“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 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.

“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.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 4)


In this chapter Prestwich takes a digression from his chronological trot through the Plantagenet era to look at the situation in Wales during this period. It’s very much Wales from the perspective of its interactions with England, and fits in here because Edward I conquered Wales.

He begins by setting the scene in terms of the political situation in Wales during Henry III & Edward I’s reigns in England. A key difference between the two cultures is that in England inheritance is by primogeniture, but in Wales it is not that clear cut. Which means that when there were multiple heirs (as there were in Gwynedd in 1246, for instance) the territory might be shared out between the heirs, or they might fight amongst themselves for who got the inheritance. Obviously England isn’t immune to civil war or inheritance disputes – but in Wales the tendency is for lands to fragment and be reunited only to fragment again. The early 13th Century had seen Llywelyn ap Iowerth reunite Gwynedd into a strong principality, only for it to fragment again after his heir’s death. His great-grandsons fought amongst themselves, and eventually Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was effectively in charge – with one of his brothers imprisoned, one paid off and one still free and at times plotting against him.

Another important facet of Welsh politics at the time is the Marcher Lords. These are the descendents of Norman nobility who hold lands along the border between England and Wales. I’ve always thought of them as a part of England, but this chapter made it clear that’s far too simple a picture. From the perspective of the English crown the Marcher Lords were their vassals, albeit with greater traditional liberties than other English nobles. From the perspective of the Welsh the Marcher Lords were also seen as part of the English invaders, but nonetheless there was a degree of integration between the Marcher Lords and the Welsh. More in the south than in Gwynedd to the north, but even there Llywelyn ap Iowerth married his daughters into Marcher families. However from the perspective of the Marcher Lords themselves they weren’t as firmly English as all that. Prestwich says that they saw themselves as potentially independent – that at the moment their interests aligned with the English crown (useful backup against the Welsh…) but this wouldn’t necessarily always be the case.

Prestwich says that conquest wouldn’t’ve felt inevitable to the people of the 13th Century. It would’ve seemed more plausible that the Welsh and the Marcher Lords would continue to integrate, and the sense of Wales & the Welsh as a separate entity would attenuate over time. But what actually happened was a growing sense of Welsh nationhood, which lead to a desire for recognition as independent. There were often skirmishes between the Welsh and the Marcher Lords, and whenever the English crown was having difficulties (see the bulk of Henry III’s reign) the Welsh would take advantage of it. So from the English perspective it became ever more important to get the matter of English power over Wales settled.

During Henry III’s reign raids by the Welsh on the Marches were met with shows of power by the English. A substantial English army would move some way into Wales, and a castle would be built (or planned) where they had pushed forward to. These gains stopped well short of full conquest, but they did give the English the upper hand. In 1247 the Welsh princes (including Llywelyn ap Gruffudd) acknowledged Henry III’s dominance, and submitted to the jurisdiction of the English crown. This wasn’t a long lasting situation, though – as Henry’s political difficulties increased the Welsh situation also deteriorated. He had left Edward in charge, but this appears to’ve been a mistake. And Llywelyn ap Gruffudd took full advantage of the civil war that developed after 1258, starting to call himself Prince of Wales in this year. But the English civil war also caused Llywelyn difficulties – the uncertainties of the English political situation meant he couldn’t come to a final settlement with them. A settlement was arrived at in 1267, with Llywelyn acknowledge as Prince of Wales by the English, but owing fealty to Henry III – so pseudo-independent.

After Edward succeeded to the English throne Llywelyn should’ve come to pay homage to him – but he failed to do so. This provided a formal reason for the outbreak of war, but Prestwich says that Llywelyn’s marriage to Simon de Montfort’s daughter was also a factor. The prospect of a Welsh prince who was also a de Montfort was unthinkable to Edward. The first Welsh war of his reign followed the pattern of his father’s campaigns – march an army in as a show of force, build a castle. But Edward miscalculated – the show of force wasn’t impressive enough. And the subsequent political situation was mismanaged, to a degree that united the Welsh, even Llywelyn and his brothers. The rhetoric of the dispute was focussed on the law – the Welsh wanted their own traditional Welsh laws, not the ones harshly imposed by Edward I.

The last conflict started in 1282, kicked off by one of Llywelyn’s brothers. Prestwich suggests that Llywelyn would’ve preferred not to start anything at this point, but the choice he now had was to fight with the English against his brother (unthinkable) or fight alongside his brother. Neither side was interested in compromise. Edward wanted the Welsh to submit to his authority unconditionally, and Llywelyn wanted to be recognised as an independent Prince of Wales. The turning point of the war came in late 1282 when Llywelyn was lured out of Snowdonia, perhaps by false suggestions of an alliance with the Mortimers (or by betrayal by some of his own men). His force met the English in battle at the river Irfon, and Llywelyn was killed. His brother Dafydd, now Prince of Wales as Llyweln had no male children, continued the war but Edward pushed on and it was all over but the mopping up. In June 1283 Dafydd was captured and the conquest was over.

There were still rebellions after this, and in particular the rebellion of 1294-5 required significant effort by the English to put down. But what was notable after this was that not all the Welsh were against the English crown. The country didn’t fully integrate into England, and the Welsh retained their own culture. The law codes of the two countries remained different in some respects, but criminal law was brought into line with England and the shire system of England was extended into Wales.

Prestwich also looks at what happened to the English army during these campaigns. One of the reasons for Edward’s success was that he brought a lot of resources to bear on the problem. He recruited sufficient men – not just via the feudal system, but also paid soldiers. And he provisioned and armed them properly, allowing him to keep the army in the field for longer. But Prestwich is keen not to overstate the innovations that Edward brought to the army – he says that the changes were quantitative rather than qualitative, and there’s no particular indication of novel tactics or organisation. Rather it’s that Edward’s logistics were what made the difference – his army was well fed, and supported, even when deep in Welsh territory.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 3)

After the turbulence of the bulk of Henry III’s reign up to the death of Simon de Montfort & the conclusion of the civil war in 1266, the next 30 years were a period of both stability & recovery. The transition between the reigns of Henry III and Edward I was smooth, even tho Edward wasn’t in the country when his father died. And even tho the royal side had won the war, many of the reforms that de Montfort and his associates had been calling for were instituted.

Orientation Dates:

  • The Mamluks took power in Cairo in 1250 ruling for the next 3 centuries (post)
  • Kublai Khan ruled the Mongol Empire (in practice mostly Mongolia & China) 1260-1294 (post)
  • Edward I on Crusade 1270-1274
  • Marco Polo (if he existed) travelled from Venice to China 1271-1295
  • Henry III dies 1272
  • Edward II born 1284

Reconstruction and Reform, 1266-1294

The start of this period was a bit shaky – initially the Crown was keen to press its advantage from having won the war – but things quickly settled down. Early legislation (in 1267) actually incorporated a lot of the reforms of 1259 (which weren’t originally proposed by the Crown). Once the situation was calmer Henry III’s big project was the translation of Edward the Confessor’s remains into the new church he was building at Westminster – this was achieved with much ceremony in 1269. Edward I wasn’t really involved with domestic politics at this time – his project was his crusade, and there were a series of parliaments called by Henry III between 1268 & 1270 to negotiate for taxes to pay for this. Prestwich doesn’t discuss Edward’s crusade (this is a history of England after all), just mentions that Edward was out of the country for four years between 1270 & 1274. The regime clearly put thought into ensuring an orderly transition of power in case Henry III died during this time (as indeed he did). Several castles were transferred into the hands of men loyal to Edward before he left the country, and his chancellor (Robert Burnell) was left behind to look after Edward’s lands. After Henry’s death it seems that these key figures held the country together and governed in Edward’s name. Burnell was to be chancellor from then until he died in 1292.

Edward’s regime was a reforming one. His goals weren’t entirely the same as de Monfort & his associates in the 1250s, he was also aiming to recover & maintain royal rights. And to run his estates & his country efficiently and cost-effectively. It was a regime that ran on information – many inquiries were held over the next 25 years, and the results fed into legislation designed to address grievances discovered etc. At the time the traditional source of income for the King was the land that he held – and reforms were attempted to the management of these estates. These failed, and taxation became a more important part of the funding of the Crown. Rather than direct taxes, which needed to be negotiated, customs duties became an important source of income. And an important way to pay back the Italian bankers that Edward’s regime borrowed money from – rather than pay them in actual money instead they were granted the customs duties on particular commodities, which gave them a stake in the wider English economy. Also on the subject of finance – the currency was in a poor state & was recoined using a new technique (measured silver droplets rather than punched out of a flat sheet) starting from 1279, with the old coins forbidden.

This increasing important of taxation meant that Parliament continued to be important, even tho it had been used to their advantage by the barons in the civil war. A key development of Edward’s reign was that petitions could be presented to the King at a parliament – a formal route for people to complain about royal officials, and to raise grievances. Who was summoned to each parliament wasn’t yet formalised, let alone being a hereditary right, with not even every Baron at every parliament.

Another source of funding for Edward’s regime, and a way to gain political credit with the Barons, were the Jews. First legislation was passed that aimed to stop them lending money at interest (and conveniently meant that debts already owed no longer earnt interest), and they were “encouraged” to move into other trades. They were also increasingly restricted in where they could live, had to wear a distinctive badge & had the status of the king’s serfs. Later in 1290 they were expelled from the country entirely. Prestwich takes pains to point out that there’s no evidence that Edward was himself anti-Semitic (beyond the background level common to European society at the time) – in contrast to his mother, and to Simon de Montfort, both of whom have left evidence of anti-Semitic feelings. But the Jews had been taxed into the ground already, and the political capital to be gained by expelling them was worth a lot more to Edward than the Jews themselves were. In particular Prestwich thinks that the expulsion itself may’ve been the unwritten quid pro quo for a particularly generous grant of taxation by Parliament in that year. I don’t imagine it made any difference to the Jews that Edward was just being pragmatic.

Edward’s Queens were covered in about a paragraph in this chapter (which is, after all, about the politics rather than the personal) – his first wife, Eleanor of Castille, died in 1290 and he subsequently married Margaret of France. Edward’s mother also died in 1291, as did a couple of Edward’s senior courtiers (including the man who’d been his chancellor since 1272). The period of stability & political peace was drawing to an end. Prestwich notes that Edward had had an easier job than Henry III in terms of patronage – Henry III had all those half-brothers & in-laws he needed to keep sweet, Edward had only a few in-laws and close associates to provide for. But he also managed to do so in ways that prevented general dissatisfaction.

Tangents to follow up on: The life of Eleanor of Castille, also of Edward I himself.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 2)

After the introductory chapters the first half of the book proper is a chronological look at the politics & wars of the time period. This chapter covers 40 years of Henry III’s reign, from when he started to exert his own authority in 1225 through to the final end of the rebellion against him with the death of Simon de Montfort in battle in 1265.

Orientation Dates:

  • Henry III reigns 1216-1272.
  • Saint Louis IX (builder of Sainte-Chapelle) ruled France 1226-1270.
  • Genghis Khan died in 1227.
  • Edward I born 1239.

Politics Under Henry III

The thread that ties this chapter together is that the politics of the day was very much grounded in the personalities of the players. The interactions between & the fallings out of the aristocracy shaped the government of the country. And Henry III was not a strong enough king to pull it all together – Prestwich describes Henry III as a man who could talk the talk, but not walk the walk. He had strong ideas about the authority & power that king should command, but when faced with opposition he tended to back off. He successively fell under the influence of different groups at court – often foreign relatives of himself or his wife – which didn’t help relations with other factions, particularly English ones. So his reign was a turbulent time politically speaking, even before the conflict with de Montfort.

He’d become king at the age of 9 (in 1216) while England was in the middle of a civil war, with the eldest son of the King of France (Louis, son of Philip II) in control of the south-east of the country. His initial regents(? Prestwich doesn’t use the term, so perhaps that’s an anachronism on my part) got the country back under control and over the rest of Henry III’s minority Plantagenet authority was restored. But factionalism was still rife. The next twenty or so years after Henry started to exert authority on his own behalf (in 1227) were characterised by a stumbling from crisis to crisis, with the king failing to prevent the bickering & factional infighting. At times it veered close to civil war but mostly the situation pulled back from the brink before armies met (with an exception being the Welsh Marches in 1234, where battles were fought).

Finance & taxation began to become an issue. At this time to raise a tax the king had to have the consent of the aristocracy. During this period Parliament came to prominence as the way to gain this consent, and it’s in Henry’s reign that the term “parliament” was first used. The king had to persuade them that he was going to spend the money in a useful & profitable fashion for the country. Parliament could and did say no to requests for taxes, or could agree only after imposing conditions on the king (for instance to re-affirm the Magna Carta). In 1244 Henry III tried to negotiate a tax, but failed to come to an agreement with Parliament. He wasn’t to succeed in any further requests either, so had to resort to other ways to raise money. These included increasing the amounts that sheriffs paid for their counties, and tax on Jews (this could be done without an agreement) – these sorts of measures weren’t sustainable in the long term.

Foreigners at court were a perennial complaint, but became a more significant issue from the 1240s onwards. Prestwich notes that most of the information here comes from a single chronicler who was rather xenophobic, but there are indications it was a wider spread issue than just one man’s prejudices. One group of foreigners were Henry’s wife Eleanor of Provence’s relatives, the Savoyards – when he married her in 1236 she brought members of her family & various retainers to court. Henry was generous to them & gave them jobs, lands, marriages & so on. Some like Eleanor’s uncle William of Savoy were particularly useful to him & helped reform government of the country, but that didn’t help make them any more popular. Another group of foreigners to get patronage were the Poitevins, related to Henry via his mother’s second marriage – this included his four half-brothers. The numbers of foreigners in these groups were not small. There were approximately 170 men with Savoyard connections to get patronage from Henry, and about 100 Poitevins. Adding to the turbulent politics was the fact that the Savoyards & Poitevins saw each other as rivals.

The third “group” of foreigners is a single man – Simon de Montfort. Not part of either the Savoyard or Poitevins, he came from the Ile de France and his family had a claim via marriage to the earldom of Leicester which he came to England to claim in 1230. He soon charmed his way into the inner circle of the court, he even married the king’s sister in 1238 (clandestinely, and this sparked a political crisis with him & the king on the same side for now). Henry & Simon started to fall out over money as early as 1239, but reconciled. In the early 1250s Simon’s rule over Gascony (as Henry’s lieutenant) had started to attract protest over its harshness. He was even brought back to England and put on trial in 1252 (a case that Prestwich says he “did not lose”). Even after this he & Henry reconciled once more.

Prestwich takes a short digression at this point in the story of the period to discuss the Church & how it played into the political situation in the late 1250s. During approximately the same time that Henry had been on the throne of England there was a gathering enthusiasm for reform within the Church. The new emphasis was on pastoral care & included measures such as clerics only holding one benefice each and not behaving in unseemly ways. The various orders of friars start up in this period – the Dominicans and Franciscans both reach England in the 1220s. And this enthusiasm for reform spilled over into the secular politics of the day – that the king should be subject to the law, that he should choose his councillors wisely, that his officials had an obligation to act fairly.

And now we’re at the build up to the civil war that ended with Simon de Montfort’s death. By 1258 Henry’s government was seen as incompetent & the Parliament that met in Oxford that year took steps to Do Something About It. They set out a complex scheme for picking a fair council of 15 that would evenly represent both king & barons, and this council would be where the final authority rested rather than with the king. At first it worked, and investigations were set up into all areas of administration with an aim to reforming them to make the rule of the country more fair and just (notably this extended significantly down the social strata, including grievances to be righted that would favour ordinary freemen). But progress was too slow for many on the baronial side, and personalities were still important – Prestwich says that de Montfort was not good at collaboration, or compromise, which meant that rifts opened in the baronial ranks. The initiative started to move to the king’s side, and by 1261 he’d managed to regain control to the extent that he could dismiss the council & put his own men in positions of power. Some of the barons had come over to his side, and Henry started to try & patch up his private quarrels with Simon de Montfort in hopes of neutralising him (which didn’t work).

But finance was still a problem – Henry still could not gather taxes. He also failed again to establish any sort of stable regime. Simon de Montfort returned to England in 1263 determined to force the king to accept the reforms propsed in 1258. There was some violence in early 1263 that lead to a series of negotiations in the second half of the year, under the arbitration of the King of France. At first Louis favoured de Montfort – Louis approved the Provisions of Oxford that had been laid out in 1258 & demanded the restitution of property to those who’d suffered in the violence in 1263. The opposition of the future Edward I was a particular problem for this negotiated peace, and a further round of negotiations was required. Louis had now changed his mind – Prestwich says that Queen Eleanor’s influence was a major factor in this – and he was firmly on the royalist side. These negotiations got nowhere & proper civil war broke out in spring 1264.

The advantage at first lay with the king. Henry had summoned a traditional feudal army, ostensibly to fight the Welsh but everyone knew de Montfort & his supporters were the true target. De Montfort’s support was centred on the Midlands (which he ruled a lot of as the Earl of Leicester) and in towns (including London). Henry’s army won the first few battles, including a triumph at Northampton that included the capture of one of de Montfort’s sons. But de Montfort’s supporters felt themselves to be cursaders and went into battle wearing crosses, feeling that God was on their side. This moral zeal and a combination of poor tactics from Edward & good tactics from de Montfort lead to a decisive victory for the baronial cause at Lewes. Victory wasn’t total – they didn’t capture the king or his son, but they did pen them up in Lewes priory from where they negotiated a peace settlement that included Edward remaining in custody as a hostage.

Simon de Montfort was now in charge of the government of the country, and although the king was still king he had no say in anything that happened. The council that was set up was a lot less complex than the previous experiment in 1258, and this let de Montfort exert a great deal of control over who was on it & the decisions it made. Prestwich says that actual reform was thin on the ground, de Montfort spent more time pursuing his personal gain. Despite this he had widespread support. Unfortunately where he started losing support was in the upper echelons of society & that was crucial. The escape of Edward from custody in May 1265, and his subsequent joining of forces with barons who were disaffected with de Montfort lead to the outbreak of further civil war. This time the baronial cause didn’t feel so much that God was on their side – and the royalist cause wore crosses too. Edward & his allies were the winners of the battles, and on 4 August 1265 Simon de Montfort was slain on the field of battle. Some resistance to the royalists rumbled on for another year or so, but the back was broken of the rebellion.

Prestwich rounds off the chapter by concluding that even though the royalist cause were the winners the attempts to reform the government of England were not ignored. The civil war had been short but bitter, and the government of the country needed rebuilt afterwards. There was no longer any talk of restricting the king’s authority, but the reforms were not all tossed out. The next chapter of the book will cover the next 30 years, including the rebuilding process.

A thought I had while reading this was to wonder if there’s ever been a successful English king who took the throne as a minor. The ones that spring to my mind are Henry III (not terribly competent, as discussed here), Richard II (overly autocratic once he came to power, subsequently deposed), Henry VI (turned out to be very incompetent and had mental health issues, deposed twice during Wars of the Roses). Edward VI died too young to know how he’d’ve turned out if he’d reached his majority. Have I forgotten someone?

Another thought is that it’s interesting that Henry III was never deposed, nor even in danger of it. He might’ve had his authority restricted to the point where he wasn’t really ruling any more, but de Montfort didn’t set himself up as king or try & put anyone else on the throne. Particularly interesting in light of Edward II being deposed, as that’s only two generations later.

Tangents to follow up on: The obvious ones really – biography of Simon de Montfort & of Henry III.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 1b)

This post covers the second half of the introductory section of the book. Having discussed the environment Prestwich moves on to an overview of the legal & political institutions of the country during the period.

The Crown and Kingship

Kings of England during this time weren’t just Kings of some isolated country, they were part of an international world. The King had titles to lands on the other side of the channel (more at some times than others …) and marriages (both their own & their family members) linked them to yet more. So they were part of a network of ruling families in Europe, not just in the contemporary time but in their history as well. They could trace their descent back through the Anglo-Saxon Kings of England (via marriages) as well as more fanciful genealogies (Edward I wanted to link himself to King Arthur, for instance).

Prestwich then divides Kingship into two facets – sacred & secular. Kingship of the time is sacred via the anointing of the King during the coronation ceremony. This endowed the King with spiritual authority, and the King could use this to bolster his authority if necessary. As well as special ceremonies (like Henry III’s transfer of Edward the Confessor’s bones to the new shrine in a rebuilt Westminster Abbey) there was a routine calendar of religious ceremonies in which the King played a significant part. For instance the giving of alms on a regular basis, and touching to cure the king’s evil which was a rite introduced by either Henry III or Edward I.

The King was also the secular & feudal lord of the country, which granted him specific rights over his nobles. For instance military service, or the paying of an aid on the occasion of the marriage of the King’s eldest daughter. This side of Kingship was emphasised particularly when getting support for war – the feudal right to soldiers & money being very important. Another secular aspect of the King’s rule derived from Roman law. Prestwich talks here about the concept of “necessity”, and how the King was entitled to taxes without his nobles having right of refusal if he could show there was a necessity (i.e. for a war he was fighting to defend the realm).

At first there wasn’t a distinction drawn between the King & the crown, but over this period the two concepts began to separate. Most notably in legal or land-ownership contexts – for instance the King might give lands to his heir with the caveat that they were not to be separated from the crown (i.e. he couldn’t give them to someone else, he should still have them on his ‘inevitable’ accession to the throne). It also played a role during & at the end of Edward II’s reign – at the end the person of the King had been deposed but the crown had not.

Queenship was a distinct thing, that had an important part to play in royal politics. The Queen could intercede for people, and then the King could show mercy or generosity without looking weak. There was an expectation that the Queen would act as a peacemaker. Obviously personal relationships play into how that actually played out, and Isabella of France shows that a Queen could influence politics beyond that under some circumstances.

Symbols & ceremonies were important for impressing the country with the power of the monarchy. The physical crown (of which there were several) and other royal regalia weren’t worn daily, but were worn at ceremonial occasions to enhance the grandeur of the monarchy. The throne, likewise, was possibly not used often but was an important symbol. Not many of the King’s subjects would’ve seen him in his regalia & sat on his throne, but most if not all would’ve seen an image of him. The English currency was unique at the time in having an image of the King’s head on all legal currency. Even private mints (of Bishops, say) had to use the same image on their coins. A better image of the King could be found on the royal seals that sealed all royal documents, and the incidental symbolism in these representations was important. For instance Edward III’s use of the French royal arms as well as the English after 1340 when he claimed the French throne. Prestwich discussed religious ceremonies in the section on sacred Kingship, here he turns to the secular ceremonies that promoted the King’s power. For instance feasts & tournaments.

The King’s possessions & clothes were used to enhance his authority – always made from the best & most splendid materials. And buildings were also used to promote the image of the King. Henry III had Westminster Abbey rebuilt in magnificent style, and it became used as the royal mausoleum in a further display of royal splendour. In this Henry & his heirs were trying to equal or better the Capetian Kings of France – Saint Louis IX had built Sainte-Chapelle at the start of this period which gives an example of the sort of magnificence the English Kings were trying to live up to. Very much keeping up with the Joneses on an epic scale. As well as religious buildings, secular buildings were important. There were several royal castles, and although many were poorly maintained others were refurbished & enhanced – like the Tower of London and Windsor Castle as examples of luxurious royal residences & Edward I’s castle at Caernarfon as an example of a fortress.

Prestwich finishes this chapter by talking about the King’s court and the King’s household. The two terms mean different but overlapping things, and weren’t always used consistently by contemporary sources (which Prestwich expresses some scholarly frustration with!). Roughly speaking the “court” was a broader term that could be used about everyone around the King, whereas the household was more concretely defined & was used about people retained in the King’s service.

A large part of the household’s role was domestic – the provision of food for the King & all these people, the stabling & care of the King’s horses, falcons, dogs and those of the rest of the household. Also the means of transporting the household were provided internally – carts & horses or boats, and people to drive them or crew them. The main department of the household that looked after these various sections was the wardrobe, and it also played a key role in government of the country. The keeper of the wardrobe & other clerical officials were some of the King’s most important ministers. Government is the subject of the next chapter, so Prestwich moves on to some examples of details of the court or household’s expenditure on food & clothing or on the sorts of entertainment that the court had.

There’s not much evidence for particular manners for court, no guides to etiquette or whatever, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t niceties to be observed. Certainly the King seems to’ve lead a pampered existence with bevies of servants to do everything for him – like one to supervise the meat he was given, one to carve it and a third to actually serve it to him. The court’s influence on the culture of the rest of the country is debatable – there is some hint of an influence in architecture & in patronage of painters. But definitely not literature.


This chapter demonstrates that running the country via a large bureaucracy with lots of red tape is not a modern invention. Prestwich says scholarly opinion is divided between the idea that England of this period “enjoyed a remarkably sophisticated bureaucratic system” or was suffering from “a surfeit of government, with quite unnecessarily complex administrative procedures that achieved little”. At the end of this chapter he concludes that it’s a bit of both – it could’ve done to be more streamlined, but it actually worked most of the time.

Much of what we know about the bureaucracy of the time comes from the complication – multiple copies of records were kept, and writs could be issued in as many as three documents (under the king’s secret seal to be sent to the privy seal office, which would instruct the chancery, which would issue the final writ). So this could cause delays, although when the matter was urgent the machinery seems to’ve moved swiftly. The language of government documents was Latin, so the majority of the population wouldn’t understand it. A lot of the surviving rolls are in very good condition, testament to how few people had need to read them.

The structure of the government was already established by the early 13th Century. Top was the King & his council. Council was defined in various ways – it could be a great council with lots of the magnate present, or a more ordinary one with a smaller handful of magnates & some judges & clerical officials etc. Sometimes this council was imposed on the King by his nobles, some were chosen by the King. But generally it was a working body with a bias towards officials, that provided expert advice & assistance to the King. In some periods the chief financial body of the government was the wardrobe, the financial arm of the King’s household. The household also provided the privy seal, which was used to issue orders to the chancery & the exchequer and came into being as a separate government body (rather than part of the wardrobe) over this period. The chancery & the exchequer were the two main state departments, which gradually became more independent over this period. The exchequer looked after the financial side of government and in some periods had control over wardrobe expenditure & sometimes not. The chancery did the issuing of writs, and was the centre of the governmental machinery. Law courts were another important part of the government. The two central ones were the King’s Bench (which heard cases appealed from lower courts, and increasingly concerned itself with criminal cases) and the court of Common Pleas (which mostly heard property cases).

If that summary sounds a little confused, that’s because I’m not sure I completely followed that section – it had the feeling of a high level & technical summary of a complicated subject. And I just got the flavour from it.

Prestwich next moves to the sort of people that were senior officials in the government. Generally these were churchmen, although sometimes laymen held offices. But it was harder to reward laymen as you couldn’t just give them a juicy bishopric, so they had to be paid more by the King. Many notable figures rose to prominence due to their administrative skills & are given their bishoprics afterwards for service rather than for piety. But there are records of bishops who became high officials with no prior government experience (and subsequently did good jobs even, the Bishop of Exeter, Walter Stapledon, was one such man in the 1320s when he was made Treasurer). Most officials were trained in their posts, but they also endowed university colleges to train clerics – Merton College & Oriel College (both Oxford) are the examples that Prestwich gives. (Exeter College (founded by the Bishop of Exeter I mention above) was founded pre-government job so it doesn’t quite fit the theme).

Moving on to local government Prestwich notes that there isn’t a clear distinction between central & local government, drawing one is a convenience for the historian not a contemporary idea. The main unit of local government was the county, with a sheriff in charge with assorted officials under him. At the beginning of this period the sheriffs were appointed (by the King or other nobles), later they were elected although sometimes this was a technicality. The sheriffs had jurisdiction over some financial matters, and presided over the county court to settle legal matters. He also visited the hundred courts (hundreds are the sub-divisions of counties) in rotation. Not all of the country was actually under the central government – the state was still more feudal than not. For instance Durham was practically independent although the perspective of the crown was that as the Bishop held the liberty in the King’s name he was acting on behalf of the King when ruling it. And the Welsh marches were even more close to independence. There were also more minor liberties where the local ruler was more firmly subordinate to the King’s central government whilst still being technically separate.

And that was another section where it feels like there’s a whole book of complexity beneath the summary in this book and I don’t quite grasp it well enough to summarise well in my turn!

Prestwich next discusses the Church which was technically run by a separate & parallel system of government to the state. Many offices & functions are duplicated in this different sphere, with a broad emphasis on spiritual matters (like organisation & governance of monasteries). And of course the Church also had a need to collect money & manage its finances. As a lot of government high officials were given bishoprics there was a high degree of cross-fertilisation despite the separation. And there were areas of co-operation as well as competition between the two systems.

And the chapter finishes with a discussion of corruption in government. Prestwich stresses that the government was fundamentally sound – he says that it was less corrupt than the time of Henry I or than it would be in 16th & 17th Century England. However there was a level of corruption present. Officials were caught taking bribes, and some lords paid judges retainers so that court cases would be resolved in their favour. This was frowned upon, however, and punished when caught.

So now Prestwich has set us up for the meat of the book – next chapter starts the chronological examination of the politics of the period.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 1a)

Plantagenet England 1225-1360 is one of the volumes of the New Oxford History of England. I have a vague plan to eventually buy & read the lot, but that’s a long way off (and anyway they’re not all published yet) – so far I’ve read England Under the Norman & Angevin Kings 1075-1225 (which was by Robert Bartlett) and now I’m starting this one. The break points between the volumes of the series are not at the ends of Kings reigns, nor at dynastic break points. So this volume starts part-way through Henry III’s reign, where he can be said to’ve taken control himself. And it ends with the ending of a phase of the Hundred Years War, even though that means that the full impact of the Black Death needs to be left till a later volume. This post is going to be about the first half of the introductory section* of the book, after that it goes through the politics of the time in chronological order followed by a thematic look through the society of the time.

*Originally it was going to be the whole of the introduction as I’ve finished reading it, but this post was getting very long so I’ve decided to split it up.

Orientation Dates

As it’s a more academic book the author assumes that the reader has a feel for the shape of the period – who reigned when, and how they were related, what the major political events were – the purpose of the book is to look at these things in detail. There is a chronology & genealogy at the end of the book as reference, but I’m going to pull out the Kings names & dates for orientation dates inside the subject of the book.

  • Henry III reigned 1216-1272, son of John I, married to Eleanor of Provence.
  • Edward I reigned 1272-1307, son of Henry III, married to Eleanor of Castile then Margaret of France.
  • Edward II reigned 1307-1327, son of Edward I & Eleanor, married to Isabella of France (who overthrew him & had him murdered).
  • Edward III reigned 1327-1377 initially under his mother’s regency, son of Edward II, married to Philippa of Hainault.

In my other Chapter by Chapter posts I’ve been using mostly English history to orient myself when thinking about a different country’s history, this time I’ll put a few reminders of things that happen elsewhere.

  • Saint Louis IX (builder of Sainte-Chapelle) ruled France 12261270.
  • Genghis Khan died in 1227.
  • Reconquista of Spain is well underway in this period, the last Muslim Emirate (Emirate of Granada) is founded in 1238 after the defeat of the Almohad Dynasty by the Christian Spanish Kingdoms and remains the only Muslim run region of the Spanish Peninsula from then until its defeat in 1492.
  • Seventh Crusade from 12481254.
  • Eighth Crusade in 1270.
  • Ninth Crusade from 12711272.
  • China re-unified under Kublai Khan (post) in 1279.
  • Philip VI of Valois reigned in France 13281350, starting the Valois dynasty.

(Most of those I had to resort to wikipedia for, tsk tsk!)


The Environment

The introductory section of the book is broken into three chapters & the first one is about how the lives of the people in this era were nasty, brutish & short! Prestwich starts with a discussion of the climate across this century & a half. From the various sources (both chronicles that note weather & records of harvests) it seems that the climate gradually got colder across this period, and more unsettled. He thinks that the gradual cooling was compensated for by farmers, but the increased volatility caused problems. Particularly notable bad weather occurs in the years 1258-1259 and 1315-16. He ties the first to a known volcanic eruption which has left evidence in Greenland ice cores, but there’s no known explanation for the latter.

Population grew during the beginning of this era – peaking around 1300 and remaining roughly stable till the collapse at the Black Death. At its highest the population was probably 5 million (for reference wikipedia says the 2011 population of the Greater London built up area was 9.8 million, the population of the Greater Manchester built up area was 2.6 million). Analysis of skeletal remains shows a lot of disease in the population & that’s just what one can see traces of in bones. 90% of the population died before the age of 45, average life expectancy was around 30. But if you made it to 20 you might expect to live another 20 or 30 years, and if you made it to 50 you’d probably live till old age. People were short, but not as short as in Victorian times – average of 5’7.25″ for men, 5’2.5″ for women. Contemporary sources record much death from accident, or violence, as well as famine & disease.

Prestwich also discusses the landscape the people lived in. This was stable across the period, and was mostly composed of farmland. The exact practices of farming varied from region to region (because of tradition as well as suitability of crops) and this shaped the landscape. Most land wasn’t wooded, but there were areas of woodland & parks as well as forests & chases. The latter were a legal distinction – in a forest common law didn’t hold, instead the area was under forest law which restricted what the people who lived there could do (in favour of keeping the area suitable for royal hunting). Chases were non-royal forests.

The animals of the countryside still included wolves in remoter areas, for instance there are records of the loss of farm animals to wolves in Lancashire in 1303-4 although the number wasn’t large. Rabbits were a recent introduction & carefully looked after in warrens – the first documentary evidence for them in England was in 1235. Given how important rats are as a vector of the Black Death it’s surprising there’s not much evidence for a large population of them either in documents or via archaeology. Domestic animals were mainly horses, cattle, sheep & pigs, and they were all smaller and yielded less meat/milk/wool than their modern counterparts. Sheep were the main animals kept, with some estates having flocks of several thousand. Dogs were kept for hunting & pets included cats. Prestwich mentions documentary evidence for several plagues amongst farm animals – in particular there is evidence for a lot of animal disease in the 1310s, which also had the worst weather & worst harvests.

The buildings of the era ranged from castles to wooden shacks. There were around 400-500 castles during this time period, the figure varies depending on how you define castle, and castles defined aristocratic lordship. Many of them had building work done on them during the period, but not many new castles were built. As you move down the social scale buildings are still used to demonstrate your social standing – gentry had manor houses or moated buildings. There were about 5,000 moated sites by the end of the period, and about 70% of these came into existence between 1200 & 1325. Abbeys and churches also loomed large in the landscape, but these didn’t change much over the period with no major new monastic foundations. Peasant housing is harder to find evidence for as it was mostly built from wood which doesn’t leave much trace particularly when there’s been much rebuilding on a site. Longhouses weren’t unknown, but often the house was separate from the barn. What little evidence there is for cost of peasant housing suggests it was cheap & not well made (unsurprisingly) – Prestwich mentions a report of a house collapse which killed the woman who lived there & the value of the timber in the house was put at only 18d.

Most of England lived in villages or towns, rather than isolated farms, with settlements in the north & west more dispersed than those in the rest of the country. The growth of population through the first half of this era saw a proliferation of towns. And even walled towns show signs of expanding outside their boundaries. Even large towns weren’t particularly big – London might’ve had a population of around 70,000 by 1300 and no other town was bigger than 20,000. For reference, wikipedia says that in 2011 there were ~179k people living in the Ipswich built up area, and even the 70th most populous built up area in England has ~100k people living there. The East Kilbride built up area in Scotland has about the same population in 2011 as London did in 1300. For contemporary reference Prestwich says 1300 era London was in a similar league to Paris or Florence – however my copy of The New Atlas of World History (by John Haywood) lists Paris as the 4th most populous city of the world in 1300 at 228k (beaten by Hangzhou & Dadu in China and Cairo, all at or just above 400k). Population figures for this era are sufficiently vague & a matter of interpretation that I doubt Prestwich & Haywood actually disagree significantly. Towns don’t sound terribly nice places to live – as well as the omnipresent threat of fire they were crowded, unhygenic & smelly. And not just in modern eyes – Prestwich gives a few quotes from contemporary sources about the unpleasantness of particularly towns.

Technologically speaking there were skilled craftsmen & slow improvements to techniques, but not many striking breakthroughs. Gunpowder is introduced in Edward I’s reign, but the primitive guns don’t have much effect on the period. Timekeeping does start to change, with the beginnings of the move from measuring time by the patterns of daylight or the monastic day to clocks measuring the passing of hours & minutes. Power was provided by wind, water & animals. Again there were some developments in windmill & watermill tech but nothing groundbreaking. Use of horses for transport or power was increasingly replacing use of oxen. Bulk transport however was still cheapest on ships & boats, and land transport was much slower. Prestwich says most people didn’t travel much, which was just as well as the transport network was inadequate – and still mostly reliant on the Roman roads. If you did travel it would probably take you a week to travel around 200 miles.

Prestwich concludes with some more cheering quotes & anecdotes. Although life was in many ways grim for most of the population, people were in general proud of being English and regarded their land as a good land & a good place to live. And there were diversions & distractions from the grimness.

Tangents to follow up on: A throw-away line about towns & the problems with counting them made me realise I’m not sure I’ve learnt what the technical distinctions between villages & towns & boroughs etc are.