Read A Great and Glorious Adventure Online
Authors: Gordon Corrigan
On 30 January 1328, Edward III married Philippa of Hainault, daughter of the count of Hainault. She was now sixteen years old and described by the chronicler Froissart as being ‘full
feminine’ – past puberty. It was to be a genuinely happy marriage, despite Edward’s later womanizing, but at this early stage there was to be little time for domestic bliss, for
the new regime faced difficulties enough.
The Battle of Sluys, 1340. In many ways the most important battle of the whole war, as it finally destroyed any French ability to invade England. The
illustration, from the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, shows how the English (on the left) were able to fight a land battle on ships, rather than a sea battle which they might well have lost.
The first problem facing the new regime in England and the one most in need of a conclusion was the ever-present running sore of the Scots. Robert Bruce had adhered to his
promise not to raid England during Isabella’s invasion and subsequent campaign, but now, with the deposition of Edward II, his assurances no longer held, and bands of ferocious Scots were
raiding the northern English counties. It seemed that a short and successful war would cement the popularity of the new dynasty, so Edward, his mother and Mortimer began to gather an army in York.
The assembly was marred by an argument between English archers and the servants of Flemish men-at-arms sent from Hainault. Fuelled by the endemic English dislike of foreigners, the argument turned
to a fight and then to a slaughter, with the archers shooting indiscriminately at anyone who appeared alien. When order was restored, there were three hundred dead in the streets of York, mainly
Hainaulters. It was perhaps an omen for the campaign, which began with the English army floundering about over an inhospitable terrain where it mostly poured with rain, trying to find the Scots,
who had no intention of fighting an open battle; and ended with an exhausted English army withdrawing. Edward was furious and was said to have wept in frustration.
Now it was increasingly clear to Isabella and to Mortimer that this was an unwinnable war. Even in the glory days of Edward I’s Scottish wars, the Scots had always eventually returned to
the fray, and the incessant border raids and the consequent punitive expeditions were a drain on resources and funds that England could ill afford. English emissaries began to negotiate
with the Scots, and the result was the Treaty of Northampton, ratified by Edward III in May 1328. The treaty acknowledged Scottish independence and the position of Robert Bruce as
king; gave up English overlordship of Scotland (claimed by English kings ever since the Conquest); agreed to the return of various relics, including the Black Rood (a sliver of wood that the Scots
believed was from the cross on which Christ was crucified), the Ragman (a parchment admitting submission to Edward I, with the seals of most of the great men of Scotland affixed to it), and the
Stone of Scone; and agreed the marriage of Robert Bruce’s four-year-old son, David, to Isabella’s seven-year-old daughter, Joan. In return, Robert Bruce agreed to pay an indemnity of
£20,000, or £1.65 million in today’s money (silver standard), for Scottish raids into England and to support England against any enemy except the French. As there was no other
likely enemy, this was a rather hollow promise.
In hindsight, the treaty was a piece of pragmatic common sense. If the Scots could not be brought to heel, then give them what they wanted in exchange for perpetual peace and join the two crowns
by a marriage deal. Additionally, security in the north would mean that Edward could pursue a French war without constantly having to look over his shoulder. Unfortunately, that was not how it was
seen in England. The ‘Shameful Peace’ had given away a princess, acknowledged the success of treason, given up the English crown’s hereditary privileges over Scotland and,
crucially, failed to address the rights of English lords who held lands in Scotland. As by the treaty they now had no rights there, these lords styled themselves the ‘Disinherited’. The
young Edward made no secret of the fact that he disapproved of the treaty, saying that it was all his mother’s and Mortimer’s doing, and that he frowned on the wedding of his sister and
would not attend the ceremony. No doubt some of this was a swift adoption of sloping shoulders once he realized the extent of public opinion, and in any case the London mob prevented the abbot of
Westminster from releasing the Stone of Scone. Almost overnight, Isabella’s popularity began to wane, and by extension that of Mortimer.
Hot on the heels of the conclusion of the Scottish war came the news of the death of Charles IV, the last of the Capetian kings who had ruled France for over three hundred years. All three sons
of Philip IV, the Fair, had ruled in succession after him and none had produced sons that
survived infancy. The next-born child of Philip was Isabella, and she was swift to
send emissaries to Paris to register her claim. The stage was set for the Hundred Years War.
When Charles was on his death bed, his wife was pregnant. The king was said to have decreed that, if the child was a boy, then he would succeed, and, if not, the crown of France should pass to
the thirty-five-year-old Philip of Valois, count of Anjou and Maine, the son of Charles of Valois, who was a brother of Philip IV. When, two months later, in May 1328, the child was still-born,
Philip summoned a carefully chosen assembly of the nobility of France to decide the succession. His own claim was based on his being the grandson of one king and the cousin of three others, whereas
Edward III’s mother Isabella was the daughter of a king and the sister of three others; thus, if the succession was to be decided by consanguinity, her claim was the stronger. The so-called
Salic Law, which was supposedly part of the legal code of the ancient Merovingian Franks and which forbade descent through the female line, was not trotted out and relied upon until very much
later, but it is true that there had never been a queen regnant of France, and when the question had last arisen, in 1316, the girl’s guardian had conveniently withdrawn her claim.
Isabella’s emissaries, Bishops Orleton and Northburgh, argued that there was no legal justification for excluding her. They pointed out that the greatest duchies, such as Aquitaine, could be
and had been inherited by females, and that other kingdoms – Hungary, Bohemia – had been ruled by females of cadet branches of the Capets. Furthermore, they argued, even if there was
justification for excluding a woman, this argument could not be extended to Isabella’s son, who was the closest male descendant of Philip the Fair. This was a sensible shift – claiming
the throne for Edward rather than for his mother – for, if the latter’s claim was pressed, then in logic her dead brother’s daughters would also have a claim.
Whatever the legal arguments might have been, the French were determined not to have Isabella on their throne, nor to accept her fifteen-year-old son. Not only was Edward of England a foreigner
(although he would not have considered himself such) but he was a mere boy and would simply be the figurehead for his mother and her very dubious (in French eyes) lover, Mortimer. Philip of Valois,
on the other hand, was a vigorous adult and a member of one of the greatest families of France. Accordingly,
Isabella’s representatives found little support for her
claim. Philip of Valois was proclaimed king of France as Philip VI, and the burgomaster of Bruges, who was unwise enough to voice his countrymen’s support for Edward, was mutilated and hanged
as a warning to others.
Isabella would never relinquish her and her son’s claim to the throne of France, but for the moment there was very little she could do about it. The unpopularity of the Scottish treaty,
the arrival of a queen consort, and Mortimer’s acting in the very way that had persuaded him to oppose and eventually to rebel against Edward II were all conspiring to reduce her influence.
The regency council of state ruled in Edward’s name, with neither Isabella nor Mortimer having any official role. As the queen mother, Isabella was of course entitled to make her views known
and to be consulted, but, while Mortimer could no doubt have had himself appointed to the council, he seems to have preferred to remain in the background and to exercise power over the king through
the boy’s mother, which did at least allow him to avoid blame for unpopular decisions. When the new king of France demanded homage for Aquitaine and Ponthieu on pain of invading Aquitaine,
Isabella’s first reaction was to refuse, but, when Philip began to seize the incomes of the wine trade, Edward had no option but to cross to France in 1329 and pay homage in Amiens cathedral.
Technically, the act of homage would negate any claim to the French throne, but later it was argued that Edward had not removed his spurs or his crown, nor had he knelt, so the act was meaningless.
In any case, he had not done it freely but in the face of
For the moment, however, neither Edward nor his mother was in any position to press his claim.
The rule of Isabella and Mortimer, at first greeted with acclaim as a relief from the unstable and increasingly oppressive reign of Edward II, was now beginning to be viewed with as much dread
as Edward’s and the Despensers’ had been. It was obvious to all that Isabella controlled the young king, and Mortimer controlled Isabella. Isabella’s lands and incomes increased,
largely at the expense of the new queen Philippa, who was yet to receive the queen’s dower still held by her mother-in-law, while Mortimer too acquired more land and riches and, by having
himself created earl of March, set himself above all other Marcher Lords in precedence. As Isabella was intelligent enough to realize the opposition that such tyrannical behaviour had aroused
during her late husband’s
reign, one can only suppose that she was in such thrall to Mortimer that she could not or would not curb his ambitions. Even when Mortimer
enticed Edmund, earl of Kent, into a bogus plot to rescue his half-brother Edward II – supposedly imprisoned rather than dead – and then had him executed as a traitor, Isabella failed
to rein him in. But when rumours began to circulate about her being pregnant by Mortimer – which, if true, was a scandal of enormous proportions – the young king had had enough of being
controlled by Mortimer through his mother.
On 15 June 1330, with the court at Woodstock, Queen Philippa gave birth to a son, Edward of Woodstock, the future Black Prince. That same summer, the court moved to Nottingham, and Mortimer
issued writs for a meeting of the great council of the realm, with nobles being warned that staying away would attract heavy penalties. Quite what Mortimer hoped to achieve at the council can only
be a matter of speculation, but he was aware that he was unpopular, that the young friends of the king were urging him to assert his authority, and that, with the king approaching his majority and
with a healthy heir apparent, the rule of Isabella and Mortimer was under threat unless they managed somehow to persuade or intimidate the council into extending it.
The castle at Nottingham, built by William I and improved and extended by his successors, was a formidable structure, and when Mortimer offended the barons still further by informing them that
only the king, Isabella, Mortimer and their personal guard were to be accommodated in the castle, with all others lodged in the town, he must have felt that he was quite secure – particularly
when Isabella brought new locks for the gates and doors leading to the keep, where the royal family was quartered, and had the keys delivered to her personally each night when the doors had been
locked and sentries placed on them. Such tight security did not save them. On the evening of 19 October 1330, the magnates left the castle at the conclusion of the day’s business and the
gates were duly locked. Later, a group of the king’s supporters, led by the governor of the castle, whose soldiers had been replaced by Mortimer’s men, entered the castle by way of a
tunnel that ran from the town into the castle keep, where they were met by the king and taken to Isabella and Mortimer’s apartments. The king remained outside while his party burst in to find
Mortimer in discussion with the chancellor, the bishop of Lincoln. In the ensuing scuffle two of
Mortimer’s bodyguard were killed, and Mortimer and the bishop were
seized and dragged out through the tunnel. Isabella, meanwhile, is said to have cried in French for her good son to have pity on dear Mortimer – although, as she is said to have called from
an adjoining apartment, it is difficult to see how she could have known that the affair had been orchestrated by the king. Next morning, Mortimer’s associates were arrested and the party was
taken to the Tower, while the king called a parliament to meet at Westminster and announced that henceforth he would rule fairly and with the advice of the great men of the kingdom. He was just
eighteen years of age.
In November 1330, Parliament duly met in London. Mortimer was condemned unheard and sentenced to death, along with two of his most notorious adherents. On 29 November, he was drawn to Tyburn on
a hurdle and hanged, as were his two collaborators on Christmas Eve. All three were spared the more exotic refinements of a traitor’s execution and were permitted burial. Edward had taken
pains to ensure that no mention of his mother was made in the trials, and she was merely pensioned off to live in some style at Castle Rising. A cursory and unsuccessful attempt was made to find
those suspected of murdering Edward II and those complicit in the judicial murder of the earl of Kent, but all had fled abroad except for Sir Thomas Berkeley, the owner of Berkeley Castle where
Edward II had met his end, who was put on trial but cleared. There were no more executions. In disposing of the old regime, Edward III was a lot more lenient than his father or Mortimer had been,
and in due course many of Mortimer’s adherents were pardoned and their lands and titles restored.