“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 8)

This chapter of Plantagenet England is the last of the strictly chronological chapters. It covers the 30 years from Edward III taking full control of his kingdom in 1330 through to 1360, which is the cut-off point for this book – Edward reigns for another 17 years after that. The end point of the book was chosen based on the ending of a phase of the Hundred Years War, which is why it stops part way through Edward’s reign. This chapter is about England’s internal politics during this period, the next two chapters will look at Anglo-French relations (focussing on the Hundred Years War) and the English army of the time.

Orientation dates:

  • The Yuan dynasty ruled China from 1279 to 1378 (post).
  • Edward III born 1312, reaches his majority in 1330 and dies in 1377.
  • Philip VI “the Fortunate” rules France as the first king of the house of Valois from 1328 to 1350.
  • David II ruled Scotland from 1329 to 1372.
  • The start of the Hundred Years War is in 1337.
  • The Black Death reached England in 1348.
  • John II “the Good” rules France from 1350 to 1364.

England Under Edward III

When Edward III took power in 1330 the prestige of the English monarchy was in a bit of a state. The incompetence of Edward II and the avarice of Isabella & Mortimer (see the chapter before last) had significantly eroded royal authority. Prestwich says Edward III restored his authority in two main ways – firstly be being successful in war and secondly by using the established patronage system to build up support for his rule. Victory over Scotland in 1333 was key to the first part of this – even though it wasn’t an end to war against the Scots it was a victory which was a change after the defeats that both the previous regimes had suffered.

Edward III was in the fortunate position of having a lot of land to give away to supporters – when he’d taken the throne he confiscated the lands that Mortimer had built up during his time in power. Later he gained lands by seizing them from French priories. These sources of land weren’t part of the hereditary crown estates, so there were no restrictions on Edward’s ability to grant them to people he wished to reward. He used these opportunities wisely – not just rewarding those who had helped him to power, but also granting lands to a wide range of other members of the court and aristocracy who he wished to cultivate. By not confining his generosity to a narrow clique (as his predecessors had done) he managed to build up broad support for his kingship. He also managed to strike a good balance between rewarding people sufficiently and not depleting his own resources. Despite Edward’s skill as a politician his reign was not without its own political crisis. As with the 1297 crisis in his grandfather Edward I’s reign (discussed a few chapters ago) it was the demands of war that brought matters to a head but it was also complicated by other economic difficulties. There was inclement weather in 1338 & 1339 which led to a failure of the 1339 harvest and widespread famine.

The war with France started in 1337, and as Edward III hadn’t built up financial resources in advance of it this required heavy taxation and the imposition of duties on wool exports. Wool was also taken by the government to be sold to raise money (another time honoured way of generating funds). Overall between 1337 to 1341 the demands of the crown (by all the various means) came to £665,000 which was a huge sum at the time. The army had to be supplied as well as paid, and corruption of officials led to its own problems there. Instead of the previous method of requesting each sheriff to provide specified amounts of foodstuffs the new system was to commission individuals to gather the foodstuffs from a wide area. In 1338 Thomas Dunstable was one of these individuals, and was subsequently removed from his position later that year and accused of many offences – including taking foodstuffs for himself, taking bribes to exempt places and falsely accusing men of refusing until they paid him fines. The country felt the taxes etc were a heavy burden, and on the other side the king was exasperated with how hard it was to finance his war. He had to resort to borrowing money, at first from Italian merchants and later from English merchants. The amount of debt he was taking on was also a concern for Parliament.

The crisis came to a head in 1340-41. The King was mostly abroad in France pursuing his war. His government was split between the household officials with the King in Flanders and the administration left behind in England under the nominal regency of Edward III’s 9 year old son Edward (later the Black Prince) and the practical control of Archbishop Stratford. By late 1340 the King was convinced that the administration England was actively working against his interests, so Edward III unexpectedly returned to London and undertook a thorough purge of the administration (including Archbishop Stratford). The dispute between Edward III and Stratford rumbled on for about 6 months, but it was conducted in the realms of propaganda rather than via violence. Stratford wrote a treatise setting out his position in French and circulated it widely, the King had his own position set out in a Latin treatise (circulated less widely). Stratford undertook a point by point rebuttal of the King’s accusations. And so on. It was settled (after some argument) when Parliament met in April 1341 – Stratford humbled himself to the King and was restored to some degree of favour. And in return the King accepted many of Parliament’s demands, although he refused to sack the ministers he trusted. Despite the apparent capitulation of the King he actually restored his position of authority pretty quickly, and didn’t follow through on many of the promises he made.

In combination with the crisis in England was another similar one in Ireland – in 1341 revenues from Ireland were significantly down and Edward III sacked most of his minister there. He even went so far as to revoke all land grants since 1307, but backed off on that after there were many protests. However the Ireland crisis was pretty much dealt with by that stage.

The aftermath in England took longer to resolve, even though Edward III regained his power and authority quickly. One change in the immediate aftermath was that Edward had lost confidence in clerical ministers particularly in the post of Chancellor, and for the next 5 years new appointments as chancellor were all laymen. However this didn’t last long, in part because the normal reward for ministers was a church living, which obviously couldn’t be granted to laymen. Another change of circumstances that helped the situation settle down was that the strategies employed in the French war changed from 1342 to ones that required less of a financial burden on the country. Taxation was still required to finance the war, but even tho there were arguments about the levels required there was no threat of crisis. Prestwich attributes this in part to Edward’s skilful political strategy – promising what he needed to get what he wanted then only following through when necessary, accepting criticism even if he didn’t change.

During this time period (the 1340s & 1350s) the House of Commons (as it would later be known) continued to grow in importance. It was still in many ways an unpolitical body – people were not elected to it with the idea that they would put forward a particular point of view, and neither King nor Parliament tried to stack it with supporters when reforms were made to who attended. Even tho it was becoming more important the social status of the attendees didn’t rise, in fact in general it decreased. Men who were chosen to attend from the counties still tended to be notable in their area, but were less and less often knights. From 1340 Parliament was also effectively secular below the level of the peerage. Prestwich also notes that the election of lawyers was discouraged. In the 1350s instructions went out that those elected should “be not pleaders, nor maintainers of quarrels nor such as live by pursuits of this kind”. Somewhat different to today!

By the time that the Black Death hit England (in 1348) a political consensus had evolved in the wake of the 1340-41 crisis. Surprisingly in the aftermath of the plague this consensus was not disrupted. Although it would lead to major social changes (as might be expected when up to half the population dies) the immediate effect on government was to bring the bits of what one might call “the establishment” together. The representatives in the Commons saw their interests as aligning with the magnates, and Parliament with the King – they all wanted to ensure that the previous status quo continued. Relations between secular and church authority continued to evolve through these decades. Notably the papal curia tried to flex its muscles in the appointment of clerics to bishoprics. By 1343 there was much discontent about this, and the representatives in Parliament complained that a lot of money was leaving the country via these foreign cardinals. The King was able to gain favour with the representatives by issuing statutes to attempt to curtail the papal right to appoint clerics, and to prevent too many cases being tried in the papal courts. Prestwich notes that this wasn’t so much a change in the relations between King & Pope, but more an indication of how he would respond to the demands of the representatives.

Prestwich concludes this chapter with a glowing character portrait of Edward III – I think he approves of him 😉 This 30 year period had been one of success and stability, and Prestwich puts much of the credit for that on the King. Although Edward III did get into irresponsible levels of debt at the start of the French war he was in general a hard-working man who took his responsibilities seriously. He didn’t indulge in favourites (very unlike his father) but instead was generous in his patronage to many different people. This combined with his pragmatic approach to politics (promise what you need to, then only follow through if necessary) meant that he had wide reaching support throughout the country. He somehow managed not to get a reputation for unreliability (unlike his grandfather), and he didn’t hold grudges (which made the aftermath of the 1340-41 crisis much less problematic). In terms of relationships with his family Edward III was markedly different to some of his predecessors. Prestwich compares him to Henry II here – despite having several sons Edward III managed to have a more harmonious family than Henry II, and to delegate authority to his eldest son keeping him onside. He allowed his children their own way in terms of marriages rather than just using them as pawns, even the girls. He was conventionally religious, but not overly mystical. Prestwich says the evidence suggests that Edward III enjoyed being King, and that his court enjoyed his company – whilst politics was taken seriously Edward III’s court also indulged in the more frivolous side of life with tournaments and so on.

Tangents to follow up on: a biography of Edward III, and more about his family too.