In This Chapter
● Fighting the Welsh and the Scots
● Beginning the Hundred Years War with France
● Dealing with rebellions
● Losing the crown to a rival
The Plantagenet dynasty (see Chapter 7) continued with the reign of Edward I. Edward was a strong, impressive-looking king in the traditional mould of the medieval warrior-ruler. He believed in going for what he wanted by conquest and spent one fortune conquering Wales and building some of the country’s finest castles to defend it, and another fortune on a failed attempt to take control of Scotland, too. Edward I used to be seen as a great king, and his legal reforms - introducing local justices of the peace and giving communities the power to police their local areas - were effective. But his bully-boy tactics against the Welsh and the Scots made him a villain rather than a hero for all but die-hard English patriots.
Edward was followed by two more Edwards; his son Edward II and grandson Edward III. Edward II was a promising king, intelligent and loyal. But his reliance on a succession of favourites caused mishap and rebellion in his kingdom, and after a 20-year reign, he was forced off the throne and almost certainly murdered. His son and successor Edward III was a very different character. He embraced the traditional virtues of chivalry and founded the famous Order of the Garter. He also claimed to be rightful ruler of France and began the Hundred Years War to try to take over the country. The war lasted long after the end of Edward III’s 50-year reign.
The last Plantagenet king was Edward III’s son Richard II. Like his father, Richard loved chivalry, and he began his reign by successfully defeating the popular uprising now known as the Peasants’ Revolt. But in his later years, saddened by the death of his first queen, Anne, he became both tyrannical and unpredictable. His fights with his senior barons finally got too much and Richard was deposed, the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV taking over.
Longshanks: Edward I
The eldest son of Henry III and his queen, Eleanor of Provence, was born in 1239 and was in his 30s before he came to the throne in 1272. By this time, Edward I already had a reputation for being a man of action who was used to playing a key role in the affairs of the nation.
Edward had sided with the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, who wanted to reform the monarchy and limit the power of his father, but he turned against de Montfort when the rebellious baron seemed to be posing too great a threat to royal power. Edward even led the royal forces when they defeated de Montfort in 1265 at the Battle of Evesham.
Edward I must have cut an impressive figure on the battlefield. He was tall - a head taller than most other men at the royal court - and his stature earned him the nickname Longshanks. His arms were long, too, which meant he usually had the advantage over his opponent in a sword fight. The king’s awesome stature, combined with bravery and a quick temper, made him a fearsome figure.
When Edward was away from the battlefield, his family sometimes had to bear the brunt of his temper. He once had a row with his daughter Elizabeth and threw her coronet into the fire, and on another occasion he is said to have grabbed his son Edward and started to tear out his hair in rage.
But Edward had a more peaceful side, too. He loved chess and falconry, was an enthusiast for the courtly virtues of chivalry, and was a pious Christian.
The religious and soldierly sides of his character came together in 1270 when Edward went off to the Holy Land to join one of the numerous Crusades, ostensibly to win back territory in the eastern Mediterranean for the Christians.
It didn’t work out that way. Edward didn’t do a lot of fighting in the East, the Crusade’s leader, Louis IX of France, died, and the expedition fizzled out. Travelling across France on his way home in 1272, Edward heard that his father, Henry III, had died, too, and he was now king of England.
A devoted couple
Edward is famous as one of the most devoted husbands in the history of the English monarchy. He married his wife, the Spanish princess Eleanor of Castile, in 1254, and the handsome prince and dark-haired princess, one of the beauties of her age, seem to have been deeply in love. Eleanor bore Edward 16 children, many of whom died young, and she even went with him on Crusade.
According to one chronicle, Eleanor once saved Edward’s life. The prince was stabbed during an assassination attempt while he was in the East. The assassin had dipped his dagger in poison, and Eleanor is said to have sucked the poison from the prince’s wound. The story is almost certainly a chronicler’s myth, but it points to the closeness of the couple and how their fates were intertwined.
The queen was an educated young woman who employed her own scribes to copy books for her. She also liked making tapestries and longed for the exotic fruits of her native Spain. When a Spanish ship docked in England, she sent her staff straight to the quay to buy up any oranges, figs, or pomegranates on board. Sadly, Eleanor was only in her mid-50s when she died, at a village called Harby in Nottinghamshire, and the king was heartbroken. Edward did eventually find a new wife, Margaret of France. But there was a gap of nine years between Eleanor’s death and Edward’s second marriage.
At two villages in the English Midlands, Geddington and Hardingstone, stand beautiful carved memorials called Eleanor Crosses. Edward I ordered that these stunning stone crosses should be erected at each of the stopping places of the queen’s funeral procession as it made its way from Harby to London. The Eleanor Crosses, encrusted with intricate carving and statues, were erected at all 12 stops and were among the wonders of the age. As well as the original survivors, a reproduction also exists: London’s famous Charing Cross.
Moving in on Wales
When Edward I got back home from the Crusade, the new king soon made it clear that he meant business. For generations, the kings of England had had their eye on Wales, and Edward’s gaze was fixed there more firmly than most. In the 13th century, Wales was ruled by a number of Welsh princes. By the time Edward came to the throne, one of these princes, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd (see Chapter 21), the ruler of Gwynedd, had taken the overall title of Prince of Wales. Henry III had recognised Llewelyn, but when the Welshman refused to pay homage to the new English king, Edward acted.
The English king launched a military campaign in 1277 to bring Wales to heel. To begin with, Edward didn’t want to conquer Wales, just to force Llewelyn into submission so that it was clear who was boss at the top of the British feudal pecking order. When Edward beat the Welsh in battle, it seemed as if he had succeeded. Edward took over a chunk of northwest Wales but let the Welshman keep his title, and an uneasy peace followed.
But there was a problem: Llewelyn’s brother, Daffydd. In 1282, Daffydd staged a rebellion against the English, and Edward was furious. The Englishman began a campaign to conquer Wales outright. The campaign lasted for years:
● After a series of struggles, Llewelyn was ambushed and killed near Builth in November 1282.
● In June 1283, the English captured Daffydd and executed him as a traitor.
● In 1284, a law called the Statute of Wales was passed, putting the principality under the direct rule of the English king.
● The Welsh rebelled again in 1287 and 1294, and Edward crushed these uprisings.
● Throughout this period, Edward built a series of castles in North Wales as English bases; castles such as Conwy, Caernarfon, Beaumaris, and Harlech remain some of the most impressive built in the Middle Ages.
In addition to all his military measures, Edward made one still more far-reaching move. In 1301, he made his eldest son Prince of Wales, beginning a tradition of English Princes of Wales that has lasted to this day.
An old story speculates that the king was playing a cunning trick on the Welsh by giving this title to his young son Edward. He is supposed to have held the baby boy up as a kind of offering to a bunch of Welsh nobles, saying, ‘Here is your new prince of Wales,’ and pointing out that the tiny child could speak no English. The idea was meant to suggest that the king was pretending to offer them a prince who, knowing no English, could grow up a Welshman.
The story is a myth, though. Young Edward was born in 1284, so he was already 7 years old and presumably very talkative when he was made Prince of Wales. And although the boy had been born in his father’s Welsh castle at Caernarfon, he was English through and through.
The Hammer of the Scots
Before he conquered Wales, Edward was launching a still grander scheme of conquest - he wanted to take over Scotland and bring the whole of Britain under English rule. In 1286, he saw a golden opportunity to increase his influence in Scotland. The Scottish king, Alexander III, died, leaving a little girl, Princess Margaret, as his heir. Edward did a deal with the Scots in which they planned that Edward’s son would marry Margaret and become ruler of Scotland.
In 1290, however, all these plans fell apart because little Margaret died. Edward found himself drawn into the political wrangle over who should be her successor and then into a military campaign north of the border. The consequences were very different from those in Wales. The Scots objected to Edward meddling in their succession crisis, and Edward marched north with an army, hoping to bring them to their knees:
● Edward marched through Scotland in 1297 and stole the famed Stone of Destiny, symbol of Scots royal power, from the town of Scone.
● He made the new king, John Balliol, resign, making Scotland a dependency (in other words, a subordinate country) of the English crown.
● The Scots, under William Wallace, fought back, defeating the English under the Earl of Surrey in 1298. A series of battles followed.
● In 1305, Wallace was caught and put to death, and Edward claimed sovereignty over Scotland.
● The next year, a new Scottish claimant, Robert Bruce, came to the fore to question Edward’s power (see Chapter 11).
In 1307, Edward died, with his business in Scotland unfinished. His repeated campaigns had earned him the nickname Hammer of the Scots, but his hammering had got him nowhere.
New laws, model parliaments
Edward did not spend all his time rampaging around the country trying to conquer his neighbours. He also found time to improve the English legal system, building on the work of his Plantagenet predecessors (see Chapter 7) to make the operation of the courts fairer and to make Parliament more relevant to the needs of the people.
What was Edward’s interest in legal reforms? Well, from one point of view, Edward probably didn’t make these reforms solely out of a desire to be fair to his subjects. His military campaigns, as ever, cost a lot of money, and big Welsh castles didn’t come cheap. Some, but not all, of his reforms were to do with how taxes were negotiated. The king and his ministers had a sense of justice, too, and the other reforms were to make life safer and fairer for many people.
The following reforms to the laws and Parliament made Edward popular in England, and the English have usually seen Edward as a good king. But opinions in Wales and Scotland are different - here he is usually seen as a bully who poked his nose, and his armies, into places where they should not have been.
As for Edward himself, he was probably proud of his achievements in England and Wales, but disappointed with his failure to conquer Scotland. His personal life was a mixture of happiness and sadness, too. After Queen Eleanor died, Edward took a second wife, Margaret, daughter of the King of France. But although she bore him three children, she was no replacement for his beloved Eleanor.
Early on in his reign, Edward faced up to a number of problems to do with crime and punishment. Keeping the peace was good for everyone, king and subjects alike:
● Edward passed the laws allowing the appointment of the first Justices of the Peace.
● The king gave local communities the responsibility for policing.
● He laid out clearly the rights held by the nobility when it came to dispensing justice on behalf of the crown.
● He dealt with the problems that arose when sheriffs did not carry out their duties properly.
● He passed a range of statutes tightening up issues such as land law and the law relating to debt.
Edward’s reforms made English law faster, more efficient, and on the whole fairer. They also gave more power to the king to bring cases in royal courts, providing him with much-needed revenue in the shape of fines.
Edward also made changes to the way Parliament operated. He made it more relevant to the people by encouraging subjects to come to Parliament to ask for royal help if they had been wronged. To make this system work, Edward promised that all petitions brought to Parliament would be answered.
Parliament became more relevant in another way, too. Individuals from both the counties and towns were asked to come to Parliament whenever the king was discussing the raising of taxes. A medieval Parliament was a far cry from the modern institution, but it was starting to become representative of the people. The 1295 Parliament included elected burgesses from the towns and members of the clergy, and well as nobles and knights. It covered such a broad spectrum that this sitting became known as the Model Parliament.
Cruel Fate: Edward II
Edward I died in 1207, on his way north to make another attack on his enemies, the Scots. He was succeeded by his son, also called Edward. Young Edward had had a difficult upbringing. His mother, Eleanor of Castile, died when he was 6 years old, and he saw little of his father, who was often away fighting.
As a result, Edward had a difficult youth and grew up with a reputation for eccentricity. Although he was good-looking and tall like his father, Edward did not have much passion for the kind of horsey activities that royal sons usually went in for. Young Edward preferred swimming and was said to like rural crafts, such as hedge-laying - something that other royals and nobles would have seen as way below their dignity.
Living apart from his family, Edward’s main emotional attachments were to his aristocratic friends. The trouble was that no one else liked Edward’s friends very much, a situation that more than once brought the kingdom to crisis-point.
King and favourite
Before he became king, Prince Edward’s closest friend was a young lord from Gascony called Piers Gaveston. Gaveston had come to England to find his fortune, and young Edward soon became attached to him. Just before old king Edward died, the prince asked his father to confer a title on his friend. The prince wanted Gaveston to be made either Count of Ponthieu (one of England’s possessions in France) or Earl of Cornwall (one of the most important English earldoms). Edward I would have nothing of either idea and sent Gaveston packing off to France. You didn’t just turn up from France and start expecting earldoms - it wasn’t done.
A few months later, the old king died, and Edward II was on the throne. Edward quickly took the opportunity to bring back his friend:
● Edward recalled Gaveston back from exile.
● Gaveston was made Earl of Cornwall.
● The earl was given the place of honour - right next to the king, where the queen would normally expect to sit - at the royal coronation banquet.
● Gaveston began to act like an assistant king, influencing all Edward’s decisions.
All these favours offended people at court. The king’s favourite seemed to have far more power than he deserved. People began to wonder exactly what was going on.
Discussing royal sexuality in public was taboo in the Middle Ages. But some people probably thought that Edward was gay, and that Gaveston was his lover. Writers at the time certainly talked about the king’s love for his favourite, but they may have been talking about brotherly love.
Edward certainly fathered children by his queen, Isabella, and, in addition, had at least one illegitimate son. Historians just don’t know for sure the details of his personal life, although rumours abounded.
The important thing, though, was that the English nobles felt that Gaveston had too much power, and that the time was ripe for some more curbs on the crown. In 1311, a royal commission drew up the New Ordinances, a list of restrictions designed to put Edward in a straitjacket. The king had to seek the consent of the barons in Parliament for the following:
● Dishing out major titles and privileges.
● Declaring war.
● Drawing up peace terms after a war.
In addition, the barons insisted that Gaveston should be sent back into exile again. The pampered favourite was out on his ear.
An unseemly few years followed in which the royal favourite was exiled, brought back by Edward, and hidden away in the castle at Scarborough, where Gaveston hoped he would be able to defend himself against any baronial attack.
But Gaveston didn’t reckon on the determination of the barons. In 1312, they pursued him to Scarborough, forced him to give himself up, and marched him off to Warwick. After a mock trial, it was a case of ‘Off with his head’: the hapless favourite was put to death as a traitor.
Defeat in Scotland
The death of Gaveston did Edward some good, in a way. Some of the barons who had withheld their support from the crown when he was carrying on with his favourite returned to the king’s side. And this support was just as well because hapless Edward was about to face a formidable enemy. In 1314, Edward tried to pick up the pieces of his father’s war with the Scots.
Up to this point, England still had a chance of muscling in on Scotland. But hardly had the campaign begun than they suffered a major defeat. Robert Bruce and his army routed them at the Battle of Bannockburn (see Chapter 11).
Scots patriots still celebrate the Battle of Bannockburn, but the battle wasn’t a big deal on its own. So why was it so important? The main reason was that Robert Bruce used it as a key lever in his case to be undisputed Scottish king. He got approval of his position from the Pope, and by 1323, Edward had made a truce with Bruce. The Scots rejoiced - and Edward slunk away, leaving the people of the far north of England unprotected from Scottish border raids.
Dispensers of power
The death of Edward’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, should have meant a better time for those who feared that power would be arbitrarily wielded in Edward’s reign, but not a bit of it. By 1318, Edward had two new favourites, Hugh Despenser and his son, also called Hugh. Both men threw their weight about in distressing ways.
Here’s the dirt on how they, ahem, dispensed their power:
● Chamberlain: Hugh the Younger was given the job of royal Chamberlain. This office was important because young Hugh controlled who had access to the king, and therefore who had influence over the decisions he made about policy and about who else, if anyone, he would favour. It was a key position for depriving other barons of power over the king.
● Lord of Glamorgan: Hugh the Elder stacked up a huge portfolio of lands along the borders of England and Wales, which gave him vast power and enormous revenues from all the lands. An indication of the kind of power he could wield can be seen at his key fortress, Caerphilly Castle, with its miles of stone walls, tons of towers, and acres of water defences.
Some of the other barons soon started a campaign of armed struggle against the Despensers. Chief amongst these opponents was the king’s cousin, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who had been prominent in the campaign to get rid of Gaveston. Soon revolts popped up all over the kingdom - in the south east at Leeds Castle, in southwest England, in South Wales (no surprise there with Hugh the Elder so powerful), and up north in Lancaster’s territory. Altogether, they added up to a civil war. Could the king survive?
Well, yes, for a while. The Despensers and Edward rounded ruthlessly on the rebels:
● In March 1322, Lancaster was caught and killed.
● Shortly afterward, six of his key followers were murdered.
● The king abolished earlier curbs on his power.
● The Despensers were given more titles and lands.
It seemed as if the king and his two friends could do what they wanted to do - and that the strings on the whole were being pulled by the Despensers, while Edward danced to their tune. The early 1320s weren’t a great time to be English unless your surname was Despenser.
A gruesome end
The end of the oppressive regime of the Despensers came in the most unlikely way. The main player was, of all people, Edward’s queen, Isabella. She had gone to France to help negotiate peace terms between Edward and her brother, the French king Charles IV, in a dispute over who should hold power over part of Aquitaine. While she was in France, Isabella, who probably felt frozen out of her marriage because Edward was so close to his favourites, found an ally in Roger Mortimer, a nobleman and opponent of the Despensers who had left England after the defeat of Lancaster and his rebels a couple of years earlier.
Mortimer and Isabella plotted to end the tyranny of the Despensers once and for all - even if it meant deposing Edward, too. Strong rumours circulated that the pair did a lot of their plotting in bed. Be that as it may, their plans were in place by September 1326, and they landed on the coast of Essex before making swiftly for London. Edward was nowhere to be found. He had fled to the Despenser lands in Wales, and Mortimer, Isabella, and the teenage Prince Edward were soon hot-footing it westward in pursuit.
Because no kingly presence was found, Mortimer and Isabella declared the prince Keeper of the Realm, indicating that he was effective ruler in the king’s absence. This tactic was a way of assuming authority that looked legitimate. The prince became a sort of honorary ruler without actually taking the title of king - but in reality, the power lay with Isabella and Mortimer.
Mortimer then set about rounding up the Despensers and their followers.
Soon after, the Despensers were executed for treason, and the king himself was found at Llantrisant and imprisoned. Young prince Edward was declared king.
It was the end of the road for Edward II. In September 1327, a few months after his son had been put on the throne, Edward’s death was announced from his prison at Berkeley Castle. No one witnessed the death, and rumours began immediately. Some said the king had escaped and was in hiding. But the most persistent story was that he had been murdered, on the orders of Mortimer, by the insertion of a red-hot poker into his rectum.
Chivalry Rules: Edward III
Edward III was thrust into public life before his time. In 1326, Edward II was on the throne, but his queen, Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, staged a coup ousting the king, who had alienated the English barons by concentrating power in the hands of his favourites. As a result of this coup, Edward and Isabella’s 14-year-old son, also called Edward, found himself king in January 1327.
For the first three years of the reign, Isabella and Mortimer effectively ruled on young Edward’s behalf. The barons weren’t amused. Instead of Edward II and his favourites, they now had to cope with Isabella and her lover exercising power just as arbitrarily. Things looked bleak.
Showing who's boss
The year after he became king, Edward III married. His wife, Philippa of Hainault, daughter of William, Count of Hainault and Holland, was an attractive, intelligent girl in her teens, and the couple got on well from the start. But there was a problem. Isabella and Mortimer would not allow Philippa to be properly crowned. Isabella didn’t want a young woman ousting her from her powerful position as queen of the English hive.
Edward and Philippa must have felt pushed to one side, but in 1330, things changed when Philippa got pregnant. Now she had to be made queen, to ensure that her child would be the offspring of a king and queen of England and undisputed heir to the throne. In 1330, Edward and Philippa went off to Westminster Abbey for Philippa to be crowned queen. A few months later, she gave birth to a bouncing boy - yet another English prince called Edward.
But even with his queen at his side, Edward couldn’t rule independently. Isabella and, especially, Mortimer, were still calling the shots. They even sent letters to other rulers on Edward’s behalf. Edward had to send a message to the Pope saying that only letters that included the words ‘Holy father’ in the king’s own hand genuinely came from him.
But with his queen on the throne beside him, a healthy heir in the cradle, and many barons resentful of Mortimer’s power, things were on Edward’s side. In late 1330 he and some baronial allies sought out Mortimer at Nottingham Castle, entered the castle through a secret passage by night, dragged him from his bed, and carted him away.
Mortimer was found guilty of treason and hanged. Isabella was sent for a quiet retirement, and Edward announced that from now on he would rule in his own right.
Getting to a position where he was properly in charge was only half the battle for Edward. After the disastrous reign of his father and the dodgy episode with Isabella and Mortimer, the reputation of the crown had taken a nose-dive. Edward knew that he would have to make a huge effort to turn things around.
One of his biggest challenges was foreign relations. Like his grandfather Edward I, Edward was a supporter of the Balliol family for the Scottish throne. England fought bravely in Scotland, and the England-Balliol alliance eventually sent the Bruce candidate for the Scottish throne scuttling across the sea to his allies in France. The French king, Philip VI, backed the Bruce dynasty, and Philip let it be known that if Edward kept his weight behind the Balliols, his lands in France would be under threat.
War with France looked likely, so Edward set about getting the English people, especially the nobles, firmly on his side. One thing that Edward did appealed directly to the medieval idea that a king had God-given powers that verged on the miraculous. For example, people believed that a king was able to heal the disease scrofula (a form of tuberculosis affecting the lymphatic glands) by touching the sufferer. In 1340-1, Edward carried out a staggering 355 healings. Over half of these healings were done in Westminster and would have impressed both the court and the people of the capital. Historians have no way of knowing how real the king’s healing powers were. But the important thing for Edward was that people believed in them.
Even more important were the political moves Edward made to generate support for his planned war with France. In particular, the king:
● Moved troops across the Channel.
● Garnered more support in England by appointing six new earls and a duke.
● Began to buy alliances with rulers in Holland and Germany.
● Gave himself the title of King of France. (He had a claim to the French throne because his mother was the sister of a French king.)
By 1340, England was ready for war with France. No one could have guessed how long the conflict would last.
The Hundred Years War
Edward III and Philip VI of France began the longest war in the history of their two nations in 1340. The conflict actually lasted more than 100 years, because it wasn’t really over until 1453, when England finally lost all its French possessions except Calais.
The long war was a tale of woe for both England and France because both countries lost thousands of men, and the people had to put up with years of fighting, together with all the looting and pillage that went with medieval warfare. But during Edward III’s reign, things went well for England. Here are some of the highlights:
● 1340 Battle of Sluys: England’s first sea battle gave Edward domination of the Channel, although he failed to invade France.
● 1346 Battle of Cregy: A major victory for the English, who defeated the French in spite of being outnumbered by more than two to one.
● 1347 Siege of Calais: This strategic town surrendered to the English.
● 1356 Battle of Poitiers: Another victory for the English army, led by Edward’s son, Edward the Black Prince, who took the French king prisoner.
● 1360 Treaty of Bretigny: Edward gave up his claim to the French crown, but retained lands in Calais, Gascony, Guienne, and Poitou; he was paid big ransoms for the French king and David of Scotland, who was also his prisoner.
Although he had to give up his claim to be king of France, Edward made huge territorial gains as a result of 20 years of fighting. What was more, the English army he had assembled had more than proved their skill. England was a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, and this recognition undoubtedly meant a lot to Edward. The English achieved this with two not-so-secret weapons:
● Not-so-secret weapon No. 1, the longbow: Medieval armies had various weapons at their disposal, from the sword and lance of the horse-riding knight to the powerful crossbow. But the English perfected a still more impressive weapon, the longbow. The longbow was a powerful weapon - its sharpest arrowheads could even pierce armour - and it was light and quick to shoot. While a crossbowman was spending valuable seconds loading his weapon and getting ready to aim, a longbowman just grabbed an arrow, lifted his weapon and fired in one swift movement. Showers of arrows from hundreds of English bows did in the French at Crecy and terrified enemies until accurate guns became available.
● Not-so-secret weapon No. 2, The Black Prince: Edward’s eldest son was just 16 years old when he fought at the Battle of Crecy. His father gave him a kind of honorary command of part of the force at this battle, and he impressed those around him. The prince was a natural on the battlefield, both brave and tactically astute, so he was quickly promoted to a full commanding role. His most famous success in the Hundred Years War was at Poitiers, where he turned a near-defeat into a resounding victory. Oh - his nickname? No one knows for sure why he was called the Black Prince, but it was probably because he wore black armour.
With the Black Prince’s powerful presence on the field of battle and the all-important Treaty of Bretigny, it seemed as if England had won the war. Almost a decade of uneasy peace between England and France followed.
The Black Prince was made ruler of Aquitaine, and the king already had some interesting projects on hand back home in England.
The Order of the Garter
When he was not gallivanting around France trying to win back territory, Edward had another passionate interest - the cult of chivalry. In fact, warfare and chivalry are closely linked, because chivalry means the etiquette and traditions surrounding the role of the knight.
Being a knight
The knight was the upper-class elite fighting man of the Middle Ages. Knights wore armour, rode into battle on horseback, and used the sword, the weapon of the aristocracy. To be a knight was very prestigious.
Only the king could appoint you as a knight, and the knightly way of life required a long training period. But once you were a knight, you were given great respect - you might become a military leader and would certainly have a lot of influence at home, probably becoming lord of a castle or large manor house, and enjoying considerable wealth.
In return, though, you were expected to abide by a code of behaviour, called the code of chivalry, that required you to be courteous and civil. You were meant to be especially respectful to your womenfolk and merciful to your enemies. It didn't always work out like this in practice - knights were energetic, often boisterous men who could be a handful, especially when they were young. But that was the theory: chivalry, at all times.
In his love of chivalry and knightly pursuits, Edward was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Edward I. But whereas the earlier Edward was above all a ruthless conqueror whose main interest in knights and castles was their power to subdue his neighbours, Edward III was more taken with the trappings of chivalry. He liked tournaments with elaborate costumes and lots of pageantry, and he rebuilt Windsor Castle in lavish style, taking more than 20 years and most of the craft workers and masons in the country to do so.
Edward harked back to the days of his grandfather in other ways, too.
Edward I had been one of those English kings who had looked back with nostalgia to the golden days of King Arthur. To historians, Arthur is a mythical figure, but to the Plantagenets, he was a real king who presided over a chivalric court in which knights went off on valiant quests and returned to sit around the famous round table, where every knight was meant to be equal in status and equal in virtue. Edward was fascinated with the story of Arthur and even had a search made for the body of Joseph of Arimathea, the biblical character who was said to be the ancestor of the mythical king.
In 1348, to celebrate the great English victory at the Battle of Crecy, Edward III founded a new order of knights who were inspired by the ideals of Arthur’s round table. They were called the Knights of the Garter, and to be chosen as one of their number was one of the greatest honours the king could bestow.
According to an old and enduring story, the Order of the Garter got its weird name in a peculiar way. One night at a party at Windsor Castle, the king noticed that a garter belonging to the Countess of Salisbury had fallen to the floor. When the courtiers started to snigger at this courtly piece of underwear, the king picked it up and tied it around his own leg (or in some versions of the story, his arm). Then he ticked the giggling courtiers off: ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense,’ said Edward (Shame on him who thinks evil of it), demonstrating the courteous, chivalric values he prized so much.
The king’s one-liner became the motto of the new Order of the Garter. It was - and still is - a highly exclusive order. Edward would admit only 24 people, plus himself and the Black Prince, and the members were all high-ranking men chosen specifically by the king.
A tasting influence
As part of his rebuilding work at Windsor Castle, Edward had the castle chapel made over. The chapel, formerly St Edward’s chapel, was rededicated to the knightly figure St George, and became the religious headquarters of the Order of the Garter. The members still meet there every year for a commemorative service, and to be made a Knight of the Garter is still one of the highest honours the monarch can convey.
Since Edward founded the Order of the Garter, several later monarchs have founded other orders of knights, such as the Order of the Bath, which was set up in the 15th century. Such orders show how Edward’s interest in chivalry has continued down through the ages and are still a way of honouring people.
Edward was very good at using pageantry and ceremony to impress his subjects and produce an aura of glory. If he was alive today, the king would be seen as an image-conscious ruler who created a powerful chivalric brand for the monarchy. Other examples of Edward’s canny use of image-manipulation include:
● Presenting gold model ships to important pilgrimage churches.
● Having a new gold coin called the noble minted, bearing the image of the king on board a warship.
Both of these striking images helped to promote the idea of Edward as a leader who could rule the waves.
Edward Ill’s reign was outstandingly successful in many ways. He scored victories in France, promoted good relations with his aristocracy, had a happy married life, and produced a bunch of healthy sons to secure the succession. But his last years were clouded with sadness. His beloved Philippa died in 1369, and many of his friends were dying, too. He placed great hope in his eldest son, Edward, but the Black Prince contracted an illness on military campaign in Spain in 1367 and spent the next few years a shadow of his former self. The prince died in 1376, a year before his father.
The king also saw some of his power ebbing away. This loss of power was partly the result of some devious courtiers, who gathered in a circle that may have been centred on Edward’s mistress, Alice Perrers. But it was also due to Parliament. It was in this period that Parliament made two innovations that would become important in the future.
Parliament in Edward’s reign was very different from a modern parliament, but was beginning to show its muscle. By the 14th century, the Commons was made up of representatives from the shires and boroughs (in other words, the countryside and town) and met separately from the Lords (the representatives of the nobility). Two key innovations of Edward’s reign changed the way Parliament worked.
● Parliamentary innovation No. 1 - The Speaker: In 1376, Parliament appointed the first known Speaker. It was his job to take Parliamentary complaints to the king and do something about getting them addressed. Today, the role of Speaker is that of chairman - the Speaker is the person who watches the members’ behaviour and doesn’t actually ‘speak’ very much at all, apart from shouting ‘Order, order’ to bring everyone into line. But the Speaker in Edward III’s time had a slightly different role - he was another of Parliament’s attempts to curb the excesses of the crown.
● Parliamentary innovation No. 2 - Impeachment: The 1376 Parliament used the Speaker to bring charges against key officials and courtiers who were abusing their power. In other words, they were impeaching officials. Again, it was a way of using Parliament to stop courtiers from throwing their weight around. No wonder the 1376 Parliament went down in history as the Good Parliament.
These reforms were all well and good, but they didn’t have much effect in Edward’s reign. By 1377, the old king was dead and lying with his ancestors in Westminster Abbey. His crown was to pass to his grandson Richard, the oldest surviving son of the Black Prince.
Sad, not Bad: Richard II
Richard II, son of the Black Prince and grandson of the previous king, Edward III, came to the throne in 1377 at the tender age of ten. To run the country while the king was a boy, councils of noblemen were appointed. There was naturally a lot of jockeying for position amongst nobles who wanted to be included in these influential councils, and amongst those who supported the various candidates.
One person who was not selected for the councils was Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, who as a son of the previous king and had some claim to the throne himself. No doubt Richard’s advisers wanted to keep this powerful member of the royal family away, in case he tried to take over the crown himself. And as a close relative of the king, John of Gaunt probably already had a powerful influence. Richard’s reign certainly started with uncertainty, as so often happened in the Middle Ages when a child ascended to the throne. But these troubles with the aristocracy were nothing compared with what happened when the lower classes started to make trouble for the young king.
In previous centuries, when objections were raised against the way a king ruled, the objectors were usually members of the upper classes - especially nobles who thought they or their friends could do a better job of ruling than whoever was on the throne. But in 1381, things were different. Ordinary people - farmers from the English countryside - led a rebellion. The Peasants’ Revolt was under way.
Why did the peasants finally lose their temper in 1381? There were several reasons, and together they meant that for the first time ordinary people not only felt hard done by but could also see a way of doing something about it.
● Villeinage: Most of the revolting peasants were villeins. In other words they were unfree tenants, who held their land in return for paying onerous rents and services to their landlords. They were right at the bottom of the feudal system, with no way out, and it hurt.
● Radicalism: A new movement, on the fringes of the church, spoke out against the iniquities of church and state. Men like religious reformer John Wyclif stressed that all people, not just priests, should have access to the Bible. The implication was that all good people were equally worthy, and out-of-date feudal customs shouldn’t stand in the way of people’s rights.
● Taxes: The authorities had ordered that every male over the age of 15 should pay a poll tax - the same amount would be due from everyone, irrespective of whether they were rich or poor.
Taken together, the situation was too bad for the peasants. They found a charismatic leader, a craftsman called Wat Tyler (that’s Tyler as in roof tiles), who led them across Kent, collecting more supporters on the way, and into the capital, winding them up to fever pitch with his oratory. Very quickly, people in London realised that Wat and his friends were serious.
From revolution to confrontation
Wat led a large army of peasants into London. The rebels, armed only with farming tools like axes and billhooks, overwhelmed the city guards, started fires in Southwark, killed the archbishop of Canterbury, and started a blaze in John of Gaunt’s London palace that sent the whole building tumbling to the ground.
Meanwhile, Richard’s advisers started to panic. They’d never seen a popular uprising before and were at sea when it came to dealing with it. It was left to the young king and his mother Joan to cope with the crisis. While his advisers flapped around, Richard and Joan, together with London’s Lord Mayor, William Walworth, met the rebels face to face. Many of them respected Joan, who came from Kent, the home of many of the rioters; the young king seemed sympathetic, too.
Things were starting to calm down when Tyler rested his hand on the king’s bridle. Walworth, who didn’t trust the rebels (they’d burned half his city down, after all), misinterpreted the gesture, thinking Tyler was about to attack the king. So Walworth drew his sword and instantly ran Tyler through.
Now the peasants’ leader was dead, and the 2,000 other rebels had their bows and arrows trained on the king. With only Walworth and Joan to defend him, it seemed that Richard didn’t stand a chance. But thinking quickly, the young king spoke to the rebels. He offered to take up their cause himself and assured them, ‘I will be your captain now.’
Picking up the pieces
Richard diffused the wrath of the peasants by promising to pardon them for the revolt and agreeing to abolish villeinage. But he went back on his promises, executing some of the more prominent rebels and using violence to put down rebellions in other parts of the country. The rebels had been tricked by a plausible teenaged king.
But it wasn’t all bad news for the peasants. In early 1382, Richard married Anne of Bohemia, a princess from central Europe. Anne, pious and thoughtful, begged her new husband to pardon the remaining rebels, and Richard agreed.
In addition, many landlords abolished tenancies under the old restrictions of villeinage and introduced tenancy agreements that were more favourable to peasant farmers. Less labour was available since the great plague, known as the Black Death, had swept across the country in 1348. Suddenly, small farmers were more valuable than before, and landlords had to agree to some of their demands. So life was better after all for many at the sharp end of the feudal system.
Richard had made a seriously good start as a ruler. He had diffused the Peasants’ Revolt, got rid of the ringleaders, and, thanks to his clement queen, done something to help the plight of the poor peasants, too. But he also had more complicated work to do. England was still embroiled in the on-and-off conflict with France and her ally, Scotland, which had started in Edward Ill’s reign and is now called the Hundred Years War.
The dispute over money-raising to pay for the war (and for Richard’s lavish court) led to a series of interventions by Parliament:
● In 1386, Richard’s chancellor, Michael de la Pole, made a really heavy tax demand.
● Parliament met and sent a deputation to see Richard and demand that de la Pole be sacked.
● Richard at first refused, but then relented and removed de la Pole.
● Parliament appointed a commission of top barons to run the administration for a year and to sort out any royal abuses of power.
Not surprisingly, Richard didn’t take kindly to having his power snatched away. He insisted on being advised by his own favourites, not men appointed by Parliament. Before long, the king was locked in a battle of wills with Parliament over who had the power to govern. Royalists and barons took up arms and, in December 1387, fought the battle of Radcot Bridge, where the king was captured and imprisoned in his own castle, the Tower of London.
Then another Parliament met to discuss once more what to do about royal power. This meeting was known as the Merciless Parliament, and no wonder:
● A group of lords accused the royal favourites of treason.
● Two of the traitors, Robert Tresilian and Nicholas Brembre, were executed.
● The Commons then accused and executed four other courtiers.
● Parliament made the king accept another group of advisers, the Lords Appellant, who were to have the power to control all his actions.
Richard was in an impossible position, but he was fortunate that several of the advisers made peace with the royalist group and together king and advisers were able to rule in an uneasy alliance. The king bolstered his position by currying favour with the gentry and by making peace for a while in France.
A broken-hearted king?
In 1394, Richard’s queen, Anne of Bohemia, died of the plague. The king was said to be heartbroken. Richard was so distraught that he started to lose control of his actions. He had the couple’s favourite home demolished and walloped the Earl of Arundel in the face for being late for Anne’s funeral.
But two years later, Richard made the best of things and got married again - to a Frenchwoman! Improbable as it seemed, he got hitched to Isabella, daughter of Charles VI, king of the old enemy, France. It was a shrewd diplomatic move, of course, because it cemented, for the moment, peace between the two countries.
By now, Richard was more confident holding the reins of power - in fact, for many he was too confident and more and more was unpredictable and ill-tempered. Finally, in 1397, Richard had his revenge on the Lords Appellant, arresting the three key Lords. One, the hated Earl of Arundel, was tried and beheaded for treason. Another, the Duke of Gloucester, was killed in Calais, while the third, the Earl of Warwick, was heavily fined.
Another former Appellant, Richard’s cousin Henry Bolingbroke, initially did rather better. He was made Earl of Hereford and promised the Duchy of Lancaster on the death of John of Gaunt. But when John died, Richard, fearful of making Bolingbroke too powerful, went back on his promise and kept the Duchy of Lancaster in royal hands.
The revenge on the Lords Appellant, the incident at the funeral of Anne, the willingness to take offence, the way he surrounded himself with bodyguards - it is difficult to see what lay behind these actions except some kind of mental breakdown. Some thought that the cause of the trouble was the king’s grief at the death of gentle Queen Anne. Others argued that it was a sign of deeper derangement.
Whatever the cause, the effect was a kind of tyrannical whimsy that was unjust, arbitrary, and hard to bear - so hard that Richard’s support ebbed away. Bolingbroke saw his chance to act and returned to England to lean on Richard and persuade him to abdicate. Parliament supported Bolingbroke’s claim to the throne, and Richard found himself in prison in Pontefract Castle. Here, a broken man (if not actually broken-hearted), Richard died. Bolingbroke’s supporters said he had starved himself to death, but he was probably murdered.