Authors: Gordon Corrigan
Edward now had to rectify the oppression of his father’s reign and that of Mortimer and Isabella. Many of the officials of the two previous regimes were given a short period in the
wilderness but then re-employed if they were able administrators, as many of them were. All land grants made since his accession – made by Edward in name but by Isabella and Mortimer in
reality – were cancelled, and laws forbidding duels, unofficial tournaments and the bearing of arms in Parliament were strengthened. Outside the immediate control of the king and his
government, England was a lawless land: brigandage was rife, and justices, whether those of Edward II or Mortimer, were corrupt. The exhibition of various body parts of notable persons acted as a
reminder of the dangers of choosing the wrong side in what had been a violently fluctuating political landscape. Great lords maintained private armies and often
behaved very much as they liked, even if they were constantly obliged to jockey for position depending on whose star was in the ascendant at any particular time. Whether Edward III saw war abroad
as a way to channel English aggression to the common good, or he was mainly concerned with what he saw as his rightful inheritance through his mother, is irrelevant. In any event, it is clear that
from very early on he was intending to take on the French king. Before he could do that, however, he had to ensure that his back door was secure and that, if he took an army to France, he was not
going to be invaded by the Scots.
It took Edward four campaigns to be sure that Scotland was safe, but he had to maintain the fiction that the Scots were the aggressors, otherwise by the Treaty of Northampton he would have to
return the £20,000 reparations paid by the Scots but actually a loan to them from the pope – a sum long since spent by Isabella. Initially, he hid behind the Disinherited, those holders
of lands north of the border who had lost out in the Northampton settlement. They, led by Edward Balliol, son of the deposed king John Balliol, raised an army and landed in Scotland. Openly Edward
III condemned the move, refused the Disinherited passage over English territory, and confiscated the estates of their supporters in England (quietly returning them a few months later). At the same
time, Edward agreed to liege homage for his French lands, promised various marriage settlements between the French and English royal families, and agreed in principle to going on crusade with
Philip. Initially, with Scotland divided and ruled by a regency for the six-year-old king David Bruce, the Disinherited made startling progress, and, although he had by no means conquered all of
Scotland, Edward Balliol was nevertheless crowned at Scone in September 1332 and promised homage to Edward III for the whole country. English pretence of non-intervention began to unravel with the
arrival of King David and his court as refugees in France. Nevertheless, as the pope was anxious to prevent the two major Christian powers from going to war and had granted the French king a tax on
the clergy to fund the projected crusade, a peace of sorts was maintained save for a few insignificant French raids on the Channel Islands and the landing in Scotland of a handful of French
Then, in 1333, there was a resurgence of the Bruce faction, which captured Berwick and embarked on the age-old Scottish sport of launching raids into England. Edward was
able to claim that it was the Scots, not he, who had broken the treaty, and in went an English army that soundly trounced the Scots at Halidon Hill. Further expeditions followed in 1334, 1335 and
1336 until Edward was able to penetrate to the farthest reaches of the Highlands – much deeper than his illustrious grandfather had ever been able to do, and this time the English did not
fall into the trap of trying to fight a guerrilla war with a conventional army. It was increasingly clear to Philip of France that Edward of England not only had no intention of abiding by the
Treaty of Northampton, but that he had no intention of joining a crusade either. This entirely correct assessment was reinforced by the presence at the English court of Robert of Artois, who was on
the run from Philip of France.
Robert of Artois had once been one of Philip’s closest friends and advisers; now he was his implacable enemy. When Robert’s father, the duke of Artois, died in 1299, the dukedom had
passed not to the then fourteen-year-old Robert but to his aunt, the old duke’s sister. Once he was old enough to argue the point, Robert had devoted all his energies to getting the dukedom
passed to him. He had tried litigation, persuasion, bribery, blackmail and outright violence, but nothing had worked. He had married Philip’s sister, and, when Philip became king of France,
Robert saw his opportunity and wormed his way into the new king’s counsels to the extent that for a period the king would make no decision without consulting him. Robert then made his move
and persuaded the king to confiscate the duchy of Artois while his claim was examined anew. Unfortunately for Robert, his aunt died in 1329 and the inheritance passed to the duchess of Burgundy,
who, by virtue of her husband being one of the great lords of France, was a much tougher proposition than an aged aunt. Matters were not helped when Robert’s documents purporting to prove his
right to the duchy turned out not only to have been forged but also to have been forged under his instructions. Philip had been made a fool of and was furious. A criminal prosecution failed when
Robert fled the jurisdiction, hiding out in the Low Countries or anywhere else that would give him shelter and railing against the French king, threatening revolution and the death of the royal
family by witchcraft. The understandably vindictive Philip,
meanwhile, banned him from all French territories, confiscated his lands, and tried in vain to have him kidnapped
or assassinated. Eventually, in 1334, Robert turned up in England, where he was received with interest – but little else – in the court. Edward III was still, at this stage, anxious to
placate France, so Robert was ordered to keep his head down and cease his propaganda against Philip, which for two years he did.
By 1336, things had changed. Edward had secured his northern borders against the Scots and had quietly built up a series of alliances with states bordering France, some owing allegiance not to
Philip VI but to the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV,
who was rather less holy now that he had been excommunicated but powerful nonetheless. The
enthusiasm of these allies was directly proportional to their distance from France: the German states, with the River Meuse between them and France, were all for it; the count of Flanders, next
door to France, was less so. The threat of stopping exports of English wool was deployed to bring the Flemings into line. In France, litigation in the courts was chipping away at the rights of
English cities and bishoprics in the disputed lands, and, thanks to the pope, Philip was the owner of a large fleet of ships.
Since 1309, the papacy had been based in Avignon in southern France, whither it had moved to escape the infighting and machinations of the great Roman families who had hitherto dominated the
office. From then until the return to Rome in 1378, all the popes would be French, and so would an increasing number of cardinals, often relatives of the reigning pope. Although the south of France
was very different in both language and culture from the north, where king and government lay, the English tended to assume that popes were in the French king’s pocket and, while paying lip
service to the papacy, regarded any secular actions by it with suspicion. Pope John XXII was querulous and superstitious but a shrewd amasser of riches, and, when he died in December 1334, his
treasury was found to be full to overflowing. John’s successor, Benedict XII, concealed behind an obese and drunken exterior sharp political antennae, and in order to keep the peace in Europe
and to direct the warlike tendencies of the French and English externally towards the recovery of the Holy Land, rather than internally towards each other, he had happily financed the
building of a fleet to transport the crusading army. Then, in March 1336, the pope cancelled the crusade and rescinded his authorization for the clergy to be taxed to finance it.
Benedict had concluded that he could not keep the peace between England and France, and that, if Edward of England was not going to join an expedition, then the French king could not take his army
abroad. So Philip now had a fleet to use for other purposes, and the ships began to move from Marseilles to the Channel ports. The English knew very well that the move could only presage a
sea-borne invasion of England, and Edward began to take measures to deal with it.
Although English kings had long styled themselves ‘Lords of the English Sea’, by the time of Edward III it was an empty title, and at this period of English history there was no
great maritime tradition to fall back on. From 1066 until King John lost his lands in France, England controlled directly or through alliances the whole of the Atlantic coast, and, while navies
were occasionally raised after that when invasion threatened, they were swiftly disbanded when the threat had passed. It was not that the English were unaware of the security of their sea routes
– ships plying between Bordeaux and England hugged the coast rather than cross the Bay of Biscay, hence the importance of a friendly Brittany – it was just that they could not afford to
spend much on it. Edward III owned but a handful of ships, with masters (often unpaid for long periods) but no crews, and in the event of a naval threat the defence of the nation at sea depended,
in theory at least, upon the Cinque Ports. By ancient decree these ports were required, in exchange for various customs and taxation privileges, to provide fifty-seven vessels between them for
fifteen days. In fact, most of the ports had silted up, many of the ships they could provide ostensibly for war were in fact fishing vessels, and evasion of their obligations was widespread. In
practice, the king would have to requisition ships from elsewhere – Great Yarmouth was now far more important as a port than any of the Cinque Ports and most of the ships would come from
Command of English navies was vested in two admirals, that of the North and that of the South. The posts were usually held either by soldiers, who knew a lot about fighting on land but little
about war on the sea, or by influential magnates, who might know very little about any sort of war. Most of the ships impressed for the English navy were cogs, thought to have originally developed
from Viking longships. Cogs were wide-beamed,
shallow-draught merchant vessels with one mast and a square-rigged sail, built of oak and with a stern rudder. Divided into
various sizes ranging from ‘up to 10 tons’ to ‘over 120 tons’, most were relatively small, although there were cogs of 300 tons.
Being square-rigged, the cog could not sail into the wind, nor was it very manoeuvrable, but it could carry a considerable quantity of cargo, was reasonably resistant to bad
weather and heavy seas, and could put in to estuaries and bays that a ship with a deeper draught could not. Most of those assembled to counter the threat of the French fleet were of 100 tons
displacement, sixty feet long and twenty wide, with a crew of twenty-five sailors and a fighting element of archers or men-at-arms. Once the cogs were taken into the king’s service, fore and
stern castles – wooden towers front and rear – and crows’ nests were added. These were manned by archers and stone-throwers, for English naval tactics were simple: ram any enemy
ship, sink it or board it, attack the crew and chuck their bodies overboard, dead or alive.
On 24 May 1337, King Philip announced the confiscation of Aquitaine, stating this to be as punishment for Edward’s failure to fulfil his obligations as a vassal of the French king and for
his sheltering of Robert of Artois. It is this act that can be taken as marking the beginning of the Hundred Years War. The English response was to despatch an advance party to the Low Countries to
prepare for the reception of an English army which Edward intended to land there later in the year. Eighty-five ships crewed by 2,000 seamen and carrying 1,500 soldiers and a large cargo of wool,
which would be sold to pay for the escapade, set sail from Sandwich in November under Sir Walter Manny.
Admiral of the North and responsible for all ports from the Thames to Berwick, Manny was an early example of the sort of men who would make their reputations and fortunes in the coming war. A
younger son of minor Hainault aristocracy, he originally came to England as a page to Queen Philippa. Having progressed from being her carver, responsible for her food, to looking after her
greyhounds, he was knighted in 1331 and came to prominence as an up-and-coming soldier in Edward Balliol’s army of the Disinherited that invaded Scotland in 1332. He then served in all of
III’s Scottish campaigns, did well, and received honours and lucrative appointments as a result. In his mid- to late twenties in 1337, he appears to have been
personally brave, unheeding of danger, reckless, flamboyant, as greedy as everyone else at the time, but a competent commander and a good leader of men withal.
Instead, however, of going straight to Dordrecht, on the Rhine south-east of Rotterdam, as he should have done, Manny decided to embark upon a private frolic of his own. First, he attacked the
port of Sluys and was repulsed, whereupon he raided the island of Cadzand, east of Zeebrugge, where he captured enough notables to earn himself a tidy sum in ransom later. He then looted the town
and burned most of the inhabitants to death, having first locked them up in the church. Lucrative though the venture was to Manny, it achieved little of military value. Having at last landed his
party at Dordrecht, the admiral returned to England to prepare to transport the main army.
On 16 July 1338, Edward of England sailed from Walton-on-the-Naze, south of Harwich on the Essex coast. After landing at Antwerp and much to-ing and fro-ing to secure local alliances, the king
eventually processed to Coblenz, where in a lavish ceremony in September the Holy Roman Emperor Louis of Bavaria – whose anti-French and anti-papal stance was reinforced by a hefty English
bribe – appointed Edward as overlord of all the emperor’s fiefs west of the Rhine. Even Edward’s flat refusal to kiss the emperor’s foot could not mar the occasion. It was
now too late for campaigning that year and so, having promised the rulers of the minor states supposedly now allied to him large subsidies for the provision of troops, Edward ordered them to
concentrate their contingents north of Brussels in July the following year. The English court settled down in Antwerp for the winter, leaving the king’s clerical staff to reply to the
remonstrance of the pope, who objected to Edward’s dealings with the excommunicated emperor and his giving of succour to Robert of Artois. The pope pointed out that previous English kings had
come to grief by trusting too much to foreign advice, a clear reference to Edward’s father’s fixation with Piers Gaveston.