Post-classical history


The end of an era

On 21 June 1377 King Edward III of England lay on his deathbed at Sheen, a royal manor house on the banks of the Thames at Richmond, just outside London. He was sixty-four years old – a good age for a medieval monarch – and even more remarkably was in the fifty-first year of his reign. But the man who lay dying was no longer the charismatic and commanding figure he had once been. A wooden funeral effigy, created from his death-mask and still preserved in Westminster Abbey, reveals the strong features, prominent forehead and aquiline nose of his Plantagenet ancestry but also the drooping at the corner of his mouth typical of a stroke victim. The impressive muscular physique which had enabled him to excel on the battlefield and in the tournament lists had become wasted and enfeebled. Even more cruelly, the series of strokes which had taken their toll on his health and strength over the previous five years had also destroyed his mind and character. Long gone were the force of personality and political acumen which had transformed England from a kingdom torn apart by internal factional squabbles into one of the greatest military powers in Europe.

Edward had withdrawn from court and government and in his last years had rarely been seen in public, appearing only occasionally when required to preside at state occasions: even then he cut a pitiable figure, having to be propped upright in his chair, unable to speak and looking ‘like a statue’. Sometimes he was borne prostrate and hidden from curious eyes on a covered barge along the Thames between the palace of Westminster in the city of London and his beloved country manor houses at Sheen, Rotherhithe and Havering-atte-Bower. These offered him the peace, privacy and comfort not available at court; surrounded by parkland and gardens, they had all been lavishly refurbished in recent years to incorporate the latest modern conveniences such as mechanical clocks and hot water piped into the king’s baths.1

For a man who throughout his long career had inspired extraordinary personal loyalty it was a particular tragedy that, at the end, he had been deserted by those who had once looked to him for decisive leadership and friendship. He had outlived most of the friends with whose aid his greatest triumphs had been won and many of the next generation, including his own son and heir the Black Prince, had also died before him. Ambitious young men no longer looked to him for advancement but to his sons and the court from which Edward himself was to all intents and purposes exiled by his physical and mental incapacity. The all-powerful monarch before whom the captive kings of France and Scotland had once been forced to bend the knee was now effectively a prisoner in his own household, which was dominated by the malign presence of his mistress, Alice Perrers. Since the death of Queen Philippa in 1369 Alice had openly flaunted her position and influence. She stood at the head of Edward’s bed when he received officials, enriched herself and her favourites at his expense and scandalised Londoners in 1374 by appearing at a tournament presided over by the ailing king as ‘Lady of the Sun’ – her costume being an impertinent reference to their relationship since Edward’s personal heraldic badge was a golden sun.2

The chronicler Thomas Walsingham, a monk of St Albans who, as we shall see later, did not scruple to bend facts to fit his own particular brand of proselytising history, gives a particularly poignant description of Edward’s last hours. Paralysed and robbed of speech by his latest stroke, the helpless king was deserted by his household, who, as it became apparent that he would not survive the night, all slipped away with whatever they could carry, leaving behind only a solitary priest to administer the last rites. Alice, ‘that unspeakable whore’, sat at the king’s bedside until his breath began to fail him – then made off with the rings she had snatched from his fingers. Though almost certainly apocryphal, the story neatly epitomises how contemporaries viewed the king’s mistress – and it was undoubtedly true that by the time Edward died Alice had acquired not only jewels worth over three thousand pounds (including a selection which had belonged to the late queen) but also lands in fifteen counties. The dignity denied Edward III in his final years was accorded to him in death by his successor: his tomb, in Edward the Confessor’s chapel at the abbey, was adorned with a noble gilt-bronze effigy which bore only a passing resemblance to the more unforgiving and lifelike representation based on the death-mask. Serene and authoritative in expression, with the flowing locks and luxuriant beard of a prophet or sage, the king reposes above a legend proclaiming him ‘the glory of the English, the paragon of past kings, the model of future kings, a merciful king, the peace of the peoples … the unconquered leopard’.3

Those who looked back to Edward’s reign in the troubled years of his successors would regard it as a golden age. He had presided over one of the longest periods of domestic peace in the history of medieval England. What is more, in an age when such things mattered, his unprecedented success in his military campaigns, particularly in France, had demonstrated that he was the chivalric monarch par excellence: ‘famous and fortunate in war; in all his battles, by land and sea, he always won the day and triumphed gloriously’. He had inflicted three major defeats on the French, at Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), conquered Calais and its marches (1347), turning them into an English enclave which would endure for two centuries, and laid claim to the crown of France itself. It was no wonder that Froissart, the greatest chivalric historian of the day, lamented his passing by declaring that ‘his like had not been seen since the days of King Arthur’.4

Yet even as the old warrior king lay dying one of the largest French invasion forces ever yet assembled was gathering across the Channel. The truce with England would come to an end on 24 June and Charles V of France had spent years preparing for this moment. What he envisaged was no less than an all-out assault on England and its dependent territories. He had reformed the royal arsenal at Rouen, begun a huge shipbuilding programme and recruited further naval reinforcements from his Castilian allies. By the beginning of June some fifty or sixty ships were awaiting his orders at Harfleur, including thirty-seven galleys, the most feared of all warships, equipped with cannons capable of firing stones and lead shot and manned by three thousand armed seamen, 3500 crossbowmen and several hundred men-at-arms. For the first time in forty years, the French were about to take the war to England.5

The onslaught began barely a week after Edward’s death and less than seventy miles from Sheen, where he had died. The French admiral Jean de Vienne landed his fleet unopposed on the Sussex coast and seized the port of Rye, which he held for several days before reducing it to ashes and carrying off a number of its wealthiest citizens as prisoners, together with a large haul of booty. Over the next few weeks he struck repeatedly and with similar success, raiding as far west as Plymouth in Devon and as far east as Dover in Kent, burning and pillaging some of England’s most important Channel ports: Winchelsea, Folkestone, Portsmouth, Weymouth, Poole, Dartmouth, Southampton and Hastings were also attacked and most were put to the torch, as were Yarmouth, Newtown and Newport on the Isle of Wight. The government had received intelligence six months earlier that just such a campaign was in the offing but little had been done to prepare for the onslaught. Plans had indeed been laid for a naval expedition to be led by the king’s son, John of Gaunt. Merchant ships had been requisitioned for service and 3940 men had been signed up for the campaign and paid the first instalment of their wages, but the death of Edward III at the critical moment when the truces lapsed threw everything into confusion. No one of any note, least of all Gaunt himself, had any intention of absenting themselves from court at this critical time in the political life of the nation. All preparations for the campaign were therefore suspended, so that when Jean de Vienne led his first wave of attacks on the south coast in June and July there was nothing in place to resist him. Worse still, of the twenty-seven ships in the king’s navy in 1369, only five were left in service: against the might of the combined Franco-Castilian fleet they were helpless.6

The terrified and despairing inhabitants of the south coast were therefore left to fend for themselves. No English fleet patrolled the Channel to protect the southern coast, vulnerable town walls were non-existent or had fallen into disrepair and aristocrats with castles in the area, including Gaunt, had failed to put them on a war-footing. The French were able to make daring lightning strikes without meeting any serious resistance. Their raiding parties leapt from the Castilian galleys as they swept into port at high tide, fired any ships in the harbour to prevent a pursuit and, in the three hours before they departed on the ebb tide, inflicted as much damage as possible.7

In the absence of the local aristocrats who should have taken the lead in defending their estates and the realm, it fell to the other great landowners, local churchmen, to shoulder the burden. The day after the French seized Rye, Abbot Hamo of Battle Abbey became a local hero by donning his hauberk, wielding his crossbow and personally leading the county levies to neighbouring Winchelsea, which stood between Rye and the beached French fleet. Not only did he refuse to discuss terms with the invaders but, when they attacked his forces, successfully fought them off, compelling them to abandon their occupation of Rye – only for them to sack Hastings instead. Several days later, the prior of St Pancras at Lewes, head of the most important Cluniac house in England, tried to repel the invaders at Rottingdean but the Sussex levies he commanded were slaughtered and he was himself among the prisoners taken back to France; his unfortunate monks not only lost their crops and suffered flooding owing to the destruction of their sea defences but also had to find a crippling ransom of £4666 to obtain his release a year later. The abbot of St Augustine’s at Canterbury rallied the local Kent levies and succeeded in driving the invaders out of Folkestone, though not before they had already burned much of the town. Where such spirited leadership was missing local people had no choice but to buy their freedom from attack: the Isle of Wight only escaped further destruction after the burning of its three main towns by paying the French one thousand marks simply to go away.8

It was not an auspicious start to the new reign but it was a highly significant one. Forty years after the outbreak of what would misleadingly become known as the Hundred Years War, the tide of victory was no longer running in England’s favour. The epic battles and successes of the 1340s and 1350s were a distant memory; the war in Spain, where the French and English had continued their struggle by proxy on behalf of the rival contenders for the Castilian throne, had seen a resounding English success at the battle of Nájera in 1367 – but that had been negated by the death of their claimant two years later and his opponent’s accession to the throne. The French king, whose defeat and capture at the battle of Poitiers had led to the humiliating Treaty of Brétigny and the concession of great tracts of French territory to his English rival, had died a hostage for his still-unpaid ransom in London in 1364 – but his successor, Charles V, had proved an altogether more able adversary than his father. He had renewed the military and political ‘auld alliance’ with Scotland, supported the efforts of Owen Lawgoch, a mercenary in his service who claimed lineal descent from the last Welsh princes, to foment rebellion in Wales and forged offensive and defensive agreements with the new king of Castile. More importantly, by 1375, under the leadership of Bertrand du Guesclin, a professional soldier whom he had controversially appointed Constable of France, his armies had recovered almost all the lands that had been ceded to the English at Brétigny.

In the face of these setbacks the English had turned once again to the tried and tested tactic which had formerly brought them such success: the chevauchée. Like the French naval raids on the English coast in 1377, though land-based, these were fast-moving military campaigns to spread terror and devastation among the civilian population by killing, burning and pillaging and to draw the enemy out to engage in battle. Under the wise guidance of du Guesclin, however, the French armies refused to take the bait and a series of expeditions launched in 1370, headed by the mercenary captain Robert Knolles, and in 1373 and 1375 under the leadership of Edward III’s sons, John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley respectively, failed to achieve anything. Lack of success in the field was made incomparably worse by the heavy losses which marked these fruitless campaigns: an army bound for English Gascony in 1372 was ambushed at sea off La Rochelle and both the fleet and the expeditionary force it carried were totally destroyed by France’s Castilian allies; the following year, after his raid from Calais to the borders of Burgundy, Gaunt lost more than half his men by marching them across France to Bordeaux in the depths of a bitter winter. Perhaps even more frustrating was Edmund of Langley’s expedition to Brittany in 1375, which had to be aborted within weeks of its arrival – not by defeat, but by his brother Gaunt’s conclusion of a truce with France. An otherwise welcome respite from war was thus soured by the need to abandon an expensive campaign which, unusually, had begun well and promised better.9

Where was the great warrior king himself during these years of ‘abject and costly failure’?10 Edward’s last personal intervention in the war occurred in 1372 when he decided to avenge the disaster at La Rochelle by raising a large army and leading it himself to Gascony. He never arrived. Contrary winds prevented his fleet leaving English waters (it took three weeks just to sail the fifty-odd miles from Sandwich to Winchelsea) and, after five weeks at sea, he was forced to abandon his plans and return home without even setting foot in the duchy. Whether it was the humiliation of this futile expedition after so many great victories, or simply a growing awareness of his own frailty, Edward now increasingly retreated from his public role. His lack of engagement with his daily duties in his last years created a serious problem for a realm and government which depended on the king as the ultimate source of all authority. More than a decade before his death Edward had declined the king of Cyprus’s urgent invitation to join his crusade against the Mamluk Turks on the grounds, he said then, that ‘I am too old. I shall leave it to my children’.11 He might have hoped that his offspring would also help him bear the burden of kingship in his declining years: there were, after all, plenty of them. His queen had borne him at least twelve, including four daughters and five sons who had survived into adulthood, though their third son, Lionel of Antwerp, had died shortly before his thirtieth birthday in 1368.

First and foremost among the royal children was Edward’s son and heir, Edward, known since Tudor times as the Black Prince, who for three decades had proved his mettle by leading his troops into victory on the fields of Crécy, Poitiers and Nájera. In addition to the customary titles of earl of Chester, earl of Cornwall and prince of Wales granted to him in childhood, Edward had also been created the first prince of Aquitaine. This was a deeply symbolic act, for Aquitaine, or Gascony as the English preferred to call it, was actually a duchy subject to the French crown which had been inherited by English kings after the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. Its status had long been a source of dispute and conflict between the two kingdoms, leading ultimately to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War in 1337. Edward III’s military victories since then had forced the Treaty of Brétigny upon the French, compelling them to recognise Gascony as a sovereign state owned by the English crown. Accordingly, in 1362, Edward had granted the ‘principality’ for life to his eldest son to rule as a ‘true prince’, owing a nominal ounce of gold annually to his father in recognition of his ultimate authority, but otherwise holding it as a virtually independent state.12 The following summer the prince sailed for Bordeaux with his new bride, Joan of Kent, and for the next nine years he ruled his new principality with an insensitivity which was not calculated to endear him to his subjects: virtually his last act there was to raze the city of Limoges to the ground for its temerity in surrendering too hastily to the French. Decades of fighting in foreign fields had taken their toll on his health, however, and at the beginning of 1371 he returned permanently to England with his wife and their son, four-year-old Richard, who had been born at Bordeaux.13

The return of the heir to the throne should have been an opportunity to bolster the monarchy but the prince was in no position to take up the reins of government that were slipping from Edward III’s grasp. He was already sicker than his father. Though from time to time he would put in an appearance on state occasions, he rarely travelled more than fifty miles from London and could no more cope with the minutiae of royal business than Edward himself. For five more years he lingered on, his illness as much a mystery to his physicians as it is to historians today, eventually dying, as he had piously wished to do, on Trinity Sunday 1376. Contemporary chroniclers were lavish in their praise of this ‘second Hector’.

When he died, all the hopes of the English died with him. As long as he survived, they feared no enemy’s invasion, and, while he was in the field, no shock of war. While he was present, the English had never suffered the disgrace of a campaign that had been badly fought or abandoned. He attacked no nation that he did not conquer. He besieged no city that he did not capture.14

The criticism of other military leaders implicit in this obituary was probably justified but the prince’s eulogists might have been less fulsome had he been well enough, or lived long enough, to take an equally active and personal role in England’s governance. Impatient and unsubtle by temperament, he had no natural inclination for politics and his diplomatic and administrative record, particularly in Gascony, where he had effectively exercised supreme authority, varied ‘from the competent to the disastrous’.15 Such was the king that England never had, for, by predeceasing his father, Edward never had the chance to tarnish his reputation in that realm by ineffective or divisive government. That distinction would pass instead to his brother and to his son, both of whom shared his autocratic tendencies but not his military skill.

The prince died just a week before his forty-sixth birthday, leaving as heir to the throne his nine-year-old son, Richard. Almost immediately the House of Commons petitioned Edward III that the boy should be recognised as prince of Wales and brought before the parliament then sitting ‘so that the lords and commons of the realm could see and honour the said Richard as the true heir apparent of the realm’. The unseemly haste of this intervention, not to mention the pointed reference to the ‘true’ heir apparent, seems to have been fuelled by fears that Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, might seize the throne for himself. Whether Gaunt genuinely harboured such ambitions it is now impossible to determine; it seems unlikely but it is telling that such suspicions were already being voiced even before the old king died. There were good reasons for this. A child-king was a prospect dreaded by all medieval societies since it created a vacuum at the heart of government which laid the realm open to faction and abuse of power: a powerful, experienced adult, particularly one of the royal blood, might therefore be an attractive alternative. And there was no one in the entire kingdom more powerful than John of Gaunt. The deaths of his three older brothers had now made him the eldest of Edward III’s legitimate sons but, since the age of twenty-two, he had also been the richest nobleman in the country having inherited, through his wife, the dukedom of Lancaster and earldoms of Derby, Leicester and Lincoln. His gross annual income of around twelve thousand pounds was more than double that of any other English aristocrat.16

Gaunt was obviously aware that, once his ailing father died, his young nephew would be all that stood between himself and the throne. He did indeed have his heart set on becoming king – but it was not the crown of England to which he aspired. After the death of his first wife he had married again, this time to Constanza, the elder of the two daughters of Pedro I, king of Castile, on whose behalf the English had fought the battle of Nájera. By this means Gaunt had obtained a claim, by right of his wife, to the throne of Castile, which was currently occupied by his father-in-law’s murderer, the pro-French Henry of Trastamara. If Gaunt could gain acceptance of his claim by persuasion or main force he would not only win himself a kingdom but also remove one of France’s most important allies, thereby protecting both England and Gascony from the depredations of the much-feared Castilian navy. In 1372, therefore, with the approval of Edward III and his advisers, Gaunt had formally adopted the title ‘king of Castile and Léon’; a few months later his younger brother Edmund of Langley married Constanza’s sister Isabella to reinforce the link between the two dynasties and prevent anyone else acquiring a claim to Pedro’s former throne. However remote, unattainable and even irrelevant Gaunt’s ambitions might have seemed to the ordinary man in the street or the field, their repercussions would be felt at every level of society over the next fifteen years. His preoccupation with them would influence, and sometimes dictate, his policies at home and abroad.17 And throughout the long years of his father’s and brother’s debilitating illnesses, followed by his nephew’s minority, his pre-eminent position meant that his policies were often those of the government.

Not even his brothers were in a position to challenge Gaunt. Edmund of Langley, though only a year younger, lacked the family enthusiasm and aptitude for war. Despite his taking part in numerous military expeditions, his leadership was in name only and he was never entrusted with sole command. Described by Froissart as ‘indolent, guileless, and peaceable’, Edmund had accepted the choice of bride dictated by his brother’s Castilian ambitions even though this deprived him of the opportunity to make a financially advantageous marriage as Gaunt himself had done. Although his father had created him earl of Cambridge and granted him an annuity of one thousand marks in 1362, Edmund never acquired the great estates which would have given him the resources and influence to make him a major player in the affairs of the realm.18 The same was also true of Edward III’s youngest son, Thomas of Woodstock. He was born more than thirteen years after Edmund, and his father had intended to provide for him by marrying him to Eleanor de Bohun, the elder daughter and co-heiress of the earl of Hereford, in 1374. As his bride was then just eight years old Woodstock was given custody of her lands until she came of age and could inherit them in her own right; he was also appointed to her family’s hereditary office of constable of England. Any hope of acquiring the entire Bohun inheritance that he might have cherished would be thwarted in 1380 when Gaunt took advantage of his brother’s absence on campaign to marry Eleanor’s younger sister and co-heiress, Mary, to his own son and heir, Henry, earl of Derby, an act which permanently divided the vast Bohun lands and left Thomas with a festering sense of resentment at the injury done to him. Thomas was the only one of all Edward III’s adult sons to whom he did not give an earldom: that honour would have to wait till the eve of his nephew’s coronation, when he was created earl of Buckingham and granted an annuity of a thousand pounds – a sum which was entirely dependent on the continuation of war with France since it was derived from the revenues of French-owned priories which were always taken into the king’s hands during times of conflict.19

Gaunt had no doubt expected that he would be appointed regent for Richard when Edward III died in 1377 but, surprisingly, no plans had been drawn up to anticipate the delicate but inevitable situation of a child inheriting the throne. In the last months of his life Edward had indeed drafted letters patent20 which entailed the crown on his male heirs and set out the order of succession on his demise: his grandson Richard was first in line but, in the absence of heirs of his body, the crown was to go to John of Gaunt. The legal status of the document is doubtful as it does not appear to have been enrolled or even made public, but the principle that the crown descended to the eldest son, and to his eldest son after him, was already well established in England. Even so it was not necessarily a foregone conclusion that Richard would succeed his grandfather. In 1199 King John had set aside the claims of his elder brother’s twelve-year-old son Arthur of Brittany to take the throne himself. It was a precedent that could easily have been repeated in 1377 – and throughout his nephew’s minority Gaunt would be haunted by persistent rumours that he intended to seize the crown for himself – but Edward III clearly intended that his grandson should succeed him. He had effectively endorsed him as his heir apparent by creating him prince of Wales in November 1376 and, in his last public act, by dubbing him a knight and admitting him to the Order of the Garter on St George’s Day 1377, but he had made no provision for how the boy’s reign would work in practice. There was little previous experience to draw on as there had only been one minority since the Norman Conquest. Before King John died in 1216 he had appointed a council of thirteen to ‘assist’ his nine-year-old son – a burden which the council almost immediately offloaded on their foremost member, William Marshal, who became ‘guardian of our person and of our realm’.21 Gaunt was an executor of the old king’s will, as he had been of his brother’s, but neither appointed him to a position of authority over Richard’s person or realm.22

If the idea was ever mooted that Gaunt should become regent it was quickly abandoned: unlike Marshal, he was not a man around whom people could rally or unite. In fact he was widely considered the most unpopular man in the kingdom. He was blamed not only for the expensive military failures of the early 1370s but also for his crass and high-handed behaviour during the last years of his father’s reign. Instead, the business of running the country in King Richard II’s name was delegated to a continual council composed of two earls, two bishops, two barons, two knights banneret and four knights. Neither Gaunt nor his brothers had a place on it, though as the king’s uncles their status guaranteed them a role in directing state affairs which, in Gaunt’s case, was further reinforced by the influence brought him by his unparalleled wealth.23

It was not until the middle of August that the council finally threw off its paralysis and began to organise its response to the renewal of war. By that time, not only had the south coast of England been ravaged, but Calais was under siege by land and sea and Gascony’s defences had collapsed in the face of a French invasion which had captured major towns, as well as the English seneschal himself, and was now even threatening the capital, Bordeaux.24 Disaster and humiliation loomed on every front.


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