The Plantagenets Mini-Series Part IV: Edward III & Richard II

Edward III

Born: 13 November 1312, Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England
Succeeded: Edward II (his father)
Coronation: 1 February 1327
Marriage: Philippa of Hainault (24 January 1328 – 15 August 1369 [her death])
Reigned: 25 January 1327 – 21 June 1377
Died: 21 June 1377, Sheen Palace, Richmond, England
Preceded: Richard II (his grandson)

Edward III (r. 1327-77)

Edward III was the eldest son of Edward II and thus his heir to the throne. Examining his reign, it is not hard to see why Edward III is typically regarded as one of the greatest kings in English history. David Starkey describes Edward as embodying the ‘perfect contemporary image of kingship…[he] personified the values of his age.’ Let’s get into it then!

Edward’s first task as king was to actually become king. Upon Edward II’s deposition, his estranged wife and her lover, Roger Mortimer, had taken control of England. Mortimer saw Edward III as a threat to his rule and it is little wonder why. By 1330, Mortimer had got wind of conspiracy against him, so summoned Edward to Nottingham to interrogate him against a council. In a move that would not seem out of place in A Game of Thrones, Edward III snuck a band of knights into Nottingham Castle on 19th October 1330 through an underground tunnel, and they surprised Mortimer, overpowered him and had him arrested. He was then executed as a common criminal at Tyburn. However, Edward spared his mother, Isabella. He sent her off to Berkhamsted Castle, where she was entitled to a yearly pension of £3000 for the rest of her life. Edward III could finally rule in his own right, almost three years after his coronation.

The main issue concerning Edward in the early 1330s was – unsurprisingly – Scotland. The kingdom to the north had eluded his grandfather and humiliated his father, so for Edward III, war against Scotland was a matter of honour. His first major victory was at the Battle of Dupplin Moor, on 10th-11th August 1332. Robert the Bruce had died in 1329, leaving his infant son David II in charge of Scotland. Naturally, this was an opportunity too good for Edward to miss. Having learned from his father’s defeats against Scotland, Edward III opted for a different military tactic – the use of longbows. And it paid off. The majority of the Scottish army did not even reach the English army, as they were slaughtered by English longbows. The longbow was a vital weapon and was to pay dividends throughout Edward’s reign.

Militarily, Edward III’s tactics relied on the enemy attacking first – unlike at Bannockburn in 1314 when the English attacked first and were defeated, or where William Wallace got the upper hand in 1298 at Falkirk. A year later at Halidon Hill, just outside of Berwick, Edward once again utilised the longbow to defeat the Scots once more – another vital victory for the young king.

Edward’s next target was France, the kingdom that lad been won and lost by his ancestors since Henry II’s reign. In winter 1337-38, there was a revolt in Flanders (then French territory), led by Jacob van Artevelde. His issue was that the people of Flanders survived on the business of making cloth. In order to make cloth, they needed wool, and the best quality wool came from England. Under French domination, Flanders was banned from trading with England. This is typically one of the major possible starts of the Hundred Years War.

On 26th January 1340, Edward III landed at Flanders and proclaimed himself King of France, his claim being that he was the only male descendant of Philip IV, his grandfather. By early February, in order to fund a conquest into France, Edward left Flanders to return to England to gather troops and reinforcements, but King Philip VI of France had also turned his attention to the North Sea. Philip had managed to gather a fleet of just over 200 ships, while Edward had amassed 150.

The Battle of Sluys, 24 June 1340

On 24th June 1340, Edward entered the Bay of Sluys in Northern Flanders. The French fleet was ahead of them, facing the English and chained together so as to create an impenetrable barrier. The English ships bore down on the French fleet, and after four hours of combat – including archers and foot soldiers crossing onto enemy ships – the first line of French ships was broken. The rest of the French ships tried to escape, but Edward III’s army captured all but 23 of the 213 ships. Estimates of between 16,000 and 18,000 French seamen and soldiers had lost their lives, including all of Philip VI’s admirals. However, the victory was short-lived. Edward had run out of money to pay the soldiers before the campaign had even begun, so had to agree to a truce with the French on 15th September.

The early 1340s were, for the most part, spent rebuilding finances and developing the taxation system in England – something Edward II had little regard for. In 1341, David II had returned to Scotland, and there was a general peace between the two nations. However, by 1346, Edward had war on two fronts.

On 26th August 1346, Edward was once again drawn into war against the French, this time at Crécy. However, the odds were not in Edward’s favour. The English were outnumbered 8 to 1 by the French, but Edward was victorious with his longbows once again. The French army also faced artillery fire from English cannons, which was another turning point in military history: it is the first use of artillery in a European battle. The French army fled the battlefield, leaving 4000 knights dead and enormous numbers of foot soldiers. The contemporary French chronicler Jean le Bel wrote about the Battle of Crécy, describing what he saw as:

“It was found that there were nine great princes lying there, and around 1200 knights, and a good fifteen or sixteen thousand others – esquires, Genoese, and others – and they found only 300 English knights dead.”

Jean le Bel on the Battle of Crécy
The Battle of Crécy, 26 August 1346

Crécy was a bloodbath. However, there was little time for the English to celebrate, as Philip VI had rested his hopes on the shoulders of David II as part of the Auld Alliance to help drive Edward III out of France for good. On 17th October, English forces met a Scottish army at Neville’s Cross, Durham. The Archbishop of York led the English forces in Edward’s absence and not only did the English forces destroy David II’s army, but David himself was captured and sent to London as a prisoner.

Over the course of the next eleven months from September 1346 onwards, Edward besieged Calais, and by mid 1347, Edward had had enough. He brought over the biggest English army of the medieval period, and, after four days of relentless siege warfare, the French army finally surrendered on 3rd August 1347, opening the gates of Calais to the English. It was another territorial gain for the English, and at a pivotal time. Over the course of the next year, Europe was ravaged by the worst natural disaster in the history of mankind: the Black Death.

A medieval plague doctor

Estimates of up to half the population England was said to have died from bubonic plague (Black Death), which returned in swathes over the next century. However, Edward III did not close England’s ports, even in 1348 when plague was at its worst. Closing the ports would have meant isolating trade and cutting himself off from his fellow monarchs including his own daughter Joan, who was on her way to Castile to marry Prince Pedro, son and heir of King Alphonso XI of Castile. Ironically, Joan herself contracted plague on the journey and died. Moreover, closing England’s ports would also have cut him off from his newly acquired territory of Calais, as well as other English territories in France including Ponthieu, Brittany and Gascony.

In order to combat plague and the sheer number of deaths from it, Edward III introduced legislative measures, the most famous being the Statute of Labourers (1351). This Statute aimed to reduce peasants’ wages to pre-plague levels: during the Black Death, as more peasants died, there was more work for the remaining peasants to undertake – therefore, they demanded higher wages, which many landowners deemed as excessive, hence the introduction of this legislation.

When the Black Death was arguably at its worst, on St. George’s Day 1349 Edward III formed the Order of the Garter, thus increasing his Arthurian image further. It was an order of 26 men who would joust and pray together once a year and conduct themselves like Arthurian knights: the Order would play an important role in Edward’s later life.

As the Black Death calmed down in England, Edward once again focused on both Scotland and France simultaneously, and it was during the early 1350s that he was at the peak of his popularity. He was the quintessentially English king: Middle English had replaced French as the primary language spoken in England, and according to the Walsingham Chronicle, the English people thought that a new sun had risen because of the abundance of peace in England and the glory of the victories.

One of the most notable of these victories was at the Battle of Poitiers, on 19th September 1356. Yet this was not Edward III’s victory to claim: it was his son, Prince Edward (better known as the Black Prince due to the colour of his armour) who led the troops and succeeded. It was such a significant victory for England because the Black Prince had shown that he was as competent as his father, something which Edward II had failed to do, and thus a worry of the English people. Poitiers was also significant because the King John II of France was captured and sent to London. David Starkey refers to Poitiers as “the climax of Edward’s wars, the greatest victories England had achieved for over a century and a half.” The contemporary chronicler Henry Knighton was also full of praise for the Black Prince, stating that “The Pope is a Frenchman, but Jesus is an Englishman; now we shall discover who is stronger.”

The Battle of Poitiers, 19 September 1356

However, Edward III was never able to take advantage of his position and assert himself as King of France, and due to financial issues, in 1360 he signed the Treaty of Brétigny, renouncing his claims to the French throne. Although he had consolidated his territorial gains, a victory on the scale of Crécy or Poitiers eluded Edward III and his sons for the remainder of his life.

“The Pope is a Frenchman, but Jesus is an Englishman; now we shall discover who is stronger.”

Contemporary chronicler Henry Knighton on the Black Prince

The 1360s saw Edward slow down dramatically, both mentally and physically. As stated earlier, the victories had dried up, but many of his leading earls and barons had also died, some due to plague and some due to old age. By the early 1370s there was serious concern for the health of both Edward III and the Black Prince. In 1376, both Edward and the Black Prince were too ill to attend the Parliament of 1376. The Black Prince’s son, also called Edward, died in France, so further questions about the succession of the Plantagenets incurred – it was decided that Richard, the Black Prince’s second eldest son should succeed him when he died.

However, the Black Prince would remain a prince. On 8th June 1376, Prince Edward, the hero at Poitiers, died aged 45. His second eldest son Richard was officially in line to succeed as king after his grandfather’s death – and England once more faced the daunting prospect of a boy king. Then the Order of the Garter really came into fruition: Edward III made both Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke (Richard’s cousin through his uncle John of Gaunt) Knights of the Garter in April 1377, meaning that they both would fight together, and not against one another.

Finally, after a fifty-year reign, Edward III died at Sheen aged 64. His reign is one of the most fondly remembered (and romanticised) in English history. The English Brut sums it up by arguing that “[Edward III] was forsooth of surpassing goodness, and very full of grace even by comparison with all the worthy men of the world: for by his virtue and even the grace given to him by God, he surpassed and shone above his predecessors, who were themselves noble and worthy men.” Yet despite Edward’s death, the problems of succession were to plague Richard for the majority of his reign. Once again, a boy king was set to rule England.

Richard II

Born: 6 January 1367, Bordeaux, Aquitaine, France
Succeeded: Edward III (his grandfather)
Coronation: 16 July 1377
Marriage: Anne of Bohemia (m. 1382, d. 1394); Isabella of Valois (m. 1396)
Reigned: 22 June 1377 – 29 September 1399
Diedc. 14 February 1400
Preceded: Henry IV (his cousin)

Richard II (r. 1377-99)

Although Richard II succeeded the throne due to decisions made by Edward III and through a very legitimate bloodline, it did not mean that there was no controversy. Four of Edward III’s sons who survived until manhood would fight between themselves and their families for the next one hundred years: the Black Prince’s family, John of Gaunt, Lionel and Edmund. Gossip and rumours had suggested that John of Gaunt was most likely to usurp Richard’s reign, hence why Edward III had taken the initiative to make Richard and Henry Bolingbroke (John of Gaunt’s son) Knights of the Garter – so that they had to vow that they would not fight against each other.

Richard’s reign was not to get off to the smoothest start. As a child, he had a set of dice that were loaded so that he would always win – and this action essentially summed up his attitude throughout his reign. Royal power relied on the support of the nobility, so Richard had to tread carefully. Chief of the nobles was John of Gaunt. When Edward III had made Gaunt Duke of Lancaster on 13th November 1362, he had almost given him unchallenged power in the north of England. By 1377, Gaunt had 30 castles across England, and his House of Lancaster a private army of 4000 men – the sheer numbers simply reflect the power he held.

John of Gaunt, one of the key figures in Richard’s reign

Even thirty years after the Black Death had ravaged Europe, England was still feeling it’s impact. Richard felt he had no other option but to introduce poll taxes (three of which he introduced between 1377 and 1381), where he demanded a shilling from every adult in the land, whether a Duke, a merchant or a peasant. The weight of the taxation was much heavier on the peasants, and it triggered one of England’s most famous revolts: the Peasants’ Revolt.

However, contrary to popular belief, the rebels did not target Richard II. Instead, they targeted the noble families around him – they felt it was an injustice that they were being taxed the same amount as families who earned over a hundred times more than the peasants themselves did – the peasants were after a relative taxation reform.

Led by a Kentish man called Wat Tyler, the peasants marched from Essex and Kent onto London and pillaged the city from May to November 1381. Richard, his mother, Henry Bolingbroke and a few other nobles were ushered into the Tower of London for safekeeping. However, with enormous courage, the fourteen-year-old Richard went out to face the rebels with a small entourage, first at Mile End, where he offered them a charter of liberties, then at Smithfield. He approached Tyler, addressing him as a “brother”, and asked why the men of Kent and Essex had not gone home.

The Peasants’ Revolt, 1381.

Unfortunately, Richard’s diplomacy was undermined when the Lord Mayor of London attacked and murdered Tyler, but Richard quickly alerted the attention of the shocked rebels by shouting “I am your leader, follow me.” Miraculously, the mob did as they were commanded and followed the young king out of harm’s way so that a full-scale battle could not erupt. Now leaderless and their grip on the capital broken, the rebels were easily dispersed by the London militia. All of a sudden, Richard’s appearance as a man of the common people had vanished. The manipulative teenager king image was to haunt him for the rest of his kingship. He even went to watch the executions of some of the rebels, formally acknowledging that any sympathy he had shown – or had pretended to show – had gone.

Richard was reluctant to give up power now that he had tasted it. He gave is favourites in Parliament positions of high power, and on numerous occasions had to be reminded of his great-grandfather’s (Edward II) fate for doing the same. Richard ignored these warnings and his reign began to decline. The royal government was completely unlike his grandfather’s: it became a high-tax, high-spend affair. The taxpayer’s money went nowhere – it was squandered on his royal favourites and failed campaigns in Scotland and France.

By 1386, Parliament had had enough. Due to failed campaigns in France, England faced the real possibility of a French invasion. The so-called ‘Wonderful’ Parliament had agreed to help Richard financially and militarily if he dismissed his favourites from government. Richard retorted by saying that he would not listen to Parliament even if they wanted him to dismiss his kitchen scullion. Parliament raised their demands, and Richard said that he would invite the French to help him aginst Parliament.

He was twenty years old and acting like a petulant child. Parliament threatened Richard with deposition, and he finally surrendered to Parliament, which bound him to ordinances, setting up a ruling council like in the reigns of Henry III and Edward II. Parliament also impeached one of Richard’s favourites, Michael de la Pole, and instituted an enquiry into royal finances and spending. Richard stormed off in anger and went on a tour of his kingdom.

But Richard’s tour was not because he had any genuine interest in his subjects. It was an attempt to gather armed support against the nobility, Parliamentarians, and to gain legal judgements to rescue his prerogative. However, the nobility was not finished yet. One of their natural leaders was the Duke of Lancaster’s son and Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. Ten years after the two boys had sworn never to take arms up against each other, tensions rose.

Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke were two very different men, and the conflict was largely a clash of political values. Richard believed that a king was God on Earth, Henry that he was a first among equals. On 19thDecember 1387, the two sides met at Radcot Bridge, just outside Oxford. The Royal Army was led by Robert de Vere, the nobles’ army by Henry himself. Henry won a resounding victory, and de Vere fled into exile, leaving Richard without his troops and powerless.

Richard had hidden for safety in the Tower of London when he heard the news that Henry’s forces had won, and there was no other option for him than to humiliatingly surrender. The ‘Merciless’ Parliament of 1388 dismantled Richard’s power: his friends were driven into exile, and the kingdom was to be ruled by a committee of the lords and even Richard’s personal affairs were to be put into the hands of a board of guardians, as if he was either a child or insane.

The only thing Richard was left with was the official title of King of England. But it was enough. Slowly but surely, he rebuilt his power structure. In February 1388, shortly after his 21st birthday, he made a plausible case to Parliament that he had matured from a boy into a man. He reached out for the support of his uncle and Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, who agreed to use his influence to pacify the country. He rebuilt his personal following and treated his former enemies with mercy.

But Richard was still the manipulative man he had been all those years ago in the summer of 1381. The depth of his hatred – although stemmed for a few years – was still fresh. When his Royal Army leader Robert de Vere died in exile in 1395, Richard arranged a funeral for him, and all of the noble lords who had fought against him were obliged to attend.

By 1397, Richard was strong enough to strike. One by one, the lords who had rebelled against him were either exiled or executed on highly exaggerated charges of treason. He also surrounded Parliament with his Cheshire archers who he had gathered on his tour of England in 1387. Richard had regained his prerogative.

However, Richard saved the best revenge for the man who had undermined and betrayed him the most – his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. When Henry had a quarrel with another nobleman (Thomas Mowbray), Richard ordered that the two of them should fight to the death, and God would be on the just man’s side. The King of England was not acting so much like a petulant child this time, but like a Roman Emperor in the Colosseum. Just as the combatants were about to charge at each other, Richard threw down his staff, stopping the fight and resuming judgement to himself. The final decision was that Henry was to go into exile for ten years, while Mowbray was to go into exile for the rest of his life.

While in exile in Paris in 1399, Henry Bolingbroke heard the news that his father John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster had died. He also heard the news that Richard had wasted no time in seizing all of Lancaster’s possessions – and thus Henry’s inheritance. This act of greed from Richard only spurred Henry on in his return to England.

Although Richard still felt relatively safe in England as he thought that France was on his side, his luck would soon change. The Duke of Burgundy was forced out of Paris because of plague, and that ultimately left Henry Bolingbroke free to do as he pleased. Henry left France with a fleet of ten ships and landed on the Yorkshire coast. Upon hearing this news, Richard fled to Wales and sought safety in some of Edward I’s great Welsh castles.

Henry knew that his cousin was likely to flee and managed to persuade him out of hiding with the promise that he had only returned to claim his inheritance and had no intention of threatening the crown itself. This was a lie, but it worked. As Richard emerged from the gates of Flint Castle in North-East Wales, an ambush of Henry’s men laid in wait for him. The King of England was now his cousin’s prisoner.

Richard abdicated his throne to God (having no legitimate children), but Henry Bolingbroke took the empty throne for himself. His claim was also a legitimate one: like Richard, he was descended directly from Henry III: Richard from Henry’s eldest son Edward (Edward I), Bolingbroke from Henry III’s second son Edmund, Earl of Lancaster.

Henry IV (r. 1399-1413). The first king of the House of Lancaster.

In less than twelve weeks, Henry Bolingbroke had gone from landless exile to Henry IV, King of England. However, even though Richard II had been deposed by law, he was still an anointed monarch, which Henry was not. Henry knew this, and he also knew from Richard’s last ‘exile’, that he was not safe unless Richard was dead. Nevertheless, Henry did not wat blood on his hands (literally) for the murder of Richard. Instead, he left him to starve to death in Pontefract Castle. And sometime circa St. Valentine’s Day 1400, Richard II died, a starved wreck of a man he could have been.

Richard II should never have been king. But then again, the same could easily be said for Henry II, the very first Plantagenet. The Plantagenet dynasty had come to an end. Almost 150 years of direct descendants from 1154 to 1399 had finally culminated with a king who had the attitude of a manipulative and spoiled child. No other medieval European dynasty would hold as much power as the Plantagenets in the High Middle Ages, and especially not into the fifteenth century. Over the course of the next one hundred years following Richard II’s death there were seven kings, in comparison to the eight Plantagenets in 150 years. Of those seven kings, three were murdered, one was killed on the battlefield, three died in their beds and one followed Henry IV’s own personal example of usurping the throne. But that’s a completely different story for another blog post! 

For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.

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