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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

Edward III and the Origins of the Hundred Years' War

Edward III was perhaps the most popular king England has ever had. I think this is because he was not only a great soldier, but also a great knight. To his subjects at least he was not just the man who won victories that made them proud to be English. He was also personally admirable, a man of generosity, courage, and style. He symbolized the virtues of his age in the way Victoria symbolized the virtues of hers.

If Edward III was popular and revered because he symbolized 14th century aristocratic virtue, and since it was his job to excel in warfare, then we need hardly look for any special causes for the Hundred Years' War that he launched. Edward came to the throne after a period of defeat and disgrace for the monarchy. He quite naturally sought to restore the prestige of his line and vindicate his rights -- by war.

 For Edward, a warlike young man, there were several possible ways to show his stuff, including the Crusade. But in the end, it was the two quarrels of the past generation or two, the Scottish war and the dispute over Gascony, that together pulled Edward III into the great enterprise of his career.

The conquest of Scotland attempted by his grandfather seemed to have come to a definitive end with the treaty of 1328 that Mortimer had concluded in Edward III's name.  But almost immediately after the treaty was signed, the new peace between England and Scotland broke down.  Robert Brus died in 1329, which was followed or preceded by the deaths of many of his closest supporters.  The new king, David II, was only five years old.

This gave an opening for a group of Anglo-Scottish lords known as the Disinherited. Some of the greatest families had supported the English cause during the War of Independence, and lost their lands when Brus won. They hoped to regain their old estates. The Disinherited had a leader, too -- Edward Balliol, son of King John Balliol, who claimed that he was the rightful King of Scots. So, in the early 1330s, the uncertain regime of the child king David II was threatened by a "contra" group based in England.

Edward III  found it convenient to give surreptitious and irregular encouragement to the Disinherited. This support paid dividends. In 1332, Edward Balliol invaded Scotland and won a stunning victory over David's army. He was able to have himself crowned Edward I of Scotland. His period of power was very brief, but in supporting him Edward of England got involved in a Scottish war that would simmer on for the rest of the fourteenth century.

The two Edwards also drove David II and his supporters right into the arms of the King of France. Now Edward III was already having problems with the king of France, who at this point was Philip VI. The main issue was the usual -- Gascony.

This time, however, the situation was a bit touchier. There was the uncertainty of Philip VI's royal title. Philip VI was a cousin of his predecessor, not his son, and there were other claimants to the throne. One of these was Edward III. The Scottish war, which forced David II's court to flee to France, introduced between the two kings another issue that had no easy solution.

By 1337, war between France and England seemed inevitable. Edward was already seeking continental allies. In May of that year, Philip confiscated Gascony. This confiscation
became the first shot in a dynastic and eventually national war that would turn the English and the French into traditional enemies.

When Edward decided to fight, he adopted the old strategy of finding allies to the north of France, in Germany and the Netherlands.  He then attacked France from the north in concert with them. This policy plunged him into a war, the expense of which could hardly be imagined.

Edward III, one of the richer monarchs of the time, had a normal yearly revenue of no more than £30,000 a year. This was scarcely enough to meet his ordinary expenses. Borrowing money was a normal royal expedient. When war came, £30,000 was a drop in the bucket. For instance, in 1337 Edward III promised his allies £124,000 before the end of the year. Edward raised taxes through Parliament, of course, but these were enough to raise his annual income to no more than £57,000 a year.

Perhaps Edward promised his allies too much. Some people thought that at the time. But his allies had some justification for asking for lots of money to risk themselves in a war with France. Warfare, which had been getting increasingly costly for a long time now, was now horrendously expensive.

Take, for instance, the big, well-designed castles that Edward I built to control Wales. Just one of these, Caernarfon Castle, cost £20-25,000 between 1284 and 1330, when it was essentially finished. This is as if Canada had bought a small fleet of submarines, each of which cost 80 billion dollars. Caernarfon Castle was exceptional, but not unique.

When war came, it cost a lot to knock such fortifications down, or starve out their garrisons.

Another factor was the routine use of wages to pay the soldiers who fought the wars. This was not entirely new. For a long time kings had preferred professional soldiers to unpaid amateurs.  By the time of Edward I, the feudal levy had become quite useless for any serious military expedition. During his wars, Edward I paid almost all of his troops, from earls on down.

Perhaps the most important factor in raising military expenses was the greater ambition of the combatants. In the 14th century, many principalities and kingdoms were more unified and strongly governed than earlier. Kings and princes fought for absolute lordship, not simply hegemony or tribute. Thus bigger political units, with greater resources, fought each other in bigger and more destructive wars.

In any war, vast borrowing was necessary, because sufficient tax revenue was politically impossible to raise.  Unfortunately for the peace of Europe, borrowing was easier than ever. . In the early 14th century, pioneering merchant bankers (mostly Italian) were out looking for investment opportunities. In the early years of the war, Edward made frequent resort to Italian firms willing and able to lend tens of thousands of pounds at a time.

Edward also resorted to manipulating trade to achieve both political and economic gains.
Like his grandfather before him, Edward taxed wool, seized wool to sell it himself, gave wool export monopolies to those who would lend him money up front, and pledged future wool revenues to guarantee loans. He also prevented wool from being sold to his enemies and directed it to his continental allies.

All of these expedients did not meet the need.

Edward piled up huge debts. In one three month period in 1338, he borrowed £100,000, more than three times his normal peacetime annual revenue. By 1340, he was so strapped that he left the northern theater of war for England, to raise money in person, and had to leave his queen and children behind in Ghent as a hostage to his debtors.

What was worse, there was little in the way of results to show for the money. Edward had succeeded in gaining the alliance of the Flemish wool cities, and the sea battle of Sluys had destroyed the French fleet. But no big victories on the land had been gained. The position in Gascony was perilous, the northern allies were unreliable, and Scotland was unbeaten.

In 1340, therefore, Edward's debts forced him to extreme measures. He called in all debts owing the crown, used the justice system to extract fines wherever possible, and used other oppressive methods to raise money. When his efforts did not work, he tried to pin the blame on his regent, John Stratford, the archbishop of Canterbury.

The result was the biggest crisis of Edward's reign, one that paralleled the crisis of 1297, when Edward I's arbitrary taxation had turned the political class against him.

Archbishop Stratford, seeing he was to be the scapegoat, refused to go quietly. Rather he defended himself by bringing up constitutional issues. He refused to submit to an examination of his conduct in office, which he said was blameless, except before his peers. Indeed, he successfully made the king and his arbitrary methods the chief issue. Here he had plenty of sympathizers: clergy and commons were upset about the way taxes were being collected without their consent. The bishops and the secular lords were concerned about Edward's bullheadedness.

When a parliament finally met in 1341, Edward had to back down. Arbitrary methods of making money had to be disowned, and Stratford was off the hook.

An important aspect of this confrontation was the leading part taken by the commons. In the 1260s, in the 1290s, in the crisis of the Ordinances, in the deposition of Edward II, the commons had followed the baronial leadership. In 1340-41, the commons, hard pressed by taxation and disturbed by the use of the right of justice to raise money, took much of the initiative.

Edward III learned then that if he wanted to get what he wanted, he would have to stay on good terms with the political classes, and especially with their representatives in meetings of parliament. It was a lesson he learned well. Edward was very adept at wooing the commons with propaganda and appeals to loyalty and even national pride. He became very good at trading well-timed concessions for grants of the money he needed. Redress of grievances in return for taxation, both taking place in a parliamentary context, became a regular part of English politics in his long reign.

After 1341, things began to go better for Edward. He abandoned his expensive German and Netherlandish allies (though not the Flemings) and cut down on the outflow of his funds. At the same time, he repudiated his debts to the Italian bankers.  Despite his bad debts, Edward found it quite possible to raise money in different ways.

Also the war went somewhat better for him. In 1337, in response to Philip VI's confiscation of Gascony, Edward had claimed the crown of France. There was some justification for his claim. Through his mother, Edward was a direct descendant of Philip IV of France. Philip VI was not so closely related to the earlier Philip.

Raising the claim was probably just a bargaining chip. But as the war went on, Edward began to put his claim to good use. By presenting himself as an alternative king, he could exploit divisions within Philip's realm, which was diverse and highly regionalized. The Flemish alliance was the first triumph of this technique.  Because Edward said he was king of France, the Flemings (who disliked the French court anyway) were able to join Edward and say that they had not broken earlier oaths to Philip, but merely recognized that his rule was illegitimate.

Similarly, when the succession to the Duchy of Brittany was disputed in the 1340s, Edward as king of France was able to bring the disappointed rival into alliance with him. Brittany was a convenient landing place for English armies, and soon became the next battlefield. English armies won enough loot there to please Edward's troops and keep the war effort alive.

But Edward was no really no closer to winning his war. Despite the damage done by Edward's armies to French farms, towns, and subjects, Philip VI was ahead of the game.

In 1346, however, Edward led a provocative raid through Normandy and the vicinity of Paris. Philip raised a great army and decided to hunt Edward down and teach him a lesson. He caught Edward, who was retreating towards Flanders, and forced him into battle. But although the French much outnumbered the English, Philip lost. He rushed headlong into battle and met a devastating new tactic, a combination of infantry and archers, and his army was destroyed.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, after years of cavalry dominating military practice, disciplined infantry began to be used with some effect. The ability of infantry to stand against cavalry was much aided by using archery in combination with them. Edward I, in fact, had been an early pioneer in recruiting longbowmen from the Welsh marches to beef up his armies. The Scottish wars of the 1330s emphasized how useful archers were if given the right opportunities. Thus when Edward was trapped at Crecy, it did not take great genius for him to take the best defensive position he could, dismount his knights and squires, and put archers on the flanks of his formations to shoot down the French knights as they charged. He probably did not expect that tactic to work as well as it did.

Crecy was a great victory for English arms. It won Edward and his subjects prestige and booty, and made it possible for him to seize Calais as a permanent base on French soil. The cake was iced by the fact that David II of Scotland was captured about the same time.

But these victories did not win him the war. Scotland continued to resist, even with its king in captivity. The plague of 1348-49 slowed down the French war. Even without the interruption of the plague, there is no reason to think that Edward could have gotten much more mileage out of Crecy than he did. His big break came only in 1356, ten years later, when King John of France, who had succeeded his father in the meantime, walked into the English longbows at Poitiers. Again, the casualties for the French were terrible.

John also found himself captured by the Edward the Prince of Wales, the son of his rival for the throne. This was the high point of Edward III's war, and no doubt of his life. Possession of the French king guaranteed him a fabulous ransom. It might have meant more. Perhaps one last push could actually make Edward king of France in fact as well as in name.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.