Experts say Edward III deserves his place in the pantheon of greats

King Edward III is often misunderstood (Image: Getty)

Ask the man or woman in the street who was England’s greatest monarch and the names Henry V, Elizabeth I, Alfred the Great and (rightly) Elizabeth II are likely to recur. Henry VIII and Queen Victoria might also be mentioned – though more for Henry’s multiple marriages and Victoria’s longevity than their ability as rulers. In the case of Alfred and Henry V, their greatness is hard to dispute.

Alfred’s defeat of the invading Danes and provision of laws were critical to the formation of England as a country in the ninth century. Henry V’s financial reforms, drive for internal order, defeat of the French at Agincourt (1415), reconquest of Normandy and establishment of himself and his successors as rightful heirs to the French throne impressed his contemporaries.

They also attracted the attention of Shakespeare, whose play cemented Henry foremost in our minds as the model medieval king. And the presence of Elizabeth I or II among the pantheon of greats needs little further explanation.

But for folk in the late 14th century, the paragon of English kings was Edward III, who ruled England for 50 years between 1327 and 1377.

Yet Edward’s myriad political achievements have escaped latter-day popular consciousness because generations of historians dismissed his record.

The Victorians, followed by liberal and Marxist-leaning historians in the 20th century, perceived his foreign policy, in which he fought first the Scots and then the French in the Second Scottish War of Independence and the Hundred Years’ War, as war-mongering and imperialistic.

This was because they saw the 14th century through their own political lens, wrongly assuming any English military activity beyond England’s borders must have been motivated solely by greed and bloodthirstiness.

It is true that all wars lead to suffering and that medieval political elites were part of a warrior caste. But in seeking to re-establish English control on the Scottish borders, Edward was only doing what the English political community expected of him. And it was French aggression that started the Hundred Years’ War.

In modern parlance, he was “cancelled” because of a misunderstanding of his record and the impossible international circumstances in which he found himself.

The importance of his internal reforms was also overlooked.

Richard Parlington

Richard Partington grew up in Liverpool and studied History at Cambridge (Image: Richard Partington author)

Caroline Burt

Caroline Burt is a medieval historian (Image: Caroline Burt)

These included co-opting elites into public service, drives against government corruption, building a responsive legal system available to ordinary people and developing the Crown’s relationship with Parliament in the interests of the common good.

They also failed to recognise that he underpinned his stunning military and naval victories with organisational reforms, visionary strategy and brilliant tactics.

It was thanks to Edward’s professionalising of the military, development of massed longbow archery and alliance-building – not through luck – that the English (assisted by their Welsh and Gascon allies) triumphed in a series of victories at Halidon Hill (1333), Sluys (1340), Auberoche (1345), Crécy and Neville’s Cross (1346), La Roche-Derrien (1347), Winchelsea and Calais (1350) and Poitiers (1356).

Edward’s army reconquered large parts of the lost lands historically held by the English kings in France, especially in Aquitaine, Périgord and the Dordogne.

It also seized Calais as a permanent English bridgehead and captured David II, King of Scots, John II, King of France, and Charles, Duke of Brittany – check-mates in the game of chess that was international ­politics at the time. The result was a series of treaties in England’s favour.

No wonder his later admirers included Henry VIII, whose fascination with Edward produced both Edward-emulating foreign policy and a lasting memorial to his ancestor in the form of Trinity College, Cambridge.

As Edward’s contemporaries put it, he was the “flower of kings past and the pattern for monarchs to come”; towards his “foreign enemies” he was “as grim as a leopard, yet with his people as merciful as a lamb”; and a “general whose troops unerringly obeyed his every command, because they both loved and feared him”.

But what made Edward III such a great political leader, and what lessons does his leadership provide for politicians today?

First, he was a man who took control of situations. The tyranny of his father, Edward II – an indolent, self-absorbed and irresponsible man – had ended in 1327 in the disaster of deposition and murder at the hands of Edward III’s mother, Queen Isabella, and her political partner and lover, Roger Mortimer.

For the first three years of Edward III’s reign, Isabella and Mortimer were two new tyrants ruling in the young king’s name.

They sold English political rights cheaply, in an unpopular peace treaty with the great but controversial Scottish king, Robert Bruce, and stripped the realm for their own profit.

Edward III later described his youth as a period of captivity within his own court.

But, by the time he was 17, and despite constant supervision by Mortimer and his henchmen, he was creating his own, independent political networks – and putting fear into the formidable Mortimer.

In October 1330, Edward executed a brilliant coup d’état, in which his closest associates stormed Nottingham Castle via a secret passage and seized Mortimer.

Vintage illustration Battle of Crecy 26 August 1346 in northern France between a French army commanded by King Philip VI and an English army led by Ki

Vintage illustration of the Battle of Crecy in Northern France (Image: duncan1890)

The tyrant was hanged for treason, and Edward III’s rule began in the style in which it would continue: with intelligence, boldness and courage in the face of danger.

Secondly, Edward immediately established a broad political base. Noblemen and officials who had served his father and Mortimer were quickly rehabilitated, as was his mother – a fount of international political experience.

Political vengeance and the Herod-like elimination of potential rivals were not Edward’s way. Instead, in the political wreckage that was England after years of tyranny, he built a collaborative new order, incorporating into the ranks of the established nobility new men of high ability and harnessing the efforts of all the nobles to the national interest.

They were permitted to build up their inheritances because Edward understood that such resources could boost the nation, so long as great lords worked towards the common good – on which he fiercely insisted.

Nobles who ignored the nation’s needs or bullied others were relentlessly pursued by the king through the legal system, imprisoned and massively fined for their transgressions. The fines went into the public purse, not the king’s pocket.

Edward was especially concerned about selfish behaviour on the part of elites in the face of the Black Death, the great pandemic of 1348-9, insisting that the upper classes should look to their responsibilities at such a time.

Thirdly, despite his pressing and sustained foreign military campaigns, Edward never lost sight of the needs of ordinary people at home.

He had little choice but to levy heavy taxation, but was careful this should not over-burden any one group; and he built an enduring and open relationship with the realm’s political representatives in Parliament, keeping MPs closely informed of international developments and seeking their advice. He also focused on making the legal system more useful and accessible to ordinary people. By the middle of his reign, community-based, affordable justice was readily available in every county, with royal judges visiting each shire four times a year.

The records of the hundreds of thousands of 14th-century legal cases that survive, extraordinarily, in the National Archive attest that the vast bulk of cases were brought by ordinary people over commonplace legal matters. All of this was enabled by Edward’s character. His youth was very difficult, as the Welsh medieval poet, Iolo Goch, remarked.

But Edward was highly resilient and did not wilt. As well as being clever and brave, he was a listener who learnt from his mistakes. He frequently went incognito – even in battle – better to understand his subjects’ experiences.

While he could be unhelpfully obsessive about people or issues that angered him, he was willing to change his mind when “the court of his conscience” (as he put it) told him to – and openly admitted errors.

Having promoted able men to high office, he was willing to sideline them if their delivery of governmental objectives disappointed, but managed never to fall out with them.

He was frank about his emotions, writing movingly about his personal limitations following the death of his beloved daughter, Princess Joan.

Perhaps more than anything, his people valued his devotion to duty and willingness to share their burdens: on military campaigns he drank from the same cup and ate the same food as the rank and file.

He had the luck to be charismatic: a contemporary account recalls that, when hunting down a corrupt official, he was told by the Abbot of St Albans that the abbey chamber in which the culprit had stored his plunder could not be opened because no one had the keys.

“By Saint Mary, I will make the keys myself!” he responded.

Not everyone is blessed with such a personality, but modern politicians would be wise to emulate the other qualities that served him so well: responsibility, tirelessness, thoughtfulness, straightforwardness and authenticity.

  • Arise, England by Caroline Burt & Richard Partington (Faber, £25) is out now. For free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832

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