“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Interlude)

In terms of page count I’m about three fifths of the way through Michael Prestwich’s “Plantagenet England 1225-1360” and in terms of subject matter I’ve just finished one of the two sections that the book is divided into. So this seemed a good place to take a small pause and think about what I’ve spent the last several months reading.

This section of the book was “Politics and Wars” and contains exactly what it says it will – the politics and governance of England, plus the various internal and external wars. Prestwich hasn’t divided it up by the reigns of the kings, instead he’s drawn boundaries based on whether the country or regime could be thought of as in crisis/unrest or in recovery/good times. To some degree that does match with the change in monarch – the character & popularity of the King has an effect on how incipient crises are handled and whether they develop or smooth out. Edward I and Edward III both appear to’ve been charismatic and astute enough to sooth ruffled feathers when need be or to put down pending rebellion if that were necessary. Henry III and Edward II on the other hand were too keen to reward their closest friends or family, and didn’t pay enough attention to making sure everyone else liked them too.

1216 Henry III takes throne
1225 Period of unrest begins
1227 Henry III reaches majority
1265 Simon de Montfort dies
1266 Period of recovery begins
1272 Edward I takes throne
1294 Period of crisis begins
1307 Edward II takes throne
1311 Period of Crisis gets worse
1312 Piers Gaveston dies
1327 Edward II deposed, Edward III crowned (but Isabella and Mortimer rule)
1330 Period of recovery begins Edward III reaches his majority

The links in that table go to my posts about those chapters of the book. The other three subjects in this part were Anglo-Welsh relations (including the conquest of Wales), Anglo-Scottish relations (including a couple of attempted conquests of Scotland, and Bannockburn) and Anglo-French relations (including the initial phases of the Hundred Years War, which is an attempted conquest of France) – the external wars of the era. So there’s a fair bit of politcs and of wars to cover in this era!

One of the narratives that Prestwich doesn’t really dwell on is that this is a transitional era for the English monarchy. Before this, from William the Conquer to King John (and particularly from Henry II onwards), the English King also has large landholdings in France. And in some ways although the title of King of England was the most prestigious one the men in question were more concerned with their French lands and would’ve thought of themselves as part of French culture (as I understand it). King John loses almost all these French lands, and pretty nearly loses England too. And his successors turn away from France – putting more effort into rebuilding control of England and then trying to consolidate the whole of the island under their rule (with varying degrees of success). At the end of the period Edward III is looking back to France and this book ends with him holding large amounts of territory in France – but the centre of gravity has shifted. This is no longer a French nobleman who is on the English throne, instead it’s the English King who has conquered part of France (with an eye to conquering it all).

The two themes that Prestwich is highlighting are the development of the army during this period, and the increasing formalisation and growth of Parliament. As I said in my writeup of the last chapter I’m probably least interested in the nitty gritty details of army organisation. However I think the main point is that at the beginning of the period the army is organised on a primarily feudal basis, and by the time of the Hundred Years War most of the army is recruited and paid on a contractual basis. And there’s been a shift from a more patchwork assemblage of independent groups to a cohesive fighting force with a reasonable proportion of trained soldiers. Also towards the end of the period the leaders of the army are beginning to have a chance to learn from previous wars – some of the same men are in charge in Edward III’s Scottish campaigns as are in charge in the French wars.

In terms of the development of Parliament the main narrative is an increasing formalisation and codification of the relative powers of King and people (where people = nobility, but down to the level of Knights and representatives of counties not just the true elite). Magna Carta was signed in King John’s reign, just before the scope of this book, and it’s re-issued and re-iterated several times during this 135 year period normally at a point when the King has had to be forced into backing down on something. At the beginning of the period the people who have to agree to taxation are mostly the top elite, and larger parliaments are rarer. By the end of the period there’s a sense that even the Commons (not the peasants, but people like Knights in shires) must be asked before they are taxed – and Parliament is beginning to consist of the same larger cross-section of society every time. And because of the way taxation works at this period this means that this cross-section of society get some say in the political direction of the country. When the King requests a tax Parliament normally asks for some concession from him in return – and often during the reigns of Henry III and Edward II this was where disputes would start to topple over into crises.

The monarch at this time is interestingly balanced between being separate from his nobles and being first amongst equals. He’s anointed by God and this does still make him sacrosanct (not the case even a little after this period) – look at the way Edward II is deposed in favour of his legitimate heir. Or how after Simon de Montfort won a civil war he didn’t put himself in Henry III’s place, instead he set up an elaborate council to “help” Henry III rule. So the King is the King even when you think he’s screwing up, but if you’re one of the elite you feel entitled to input on the major decisions and to an opinion about whether or not the King is doing a good job. Hence the civil wars which were about getting the King to do the job properly in the interests of the realm and not just himself. This wasn’t an untouchable “I am the state” type ruler.

On other subjects – Prestwich has chosen to address the role and activities of the Church in each chapter as it becomes relevant. I can see why that choice makes sense, but it’s left me with no clear idea if there is a unifying story to the Church’s relations with the Crown during this period. Perhaps because I’ve read it too spread out, or perhaps there isn’t a cohesive narrative there. Notable by its almost complete lack of mention is the Black Death – I think because the political ramifications of the large drop in population only really start to show up outside the scope of this book. And there will be more discussion of the impact of the Black Death on society in the second half of the book.

The next part of the book will cover the social history of the era, starting with the elite – the great lords and ladies.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 9)

The last two chapters of Part II (Politics and Wars) of this book are about the relationship between England and France during the period the book covers, focusing on the Hundred Years War which starts during Edward III’s reign. I’m lumping these two chapters together because the second one is specifically about the English army of the time, which is a subject that I acknowledge is important but am not that interested in personally.

England and France

Prestwich opens the chapter by noting that although with hindsight we see the Hundred Years War (kicking off in 1337) as a coherent thing that’s different in kind to preceding wars, this wasn’t the case at the time. Before King John (so before the scope of this book) the English Kings had control over vast lands in what is now France but after John’s loss of most of this to France all that was left on the continent for the English King was Gascony and even that was disputed by the French. Prestwich lays out how this duchy wasn’t worth much to the English crown in a monetary sense and it wasn’t terribly culturally similar to England. So its worth was mostly as a point of principle and as a base for re-expanding English control to their “ancestral lands”. There had been various campaigns in France in the early years of Henry III’s reign, with not much success. Then in 1259 the unstable domestic situation – which was building up to civil war (which was talked about in the first chapter of this part of the book) prompted the English to negotiate for a more lasting peace with the French. In return for being allowed to control Gascony Henry III gave up his claims to the rest of the lands, plus agreed to do homage for Gascony. Prestwich notes that given how arrogant Henry III was, this clearly wasn’t seen as humiliating for him at the time otherwise he wouldn’t’ve agreed to it even if it was sensible.

In hindsight, this treaty of 1259 can be seen as setting up the tensions that would result in the Hundred Years War. But in the medium term it was a stunning success and relations between England and France remained good for over 30 years after this treaty. In 1286 Edward I even did homage to the new French King as he was bound to do by the treaty terms. So far, so friendly. But tensions started rising not long after. Edward I reorganised the government of Gascony in a way that meant he was taking a more active role in it. And this was happening against a backdrop of the French crown being eager to assert their own royal rights wherever possible (for internal political reasons, I think, so again the fact it was Gascony was almost irrelevant).

War broke out in 1294 sparked by rivalries between sailors from English ports (in Gascony) and Breton sailors. Originally the English tried to keep a friendly relationship with France. Edward I’s brother Edmund and the Queen of France (and her mother-in-law) actually negotiated a treaty that Edward considered binding. It had a complicated series of events to follow, but after Edward did his part the French did not follow through with theirs so Edward felt duped. But Prestwich says it’s more likely that the French Queen just didn’t have as much authority and influence as she thought she did – so she was acting in good faith but wasn’t actually able to make a binding treaty.

Unlike Henry III, Edward I had an actual plan for his war with France. The main goal was to keep Gascony, but it was easier to actually campaign in Normandy. And Edward also masterminded a grand alliance pulling in various other European courts on his side – Flanders, Germany, Brabant, Holland, Guelders. But even having a plan didn’t guarantee success and the English were lucky that the French King was both cautious and fooled into thinking their army was larger than it really was. A truce was agreed in 1297, but peace treaty negotiations dragged on until 1303. In the end what was agreed was that everything should revert to the pre-war situation and friendly relations should be cemented by marriages between Edward I and the French King’s sister, and the future Edward II and the French King’s daughter.

However, you can’t realistically pretend that a war didn’t happen and tensions remained between the two countries. The legal status of Gascony meant that technically nobles there could appeal against the English King’s judgements to the French King, and they were encouraged to do so. Edward II also kept putting off the whole “paying homage” thing. So in 1324 war broke out again – a war that the English didn’t really want and the French weren’t terribly enthusiastic about. Peace was negotiated by Isabella, Edward II’s wife and sister of the current French King, mostly because she had personal reasons for wanting peace. Again the treaty was a restoration of the prior status quo, and Isabella’s son, the future Edward III, came to do homage on his father’s behalf for Gascony. And again this was more part of Isabella’s personal political manoeuvring than done on behalf of her husband – this is the jumping off point for the invasion of England by Isabella and Mortimer that results in the removal of Edward II from the throne.

For the first 10 years of Edward III’s reign there is an uneasy peace, and in 1329 when the first Valois King of France takes the throne Edward did homage to him for Gascony. Relations break down gradually over the early to mid 1330s. As well as the issue of Gascony the interference of France in Anglo-Scottish relations and of England in Franco-Flemish relations was important. There was also a failed crusade that Philip VI of France was going to lead – the Pope cancelled it because peace in Europe could not be guaranteed. Philip thought this was Edward’s fault. There was also the question of who was the rightful King of France. By French succession laws descent via the female line was invalid, so Edward III had no claim to France. By English succession laws he had a better claim (as the past King’s nephew) than Philip VI did. However by doing homage for Gascony he’d tacitly abandoned his claim. In 1337 he changed his mind and in 1340 he altered his coat of arms to include the French coat of arms. When writing to Continental rulers he started to call himself “Edward by grace of God King of France and England and lord of Ireland” (when referring to himself in English correspondence he put England first…). Prestwich suggests that this isn’t necessarily all because Edward wants the French throne – it’s more about getting the Flemish onside, if they can claim to be supporting the legitimate King of France then their position is much stronger than it is if they are rebelling. It’s also about asking for more than you necessarily want in the hopes when you negotiate it’s only down to your true position.

The first phase of the Hundred Years War runs from 1337 to 1340. This was fought much like Edward I’s war in the 1290s, expensively and with the help of allies. The English are a bit more successful however, in particular winning a naval battle at Sluys that did a lot to secure the English coast from French raids. The treaty of Esplechin in September 1340 was the end of this phase, with both sides promising a 9 month truce in all arenas including Scotland and Gascony.

The next phase of the war runs from 1341 through to 1355. War restarted using a succession crisis in Brittany as an excuse with the French and English backing different candidates. This was important as it gained Edward III more allies in French territory and access to more landing sites on the French coast. In 1346 Edward III himself undertook an extraordinarily successful campaign starting near Barfleur in Normandy and marching via Caen to the Seine (indeed nearly to Paris itself) and then north to the Somme eventually meeting the French in battle at Crécy. Pitched battles were actually rare, although Edward did have some reason to court them as winning a battle would be regarded as proof that God was on his side. The success of this campaign was very important, but wasn’t followed up – in part because of the crisis of the Black Death in 1348. However the English definitely had the upperhand in the bits & pieces of fighting that followed over the next several years even if there weren’t many more set piece victories.

In 1353 there was some attempt to negotiate a peace but both sides felt they still had more to gain if they kept on fighting, so nothing was worked out. The next phase of the war started in 1355, and Prestwich titles this “The Black Prince’s War” – Edward III’s son & heir lead the most succesful campaigns of this five year period, mostly raiding expeditions through southern France from Gascony. The major victory of this period was in 1357 at Poitiers when the French King was captured. For 2 years after this there were attempts to negotiate peace and ransom of the French King which didn’t really go anywhere. A final campaign by Edward III in 1359-60 ended this phase of the war. The English desire to continue was damaged by a disasterous storm that devasted the campaigning army, which meant they entered negotiations in a more concessionary mood than previously. Peace was negotiated in May 1360 at Brétigny – Edward III got Gascony, Poitou and several surrounding areas in full sovereignty in return for giving up his claim to the throne of France.

1360 is the end of the scope of this book, so to finish up the chapter Prestwich just notes that the peace lasted only 9 years. And mostly foundered on the actual implementation of the treaty.

The Armies of Edward III’s French War

The most surprising thing about this first section of the Hundred Years War both from a contemporary perspective and with hindsight is how competent the English army was, even compared to the start of Edward III’s reign. In part this is down to experience – the Scottish wars during the 1330s meant that there were men who knew how to command, knew how to organise logistics etc. And also had learnt lessons about which tactics had worked and which hadn’t.

Prestwich goes into a lot of detail about recruitment for the war. It was a worry for the crown initially, so the offered pay was higher than in previous wars. The bureaucracy was simplified too with explicit contracts between crown and commanders that set out how many men they were to bring of what sorts in return for how much in fees. Pay wasn’t the only motivator – the chance of capturing a noble Frenchman who you could then ransom was another form of motivation. And general looting, pillaging and “living off the land” was encouraged on these campaigns. This last also reduced the burden on the English domestically as there wasn’t as great a need to supply the army with food etc as there had been on the Welsh & Scottish campaigns.

When considering the tactics used by the English Prestwich starts off by discussing contemporary explanations for the successes achieved. The English mostly put it down to divine approval, which Prestwich notes is marginally more believable than the French thinking that their failure is down to wearing short-cut clothes … There isn’t much if any written evidence of English introspection about their tactics, but clearly it must have happened as lessons learnt in the Scottish wars are successfully implemented (often by the same commanders) in the French campaigns. However experienced troops and high morale were perhaps as important as the specific tactics used.

Chivalry was important in the 14th Century, and this may account for much of the enthusiasm for the French wars of Edward III. It’s not clear if Edward III was deliberately encouraging the culture of chivalry for this sort of purpose, or if he actually just liked it himself. Prestwich also notes that our association of the 14th Century with a golden age of chivalry is partly just because of what texts etc have survived. For instance the Order of the Garter was founded in 1348 and survives to this day, but it was one of several such things and it’s not clear how notable it actually was at the time. And as always the reality doesn’t live up to the ideals – wars of this era weren’t notably more chivalric in practice than any other era. Looting, pillaging and so on still happened, brutality still happened, and the practice of high ransoms for nobles doesn’t seem to square with the honour & glory rhetoric either.

Prestwich devotes the last two pages of this chapter to the economic effects of the war between 1337 and 1360. There is no clear consensus on whether the war was profitable or detrimental to the English economy. Prestwich concludes that the costs of the war were high in terms of the increased taxation needed to pay for it, and were probably not entirely counterbalanced by income from plundering and ransom high though that was.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 7)

The next chapter in this book is another diversion from the chronological survey – the second of three. The first one dealt with England’s relations with the Welsh (post), and this one will look at English-Scottish relations during the period. The final one is in a couple of chapters time and will deal with Anglo-French relations … clearly the theme of these is War, the England of this period did not play nice with others.


Conflict with Scotland stretched across the reigns of all three Edwards – starting in 1296. It can be split into phases that roughly correlate with the different Edwards – first success for the English under Edward I, then defeat under Edward II followed by success under Edward III. In the late 1330s the Anglo-Scottish conflict gets tangled up with the Anglo-French one. Prestwich says that the conflict didn’t come out of a growing sense of hostility between the two countries, the relationship was cordial despite some tensions. The Scottish establishment formed much the same sort of structure as the English one (unlike the Welsh one), and the political situation there was stable. There was intermarriage between the two monarchies, and the Scottish Kings also held lands in England. This created a situation similar to that between England and France, in this case the Scottish Kings owed the English King homage for their English lands, but it was a less tense situation. Prestwich suggests that’s because the Scottish Kings were longer lived, so the homage paying happened less frequently. Importantly for the conflict discussed in this chapter the Scottish were very clear that homage was only owed for their English lands, and the Scottish King was not subordinate to the English one. There was however a weak precedent created by Henry III of the English Kings having some right to interference in Scottish politics and the Scottish succession. Henry had helped ensure the stability of Scotland during Alexander III’s minority.

Edward I took this weak precedent and when opportunity presented itself he ran with it. When Alexander III died in 1286 his only direct line heir was his 3 year old granddaughter, Margaret of Norway. Edward I took advantage of this situation by marrying his son Edward II to her – there was a treaty “guaranteeing” that Scotland remained separate after this marriage, but Edward I was probably going to ignore this. However that point was soon moot, Margaret of Norway died in Orkney in 1290. While this was the death knell for Edward I’s hope of gaining the Scottish crown for his son peacefully, it did present an opportunity to both meddle in the succession and set himself up as overlord of Scotland. There were no more direct line heirs to Alexander III so there was a choice between 14 heirs with varying (and disputed) degrees of right to the throne. Edward I was invited to adjudicate the choice of new monarch – and he took advantage of this to manipulate the succession in favour of a candidate willing to treat him as overlord. John Balliol fit this criteria well, and was willing after he gained the Scottish crown to appease the English & to do homage to Edward I for Scotland as well as his English lands. Unsurprisingly he’s gone down in history as ineffectual.

When war broke out between England and France in 1294 there was a coup against the pro-English Balliol and the new regime (a council of 12) allied with the French (and refused a feudal summons to fight for Edward I). Edward reacted to this with a campaign against the Scottish which was successful, but this was not to last. In 1297 William Wallace enters the story with the campaigns he lead against the English. Wallace was a knight who had risen to a leadership position, and his initial raids into England were very successful – halted only by the weather, not by Edward I’s troops who were away fighting in Flanders. Edward’s response was four campaigns against the Scottish over the next 5 years. The first of these, in 1298, was such a defeat for Wallace’s Scottish forces that it was the last time they met the English in battle proper until Bannockburn in 1314. Edward’s campaigns were characterised by overwhelming force and troop numbers – after 1298 the Scottish made raids and fought smaller engagements but kept out of the way of the main English force. Towards the end of this period various Scottish nobles (including Robert Bruce) were coming over to the English side – the best way to preserve their estates now it looked like the English had the upper hand. The ordinary people were generally hostile to the English (in contrast to the situation in the earlier Welsh campaigns) and Edward I tried (but mostly didn’t succeed) to win them over. This popular support is part of what underlay the success of Wallace’s initial campaign.

Politics and relations with France were very important for how this phase of the Scottish war played out. The flashpoint for it was the alliance of Scotland and France, and the great successes for Edward I came after he’d come to terms with the French in 1303. Part of the peace negotiations were about France no longer supporting Scotland, and after that was agreed the Scottish had no international support. In 1304 the Scottish regime surrendered. Edward I now treated Scotland as a part of his land, sidestepping the issue of the crown of Scotland entirely. Unsurprisingly this peace didn’t last long – in 1306 Robert Bruce had become disillusioned with his treatment by the English. He murdered John Comyn (who’d surrendered to the English) and was crowned King of Scotland. This rebellion against the English was a gamble, and Prestwich points out that it nearly failed. In fact it was the death of Edward I in 1307 that stopped it from being a disaster for the Scots.

And now we’re in phase 2 of the war – lead by the ineffectual Edward II (see the last chapter of the book (post) for Prestwich’s damning opinion of this king). Events after this show how the character of the king was important in determining the course of the war. The 1307 campaign against the Scots was abandoned, and nothing further done till 1310. By this stage Bruce has managed to stabilise and solidify his hold on the Scottish throne. After a desultory English campaign in Scotland in 1310 Bruce was secure enough to start taking the fight to the English, conducting wide ranging raids on the north of England. The stage was set for the next big English campaign in Scotland – in 1314 Edward II gathered a significant force to reinforce the siege of Stirling Castle. The Scottish in effect chose the battlefield at Bannockburn, and chose it well for their infantry forces to be superior to the English cavalry. There was much bickering about precedence and prestige amongst the English commanders, which didn’t help the situation for the English any. The battle was a resounding defeat for the English, who rather went home with their tails between their legs. The Scottish raiding of the north intensified, pushing as far south as Yorkshire. Edward II lead a few more campaigns but they failed to achieve anything, and were again characterised by poor relations and communication between the various bits of the command structure. In 1323 the then Earl of Carlisle negotiated a peace with the Scottish – somewhat against the King’s wishes and far too favourable to the Scottish for Edward II’s tastes. After the Earl of Carlisle was executed for treason a different truce was negotiated – notably not acknowledging Bruce as King of Scotland.

This peace wasn’t to last. In 1327 phase 3 of the war kicked off – the Scots took advantage of the political confusion in England and set out to annex Northumberland. Isabella & Mortimer assembled an army and marched north. It wasn’t a terribly effective campaign, and the peace negotiated in 1328 favoured the Scottish: amongst other things Scotland would be recognised by the English crown as fully independent. Notably this peace included no provision for the English nobles who had claims on lands in Scotland – these men became known as the Disinherited and they kicked off the war again in 1332 with a private invasion of Scotland. These men included the son of John Balliol, who had himself crowned King of Scotland. Edward Balliol was soon in trouble against the Scottish and so he called in help from Edward III, promising him the south of Scotland as his own, as well as promising to pay homage and acknowledge Edward III as his overlord. The war followed much the same patterns as before. Big English campaigns that didn’t do very much, and lots and lots of Scottish raiding. The Scots were firmly in the ascendency – but there was a turning point in 1346 when David II of Scotland (Robert Bruce’s son) was captured by the English. With their King in custody the Scots had to negotiate with the English. This took 10 years before agreement was reached (and more warring in the meantime) and the peace negotiated here lasts out past the scope of this book (which is covering history up to 1360).

Having talked about the chronology of the war Prestwich now turns to some themes that run throughout the conflict. The first of these is land and patronage. Many English and Scottish nobles held lands on both sides of the border, and during the peaceful 13th Century this promoted stability. Once war actually broke out in 1297 the reverse was true. Some nobles fought with the ruler of the “other” country, as that best served their interests. Some changed sides as it seemed to suit their needs. The English and Scottish Kings would disinherit some of these nobles, and give their lands to more trustworthy men, which only served to increase resentment and a sense of personal grievance to fuel the war.

One of the strands running through the whole of this part of the book is the changing organisation of the army from a fairly standard feudal army to the army that was capable of great victories against the French in the Hundred Years War. This doesn’t actually much interest me – when reading about history I’m more interested in the intersect between the personal and the political, and in how people lived (which will be covered in the next part of this book after the chronological section). So in brief, Prestwich lays out here how the army and how tactics changed over the years of war with the Scots. And I think his thesis is that this was the crucible that forged the army into a more effective fighting force, learning from the difficulties and disasters of this war.

And Prestwich finishes with a look at the human cost of the war. First he looks at the fighting men – those whose deaths would be mentioned in records, and those who needed ransomed. While many ordinary men were killed it was notable that very few nobles died. English captured by the Scottish tended to be ransomed as per the normal rules of war; Scottish (in particular nobles) captured by the English in the early stages of the war were often executed. Prestwich notes that this highlights both the different attitudes of the two sides, and that this lead to increased resentment and grievance as the war progressed. At first the English regarded the Scottish as rebels, so not subject to the rules of war, whereas the Scottish saw themselves as fighting a normal war between two sovereign and independent realms.

The collateral damage inflicted on the north of England during this period was huge. It wasn’t all caused by the Scots either, English knights also took advantage of the breakdown of law & order to extort protection money from towns and villages and to destroy the lands of those who didn’t comply. Some people did prosper from the war – mostly due to the high turnover in the holders of titles as families were removed from power due to political disagreement or death. But for the majority of the north this was a catastrophe of enormous proportions. Records written for the purposes of taxation both secular and ecclesiastical show massive drops in value of property and estates across the whole region. For instance in 1318 Northumberland isn’t even included in the valuations for ecclesiastical taxes – there’s not sufficient income in the area to be worth the time to figure out what is owed. At the same time all valuations in Carlisle are at half what they were before the war. By 1319 the northern counties are exempt from lay taxation, and this extends as far south as Lancashire.

All told the brutality of the English regime in executing prisoners and the destructive raiding by the Scottish on northern England together served to harden the attitudes of both nations into hostility to each other. With many future repercussions.

Tangents to follow up on: I really don’t know as much about Scottish history as I should.

“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.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 5)

The next chapter of the history of Plantagenet England returns to the chronological discussion of the politics of the era, and Prestwich starts by reminding us that Edward I had presided over a 20 year span of peace and prosperity. This had now come to an end in part because Edward’s main advisers during that period had died, as had his first wife. The next couple of decades covering the end of Edward I’s reign and the start of Edward II’s were to be characterised by war and political crises.

Orientation Dates:

  • The Yuan dynasty ruled China from 1279 to 1378 (post).
  • Philip IV (the Fair) ruled France from 1285 to 1314.
  • Edward I died in 1307.
  • Edward II reigned from 1307 to 1327.
  • Edward III born 1312.

Political Crises, 1294-1311

The political problems at the end of Edward I’s reign stemmed from war – the financing thereof, and the rationale for them. Edward I had wanted to lead a Crusade, but this turned out to be infeasible – in part because of the breakout of wars nearer home. In the first four years of this period there were several conflicts: 1294 war broke out with France (meaning that Gascony needed defending), there was a significant Welsh rebellion in 1294/5, there was a campaign against the Scottish in 1296 and finally Edward lead troops to Flanders in 1297. Prestwich says that in total this cost £750,000 (in the money of the time), which is an astonishing large sum – for reference the total value of the Church’s wealth in England at this time had been assessed at £200,000.

So during these years the Crown was trying to raise money any way it could. Direct taxation (via grants of taxation by Parliament) were the least controversial of the measures taken. The Church was also taxed heavily, until this was forbidden by the Pope in 1297 (and even then it continued because the King threatened to remove royal protection from any cleric who didn’t pay a fine which matched the amount they would’ve been taxed). The Crown also did things like seize all coin held by churches to “check for clipped and counterfeit coin” – most of this didn’t make it back to the churches concerned. Twice attempts were made to seize all the wool in the country, and for the Crown to then sell this itself – cutting out the merchants and keeping all the profits for themselves. The first time this was abandoned and instead customs duties payable on wool were raised significantly (generating £110,000 over the 3 years till 1297). The second wasn’t officially abandoned, but wasn’t particularly well carried out and relatively few sacks of wool were actually seized.

In previous years Edward had also relied on an Italian banking family, the Ricciardi, for loans but they were bankrupted in 1294. In part this was because they were caught in the middle when the Anglo-French war broke out, with neither King happy with them – and Italian depositors started to worry and withdraw their funds, so the Ricciardi’s bank collapsed. This left Edward I with no co-operative bank to help fund his wars on the promise of future payment.

Taxes and Crown expenditure weren’t the only issues bubbling to the surface by 1297. There was also the issue of military service – the feudal lords were not feeling co-operative with the King, and were starting to refuse feudal summonses. In some cases they were bullied into providing troops (for instance to go to Gascony) by threats to call in their debts, in other cases there wasn’t anything to provide leverage. The subject of whether the King should be pursuing these wars was also controversial – the wars in France and Flanders were unpopular, because the Scottish were causing trouble in the north and the barons felt this was where military effort should be focused.

So in 1297 matters came to a head. Whilst those who lead the opposition among the nobility and the clergy had personal grievances as well they were almost entirely acting in what they believed the country’s interests to be rather than their own interests. The key difference between this crisis and that of 1258 (discussed a couple of chapters ago, post) was that the conflict was based not on deep seated grievances with the way the country was being run but was instead almost entirely about the current wars. The terms King and nobility (and King and Church) agreed to in the end were not radical, and didn’t inhibit the King from ruling the country himself (unlike in 1258). The grievances that were not related to the wars were related to the King’s enforcement of Forest Law – at times in places where it was not traditional – so one of the things he promised was to carry out an inquiry into this. Another promise was a reiteration that taxation should only be imposed by assent, and that in addition it should be for the common profit (rather than the King’s gain). The documents didn’t really go into details of how this was to be ensured.

The aftermath of this crisis wasn’t peace and tranquillity. Conflict rumbled on until 1301, with Edward trying to wriggle out of the promises he’d made about Forest Law and the nobility refusing (although not always successfully) to grant taxes till this was done. From 1301 to the end of Edward I’s reign in 1307 things calmed down. In part this was due to the opposition leaders dying, or marrying into the royal family, or in the case of the leading churchman (Winchelsey) being summoned by the new Pope (an ally of Edward’s) to answer charges against him. The Scottish war also provided political peace in England – it was a popular war being in defence of the realm rather than a foreign adventure. So taxation for this war was less objectionable than for the Flanders campaign in 1297.

Edward I’s personality was also an important factor in both the relative small size of the 1297 crisis and the increasing stability after 1301. He was a formidable man, and Prestwich recounts a couple of stories of the time of men dropping down dead when confronting the King or the like. He wasn’t loved by his subjects, and common criticisms were about his stubbornness and his wilfulness. Prestwich says that in Edward’s youth he had been compared to a leopard – fierce and brave like the lion (leo) and unreliable and deceitful like the pard. But he was a feared and respected monarch, and this held the country together.

Edward II was to be a very different sort of King. Prestwich very quickly dismisses the speculative idea that better training might’ve made Edward II a better King with the point that Edward II had been given opportunities (like the 1301 Scottish campaign) to prove himself and learn to be King. But he hadn’t demonstrated any capability (or desire to do more). Prestwich says the most politically significant facet of Edward II’s life before taking the throne was his developing friendship with Piers Gaveston. Edward I disapproved, probably because Edward II was asking for too many favours for Gaveston, and had sent Gaveston into exile in early 1307. One of Edward II’s first acts on taking the throne was to reverse this.

The reaction of the country at start of Edward II’s reign was guardedly optimistic – a generous tax was granted despite the failure of the invasion of Scotland (not quite started when Edward I died, and abandoned shortly after). But even in early 1308 there are signs of political argument taking place within the nobility. A group of magnates signed an agreement that “things” had been done that were contrary to the King’s honour and they should work to rectify them. It’s unclear now whether this is magnates loyal to Edward II protecting his interests from more radical magnates, or whether it’s a veiled attack on Gaveston and these are magnates loyal to the memory of the old King. But either way there was clearly some dissension within the nobility. Edward II married Isabella of France (the 12 year old daughter of the King of France) in January 1308, and was crowned in February of that year. There was some attempt to demand the delaying of the coronation until Gaveston was exiled again, but it didn’t succeed. However Edward II’s coronation oath added a clause to “maintain and preserve the laws and rightful customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen”. The precise meaning of this is debated by historians, Prestwich says it probably meant different things to different people at the time too. The clause was very shortly afterwards used to bully the King into exiling Gaveston again.

Prestwich spends a bit of time talking about the hostility towards Gaveston and the nature of the relationship between Edward & his favourite. He comes down on the side of this not being a homosexual relationship – although admits that no-one will ever know. On the “yes” side for this are some insinuations at the time about how Edward loved Gaveston more than his new Queen. But on the “no” side are that this wasn’t as widespread a rumour as it would surely have been if it were true. Prestwich also cites Edward’s children with (and early affection for) Isabella and an illegitimate son, and Gaveston’s own daughter, as evidence there was no sexual relationship between the two men – but I don’t see that that rules anything in or out. Edward did after all have an incentive to produce an heir which might overcome a distaste for sex with women, and he could also have been bisexual.

But modern desire to know what was really going on aside, the nobility of the time had other reasons to dislike Gaveston whether or not he was sleeping with the King. He was extravagant and arrogant, so he spent the King’s money and rubbed everyone else’s noses in the fact. He mocked the other members of the court, and was known for a waspish tongue. Gaveston caused no problems during his exile, but on his return in 1309 he was back to irritating the nobility at large.

Matters came to a head in 1310, and this crisis is more like that of 1258 than that of 1297. The King was deemed to’ve frittered away his treasure and was forced to agree to a council of Ordainers who had full power to reform the realm and the royal household. In exchange all the King got was a promise that this was not to form a precedent. The Ordinances mostly looked back to previous Articles and precedent from the earlier crises of Edward I’s reign (and his father’s before) – even back to the Magna Carta. However it wasn’t particularly radical, and didn’t try to impose the sorts of restrictions on royal power that were tried in the 1250s and 1260s. It was more a purge of corrupt advisers or officials and a drawing up of more explicit rules for how consent for taxation and other issues (like the King leaving the realm) should be obtained. One significant difference between the Ordinances and earlier documents about obtaining consent is that it moved this from being from “the community of the realm” to being more explicitly via representation in Parliament.

The publication of the Ordinances didn’t solve the crisis. Edward II saw the renewed demand for Gaveston’s exile and the restrictions on his ability to exercise royal patronage (to avoid future Gaveston-esque situations) as completely unacceptable. So this wasn’t the dawn of an age of peace & prosperity like the authors would’ve hoped, it just kicked off more trouble – which is the subject of the next chapter.