The future King Edward III was born at Windsor Castle on 13 November 1312, the eldest son of King Edward II and Isabella of France. He would become one of Britain’s most dynamic, dominating, and dedicated monarchs. He was, in every way, the brutal and glorious heir of his grandfather, King Edward I.
Edward was born a fighter, and anyone who attempted to use him as a means to power learned to regret their plans. A few days after his 14th birthday, his mother and Roger de Mortimer forced his father to abdicate in favor of the teenage Prince of Wales. The prince thus became King Edward III on 25 January 1327, but Mortimer and Isabella were the ones who were really ruling the kingdom. This wouldn’t last long.
When the young king was only seventeen he organized a small band of trusted men and took full power of his kingdom by arresting Roger de Mortimer on 19 October 1330 at Nottingham Castle. King Edward had the man who dared usurp his powers condemned without trial and hanged like a common churl at Tyburn on 29 November 1330. Although there is strong evidence that King Edward II was still alive and well at this time, King Edward III was now the undisputed sovereign of Great Britain.
King Edward III had two very concrete goals upon his assumption of the mantle of power. He was going to finish the hammering of the Scots his grandfather had started, and most importantly, he was going to take his rightful place on the throne of France (or at least get back England’s territories on the continent). This decision to fight wars on two fronts would prove to be the reason he would ultimately not succeed in gaining another crown, but he did get back a big ol’ chunk of the former Angevin Empire.
As a warrior king, Edward was peerless. He smashed his way into Scotland, and for almost three decades he crushed the opposing Celtic forces whenever he met them on the field of battle. Nonetheless, prowess as a general is not the same as being able to subdue a populace and incorporate a territory. The Scots would not be defeated, no matter how many times King Edward won. Eventually the war would end in victory for Scotland, in that it retained it’s independence as a nation, but at a terrible cost of life and commerce. In 1357 King Edward and the Scots signed the Treaty of Berwick, agreeing that England would release King David II and in turn Scotland would pay England 100,000 merks (£67,000 sterling, an almost unthinkable sum), supposedly for King David’s ransom but really as a pay off to get Edward III to leave them alone.
King Edward III was finally free to concentrate all his energies on his true objective – the war in France.
To be fair, King Edward was arguably the rightful king of France. He was the only living grandson of King Philip IV of France, who had murdered the Templars and brought down a curse upon the 300-year-old ruling House of Capet. However, because Edward was the son of King Philip’s only daughter, Isabella of France, and Salic Law forbid women (or theoretically the men of agnatic descendant) from inheriting the monarchy, the French throne had gone to Philip of Valois after the line of Capet ended. King Philip VI understandably didn’t feel like handing over his crown to his upstart nephew.
Again, King Edward won all the battles, and several of these included the most impressive military victories of the Medieval period, yet he ultimately lost the war. Edward destroyed the French navy at the Battle of Sluys in 1340 and pounded the French army into the ground at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. When he was distracted by war in Scotland, his eldest son, Edward, the Black Prince, defeated the French for him in the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Notwithstanding these victories, as with Scotland, the actual crown of the country he was regularly defeating seemed to be perpetually out of his reach. So in 1360 “he accepted the Treaty of Brétigny, whereby he renounced his claims to the French throne, but secured his extended French possessions in full sovereignty.” He had basically won a third of the country, more than half of the former Angevin Empire.
King Edward was much more successful in translating his battle-glory into nationalism and English pride than he was at taking over other countries. England, he assured his newly created and loyal nobles, was infinitely superior to France, with their sissy cheeses and fancy clothes. It was under Edward III that the English language became officially used in law courts. English also “saw a revival as a literary language … especially [in] The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.” Yes, the upper crust of England still mostly spoke French, but the nobility and clergy made a point of being able to speak English, too.
Moreover, in 1348 the king created the Order of the Garter, modeled after the knights of the round table, a flagrant attempt to reinstitute the English identity as the warrior-heirs of King Arthur. The Order was comprised of a very select group of 24 “Knights Companion” of the King, and it was a way to both reward his best fighters and allies and to bind them even more tightly to his cult of personality. Loyalty to King Edward, as the Knights of the Round Table were loyal to King Arthur, became a defining element of chivalry. As a result, King Edward was one of the few Medieval monarchs to never have to fear a revolt from his English peers.
Not only was King Edward III like his grandfather as a ruler, he also echoed his grandfather’s devotion to family. He was well known to have been in love with his wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, whom he married on 24 January 1328 while they were both in their early teens. He not only loved her, he trusted and depended on her. She acted as regent when he was away at war, and she frequently talked him into merciful acts that prevented him from becoming a blood-soaked tyrant. The couple had thirteen children, although only seven would survive to adulthood and only four would outlive their parents. They were married for 40 years, and “there is no evidence of any infidelity on the king’s part before Alice Perrers became his lover [around 1360], and by that time the queen was already terminally ill.”
Additionally, King Edward was a good father. He had five sons by Queen Philippa who grew to manhood and who were mighty warriors in their own right, yet unlike Henry II’s brood, they never rebelled against their father or tried to usurp his throne. Although his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchild would tear the country apart in the Wars of the Roses, while Edward III lived there was no dispute as to who was the one and only rightful sovereign.
Such was the respect and love for King Edward III that even during the last 15 years of his long reign, when his eldest son was deathly ill and English victories in France were being eroded by the new king, Charles V, and his mistress was using her influence over him to become rich, there was never an open insurrection against the now elderly and frail monarch. Whatever problems there may have been, they were seen as the result of Edward’s inability to rule as he once had due to advanced age, not as a fault in his leadership abilities.
There intense grief, both among his subjects and his family, when King Edward III died of stroke at Sheen Palace on 21 June 1377 at the age of 64. He was buried with great ceremony beside his beloved wife, Queen Philippa, in the chapel of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads:
Here is the glory of the English, the paragon of past kings, the model of future kings, a merciful king, the peace of the peoples, Edward the third fulfilling the jubilee of his reign, the unconquered leopard, powerful in war like a Maccabee. While he lived prosperously, his realm lived again in honesty. He ruled mighty in arms; now in Heaven let him be a king.
He was arguably the most indomitable of all British kings, and his successors would all struggle to prove themselves worthy to be his descendants.