The Plantagenets: Edward III (1327-1377)

“The failures of the reign of Edward II had permanent effects on the unity of the British Isles. Bannockburn ended the possibility of uniting the English and Scottish Crowns by force” (Winston Churchill, 137).

Edward III is traditionally remembered as the flower of English chivalry. On the home front, he was a lover of tournaments and traditional English lore. He recreated an imitation of King Arthur’s Round Table when founding the Order of the Garter. Abroad, he won a string of notable military victories in France that unfortunately spawned the Hundred Years War. Edward III inherited some of the qualities of ruthlessness from his grandfather, “Longshanks,” but he was more of a man of the people. Edward III’s sons, Edward “The Black Prince” and John of Gaunt, continued the family tradition of fighting fiercely abroad. The heirs of both sons would cause a schism in England between the Houses of Lancaster and York which would give birth to a violent civil war. Further down the road the seed of Edward III (through the ancestors of Edward “The Black Prince” and John of Gaunt) would cause the downfall of the Plantagenet dynasty.

“Edwardian England was an age of knights and fantasy castles, of honours and arms, of pageantry and jousts. It was a culture and a country rooted in war. And leading the country into battle was a hero king, Edward III” (David Starkey, 226).

Edward III was crowned King of England while only 14 years old in 1327. Shortly before assuming the throne, Edward married Philippa of Hainault, daughter of French and Flemish nobility. His mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover Roger Mortimer had invaded England and easily deposed the flailing King Edward II. The old King was then murdered while Isabella and Roger essentially governed the nation in a haphazard manner. They both grew particularly unpopular with the Treaty of Edniburgh-Northampton in 1328-1330 (known as “The Shameful Peace”) which essentially ceded England’s claim to Scotland. Tensions reached an apex and when Edward turned 18 and he forced a coup d’etat against his mother and her lover. One morning in October 1330, Roger and Isabella were roused from their beds and forcibly removed from power. Roger Mortimer was tried in London for a litany of crimes, including the murder of Edward II. He was then promptly hanged. Meanwhile Isabella was placed under house arrest for the remainder of her life. Edward III now took the throne -an aristocratic king who yearned to work as first among equals with the English nobility.

Edward’s early reign was met with civil strife in Scotland. Robert Bruce died in 1329 and he was succeeded by his 5 year old son, David II. However, popularity among the Scots shifted back to the Balliol family. Just as his grandfather had once done, Edward III supported Edward Balliol, son of John Balliol. In the wake of the conflict between the Balliol and Bruce families, a civil war broke out in Scotland that lasted into the 1340s when David II was killed near Durham. The fighting continued in Scotland but by that time Edward III had a far greater prize in his sights: the crown of France.

Edward III’s mother, Isabella, was the sister to King Philip VI of France. When Charles IV of France died in 1328 without an heir, Edward III believed he had a legitimate claim to the throne of France through his mother’s lineage (or perhaps he simply hoped to regain lost lands in Western France). There were underlying tensions between England and France concerning Aquitaine, the alliance between France and Scotland (“the Auld Alliance”), and also the cloth-weavers of Flanders were subjects of the French crown but they depended heavily on wool imports from England. Wool was the staple of English exports particularly among the low country in England. Perhaps Edward sought to unite England’s economic alliance with Flanders into a political partnership, or perhaps he sought to regain the embattled territories in Aquitaine.

Pull the diagram left to see a portrait of the Battle of Crécy, and pull the diagram right to view a painting of the Battle of Poitiers. Both are taken from John Froissart’s 14th century Chronicle of the era.

Whatever his true desires, Edward III invaded France in 1337 and began building relationships with the low counties in France, while also raising a heavy and unpopular tax burden at home. He campaigned in Flanders and gained certain nobles from Brittany and Normandy. This was the start of the Hundred Years War. Edward won an extraordinary victory on August 26, 1346 at The Battle of Crécy -the English were marching north through France and met the French army on a hillside near Crécy-en-Ponthieu in northern France. Ultimately the English longbowmen proved fatal to the French mounted cavalry. The average length of a longbow was 6 feet, and the arrows were 3 feet in length. Drawing their bows to the ear, Englishmen could send arrows flying upwards of 250 yards. The effect was devastating. At Crécy England had won a devastating victory over France in their homeland. Certain leaders in Flanders, particularly in Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres, proclaimed Edward King of France. England won another extraordinary victory at the Battle of Poitiers on September 19, 1356 in western France under the leadership of Edward III’s son, Edward “The Black Prince” (so-named for the color of his armor). A truce was brokered and Edward III won 1/3 of France and promised never to lay claim to the French crown again. However, nine years later he tried again but a temporary truce was brokered.

Edward III as founder of the Order of the Garter

Meanwhile the Black Death plague hit England in 1348 killing nearly 1/3 or even 1/2 the population. Outbreaks continued in the 1360s and 1370s. It was a frightening and harrowing time -farmers died en masse with no one to work the ploughs, buildings stood dilapidated, mass graves were dug throughout the countryside. Around the same time Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, when he picked up a fallen garter that fell from a dancing lady. As the story goes Edward picked up the garter and tied it to his own leg, while smiling and uttering: ‘honit soi qui mal y pense’ (“evil be to him who evil thinks”). Since that time, the Order of the Garter has become the pre-eminent order of knighthood in England, bearing the adopted patron saint of England, Saint George -a 4th century Roman soldier who was condemned to death for his faith. Saint George’s Feast Day is typically celebrated each year on April 23rd. The Order of the Garter revived the idea of English romance and Arthurian legend. Edward III’s England transformed the idea of a man’s Coat of Arms from merely an identification tool on a fallen soldier in the field of battle, into a symbolic and courtly gesture signifying honor, family, country, and so on. The Order of the Garter is shown with a blue and gold ribbon encircling a man’s coat of arms.

Edward III’s later years did not see quite as much success in warfare. After the death of Queen Philippa in 1369 (a queen who had ruled the home-front during the foreign wars in France) Edward came under the influence of a corrupt mistress, Alice Perrers. She was previously a lady-in-waiting for the queen who somewhat mischievously exchanged her youth and beauty for personal profit from a much older king. Meanwhile Edward’s sons rivaled one another: Edward “The Black Prince” (heir to the crown) and John of Gaunt (born in Ghent, but translated into English as “Gaunt”). Edward “The Black Prince” grew ill with dysentery and died in 1376, shortly after his own son named Edward had also died (however, his next of kin, Richard of Bordeaux, survived to become the future King of England -Richard II). John of Gaunt became a critical political player in England during this period though would never claim the throne himself, but as one of the essential founders of the title “Duke of Lancaster,” he founded a bloodline that became known as the Lancastrian line. John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke or the future Henry IV, fought the disputed reign of his kin Richard II (son of John’s brother Edward “The Black Prince”) in the years following the death of Edward III.

16th century portrait of Edward III

At any rate, the end of Edward III’s reign was filled with domestic and familial conflicts. Parliament had grown in power after years of taxation to finance the wars in France. Edward’s unpopular mistress became one of the wealthiest people in England, and the question of successorship loomed large over his later years after the death of Edward “The Black Prince.” By now, Edward III was growing old and senile. He died in his bed on June 21, 1377. He is buried at Westminster Abbey.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (1327-1400).

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