by Susan Flantzer
King Edward III of England is considered one of important English rulers of the Middle Ages. After the disastrous reign of his father King Edward II, Edward made his kingdom into one of the most organized military powers of Europe. During his reign there were changes in the government with the legislative branch, Parliament, gaining power. Edward’s reign of 50 years, 147 days is surpassed only by the reigns of King Henry III, King George III, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.
Edward was born on November 13, 1312 at Windsor Castle. During his childhood, he was called Edward of Windsor after his birthplace, a common way of naming royal children at the time. He was the eldest child of King Edward II of England and Isabella of France, daughter of King Philip IV of France and Queen Joan I of Navarre. Several days after his birth, his father, who was the first English Prince of Wales, created him Earl of Chester, but for some reason, never created him Prince of Wales.
Edward had three younger siblings:
- John of Eltham (1316 – 1336), unmarried, no issue
- Eleanor of Woodstock (1318 – 1355), married Reinoud II of Guelders, had issue
- Joan of The Tower (1321 – 1362), married David II, King of Scots, no issue
Edward had a difficult childhood. His father Edward II was a weak king and his relationship with his favorites Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger, whether they were friends, lovers or sworn brothers, was problematic and caused discontent both among the nobles and the royal family. Opposition to the regime grew, and when Edward II’s wife Isabella was sent to France to negotiate a peace treaty in 1325, she turned against Edward and refused to return. Isabella allied herself with the exiled Roger Mortimer, 3rd Baron Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, and invaded England with a small army in 1326. Edward II’s regime collapsed and he fled into Wales, where he was captured in November of 1326. Edward was forced to give up his crown in January of 1327 in favor of his son 14-year-old son Edward III, with Isabella and Mortimer acting as regents. King Edward III was crowned in Westminster Abbey on February 1, 1327. Edward II died in Berkeley Castle on September 21, 1327, probably murdered on the orders of Isabella and Mortimer.
During this same time period, Edward III was searching for a bride and he chose Philippa of Hainault. Born June 24, 1314, Philippa was the daughter of William I, Count of Hainault (also Count of Holland, Count of Avesnes and Count of Zeeland) and Joan of Valois. When Philippa was only eight years old, she was already being considered as a bride for the future King Edward III who was only seven. Walter de Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter was sent to inspect Philippa. The bishop gave a very detailed report to King Edward II. Seven years later in 1326 Prince Edward and his mother Queen Isabella were able to check out Philippa themselves when they visited the court of Hainault. The young prince liked what he saw and he and Philippa were betrothed in the summer of 1326.
A year later on January 24, 1328, Edward and Philippa married at York Minister. The couple’s main home was Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire. It was Philippa’s favorite residence and the birthplace of four of her fourteen children including her eldest child, Edward the Black Prince, who was born days before her sixteenth birthday. The sons of Edward and Philippa married into the English nobility and it was their descendants who later battled for the throne in the Wars of the Roses.
Edward and Philippa had fourteen children:
- Edward, Prince of Wales, the Black Prince (1330 – 1376), married Joan, 4th Countess of Kent, had issue (King Richard II of England)
- Isabella (1332 – 1379) married Enguerrand VII de Coucy, 1st Earl of Bedford, had issue
- Joan (1333/1334 – 1348), died of the plague on the way to marry Pedro of Castile
- William of Hatfield (born and died 1337)
- Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence (1338 – 1368), married (1) Elizabeth de Burgh, 4th Countess of Ulster, had issue (2) Violante Visconti, no issue
- John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster (1340 – 1399), married (1) Blanche of Lancaster, had issue including King Henry IV of England (2) Infanta Constance of Castile, had issue (3) Katherine Swynford (formerly his mistress), had issue
- Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York (1341 – 1402), married (1) Infanta Isabella of Castile, had issue (2) Joan Holland, no issue
- Blanche of the Tower (born and died March 1342)
- Mary of Waltham (1344 – 1362), married John V, Duke of Brittany, no issue
- Margaret of Windsor (1346 – 1361), married John Hastings, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, no issue
- Thomas of Windsor (1347 – 1348), died of the plague
- William of Windsor (born and died 1348), died of the plague
- Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester (1355 – 1397), married Eleanor de Bohun, had issue
Edward III was theoretically King of England, but the true ruler was Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. After the birth of Edward and Philippa’s first son, Mortimer realized that his situation had deteriorated. Many nobles were jealous and angry because of Mortimer’s abuse of power. Then, in March of 1330, Mortimer ordered the execution of Edmund, Earl of Kent, the half-brother of Edward II. After this execution, the nobles begged the young king to assert his independence, which he did shortly before his 18th birthday. In October of 1330, a Parliament was summoned to Nottingham Castle, and Mortimer and Isabella were seized by Edward and the nobles. Isabella begged for mercy for Mortimer, but he was accused of assuming royal power and of various other crimes and was condemned without trial and hanged. Isabella was initially held at Berkhamsted Castle and then held under house arrest at Windsor Castle until 1332, when she moved back to her own home Castle Rising in Norfolk where she died on August 22, 1358.
Edward’s main preoccupation during his long reign was his claim to the French throne which started the Hundred Years War. In 1340, Edward assumed the title of King of France through his mother, as the heir of her brother King Charles IV of France who had died in 1328 without a male heir. The French did not recognize inheritance through the female line and Charles IV had been succeeded by his cousin King Philippe VI. Edward did homage to Philippe for his French lands, but Philippe later declared Edward’s French lands forfeit and invaded Guienne, part of the Duchy of Aquitaine which had come to the English monarchs through King Henry II’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duchess in her own right.
Edward III’s reaction was to take up arms and defend his French land by sea and by land. In the naval Battle of Sluys (1340), the English gained control of the English Channel. The English won the Battle of Crécy (1346) and the Battle of Poitiers (1356) with the superiority of the English longbow men. In 1347, the port city of Calais was taken after a long siege, giving the English an important economic and military base.
The hero of these battles was Edward III’s eldest son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, who has come to be known as the Black Prince. The Black Prince died at the age of 45, probably of dysentery, in 1376, a year before his father died, and his son succeeded his grandfather as King Richard II.
Edward III’s reign saw a number of changes. England prospered through the export of wool, but the prosperity was tempered by the devastation of the bubonic plague. Modern historians give estimates of death rates ranging from around 25% to over 60% of the total English population. In 1362, English replaced French as the official language of the courts of law. A year later, Parliament was opened in English. Literary works, including Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, were written in English. The office of Justice of the Peace was created and Parliament was divided into two houses. In 1348, Edward founded the Order of the Garter, still one of the leading orders of chivalry in Europe.
From about 1371, Edward III’s health was failing and he became senile. Edward’s third surviving son, John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, led the affairs of state, but he could not prevent military failures. An attempt led by Edward’s second surviving son, Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, to gain control of the Irish princes, failed. In addition, there was a series of setbacks for the English, as the new French King Charles V defeated every military project of the English and little by little the country recovered much of the land his father had lost. Ultimately, the only English possessions in France were Bordeaux, Calais, and Bayonne.