Nov 132018

Edward III of England was born on this date in 1312. He was king of England and Lord of Ireland from January 1327 until his death. He is noted for his military success and for restoring royal authority after the disastrous and unorthodox reign of his father, Edward II. Edward III transformed the kingdom of England into one of the most formidable military powers in Europe. His long reign of 50 years was the second longest in medieval England (after that of his great-grandfather Henry III) and saw vital developments in legislation and government, in particular the evolution of the English parliament, as well as the ravages of the Black Death.

Rather than dribble on endlessly concerning his reign, I want to emphasize two aspects of it: (1) The constant squabble over whether the king of England was also the king of France, and (2) Edward’s conscious effort to evoke king Arthur as the spirit pervading his monarchy.  The first point is generally glossed over these days, particularly with Brexit looming and nationalists marching around singing “Rule Britannia” and “There’ll Always Be An England” as if since the dawn of time, England/Britain has been a gloriously separate island nation, untouched by wogs across the channel. The inconvenient historical truth is that England was a part of Denmark for many years, and when Normans conquered England under William the Bastard, it became an adjunct of Normandy for at least a century. It was not in any sense an isolated kingdom and cannot legitimately be said to have been for centuries before. Celts were conquered by Romans who made Britain part of their empire for centuries. When they left, Angles and Saxons moved in, and, according to legend, Arthur rose to take back land for the Celts that had been stolen first by Romans, then by Anglo-Saxons. Edward embraced the legend of Arthur for complicated reasons.

Edward was born at Windsor Castle and was often referred to as Edward of Windsor in his early years. The reign of his father, Edward II, was a particularly problematic period of English history. One source of contention was the king’s inactivity, and repeated failure, in the ongoing war with Scotland. Another controversial issue was the king’s exclusive patronage of a small group of royal favorites. The birth of a male heir in 1312 temporarily improved Edward II’s position in relation to baronial opposition. To bolster further the independent prestige of the young prince, the king had him created earl of Chester at only 12 days of age.

In 1325, Edward II was faced with a demand from his brother-in-law, Charles IV of France, to perform homage for the English Duchy of Aquitaine. Edward was reluctant to leave the country, as discontent was once again brewing domestically, particularly over his relationship with the favorite Hugh Despenser the Younger. Instead, he had his son Edward created Duke of Aquitaine in his place and sent him to France to perform the homage. The young Edward was accompanied by his mother Isabella, who was the sister of King Charles, and was meant to negotiate a peace treaty with the French. While in France, Isabella conspired with the exiled Roger Mortimer to have Edward deposed. To build up diplomatic and military support for the venture, Isabella had her son engaged to the twelve-year-old Philippa of Hainault. An invasion of England was launched and Edward II’s forces deserted him completely. Isabella and Mortimer summoned a parliament, the king was forced to relinquish the throne to his son, who was proclaimed king in London on 25 January 1327. The new king was crowned as Edward III on 1st February at the age of 14.

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

To mark his claim to the French crown, Edward’s coat of arms showed the three lions of England quartered with the fleurs-de-lys of France. The French carried out raids on English coastal towns, leading to rumors in England of a full-scale French invasion. In 1337, Philip VI confiscated Edward’s duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Ponthieu. Instead of seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict by paying homage to the French king, as his father had done, Edward responded by laying claim to the French crown as the grandson of Philip IV. The French rejected this claim, of course, because the inheritance passed through a woman (his mother), and previous claims by others had settled the matter that the claimant must be descended from previous kings through the male line only (agnatic descent). Instead, they upheld the rights of Philip IV’s nephew, king Philip VI (an agnatic descendant of the House of Valois), thereby setting the stage for the Hundred Years’ War.

The Hundred Years’ War was not a single war, but a series of wars between England and France concerning who owned what and where. At the start of the wars it is not legitimate to say that there was a well-defined sense of either English national identity or French national identity. By the end of them, lines were more clearly drawn even though England still had claims to French territory.

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 been limited in their policy towards the nobility, allowing the creation of few new peerages during the 60 years preceding Edward III’s reign. The young king reversed this trend 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 (a policy which continues to this day). 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.

Edward’s wartime experiences during the Crécy campaign (1346–7) seem to have been a determining factor in his abandonment of the Round Table project. It has been argued that the total warfare tactics employed by the English at Crécy in 1346 were contrary to Arthurian ideals and made Arthur a problematic paradigm for Edward III, especially at the time of the institution of the Garter. There are no formal references to Arthur and the Round Table in the surviving early 15th-century copies of the Statutes of the Garter, but the Garter Feast of 1358 did involve a round table game. Thus there was some overlap between the projected Round Table fellowship and the actualized Order of the Garter. Polydore Vergil tells of how the young Joan of Kent, countess of Salisbury – allegedly the king’s favorite at the time – accidentally dropped her garter at a ball at Calais. Edward responded to the ensuing 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 this – which became the motto of the Order. How much of this is true is difficult to determine now. You will note that a distinctly English Order of Chivalry had a French motto.

This reinforcement of the aristocracy must be seen in conjunction with the war in France, as must the emerging sense of national identity. Just as the war with Scotland had done, the fear of a French invasion helped strengthen a sense of national unity and nationalize the aristocracy that had been largely Anglo-Norman since the Norman conquest. Since the time of Edward I, popular legend suggested that the French planned to extinguish the English language, and as 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 The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Yet the extent of this Anglicization 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 French as late as 1377. The Order of the Garter, though a distinctly English institution, included also foreign members such as John IV, 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.

So . . . how do you see England now? Has it always stood out from “the continent” in splendid isolation, or was it once something else?

Here is a recipe for a bread and egg dish called iuschett from The Forme of Curye (c.1390). Several things to notice. First, it is in English – not French. That is the direct influence of Edward’s reforms, making England more English. Second, some of the words will be unusual to you but if you say the recipe out loud you should understand it well enough. The text may be a bit hard for you to read from the image, so here is a transcription:


Tak brede y grated & ayron & swynge hem to gyder do þer to safron, sauge & salt and cast broth þer to, boyle & messe forth.

If you need help (my free translation into modern English).

Take grated bread and eggs and mix them together. Add saffron, sage, and salt, and moisten with broth. Boil the mix, and serve.

This is very much like the stuffing I use for chickens (sans eggs – yes, using “sans” is a bit coy). It sounds a tad too mushy for my tastes, so I am unlikely to try it any time soon.


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