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.