This edited article about Edward III originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 737 published on 28 February 1976.
When Edward III came to the throne in 1327, one of the greatest reigns in England’s story blossomed out across the fourteenth century.
First, though, there were the Scots to be dealt with. In the frivolous reign of Edward’s father, Robert Bruce had made short work of the English at the battle of Bannockburn: now Edward, aged twenty-two and convinced of his infallibility, set out north to put matters right. The clash came at Halidon Hill, and Edward’s victory there restored English supremacy in Scotland.
Before we come to the French, who were next on Edward’s list, let us look for a moment at what was happening in England. You can always tell when things are on the change in a country, when economic expansion and fresh, bold ideas are in the air, because new words are coined and creep into the everyday language to express these ideas. Down in Bristol early in Edward’s reign a man named Thomas Blanket was making a certain useful article to which he gave his name; while in the rural cottages the unmarried daughters of the peasant farmers were beginning to spend whole days spinning at their looms – spinsters, people were beginning to call them.
Blankets, spinsters – it all added up, of course, to wool. England was suddenly becoming a nation built on wool – and after home demands had been met, the bulk of it was shipped across to Flanders.
All this commerce brought wealth, and wealth was just what Edward needed to fight a war for a prize that his ancestors had dreamed of since the Norman conquest – the crown of France.
So Edward sent his taxmen into the rural lanes and byways to garner his share of the profits. He called in shrewd financiers, like William de la Pole to find ways of extracting just that little bit extra, and when that was not quite enough, he borrowed from the great banking families of Italy, assuring them that there was plenty of talent in England now to make the money that would pay his debts in full. Then, styling himself the King of England and of France, he went to war.
The French King, Philip, had already seen where Edward was getting his cash, and was doing his best to block up the English means of access to Flanders, where all the moneymaking wool was going. He had taken considerable toll of English shipping before Edward resolved to counter with a sea battle.
At Sluys, near Blankenberghe, Philip had assembled a fleet of nearly two hundred ships filled with stone-throwers, crossbowmen, men-at-arms and knights. This, Edward decided, would be his target for the summer of 1340, and towards the French fleet he himself led the English ships in a small boat called the Thomas.
Numerically, the English were equal to the French. But only numerically. In size, seaworthiness and reliability the English ships were so bad that their captains had not the slightest doubt that they would sink before they reached the other side of the Channel, let alone fight a battle.
Edward was undaunted. At dawn on June 24, strutting the deck of his ship like a peacock, he sailed his rag and bone fleet into the French who, convinced that all they needed for victory was plenty of ground under their feet to give their soldiers manoeuvrability, had committed the extraordinary error of chaining all their ships together. As a tactic it was utterly disastrous. The English simply sailed into one end of their line and ravaged their way through it. Twenty-five thousand Frenchmen were dead before the battered remnants of the French fleet – a mere twenty-four out of the two hundred ships – broke loose and fled eastwards.
At home Edward’s extravagant borrowing had precipitated a crisis. The spinsters of England had been unable to keep up with the pace of his spending, and suddenly the King realized that he could not pay back the tremendous sums he had had from the Italian bankers. The banks crashed and the financial depression that followed was felt in every corner of western Europe. For a time the Hundred Years War, the principal cause of all this extravagance although still in its infancy, had to be abandoned.
Europe was quick to recover, however, and the fighting was on again when the French King attacked the English provinces of Guienne and Gascony in France. Edward hurried with an army across the Channel and began a fantastic march of pillage across northern France, looting, raiding, burning and wrecking the countryside. So busy was his army filling their sacks with loot that they hardly noticed that Philip of France had crept up behind them and was near enough for an attack. Edward was finally forced to make a stand at the village of Crecy.
Hundreds of accounts have been written about the ensuing battle – about how the bowmen of England, sheltering in the speckled shadows between two woods, shot down the Genoese crossbowmen upon whom the French relied for their vanguard; about how the blind King of Bohemia, an ally of the French, rode into the thick of the battle tied to the two knights who guided him, and died vaingloriously; about how Edward refused to send aid to his son the Black Prince when the lad was pressed, “for,” said the King, “today he must win his spurs.”
After his total victory Edward made for Calais. That town refused to surrender to him, so he quartered his army around the walls and sat down to wait for the citizens to starve. The siege took a long time, and when at last the townsfolk agreed to Edward’s terms – that he would not vent his fury upon them if they sent out six of their best burghers (citizens) with the keys – his patience was exhausted.
“Here are the keys”, said the six burghers of Calais, kneeling before Edward. “Have mercy on us, O King!”
For answer Edward summoned his executioner.
The day was saved by his wife and Queen, Philippa. Down on her knees she went, to plead in ringing tones for the burghers’ lives.
Edward was moved by the Queen’s eloquence and agreed to free the burghers, with the result that the story of the six burghers of Calais has come resounding down the centuries.
Soon after Edward’s return from Calais the Black Death rolled mercilessly over Europe and struck down the terrified people of England in hundreds of thousands. The King and Queen hurried with the nobility out of London, where the plague which was carried by fleas that lived on the fur of rats, was filling the streets with corpses.
The plague lasted over a year and, it is said, halved the country’s population from four million to two million. Certainly it took years for England to recover from its effects. Even before recovery was complete, though, the war in France was on again, and with a small army of 10,000 men the Black Prince was forced into a position where he would have to fight another huge French army under French King John. It happened at Poitiers, and Poitiers, apart from the fact that this time Edward stayed at home, was Crecy all over again – with the French King made captive as an extra prize.
A King who reigns long must reign not only in his days of triumph but also in his days of decline. So it was with Edward. Although he had many more years of kingship, the end of his reign makes sorry reading. Queen Philippa had died and the King in his dotage was dominated by a woman named Alice Perrers, who had been one of the Queens’ ladies-in-waiting. Gone was the bristling, upright Plantagenet appearance; in its place senility bowed the old King’s body and spread the lines upon his face. In his old age Edward was a pathetic sight, even to his own servants.
As soon as he had drawn his last breath, Alice Perrers and the king’s hangers-on, hurriedly left, taking whatever loot was available to them.
But it had been a magnificent reign. Although the desultory war was still on, the King’s soldiers had conquered in great battles. At home the King’s merchants had opened the floodgates of trade, and the King’s writers, Chaucer with his Canterbury Tales and Wycliff with his translation of the Bible into English, were laying the footings of England’s superb literature.
It must have been a most contented King who died peacefully at Richmond, in Surrey, one warm June morning in 1377.
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