The Ecclesia Anglicana Goes to War: Prayers, Propaganda, and Conquest during the Reign of Edward I of England, 1272-1307

By Bachrach, David S. | Albion, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Ecclesia Anglicana Goes to War: Prayers, Propaganda, and Conquest during the Reign of Edward I of England, 1272-1307


Bachrach, David S., Albion


It is widely accepted by scholars that the Hundred Years' War, in general, and the reign of King Edward III of England (1327-1377), in particular, witnessed a crucial stage in the development of state sponsored propaganda efforts to mobilize the nation for war. (1) Edward III's government made particularly skillful use of the church to disseminate the justifications for the king's wars in France and against the Scots. The royal government also used church leaders on a regular and continuing basis to organize a spectrum of religious rites and ceremonies encompassing the largest possible sections of the English population, including the laity and clergy, to seek divine intervention on behalf of English troops serving in the field. These religious rites included prayers, penitential and thanksgiving processions, intercessory masses, vigils, almsgiving, and fasting. (2)

The administrative structure that made possible the dissemination of royal propaganda and the organization of this wide spectrum of religious observances was the hierarchical church itself. (3) Edward III's government regularly issued writs to English bishops, especially the archbishops of Canterbury and York, abbots, as well as the heads of the Dominican and Franciscan orders in England, which provided these church leaders with royally approved accounts of important current events. This information was then passed down the ecclesiastical chain of authority through cathedral deans and archdeacons and from there to the parish priests who were responsible for passing on this information to the English people in the form of sermons and other communications. Royal orders for public religious celebrations, including, on occasion, instructions for specific types of liturgies, prayers, processions, and other rites, traversed the same path from archbishops, to bishops and abbots, on to archdeacons, and then to the most local level of parish priests and vicars. The evidence for the royal government's systematic employment of the English church is to be found in numerous surviving copies of royal writs as well as archiepiscopal orders recorded in bishops' registers throughout Edward III's reign. (4)

Edward III clearly benefited from a well organized and sophisticated military-religious administration. But was this a fourteenth-century creation? This study argues that, in fact, the origins of Edward III's church-based propaganda efforts and his mobilization of religious rites on behalf of the army go back half a century to the reign of his grandfather Edward I (1272-1307). (5) It will be shown here that it was the reign of Edward I and not the reign of Edward III that saw the first fully developed military-religious administration for the mobilization of the English church on behalf of royal government's efforts to wage war. (6) It is therefore the burden of this study to show how the English church disseminated royal propaganda for war and organized intercessory religious rites on behalf of English soldiers during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century.

King Edward I of England was honored in his own day and by subsequent generations as one of the leading military commanders of Europe for his conquest of Wales and Scotland, and for his defense of Gascony against the French onslaught under King Philip IV (1285-1314). (7) Underpinning these successes was Edward's intelligent mobilization and utilization of the resources of his kingdom for carefully considered and planned campaigns. The purely military side of Edward's wars has been examined in detail by numerous scholars. (8) As indicated above, however, the religious elements of Edward's military policy largely have been ignored. (9)

As is true of the mid-to-late fourteenth century and the reign of Edward III, the most important sources for identifying the administrative system that made possible the dissemination of royal propaganda and the organization of religious rites, are surviving royal writs and the letters of English archbishops and bishops that were recorded in episcopal registers, and in other ecclesiastical documentary collections such as collegiate chapter books.

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