Post-classical history

Chapter Sixty-Six


After the Famine

Between 1318 and 1330, Philip V is troubled by shepherds and lepers, and the Capetian dynasty gives way to the Valois, while Edward II is defeated by his wife and her lover and comes to an uncertain end

IN 1318, for the fifth year in a row, Philip V of France promised to go on crusade.

The oath had become part of the regular rhetoric of French kings, an orthodox sign of commitment to the Christian cause. Philip had “taken the cross” for the first time in 1313, along with his father and brother; and his promise to march east and fight against the Muslims—whether Arab, Ottoman, or Mamluk—had been renewed every year.

And perhaps Philip V did intend to go on crusade, some year when France was prosperous and at peace, his officials in line, his people content and unlikely to rebel. But 1318 was not that year. Nor, as it turned out, was 1319; although Philip did call a council in Paris to discuss the possibilities. Nor was 1320.

The problem was a logistical one. The days when a pope wielded enough power to actually gather a crusade and launch it were long gone. The French lawyer Jacques d’Euse had become Pope John XXII in 1316; but he lived in Avignon, dependent on the French king, an exile from Rome, powerless over the politics of Germany and Italy. No crusade would rally around Avignon. If a crusade were to happen, one of the monarchs of Europe would have to spearhead it.1

And Philip V, like all the other monarchs of Europe, was perpetually preoccupied by troubles at home. His coronation had coincided with the last severe year of famine and cold; the worst had now passed, but the world that greeted the survivors of famine was still jagged and unreliable, troubled with windstorms and torrential tides, dry months and sharp unbearable cold snaps. Prices of grain and salt were seesawing wildly. England was perpetually hostile. Flanders, forced into unwilling submission in 1305, was agitating again under its new count, the young and independent-minded Robert III (“the Lion of Flanders”). And predatory shepherds were roaming the countryside; the Pastoureaux, successfully put down seventy years earlier, had reemerged.

“Suddenly,” writes the chronicler Etienne Baluze, “there rose up a gathering of simple people of both sexes, calling themselves Pastoureaux, who were filled with zeal and courage to cross the sea and recover the Holy Land.” The first uprising had been born from a single charismatic preacher, the mad Master of Hungary, but the second was almost entirely leaderless; Baluze mentions a defrocked priest and “an apostate Benedictine monk” but gives neither man a name, and other chroniclers seem to have noticed no leadership at all.2

The spontaneous gathering of shepherds and swineherds had first banded together in June of 1320, begging for alms in order to accompany the proposed royal crusade. But, like the first bands of Pastoureaux, they were soon joined by bandits and outlaws. Begging turned to plundering, with wealthy priests and well-to-to monasteries at the top of the hit list. Philip V, preoccupied with Flanders, made no move to punish the looters, and their numbers grew. “Pestiferous . . . a new plague,” complained the Dominican inquisitor Bernard Gui. But as the movement spread south, it tilted away from annoying banditry, towards the open murder of France’s Jewish population.3

Philip’s father had decreed exile for the Jews in 1306, but some had remained, and in the fourteen years since, others had returned. In Bordeaux, in Albi, in Toulouse, in a dozen smaller villages, the Jewish population was herded together and given the choice between forcible baptism and death. At Montclus, 337 Jews died; at Castelsarrasin, 152 were murdered. Royal officials, belatedly taking notice, arrested twenty-four wagons of marauders and hauled them to Toulouse for trial. As the wagons entered the city, a contemporary account says, “the Pastoureaux who were in the last wagons asked for help, as they had been captured and imprisoned because they wanted to avenge Christ’s death. Some of the Toulouse crowd broke the ropes holding the wagons, and once the Pastoureaux were freed, they jumped out and called out along with the crowd, ‘Death, death, let’s kill all the Jews!’” Over 150 Jews died in Toulouse in a single day.4

From Avignon, Pope John XXII heard of the troubles, and at once sent letters to every major town in France, condemning the Pastoureaux and ordering all Christian people to join together in protecting the Jews. “We request all of you, and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ,” the papal message read, “to grant such ready aid to the Jews, individually and collectively . . . that none of them shall be harmed in goods, property, and person.” By the second week of July, the letters had spread across the country, and the civil authorities had begun to act. Thousands of Pastoureaux, marching across Aigues-Mortes, were surrounded by the men of Carcassonne and slaughtered.5

The leaderless movement collapsed almost immediately, but the hungry, impoverished French countryside was still unsettled. In the spring of 1321, an untraceable rumor sprang up: lepers were poisoning wells throughout France in order to spread their disease to everyone. Soon, the rumor morphed into a conspiracy theory. Lepers, Jews, and Muslims had joined together in a grand plan to throw “poisonous potions” into “waters, fountains, wells, and other places” in “all kingdoms subject to Christ’s faith.” Terrified villagers seized local lepers and burned them alive. Philip V, thoroughly convinced of the danger, ordered lepers quarantined and Jews evicted; again, a wave of Jewish exiles left France. The panic spread across into Aragon, where the Aragonese king James II ordered all lepers arrested and questioned under torture.6

Philip V never did go on crusade. In the middle of the leper scare, he fell ill with a fever that soon turned into chronic wasting dysentery. In January of 1322, he died, aged twenty-nine.

He left only a daughter, excluded from the throne by the same Salic Law that Philip had used to gain it; his brother Charles IV was crowned in his place.7

POST-FAMINE, ENGLAND was in no better shape; but the blame went elsewhere.

“Every bailiff and beadle seeks how he may most oppress poor men,” complained the protest poem “The Simonie”:

Once there were merchants who honorably bought and sold,

And now is that custom abrogated, and has not been observed
for a long time . . .

Husbandmen curse and widows weep and cry to God for vengeance,
very soon,

For all the problems must be attributed to lords who allow things to proceed in this way.8

The farmers and peasants of England blamed greedy merchants and corrupt judges for their troubles; the merchants and judges blamed the English barons; and the barons blamed the king.

Edward II had now been king of England for fifteen years. “Ever chicken-hearted and luckless in war,” remarks the Chronicle of Lanercost; “quite unlike his father in wisdom and courage,” says Jean Froissart. Edward had lost Scotland; he had presided over the greatest famine in living memory; he had made a fool of himself with Piers Gaveston, and now that Gaveston was dead, he had developed a new favorite.9

This was Hugh Despenser the Younger, son of the Earl of Winchester; he was a tall and well-favored man of thirty-six, only two years younger than the king. In 1318, Edward had made Hugh his chamberlain. Afterwards, the royal accounts record a startling amount of money paid out on behalf of Hugh the Younger: supplies bought for his chambers, armor and weapons for himself and his castles, out-and-out grants of money for personal use; new private chambers for Hugh within the royal castle at Winchester. A great new warship built for the king’s fleet was named La Despenser. “Confident of the royal favour,” the Vita Edwardi Secundi says, “Despenser did everything at his own discretion, snatched at everything, did not bow to the authority of anyone whomsoever.”10

Despenser was even more odious to the barons of England than Piers Gaveston had been, but their efforts to convince Edward to permanently banish him were fruitless. Finally, Despenser began to meddle in Edward’s marriage; Jean Froissart writes that he “stirred up such discord between the King and Queen that the King refused either to receive the Queen or to visit her,” and the Chronicle of Lanercost suggests that Hugh was actively trying to obtain a divorce between king and queen.11

Isabella, eleven years younger than her husband, had already been humiliated by his partiality for Gaveston. Fed up with playing a distant third, she left London and went to Paris, taking refuge with her brother, the newly crowned Charles IV of France.

Over the next three years, a complicated cat-and-mouse game unfolded, with Edward the mouse, Isabella the cat, and Charles the animal trainer, directing from behind the scenes. With Isabella in Paris, French armies sent by Charles IV invaded the English-held Duchy of Guienne. Isabella then returned to London, offering to help Edward make peace with her brother. In 1325, she visited Paris for a second time; as far as Edward knew, acting as his ambassador; in reality, to put into motion a plan to unseat her husband and give his throne to her son, the young Prince of Wales.

In Paris, she gathered around her a powerful ring of English exiles, some of them driven out of the country by Hugh Despenser, others who had fallen out with the king. Among them were the king’s own brother, Edmund of Kent, and the exiled English baron Roger Mortimer, who had been imprisoned by the king in 1321, after leading an armed attempt to drive Hugh Despenser out of London. Mortimer had managed to escape from the Tower of London and had fled to France; and, meeting in Paris, he and the queen became lovers.12

By the end of 1325, the king had twigged that all was not well in Paris. “[T]he Queen crossed to France to make peace,” he told Parliament, on December 5. “And on her departure, she did not seem to anyone to be offended. . . . But now someone has changed her attitude. Someone has primed her with inventions.”13

Isabella, barely thirty, married to a man who had stopped sharing her bed years before, did not need priming. With Mortimer beside her, and her brother’s treasury at her disposal, she gathered an army; English barons agreed to join her cause, should she arrive with reinforcements. In September of 1326, she set sail for England with a small hired army: men from Flanders, Germany, and Bohemia, with a handful of English expatriates rounding out the numbers.

Their conquest of England was almost instant. “They gained England without striking a blow,” says the contemporary account of Sir Thomas Gray, “for all the lords and commons rose for them against the King.” Edward II and Hugh Despenser tried to escape together down the river Wye, but their boat was driven ashore and both men were taken prisoner.14

Edward was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle. Parliament reassembled and deposed the king “by their common assent,” renouncing their homage and instead swearing loyalty to Edward III. He was crowned in 1327, aged fourteen, ruling under the regency of his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer.

Hugh Despenser (“not loved in those parts,” says Froissart) was condemned by “the unanimous verdict of the barons and knights to suffer the following punishment”:

First, he was dragged . . . through all the streets of Hereford, to the sound of horns and trumpets, until he reached the main square of the town. . . . There he was tied to a long ladder, so that everyone could see him. A big fire had been lit in the square. When he had been tied up, his member and his testicles were first cut off, because he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the King, and . . . when his private parts had been cut off they were thrown into the fire to burn, and afterwards his heart was torn from his body and thrown into the fire. . . . [H]is head was struck off and sent to the city of London. His body was divided into four quarters, which were sent to the four principal cities of England after London.15

What happened to Edward II is, oddly, a mystery. Late in September, the king’s jailers announced that he had died suddenly, of “natural cause.” The body was immediately embalmed, and although various knights and priests were invited to view it from a distance, the “friends and kin” of the dead king were kept away.16

For centuries, most chroniclers assumed that Roger Mortimer had ordered the king suffocated in his cell (“He died, in what manner was not known, but God knoweth it,” writes Sir Thomas Gray). But in 1878, a letter written by the fourteenth-century bishop Manuele de Fieschi was uncovered in Church archives at Montpellier, France. Fieschi had met Edward II himself, the letter said; the king had escaped from Berkeley Castle by murdering a guard and had gone first to Ireland, and ultimately to Italy.17

THE FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Edward III was now ruler of England, which meant that, for the next four years, Isabella and Roger Mortimer were the de facto king and queen. Under the direction of his mother and her lover, Edward III made peace with Charles IV of France by paying over fifty thousand sterling marks to buy back his own Duchy of Guienne, a treaty that nicely solved Charles’s immediate money problems. In the first year of his reign, he also made peace with Robert the Bruce: the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton brought an end to the First War for Scottish Independence by recognizing Robert as king of Scotland.

In the second year, Isabella and Roger Mortimer tried to put young Edward on the throne of France as well. Philip IV’s sons turned out to be a short-lived lot; Louis had reigned for eighteen months, Philip V for eight, and Charles IV ruled only four years before dying, aged thirty. He had no son, and Isabella and Mortimer suggested that Edward III was the logical choice to fill the empty throne. The Salic Law, they argued, only prevented women from inheriting the throne; it did not prevent inheritance through the female line, as long as the heir himself was male. As Isabella’s son, Edward was the closest living male relative of the French royal house.


66.1 Edward III and the Valois

An English king would have needed a much stronger argument (and more swords) to convince the French barons to recognize him, and Edward’s bid for the throne failed. Instead, the French nobility chose to recognize Philip of Valois, the Count of Anjou and first cousin of the three dead kings. He was crowned in 1328, the first king of the Valois line; the direct line of Hugh Capet, rulers of France for 340 years, had ended.


66.1 Genealogy of Philip VI and Edward III.

The following year, the new Philip VI of France summoned Edward III to come and do homage for the county of Guienne. Isabella decided that it would be politic for her son to agree, and so the seventeen-year-old king of England meekly walked through the ritual of submission and loyalty: placing his hands underneath the hands of the French king, promising to remain his liege man. But the obeisance was Edward’s last act of obedience. He was nearly of age, and fed up with his regents. “The King began to grow in body and mind,” Gray notes, “which was not agreeable to the authority of the Queen his mother.”18

In the following year, 1330, the young king turned eighteen. Immediately he dissolved the regency, in the most direct way possible: he sent two of his younger friends with a party of soldiers to arrest Mortimer and his mother in the middle of the night.

Mortimer suffered the same fate as Hugh Despenser. After a quick trial, he was drawn and quartered, “upon a charge of having been party to the death of the King, Edward II.” Isabella was placed under polite house arrest; her son provided her with comfortable rooms, an income, and ladies in waiting, but ordered her never to go out or show herself in public again.19


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