Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, June 23, 2006

Dead King Watch: Edward III

King Edward III died on 21 June 1377, which meant the day before yesterday was the 629th anniversary of his death. His reign lasted over fifty years making him one of the longest reigning English monarchs. Ironically, though he lived a long time during his reign saw the Black Death which meant the lives of his subjects was often very short indeed.

Edward was born in 1312, and so crowned aged only 14 in 1327. He got married at 15,
to Philippa of Hainault. The couple produced thirteen children, including five sons who reached maturity. Their eldest son and Edward's heir apparent, Edward the Black Prince (so called because he wore a black suit of armor) who was doubtless an inspiration for the TV character Edmund Blackadder, was born in 1330 and was a famed military leader.

Edward's accession to the English throne was of questionable legality as his father, Edward II, was still alive at the time and was deposed in order for Edward to become king. There is still a debate today whether anyone had the authority to depose him. As Edward was still a teenager at the time the main actors were his mother Isabella of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who proceeded to rule the country in Edward III's name. In 1330, the seventeen-year old Edward seized control over the English court, overthrowing Mortimer, who was executed, and removing Isabella from power.

The reign of Edward III was marked by continued war with Scotland, but much more by the war with France - The Hundred Years War. This sounds grand but was really a series of raids along the French coast by English armies. After Edward declared himself king of France on January 26, 1340 the French unsurprisingly decided to fight back and the wars continued sporadically up to the 1450s. While early victories were eventually reversed, English and, later, British monarchs would continue to claim the title "King of France" until the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. Edward III quartered his coat of arms with "France Ancient", the Azure semé-de-lis (a blue shield with a tight pattern of small golden fleur de lis of the French royal house), and it remained a part of the English Coat of Arms until removed by George III.

While the king and the black prince campaigned abroad, the government was left largely in the hands of the prince's younger brother, John of Gaunt. Economic prosperity from the developing wool trade created new wealth in the kingdom, but the ravages of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, had a significant impact on the lives of his subjects. Commercial taxes became a major source of royal revenue, which had previously been largely from taxes on land. The Parliament of England became divided into two houses. At the beginning of Edward's reign, French was still the language of the English noblesse, following the Norman invasion, but by the end this had changed - in 1362 English was made the official language of the law courts.

The king also founded an order of knighthood, the Order of the Garter, allegedly as a result of an incident when a lady, with whom he was dancing at a court ball, dropped an item of intimate apparel (possibly a sanitary belt, though sources describe it as being made of velvet). Gallantly picking it up to assuage her embarrassment, Edward tied it around his own leg, and remarked Honi soit qui mal y pense ('Shame on him who thinks evil of it'), which became the motto of the Order of the Garter.

Despite having an unusually happy marriage, and producing thirteen children with Philippa, Edward was a notorious womaniser. After Philippa's death in 1369, Edward's mistress, Alice Perrers, became a byword for corruption. Facing a resurgent French monarchy and losses in France, Edward asked Parliament to grant him more funds by taxing the wine and wool trades, but this was badly received in 1374–1375 as a new outbreak of bubonic plague struck. The "Good Parliament" of 1376 criticised Edward's councillors, including Alice Perrers' family, and advised him to limit his ambitions to suit his revenues.

Edward died of a stroke brought on by severe constipation in 1377. He was said to have been infected with gonnorhoea by Alice Perrers. Supposedly, she was there when he died and removed the rings from his fingers before fleeing. Edward was buried in Westminster Abbey. His son Edward, the Black Prince, predeceased him in 1376, and Edward III was succeeded by his young grandson, King Richard II of England.



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