Edward III of England (Edward III of England )

Edward III of England

Edward was born at Windsor Castle on 13 November 1312, and was often referred to as Edward of Windsor in his early years. The reign of his father, Edward II, was a particularly problematic period of English history. One source of contention was the king’s inactivity, and repeated failure, in the ongoing war with Scotland. Another controversial issue was the king’s exclusive patronage of a small group of royal favourites. The birth of a male heir in 1312 temporarily improved Edward II’s position in relation to the baronial opposition. To bolster further the independent prestige of the young prince, the king had him created Earl of Chester at only twelve days of age.

In 1325, Edward II was faced with a demand from the French king, Charles IV, to perform homage for the English Duchy of Aquitaine. Edward was reluctant to leave the country, as discontent was once again brewing domestically, particularly over his relationship with the favourite Hugh Despenser the Younger. Instead, he had his son Edward created Earl of Aquitaine in his place and sent him to France to perform the homage. The young Edward was accompanied by his mother Isabella, who was the sister of King Charles, and was meant to negotiate a peace treaty with the French. While in France, however, Isabella conspired with the exiled Roger Mortimer to have the king Edward deposed. To build up diplomatic and military support for the venture, Isabella had Prince Edward engaged to the twelve-year-old Philippa of Hainault. An invasion of England was launched and Edward II’s forces deserted him completely. The king was forced to relinquish the throne to his son on 25 January 1327. The new king was crowned as Edward III on 1 February 1327.

It was not long before the new reign also met with other problems caused by the central position at court of Roger Mortimer, who was now the de facto ruler of England. Mortimer used his power to acquire noble estates and titles, and his unpopularity grew with the humiliating defeat by the Scots at the Battle of Stanhope Park and the ensuing Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton, signed with the Scots in 1328. Also the young king came into conflict with his guardian. Mortimer knew his position in relation to the king was precarious and subjected Edward to disrespect. The tension increased after Edward and Philippa, who had married on 24 January 1328, had a son on 15 June 1330. Eventually, Edward decided to take direct action against Mortimer. Aided by his close companion William Montagu and a small number of other trusted men, Edward took Mortimer by surprise at Nottingham Castle on 19 October 1330. Mortimer was executed and Edward III’s personal reign began.

Edward III was not content with the peace agreement made in his name, but the renewal of the war with Scotland originated in private, rather than royal initiative. A group of English magnates known as The Disinherited, who had lost land in Scotland by the peace accord, staged an invasion of Scotland and won a great victory at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332. They attempted to install Edward Balliol as king of Scotland in David II’s place, but Balliol was soon expelled and was forced to seek the help of Edward III. The English king responded by laying siege to the important border town of Berwick and defeated a large relieving army at the Battle of Halidon Hill. Edward reinstated Balliol on the throne and received a substantial amount of land in southern Scotland. These victories proved hard to sustain, however, as forces loyal to David II gradually regained control of the country. In 1338, Edward was forced to agree to a truce with the Scots.

One reason for the change of strategy towards Scotland was a growing concern for the relationship between England and France. As long as Scotland and France were in an alliance, the English were faced with the prospect of fighting a war on two fronts. The French carried out raids on English coastal towns, leading to rumours in England of a full-scale French invasion. In 1337, Philip VI confiscated the English king’s duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Ponthieu. Instead of seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict by paying homage to the French king, the way his father had done, Edward responded by laying claim to the French crown as the grandson of Philip IV. The French, however, invoked the Salic law of succession and rejected his claim. Instead, they upheld the rights of Philip IV’s nephew, King Philip VI (an agnatic descendant of the House of France), thereby setting the stage for the Hundred Years’ War (see family tree below). In the early stages of the war, Edward’s strategy was to build alliances with other Continental princes. In 1338, Louis IV named Edward vicar-general of the Holy Roman Empire and promised his support. These measures, however, produced few results; the only major military victory in this phase of the war was the English naval victory at Sluys on 24 June 1340, which secured English control of the Channel.

Meanwhile, the fiscal pressure on the kingdom caused by Edward’s expensive alliances led to discontent at home. The regency council at home was frustrated by the mounting national debt, while the king and his commanders on the Continent were angered by the failure of the government in England to provide sufficient funds. To deal with the situation, Edward himself returned to England, arriving in London unannounced on 30 November 1340. Finding the affairs of the realm in disorder, he purged the royal administration of a great number of ministers and judges. These measures did not bring domestic stability, however, and a stand-off ensued between the king and John de Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury, during which Stratford’s relatives Robert Stratford Bishop of Chichester and Henry de Stratford were temporarily stripped of title and imprisoned respectively. Stratford claimed that Edward had violated the laws of the land by arresting royal officers. A certain level of conciliation was reached at the parliament of April 1341. Here Edward was forced to accept severe limitations to his financial and administrative freedom, in return for a grant of taxation. Yet in October the same year, the king repudiated this statute and Archbishop Stratford was politically ostracised. The extraordinary circumstances of the April parliament had forced the king into submission, but under normal circumstances the powers of the king in medieval England were virtually unlimited, a fact that Edward was able to exploit.

Historian Nicholas Rodger called Edward III’s claim to be the “Sovereign of the Seas” into question, arguing there was hardly any Royal Navy before the reign of Henry V (1413–22). Although Rodger may have made this claim, the reality was that King John had already developed a royal fleet of galleys and had attempted to establish an administration for these ships and ones which were arrested (privately owned ships pulled into royal/national service). Henry III, his successor, continued this work. Notwithstanding the fact that he, along with his predecessor, had hoped to develop a strong and efficient naval administration, their endeavours produced one that was informal and mostly ad hoc. A formal naval administration emerged during Edward’s reign which was composed of lay administrators and headed by William de Clewre, Matthew de Torksey, and John de Haytfield successively with them being titled, Clerk of the King’s Ships. Sir Robert de Crull was the last to fill this position during Edward III’s reign and would have the longest tenure in this position. It was during his tenure that Edward’s naval administration would become a base for what evolved during the reigns of successors such as Henry VIII of England’s Council of Marine and Navy Board and Charles I of England’s Board of Admiralty. Rodger also argues that for much of the fourteenth century, the French had the upper hand, apart from Sluys in 1340 and, perhaps, off Winchelsea in 1350. Yet, the French never invaded England and France’s King John II died in captivity in England. There was a need for an English navy to play a role in this and to handle other matters, such as the insurrection of the Anglo-Irish lords and acts of piracy.

By the early 1340s, it was clear that Edward’s policy of alliances was too costly, and yielded too few results. The following years saw more direct involvement by English armies, including in the Breton War of Succession, but these interventions also proved fruitless at first. A major change came in July 1346, when Edward staged a major offensive, sailing for Normandy with a force of 15,000 men. His army sacked the city of Caen, and marched across northern France, to meet up with English forces in Flanders. It was not Edward’s initial intention to engage the French army, but at Crécy, just north of the Somme, he found favourable terrain and decided to fight an army led by Philip VI. On 26 August, the English army defeated a far larger French army in the Battle of Crécy. Shortly after this, on 17 October, an English army defeated and captured King David II of Scotland at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. With his northern borders secured, Edward felt free to continue his major offensive against France, laying siege to the town of Calais. The operation was the greatest English venture of the Hundred Years’ War, involving an army of 35,000 men.  The siege started on 4 September 1346, and lasted until the town surrendered on 3 August 1347.
After the fall of Calais, factors outside of Edward’s control forced him to wind down the war effort. In 1348, the Black Death struck England with full force, killing a third or more of the country’s population. This loss of manpower led to a shortage of farm labour, and a corresponding rise in wages. The great landowners struggled with the shortage of manpower and the resulting inflation in labour cost. To curb the rise in wages, the king and parliament responded with the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349, followed by the Statute of Labourers in 1351. These attempts to regulate wages could not succeed in the long run, but in the short term they were enforced with great vigour. All in all, the plague did not lead to a full-scale breakdown of government and society, and recovery was remarkably swift. This was to a large extent thanks to the competent leadership of royal administrators such as Treasurer William de Shareshull and Chief Justice William Edington.

It was not until the mid-1350s that military operations on the Continent were resumed on a large scale. In 1356, Edward’s eldest son, Edward, the Black Prince, won an important victory in the Battle of Poitiers. The greatly outnumbered English forces not only routed the French, but captured the French king, John II and his youngest son, Philip. After a succession of victories, the English held great possessions in France, the French king was in English custody, and the French central government had almost totally collapsed. There has been a historical debate as to whether Edward’s claim to the French crown originally was genuine, or if it was simply a political ploy meant to put pressure on the French government. Regardless of the original intent, the stated claim now seemed to be within reach. Yet a campaign in 1359, meant to complete the undertaking, was inconclusive. In 1360, therefore, Edward accepted the Treaty of Brétigny, whereby he renounced his claims to the French throne, but secured his extended French possessions in full sovereignty.

While Edward’s early reign had been energetic and successful, his later years were marked by inertia, military failure and political strife. The day-to-day affairs of the state had less appeal to Edward than military campaigning, so during the 1360s Edward increasingly relied on the help of his subordinates, in particular William Wykeham. A relative upstart, Wykeham was made Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1363 and Chancellor in 1367, though due to political difficulties connected with his inexperience, the Parliament forced him to resign the chancellorship in 1371. Compounding Edward’s difficulties were the deaths of his most trusted men, some from the 1361–62 recurrence of the plague. William Montague, Earl of Salisbury, Edward’s companion in the 1330 coup, died as early as 1344. William de Clinton, who had also been with the king at Nottingham, died in 1354. One of the earls created in 1337, William de Bohun, Earl of Northampton, died in 1360, and the next year Henry of Grosmont, perhaps the greatest of Edward’s captains, succumbed to what was probably plague. Their deaths left the majority of the magnates younger and more naturally aligned to the princes than to the king himself.

Increasingly, Edward began to rely on his sons for the leadership of military operations. The king’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp, attempted to subdue by force the largely autonomous Anglo-Irish lords in Ireland. The venture failed, and the only lasting mark he left were the suppressive Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366. In France, meanwhile, the decade following the Treaty of Brétigny was one of relative tranquillity, but on 8 April 1364 John II died in captivity in England, after unsuccessfully trying to raise his own ransom at home. He was followed by the vigorous Charles V, who enlisted the help of the capable Constable Bertrand du Guesclin. In 1369, the French war started anew, and Edward’s younger son John of Gaunt was given the responsibility of a military campaign. The effort failed, and with the Treaty of Bruges in 1375, the great English possessions in France were reduced to only the coastal towns of Calais, Bordeaux, and Bayonne.

Military failure abroad, and the associated fiscal pressure of constant campaigns, led to political discontent at home. The problems came to a head in the parliament of 1376, the so-called Good Parliament. The parliament was called to grant taxation, but the House of Commons took the opportunity to address specific grievances. In particular, criticism was directed at some of the king’s closest advisors. Chamberlain William Latimer and Steward of the Household John Neville were dismissed from their positions. Edward’s mistress, Alice Perrers, who was seen to hold far too much power over the ageing king, was banished from court. Yet the real adversary of the Commons, supported by powerful men such as Wykeham and Edmund de Mortimer, Earl of March, was John of Gaunt. Both the king and the Black Prince were by this time incapacitated by illness, leaving Gaunt in virtual control of government. Gaunt was forced to give in to the demands of parliament, but at its next convocation, in 1377, most of the achievements of the Good Parliament were reversed.  Edward himself, however, did not have much to do with any of this; after around 1375 he played a limited role in the government of the realm. Around 29 September 1376 he fell ill with a large abscess. After a brief period of recovery in February 1377, the king died of a stroke at Sheen on 21 June. He was succeeded by his ten-year-old grandson, King Richard II, son of the Black Prince, since the Black Prince himself had died on 8 June 1376.

 

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Born

  • November, 13, 1312
  • Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England

Died

  • June, 21, 1377
  • Sheen Palace, Richmond, London, England

Cemetery

  • Westminster Abbey
  • City of Westminster, London, England
  • United Kingdom

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