He was made earl of Chester in 1320 and duke of Aquitaine in 1325 and accompanied his mother to France in 1325. He returned to England with Isabella and Roger de Mortimer, 1st earl of March, on their expedition of 1326. In 1327, on his father's deposition, he was made king, although the real power was in fact exercised by Isabella and Mortimer. In 1328 he married Philippa of Hainaut, and in 1330 his first son, Edward the Black Prince, was born. In this year the king executed a coup and seized the reins of government, putting Mortimer to death and forcing his mother into retirement.
Edward, who had gone to Scotland on an unsuccessful expedition in 1327, resented the terms of the Treaty of Northampton (1328), by which he had renounced the Scottish throne, and decided to support Edward de Baliol against the young Scottish king David II. King Edward's victory at Halidon Hill in 1333 did not settle the Scottish question, but trouble with France arose to divide his attention.
The series of wars known as the Hundred Years War, which was to dominate Edward's reign, began in 1337. Disputes over English holdings in France, trouble between the great Flemish weaving cities (allies of the English) and their French overlords, and French aid to the Scots were the chief causes of the war. Edward's assumption of the title of king of France in 1340, based on a claim through his mother, which was first advanced in 1328, was an immediate provocation. Edward took an active part in the war, fighting in the naval victory of Sluis (1340), in the famous battle of Crécy (1346), and in the successful siege of Calais (1346-47). His son, the Black Prince, achieved a popular reputation for his exploits, such as his victory at Poitiers (1356), where he captured the French king, John II. The fighting continued sporadically even after the Treaty of Brétigny (1360), by which Edward was awarded a large ransom for the French king and large concessions of French territory. In 1369, Charles V of France renewed the war, but Edward now took less interest in it. Various factors, among them the poor health of the Black Prince, led to a truce in 1375.
Wars with the Scots, who had been receiving French aid, continued in a desultory manner. In 1346 the English had won a victory at Neville's Cross in England and made a prisoner of David II; in 1356, Edward had gone into Scotland on a harrying expedition known as Burnt Candlemas. Like the French wars, however, the Scottish wars were inconclusive in Edward's reign.Domestic Developments
Edward's long reign saw many constitutional developments. Most important of these was the emergence of the Commons as a distinct and increasingly powerful group within Parliament. The king's constant need for money for his wars enabled the Commons to assert their right to consent to all lay taxation and gain other substantial concessions.
Considerable social change was also brought about by the decimation of England's population by visitations of the Black Death (see plague), which struck first in 1348-49 and again in 1362 and 1369. The resulting labor shortage allowed the lower classes to demand higher wages and social advancement and accelerated the breakdown of the system of serfdom. Parliament attempted to curb this development with the Statute of Labourers (1351), which froze wages, but it proved impossible to enforce.
Edward's initially good relations with the church were damaged by the Statute of Provisors (1351) and the Statutes of Praemunire (first issued 1353), which were aimed at reducing papal influence on the English church, and by the king's attempts to get more money from the church. In 1371 the king's clerical councilors were dismissed. By this time Edward was under the influence of his greedy mistress, Alice Perrers, and the political scene became one of rivalry between the court party headed by John of Gaunt and the clerical party led by the Black Prince.
Supported by Alice Perrers, John of Gaunt gained control of the government, but the so-called Good Parliament of 1376 forced the expulsion of Alice Perrers from court, and several of John's supporters were impeached. John once again seized power after the death of the Black Prince. Edward III died soon afterward, and the son of the Black Prince came to the throne as Richard II. Of Edward's seven sons, five figured importantly in history: Edward the Black Prince; Lionel, duke of Clarence; John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster; Edmund of Langley, duke of York; Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester.
See W. Longman, The History of the Life and Times of Edward the Third (2 vol., 1869; repr. 1969); T. F. Tout, History of England, 1216-1377 (1905, repr. 1969); G. M. Trevelyan, England in the Age of Wycliffe (1909); J. Vale, Edward III and Chivalry (1983); M. Packe, King Edward III: Seaman (1984).
Edward III (13 November 1312 – 21 June 1377) was one of the most successful English monarchs of the Middle Ages. Restoring royal authority after the disastrous reign of his father, Edward II, Edward III went on to transform the Kingdom of England into the most efficient military power in Europe. His reign saw vital developments in legislature and government—in particular the evolution of the English parliament—as well as the ravages of the Black Death. He remained on the throne for 50 years; no English monarch had reigned for as long since Henry III, and none would again until George III.
Edward was crowned at the age of fourteen, following the deposition of his father. When he was only seventeen years old, he led a coup against his regent, Roger Mortimer, and began his personal reign. After defeating, but not subjugating, the Kingdom of Scotland, he declared himself rightful heir to the French throne in 1340, starting what would be known as the Hundred Years' War. Following some initial setbacks, the war went exceptionally well for England; the victories of Crécy and Poitiers led up to the highly favourable Treaty of Brétigny. Edward’s later years, however, were marked by international failure and domestic strife, largely as a result of his inertia and eventual bad health.
Edward III was a temperamental man, but also capable of great clemency. He was, in most ways, a conventional king, mainly interested in warfare. Highly revered in his own time and for centuries after, Edward was denounced as an irresponsible adventurer by later Whig historians. This view has turned, and modern historiography credits him with many achievements.
Edward was born at Windsor on 13 November 1312, and was called "Edward of Windsor" in his early years. The reign of his father, Edward II, was fraught with military defeat, rebellious barons and corrupt courtiers, but the birth of a male heir in 1312 temporarily strengthened Edward II's position on the throne. To further this end, in what was probably an attempt by his father to shore up royal supremacy after years of discontent, Edward was created Earl of Chester at the age of only twelve days, and less than two months later, his father gave him a full household of servants for his court, so he could live independently as if he were a full adult Nobleman.
On 20 January 1327, when the young Edward was fourteen years old, the queen, Isabella, and her lover Roger Mortimer deposed the king. Edward, now Edward III, was crowned on 1 February, with Isabella and Mortimer as regents. Mortimer, the de facto ruler of England, subjected the young king to constant disrespect and humiliation.
Mortimer knew his position was precarious, especially after Edward and his wife, Philippa of Hainault, had a son on 15 June 1330. Mortimer used his power to acquire noble estates and titles, many of them belonging to Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel. FitzAlan, who had remained loyal to Edward II in his struggle with Isabella and Mortimer, had been executed on 17 November 1326. However Mortimer's greed and arrogance caused many of the other nobles to hate him; all this was not lost on the young king.
The young, headstrong King had never forgotten the fate of his father, or how he himself had been treated as a child. At almost 18 years old, Edward was ready to take his revenge. On the 19 October 1330, Mortimer and Isabella were sleeping in Nottingham castle. Under the cover of night, a group loyal to Edward entered the fortress through a secret passage-way and burst into Mortimer's quarters. Those conducting the coup arrested Mortimer in the name of the King and he was taken to the Tower of London. Stripped of his land and titles, he was hauled before the 17 year-old King and accused of assuming royal authority over England. Edward's mother --presumably pregnant with Mortimer's child-- begged her son for mercy to no avail. Without trial, Edward sentenced Mortimer to death one month after the coup. As Mortimer was executed, Edward's mother was exiled in Castle Rising where she reportedly miscarried. By his 18th birthday, Edward's vengeance was complete and he became de facto ruler of England.
Intending to regain what the English had conceded, he won back control of Berwick and secured a decisive English victory at the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 against the forces of the boy-king David II of Scotland. Edward III was now in a position to put Edward Balliol on the throne of Scotland and claim a reward of 2,000 librates of land in the southern counties - the Lothians, Roxburghshire, Berwickshire, Dumfriesshire, Lanarkshire and Peebleshire. Despite the victories of Dupplin and Halidon, the Bruce party soon started to recover and by the close of 1335 and the Battle of Culblean, the Plantagenet occupation was in difficulties and the Balliol party was fast losing ground.
Although Edward III committed very large armies to Scottish operations, by 1337 the vast majority of Scotland had been recovered by the forces of David II, leaving only a few castles such as Edinburgh, Roxburgh and Stirling in Plantagenet possession. These installations were not adequate to impose Edward's rule and by 1338/9 Edward had moved from a policy of conquest to one of containment.
Edward faced military problems on two fronts; the challenge from the French monarchy was of no less concern. The French represented a problem in three areas: first, they provided constant support to the Scottish through the Franco-Scottish alliance. Philip VI protected David II in exile, and supported Scottish raids in Northern England. Second, the French attacked several English coastal towns, leading to rumours in England of a full-scale invasion. Finally, the English king's possessions in France were under threat—in 1337, Philip VI confiscated the duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Ponthieu.
Instead of seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict by paying homage to the French king, Edward laid claim to the French crown as the only living male descendant of his deceased maternal grandfather, Philip IV. The French, however, invoked the Salic law of succession and rejected the claim, pronouncing Philip IV's nephew, Philip VI, the true heir (see below) and thereby setting the stage for the Hundred Years' War. In response, Edward declared himself king of both England and France; by incorporating his own English coat of arms, rampant lions, and France's coat of arms, the fleurs de lys, he presented a new personal shield that proclaimed his claim to both crowns.(see below).
In the war against France, Edward built alliances and fought by proxy through minor French princes. In 1338, Louis IV named him vicar-general of the Holy Roman Empire, and promised his support. These measures, however, produced few results; the only major military gain made in this phase of the war was the English naval victory at Sluys on 24 June 1340, where 16,000 French soldiers and sailors died.
Meanwhile, the fiscal pressure on the kingdom caused by Edward's expensive alliances led to discontent at home. In response he returned unannounced on 30 November 1340. Finding the affairs of the realm in disorder, he purged the royal administration. These measures did not bring domestic stability, however, and a standoff ensued between the king and John Stratford, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Edward, at the Parliament of England of April 1341, was forced to accept severe limitations to his financial and administrative prerogatives. Yet, in October of the same year, the king repudiated this statute, and Archbishop Stratford was politically ostracised. The extraordinary circumstances of the 1341 parliament had forced the king into submission, but under normal circumstances the powers of the king in medieval England were virtually unlimited, and Edward took advantage of this.
After much inconclusive campaigning in Continental Europe, Edward decided to stage a major offensive in 1346, sailing for Normandy with a force of 15,000 men. His army sacked the city of Caen and marched across northern France. On 26 August he met the French king's forces in pitched battle at Crécy and won a decisive victory. Meanwhile, back home, William Zouche, the Archbishop of York mobilized an army to oppose David II, who had returned, defeating and capturing him at the Battle of Neville's Cross on 17 October. With his northern border having been secured, Edward felt free to continue his major offensive against France, laying siege to the town of Calais, which fell after an extraordinarily long siege-- probably the greatest single military operation undertaken by the English state in the Middle Ages-- in August of 1347.
After the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV in October of 1347, his son Louis V, Duke of Bavaria negotiated with Edward to compete against the new German king Charles IV, but Edward finally decided in May 1348 not to run for the German crown.
In 1348, the Black Death struck Europe with full force, killing a third or more of England's population. This loss of manpower, and subsequently of revenues, meant a halt to major campaigning. The great landowners struggled with the shortage of manpower and the resulting inflation in labor cost. Attempting to cap wages, the king and parliament responded with the Ordinance of Labourers (1349) and the Statute of Labourers (1351). The plague did not, however, lead to a full-scale breakdown of government and society, and recovery was remarkably swift.
In 1356, Edward's oldest son, the Black Prince, won a great victory at the battle of Poitiers. The greatly outnumbered English forces not only routed the French but captured the French king, John II. 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. Whether Edward's claim to the French crown originally was genuine or just a political ploy, it 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 Lord Privy Seal in 1363 and Lord Chancellor in 1367, though due to political difficulties connected with his inexperience, the Parliament forced him resign to 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 Montacute, Edward's companion in the 1330 coup, was dead by 1344. William de Clinton, who had also been with the king at Nottingham, died in 1354. One of the earls of 1337, William de Bohun, 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.
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 campaigning 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 advisers. Lord Chamberlain William Latimer and Lord Steward John Neville, 3rd Baron Neville de Raby were dismissed from their positions. Edward's mistress, Alice Perrers, who was seen to hold far too much power over the aging king, was banished from court.
Yet the real adversary of the Commons, supported by powerful men such as Wykeham and Edmund de Mortimer, 3rd 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 by 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. Around 29 September 1376 he fell ill with a large abscess. After a brief period of recovery in February, the king died of a stroke (some sources say gonorrhea) at Sheen on 21 June. He was succeeded by his ten-year-old grandson, King Richard II of England, son of the Black Prince, since the Black Prince himself had died on 8 June 1376.
The middle years of Edward's reign were a period of significant activity. Perhaps the best known piece of legislation was the Statute of Labourers of 1351, which addressed the labour shortage problem caused by the Black Death. The statute fixed wages at their pre-plague level and checked peasant mobility by asserting that lords had first claim on their men's services. In spite of concerted efforts to uphold the statute, it eventually failed due to competition among landowners for labour. The law has been described as an attempt "to legislate against the law of supply and demand", making it doomed to failure. Nevertheless, the labour shortage had created a community of interest between the smaller landowners of the House of Commons and the greater landowners of the House of Lords. The resulting attempts at suppression of the labour force angered the peasants, leading to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
The reign of Edward III coincided with the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the papacy at Avignon. During the wars with France, opposition emerged in England against perceived injustices by a papacy largely controlled by the French crown. Heavy papal taxation of the English Church was suspected to be financing the nation's enemies, while the practice of provisions—the Pope providing benefices for clerics, often non-resident aliens—caused resentment in an increasingly xenophobic English population. The statutes of Provisors and Praemunire, of 1350 and 1353 respectively, aimed to amend this by banning papal benefices, as well as limiting the power of the papal court over English subjects. The statutes did not, however, sever the ties between the king and the Pope, who were equally dependent upon each other. It was not until the Great Schism in 1378 that the English crown was able to free itself completely from the influence of Avignon.
Other legislation of importance includes the Treason Act of 1351. It was precisely the harmony of the reign that allowed a consensus on the definition of this controversial crime. Yet the most significant legal reform was probably that concerning the Justices of the Peace. This institution began before the reign of Edward III, but by 1350, the justices had been given the power not only to investigate crimes and make arrests, but also to try cases, including those of felony. With this, an enduring fixture in the administration of local English justice had been created.
Parliament as a representative institution was already well established by the time of Edward III, but the reign was nevertheless central to its development. During this period membership in the English baronage, formerly a somewhat indistinct group, became restricted to those who received a personal summons to parliament. This happened as parliament gradually developed into a bicameral institution. Yet it was not in the House of Lords, but in the House of Commons that the greatest changes took place. The widening of political power can be seen in the crisis of the Good Parliament, where the Commons for the first time—albeit with noble support—was responsible for precipitating a political crisis. In the process, both the procedure of impeachment and the office of the Speaker were created. Even though the political gains were of only temporary duration, this parliament represented a watershed in English political history.
The political influence of the Commons originally lay in its right to grant taxes. The financial demands of the Hundred Years' War were enormous, and the king and his ministers tried different methods of covering the expenses. The king had a steady income from crown lands, and could also take up substantial loans from Italian and domestic financiers. To finance warfare on Edward III's scale, however, the king had to resort to taxation of his subjects. Taxation took two primary forms: levy and customs. The levy was a grant of a proportion of all moveable property, normally a tenth for towns and a fifteenth for farmland. This could produce large sums of money, but each such levy had to be approved by parliament, and the king had to prove the necessity. The customs therefore provided a welcome supplement, as a steady and reliable source of income. An 'ancient duty' on the export of wool had existed since 1275. Edward I had tried to introduce an additional duty on wool, but this unpopular maltolt, or 'unjust exaction', was soon abandoned. Then, from 1336 onwards, a series of schemes aimed at increasing royal revenues from wool export were introduced. After some initial problems and discontent, it was agreed through the Ordinance of the Staple of 1353 that the new customs should be approved by parliament, though in reality they became permanent.
Through the steady taxation of Edward III's reign, parliament—and in particular the Commons—gained political influence. A consensus emerged that in order for a tax to be just, the king had to prove its necessity, it had to be granted by the community of the realm, and it had to be to the benefit of that community. In addition to imposing taxes, parliament would also present petitions for redress of grievances to the king, most often concerning misgovernment by royal officials. This way the system was beneficial for both parties. Through this process the commons, and the community they represented, became increasingly politically aware, and the foundation was laid for the particular English brand of constitutional monarchy.
Central to Edward III's policy was reliance on the higher nobility for purposes of war and administration. While his father had regularly been in conflict with a great portion of his peerage, Edward III successfully created a spirit of camaraderie between himself and his greatest subjects.
Both Edward I and Edward II had conducted a policy of limitation, allowing the creation of few peerages during the sixty years preceding Edward III's reign. The young king reversed this policy when, in 1337, as a preparation for the imminent war, he created six new earls on the same day. At the same time, Edward expanded the ranks of the peerage upwards, by introducing the new title of duke for close relatives of the king.
Furthermore, Edward bolstered the sense of community within this group by the creation of the Order of the Garter, probably in 1348. A plan from 1344 to revive the Round Table of King Arthur never came to fruition, but the new order carried connotations from this legend by the circular shape of the garter. Polydore Vergil tells of how the young Joan of Kent, Countess of Salisbury —the king's favourite at the time—accidentally dropped her garter at a ball at Calais. King Edward responded to the ridicule of the crowd by tying the garter around his own knee with the words honi soit qui mal y pense—shame on him who thinks ill of it.
This reinforcement of the aristocracy must be seen in conjunction with the war in France, as must the emerging sense of national identity. Just like the war with Scotland had done, the fear of a French invasion helped strengthen a sense of national unity, and nationalise the aristocracy that had been largely Anglo-French since the Norman conquest. Since the time of Edward I, popular myth suggested that the French planned to extinguish the English language, and like his grandfather had done, Edward III made the most of this scare. As a result, the English language experienced a strong revival; in 1362, a Statute of Pleading ordered the English language to be used in law courts and, the year after, Parliament was for the first time opened in English. At the same time, the vernacular saw a revival as a literary language, through the works of William Langland, John Gower and especially Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
Yet the extent of this Anglicisation must not be exaggerated. The statute of 1362 was in fact written in the French language and had little immediate effect, and parliament was opened in that language as late as 1377. The Order of the Garter, though a distinctly English institution, included also foreign members such as John V, Duke of Brittany and Sir Robert of Namur. Edward III—himself bilingual—viewed himself as legitimate king of both England and France, and could not show preferential treatment for one part of his domains over another.
Edward III enjoyed unprecedented popularity in his own lifetime, and even the troubles of his later reign were never blamed directly on the king himself. Edward's contemporary Jean Froissart wrote in his Chronicles that "His like had not been seen since the days of King Arthur". This view persisted for a while, but, with time, the image of the king changed. The Whig historians of a later age preferred constitutional reform to foreign conquest and discredited Edward for ignoring his responsibilities to his own nation. In the words of Bishop Stubbs:
Edward III was not a statesman, though he possessed some qualifications which might have made him a successful one. He was a warrior; ambitious, unscrupulous, selfish, extravagant and ostentatious. His obligations as a king sat very lightly on him. He felt himself bound by no special duty, either to maintain the theory of royal supremacy or to follow a policy which would benefit his people. Like Richard I, he valued England primarily as a source of supplies.
- William Stubbs, The Constitutional History of England
Influential as Stubbs was, it was long before this view was challenged. In a 1960 article, titled "Edward III and the Historians", May McKisack pointed out the teleological nature of Stubbs' judgement. A medieval king could not be expected to work towards the future ideal of a parliamentary monarchy; rather his role was a pragmatic one—to maintain order and solve problems as they arose. At this, Edward III excelled. Edward had also been accused of endowing his younger sons too liberally and thereby promoting dynastic strife culminating in the Wars of the Roses. This claim was rejected by K.B. McFarlane, who argued that this was not only the common policy of the age, but also the best. Later biographers of the king such as Mark Ormrod and Ian Mortimer have followed this historiographical trend. However, the older progressive view has not completely been neglected; as recently as 2001, Norman Cantor described Edward III as an "avaricious and sadistic thug" and a "destructive and merciless force.
From what we know of Edward's character, he could be impulsive and temperamental, as was seen by his actions against Stratford and the ministers in 1340–41. At the same time, he was well-known for his clemency; Mortimer's grandson was not only absolved, but came to play an important part in the French wars, and was eventually made a knight of the Garter. Both in his religious views and his interests, he was a conventional man. His favourite pursuit was the art of war, and, as such, he conformed to the medieval notion of good kingship. As a warrior he was so successful that one modern military historian has described him as the greatest general in English history. He seems to have been unusually devoted to his wife, Queen Philippa. Much has been made of Edward's sexual licentiousness, but there is no evidence of any infidelity on the king's part before Alice Perrers became his lover, and, by that time, the queen was already terminally ill. He is quite unusual among medieval English monarchs in having no known illegitimate children. This devotion extended to the rest of the family as well; in contrast to so many of his predecessors, Edward never experienced opposition from any of his five adult sons.
Edward III has rarely been portrayed on screen. He was portrayed by Charles Kent in the silent short The Death of King Edward III (1911), Michael Hordern in The Dark Avenger (1955), about Edward, the Black Prince, and as a boy by Stéphane Combesco in the French TV adaptation of Marlowe's play Edward II (1982) and by Jody Graber in Derek Jarman's version of Edward II (1991).
Though he did not appear in the film, Edward is implied to be the son of Isabella and the Scottish rebel, William Wallace, in the film Braveheart. In truth, it is extremely unlikely William Wallace and Isabella ever met.
See here for a comprehensive family tree of British monarchs.
|Edward, the Black Prince||15 June 1330||8 June 1376|
|Isabella||16 June 1332||1379|
|Joan||1333||2 September 1348|
|William of Hatfield||16 February 1337||8 July 1337|
|Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence||29 November 1338||7 October 1368|
|John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster||24 June 1340||3 February 1399|
|Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York||5 June 1341||1 August 1402|
|Mary||10 October 1344||1362|
|Margaret||20 July 1346||1361|
|William of Windsor||24 June 1348||5 September 1348|
|Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester||7 January 1355||8/9 September 1397|