Edward III

Edward III

by W Mark Ormrod


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A landmark biography of the charismatic king beloved of fourteenth-century England

Edward III (1312–1377) was the most successful European ruler of his age. Reigning for over fifty years, he achieved spectacular military triumphs and overcame grave threats to his authority, from parliamentary revolt to the Black Death. Revered by his subjects as a chivalric dynamo, he initiated the Hundred Years' War and gloriously led his men into battle against the Scots and the French.

In this illuminating biography, W. Mark Ormrod takes a deeper look at Edward to reveal the man beneath the military muscle. What emerges is Edward's clear sense of his duty to rebuild the prestige of the Crown, and through military gains and shifting diplomacy, to secure a legacy for posterity. New details of the splendor of Edward's court, lavish national celebrations, and innovative use of imagery establish the king's instinctive understanding of the bond between ruler and people. With fresh emphasis on how Edward's rule was affected by his family relationships—including his roles as traumatized son, loving husband, and dutiful father—Ormrod gives a valuable new dimension to our understanding of this remarkable warrior king.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300194081
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 05/28/2013
Series: The English Monarchs Series
Pages: 752
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.30(d)

About the Author

Mark Ormrod is a professor in the Department of History, University of York.

Read an Excerpt


By W. Mark Ormrod


Copyright © 2011 W. Mark Ormrod
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11910-7

Chapter One


Edward III was king of England for over fifty years. Among his predecessors, only Henry III reigned longer, and it was only much later that these records of longevity came to be exceeded by George III, Queen Victoria and Elizabeth II. Edward lived out virtually all of his life in the public eye. An adolescent of just fourteen when he was placed prematurely on the throne in 1327, he spent his twenties and thirties in active military leadership. Moving into a more sedentary role in government during his forties and fifties, he then declined into infirmity and died in 1377 at the age of sixty-four. Edward's sheer capacity for survival is remarkable in a period when both the medical and the political odds seemed so much stacked against long life. He outlived his three siblings, his wife and eight of their twelve children. At a time when military commanders took it for granted that they might die in battle, in tournaments, or from debilitating diseases contracted on campaign, and in an age when significant numbers of Edward's close associates succumbed to the ravages of the Black Death, the survival of the king came, not surprisingly, to look like something of a mark of divine favour. The collective sense of loss experienced by his subjects in the months and years after the old king's death was, indeed, palpable. In 1377 there were very few people in England who could remember – and fewer still who would wish to compare – what life had been like before the triumphant Edward had come to the throne.

The events, environments and personalities of Edward III's life and reign come down to us as a series of snatched moments and impressionistic vignettes. Only tiny fragments remain today of the buildings, artefacts, fabrics and furnishings that provided the spatial contexts, ceremonial trappings and domestic comforts of the Edwardian court. What survives is, for the most part, in the form of the written word: the chronicles, treatises and poetry composed by contemporary monks, clerks and occasional high-status laymen; the archives of the Church and of the principal cities and towns; and above all the extraordinarily voluminous records generated by royal government, especially those of the royal secretariat (the chancery, privy seal and signet) and the financial offices (the exchequer, the wardrobe or treasury of the king's household, and the chamber). These texts and documents almost always represent the king at some remove. Since England lacked any real tradition of official history or polemic, most writers had little or no personal knowledge of the events they described: only rarely, as in the cases of Adam Murimuth and Thomas Gray for the first half of Edward III's reign or of Jean Froissart and Thomas Walsingham for its later stages, did chroniclers have sufficiently privileged access to information to give their accounts a real ring of authenticity. Most of the records maintained by the great offices of central government, moreover, were highly formulaic, their self-conscious artificiality further emphasized by the fact that the majority were written in academic Latin. Only where letters, petitions and poems survive in the Anglo-Norman French still then used as a regular language of speech at court and in polite circles do we begin to approach something of an authentic register. And until the latter part of Edward III's reign Middle English, the everyday language of most of the king's ordinary subjects, was virtually never employed as a means of written expression and communication beyond the literary genre of poetry.

All of this, then, makes for major challenges of comprehension. We can know reasonably surely what Edward III looked like, what he wore, where he travelled, how he conducted himself in war and what he said in ceremonial acts of state. We may even fleetingly discern something of the quality of his personal relationships in his fondness for his family, his occasional impatience with his administrators, his fun and games with friends, and the affectionate nicknames he gave to his intimate domestic servants. But to address the greater task of establishing the king's character and motivations is constantly to remark just how much remains unknown and unknowable. This book aims, as much as is possible, to recover Edward III's experiences, deeds, words, behaviour and demeanour, and thus to evaluate the degree to which the king's own character and ambitions defined, shaped and transcended the institutional structures and political conventions of his day. Only in this way, it is argued, can we reach an overall assessment of Edward both as king and as man. It is for the reader to decide whether the darkness of the intervening centuries ultimately allows such a meaningful relationship to be established between the medieval monarch and his modern biographer.

The future Edward III was born at Windsor castle on 13 November 1312. Later in his life he was to make much of his association with Windsor and would transform the castle into a great memorial to his monarchy. In the early fourteenth century, however, the royal residence had relatively few palatial pretensions. Henry III had carried out improvements in the mid-thirteenth century, but Edward I had preferred to use the royal manor house in the Great Park, a much-favoured venue for hunting parties. Edward II was a more frequent visitor to the castle and, recalling that both his mother and his grandmother had borne and raised children there, consciously selected the castle as the appropriate venue for the birth of his own first child in 1312. The court had been at Windsor more or less continuously since mid-September, though the king initially spent much of his time away from the queen, hunting in the park. His brief foray to the castle between 15 and 18 October could have been provoked by fears that his wife, Isabella of France, was about to undergo a premature delivery, but things became sufficiently stable again for him to make a visit to Westminster at the end of the month. He was back at Windsor on 12 November, just in time for the birth, early on Monday 13 November, of his new baby son. The prince's birthday was the Feast of St Brice; when he became king, the day was celebrated with distributions of special alms and was sometimes annotated in the household accounts for its royal significance.

The queen's uncle, Louis of Evreux, was in attendance at the English court at the time of the birth, and a rumour developed that he and Isabella had demanded that the prince be given one of the names used by the recent kings of France. Considering the general influence that Philip IV had expected to enjoy over the English royal family as a result of the marriage of his daughter to Edward II in 1308, the story seems reasonably plausible. It is likely, though, that Evreux expected to exercise the prerogative of the godparent and have the boy christened Louis rather than Philip. To modern nationalist sensibilities this may seem unrealistic; however, contemporaries may have been more persuaded. The proposal harked back to the great thirteenth-century French model of kingly sanctity, Louis IX: later, when Edward III explicitly claimed the throne of France as heir of St Louis, he was dubbed by one continental satirist with the double style 'Edward Louis'. In the end, however, the accident that had delivered two successive kings with the distinctly English name of Edward proved more powerful. The selection of this name placed the new heir to the throne in a line running back through his own father and grandfather to England's own most powerful king-saint, Edward the Confessor. In due course, the prince was therefore destined to become 'King Edward the Third after the Conquest' – the first ruler of England, in fact, to have a number formally included in his official title.

King and people had more than usual cause for celebration at the birth. Since Edward II's accession in 1307 the throne had lacked an heir apparent, and there was some concern that the king's sudden death might create a succession crisis. This was no idle speculation. Edward II's older brothers, John, Henry and Alfonso, had all died young. The line had been strengthened after Edward I's second marriage to Margaret of France and the birth of two more sons, Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock, but they were still only boys at the birth of their nephew in 1312. Of the other cadet branches of the royal family, the line of King John's younger son, Richard of Cornwall, had become extinct on the death of Edmund of Almaine, earl of Cornwall, in 1300, leaving only the house of Lancaster, descended through Henry III's younger son, Edmund Crouchback (d. 1296), and represented in the opening decades of the fourteenth century by the latter's son, Thomas of Lancaster. Thomas never cast himself in the role of pretender, but his extraordinary wealth and high political profile may have led some to conclude that he was a viable heir presumptive. Disputed successions, as the situations in Scotland in 1290 and subsequently in France in 1328 made clear, fundamentally threatened the political and moral order of the realm. Accordingly it was much to England's relief, as well as her pride, that King Edward II was provided with an heir apparent in 1312.

The new royal child was, by all accounts, gratifyingly robust. While we have a considerable body of information on the medical treatments of Edward II and Queen Isabella, it is striking that there are no extant references to Prince Edward being administered medicines or tended by doctors in his infancy. The famous Oxford physician John Gaddesden, who later treated Edward's own children, referred in his treatise, the Rosa Anglica, to having saved 'the son of the illustrious king of England' from smallpox by the dubious but time-honoured practice of wrapping the child in a red blanket. But although it is often assumed that the boy in question was the future Edward III, it seems much more likely from other dating evidence that the reference is to one of Edward I's younger sons, Thomas or Edmund.

For Edward II, the birth of an heir was a cause of obvious celebration in a year otherwise dominated by difficulty and tragedy. The flamboyant and unpredictable Edward had flouted political and social convention by blatantly promoting the interests of his closest friend, Piers Gaveston. The nature of the relationship between these two men has been much discussed. Edward II's decision in 1307 to override his father's plans and grant the earldom of Cornwall not to one of his half-brothers but to the newcomer Piers suggests that he bestowed on his favourite the special status of adopted brother. In liberal twenty-first-century cultures it can be much more openly speculated as to whether this was indeed a same-sex love affair. But even supposing the friendship to have been platonic, there were many ready explanations for the extraordinary hatred shown towards Gaveston by other members of the elite. Piers was an alien (his family came from Gascony) and an upstart. He may have been more interested in the trappings than the substance of power. But his overbearing influence on Edward threatened to shut off channels of communication between the crown and its 'natural' (native-born) advisers, the high nobility, and thus fundamentally to disrupt the sense of balance and cohesion within the ruling elite.

In 1310 an unusually united nobility led first by the earl of Lincoln and then by Thomas of Lancaster had forced the king to accept a reformist agenda, the 'New Ordinances', whose central clause required that Piers Gaveston 'be forever exiled from the realm, never to return'. Although the king initially complied with this demand, he quickly sought opportunities to confound the Ordinances and called the unrepentant Piers back to his side, pronouncing him pardoned and restored to his estates in January 1312. This flagrant breach of faith galvanized the opposition, and Gaveston, who was placed in the custody of the earl of Pembroke, was seized by Warwick and put to death at Blacklow Hill, on the road between Warwick and Kenilworth, in June. A number of contemporary chroniclers commented that Edward II's resulting grief lifted, if only briefly, at his son's birth in November. Something of the quality of that joy is certainly revealed by the grant subsequently made to John Launge, the queen's yeoman, and his wife Joan, one of Isabella's damsels, of a handsome annuity of £80 for bringing the king news of the queen's safe delivery.

It was in the new spirit of optimism engendered by the birth of the prince that Edward II also sought a rapprochement with the queen. Isabella of France had been only twelve years old at the time of her marriage in 1308, and had been placed in an extremely difficult situation as a result of the king's favouring Gaveston. It is doubtful how much credence we can give to the story that Piers had dressed in the royal purple and usurped the queen's role at the banquet following the royal couple's coronation. But it is clear that Isabella's father, Philip the Fair, had strong concerns over her treatment at the English court. It is possible that her family forbade the consummation of the marriage for some years, even perhaps until the conception of Prince Edward at York in the spring of 1312. The queen's loneliness during the intervening period is touchingly revealed by her adoption of a Scottish orphan boy named Thomalin in 1311. It is hardly surprising that by early 1312 Isabella was already engaged in secret correspondence with the earl of Lancaster, deriving a personal assurance from him that Gaveston would be separated, once and for all, from the king. As the time for the birth of the queen's first child approached, her father also grew increasingly solicitous for her welfare. Although Isabella had her own physician, Master Theobald, Philip IV dispatched his surgeon, Henri de Mondeville, to supervise the confinement.

The death of Gaveston and the arrival of the prince therefore did much to improve the young Queen Isabella's political and personal standing. A public holiday was proclaimed in London on 14 November and a great service of thanksgiving was held at St Paul's Cathedral. A week later, following a similar ceremony at Westminster Abbey, Londoners enjoyed further celebrations, during which the conduit in Cheapside ran with wine. The Vita Edwardi Secundi summed up Edward II's achievements by 1313 in strikingly domestic terms: 'Our King Edward has now reigned six full years and up until now he has achieved nothing praiseworthy or memorable, except that he has made a splendid marriage and has produced a handsome son and heir to the kingdom.'

Meanwhile, the new prince had been christened in St Edward's Chapel, Windsor, on 16 November 1312, the Feast of St Edmund Rich. A precious fragment of the font in which he 'was washed in the water of holy baptism' still survives. Taking advantage of the current round of talks with the papacy and the French, Edward II secured the services of Arnold, cardinal priest of St Prisca, to perform the ceremony and elected as the child's godfathers Richard, cardinal bishop of Poitiers, John Droxford, bishop of Bath and Wells, Walter Reynolds, bishop of Worcester, Louis, count of Evreux, the earls of Richmond and Pembroke and Hugh Despenser the Elder. The event had a distinctly political air about it, and a number of people were notable by their absence. The omission of the archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Winchelsey, for example, may have been a deliberate snub, for he had been a conspicuous supporter of the Ordainers. It is certainly significant that on his death the following May, Winchelsey was to be succeeded at Canterbury by one of the prince's new godfathers, the loyal Walter Reynolds. Nor, inevitably, were any of those implicated in Gaveston's murder present at the event. Indeed, the fractious Lancaster and his confederates were still in arms against the king.

The celebrations following the christening were inevitably somewhat forced. The costs of the king's hall, which normally stood at about £30, rose only to a relatively modest £57 on the day of the prince's baptism. Little over a month later, however, a tribunal presided over by the cardinals, where Edward II was represented by Pembroke and Despenser the Elder, produced proposals for a political reconciliation between the king and his errant barons. Thus, while the chroniclers were generally agreed that Gaveston's death created a personal blood feud between the king and Lancaster, it was not at all certain that there was any general commitment among the political elite to the perpetuation of hostilities. The royal family itself passed much of the winter of 1312–13 together at Windsor, where Christmas was celebrated with considerable magnificence. It was in such moments of relative calm that Edward II and Queen Isabella expressed for public benefit whatever elements of natural affection might have emerged in their newly established nuclear unit. For some time after the birth of Edward of Windsor, the general mood of the court was therefore both celebratory and conciliatory.


Excerpted from EDWARD III by W. Mark Ormrod Copyright © 2011 by W. Mark Ormrod. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Preface & Acknowledgements xi

Abbreviated References xv

Note on Money xx

1 Edward of Windsor, 1312-1322 1

2 Exile and Succession, 1322-1327 26

3 Tutelage, 1327-1330 55

4 England's Little Lion, 1330-1337 90

5 Family and Friends, 1330-1344 120

6 Scourge of the Scots, 1330-1338 147

7 The Leopard and the Lily, 1331-1339 179

8 The Edge of the Abyss, 1339-1341 212

9 Brittany and Back, 1341-1346 247

10 The Way of Victory, 1346-1347 271

11 For Arthur and St George, 1344-1355 299

12 The Road to Poitiers, 1347-1356 322

13 Pestilence and Politics, 1348-1358 356

14 The Ransoming of Rulers, 1356-1360 385

15 Intimations of Empire, 1360-1368 414

16 The House of Magnificence, 1358-1369 446

17 The Throne of Peace, 1360-1369 472

18 Retreat and Defeat, 1368-1375 498

19 A Fragile Tenure, 1369-1376 524

20 The Year of Sorrows, 1376-1377 550

21 Edward the Great 577

Appendix I The Titles and Seals of Edward III 604

Appendix II The Itinerary of Edward III, 1325-1377 609

Bibliography 632

Index 672

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