March 27, 2009

Edward III's peace

If Edward III’s reign was abundant in future precedents, it was no less significant within the England of the 14th Century. Before Edward took the throne, his grandfather Edward II had been deposed and murdered. After he died, King after King would find themselves facing major internal problems. Edward’s grandson Richard was killed, his grand nephew Henry IV faced rebellions across the north and into Wales, Henry’s grandson Henry VI was deposed twice and murdered, Edward IV was only deposed once but even so was forced into exile briefly during his reign and Richard III died at Bosworth field, killed by one of his own subjects (presumably). From Edward III to Henry VIII- during a gap of about 200 years- of the 8 monarchs to reign in England, only two did not face a severe and serious rebellion and only 4 were not murdered or assacinated. Edward’s achievement therefore was to create within England a break- a break in the routine of medieval England that before him consumed John, Henry III and his father and afterwards was to wreak havoc. The question that contemporaries and historians focus on about Edward’s reign is how did he maintain the peace.

One answer to this success has to be that Edward shares a chief feature with two other kings who were able to keep the peace in medieval England- his grandfather Edward I and his great grand son Henry V- he was good at fighting. Edward took English troops deep into France. That success turned easily into popularity- during the 1340s, 1350s and 1360s- the apex of his power- Edward was unassailable at home and abroad and the two factors were connected. The nobility in particular saw Edward as one of their own, part of a military aristocracy. He founded the Order of the Garter, linking together the high nobility of the nation in a chivalric order bound to defend the monarchy and the crown. Edward’s ability to do this was founded on his undoubted charisma and his military prowess- as that faded in the 1370s with the King’s increasing age, the death of his old companions and of his equally glamorous son the Black Prince and with the rejuvenation of French military power, so did Edward’s power. Just like his predecessors and successors, Edward’s position was closely tied to what he could do militarily, particularly in France.

Even so, even in the 1370s, there was no revolt against Edward. The Edwardian regime succeeded in containing problems- the defections of leading councillors from Archbishop Stafford in 1341 to Bishop Wyckeham in 1376 without breakdown. Edward was, like Elizabeth, skilful at feinting at concession, gulling his political enemies before exerting the authority of the crown. Edward was, in his prime, a subtle and skilful politician: though that may have been built through instinct rather than as with Elizabeth training, his judgement was as sound. Edward unlike Elizabeth left the crown stronger than he found it- he did this in two ways: firstly by creating a myth which both Henry V and Henry VIII were to seize on- the myth of the chivalric, martial prince. Secondly and more importantly he was an institution builder- we shall turn later to his creation of the House of Commons- but equally important was his cooption of the English gentry into regional government. Edward’s reign saw the creation of the system of justices of the peace that would last into the 20th Century. This system made the gentry partners in the extension of royal authority right down into the localities.

The ultimate reward for such institution building was that Edward was phenomenally wealthy by the standards of contemporary Kings. He was able to collect taxes on a vast scale, impressive even by more recent standards, and to do so from a heavily diminished tax base. During his reign, the Black Death killed a third and possibly more of his subjects: but Edward’s ability to collect taxes was scarcely changed or challenged by the phenomenon. Rather through instruments like the statute of labourers (which set the price of work artificially low) he cemented an alliance between the nobility and the crown, the gentry and the centre, which paid off in more prosperous times. If we are to understand Edward, we have to understand him as a charismatic war leader who led his armies to victory and reaped the reward in reputation and power, but we also have to understand an intelligent if instinctive English monarch who was able to martial political forces to achieve his aims. Ultimately Edward was perhaps England’s luckiest medieval monarch- both for his long life and through his martial successes which relied on his emergence at a particular point in time- but he also made use of that luck to carve out fiscal and political gains for the crown. Fiscal and political gains which helped maintain a momentum that supported the crown’s position right up until his dotage and his death.


Matt M said...

I find this period of history fascinating. It's a shame that - during my history GSCE at least - it's often overshadowed by the later Tudors.

Edward II had been deposed and murdered

Have you read anything on the theory that Edward II wasn't actually murdered, but rather fled into anonymous exile? I think it's an interesting idea, but obviously don't have the skills to properly judge its merits.

lady macleod said...

fascinating, and as always something to be learned for the present?

Gracchi said...

Matt I have heard of that theory- I don't know enought o have an opinion. I'd like to look more into it- my bias is to say it probably didn't happen. The thing is that in the medieval era you always get tons of claimants to the throne who pretend to be the man who was murdered last- most were telling falsehoods. But its always possible that someone might have escaped.

Cheers Lady Macleod.

edmund said...

I read somewhere that ( obvously on very difficult calculations) the richest man in Britina was some Edwardian plunderina of France-presumably Plunder played part in all this?

how did these councillors defect pray tell more.

Matt i think it's unlikely- i'm saying this from very longe term memory but I think we have found a body that's very like edwards where one would we expect-including being killed by a poker. I cerialy don';t see why he'd have not made his claim if genuine.