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Edward III

Trip to Jerusalem Inn, Nottingham

Before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 people tended to look upon life as a ladder. Life forms were arranged in a hierarchy, with of course man at the top. History was similarly viewed as a basically upward progression towards the light. The late nineteenth century Oxford historian Bishop Stubbs was an influential proponent of this view of history. At about the same time as Bishop Stubbs was writing his books, The Origin of Species was being published. With this book the idea of orderly ladders went by the wayside. History was now no longer serving as a long introduction to the modern world. The history of the reign of Edward III, a hero of progress for Stubbs, is in some respects a time of revolutionary innovations, and in other respects a story of cautious conservatism. In many ways the story of Edward III reveals history as something circular.

Edward II died at Berkeley Castle in September 1328. His son, Edward III took the throne at the age of fourteen, put there by a coup led by his mother Isabella and her lover, the prominent noble Roger Mortimer. The coup had been paid for by arranging a quick marriage between Edward and Philippa of Hainault. The young woman's dowry was used for funding. As usual little is known about the young king's childhood. He is the first monarch whose handwriting survives, and it is fairly certain that he was educated to some degree. But with medieval kings, academic education was not considered as important as prowess in the arts of hunting and fighting, and certainly in this respect Edward III had great ability. Edward showed his talents early. After a period in which England was ruled by Isabella and Mortimer, Edward decided to move against the ruling couple. Quite why he decided to do this is not certain. The chronicler Geoffrey le Baker wrote of a rumour that Mortimer "thirsted for the destruction of the royal blood and the usurpation of the royal majesty" (quoted in The Life and Times of Edward III by Paul Johnson). Rumours are of course notoriously unreliable, but in 1330 a preemptive strike seemed to be required. In a secret operation Edward and a group of armed men entered Nottingham Castle through a hidden tunnel from the Trip to Jerusalem Inn at the bottom of Castle Rock in Nottingham. Mortimer was then arrested in his bed chamber. The day after this daring operation Edward proclaimed his personal rule. The Trip to Jerusalem still exists in Nottingham, and tours are available of the tunnels leading into the castle (see our Nottingham Castle page for details.) Mortimer was sent to the Tower and executed. Isabella was sent into comfortable internal exile at Castle Rising in Norfolk.



Exeter Cathedral

In the reign that followed, seemingly revolutionary changes occured. Edward's main concern was to re-establish national unity following the strife of his father's reign. He did this by accepting Parliament, and making it as representative as he could. The House of Commons came into being during the reign of Edward III. The King also used the old trick of creating unity at home by finding an enemy abroad. The first job was to clear northern England of Scottish raiders. In 1332 the government moved to York, and devastating military tactics were developed, centred around units of longbow men flanking foot soldiers. Within two years the Scots were successfully contained, and Edward could turn his attention to the continent. The idea was to recover England's possessions in France, even though these "possessions" were a throwback to a time when England had actually been itself a possession of an empire based in Normandy. Such details were forgotten as patriotic feeling gathered momentum. In architecture a long standing French influence was rejected. A style known as the "Perpendicular" replaced French inspired "Gothic" in church building. Generally speaking the Perpendicular, as you would expect from its name, emphasised vertical lines. There was also a characteristic emphasis on vast windows, which gave a new sense of light and space to interiors. The first church rebuilt in perpendicular style was Gloucester Cathedral. This style also appears in reconstructions at Westminster, York Minster, Exeter Cathedral, Ely Cathedral and Winchester Cathedral. The English language, spoken only by the unfashionable classes until now, also replaced French. Patriotic poems in English by Laurence Minot were read by a young Geoffrey Chaucer, and influenced his decision to write his own works in English. In Oxford John Wycliff was starting work on a translation of the Bible into English. Sir Garwain And The Green Knight, now a classic of early English literature, was written in English by an unknown author from Lancashire. Langland wrote Piers Plowman in the West Midlands dialect. There was also a move towards a unity in the English language itself. People in northern and southern England spoke dialects so different that they could not understand each other. Only people in the Midlands could understand both. It was an East Midlands dialect which started to become the standard language in England.



Burghers of Calais by Rodin, outside the Houses of Parliament

The decade 1340 - 1350 was a time of great military success for England. A string of victories started with the destruction of the French fleet at Sluys in 1340, and then continued in a land war starting in July 1346. The English and French armies met at Crecy on 26th August 1346, where English archers simply destroyed a huge disorganised French army. The chronicler Froisset listed English losses as forty, while losses for the French were four thousand knights and "men of superior quality" (quoted Paul Johnson The Life and Times of Edward III P92). Nobody bothered to count the other ranks. This battle is commemorated at Gloucester Cathedral in the huge Crecy Window, paid for by a captain who fought in the battle. At the same time an English army defeated an attack by King David of Scotland at Neville's Cross. This victory allowed Edward to stay in France and lay siege to Calais in September. After a year long blockade, the city with its huge double walls finally surrendered. Rodin was to produce a sculpture based on the sight of the burghers - town leaders - of Calais staggering out to surrender. A reproduction can be seen outside the Houses of Parliament. The Black Death of 1348 led to a temporary pause in campaigning. But by 1350 Edward was rounding off a successful decade, sailing with his fleet out of Sandwich and defeating a force of Spanish galleys off Winchelsea. All of these military adventures helped produce the united country Edward hoped for. Superior weapons and tactics meant that serving in the English army was a relatively safe, and often profitable business. This masked the economic disruption that war causes. Sir Edward Dalyngrigge made so much money from the wars that he was able to build Bodiam Castle in East Sussex.


All of this suggests great progress for England under Edward III, and in some ways of course this is the case. But there were always counter currents. The army, so important to England's new sense of power and unity, illustrates this. Military organisation had in some respects been radically reformed. The army was by now a professional organisation, with all ranks being paid. Edward's eldest son, Edward the Black Prince was paid twenty shillings a day. Cheshire archers and Flintshire lancers were paid two pence a day (figures quoted by Paul Johnson in The Life and Times of Edward III P76). Captains could now be chosen on merit and promoted accordingly. But alongside these revolutionary innovations was a continuing conservatism. Even though the army was now professional, it was still organised in a way that reflected England's traditional social structure. Career officers commanded smaller units, but larger formations were still in the hands of nobles. And promotion did not depend solely on military competence. As Paul Johnson says: "Edward promoted low born captains who had distinguished themselves, but only those who had acquired wealth and set up as landed proprietors" (P77). The army which seemed to do so much to mark a new beginning for England illustrated the delicate balance between change and stability.



Houses of Parliament

The contradictory nature of Edward's reign also extends to the foundation of the House of Commons. This unprecedented extension of representation in government seemingly must qualify for revolutionary status. But W.M.Ormorod writes:

"In the 1330s and 1340s the commons apparently tried to represent the interests and concerns of all the king's subjects, and thus give some genuine meaning to that still rather ambiguous phrase, the 'community of the realm'. But with the development of regular taxation and the sudden economic crisis provoked by the plague, they turned their backs on the peasantry and the urban artisans and pursued policies specifically designed to maintain their class interests" (Edward The III P242). Ormorod's final opinion is that "it is remarkable how little politics really changed under Edward III" (P242). There was huge social change after the Black Death. A third of England's population was wiped out, but those who were left became richer. Bonded peasants suddenly found they could become wage earners, selling their labour to landowners who took workers wherever they could find them. And yet Parliament, that seemingly revolutionary innovation was the force of conservatism, trying to put artificial limits on workers wages, and maintain society as it used to be. Towards the end of Edward's reign, this balance began to unravel. Warfare, which had been the mainstay of Edward's popularity and power began to go badly. The Battle of Poitiers in 1355 had been another huge success for England, but constant harrying of the French countryside by English soldiers caused French people to move into towns. This move helped give France a stronger sense of national unity, and made it a steadily more formidable enemy. Meanwhile Edward was beginning to slip into a sad lethargy, from which he found it harder and harder to rouse himself. In August 1369 his wife Philippa died, which hastened the king's decline. A mistress named Alice Perrers was universally unpopular. Whatever the truth about Alice Perrers she seemed unable to do anything about Edward's growing lassitude. Illness also afflicted Edward's son, the Black Prince. Until 1367 the Black Prince was still active on the continent, but then he fell ill, and never recovered. He retired a broken man to Berkhamstead in 1372, and died a few years later in 1376. Possessions in France were now reduced to Calais, and a coastal strip in western France. Military reverses were accompanied by gathering clouds in English society. The move towards a looser, more energetic and open society would eventually throw up a repressive reaction. When King Edward died on 21st of June 1377, the son of the Black Prince took the throne as Richard II. In many accounts Richard was a thoughtful, cultured king who ruled over a brief golden period in English medieval history. This was the time when Chaucer wrote his great poetry. But this final flowering of a society whose foundations lay in the reign of Edward III came to a shattering halt with Richard's deposition by the repressive Henry IV in 1399.

Naturally Henry IV wanted to tell a story where he represented progress, and did his best to get Richard II painted in a bad light. To Henry IV and Archbishop Courtenay, "progress" towards cultural freedom under Richard represented a regression. Rather than a clear ladder leading from darkness to light, we have a situation where different ages and people have different views on what progress is.