There are four major royal families when we think of England’s monarchies that could summarize almost all their history: Windsor, Stuart, Tudor, and Plantagenet. The 14th century is the age of Plantagenet and the drama they begin in this century, becomes their downfall in the succeeding. Despite being thought of as a backwater country with no real power, England seems to be involved in major events around the world, influencing battles and monarchies alike.
We begin the century during the reign of Edward I who had been reigning since returning from the final crusade and Fall of Acre in 1272. He was actually King for almost six months before he was told of his father’s death (Henry III). His father’s reign had been one of many conflicts with the Baron’s uprisings which led to the signing of the Magna Cater. Edward had high hopes for a peaceful reign but that would not be in his cards.
He returned to England in 1274 to rebellions in the country of Wales. The next two decades were filled with this conflict before he brought the country to heel under his rule and created the title Prince of Wales for his own son, Edward. His first wife had been Eleanor of Castile, he was devoted to her and her death in 1290 pained him but his failed conflicts in Flanders forced him to accept the French King’s sister, Margaret as a bride, though that would be far from the end of those countries conflicts. He would attempt to impose his will over Scotland and steal their sovereignty after the death of Alexander III, which led to the rise of Robert the Bruce. During this conflict Edward would see many victories and steal an important part of the Scottish coronation ceremony: The Stone of Destiny. The rest of his life would be ruled by this conflict, and he would die of dysentery in 1307.
His son succeeded him Edward II, who was his youngest son and only to survive from his father’s union with Eleanor. He inherited a mess from his father, despite the man being remembered as an adequate, though terrifying, king. Their was an ongoing conflict with the French over the English King’s refusing to pay homage for their French Duchy of Aquitaine (Gascony). The coffers were empty after years of war, and the people frustrated over high taxes. Scotland also remained a significant point of contention. He was not thought of as athletic despite being a prominent factor in his father’s military victories, though he supported the activities enjoyed by the court, including jousting. As a prince he was known to be sympathetic to his household and spent time getting to know labors and those who were considered beneath him, including his long-time favorite, Piers Gaveston. They were close enough for his father to use exiling Gaveston as a punishment for the young prince, though it is not known what caused a need for punishment. There is debate on the exact nature of their relationship on whether it was of brotherly affection, or romantic, though it is a mystery that will never be solved. Upon Edward’s ascension he voided his friend’s exile, gifted him the Earldom of Cornwall, and found the man a wife. He would hold enough of the King’s trust to hold the position of regent when Edward was in France negotiating a treaty that secured him the Duchy of Aquitaine and a wife.
Edward would marry in 1308, in what hindsight would show as the worst decision he ever could have elected, to Isabella of France. She was only 12 at the time, and we would not witness the birth of their first child until 1312. We are unsure when their marriage was consummated but 12 were young even then, and Edward does have an illegitimate child during this period, which points to the couple waiting until she was older. As she grew up, she became a dangerous political rival with France at her back, and would become known as the She-Wolf of France.
Edward’s relationship with Gaveston, regardless of its nature, was the King’s downfall. It became enough of an issue the Pope became involved and Edward had to give huge concessions for him to return/remain in England. The barons of England hated him and refused to form a parliament if he would be there. Edward was forced to allow the barons to form a group known as the Ordainers who created the Ordinances of 1311. It severely reigned in the King’s power, especially in terms of going to war and granting land. They also permanently exiled Gaveston from any of Edward’s lands and forced the king to strip him of his titles. It would not last and in 1312 Edward would renounce the Ordinances and invite Gaveston to return to England. He moved throughout Northern England and Wales but was ultimately captured and was set to stand trial in London when the Earl of Warwick stole the prisoner and held his own trial before executing Gaveston. Edward was furious, and the brutality of the act pushed some barons to turn from the Earl and return to their King’s side.
In 1313, he and Isabella traveled to France to negotiate a new treaty. The mission was successful, and when Edward returned many of his domestic disputes subsided. He had also secured raises in taxes and loans from the French and Pope. He had more funds to manage his government than he ever had before. Things seemed to be looking up for the English King.
Robert the Bruce was becoming a thorn in his side and failure plagued Edward at the Battle of Bannockburn. He attempted to regather forces invading again when the Great Famine began to affect England. That mixed with terrible weather left England in trouble, and the Scots raiding the North did not bolster their confidence. Edward’s biggest flaw though was his inability to stop choosing favorites. His treatment of them pushed England off the edge and into a civil war known as the Dispenser’s War.
The Dispensers, Hugh the Elder and Hugh the Younger, were long time friends of both Edward I and Edward II. The younger worked hard to grow the power surrounding him in Wales, which ultimately annoyed his neighbors and the Earl of Lancaster. The Earl had been the head of Edward’s opposition for a long time, and the King was used to being able to send the Earl of Pembroke to act as a mediator between himself and the earl. This time Pembroke refused, and the conflict spun out of control and the Scots became involved, though a peace treaty was finally found during this time, and both sides hoped for 13 years of peace.
This was not his only problem though, as France was demanding England’s homage and soon they would play a part in his down fall. The Duchy of Aquitaine was becoming an issue in 1326 when his brother-in-law, Charles, decided to go on a power trip and demand more control over the Duchy as well as the presence of Edward II in Paris to pay homage. Edward refused and then denied having a French sergeant hanged for seeking to build a fort on the disputed lands. Edward sent to the Earl of Pembroke to find a peaceful solution, but he fell ill along the way. Charles invaded Aquitaine simultaneously. Edward wanted a peaceful solution, so when Charles offered to end the war if Isabella and his eldest son, Edward, traveled to France on his behalf. Not feeling secure in sending his heir, he compromised and sent Isabella (who was Charles’s sister). This was a huge mistake on his part, for he had not been treating his Queen kindly.
This marriage had been fine/quiet until 1522, during which time they had two sons and two daughters. During their reign though, Isabella felt the sting of embarrassment from fleeing from the Scots and their failure in the Scottish wars. She also despised witnessing some of her closest friends and allies, like the Beaumonts, lose lands in Scotland due to this. What truly broke her trust in Edward though was his friendship with Hugh the Younger. Hugh was arrogant and had an unpleasant habit of abusing high-born ladies. In 1324 Edward arrested Isabella’s household, confiscated her lands, and gave custody of her children to Hugh’s wife. To say she was angry was an understatement, and Edward sending her as an envoy is some of the strongest proof of man’s ego getting in the way of reality as you can get.
While in France she met an Englishman who was exiled, Roger Mortimer, who had been a long-term opponent of Edward. They began an affair and began plotting. Isabella negotiated a treaty for England, but it highly favored France, and still required the King to travel to France over the Duchy of Aquitaine. Edward decided to give Aquitaine to his son and send him to Paris instead. There are not many indications of why he decided this was suddenly an acceptable idea, but once there, Isabella would not return their son. Instead, she began to dress in mourning colors and gathered Edward’s exiled enemies. Edward sought to have the French King force her return, but he denied to expel his own sister from his lands. Isabella was placing herself at great risk, and she needed an army, for if this failed it would be the end of her life. She formed an alliance with William I, Count of Hainaut and married her son to his daughter Phillipa. Then she convinced the Scots to stay out of it with a secret peace treaty, and sailed for England.
Edward was not a popular King and as invaders Isabella and Mortimer knew the land and people. Their act was swift, and they built more and more support as they moved forward. Edward fled London with Hugh the Younger, but he was caught hiding in southern Wales. Isabella moved swiftly once again and the Dispensers were brought to justice in horrifying ways before restraint was shown and mercy given to those less involved.
What happens to Edward after this is still up for debate. What the official records say is the Edward was moved from Kenilworth Castle to Berkeley Castle to secure his person and safety after parliament declared him no longer king and allowed the ascension of their son as Edward III, but many did not find this legal and still considered the elder as King. In December 1527, just twelve months after this decision, a messenger reported Edward II died after an accident during his imprisonment. He was buried at Gloucester Catherdral and his heart was given to Isabella. All was set and done until the Fieschi Letters appeared claiming Edward had escaped and went on to live a life in Europe. Modern historians tend to agree and believe he may have been known as “William the Welshman”, but right now there is no true evidence that exists regarding an assassination plot, or an escape attempt.
Isabella was now regent to her 14 year old son with Mortimer at her side. The couple began to accumulate wealth at an unsustainable level, and worried the nobles. They made peace with Scotland by marrying her daughter, Joan, to David the Bruce and recognized Scottish sovereignty. She signed a treaty with France granting England all the disputed lands except Agenias and with a fine of 50,000 marks, and it was unpopular. Their overall reign is considered a failure full of selfish policy and poor government, though without documents it is unknown exactly how much of this was Isabella or how much was Mortimer, but when it all came falling down, Edward III blamed Mortimer.
In 1330, Mortimer was put on trial for 14 different crimes, including abuse of royal power that did not belong to him. After being found guilty, he was executed at Tyburn and Isabella would be moved to house arrest in Windsor before moving to her own castle, Castle Rising, in Norfolk. By 1348 she was moving freely among England and enjoyed a life of luxury. In retirement, she became interested in religion and family; she doted upon her grandchildren and her daughter Joan took care of her in old age.
With Mortimer out of the way, Edward III could take power for himself for the first time; he possessed a unique amount of adoration from the people throughout his reign while simultaneously using it as a supply chain for his wars. He started by rejecting the peace treaty with Scotland and attempting have the young King David replaced. As his predecessors before him, this was a complete and utter failure that ended in 1338 as bigger problems reared their heads. Once again there were issues with his French duchy and the French King, now Philip VI Valois, demanding homage. Edward refused as his predecessors had, and like Philip’s predecessors, the French king confiscated the land. Instead of continuing the game though, Edward decided to assert his own claim to France through his mother Isabella, and thus started the Hundred Years War. Not much land was taken during this period, but he did build valuable, expensive alliances with Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor and Ferdinand I of Portugal. The treaty with Portugal is one of the longest standing alliances to date.
After 1346 Edward stopped using these alliances as much and began sending English men to fight battles instead, being in Normandy, and his coffers began to grow. In the following year he would win major battle victories against them, including the capture of Calais, as well as capture the Scottish king, David II. All would come to a halt as the Black Death forced battles to end and killed around ⅓ of England’s population. Edward would take the next few years recuperating, losing and handling domestic affairs before returning his larger military agenda in 1350.
If you have not gathered, the Platagenets are like today’s royal family, mixed with the Kennedys, mixed with the Kardashians. The drama is plentiful and juicy, but it does create a need to split their century in two. When we return we will learn about the end of Edward’s reign, and dive into the lives of his infamous sons including the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, as well as Richard II and his fall from power.
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Cartwright, Mark. “Edward III of England.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 8 Mar. 2021, http://www.ancient.eu/Edward_III_of_England/.