“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 6)

The next chapter of this book about Plantagenet England covers the decline and fall of Edward II’s reign – from the death of Piers Gaveston in 1312 through to the aftermath of Edward’s deposition.

Orientation dates:

  • The Yuan dynasty ruled China from 1279 to 1378 (post).
  • Philip IV (the Fair) ruled France from 1285 to 1314.
  • Edward II reigned from 1307 to 1327.
  • Edward III born 1312, and reaches his majority in 1330.

Times of Trouble, 1311-1330

Prestwich doesn’t think highly of any of the major players in this 20 year period of English history. He sums up Edward II as “A brutal and brainless man would probably have done better as king; Edward’s unconventional ways, combined with his lack of ability in politics and war, were disastrous in a king.”. The primary opposition to Edward’s regime in the first 10 years of this period was Thomas of Lancaster, who is dismissed with this sentence: “Thomas of Lancaster, like his cousin Edward II, was not worthy of the position that hereditary right gave him.”. The Despensers, Edward’s favourites after the demise of Gaveston, are talked about as follows: “This regime was characterized by astonishing greed and political folly”. And Edward’s deposers, his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, are discussed with statements like “It was in the land settlement that the new regime revealed its political ineptitude.” and “Roger Mortimer was a classic example of a man whose power went to his head. […] his greed paralleled that of the Despensers, and his political sensitivity that of Piers Gaveston.”.

So, this twenty year period is almost farcical in its turmoil. Edward II’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, was captured in 1312 and subsequently executed after a show trial. This new violent low in politics, of a sort that hadn’t been seen since the 1250s polarised the realm into two factions – those who were with the King, and those with Thomas of Lancaster (who had been one of those responsible for Gaveston’s death). Prestwich lists a variety of reasons for why the country didn’t descend into outright civil war, one of which is that Edward III was born later that year which not only provided Edward II with an heir but also thawed relations with his wife’s family, the rulers of France. Negotiations between the two factions dragged on over the next couple of years until the catastrophic defeat of the English by the Scottish at Bannockburn changed the balance of power once more. Not only did this make the king look weak, but Lancaster and some of his allies had not been involved and so looked wiser in comparison. And in addition one of the noble casualties, the Earl of Gloucester, had been a powerful influence for moderation.

Edward II had no choice but to give in to the earls’ demands to enforce the Ordinances set out in 1310 (see previous chapter) and Thomas of Lancaster was now in a position of power. Prestwich says he was unlucky (as well as the damning summary above) – the harvests in 1315 and 1316 were both poor due to appalling weather, causing problems for the royal finances as well. Lancaster also had internal issues that distracted him from matters of state – one of his retainers rebelled against him. At a parliament in Lincoln in early 1316 he was formally declared head of the King’s council, which he’d been acting as since 1314, and although various matters appeared to be sorted out in this parliament the King refused to co-operate with the reforms. Lancaster left government in August 1316 and the two factions began to build up their household knights and retainers.

The dispute rumbled on for another few years before civil war actually broke out. During this time Hugh Despenser the younger became increasingly important as Edward II’s favourite. War eventually broke out in 1321, and at first the rebels had the upper hand. This changed in the autumn of 1321, and the climatic battle of the war took place at Boroughbridge in February 1322 ending in total defeat for the rebels. The captured leaders, including Lancaster, were brutally executed. Prestwich sees this as Edward II’s revenge for the earlier brutal death of Gaveston. One of the reasons the war went so wrong for the rebels, and why Prestwich is so anti-Lancaster, is that this cause really lacked the idealism of earlier conflicts (like Simon de Montfort’s campaign in the 1250s). Lancaster was too obviously out for his own personal goals, rather than the country’s, to build up a solidly loyal powerbase and the period is characterised by a high degree of volatility in the loyalties of the nobles.

After Lancaster was defeated Edward II had 4 years where his regime, or rather that of his favourites, the Despensers, was dominant. There were positive reforms, this wasn’t a complete disaster for the country. However the Despensers, in particularly Hugh the younger, were primarily operating in their own interests, to make themselves rich and powerful. They also weren’t popular, due to operating via blackmail and bullying instead of rewarding those who worked with them. They “persuaded” people to co-operate by making them sign recognizances – papers which said that they owed the Despensers a debt. These were set very high, and beyond the means of the so-called debtor to pay – the threat of the recognizance being enforced is what kept people in line. This didn’t provide the Despensers with a broad or loyal powerbase, and set them and Edward II up for the disaster of 1326.

Another factor leading up to the events of 1326 was that Edward was neglecting Isabella again – possibly by an affair with Hugh the younger’s wife, possibly with Hugh the younger himself. Whichever it was it set Isabella at odds with Hugh the younger. When she was sent to France to negotiate a peace in a war that had broken out between England and France she refused to return. With her son in France with her she joined forces with Roger Mortimer who had his own reasons to dislike the Despensers. Isabella and Mortimer embarked on a scandalous affair, and also gathered together allies to invade England. The primary of these was the Count of Hainault – in return for his daughter Philippa marrying the future Edward III he would support the invasion with troops and ships.

The Despenser regime collapsed in the face of the invasion. Both Despensers and Edward II fled westwards to the Welsh Marches, but were quickly captured. The Despensers were brutally executed, and Edward imprisoned. A parliament was called and Edward II was formally deposed. Prestwich says he thinks it is futile to try and work out precisely what legal or customary justification was used to depose Edward as parliament made use of every precedent they could come up with. This need to cover all bases was because this was the first time it had happened in England, so there was no obviously legal way to proceed. And Edward unsurprisingly didn’t long survive his deposition – he was murdered, quite possibly by a red-hot poker up his bottom, and very probably with the approval of Mortimer and Isabella. There were stories afterwards about how he might’ve survived, but these are implausible and even if true he didn’t play any further part in English politics.

Isabella and Mortimer seemingly lost no time in making themselves as unpopular as the Despensers, and for many of the same reasons. They both gained new lands and increased wealth. They failed in a campaign against the Scots, negotiating the “Shameful Peace of May 1328”. Despite a full treasury when Edward II was deposed their expenses drained it – the Count of Hainault needed paying for his assistance, and the Scottish campaign was expensive too. New opposition rose in the form of Henry of Lancaster (Thomas’s brother) but his rebellion failed. Finally, in 1330 Edward III was 18 and was keen to take a greater role in the government of his country than Isabella and Mortimer were permitting him. He and a small group of men broke into the private chambers of Isabella and Mortimer and captured them – Mortimer was executed, Isabella imprisoned, and Edward III now ruled in his own name.