Edward III (1312-1377), King of England (1327-1377), came to the throne at the age of fourteen upon the murder of his father, Edward II, but with real power in the corrupt hands of his mother, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March.
Edward wrested control in a night time coup in 1330, then had Mortimer tried by Parliament and executed; and “retired” his mother to comfortable obscurity. (She was to die in a convent in 1358.)
His first notable act was to take advantage of a weakened Scotland following the death of Robert Bruce (1329). He refused to honour the “shameful peace” organised by Isabella and Mortimer in 1328, supported the claims of Edward Balliol against the 5 year old David II, and in 1333 laid siege, to Berwick Castle. A relieving Scottish force was resoundingly defeated at Hallidon Hill near Berwick; but further campaigns achieved little, partly because of French support for the Scots – a state of affairs to be repeated many times in the stormy relationship between the two kingdoms up to as recently as the 18th century.
In 1337 hostilities broke out in the feudally complex south-west of France between the English and French crowns. Initially generated by France’s desire to take advantage of the English focus on Scotland, and the age old competition for trade in Gascony and the Lowlands; this time the contest became “personal” when Edward claimed to be the rightful king of France after the extinction of the Capetian royal line a few years earlier. (Under English law his claim was valid, but was political and emotional anathema to the French nobility.) This was the start of what has become known as the Hundred Years War, which dominated much of Edward’s reign.
The war in its various stages over the first twenty years was successful for the English. The sea battles off Sluys (1340) and Winchelsea (1350]) and the capture of Calais (1347) gave England command of the sea and the approximate French coast. The battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1357) introduced to European conflicts the devastating power of the Anglo-Welsh longbow, and showed Edward and his eldest son Edward the Black Prince to be able planners and commanders of men. The ransoms received for the return of the French nobility captured at these battles went some way towards alleviating the extreme costs of the war. In the Treaty of Calais (1360) England won recognition of sovereignty over Aquitaine and an area around Calais.
In 1360 France restarted the war and within a few years all of Edward’s gains had been lost except for Calais and its surroundings.
The momentous event of Edward’s reign was the bubonic plague pandemic known as the Black Death, which arrived in the south of England in the summer of 1348, and spread through the island. Between a third and half of England’s population was wiped out in that first outbreak, and more in 1361 and subsequent years. The economic effects were great although not fully apparent until the 1370s. As the demand for cereal fell with the diminished population, land was given over to pasture. Labour became scarce and much more expensive. Villages were abandoned and in due course disappeared. The plague was more of a disruption to the common people than the nobility.
Edward had married Philippa of Hainault in 1328. She was to bear him seven sons, five of which reached maturity, and five daughters. (It is a tribute to Edward’s skills as a politician and negotiator that, during his lifetime, none of these five arrogant and aristocratic men disrupted the peace of the realm.) Philippa also brought with her many of her countrymen whose skills in the weaving and textiles trades were a boon to the burgeoning wool industry.
The reign of Edward III saw a rise in the common folk’s ability to be heard in Parliament, commerce and society. And importantly, this voice was in English. The House of Commons became an integral part of Parliament. Geoffrey Chaucer secured patronage. The great alliterative verse, Langland’s “Piers Plowman” was commenced. The need for Edward to constantly negotiate for the money required for his French campaigns made him the master of compromise, and kept the kingdom free from internal strife – almost unique amongst the Plantagenet reigns. The desires of the barons were satisfied by grants, and ongoing chances of glory in France.
Edward's reign was particularly important as it saw the coherent and consistent codification of English law. Common law was slowly and systematically replaced by statute, negotiated with Parliament and the lay courts started to gnaw away at the powers of courts eccliastic. In effect, this was the beginning of the modern British legislative and legal system.
His reign is seen as a high point in the concept of chivalry. The Order of the Garter, still the highest English imperial honour, was inaugurated by Edward in 1348. The first Dukedom was created. (Cornwall.)
The last few years before his death saw a decline in his health and ability to govern. Philippa died in 1369. Increasingly, power was wielded by a clique surrounding his mistress, Alice Perrers. (The “Good Parliament” (1376) organised by the king’s most powerful son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, impeached her, but she managed to return, and was with him at his death on 21st June 1377.
- Plantagenet Encyclopedia.
- Oxford Companion to British History.
- Chambers's Encyclopedia (1959).