Edward III: W. M. Ormrod Describes the Career of the King Whose Fifty Years on the Throne Are Best Remembered for His Wars with France and Scotland, and His Foundation of the Order of the Garter. (Cover Story)

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EDWARD III (1327-77) HAS A CLAIM to being the earliest English ruler to celebrate his golden jubilee publicly. Born in 1312, and succeeding to the throne at the age of fourteen in January 1327, Edward ruled for fifty years and six months. He did not break the record of longevity established in the previous century by Henry III, but in the late Middle Ages his sheer endurance, as well as his many substantive achievements, made him, in the eyes of many, England's greatest monarch.

That reputation was rendered all the greater by the contrast between Edward and his immediate predecessor and successor, both of whom lost the throne, and their lives, through the wilful abuse of royal authority. For all the difficulties of his early regime and the dissensions of the last years of his life, Edward kept England free from baronial rebellion for over forty years--one of the longest periods of domestic peace experienced in the Middle Ages.

The major issue that has faced historians of the reign since the nineteenth century is the price that Edward paid to secure this political harmony. For a long time, it has been assumed that the success of the regime was a consequence of Edward's ability to direct the martial energies of his subjects towards his wars in Scotland and France and of his willingness to compromise the power of the crown in return for the financial grants that made those wars possible. More recently, however, the nature and achievement of his domestic policies have been reassessed, and some historians would now argue that he established a new constitutional and moral authority for the monarchy based in the principle of consensual government.

In 1327, the prospects for the English monarchy seemed bleak. Edward II had been forcibly removed from the throne by his wife, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, but it soon became evident that this unscrupulous pair intended to rule in as partial and arbitrary a fashion as the deposed king. It was perhaps fortunate for Edward III that his youth protected him from direct criticism during the early, difficult, stages of his reign: although no formal regency was established, it was evident to everyone that the reins of power were controlled by Isabella, and there was significant and growing sympathy for a king thwarted in his intention of providing beneficent rule.

Isabella and Mortimer did particular damage through their pursuit of peace with England's enemies. Although arguably they had little choice, it was under their direction that the English crown acknowledged--for the first time--the legitimacy of Robert Bruce as King of Scots, thus preventing any reassertion of Edward I's claim to direct sovereignty over the northern kingdom. And it was through their machinations that the crown purchased a costly peace with France in 1327. These were bitter blows to the pride of the English polity, and had a formative effect on the young King: certainly much of his later warmongering needs to be seen as an attempt to rebuild the international reputation of his throne and his kingdom.

Edward's early marriage at the age of fifteen, to Philippa of Hainault in 1328, and the birth of their first child, Prince Edward (known to posterity as the Black Prince) in 1330, were important events in the passage of the King from adolescence to maturity, and it became increasingly anomalous that he should be deprived of the right to rule in person. In October 1330 he took his chance, and ambushed Mortimer during a council meeting at Nottingham Castle. Parliament was immediately summoned, providing a suitably solemn venue both for the trial and condemnation of the offending earl and for a public statement of the nobility's corporate will to provide the newly-established King with trustworthy service. The political mood of the early 1330s was thus optimistic and expectant. In fact, Edward gave little impression of having a coherent agenda for domestic governance during these years: the kinds of fulsome statements of policy that had marked the beginning of Edward I's reign were not part of his early vision of monarchy. …