long after this, on the 17th of October, an English army would defeat and capture King David II of Scotland at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. With his northern borders secure, Edward felt that he was free to continue his major offensive against France, laying siege to the town of Calais, the operation was the greatest English venture of the Hundred Years’ War. It would involve 35,000 men and began on the 4th of September 1346, lasting until the town surrendered on the 3rd of August 1347.

After the fall of Calais, factors outside of Edward’s control had forced him to wind down the war effort. A year after the surrender of Calais the Black Death struck England in full force. It would kill a third or more of the country’s population. The loss of manpower led to a shortage of farm labor and a corresponding rise in wages. The great landowners struggled with this shortage of men, which resulted in the inflation of the labor cost. To curb the rise in wages, the king and parliament responded with the Ordinances of Labourers in 1349 and then the Statute of Labourers in 1351. These attempts to regulate wages could not be successful in the long run, but for the short term they were enforced with great vigor. Overall, the plague didn’t lead to a full-scale breakdown of the government and society, and recovery was remarkably quick. In large part this was thanks to the competent leadership of royal administrators at the time, such as Treasurer William Edington and Chief Justice William de Shareshull.

It wasn’t until the mid 1350s that military operations on the continent were resumed on a large scale. During 1356, Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, had won an important victory in the Battle of Poitiers. The greatly outnumbered English forces not only routed the French, but had also captured the French king, John II and his youngest son, Philip. After a succession of victories, the English held great possessions in France, the French king was in their custody and the French central government had almost totally collapsed.There has been a historical debate as to whether or not Edward’s claim to the French crown had originally been genuine, or if it was simply a political ploy that was meant to put pressure on the French government. Regardless of the original intent, the stated claim now seemed as though it was within reach. However, a campaign in 1359 was meant to complete the undertaking, but it was inconclusive. In 1360, therefore, Edward accepted the Treaty of Bretigny, whereby Edward renounced his claims to the French throne, but had secured his extended French possessions in full sovereignty.

Edward’s Later Reign

Though Edward’s early reign was energetic and successful, his later years were marked by inertia, military failure and political strife. The day-to-day affairs of the state had less appeal to Edward than his military campaigning. Therefore, during the 1360s Edward had increasingly relied on the help of his subordinates, in particular William Wykeham. A relative upstart, Wykeham was made Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1363 and Chancellor in 1367. However, due to political difficulties that were connected with his inexperience, the Parliament had forced him to resign the chancellorship in 1371. Compounding Edward’s difficulties were the deaths of his most trusted men, some from the 1361-1362 recurrence of the plague. William Montague, the Earl of Salisbury and Edward’s companion in the 1330 coup, died in as early as 1344. William de Clinton, who had also been with the king at Nottingham, died in 1354. One of the earls that were created in 1337, William de Bohun, the Earl of Northampton, died in 1360 and Henry of Grosmont died in 1361. They were perhaps the greatest of Edward’s captains and had succumbed to what had probably been the plague. Their deaths had left the majority of the magnates younger and more naturally aligned to princes, rather than to the king himself.

More and more, Edward began to rely on his sons for their leadership of military operations. The king’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp attempted to subdue, by force, the largely autonomous Anglo-Irish lords in Ireland, the venture had failed and the only lasting mark that he left was the suppressible Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366. In France, the decade following the Treaty of Bretigny was one that was relatively tranquil. However, on the 8th of April 1364, John II died in captivity in England, after unsuccessfully trying to raise his own ransom at home. He was followed by the vigorous Charles V, who enlisted the help of the capable Constable Bertrand du Guesclin. In 1369, the French war started again. Edward’s younger son, John of Gaunt was given the responsibility of the military campaign, but the effort had failed and with the Treaty of Bruges in 1375, the great English possessions in France were reduced to only the coastal towns of Calias, Bordeaux and Bayonne.

Political discontent on the home front was fueled by the military’s failure abroad and was also associated with the fiscal pressure of constant campaigns. The problems came to a head in parliament in 1376 with the so-called Good Parliament. This parliament was called to grant taxation, but the House of Commons would take the opportunity to address specific grievances. In particular, criticism was directed at some of the king’s closest advisors. Chamberlain William Latimer and Steward of the Household John Neville were dismissed from their positions. Edward’s mistress, Alice Perrers, who was seen to hold far too much power over the ageing king was also banished from court. The real adversary of the Commons, supported by powerful men such as Wykeham and Edmund de Mortimer, the Earl of March, was John of Gaunt. Edward III and his son, the Black Prince were, by this time, incapacitated by illness, which left John of Gaunt virtually in control of the government. Gaunt was forced to give in to the demands of parliament, but at its next convocation in 1377, most of the achievements of the Good Parliament were reversed.

The king himself, however, didn’t have much to do with any of this. After about 1375, Edward played a limited role in the government of the realm. Around the 29th of September 1376, Edward fell ill with a large abscess. After a brief time of recovery in February of 1377, the king died of a stroke at Sheen on the 21st of June. He was then succeeded by his ten year old grandson, King Richard II, the son of the Black Prince, since the Black Prince himself had died on the 8th of June 1376. Edward was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Edward III Tomb
Edward’s tomb at Westminster Abbey


The Achievements of Edward’s Reign

During the middle of Edward’s reign was a period of significant legislative activity. Perhaps the most well-known piece of legislation was the Statute of Labourers of 1351, which had addressed the labor shortage problem that had been caused by the Black Death. The statute would fix wages at their pre-plague level and checked peasant mobility by asserting that lords had first claim on their men’s services. In spite of concerted efforts to uphold the statute, it would eventually fail because of the competition among landowners for labor. The law has been described as an attempt “to legislate against the law of supply and demand”, which is what made it doomed to fail. Nevertheless, the shortage created a community of interest between smaller landowners of the House of Commons and the greater landowners of the House of Lords. The resulting measures would anger the peasants and lead to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Edward’s reign coincided with the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the papacy at Avignon. During the wars with France, an opposition emerged in England against the perceived injustices by the papacy that was largely controlled by the French crown. Papal taxation of the English Church was suspected to be what financed the nation’s enemies, while the practice of provisions, the Pope providing benefices for clerics, caused resentment in the English population. The statutes of Provisors and Praemunire of 1350 and 1353, aimed to amend this by banning papal benefices, as well as limiting the power of the papal court over the English subjects. These statutes didn’t, however, sever the ties between the king and the Pope, who were dependent upon one another equally.

The Treason Act of 1351 was another legislation of importance at this time. It was precisely the harmony of the reign that had allowed a consensus on the definition of this controversial crime. Yet, the most significant legal reform in his time was probably concerning the Justices of the Peace. This institution started before the reign of Edward III, but by 1350, the justices had been given the power to not only investigate crimes and make arrests, but were also able to try cases, including those that were felonies. Along with this, an enduring fixture in the administration of the local English justice had been created.

As a representative institution, Parliament was already well established by the reign of Edward III. However, Edward’s reign was nonetheless central to its development. During his time, members in the English baronage, a formerly somewhat indistinct group, had become restricted to those who had received a personal summons to parliament. This had happened as parliament had gradually developed into a bicameral institution, composed of both the House of Lords and House of Commons. Yet it was not in the upper house, but the lower house that the greatest changes had taken place with the expanding political role of the Commons. The Good Parliament was informative and the Commons, for the first time, and with noble support, were responsible for creating a political crisis. In the process, both the procedure and impeachment and office of the Speaker were created. Even though political gains were of only a temporary thing, this parliament represented a watershed in the political history of the English.

Political influence on the House of Commons had originated in their right to grant taxes. The financial demands of the Hundred Years’ War were enormous, the king and his ministers tried different methods to cover their expenses. The king had a steady income from the crown’s lands and could also take up substantial loans from Italian and domestic financiers. To finance warfare on Edward III’s scale, however, the king had to resort to taxing his subjects. Taxation would take two primary forms, one of which was the levy. The levy would grant a proportion of all moveable property, normally a tenth for towns and a fifteenth for farmland. This could produce large sums of money, but each such levy had to be approved by parliament and the king had to prove the necessity. Another form of taxation was customs, which would provide a welcoming supplement, as it was a steady and reliable source of income. An “ancient duty” on the export of wool had existed since 1275. Edward I had tried to introduce an additional duty on wool, but this unpopular maltolt, or “unjust exaction” was soon abandoned. Then, since 1336 onward, a series of schemes aimed at increasing royal revenues from the exportation of wool were introduced. After some initial problems and discontent, it was agreed through the Ordinance of the Staple of 1353 that the new customs should be approved by parliament, even though in reality they had become permanent.

Through the steady taxation of Edward III’s reign, parliament, and in particular the Commons, gained political influence. A consensus had emerged that in order for a tax to be just, the king had to prove its necessity, it had to be granted by the community of the realm, and had to be to the benefit of that community. In addition to the imposing of the taxes, parliament would also present petitions for the redress of grievances to the king, which most of the time concerned misgovernment by the royal officials, this way the system was beneficial for both parties. Through this process, the Commons and the community that they represented would become increasingly politically aware and the foundation would be laid for the particular English brand of a constitutional monarchy.

Chivalry and National Identity

Central to Edward III’s policy was the reliance on higher nobility for the purpose of war and administration. While his father had regularly been in conflict with a great portion of his peerage, Edward III successfully created a spirit of camaraderie between himself and his greatest subjects. Both Edward I and Edward II had been limited in their policy towards nobility, which allowed for the creation of a few new peerages during the sixty years before Edward III’s reign. The young king would reverse this trend when, in 1337, as a preparation for the imminent war, he created six new earls on the same day and at the same time had expanded the ranks of the peerage upwards by introducing the new title of duke for close relatives of the king. Furthermore, Edward bolstered the sense of community within this group by creating the Order of the Garter, probably in 1348. A plan since 1344 to revive the Round Table of King Arthur never came to life, but the new order carried connotation from the legend by the circular shape of the garter. Edward’s experience with war during the Crecy campaign seems to have been the determining factor in his abandonment of the Round Table project. It has been argued that the total warfare tactics that were employed by the English at Crecy in 1346 were contrary to Arthurian ideals and had made Arthur a problematic paradigm for Edward III, especially at the time of the institution of the Garter. There are no formal references to King Arthur and the Round Table that survive from the 15th century copies of the Statutes of the Garter, but the Garter Feast of 1358 did involve a round table game. Thus, there was some overlap between the projected Round Table fellowship and the actual Order of the Garter. Polydore Vergil tells how the young Joan of Kent, the Countess of Salisbury and supposedly the king’s favorite at the time, had accidentally dropped her garter at a ball at Calais. King Edward had responded to the ensuing ridicule of the crowd by tying the garter around his own knee with the words honi soit qui mal y pense, meaning shame on him who thinks ill of it.

This reinforcement of the aristocracy must have been seen in conjunction with the war in France, as well as the emerging sense of national identity. Just as the war with Scotland had done, fear of a French invasion had helped to strengthen a sense of national unity, and nationalize the aristocracy that had been largely Anglo-Norman since the conquest in 1066. Since the time of Edward I, the popular myth suggesting that the French had planned to extinguish the English language, and as his grandfather had done, Edward III made most of this scarce. As a result, the English language would experience a strong revival. In 1362, a Statute of Pleading would order the English language to be used in law courts and the following year, Parliament was, for the first time, opened in English. At the same time, the vernacular saw revival as literary language through the works of William Langland, John Gower and especially “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer. However, the extent of this Anglicization must not be exaggerated. The statute of 1362 had in fact been written in French and had little immediate effect and parliament was opened in that language in as late as 1377. The Order of the Garter, though distinctly an English institution, included foreign members as well, such as John IV, Duke of Brittany and Sir Robert of Namur. Edward III, who was himself bilingual, viewed himself as the legitimate king of both England and France and couldn’t show preferential treatment for one part of his domains over the other.

Assessment and Character of Edward III

During his lifetime, Edward III had enjoyed unprecedented popularity, even the troubles of his later reign were never blamed directly on the king himself. His contemporary Jean Froissart wrote in his Chronicles that “his like had not been seen since the days of King Arthur”, this view continued for a while, but, with time, Edward’s image would change. The Whig historians of a later age had preferred constitutional reform to foreign conquest and discredited Edward for ignoring his responsibilities to his own nation. In the words of Bishop Stubbs:

“Edward III was not a statesman, though he possessed some qualifications which might have made him a successful one. He was a warrior, ambitious, unscrupulous, selfish, extravagant and ostentatious. His obligations as a king sat very lightly on him. He felt himself bound by no special duty, either to maintain the theory of royal supremacy or to follow a policy which would benefit his people. Like Richard I, he valued England primarily as a source of supplies.”

As influential as Stubbs was, it was a long time before this view was challenged. In a 1960 article entitled “Edward III and the Historians”, May McKissack had pointed out the teleological nature of Stubbs’ judgment by stating that a medieval king could not have been expected to work towards future ideals of a parliamentary monarchy, rather his role was a pragmatic one to maintain order and solve problems as they arose. At this Edward excelled. He also was accused of endowing his younger sons too liberally and thereby promoting dynastic strife culminating in the Wars of the Roses. This claim has been rejected by K.B. McFarlane, who argued that this wasn’t only a common policy of the age, but also the best. Later biographers of the king, such as mark Ormrod and Ian Mortimer have followed this historiographical trend. However, older negative views have not totally disappeared. In as recently as 2001, Norman Cantor described Edward as an “avaricious and sadistic thug” and a “destructive and merciless force”.

From what is known of Edward’s character, he could be impulsive and temperamental. This could be seen by his actions against Stratford and the ministers in 1340. At the same time, Edward was well known for his clemency. Mortimer’s grandson wasn’t only absolved, but came to play an important part in the wars with France and he was eventually made a Knight of the Garter. In both his religious views and interests, Edward was a conventional man. His favorite pursuit was the art of war, and in this he conformed to the medieval notion of good kingship. As a warrior, Edward was so successful that one modern military historian has described him as the greatest general in English history. He also seems to have been unusually devoted to his wife, Queen Philippa. Much has been made of Edward’s sexual licentiousness, but there’s no evidence of any infidelity on his part before Alice Perrers had became his lover. By that time, the queen was already terminally ill. His devotion extended on through the rest of his family as well. In contrast to so many of his predecessors, Edward never experienced opposition from any of his five adult sons.

Overall, I feel that Edward III was probably a pretty decent guy, even though I am sure he did have his flaws, as anyone does. He seems to have wanted to do things a bit differently than what his predecessors had done, but still had a love for war, but anyone in his position seems want more power right most of the time, so I see him just as an average guy, who was trying to do the best for his country in his eyes.


2 thoughts on “Edward Plantagenet III (1312-1377)”

  1. One of our more popular kings, perhaps. Though probably still best known here for victory over the French at Crecy. Thanks as always for an interesting and comprehensive look at his life.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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