Post-classical history


Plantagenet France?



The Paladin – Edward III

And in all battles and assemblies, with a passing glory and worship he had ever the victory

The Brut or The Chronicles of England1

The Battle of Les Espagnols-sur-Mer, 1350

‘The king stood at his ship’s prow, clad in a jacket of black velvet with a black beaver hat on his head that suited him very well, and (so I heard from men who were with him that day) in excellent spirits’, Froissart tells us, describing Edward III at the battle fought off Winchelsea on 29 August. He made his trumpeters play a German dance Sir John Chandos had brought back from Germany, ordering Chandos to sing with the minstrels and laughing heartily. Occasionally he glanced up at the look-out in the crow’s nest.

When the enemy was sighted, Edward said, ‘I see a boat coming and I think it is a Spanish ship of war!’ Then he added, ‘I see two, three, four!’ When the entire Castilian fleet came in view, he cried cheerfully, ‘I can see so many, God help me, I can’t count them!’ Sending for wine, the king and his knights drank before putting on their helmets. Although heavily outnumbered, they proceeded to win a crushing victory. The weather was fine and clear, the battle being watched from the shore by a large crowd which included the queen.2

That is how Edward III saw himself, and how his subjects saw him – brave and chivalrous, undismayed by danger, always in good spirits. In the national myth, he is the victor of Crécy and founder of the Order of the Garter.

But Stubbs attributed any admiration for him to Froissart’s hero worship. ‘The glory and the growth of the nation were dearly bought, by blood, treasure, and agony of many sorts’ he complains, referring to Edward’s ‘foolish policy and selfish designs’.3 However, his latest (2011) biographer Mark Ormrod calls him ‘Edward the Great’, praising his revolutionary battle tactics, the growth of parliamentary power during his reign, and a new partnership between Crown and ruling class.4

The puppet king

Edward was fourteen when Archbishop Reynolds crowned him at Westminster on 1 February 1326, the crown padded to fit his small head. It was a lavish coronation, to demonstrate support for the boy who was replacing his father on the throne. Henry, Earl of Lancaster played a prominent role in the ceremony as the coup owed much to outrage at his brother’s murder. For the same reason he was made the king’s guardian. In reality, if nominally ruled by a council of twelve magnates, the country was governed by Roger Mortimer and Isabella, who pretended that everything had Lancaster’s approval.

When Edward came of age the queen was reluctant to relinquish power. Nor would Mortimer let her, good fortune having turned his head. Isabella shared his greed, not only regaining her dowry lands, but acquiring estates seized by the Despensers, so that her annual income amounted to over £13,000. Roger took the Despensers’ vast lordship in south Wales, retaining the lands they had stolen, while securing even more in the Principality where he was justiciar. In 1328 he was created Earl of March (the Marches of Wales) and, whether at his castles of Wigmore or Ludlow or at the royal palaces, lived regally, staging lavish tournaments and escorted by a retinue of Welshmen.

The English did not see why they should be ruled by ‘an adulterous Frenchwoman and her paramour’ whom they blamed for the murder at Berkeley. A disastrous campaign against the Scots led by Mortimer, ending in another flight by English troops, made their regime still more unpopular. So too did the ‘Shameful Peace’ of Northampton in March 1329 that recognized Robert the Bruce as King of Scots. Edward had to be bullied into signing it, while the Westminster monks would not return the Stone of Scone.

Lancaster refused to attend parliament, announcing that he wanted to give the council proper powers by removing Edward from Mortimer’s control. He was feebly supported by the late king’s lacklustre brothers, the Earls of Kent and Norfolk, and one or two bishops. Roger responded with brutal attacks on his manors in the Midlands, even burning their churches, accompanied by Isabella (who put on armour). Lancaster submitted, to save his life.

Eager to eliminate anyone else who might lead a rebellion, Mortimer employed two agents provocateurs, a pair of rogue Dominican friars, to destroy Edmund of Kent. They did so by tricking the earl into thinking Edward II was still alive, conjuring up a ‘demon’ who put the royal brothers in touch. After concocting a plot to restore Edward, Kent was arrested at Winchester in March 1330 and sentenced to death, waiting five hours on the scaffold until a condemned criminal agreed to behead him – no one else would do it.

The fall of Mortimer and Isabella, 1330

‘The king began to grow in body and mind, which undermined the authority of the queen, his mother, and vexed the earl of March, whose guidance the queen always followed.’5 His court was packed with Mortimer’s spies, but Edward built up a circle of trusted friends, notably a household knight, Sir William Montague (or Montacute), who commanded a small guard of twenty men-at-arms, and the Keeper of the Privy Seal, Richard Bury, who was his secretary. Secretly, he sent Montague to Pope John XXII at Avignon, explaining that he wanted to break free.

A great council was to meet in autumn 1330 at Nottingham, Isabella and her lover installing themselves in the castle. Montague planned to arrest the pair, despite Edward’s reluctance to act against his mother. Sensing danger, Mortimer questioned Montague before the council and then, impertinently, the king. He could get nothing out of them, but ordered every gate and door to be locked and barred at night, placing guards everywhere, while the queen took charge of the keys, forbidding Edward to enter the castle with more than three servants.

‘Better eat the dog than let the dog eat you!’ commented Montague.6 He advised Edward, who had been infuriated by Mortimer’s grilling, to frighten the constable of the castle into leaving a postern door unlocked. On the night of 19 October Montague and the king led twenty-four men through the postern (a tunnel) and reached Isabella’s apartments undetected. After killing three courtiers in a scuffle – during which the chancellor Burghersh tried to escape down the garderobe (privy) but got stuck – and ignoring the queen’s cries to ‘Spare gentle Mortimer!’, they seized her lover as he was putting on his armour behind a curtain.7

Six weeks later, wearing a black cloak on which was painted ‘Quid gloriaris?’, ‘Where’s your glory now?’, Roger Mortimer was tried at Westminster, accused of murdering Edward II, attacking Lancaster in 1328, procuring the Earl of Kent’s death, and estranging the late king and Isabella by telling her that if she went near him ‘she would be killed with a knife’.8 The king spared Mortimer disembowelment and quartering, but his body was left hanging for two days.

Edward treated Isabella leniently. Her estates were confiscated and for two years she was confined at Windsor, where she seems to have suffered a breakdown, but in 1332 £3,000 a year (later increased to £4,000) was settled on her, together with Castle Rising in Norfolk, near Lynn. Her son regularly visited her and she went to court when it was in London, where she had apartments at the Tower. Her life was a quiet but stately one: she enjoyed hawking, reading her library of romances, listening to her minstrels and giving alms. When she died in 1358 she was buried in her wedding gown with her husband’s heart.

Edward may have consulted her on how to deal with France. Only the affection felt for Isabella by successive French kings, her father and her brothers, had saved Gascony for the Plantagenets, a link she exploited in negotiations over a long period.

The personal reign of Edward III

While welcoming Edward, the magnates wanted to bring back the Ordinances so they could control him, and, seeing themselves as his natural counsellors, were offended when he chose advisers from among the Nottingham conspirators. Four of these were given earldoms, including Montague, who became the most influential man in England. Clearly uneasy, Edward replaced sheriffs and royal castellans with people whose loyalty towards him was beyond doubt.

He had not forgotten his humiliation by the Scots and in 1332 found a means of revenge. During that summer, without English help, Edward Balliol, the son of ‘Toom Tabard’, led a group of dispossessed Anglo-Scottish magnates (known as the ‘Disinherited’) on a seemingly hopeless expedition to overthrow the Bruce monarchy. Landing in Fife, with 500 men-at-arms and 1,000 archers, on 11 August at Dupplin Moor near Scone they annihilated the eight-year-old David II’s much bigger army with arrow fire, losing only thirty-three men. Balliol then had himself crowned king at Scone but, finding little support, was soon driven out.

Edward at once recognized Balliol as King of Scots and in May 1333 besieged Berwick. The Scots tried to relieve it with their usual mix of spearmen and cavalry (15,000 troops, of whom barely 1,200 were mounted) under Sir Archibald Douglas, Guardian of the Realm of Scotland. The English king was waiting for them at Halidon Hill, 3 miles north-west of the city. Having learned the lesson of Dupplin, he placed six wedges of archers on each flank of a central formation of men-at-arms, who dismounted to fight on foot. After struggling through volley upon volley of arrows, ‘yelling their hideous war-cry’, the remnant of the Scottish schiltrons was cut down with ease when it reached the top of the hill. The English men-at-arms remounted to pursue the survivors, killing over 4,000, including the guardian and five earls. The English lost a knight, a squire and twelve foot soldiers. The Scots had been like sheep against wolves, observed a contemporary.9 Edward had revenged Bannockburn. He had also realized the longbow’s potential.

Over the next six years Edward led four more expeditions into Scotland. In summer 1336 he took 400 men-at-arms and 400 mounted archers on a ‘chevauchée’, a lengthy raid whose aim was to weaken the enemy, a tactic that became standard practice during the wars in France. He went out of his way to rescue the Countess of Atholl, besieged at Lochindorb Castle in Badenoch, then rode on to destroy Aberdeen. Wherever they passed, his troops burned crops and farms, and killed livestock – and men and women, when they could catch them.

Balliol invaded again, holding a parliament at Perth and ceding five Lowland counties to Edward, to whom he paid homage at Newcastle. Inevitably, by confiscating the lands of so many great Scottish nobles and granting them to the Disinherited, Balliol ensured bitter resistance, and within six months he was again driven out. The Scots could rely on Philip VI, who, if he did not send troops, supplied money. But Halidon Hill had ended their brief superiority on the battlefield.

The man

Tall and handsome, Edward III looked not unlike his grandfather when young, except for his yellow hair, beard and moustaches. Although in many ways Edward I was his model (he had himself buried next to him in Westminster Abbey), he lacked his grimness. A man who loved life and adventure until his health cracked in old age, he nonetheless paid meticulous attention to business, weighing each political move. ‘It is as it is’ was among his mottoes. He used display to restore the monarchy’s prestige, avoiding ‘peasant amusements’ and low company, with an unending round of feasts, pageants and tournaments.

He certainly resembled his grandfather in a happy family life. If his wife looked anything like the brown-skinned, curvaceous elder sister of whom a description survives, she must have been lovely, although her funeral effigy shows a fat, homely face. She was famous for her good nature. After the birth of an heir, Edward the ‘Black Prince’, she gave him four more sons together with two daughters who lived to maturity, besides several children who died young. Whether she was pretty or not, her husband adored her.

Like Henry II, Edward treated his five sons as partners in a family business, especially the three eldest. The Prince of Wales received Gascony and then Aquitaine; Lionel was made Duke of Clarence and married to the richest heiress in Ireland; and John of Gaunt succeeded his father-in-law as Duke of Lancaster, inheriting over thirty estates and castles. Unlike Henry’s children, all showed impeccable loyalty.

Edward was sufficiently indulgent not to object when his daughter Isabella refused to wed the young Count of Albret, and allowed his eldest son to marry a beautiful, slightly disreputable, Plantagenet cousin, Joan of Kent, who was the daughter of Edward II’s unlucky brother. In 1340, when only twelve, she had made a secret marriage to Sir Thomas Holland, but while he was away fighting in France her mother forced her to marry Lord Salisbury’s son. On his return, Thomas appealed to the pope and the couple obtained an annulment, living together until his death in 1360. Despite her past – she was known ironically as the ‘Virgin of Kent’ – the prince married Joan the same year.

According to the poet Thomas Hoccleve, the king went in disguise among his subjects to find out what they thought of him. Possessing the common touch, speaking English as well as he spoke French – in an unusually pleasant voice – he was familiar and polite to everybody. After his victories he became immensely popular.

He loved building, transforming Windsor from fortress into palace, adding a great chapel for the Order of the Garter. He rebuilt much of Westminster, including the chapel of St Stephen, which was given a cycle of frescoes (destroyed in the fire of 1834) with one of himself and his family, besides refurbishing Clarendon and other royal hunting boxes – such as a long forgotten castle at Hampstead Marshall in Berkshire. Like his grandfather, Edward saw himself as the heir of King Arthur, collecting tales of his deeds and founding a ‘Round Table’ at Windsor in 1344. Venerating Glastonbury for its Arthurian associations, in 1345 he had a search made for the body of the shrine’s founder, Joseph of Arimathea.

On progress he prayed at all England’s holy places, not only Walsingham or Canterbury, but less familiar shrines – St John’s at Beverley, St Cuthbert’s at Durham and many others. He also founded two religious houses, a Dominican nunnery in Dartford and a Cistercian abbey near the Tower of London, St Mary Graces. But if deeply religious and a regular almsgiver, he was scarcely a spiritual man.

No intellectual, Edward revelled in hawking and hunting, and was fond of fishing with a rod and line. His mews were staffed by twenty falconers while his menagerie held lions and leopards. Jousting, in which he took part, was a regular feature of court life. Indoors, both he and the queen played chess and dice. Pageantry in any form was his greatest pleasure, and he enjoyed wearing dazzling jewels and a costly wardrobe.


Edward was lucky to find a chronicler, Jean Froissart (c.1337– 1410), who immortalized him. Born in Hainault, a French-speaking cleric, Froissart recorded with unflagging enthusiasm the battles of the Hundred Years War. Sometimes called the first war correspondent, no other fourteenth-century writer possessed such gifts for describing combat, analysing personality and using dialogue. Stubbs may argue that any admiration for the king derives from Froissart, but Froissart knew what he was writing about – he first visited Edward’s court in 1361, when the king was still vigorous, and for earlier events used Jean le Bel’s chronicle.


When Charles IV, Isabella’s youngest brother, died in 1328, he left no sons and was succeeded by his cousin Philip of Valois, who descended in the male line from a brother of St Louis. Although Edward had been more closely related to Charles through his mother, he recognized Philip as King of France, paying ‘simple’ homage to him for Gascony. He was ready to pay full homage on the right terms, which meant regaining the Agenais. Disguised as a merchant, he visited Philip VI secretly and they agreed to go on Crusade together if they did not solve the dispute. But his attitude changed when Philip showed that he intended to conquer the duchy.

In spring 1336 a fleet assembled at Marseilles for the Crusade was moved to Normandy, the Archbishop of Rouen announcing that Philip would send troops to help the Scots. In response, a great council at Nottingham granted war taxes of a ‘tenth’ and a ‘fifteenth’. Although by now ‘Gascony’ was merely the coast between the Charente and the Pyrenees, the Gascons still regarded Edward III as their natural ruler, heir to the old Dukes of Aquitaine. They were subjects whom he had a duty to protect.

In 1337, angered by Edward sheltering his brother-in-law, Robert of Artois, Philip declared that Gascony was forfeit. (After poisoning his mother-in-law, Robert had tried to kill Philip and his queen with sorcery.) Edward reacted by claiming the French crown. Next year, at Robert’s suggestion his court swore to make him King of France in the ‘Vow of the Heron’, during a banquet at Windsor at which herons were served as a dish. Meanwhile, England feared invasion after the French fleet arrived on the Norman coast, raiders burning Portsmouth and Southampton. Tension grew as privateers seized English ships, parading their captured crew at Calais minus ears and noses. The English retaliated in kind, burning Boulogne in 1339.

Halidon Hill had shown Edward he possessed a weapon that won battles, while he acquired allies on France’s northern border – the Duke of Brabant, the Counts of Guelders, Hainault, Holland, Julich and Limbourg, even Emperor Louis IV. The Count of Flanders refused to join, so Edward banned the export of English wool to Flanders until the starving Flemish replaced the count with a leader who was an anti-French merchant. Money to subsidize these new friends came from heavy taxes and levies on wool that caused considerable resentment. In addition, the king borrowed from Lombard and Florentine bankers, from merchants in the Low Countries, from English woolmen and vintners. He even pawned his crown.

Edward finally invaded France in 1339, leading a chevauchée into Picardy of the sort he used in Scotland, burning and slaying. Philip intercepted him with 35,000 men, but refused to give battle. Edward withdrew to Flanders after only a month, returning to England in February 1340. All he had achieved was to run up debts amounting to £300,000. He told parliament he ‘needed the help of a great aid (new tax) or he would be dishonoured for ever and his lands on both sides of the sea would be in peril – he would lose his allies and have to go back in person to Brussels and stay there as a prisoner until the sums he owed had been paid in full’.10 Fearful of French invasion, parliament agreed to a ninth on agricultural produce and a ninth on townsmen’s goods, while insisting he observe the provisions of Magna Carta and the Forest Charter, end the exorbitant ‘maletote’ on wool and stop sheriffs from holding office for more than a year. This enabled him to equip an invasion fleet.

A French armada, including Castilian and Genoese vessels, assembled at Sluys on the Flemish coast, to intercept the king. In June 1340 he sailed from Orwell to attack it, despite Archbishop Stafford warning him he did not have enough men. Although the French fleet included so many vessels that their masts looked like a forest, Edward won a great victory. Directing his fleet from his flagship the Thomas of Winchester, he used wind and tide to defeat them, grouping his own ships in threes – one carrying men-at-arms flanked on each side by another with archers. Outshooting the enemy’s crossbows, his longbowmen massacred the French before his men-at-arms boarded. He captured 166 vessels. The main English casualty was a cog carrying ladies of the court, which was sunk by gunfire, while the king himself was wounded by a bolt in the thigh. His campaign on land was less successful, Philip VI refusing to settle matters by a duel or a full-scale battle.

Shortage of cash forced Edward into a truce. Informed by an official in London that funds for his immediate needs were available at the Tower, he arrived there at midnight, having sailed up the Thames, so unexpectedly that the constable was away. He then sacked the chancellor, the treasurer and three senior judges, arresting leading merchants and legal officials for corruption.

He also tried to send the previous chancellor, Archbishop Stratford, to Flanders as security for his debts. Stratford, who saw himself as another Becket, compared the king to the evil Rehoboam of Scripture who had threatened to chastise his subjects with scorpions, whereupon Edward unfairly charged the primate of encouraging him to wage war without sufficient funds. In a letter to the pope, he claimed that Stratford had hoped lack of money would bring about his defeat and death, even accusing the saintly archbishop of lecherous designs on the queen. In the end Stratford escaped when parliament decided that a lord spiritual could only be tried by his peers.

Out of character, the king’s behaviour can only be explained by stress. His debts amounted to five times his revenue and he had pawned his crown. His perseverance was astonishing, and so was his ability to extract taxes despite bad harvests. The victory at Sluys helped to some extent, most people realizing that it made a French invasion less likely. Even so, in 1341 he was forced to appoint ministers on the advice of his lords in parliament, just as the Ordinances had stipulated thirty years before, a concession Edward cancelled after extracting the money he needed.

When his Florentine bankers, the Bardi and Peruzzi, collapsed (from lending all over Europe rather than the king’s default), he borrowed from wealthy English merchants and a single, exceptionally rich, nobleman, the Earl of Arundel. The country accepted it would have to give more towards the war effort, allowing the king to levy his hated taxes on wool. Why there was such hatred of the French in a period supposedly antedating nationalism may be hard for us to understand, yet it was there all right. Edward whipped up xenophobia to overcome the grumbles of magnates and commons.

He also adopted a cheaper strategy. The Duke of Brittany having died early in 1341, the Breton succession was disputed by his brother’s daughter Jeanne, Countess of Blois, and his half-brother, John of Montfort. While Philip VI accepted Jeanne’s claim, Edward recognized John as duke in return for homage to him as King of France. Edward arrived in Brittany in 1342, besieging key cities, and when he went home left behind Sir Thomas Dagworth, an Essex man who although nearly seventy was an outstanding soldier. The Breton war enabled Edward to attack Philip on several fronts at once with small armies. In 1345 his cousin Henry of Grosmont, Earl of Lancaster regained the Agenais while Dagworth ravaged Brittany. Edward prepared an invasion.

He was a master of logistics. Commissions of array no longer summoned the old feudal muster but raised troops by indenture with young, energetic nobles and gentry, who each assembled a retinue – the indentures specifying number, type, period of service and rates of pay, which came from the Exchequer. Every town supplied a fixed quota of men, similarly paid, while a substantial number of archers were criminals recruited by free pardons. Horses, weapons, armour and victuals (salted and smoked meat, dried fish, cheese, flour and beans, ale) were gathered from all over England and stockpiled. The army was shipped across the sea with munitions and supplies in an armada of requisitioned ships.

In July 1346, instead of going to Flanders as the French expected, Edward landed in Normandy with 15,000 troops and sacked Caen, killing most of its population. Among the loot was a document containing Philip VI’s plan to invade England in 1339, which the king sent home to be read out at St Paul’s by the Archbishop of Canterbury – to show his subjects he had saved them from the miseries he was inflicting on the French. Burning and slaying, he marched to Paris where, since he was in no position to besiege it, he torched Saint-Germain and Saint-Cloud nearby. Having panicked Philip into recalling the troops sent to deal with Lancaster and Dagworth, Edward retreated northwards.

After a lengthy pursuit the enemy caught up with him near the little town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu, early in the evening of 26 August. The English, about 2,000 men-at-arms and 7,000 archers with 1,500 Welsh knifemen, occupied rising ground, one side of which was protected by a small river and the other by woods. Edward formed them up well before the battle. His cavalry were to fight dismounted, in three divisions six men deep, his archers on the flanks. After going among them, chatting and joking, he gave orders to sit down to eat and drink until the trumpets sounded, plenty of cattle and large supplies of wine having been found nearby. One reason for confidence was his archers’ ability to shoot twelve arrows a minute, with a killing range of about 150 yards against unarmoured men and about 60 yards against men in armour. At most, the enemy’s crossbows shot four bolts a minute.

The French army was three times larger, 10,000 men-at-arms (many from the upper nobility), with 6,000 mercenaries and 14,000 levies. Philip wanted to wait until the next day, but his nobles insisted on fighting immediately and, in their haste to get at the enemy, rode over their own crossbow men. Until after nightfall, in charge after charge French mailed cavalry were shot down by English archers, Philip being hit in the face by an arrow and having his horse killed under him before being led away. Over 1,500 French noblemen died, with 10,000 other troops, their corpses lying in heaps, while Edward lost only a hundred men.

Crécy was followed by other victories. In September Lancaster led a chevauchée that culminated in the capture of Poitiers, and regained four Gascon provinces. In October a raid across the border by the young King of Scots was defeated at Neville’s Cross near Durham, David II being taken prisoner and brought in triumph to the Tower of London where he spent nine years. In May 1347 Sir Thomas Dagworth routed the pro-French Bretons at La Roche-Derrien, capturing their duke.

Only a month before La Roche-Derrien, Calais surrendered after an eleven-month siege that had begun after Crécy, during which the king housed his army in a town of wooden huts. A show trial of rich burghers, pardoned at Queen Philippa’s dramatic intervention, was staged to distract attention from other townsmen being evicted from their homes. They were replaced by settlers who made the port an English gateway into France for the next two centuries.

Although Edward’s sole gain was Calais, the war was popular as a source of plunder and profit. In 1348 there were few women who did not own something from Caen, Calais or some other town over the seas, such as clothing, furs or cushions. French tablecloths were in everybody’s houses, ladies wore French matrons’ finery. The Parliament Roll records how lords and commons approved motions thanking God for their king’s victories and agreeing that monies voted for him were well spent. He had finally united the magnates behind him. No one could have foreseen the calamity that stopped the war.

The Great Pestilence (later called the Black Death), which reached England in June 1348, combined bubonic and pneumonic plague with other diseases. It killed quickly and horribly, exterminating half of England’s population within a few months. In September, on her way to marry the King of Castile’s heir, Edward’s daughter Joan was struck down at Bordeaux. ‘No fellow human being can be surprised that our very souls have been in torment from the sting of this bitter grief, for we are human too’, wrote her father. ‘But we, who place our trust in God and our life in his hands . . . give thanks to Him that one of our family, free of all stain, whom we have loved with pure love, has gone before us to heaven.’11

Edward ordered public prayer, fasting and penance. Dead peasants could not work the land and, realizing they were indispensable, survivors demanded pay that threatened the entire economy. In June 1349 the king issued the Ordinance of Labourers, confirmed by parliament in 1351 – anyone asking higher wages would be imprisoned; everybody under sixty must work. Despite being proclaimed at the shire quarter-sessions by country gentlemen called justices of the peace, it had no effect. Yet the Ordinance at least showed awareness of the problem.

Ignoring the plague, Edward kept an ever more splendid court. In 1348 the Knights of the Order of the Garter, which had been founded four years before, were given magnificent robes to wear at their ceremonies in St George’s Chapel. For all the story of the king picking up the beautiful Lady Salisbury’s garter and declaring, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (may he be ashamed who thinks evil of it) to save her from embarrassment, it had a political function. Most members, veterans of the campaigns in France, were not only successful commanders but magnates, such as Lancaster and the Earl of Warwick, which reassured the old nobility.

During Christmas 1349, Edward learned that the French had bribed the Italian mercenary who was governor of Calais to hand over the city. Terrifying the governor into turning double agent, the king and his eldest son crossed the Channel and entered Calais secretly, fighting incognito under Sir Walter Manny’s command and ambushing the enemy when they came to take possession. Characteristically, Edward gave his prisoners a sumptuous dinner on New Year’s Eve, presiding in person and wearing a pearl coronet.

The next year he destroyed the Castilian fleet off Winchelsea in the engagement known as Les Espagnols-sur-Mer, confirming his control of the Channel. Determined to conquer France, Edward then embarked on a series of chevauchées, to weaken the new Valois king, Philip’s son John II. Yet for a decade after Crécy no more decisive battles were fought on land. While Edward retained Calais and what had been recovered in Gascony, he did not make any further gains.

Despite the Black Death, it was easier for him to find money for the war, presented to parliament as ‘a joint stock enterprise undertaken for the defence of the realm and of his legitimate claim to the throne of France’.12 Everyone knew of his victories from his letters to bishops and abbots, read out in parish churches, marketplaces and shire courts. Since 1345 a gifted treasurer, William Edington, Bishop of Winchester, had been centralizing royal revenue under the Exchequer so that the king’s income could be properly budgeted, which enabled him to finance campaigns without asking too much in taxes. In any case, lords and commons were more inclined to finance hostilities because of the loot.

Even the magnificent new coinage introduced in 1344 served as propaganda. Gold nobles, half-nobles and quarter-nobles had an image of the king in armour, standing in a ship and bearing a shield with the arms of France and England. A jingle ran:

Four things our noble showeth unto me,

King, ship and sword, and power of the sea.

Accompanied by the words, ‘King of France and England’, so that no one could fail to understand its meaning, the image symbolized Edward’s claim to the French crown, his victory at Sluys and his control of the Channel. Unlike Henry III’s gold penny, the noble proved a lasting success.

The king had built a team of commanders, from very different backgrounds. Lancaster, whom he made a duke in 1351, belonged to the blood royal, while the Hainaulter Sir Walter Manny was a kinsman of the queen and Sir John Chandos’s Derbyshire manor had belonged to his family since the Conquest. By contrast, Thomas Dagworth – aged nearly eighty when killed in an ambush – was of humble origin, as was his successor as Captain of Brittany, Walter Bentley, another fine soldier. (Bentley made his fortune by marrying Jeanne de Clisson, a female pirate known as the ‘Lioness of Brittany’.) The team included semi-bandits like Sir Robert Knolles and his half-brother Sir Hugh Calveley, who led ‘free companies’ of brigands. There was even an ex-serf from Norfolk, Sir Robert Salle, personally knighted by the king. But his best general was his eldest son Edward, Prince of Wales, nicknamed the ‘Black Prince’ from his armour.

In 1354, in secret instructions to the Duke of Lancaster, the king revealed how aware he was of his Plantagenet inheritance. In return for peace, Lancaster must demand the duchies of Aquitaine-Guyenne and Normandy and the county of Ponthieu, just as the king’s ancestors had held them. He must also obtain Anjou, Poitou, Maine, Touraine, the Angoumois, the Limousin and all lands ruled by Henry II. The next year, Edward launched two major offensives. The attack he led in the north was let down by the defection of his ally the King of Navarre, and failed. The other offensive under the Black Prince laid waste to Languedoc, destroying whole towns.

Unexpectedly, the Black Prince then won a shattering victory. In September 1356, on a similar chevauchée, he was intercepted by John II near Poitiers – and, astonishingly, 6,000 Englishmen routed 20,000 Frenchmen. His father’s aims now grew more attainable. John was brought to England, to be housed in the Savoy Palace at London for the next four years.

David II was still in the Tower and in 1356 Balliol surrendered his claim to the Scottish crown to Edward, who immediately led a vicious raid into Scotland, known as the ‘Burnt Candlemas’, although bad weather soon made him withdraw, with a great booty of loot and livestock. If he hoped to become King of Scots, it was an odd way of endearing himself to his future subjects. However, later that year he released David, whom he recognized as king while extracting a crippling indemnity.

In autumn 1359 Edward again invaded northern France, to capture Rheims (crowning place of the kings of France) for his coronation. Rheims proved impregnable and after two months spent camping before its walls in the snow, he set off on a chevau-chée that took him to Burgundy. He then appeared before Paris, but the Dauphin refused to come out and fight, so he returned to the coast through the Beauce, inflicting terrible devastation.

Despite vast plunder, Edward then accepted that he did not have the resources to make himself King of France. He compromised. In May 1360, by the Treaty of Brétigny, John II ceded Guyenne, Poitou, the Limousin and other territories in full sovereignty to Edward, who renounced his claim to the French throne. Created Prince of Aquitaine, the Black Prince ruled the new state from Bordeaux as an independent country, installing a glittering ducal court at his capital. It seemed that his father had achieved a large part of his ambitions.

Had Edward III died soon after Brétigny, he would be remembered as our greatest king. He had united England behind him with his ‘we’re all in this together’ approach, victory after victory and a river of loot. The loot took the sting out of taxation that came to be taken for granted by the Commons.

His reputation as a conqueror and his awesome presence, enhanced by dazzling pomp, had given him a god-like image. He increased his popularity still further by fostering a sense of nationalism. In 1362 a statute ordained that English must be spoken in the law courts, while from then on the king opened parliament in English. He encouraged his courtiers to read the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, who was made one of his ‘varlets de chambre’ in 1367 and awarded a gallon of wine a day in 1374.

French resurgence

The Black Prince possessed all his father’s magnificence and physical courage, but not his charm or political sense. Haughty and extravagant, he made himself disliked throughout his principality, even in the Gascon heartland, which was normally unshakably loyal to the Plantagenets. During an ill-judged intervention in a war for the Castilian throne, although he won a splendid victory at Najéra in 1367 he incurred huge expenses. To pay for these and for his lavish court, he levied a hearth tax that alienated local magnates as well as squires. In 1369 they appealed against it to the new French king, Charles V, who took the opportunity to ‘confiscate’ Aquitaine. War broke out first in northern France, however, where Edward’s county of Ponthieu rose against the English and declared for Charles.

Because of ill health, Charles V employed a Breton squire, Bertrand du Guesclin, to fight the war for him. Realizing English archers and dismounted men-at-arms were unbeatable, Bertrand used guerrilla warfare, with hit-and-run raids that cut communications, isolated strongholds and wore down morale. The Black Prince fought back ferociously, massacring the entire population of Limoges after its recapture in 1370, a crime which shocked all Aquitaine. Then his health cracked, and he returned to England as an invalid.

When Poitou went over to Charles in 1372, King Edward sailed for France in August with 14,000 troops, but his armada was blown back to port by storms. Then a Castilian fleet defeated the English at sea, making it impossible to send reinforcements to Aquitaine. The next summer John of Gaunt led a chevau-chée from Calais to Bordeaux via the Auvergne, the sole answer the English could make to the new French tactics, but it ended with Gaunt losing half his army and all his horses. By the end of 1373 the Principality of Aquitaine had ceased to exist beyond the old frontiers of Gascony. The only other English possessions in France other than Calais were one or two seaports in Brittany and Normandy.

Alice Perrers

The authority for Edward’s final years is the last great Benedictine chronicler, Thomas Walsingham (c.1340–1422), a Norfolk man at St Albans who continued the tradition of Matthew Paris. Aided by fellow monks, well informed by distinguished visitors, his books provide the fullest account of the reigns during which he lived. Fond of scandal, he was to be the source of much of Shakespeare’s history through the medium of Holinshed.

The king had been deteriorating since Philippa’s death in 1369, his progresses restricted to the home counties. After the abortive campaign of 1372, he went to pieces, drinking heavily and falling further under the spell of a greedy mistress, once a lady-in-waiting to the queen. This was Alice Perrers, thirty years younger than him, the daughter of a Berkshire thatcher and widow – previously maidservant – of a London merchant, from whom she had acquired a highly professional interest in real estate.

‘A shameless, impudent harlot’ is how Walsingham describes Alice. ‘She was not attractive or beautiful, but compensated for these defects by her seductive voice.’13 He tells us she hired a Dominican friar, supposedly a physician but in fact a warlock, to make wax images of herself and Edward joined together, enhancing the spell with incantations and magic herbs. After giving the king a bastard son when only fifteen (before Philippa died), followed by two daughters, Alice fastened her hold. Besides extracting cash, jewels and estates that included fifty manors,14 she developed into a ruthless businesswoman.

With a City office in Thames Street, Alice was a curiously modern figure, as much entrepreneur as courtesan. She had close links with the chamberlain, Lord Latimer, and his disreputable financial agent, the London vintner and alderman Sir Richard Lyons, whom she joined in advancing war loans to the Crown at astronomical interest. Together, they bought up at a knock-down price royal debts that were then redeemed by the Exchequer at face value, often making her 100 per cent profit. She also dealt in pearls, amassing 200,000.

Always ready to use her influence at court for cash, brazenly flaunting her position, by Edward’s command Alice attended a tournament in the City in 1375 as ‘The Lady of the Sun’, dressed in a golden gown. She was clearly the model for the horrible Lady Meed in Langland’s Piers Plowman(if not for Chaucer’s Wife of Bath). Everybody other than the king and John of Gaunt loathed her, attributing her domination to sorcery and love-philtres – the heresiarch John Wycliffe called her ‘the Devil’s Tool’.

Senility and death

Looking like an Old Testament prophet, with long white beard and hair, Edward ended as a drink-sodden dotard. His third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, ruled in his name, hated for his arrogance and his friendship with Alice Perrers, that ‘evil enchantress’.15 Dissatisfaction at reverses in France and an end to the loot was fuelled by a scorching summer in 1375, during which everybody dreaded a further outbreak of plague. When the Black Prince died the following spring, the English were in despair. While he was alive they had felt safe from enemy invasion as he was a fine soldier – unlike Gaunt.

At the parliament of spring 1376, the Speaker of the Commons, Sir Peter de la Mare, complained that Edward’s chamberlain Lord Latimer (a veteran of Crécy rumoured to be a multiple murderer) and his agent, the shady Richard Lyons, had profiteered from trafficking in royal debts and moving the staple – the monopoly on wool for export – from Calais. Sir Peter also accused Alice of annually stealing thousands of pounds in bullion from the king. Before granting taxes, the Commons insisted that Latimer be dismissed, Lyons imprisoned and the lady banished from court.

Gaunt, who angrily referred to the Commons as ‘these ignorant knights of the hedgerow’,16 took revenge in the next parliament. Packed with his supporters and having his steward as speaker, it declared the ‘Good Parliament’ to have been no parliament, reinstated Latimer and Alice Perrers at court, and released Lyons from a luxurious imprisonment. Sir Peter de la Mare spent several months in a dungeon at Nottingham Castle.

Walsingham says that by early 1377 Edward sat like a statue, unable to speak or move.17 He died at Sheen on 21 June, after a final stroke. The tale of Alice stripping the rings from his fingers before fleeing from the palace, leaving him attended by only a single priest, may be untrue but shows how much she was hated. (Most of Alice’s wealth was confiscated by parliament, and she spent the next quarter of a century engaged in litigation to recover it, dying relatively poor in 1404.) In reality, Edward’s three surviving sons were at his deathbed.

He was given a funeral Froissart considered to be of a sort unseen since King Arthur’s time. When his hearse, escorted by 400 torch bearers, was carried through the streets to Westminster Abbey by twenty-four knights in black, his sons walking behind, the crowd wept and sobbed. According to his instructions, he was buried by the side of the grandfather whom he had venerated. The effigy on his tomb in the abbey has a face (derived from a death mask) that, although distorted by a stroke, inspires awe.


Edward III’s conquests did not last, despite his having spent so much blood and treasure, while he became pitiful when an old man. Yet, as Froissart says, during his prime he had been a marvellous king, and not only because of his victories; he had given his subjects peace and prosperity. Throughout his long reign there had never been the slightest hint of rebellion or civil war or rebellion, and in years to come England would remember him with nostalgia.18 Like his grandfather, he had shown himself to be a daemon rather than a demon.

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