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The Earliest Roots of the Wars of the Roses: Edward II and Thomas of Lancaster?


It may seem bizarre to go back to the reign of Edward II (reigned 1307-27) when talking about the Wars of the Roses, but bear with me.

Edward and his cousin, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, got on together quite well in the early years of Edward’s reign. Gradually, though, a feud between them grew to the point where it became deadly. It arose from Edward’s very close relationship with his particular friend, Piers Gaveston. Lancaster clearly resented Gaveston’s influence – to put it mildly – and was instrumental in Gaveston’s downfall and death.

Immensely powerful, Lancaster was effectively the leader of the opposition to Edward’s kingship, and was at best unhelpful and uncooperative in his dealings with Edward. For example, he was careful not to take part in the Bannockburn campaign, and frequently refused to attend parliaments and councils. There is some evidence to suggest that Lancaster was not in the best of health and this may help explain his tendency to spend much of his time inactive at Pontefract Castle, his stronghold in Yorkshire, instead of taking part in campaigns either with or against the King.

A rising of marcher lords in particular against Edward II and his new favourites the Despensers led to a situation where the rebels withdrew into Yorkshire. Here Lancaster (who had certainly been in their counsels throughout) combined with them, but they were heavily defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Most of the leaders not killed in battle were executed, the most important of those executed being Lancaster himself on 22 March 1322. Lancaster was not allowed to speak in his own defence, nor to have anyone to speak for him. He was the first earl to be executed since Waltheof in 1076.

Naturally, his extensive land holdings were confiscated. His brother Henry was, in 1324, allowed to become Earl of Leicester, but other lands were either kept by Edward II himself or redistributed to others, notably the Despensers.

Incredibly (given that Thomas was neither a particular able man nor a notably pious one) a religious cult of Thomas of Lancaster emerged. Miracles were claimed on his behalf and there was a campaign to have him canonised. It is hard to see this cult as anything but a straightforward political campaign against Edward II and (later) against Edward’s legacy.

After the fall of Edward II, the judgement against Thomas of Lancaster was reversed. (This process may conveniently be called “The Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster”.) Naturally, his lands were restored to his brother and heir, and subsequently passed by inheritance to Blanche of Lancaster and then, after her death, by “the courtesy of England” to her husband, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and uncle to Richard II.

Thomas of Lancaster was not the only one to have a cult attached to him. The equally unsuitable (on the face of it) Edward II was also revered as a saint by many individuals. Once again there was a strong political element to it. Richard II supported this cult because he saw the fate of his great-grandfather as an insult and a threat to his kingship, and to kingship in general. It did not help that during the turmoil of 1386-1388 Richard was threatened with the fate of Edward II by his uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester.

So by the 1390s there were two rival cults in active operation. That of Edward II, representing the untrammelled power of the Crown, was openly sponsored by King Richard, who sought to persuade the Pope to canonise his great-grandfather. That of Thomas of Lancaster, representing, in effect, the right to oppose the crown and limit its authority, was sponsored, slightly more quietly, by John of Gaunt and Bolingbroke.

The political importance of the cults is obvious. For example, if Richard could have Edward II canonised, it would imply that Edward’s opponents – and by extension, his own – were wrong in the eyes of God, and indeed downright wicked. Richard’s position would be immensely strengthened by such a development.

Yet there was an even more practical element to this. If Edward II was justified in executing and forfeiting Thomas of Lancaster, did not that imply that the Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster should be reversed? After all, making war on king who also happened to be a saint was not something to be passed over.

The reversal of the Judgement was extremely tempting for Richard II and his allies. First of all, it would solve the problem of the “overmighty subject” John of Gaunt, who would, at a stroke, be relieved of much of his property. Not all, but certainly enough to cut him down to size. Secondly it would enrich Richard himself, and certain of his allied nobles, not least Thomas Despenser, Lord Despenser, the King’s cousin by marriage. Thirdly it would emphasise the argument that “Edward II was right” and thus seriously weaken Richard’s own critics.

The problem was that Gaunt was so powerful it was simply not practical politics to denude him of so much of his inheritance.

Thomas Despenser came of age in 1394, and, after taking part in Richard II’s expedition to Ireland, he must almost immediately have begun to draft his claim for the reversal of the sentences passed against his ancestors, Hugh the Younger, and Hugh Despenser, Earl of Winchester. The implications were far-reaching. The earlier Despensers, at the time of their fall, had been immensely rich and in possession of huge tracts of land, some of which had been gained by dubious means, to say the least.

It is obvious from Thomas Despenser’s petition to Parliament that nothing had been forgotten. He even detailed the considerable herds of animals his forebears had lost. It is most unlikely that he went to to this trouble – for the research must have been considerable, and expensive – without, at the very least, the tacit support of Richard II. Despenser was not only high in the King’s favour but an active courtier, as well as being the son-in-law of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. Given that he moved in such circles he must have had reasonable hope of success. He was also allowed to quarter the arms of the de Clare earls of Gloucester with his own – for which he must have had royal permission, if not encouragement.

The implications were far-reaching. Various prominent people were sitting on lands taken (rightly or wrongly) from the Despensers in the late 1320s. The most prominent of all being John of Gaunt himself. If this contributed to Gaunt and his son, Henry Bolingbroke, feeling insecure, it is scarely surprising.

Despenser’s petition was accepted by the Shrewsbury Parliament of January 1398. But almost immediately he was required by the King to swear that he would not proceed against the Duke of Lancaster. We may safely assume that Richard had been “lobbied” by Gaunt, and that this protection was thus secured. Despenser went on to grant quitclaims to the earls of March and Salisbury – presumably after due negotiation.

The issue remained “live” however, and, following their famous meeting on the road that led to their quarrel, Henry Bolingbroke claimed that Thomas Mowbray had warned him that there was an intrigue to reverse the Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster. It is at least possible that this was true, and that the lords closest to the King were pushing this policy. It is equally possible tht Bolingbroke was well aware of this without needing to be told.

What does seem to be clear is that the matter was at the least a nagging worry at the back of the minds of Gaunt and Bolingbroke. King Richard was not as reliant on Gaunt as he had once been, and now had a very substantial group of supporters among the peers. The situation was not stable enough for comfort.

As is well known, the dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray led to both men being banished from the country. Gaunt himself was now in declining health, and he died in February 1399, with his son still in exile in France. Richard now took the Lancastrian lands into his hands and then (allegedly) extended the term of Bolingbroke’s banishment to life.

The odd thing is that Richard continued to send Henry quite lavish cash sums to maintain himself. (He was not like Somerset in the late 1460s, reduced to near-beggary.) In addition, when the Lancastrian lands were farmed out, it is vitally important to understand that they were not permanently alienated. The grants had the reservation “until Henry, Duke of Lancaster, shall sue for the same.”

While Richard II’s exact intentions are rather opaque – he was like Elizabeth I in that at least – the wording indicates that he recognised his cousin as Duke of Lancaster and that his return to England was envisaged at some stage. Had Henry been forfeited in the normal way, he would not have been given the title Duke of Lancaster, but instead a formula such as “Henry, calling himself Duke of Lancaster” or “Henry, late Duke of Hereford.” I stress this point because it seems to be taken as a given by most commentators that Henry had been (in effect) attainted. He simply was not. Though it might be argued he was in limbo.

So why was Henry so anxious to return and overthrow Richard’s government? On the face of it, the matter was not urgent, nor was he threatened with either immediate impoverishment or the permanent forfeiture of his lands.

One factor may be opportunism. Since Richard had gone to Ireland and thus removed all his most prominent supporters and their military potential from England, Henry had a window during which invasion was (relatively) risk-free. It so happened that Richard’s ally, the Duke of Burgundy, was temporarily away from Paris and his influence thereby eclipsed. Henry may simply have thought such a favourable chance might never appear again.

Or was it rather that he feared Richard’s agenda post Ireland? If Richard had returned victorious, or reasonably so, he would have been in a position to do pretty much what he liked. The active nobility were nearly all in his pocket and he certainly had control of Parliament. It would have been an ideal opportunity to reverse the Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster, and Henry, as an exile, would not have been able to do a thing about it. Richard and his supporters, greatly enriched by the booty, would have been just as untouchable as Gaunt himself had been in the 1390s.

(This article was inspired by the author’s reading of Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson which includes reference to the rival cults of Edward II and Thomas of Lancaster. The structure built upon it is largely a conjectural theory, but it is not without some factual basis. The Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster was absolutely key to the security of the House of Lancaster and its vast inheritance. It seems certain that in the late 1390s, for good reason or not, they began to fear that it might be reversed. My essential argument is that prompted the urgent imperative to remove King Richard II. Once he was gone, the House of Lancaster was secure from this threat. But the disruption in the right line of succession led eventually to the Wars of the Roses.)










THE THREE HUNDRED YEARS WAR – PART 2: the just cause  



This is the second of three articles charting the course of continual Anglo-French conflict from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. In the first article, I wrote about the rise and fall of the Angevin Empire, culminating in the Treaty of Paris (1259). This article picks up my narrative after the death of Henry III in 1272 and culminates in the Treaty of Bretigny (1360). The caveats to my work mentioned in the first article remain: i) I write from an English perspective; ii) I have omitted any historical events and matters that are not strictly relevant to my subject; iii) this is not a military history; iv) I make no claim to original research or a new interpretation. Since the facts I rely on are well known and relatively uncontroversial, I have used only those sources, and books readily available to the general public.



The Treaty of Paris resolved some practical issues between King Henry III and King Louis IX, but failed to address the combustible problem of English vassalage, which was the cause of their conflict. King Henry surrendered his hereditary claims to Normandy, Poitou (northern Aquitaine) and other places, in return for the retention of Gascony (southern Aquitaine). He also bound himself and his successors to give ‘liege homage’ to the French king for Gascony. By this, Henry and his successors had an irrevocable obligation to give fealty and service (including military service) to the French kings. Predictably, this condition was abhorrent to the Plantagenet kings as it was incompatible with their own sovereignty. The Treaty of Paris went well beyond Henry’s ducal authority in Gascony; it fettered his royal prerogative to make treaties, war or peace as he thought best. It was peace settlement born of the concurrence of French strength and English weakness and it could not last.


Things were hardly much different during the reign of Edward I. His focus was on the conquest of Wales and Scotland, though not simultaneously. That is not to say he was unmindful of his family’s inherited rights in Normandy and Poitou, but Edward I was a realist. He did only so much as was necessary to maintain the status quo in Gascony. He did dutiful homage to Phillip III in 1272 and to Phillip IV in 1285; however, on each occasion he took considerable care over the wording of his oaths so as to leave some scope for evading the worst of his feudal obligations.[1] Neither was he prepared to accept continual French breaches of the treaty that threatened his feudal rights. He raised the matter with Phillip in 1285 and obtained some redress in the form of a fresh treaty in 1286. Unfortunately, the peace was never wholehearted on either side. The habitual violence that accompanied any meeting of English and French mariners not only continued unabated, it got worse. On the 15 May 1293 a ‘great sea battle’ took place off the coast of Brittany. Norman ships flying ‘bausons of red sendal’ (no quarter) attacked an Anglo-Gascon flotilla sailing from the Cinque Ports. In a vicious hand-to-hand fight, the Normans were defeated and the survivors taken prisoner together with their ships and cargoes. For good measure, the Gascon sailors sacked La Rochelle on their way home.[2]


Phillip IV was furious. He commanded the offenders to be delivered to him for punishment and ordered the French prisoners to be released along with their ships and cargoes. He also extended his right to hear Gascon appeals and dispatched troops to the Gascon border.[3] Unfortunately, Edward misjudged Phillip’s intention. Edward was already committed to fighting Welsh and Scottish nationalists; the last thing he needed was a war with Phillip. He was, therefore, genuinely prepared to compromise sovereign to sovereign. Phillip IV, however, was intent on exploiting the situation to his advantage. By treating this as a feudal dispute between a disobedient vassal and his suzerain, he was able to seize Gascony for the French Crown and humiliate his rival; whereupon Edward renounced his homage and prepared to send troops to Gascony. It was only a gesture as there were insufficient English troops and loyal Gascons to retake Gascony. The best he could do was to prevent Phillip overrunning Gascony altogether.[4] By 1303 Phillip was under pressure from Flemish rebels in Flanders. He was, more or less, driven to restoring Gascony to the English Crown for the sake of a general peace. [5] The quid-pro-quo for such a peace was a double marriage between King Edward and Marguerite, Phillip’s half-sister, and also between Edward of Caernarvon (Edward’s son) and Princess Isabella, Phillip’s daughter. Nevertheless, despite the joinder of two royal families, disputations over English Gascony continued to flourish during the reign of King Edward II.[6]


King Edward II’s royal deficiencies are too well documented to doubt.[7] It is probably true that his domestic troubles were largely self-inflicted, but it is misleading to suggest that he was entirely responsible for the political and diplomatic problems that resulted in war with France. He inherited the thorny issue of homage, which neither his grandfather nor his father had managed to solve and which was problematic on both sides of the Channel. The Capetian kings found it difficult to enforce their feudal rights against a sovereign king and the Plantagenet’s found it intensely painful to swear allegiance to a foreign potentate. Edward was particularly unlucky in that during his reign four different kings ruled France: Phillip IV, Louis X, Phillip V and Charles IV. Edward II’s policy was always to evade giving homage if possible and if it was not possible, to delay the ceremony for as long as he could. He did homage to Phillip IV fairly quickly, but prevaricated over his oath to Louis X. He eventually acknowledged Louis as his landlord but did not swear liege fealty. He also managed to delay giving homage to Phillip V until it was rendered unnecessary by Phillip’s premature death. The other great problem Edward faced was his marriage to Isabella. It was meant to bolster the peace of 1303, but actually, it made things worse by highlighting Edward’s subservience to his father-in-law. It also raised the great, though latent, question of the French succession, of which more anon.


Providentially, an Anglo-French entente prevailed during much of Edward’s reign. Despite the inflammable question of homage and the repeated encroachments of French royal officials in Gascony, there was no serious threat to the peace of 1303 prior to 1322.[8] In January of that year, Charles IV ascended the French throne and once again Edward was expected to swear fealty to a French king. Unfortunately, the fateful confluence of political and diplomatic dramas that played out during the winter of 1323-1324 set in motion a sequence of events leading to the loss of Gascony and the War of Saint-Sardos (1324-25). Charles thoughtfully waited until August 1323 before inviting Edward to appear at Amiens 4 to do homage for Gascony between the 2 February and 15 April 132. Edward excused his attendance on the grounds that the political situation in England was too dangerous for him to leave the country. That letter was dispatched by envoy to France sometime ‘just before’ the 22 November 1323. Coincidentally on that day, Edward was informed of a serious incident in the small Gascon village of Saint-Sardos during which a French sergeant was murdered by one of Edward’s vassals. Although the question of homage and the affair of Saint-Sardos are separate matters, they both touch on Edward’s rights and obligations as Duke of Aquitaine. To understand how this interrelationship led to catastrophe, it is necessary to follow the chronology.


Unknown to Edward, Charles IV commissioned the building of a royal bastide (fortress) at Saint-Sardos. On the 15 October 1323, a sergeant sent by the French seneschal of Périgueux laid claim to the land by erecting a stake carrying the royal arms of France. However, the local Gascons opposed this claim. They feared that the privileges habitually granted to bastides would damage the local economy. Raymond-Bernard, Lord of the castle of Montpezat took matters into his own hands. He attacked Saint-Sardos, hanged the sergeant from the royal stake he had just erected and burned the village to the ground. On being informed of this, Edward immediately wrote a letter of abject apology to Charles assuring him that he personally had nothing to do with the incident and promising to punish the offenders. This letter was sent post haste after the envoy already en route to Paris with a request for the deferral of the homage ceremony. The envoy arrived at Paris on the 27 November with both letters. By then, however, the affair of Saint-Sardos had become a full-blown international incident. Anglophobia was running high in Paris aggravated by the refusal of Edward’s Gascon vassals to cooperate with the subsequent investigation. Charles even took the precaution of issuing a warning order for troops to muster at Toulouse for possible service in Gascony. Even so and despite his misgivings, Charles accommodated Edward on the question of homage, which was put back to the 1 July 1324. He also accepted Edward’s protestation of innocence in the Saint-Sardos affair.[9] However, he summoned Raymond-Bernard, Ralph Basset (Edward’s seneschal) and others to appear before him on the 24 January1224. Their failure to attend on that day resulted in the accused being outlawed and their possessions seized by the French Crown. The French seneschals of Toulouse and Périgueux were ordered to take possession of the castle of Montpezat by force if necessary.


It is surely no exaggeration to say that the ‘War of Saint-Sardos’, which had such dire consequences for Edward, was started by mistake. He made three serious errors in his dealings with Charles. First, he never kept his promise to punish the offenders if they were guilty, which they assuredly were; nor did he deliver them over to French justice. Second, his continual attempts to defer giving homage created the suspicion (probably justified) that he was simply trying to avoid his feudal duty. Edward’s third and most serious blunder was to think he could get himself out of his difficulty by negotiating as an equal with the French king. Instead of accepting responsibility as a vassal of the French king, Edward tried to argue the toss with him. He sent another embassage to Paris charged with three tasks (in order of priority): i) secure a further postponement of the homage ceremony; ii) ‘mention’ Edward’s concern about the number of Gascon appeals pending on the French Parlement;[10] iii) in the matter of Saint-Sardos, they were to ‘suggest’ that this was perhaps best left to the two monarchs to discuss when they met for Edward’s homage. Charles, who was already on the verge of confiscating and occupying Aquitaine, was astonished by Edward’s impertinent suggestion that a king should compromise with a subject on the performance of his public duty. It was tantamount to treason.[11] He therefore presented the English ambassadors with stark choice: they must promise that the guilty officials would be given up, Montpezat would be surrendered and Edward would pay homage on the 1 July 1324 or face war.[12] Their courage failing, the ambassadors duly made the promise demanded, which they must have realised would not be honoured. When French officials next came to take possession of Montpezat they were again sent away empty-handed.


What followed had elements of farce that would be laughable were the situation not so serious. Edward sent yet another embassage to Paris led this time by the earl of Pembroke with instructions to secure a delay to the homage ceremony on Edward’s promise to surrender Montpezat. However Pembroke died of a heart attack while in France: it was a catastrophe. The remainder of the embassage reached Amiens on the 1 July but the king was not there. He had gone to Anet-sur-Marne and had already declared Aquitaine forfeit once it was obvious Edward would not appear. Once the English envoys reached him of the 5 July, he told them brusquely that owing to Edward’s failure to make amends for the crime of Saint-Sardos, he could not take his protestations of innocence seriously and ” because he found no man for Gascony or Ponthieu on the appointed day he had taken them into his hands before [the envoys] arrived.[13] Edward was now at war with Charles.


  • Charles of Valois invaded Aquitaine with a French army in August. He quickly overran most of English-held Gascony and arrived before the castle of La Réole, which surrendered on the 22 September 1324. A six-month truce was agreed whereby the English were confined to Bordeaux, Bayonne and a small strip of coast between Saintes and the eastern marches. English authority everywhere else was quickly expunged. As winter turned to spring, the French began preparations to renew the war. Edward was now in an impossible position. The political opposition in England was so hostile to his government that he dare not leave the realm either to give homage or (unlikely) to defend Gascony in person. Outmaneuvered by his artful opponent, Edward was forced send his wife Isabella and afterwards his son Edward of Windsor to France to negotiate the details of a peace treaty, the outcome of which could hardly have been worse for Edward. He lost virtually all of Gascony, had to pay French reparation costs in full and must still do homage for the pitiful remnants of Gascony. Rage though he might, Edward had no choice but to accept these terms. The Treaty was signed on 23 June 1325. Edward had lost control of Gascony, his wife and his heir. Once young Edward arrived in France, his mother and her lover Mortimer used him as a tool to depose his father. The end was inevitable. Mortimer and Isabella landed in Suffolk on the 24 September 1326. King Edward II, deserted by his friends, was deposed within four months.


‘It is as it is’[14]

Edward of Windsor was a noble and high-spirited youth with a warlike disposition quite unlike his father, but he was still a minor when he ascended the English throne. The direction of the realm, therefore, was taken into the hands of his mother and Sir Roger Mortimer. They exploited his youth and inexperience to arrogate royal authority for their personal aggrandizement and to suppress opposition to their injustices. It was, however, their incompetence in the direction of foreign policy that was most damaging to the Crown and to the kingdom. For three generations the raison d’etre of Plantagenet foreign policy was the subjugation of the British Isles under English dominion and the full restoration of Aquitaine in sovereignty to the English crown. In 1327, Edward III had no choice but to accept the fait accompli of a patched-up truce with Charles IV, whereby the French king undertook to restore the remnant of Gascony granted to Edward II, on condition that the English pay 50,000 marks in addition to £60,000 already pledged to the French Crown.


Charles IV died without male issue in February 1328. For the first time in three centuries there was no male heir to the French throne. Ironically, Charles’ nearest male blood relative was his nephew the king of England whose title came through his mother. The only other male candidate was Phillip of Valois, a nephew of Phillip V and second cousin to Charles IV. The line of succession could not be settled immediately, however, since Charles’ widow was seven months pregnant when he died. If she gave birth to a boy, he would succeed his father. If it were a girl, the baby would never wear the French crown. The choice in that eventuality was between Edward and Phillip. The prospect of a ‘foreign’ ruler horrified the French and despite the strength of Edward’s genealogy there were political reasons for not choosing him as the next French king. He was a foreigner and a minor, and his accession would give far too much power to his mother, whose wicked conduct towards her royal husband had alienated the French against her. Conversely, Phillip of Valois was a man of considerable political substance, an experienced man of affairs and the son of a French hero, and thereby “…entitled to a place at the centre of French political life, while his rival was by birth no more than Phillip the Fair’s grandson, an outsider to all but genealogists.”[15]


The so-called Salic law that they had in France has been the subject of scholarly debate and controversy. To Edouard Perroy, it was a ‘museum piece’ unearthed by Valois lawyers to strengthen their master’s royal claim. “ It so happened that by a stroke of luck unique to history this long line of kings from Hugh Capet at the close of the tenth century to Phillip the Fair at the dawning of the fourteenth always left at every generation one of more sons capable of succeeding them. Hereditary succession by the male line was on record in fact. It did not exist in law, since no precedent had enabled it to be formulated explicitly as a rule. The kings themselves consistently recoiled from the task, quite simple though it was, of decreeing how their inheritance was to devolve in future.” [16] Lately, Jonathan Sumption has argued that it was a rule ‘of recent origin, of doubtful legality, and, moreover, a rule of force rather than principle’. It was also contrary to civil inheritance law in France and elsewhere in Christendom at that time. Indeed, women were known to have inherited the throne in lands ruled by cadet branches of the Capetian dynasty.


The Salic law first appeared in 1316, when Phillip V succeeded to the throne instead of the infant daughter of his brother. It was far from obvious to his contemporaries that Phillip should succeed to the throne and there does not appear to have been any reason for him doing so beyond the presence of his armed supporters and his forceful personality. But even so, he had to buy-out his niece’s claim and bribe doubters with his use of patrimony. By contrast, when Philip died in 1322, his own daughter was pushed aside in favour of Charles IV without demure: ‘ practice was now law.’[17] It is reasonable to infer from Sumption’s analysis that in the event of a problematic or disputed succession political expediency was a more influential factor than strict hereditary right. The situation in 1328 was, however, different to that in 1316 and in 1322. In 1328, the legal issue was not whether a woman could succeed to the throne, but whether she could transmit a right of succession to her son. This was to the French no more than a legal quibble that was rendered academic by overwhelmingly sound political reasons for rejecting Edward, who did not have the support of any of the princes of the blood royal nor anybody else with influence. The Chronicler Saint-Denis summed-up the French view of the legal issue: ‘the mother had no claim, neither did the son’. Despite the difficulties, Isabella had no choice but to press her son’s claim lest it go by default. Whilst Edward’s legal right was not thereby diminished, it did mean war à outrance if he tried to enforce it. And the English were in no position to go to war for the Kingdom of France. Edward III was still in the power of Isabella and Mortimer, and there was a serious risk of civil war, which precluded any possibility of sending a military expedition to France. Queen Isabella, therefore, relinquished her son’s claim and recognized Phillip Valois as king of France. It should be noted, however, that Isabella gave way to superior force and not because she thought the French were right. Nor should we assume that English indifference was due to anything other than their preoccupation with the threat of civil war at home.[18]


In the autumn of 1328, Phillip summoned Edward do homage in person for Gascony. Isabella’s tactless defiance to this summons (‘’The son of a king will never do homage to the son of a count.”) infuriated Phillip who sequestered Gascon revenues in reprisal and repeated his summons. In February 1329, the threat of civil war in England was so grave that Phillip’s demand was put to Parliament for advice. The nature of the debate and what was said is unknown to us as the Parliamentary Roll is not extant. However, the editors’ note in my edition of PROME is quite clear. In 1328 when Edward’s claim to the French throne was first raised, Phillip of Valois had just succeeded to the throne ‘and his position was still insecure. Now [in 1329] the situation had changed. Edward had no choice but to obey the summons in the same way his father had’. Jonathan Sumption relies on chronicle sources for his assertion that Parliaments advise was unequivocally that Edward’s claim to the French throne was unsustainable and it was his duty to do homage for Gascony.[19] Be that as it may, Edward III dutifully travelled to Amiens and on the 6 June 1329 and gave homage in the usual form (‘Homage de foi et de bouche’) That is, he “…paid homage with words and a kiss only without putting his hands between the hands of the King of France.” [20] And he declined to do more until he had returned to England and taken further advice. Thus, Edward acknowledged Phillip as his landlord but not as his sovereign. To the modern historian Michael Packe this seemed more like defiance than homage.[21]


Edward was back in England by the 11 June; within weeks, he received a demand from Phillip to acknowledge ‘liege’ fealty by the 28 July 1330 or lose the rest of Gascony.[22] Queen Isabella and Mortimer prevaricated to gain time for the Gascon defences to be strengthened. Negotiations were started but broke down; by August Edward was in default and faced the complete loss of Gascony. Parliament met in November to debate the defence of the Gascony; but, this was overtaken by the fall of Isabella and Mortimer, which dominated proceedings. Nothing, therefore, was done to strengthen the Gascon defences or to resolve the problem of Edward’s homage. By the end of December frustrated French ambassadors arrived in England to seek Edward’s answer. By now, Edward had entered on his adult personal rule and he was anxious to placate Phillip and prevent the loss of Gascony. Negotiations were relatively successful due to Edward’s conciliatory approach and his policy of giving way to French demands whenever possible. A settlement was reached on the 9 March and ratified by Edward before the end of the month. Edward’s acknowledged that his earlier homage include the word ‘liege’.

Edward was in no position to resist Phillip’s demand, but the significance of this new oath was not lost on him or his advisors. The obligation to provide military service as and whenever required touched the fault line of Anglo-French relations. The Plantagenet kings neither could nor would ever accept the full consequences of their fealty to the French kings. To them, homage was a ritual to be avoided if possible and got through if that was unavoidable. Indeed, the words of their previous oaths were deliberately ambiguous to fudge this issue. Liege homage went much further than simply providing troops. It placed an intolerable constraint on Edward’s sovereign prerogative. He might for example be required to take the part of France — seen by the English as their natural enemy — against (say) the Flemings or Germans who were regarded as England’s natural allies. It also damaged England’s commercial interests. The king therefore travelled incognito to France, where he met Phillip at Pont-Sainte-Maxeme sometime between the 12 and 16 April 1331. Both men were eager for a permanent resolution of the Aquitaine problem, though for different reasons. Edward wanted to re-focus English attention on the conquest of Scotland, whereas Phillip was fixated on a crusade to the Holy Land. Edward’s conciliatory approach had him gained him some relief but not much. He was forgiven for his ‘dilatoriness on the matter of the oath’ and relieved of an obligation to repeat the ceremony. Phillip also authorized a joint judicial commission to examine and then to effect ‘a mutual restoration of Aquitaine territories seized by force since the war of Saint–Sardos’; he also lifted the banishment of Gascons involved in the war. But that was as far as he would go. The clock could not be turned back. The lands confiscated in 1325 would not be returned the English Crown. Phillip did not preclude the possibility that Edward could sue for their return, but he retained absolute discretion to do what he thought proper. It was not an equitable settlement. It resolved some minor grievances of the recent past, but it did not address the deeper, fundamental issues that dated to the Treaty of Paris 1259. Phillip saw no reason to concede what the law did not demand of him.


Edward’s diplomacy had achieved nothing so far. His Gascon inheritances remained diminished by French occupation, and the giving of liege fealty to Phillip had further weakened his authority. Yet despite that, he had no choice but to continue negotiating with the French king, since the only other options were war or surrender, both of which were unthinkable.[23] Edward could not contemplate war with France until he had subdued the Scots, and the idea of abandoning his claim to Aquitaine or submitting it to arbitration were anathema to him and to his subjects.[24] It is, nonetheless, questionable whether diplomacy had any further usefulness, as neither Edward nor Phillip seems to have been well served by it. The process itself was cumbrous and unlikely to produce the ‘imaginative compromise’ that was required.[25] In the early fourteenth there was no regular, arrangements in England and France for managing international relationships. Ad hoc embassages were dispatched as events or circumstances demanded. The ambassadors who led these embassies were accompanied by large stately retinues and lived in magnificent style very much in the public gaze. They moved slowly (‘a dignified pace’) taking time to proclaim their master’s wealth and power for the benefit of foreigners and their rulers. Necessarily, their instructions were given in advance and more often than not, they were overtaken by events. In which case, new instructions had to be taken causing yet more delay as a messenger was dispatched post haste to take new orders.


Furthermore, those charged with conducting talks were rarely professional diplomats. Usually they were bishops or high status members of the lay nobility, lacking the diplomatic expertise and skills required to achieve success. Those charged with advising the ambassadors also had shortcomings. For the most part they were lawyers and antiquarians, ‘students of precedent and form’. They possessed expert knowledge of ‘the ancient and complex territorial dispute between England and France’, but were consumed by process and detail. They did not always see the issues and problems as political in nature, requiring political solution. Except on those rare and obvious occasions when legal form was beside the point, they tended to regard the problems in legal terms entailing a detailed forensic analysis and a legal solution. They were, in fact, obsessed with arguing about process rather than outcome, and also with minutiae. As the talk continued ‘their slow, sinuous but familiar path neither king saw the dangerous drift towards war’. [26] I am not sure that last sentence, which comes from Perroy, is altogether fair. Personally, I am not convinced that either king allowed the situation to drift aimlessly towards war. I believe that war was unavoidable. The fundamental problem of English vassalage was unsolvable by diplomatic means as the relative positions of the English and French were so utterly opposed. Ideally, the English crown would hold all of Aquitaine in full sovereignty; whereas, the French could not countenance the cession of the least part of sovereign French territory to a foreign power, nor could Phillip concede or moderate any of his strict feudal rights over Aquitaine.


Edward was playing for time. By keeping the talks going and by not giving Phillip any excuse to confiscate what was left of Gascony or to intervene in Scotland, Edward was better able to prepare for the reckoning with Phillip, which he knew must come. To which end, he instructed his commissioners in the joint Anglo-French judicial commission to continue their conciliatory line in the talks. He was even prepared to commit to joining Phillip’s crusade in return for the restoration of Gascony ante bellum the War of Saint-Sardos[27]. This moderate approach seemed to have borne fruit by the spring of 1334. After one particular day of talks, the English ambassadors were convinced that an equitable settlement of the Aquitaine problem had been achieved. However, as they arrived back at their lodgings, they were told to return to the French court, where their hopes of peace were dashed by Phillip’s proclamation that the settlement just agreed must include the Scots.[28] So there it was at last: Edward could not have a settlement on Gascony without abandoning his conquest of Scotland. He risked further confiscation of Gascony and the involvement of French soldiers north of the Tweed, and possibly even an invasion of England from the north. Phillip’s intervention in Scotland marked the moment of no return in the drift towards the Hundred Years War. The Scottish question rankled with Phillip no less than Edward; it was a distraction that imperiled the crusade, which he was committed to leading in the Holy Land. The French were bound to Scotland by an alliance that Phillip for honour’s sake could not ignore,[29] even at the cost of postponing the crusade.[30] In the summer of 1335, therefore, as the English army was assembling on the Scottish border, the French Royal Council committed to sending a seaborne force of six thousand soldiers to Scotland to restore the throne to Robert Bruce’s heir, David II.


An open breach between the two foremost kings of Christendom was bound to disrupt the crusade. In the hope of preventing such disruption, Phillip wrote to Edward on the 7 July 1335 ‘inviting him to submit his dispute with David II to the ‘impartial arbitration’ of the Pope and Phillip himself.[31] It is, I think inconceivable, that Phillip could have made such a crass suggestion unintentionally. He must surely have realised how that would simply inflame the situation. Scotland was to Edward at this time what Gascony was to Phillip: non negotiable. Edward’s reply was instant and unequivocal. ‘There was no danger of the Scottish problem endangering the proposed crusade, since Edward would soon pacify the rebellious Scots effectively and permanently. Furthermore, Phillip should not interfere in a domestic matter between Edward and his Scottish subjects. Finally, the idea of arbitration was obnoxious to Edward who was dealing with his own subjects and vassals. It was as complete a rebuff as could have been drafted.’ Desperate Papal efforts to broker a permanent peace were brushed aside by the parties. In March 1336, therefore, at a private meeting with Phillip, Pope Benedict XII cancelled the crusade.[32] It was a blow to Phillip’s hopes and his pride, but even more damaging to Edward as it removed his best bargaining lever for obtaining concessions and freed the French fleet for redeployment from the Mediterranean to Norman ports, where it could be used against the English.


Edward was in a difficult position. The war in Scotland was going badly. It was taking longer and costing more to subdue the Scottish nationalists than he had expected, and the English gains of 1335 were threatened by a French plan to raise and equip a force of 26,000 men for service in Scotland, and possibly also in England. In the Channel, the French were sinking English ships, killing their sailors and damaging their commerce with Flanders. French raids on the English east and south coast ports were increasing and causing much alarm among the civilian population. The redeployment of the French fleet to the Channel merely added to English concerns since it was seen as the prelude to a full-on French invasion, which the inhabitants of the southeast were arming themselves to resist. For all practical purposes, Phillip was treating Edward and his subjects as enemies wherever he found them. Things were hardly any better for the English in Gascony. Phillip’s plan to seize the remains of the duchy was well advanced. His officials, who were there already, were brazenly enforcing French royal authority at the expense of ducal authority. Also, the ‘flurry’ of litigation in the royal French courts that was emanating from Edward’s truculent Gascon vassals was undermining ducal authority. Phillip had already rejected out of hand Edward’s last proposals for a peaceful settlement of their differences, when on the 30 April he proclaimed the arriéve-ban summoning all able-bodied Frenchmen of military age for war service with the Crown.


As it happened, however, the casus belli for war was not Phillip’s threat to England or French piracy in the Channel, but Edward’s position as a peer of France. His refusal to extradite Robert of Artois a French outlaw who had taken refuge in the English court after being condemned as a traitor in France gave Phillip the excuse to confiscate what was left of Edward’s French inheritance,[33] which he did by proclamation on the 24 May 1337, ’…on account of the many excesses, rebellions and acts of disobedience committed against our royal majesty by the king of England, duke of Aquitaine.[34] To ensure there was no misunderstanding, Phillip did not send his demand for Artois’ extradition through diplomatic channels (i.e. sovereign to sovereign); he sent it to the English Seneschal of Gascony who was instructed to deal with the Master of the Royal Archers when he arrived in Gascony for the purpose. This was an unequivocal ‘sovereign to subject’ communication and tantamount to a declaration of war. Phillip’s actions found Edward at a considerable military disadvantage. He could not conquer Scotland and defend Gascony at the same time. Neither did he have the ships to challenge French naval supremacy in the Channel and the Atlantic, and his financial problems seemed insurmountable.


Edward’s solution to all these difficulties was to broaden the war. In 1337 and 1338 he set out to create an anti-Phillip coalition. The Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig IV and a cluster of German princes who had cause to fear Phillip’s territorial ambition agreed to fight on Edward’s part for gold. The Flemings were forced to join this coalition by Edward’s embargo on the export of wool and leather to Flanders.[35] They suspected (probably correctly) that Edward was using them. To maintain the coalition and to convince the unreliable Flemings that Phillip was not their lawful suzerain, Edward with the consent of the English parliament resurrected his claim to be the legitimate King of France. In a public challenge to Phillip dated the 3 October 1337, Edward claimed the French crown on the ground of his closer degree of kinship to Charles IV. ” Wherefore we give you notice that we will claim and conquer or heritage of France by the armed force of us and ours, and from this day forward we and ours challenge you and yours and we rescind the pledge of homage we gave you without good cause.” [36]  Henceforth, Phillip and his French subjects were treated as enemies of Edward. In 1338, he travelled to Antwerp to cement his alliance. There, he found his allies “…slippery, timid and tepid. They were hesitant and dilatory, and not much was achieved”.[37] It would be wrong, nevertheless, to describe the period 1337 to 1340 as a ‘phony war’ (as Christopher Allmand does). [38] The fighting may have been desultory and indecisive but it was bloody nonetheless, and both sides were guilty of atrocities and cruelty. Furthermore, the economic impact on northern Europe was considerable.[39]


Edward’s coalition depended on his ability to pay his allies and to lead an English army on campaign in the Low Countries: by 1340 he could do neither. His debts far exceeded any subsidy from Parliament and the Crown’s feudal revenues. The German’s, would fight only so long as English gold lasted and the Flemings were unreliable allies anyway. It was this crisis that prompted Edward to take the next logical step. On the 26 January 1340 he formally assumed the title ‘King of France’ and received the recognition of those Flemings who did not side with the Count of Flanders on Phillip’s side.[40] In the same month, he held his first French ‘court’ in Ghent to which his new vassals were summoned to swear their allegiance to him as ‘the successor to St Louis and Phillip the Fair’. He styled himself ‘King of England and of France’, quartered his royal arms with those of France and dated his documents ‘in the fourteenth year of our reign in England and in the first in France.’[41] It was a remarkable and dramatic escalation of the conflict, which transformed its fundamental nature, astounded the Church and the secular rulers of Christendom, and has been the source of scholarly muddle ever since.


There are three questions that historians find difficult to answer conclusively. First, did Edward have a legitimate and superior title to the French throne? Second, was his claim at this time based on principle or expediency? And finally, was it the cause of the Hundred Years War? I will deal with the last question first since it is the most straightforward. The simplistic view taken by Edward’s sternest critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that his claim was the cause of the Hundred Years War flies in the face of the facts as we now know them and of common sense. Phillip’s confiscation of Gascony marked the moment war became inevitable. The occupation of Gascony by French soldiers soon afterwards marked the start of hostilities. These acts took place months before Edward wrote to Phillip claiming the French throne and years before he assumed the title of King of France. As Ian Mortimer is quick to point out, Edward’s dynastic claim was a symptom of the conflict, not its cause.[42]


The issue of legitimacy, however, is more problematic. The objection to a woman succeeding to the French throne was hardly relevant to Edward’s claim for obvious reasons. His claim was sui generis in that it turned on the question of whether a woman could transmit such a title to her son. The French lords answered that question with a resounding no. Although the English bowed to superior force, there is no suggestion they accepted the French interpretation of the ‘rules’ of succession. It could be argued that by giving homage to Phillip in 1329, Edward effectively renounced his claim to the French Crown, The counter argument put forward at the time by his advisors is that Edward could not be held to an oath given while he was still a minor and furthermore an oath he was coerced into giving. It is arguable, as Jonathan Sumption suggests, whether that argument is weakened by Edward’s liege homage’ of 1331.[43] Personally, I do not think that Edward’s claim — such as it was — is emasculated by his concession in 1331. In the first place, he made no concession about the legitimacy of his title or that he accepted the legitimacy of the French lords’ decision. He simply bowed to superior force. To do otherwise was folly. It would commit him to a war he could not win at that time. He saw the risk of confiscation and war clearly, which he sensibly decided to prevent by making a limited concession that his oath of 1329 was liege fealty. Moreover, I can see no rational reason for Edward to pursue a claim, which he and everyone else knew was false. I must now turn to the question of motive.


We can be sure that Edward’s reason for pressing his title at this point was expediency. He was seeking to gain a tactical advantage. No doubt if the throne fell into his hands he might think again, but at this time he showed no genuine desire to rule two kingdoms. His war aim was to recover all of English Gascony in full sovereignty, plus of course any other lands he managed to conquer during the war. But, by turning his dispute into a dynastic one, Edward shed the feudal straitjacket that cast him as nothing more than a disloyal and disobedient vassal’, and dispensed with the tiresome duty of swearing fealty to the French crown. Thereafter he referred to his opponent as ‘Phillip of Valois who calls himself the king of France’, with whom he was able to treat on equal terms. Nevertheless, if Edward wanted to steady his allies and influence the neutrals, he could not afford to put forward spurious claim; there must be some legal and moral legitimacy to his claim no matter how ambiguous or arguable it was.


Before I turn to the immediate events leading up to the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360, I must write a little about the course of the war by way of context.[44]   After 1340 Edward abandoned his foreign coalition, preferring instead to rely on his seasoned English and Welsh troops. A war of succession, which broke out in Brittany during 1341 gave him the pretext to bring his army to France on behalf of one of the parties. Not unnaturally, King Phillip took the part of the other side. What started as a ducal dispute soon became an international war between England and France. The English established their military supremacy with hard fought victories at Morlaix (1342), Auberoche (1345) and Crecy (1346). The battle of Crecy was a triumph for the discipline and professionalism of Edward’s infantry over the élan of Phillip’s mounted knights. King Phillip fled the field with his royal and political reputations in tatters. The flower of French chivalry was humbled and soon after the English captured Calais, which they held for two hundred years. But the war was not continuous; it was interrupted by the pestilence of the Black Death, which temporarily disorganized, social, economic and military activity in England and France.[45] Furthermore, the nature of English and of French society was such that neither side was able to maintain a large standing army in the field for a long time. And, there was also the papal policy of consistently offering mediation. All these factors, coupled with the death of Phillip in 1350 unsettled French society. Opposition to the Valois line was increasing; factionalism was breaking down political unity, stirred up by Charles of Navarre (known as Charles the Bad) who was another claimant to the French throne. It is possible that he and Edward were planning to destroy the Valois line and divide France between them.[46]


Even the fact that King John (who had succeeded his father in 1350) came to terms with Charles of Navarre at Nantes In1354 was insufficient to overcome the French disadvantage. Most royal councilors were by this time receptive to the notion of peace with Edward even at the price of French territory. Contact between ambassadors was ongoing and the French prepared for the ‘worst of surrenders’.[47] Edward agreed in principle to trade his claim to the French throne for territory. All that remained to be agreed was the extent of the land to be yielded to him. This was finalized at the Treaty of Guines (1354). In exchange for renouncing his claim to the French throne, Edward was to receive in full sovereignty: that part of Aquitaine known as Gascony (anti bellum the war of St-Sardos), Poitou, Limousine, Maine, Anjou and Touraine. Edward was delighted. He had achieved almost all his war aims, though he dared not say so too loudly. The terms agreed were highly controversial and could not be published straight away lest the fragile peace be endangered.[48] Edward’s fears were soon realised. On hearing the agreement, the opposition of the French lords hardened. In the autumn of 1354, King John was persuaded to repudiate the Treaty of Guines. The temporary truce was revoked and the war resumed. As far as Edward was concerned no other course was possible now.


The chevauchée that Edward Prince of Wales led from Bordeaux to the Languedoc in the autumn of 1355 marked the opening of a new chapter in the Hundred Years War. The English raiders inflicted terrible havoc and destruction on the French civil population and their property, as they rode from Bordeaux to the shores of the Mediterranean and back, laden down with booty and unmolested by a French army, which stood idly by and watched. Militarily, the raid achieved little; no ground was taken, no castles were captured, and no battle was fought. The value of the raid, however, lay in its effect on French morale. King John’s authority was challenged in his own back yard and he was shown to be powerless to protect his people from English depredations. The shock wave was felt in Paris, where plots, coups and counter-coups widened the division between the King and the Dauphin and between the various political factions: worse was expected in 1356.


It was the presence of Henry Duke of Lancaster with a small English Army in Brittany, and Prince Edward with his larger Anglo-Gascon force in Gascony that created a problem for John and an opportunity for Edward in 1355/56. Despite his military successes, a decisive war-winning campaign had thus far eluded King Edward. Perhaps this was an opportunity to put that right. It seems that in the spring of 1356 he conceived a plan to lead a third English army in France. It was anticipated that after the king had linked-up with Lancaster’s force, they advance from the west and rendezvous ‘somewhere on the Loire’ with Prince Edward’s army coming up from the south. We must be careful not to attribute to this some sort of strategic masterstroke by Edward, since it was in fact nothing more than a vague pipe dream. It was a plan that required three English medieval armies manoeuvring on exterior lines, without maps, active communications, active intelligence, relying on extempore logistics and in enemy territory, to co-ordinate their movements so as to combine their strength for a decisive battle against an outnumbered foe. There was simply too much that could go wrong, and indeed did go wrong before it even started! Edward’s efforts to raise another army for service in France came to nought owing to the threat posed by the Aragonese Galley Fleet that was spotted off the coast of Kent. Instructions were sent to Lancaster and to Prince Edward to rendezvous on the Loire. In the event, however, no junction between the English armies was achieved owing to the movements of the enemy and the English failure to synchronize their movements. Prince Edward reached the Loire to find that he was alone. Worse still he did not know at that point where the French army was. In fact it was only a few miles away in an good position to cut the Anglo-Gascons’ line of communication from Bordeaux. Edward waited for three days for news of Lancaster that never came. It was only when he realised that the French were threatening his rear that he ordered an immediate retreat. There is some dispute as to whether the prince was retreating or actually manoeuvring to bring the French to battle near Poitiers. It is a purely academic argument since a battle did tale place on the 19 September 1356, which was an even more astounding English success than Crecy. The French army was destroyed; King John and his son Phillip along with scores of French nobles were captured. The irony of Poitiers is that it gave Edward the decisive victory that he craved. King John was held captive in London (albeit highly honoured), and France descended into anarchy and revolution in his absence. Even so, it still took Edward four years to consecrate Poitiers with a permanent peace treaty.


While John was a prisoner in London, Edward tried twice to force terms on the French. The first Treaty of London (1358) ceded the following territory to Edward in full sovereignty: Guines, Saintoge, Poitou, Limousine, Quercy, Rouerget, Bigone, Ponthieu, and Calais. John’s ransom was put at 4,000,000 ecus payable by installments. Though this was less that Edward had demanded at Guines, these were still tough terms for the French to accept. They were ceding sovereignty of about a quarter of sovereign French territory. However, such was the anarchy in France that even the hawkish Dauphin accepted this humiliation as the price for peace. The return of Charles of Navarre to France and further fighting in Normandy forced the French nation to it knees. They were unable to pay the first installment of John’s ransom. The opportunistic Edward saw the opportunity to get even more from the beleaguered John by changing the terms of the peace already agreed in principle. The second Treaty of London was much severer than the first. Edward tinkered with the ransom and the installment plan, but his new territorial demand was astonishing; all that was ceded in 1358 plus all the land between the Loire and the Channel together with Anjou, Maine, Tournai, Normandy and the coastal region between Calais and the Somme, all in full sovereignty. It return, Edward renounced his claim to the French crown. If ratified, this treaty would destroy France. It shows, the depth of John’s desperation to go home that he should have agreed, however reluctantly, to such severe terms. Unsurprisingly, the Dauphin and the Estates General rejected this treaty, which they said was neither tolerable not practicable. It was obvious now that if King Edward III wanted to restore the ‘Angevin Empire’, he was going to have to conquer it. Even he realised that that was not feasible despite the obvious French difficulties.[49]


The Treaty of Bretigny was more than just an agreement between King Edward and King John, it was meant to secure a general and a permanent peace in Christendom.[50] The conference opened on the 1 May 1360 in the wake of Edward’s failed attempt to force his terms on the French. “Sixteen French ambassadors, twenty-two English ones, three papal legates and an observer sent by the king of Navarre, all with their [bodyguards, staffs and servants]. The chief negotiators were all veterans of past occasions of this sort.[51] The English constrained by events took a more conciliatory line than hitherto and did not maintain their territorial demands of 1359. Once this was known, negotiations did not take long. By the 3 May, the essential details were agreed in substantially the same terms as those of the first Treaty of London. Edward was to hold in free sovereignty all the provinces to the southwest that had once belonged to the Angevins, ‘in the same manner as the king of France and his ancestors held them’. In addition to Gascony, this meant Poitou, Saintoge, Angoumois, Perigold, Limousine, Quercy and Rouerget together with certain (unspecified) territories bordering on Gascony. In the north he was to get Ponthieu, Calais and the town of Montreuil in Picardy. In return, Edward would renounce his claim to the French throne. The detail remained to be settled, of course, and as might have been anticipated the devil was indeed in the detail. The treaty ratified by the English Parliament did not include the so-called ‘renunciation clause’. That was put aside in a separate document for discussion later. Sadly, neither Edward nor John complied with their obligations under the treaty. Though the next decade was peaceful this failure to enforce the terms of the agreement on both sides was to dominate Anglo-French diplomacy for the next half-century. But that, as they say is another story.

[1] M Prestwich – Edward I (Yale 1997) p.314: Maurice Powicke – The Thirteenth Century (Oxford 1988, 2nd edition) pp.290-292; Powicke’s analysis of the Gascon question (pp.270-318) is a useful introduction to the real politick of Anglo-French relations in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. See also, Marc Morris – Edward I: a great and terrible king (Windmill 2009) p.204

[2] Powicke pp. 644-645, points out that this was not an isolated incident, though it was the most serious thus far. Powicke is in no doubt that the Cinque Port flotilla were sent to avenge some earlier French outrage.

[3] Powicke pp. 648-649; Morris pp. 264-265: both these authors explore Phillips motive and his means for recovering English lands in France

[4] Edouard Perroy – The Hundred Years War (Eyres & Spottiswoode 1965 -English trans) p.65, provides a useful analysis of Edward’s military, political and fiscal problems at home and in France at this time. Peroy asserts that the conquest of Gascony was relatively easy for Phillip’s troops: “three short summer campaigns in 1294,1295 and 1296 sufficed to enable Charles Valois to occupy the whole of Aquitaine”: Perroy exaggerates, though not by much..

[5] Powicke pp.649-688; summarizes the complex web of diplomacy between the monarchs and princes of northwest Europe at this time. It is a good introduction to the problems faced by Edward and Phillip in achieving their own foreign policy objectives

[6] Powicke p.654; Powicke also gives a fascinating insight into the legal argument between English and French lawyers over the feudal status of Gascony (pp.650-653). His penetrating analysis is worth quoting at length: “It was impossible to break from the past. The status of Gascony had become involved in a network of juristic learning; the boundaries were not clearly fixed, old disputes had not been settled. In Edward II’s reign all sorts of thorny difficulties survived to become even more complicated…The duty of the duke to take an oath of fealty as well as to do homage in person was disputed. The marriage between Edward of Caernarvon and Isabella raised the great problem of the French succession. The treaty of 1303 was but an incident, a breathing space in the interminable wrangle which the Treaty of [Paris] 1259 had produced.

[7] Kathryn Warner – Edward II: an unconventional king (Amberley 2014) pp.14-16 contains a helpful summary of Edward II’s historical reputation. See also May McKisack – The Fourteenth Century: 1307-1399 (Oxford 1959) pp.107 for a damming and unsurpassed assessment of Edward’s character faults.

[8] Jonathan Sumption – The Hundred Years War 1: Trial by Battle (Faber and Faber 1990 edition) pp. 86-91.

[9] Sumption (battle) p.92; see also Warner p.177. Warner make the point that at this time Edward was angry with Charles for not extraditing the English traitor Roger Mortimer who had been at the French court. The question is: did Edward’s anger cloud his judgement about the Saint-Sardos affair?

[10] Sumption (Battle) pp.86-90; refers to the ‘mosaic of competing jurisdictions’ which existed in Gascony. The boundaries were still undefined and ancient disputes were still unresolved. Edward’s litigious Gascon vassals were as much to blame as anybody for this state of affairs, since they were determined to exploit the dual jurisdiction to their best advantage in local inter-family feuds. It became a frequent device to bypass ducal control in order to gain an advantage over opponents. This situation was a source of genuine grievance for the English, since the pronouncements of the French Parlement left them defenceless against the continual French encroachment into the land and affairs of Gascony, except for retaliation. The problem was not that this would lead to war, everybody accepted that; the real danger was that war would come at a time of the French king’s choosing.

[11] Sumption (Battle) p.93

[12] Sumption (Battle) p.94; Peroy passim; Charles IV is also known to history as Charles the Fair. There is no doubt that he did not try to take advantage of Edward’s domestic troubles. Neither does the evidence support an inference that the Capetian monarchs had a deliberate policy to disinherit the Plantagenets. In this instance and in others since 1259, it is much more likely that the French employed a policy of strict enforcement of their feudal rights backed-up by brutal punishment for the slightest infringement. However, I believe there is merit in Peroy’s opinion (p.65) that Charles was being unreasonable to Edward’s ambassadors (‘he would not listen to reason’). Their instructions did not authorise them to make the promise requested and it would have been treasonable for them to diminish the Crown estate by promising parts of it to a foreign potentate. Besides, any promises made under these circumstances of duress, is unenforceable.

[13] Sumption (Battle) p.95; Warner pp. 178-179

[14] Mortimer (Perfect King) pp. 200-201; ‘it is as it is’ seems to have been Edward’s personal motto, which was first seen in public at a tournament in 1342 embroidered on all of Edward’s heraldic devices. Nobody is really sure what it means: is it fatalistic (things cannot be changed)? Or is it celebratory (things are as they should be). It might even have been a reference the immutability of his title to the French throne. Mortimer discusses these possibilities and others.

[15] Sumption (Battle) p.107

[16] Sumption pp. (Battle) 68-69; Perroy p.71; both of these superb historians analyses this issues involved and come to the same conclusion. Sumption’s analysis is, as one would expect, of almost judicial clarity and objectivity. Perroy’s analysis though more emotional is equally effective.

[17] Sumption (Battle) ibid; this section is based entirely on Sumption’s own work

[18] Sumption (Battle) p.109: asserts that the fact Edward was passed over for the French crown was a matter of indifference to his English subjects. It was, he suggests, ‘only the Queen Mother who felt strongly about the issue’. However, see McKisack p.111 who argues convincingly that ‘contemporary feudal practice and the prevailing uncertainty about the law of succession made it almost inevitable in these circumstances that a claim should be proffered on behalf of Edward III a direct descendant of Phillip IV through his mother. Failure to make such a claim would be tantamount to letting it go be default and Isabella’s overtures for alliances with Gelderland, Brabant and Castile suggests that she might have had some notion of taking action at a later date.

[19] Sumption (Battle) ppp109-110: Sumption cites a number chronicles sources to which I do not have access: Foedera convetiones, literae et acta publica – ed T Rymer, ne A Clarke et al 7 Volumes (1826-29) pp.775, 783, 784, 789; Lettres d’état enregistrées au Parlement de Paris sous le régne de Philippe de Valois, ABSHF, xxxiv (1897), 193-267, xxxv (1898) 177-249; Annales Londinieses, W Stubbs (ed) – Chronicles of the reign of Edward I and Edward II (1882) PP. 247-249. See also

Chris Givern-Wilson (Gen Ed) – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504 (Boydell 2005); Vol IV – 1327-1348 (Seymour Phillips and Mark Ormrod (Eds) p. 96 (PROME): There are two circumstantial points that are worth considering when discussing the lords’ advice. First, Edward was still a minor in the power of his mother and Sir Roger Mortimer, and accordingly he did all that was asked of him as Duke of Aquitaine when swearing fealty to Phillip. Second, the advice was given ‘against a background of barely suppressed tension’ caused by the earl of Lancaster’s rebellion, which was only suppressed at the cost of Mortimer’s complete domination of the government. I am confused by the significant difference between the note in PROME and Sumption’s conclusion from the chronicles. Was Edward required to do homage because his claim was unsustainable in law, or because it was unsustainable (unenforceable) in fact? See also John Joliffe Froissart’s Chronicles (Harvill 1967) pp. 53 -54 and Ian Mortimer – The Greatest Traitor (Vintage 2010) p.221.

[20] Geoffrey Brereton (editor and translator) – Jean Froissart Chronicles (Penguin 1978) p.55; see also, John Jolliffe (editor and translator) – Froissart’s Chronicles (Harvill 1967) pp. 53-66; which contains a more detailed account of the homage ceremony.

[21] Michael Packe – Edward III (Law Book Company 1983) p.44

[22] McKisack p.112; Perroy pp.82-84: the French drew attention to the ambiguity of the first oath even though it was the same oath sworn by Henry III in 1259, by Edward I in 1274 and again in 1286, and by Edward II in 1308 and 1320. Perroy speculates whether Phillip’s ‘brusque’ demand was the prelude to another confiscation. It is noteworthy that by the time of Phillip’s demand for ‘liege’ fealty the French were already in occupation of the Agenais and Saintonge

[23] PROME Vol 4 pp.154-155; Edward sought Parliaments advice in September 1331. He asked the lords whether they thought he should go to war to recover his rights. Parliament offered him three options: arbitration, negotiation or war. Arbitration and war being too risky, the lords advised further negotiations in the form proposed by King Phillip himself ballasted if possible by a diplomatic marriage settlement.

[24] Sumption (Battle) p.119; see also PROME V4 pp. 153-156

[25] Sumption (Battle) pp146 & 152-184 passim; Mortimer pp.124-126; Sumption charts the course of Anglo-French diplomacy in detail, which I can only summarise.

[26] Perroy pp.88-89; see also Sumption (Battle) pp118-122

[27] Perroy pp. ibid; suggests that Phillip was keen to take the Cross following a suggestion from Edward. It is clear, however, that Edward had no intention to go on a Holy Crusade while Scotland was unconquered; Sumption (Battle) p.155, considers Edward’s promise to go on Crusade was ‘indistinct and probably dishonest’.

[28] Perroy ibid

[29] Perroy ibid; Sumption (Battle) pp.123-151 passim; Mortimer (Perfect King) pp.95-96 & 453.n42

[30] Perroy p.88; ‘Phillip of Valois felt that it lay neither with his interests nor his duty to abandon his Scottish ally’

[31] Sumption (Battle) pp.152-184

[32] Sumption (Battle) ibid the Papal Legate produced a draft compromise meant to disengage Phillip from the ‘British conflict’ so that he could concentrate on the Holy Crusade. It was futile gesture; Phillip regarded the attempted mediation as impertinence since this was not a dispute between sovereign kings but between a sovereign and his vassal on a subject that touched the authority of the French crown.

[33] Sumption (Battle) pp.172-174; Sumption argues that strictly speaking Edward’s refusal to extradite Artois was not grounds for confiscating Gascony since Edward was self-evidently acting in his sovereign capacity as king of England to make an alliance with whomever he chooses. However, such considerations counted for little with the French who feared such an alliance might threaten their interests. See also Christopher Allmand- The Hundred Years War (Cambridge 2001 revised edition) p.12, who takes a different line. He suggests that by sheltering Artois, a traitor and Phillip’s enemy, Edward was guilt of breaking his oath of fealty to Phillip. It is a classic illustration of the conflict of interests placed on the English king/French duke that was created by the Treaty of Paris 1259 and was the root cause of Anglo-French discord

[34] McKisack p.115

[35] Sumption (Battle) p.189; Edward’s embargo on the export of Wool, though it damaged the English economy, had catastrophic consequences for the Flemish economy. Most of the population worked in the cloth-making industry and were entirely dependent on English wool for their livelihood, ‘there being virtually no other raw material’. The embargo coupled with a poor harvest ensured that many textile workers went hungry during the winter. In 1337, public order in Ghent and Bruges broke down.

[36] Brereton pp. 59-60

[37] Alfred H. Burne – The Crecy War: 1337-1360 (Greenhill Books 1990 edition) p.24

[38] Allmand p.14; see also Perroy pp.95-105

[39] Sumption (Battle) Chp7, 8, 9 contains the best and most thorough account of the diplomatic, financial and military activity between 1337 and 1340; Perroy ibid provides the best summary of events during that period.

[40] Sumption (Battle) ibid; Perroy ibid; Mortimer (Perfect King) pp.136, 137, 144, 148 & 162-165

[41] Sumption (Battle) pp291-296; Perroy ibid; Mortimer (Perfect King) p.144: Edward’s title seemed more a matter of convenience depending on who or what it was intended for. He did, for example style himself as king of England and of France in one document and as king of France and of England in another.

[42] Mortimer (Perfect King) p.135; see also Perroy pp. 95-97; Allmand pp. 7-12 contains a useful discussion on the causes of the war and provides some interesting alternative general interpretations of the cause and nature of the war.

[43] Sumption (Battle) pp. 294-295

[44] For those interested in the military history, Jonathan Sumption’s uncompleted ‘History of the Hundred Years War’ in four volumes is the definitive English account (The fifth and final volume is awaited.). The best general introduction remains Edouard Perroy’s superb History (English translation 1959). It is also still worth referring to Alfred Burn’s two-volume military history The Crecy War’ and ‘The Agincourt War ’(1955)

[45] A general truce was agreed in 1347 and repeatedly extended.

[46] Allmand p.17

[47] Jonathan Sumption – The Hundred Years War 2: Trial by Fire (Faber and Faber 1999 edition) pp.132-133.

[48] Sumption 2 (Fire) p.133: the terms agreed at Guines were better than Edward managed to get at Bretigny in 1360, when John was his prisoner and an English army stood at the gates of Paris.

[49] Sumption (Fire) ibid

[50] Perroy p178

[51] Sumption (Fire) ibid

Were the Wars of The Roses an Inevitability?

In my spare time I have been reading Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson. It’s a massive book, full of information, probably the most complete work on Henry since Wylie’s four-volume effort in the 19th Century. Frankly, I’m finding it hard going. Not because it’s a bad book (it isn’t) or because Given-Wilson is a bad writer or a poor historian (the very opposite is true) but because, quite frankly, I find Henry a deeply unsympathetic character, and the more I learn about him the less I like him.

One of the interesting snippets I have picked up from this book is that in the 1390s Henry spent over £400 in legal fees chasing up various land claims that he thought he was entitled to pursue. OK, £400 does not sound much in 2020, maybe a Solicitor’s hourly rate; but in the 1390s 1000 marks (about £667) was the basic annual income qualification for an earldom. An ordinary person would consider themselves well paid on 6d a day (2.5p modern money) or 3 shillings (15p) a (six day) week. A woman working in agriculture was often only paid a third of that. And no one was paid for the numerous religious holidays – for the ordinary person, they were time off without pay. So a good annual income was maybe £4 or £5 at best. Many would have received far less. So £400 was a heck of a lot of money.

Now, you may say, and it’s true, that pursuing legal claims for land (often dubious) was pretty much a national sport for the nobility and gentry of the late middle ages. Look at the Pastons, for example. They were always chasing up some claim or other, or someone was chasing them.

But the Pastons, in the 15th Century, were barely established as gentlefolk. They had recent ancestors who had been actual bondmen. So it’s not surprising their grip on their property was tenuous, and that they had to scrap for every penny. Similarly, it’s not hard to understand some impoverished baron trying to expand his holdings a bit – the value of land was not what it had been before the Black Death and tenants – and even labourers – had that little more edge than they had had previously.

Henry of Bolingbroke, by contrast, was heir to what was undeniably the greatest inheritance ever brought together under one roof. What’s more, he had married a very wealthy heiress. OK, he had had to share the de Bohun inheritance with Uncle Gloucester (how sad!) and his mother-in-law was still alive and inconsiderately drawing her dower, but the lordship of Brecon alone was worth £1,500 a year!

So, to be blunt, Henry was a greedy so-and-so. He was suing his Uncle Gloucester and the Earl of Warwick, and various other people, because he was not satisfied with his enormous slice of the pie.

Here’s the rub – his father, John of Gaunt, was no better, despite being incomparably the richest private individual in England. (By several streets.) Through the 1390s he persuaded Richard II to confer further sweeteners on him. For example, the duchy of Lancaster was given its special status on an hereditary basis, instead of for life. Then there was the little matter of the grant of the Duchy of Aquitaine. (This latter was in part entangled in the very complex peace negotiations with France, but did Gaunt really need another great duchy?)

Richard II was rapidly running out of things to give – England’s resources were strictly limited – but there really is no indication that the Lancaster family would ever have been satisfied.

Some people will say – “Ah, but Richard II was a lousy king.” Well, for a start, he was rather more effective than is often realised. A lot of the negative stuff is pure Lancastrian propaganda, much of it invented after Richard’s deposition. (How familiar!) The reality is though that even a sovereign with the talents of Elizabeth I and Henry II rolled together would have struggled to succeed with a cuckoo in the nest as large as the Lancasters were. Remember the problems Warwick gave Edward IV? Compared to John of Gaunt – and even more to Bolingbroke post-inheritance – Warwick was a mere country squire.

Richard II had to do something about the Henry Problem. If his chosen solution failed, it was because it was, in fact, too generous, too mild, too humane. When their positions were abruptly reversed, Henry made no such mistake. Objectively, one of them was sure to be the death of the other, it was just a matter of time.

That being the case (and the same would have been true had matters gone the other way) there was set up in English politics a turbulence that was always going to cause problems sooner or later. To a point, the impact was seen straightaway. Henry IV’s reign was extremely troubled because many of his subjects simply did not see his kingship as valid. He was not, after all, Richard II’s right heir, and he had obtained his position by illegitimate force. It took him until at least 1405 (maybe 1408) to resolve matters and secure his crown. It was done by painful attrition, and with a bit of luck along the way. But it only really postponed the issue for a generation.

Henry V did his best (at the very start of his reign) to conciliate his father’s remaining enemies – such as were still alive plus their heirs – and to a very large extent this succeeded. He was further helped by his remarkable successes in France, the more or less complete inability of his obvious dynastic rival, the Earl of March, and by the fact that the third Duke of York was still a little boy.

However, it only took the failure of Henry VI’s kingship to bring the dynastic issue back on the table, and then set the whole structure of Lancastrian kingship tumbling down. Could it have been avoided? Probably not, except in a magical world where Henry VI is much more effective as a ruler and finds the cheat button that releases unlimited resources to enable the French war to be won. In the real world, there was not a chance.




Dyer or Dire?

Many of you will remember the episode of “Who do you think you are” in which Danny Dyer was revealed as a descendant of Edward III. In this new two part series, he “meets” a few prominent ancestors, some even more distant.

The first episode began with Rollo, ancestor of the Dukes of Normandy, which saw Dyer visit Sweden, although Danes and Norwegians also claim that Viking dynast, to learn sparring with a sword and shield. Then he went to the Tower to talk about William I and Dover Castle for Henry II, discussing his rebellious sons and his mixed relationship with Becket. At every stage, riding a horse, jousting or dyeing (Dyeing?), he was accompanied by a professional genealogist (Anthony Adolph, in a cafe opposite Buckingham Palace) or a historian, if not one of television’s “usual suspects”. At the end, Dyer visited France to learn of a slightly different ancestor – St. Louis IX, although Margaret of Wessex is another canonised forebear.

The second episode did feature some real historians: Elizabeth Norton, Chris Given-Wilson, Tobias Capwell and Tracy Borman. The opening scene had Isabella on the Leeds Castle drawbridge shouting at Edward II (Dyer): “Git aht ov moi carsel” (you may need Google Translate, but not from French). We were shown an image of Hugh le Despencer’s grisly execution, without pointing out that there were two of that name, followed by Edward’s confinement in Berkeley Castle, forced abdication and the legend of his even grislier end. Henry “Hotspur” Percy, who died in battle at Shrewsbury, followed as Dyer tried on late mediaeval armour. The next scenes concerned Sir John Seymour at Wolf Hall, inveigling his daughter into Henry VIII’s world, as Dyer dressed up and tried “Tudor” dancing. We then moved on to Helmingham Hall as Catherine Cromwell married Lord Tollemache, whose successor met Dyer, his cousin, again. The series concluded with a “sugar banquet” as the star’s family joined in, dressed as Elizabeth I’s contemporaries.

Both programmes were informative about mediaeval life, such as the “silver pennies” bearing Dyer’s image and the West Ham badge, although his stereotypical East London patois grates a little. It brought to mind Ray Winstone as Henry VIII (“I have been betrayed!”) or Nick Knowles‘ egregious Historyonics.

How and why the House of York laid claim to the throne….

Richard, 3rd Duke of York

Here is an article from English Historical Review, 1st June 1998, telling of how and why Richard, 3rd Duke of York, laid claim to the throne of England. The root cause was an entail to the will of Edward III, who was admittedly in his dotage at the time. The entail, which excluded a female line from ascending the throne, spoils that otherwise excellent king’s legacy as far as I’m concerned. But then, I’m a modern woman who doesn’t hold with the denying of rights simply because the ones being denied are the female of the species! Or the denial of anyone’s true and honest rights, come to that. True and honest being the operative words.

The mastermind behind this entail was Edward’s 3rd son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who sought to eliminate any claim from the descendants of his 2nd eldest brother, Lionel. Those descendants were, of course, through the female line, which line happened to be the one from whom Richard, 3rd Duke of York, was descended. Gaunt’s purpose was to see that his own line took precedence. It did in the end, but not in a way old Edward III could have foreseen, and not through the entail. Instead it took the form of Gaunt’s son and heir usurping and murdering his first cousin and rightful king, Richard II, heir of the great Black Prince. Gaunt’s son took the throne and became Henry IV, the first Lancastrian monarch.

John of Gaunt

So it seems that gallant Gaunt leaned on his dying father to achieve his own ambitious ends. But that’s the House of Lancaster for you! And it was Gaunt’s double-dealing chicanery that eventually led to Richard, 3rd Duke of York, claiming the throne that was his by right. And it all led to what we know as the Wars of the Roses.

However, there just might be some doubt about the entail’s existence. According to Penny Lawne’s biography of Joan of Kent: “…In preparation for his [Edward III’s] death he drew up his will, one of the witnesses being Sir Richard Stury, and in an entail specifically designated Richard (II) as his successor…” There is no mention of excluding any female line, but then, Lawne is very pro-Gaunt throughout, so I suppose the nitty-gritty of such an entail was better omitted. Unless, of course, all the entail ever really did was designate Richard of Bordeaux as the old king’s successor. In which case, where did the story of Gaunt’s pressure and interference come from? Ah, well, later in her book, Lawne lays the blame at the feet of Walsingham, who “held Gaunt in particular contempt, convinced he wanted the throne for himself, and repeated virulent gossip and rumours current about the duke…” Walsingham, it seems, even went so far as to portray Gaunt trying to persuade the Commons to discuss the succession, and was so intent upon removing opposition that he requested a law be passed to forbid a woman from inheriting the throne, “which would obviate the claim of Lionel’s daughter Philippa, who arguably held the most legitimate claim to the throne after the prince’s son”. So, this business of excluding females’ claims was due to Gaunt browbeating the Commons, not to Edward III’s entail?

Well, not being a fan of John of Gaunt, I am quite prepared to believe he put the screws on his dying father, in order to ensure the House of Lancaster becoming heir to Richard II’s throne, in the event of Richard childless demise. But I can also believe he’d go to work on Parliament. Gaunt was ruthless when it came to furthering his own family, and how better to achieve this than paving the path to the throne? Either way, he tried to see the succession go to the House of Lancaster.

Richard, 3rd Duke of York, quite rightly, did not think the House of Lancaster had any business wearing the crown. He was descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and truly believed his (senior) line had precedence. I believe so too. Maybe it was through the female line, but it was perfectly legitimate, and until the demise of Edward III and that pesky entail (or Gaunt’s other forceful activities), there had not been a bar on women taking the throne. Yes, they had to stand back while their brothers took precedence, but if those brothers died, then they themselves had every right to be crowned. Lionel of Clarence only had one child, a daughter. His right passed to her, not to his conniving next brother, Gaunt.

Richard of York WAS the rightful king.

Now, of course, it has all been changed, and women can take precedence even if they have a younger brother(s). The line goes through age, not gender. And about time too!

The truth about Prince Arthur, Prince Henry, and Katherine of Aragon….?

Henry VIII's prayer rollAs so often happens, acquiring a book for a specific reason leads to something else that is quite thought-provoking. In this case, the book is The Medieval Python: The Purposive and Provocative Work of Terry Jones, in which the subject of one of the eighteen contributions is Catherine of Aragon and her two marriages.

Do not make the mistake of thinking this volume is light or Pythonesque, because Terry Jones is not only brilliant when it comes to humour, but also very dedicated, knowledgeable and educated on medieval matters. The sections within the pages are not all by Terry himself, but by illustrious names that include Chris Given-Wilson, and Nigel Saul.

Now, before I get to the nitty-gritty, let me say that the item that prompted the essay A Prayer Roll Fit for a Tudor Prince, by John J. Thompson, is a fairly recent acquisition of the British Library (MS Additional 88929), and for a brief explanation about it, I suggest a quick glance at, which describes the roll as follows:

21 February 2011 – by Andrea Clarke

Henry VIII Prayer Roll

“The British Library has recently acquired a unique medieval prayer roll that once belonged to Henry VIII, and contains one of only three surviving examples of his handwriting from before his accession in 1509. Produced in England in the late 15th century, it is one of the finest English prayer rolls, and consists of four parchment strips sewn end to end that measure some four metres long when fully unrolled. The roll contains thirteen illuminations — images of Christ, focusing on the Passion, its Instruments and the Sacred Blood, as well as depictions of various saints and their martyrdoms. Accompanying these are prayers in Latin and rubrics (religious instructions) in English. The rubrics promise that the recital of certain of the prayers will offer safety from physical danger, sickness or disease; others will shorten, by specified amounts, the agony of Purgatory, while the placing of the roll on the belly of a woman in labour will ensure a safe childbirth.

“The prayer roll was once owned and used by Prince Henry, evidenced by the inclusion of his royal badges at the head of the roll. These include two Tudor roses, the Prince of Wales crowned ostrich feather, as well as Katherine of Aragon’s personal symbol of the arrow-sheaf of Aragon. At some point prior to 1509 Henry presented the roll to William Thomas, a Gentleman of his Privy Chamber, and added an inscription at the top of the second membrane, under the central image of Christ’s Passion: ‘Wylliam thomas I pray yow pray for me your lovyng master Prynce Henry’.

“The Henry VIII Prayer Roll is now London, British Library, MS Additional 88929. It is currently on display in our Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, and will also be displayed in our Royal exhibition which opens in November 2011.”

The roll displays Tudor badges and emblems, but also the sheaf of arrows (maybe arrows passing through a tower) of Katherine of Aragon, who in November 1501 married Arthur, Prince of Wales. Arthur died six months later, at Ludlow Castle, of the “sweating sickness”, and was buried in Worcester Cathedral. His tomb displays the same Tudor symbols as the roll.

Heraldry, Tudor, Prince Arthur, Worcester Cathedral, Chantry

Arthur’s younger brother, Henry (to be Henry VIII) soon became Prince of Wales. His father, Henry VII, waited until he was sure the widowed Katherine was not pregnant and then proposed that she married the new Prince of Wales. Katherine swore her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated. This was essential, because the Church forbade a man to marry his brother’s widow. It was, and still is, in the Bible, and is one of the Ten Commandments.

Arthur and Catherine

The roll does not name a Prince of Wales, but it was surely made for Arthur, and emerges as a very important relic of this fraught time in history. It cannot be dated to much before 1490, when Arthur became Prince of Wales, and if it includes Katherine’s emblem, then it was probably around the time of their engagement or marriage. Its later ownership by the young Henry VIII is confirmed by his writing on it, and it is suggested that what he wrote reveals him to have been as devout a Catholic as everyone else. At least, he was at that point. Then the roll came into the hands of a devoted Tudor servant, William Thomas, before disappearing from history for 500 years, reappearing in the 19th century. If it were not for it coming to light again, its existence would never have been known at all. Its real purpose is still not known.

It is usually imagined that Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon were content enough together (I certainly had that impression), but now a truly remarkable fact has been uncovered in the register of briefs in the Vatican archives. It is dated 20th October 1505 and notes Pope Julius II’s response to Arthur, Prince of Wales, who by that date had been dead for over three years. So Arthur had to have sent a letter to the pope, whose answer had been mislaid or at least misfiled. The prince’s request also contained mention of his wife, so had to have been written within that six-month period before the prince died.

The pope’s response has not survived, and we do not know if it was ever sent (I strongly suspect it was, and it arrived in England) but it apparently granted papal authority to Prince Arthur to restrain his wife (Katherine of Aragon) from continuing to engage in “excessive religious observances injurious to her health since these would imperil the maritalis consuetudo (marital custom) of Roman law and endanger her ability to bear children”.

So, when it was too late, the Pope authorised Arthur to insist his pious wife conduct less strenuous religious exercises, these to be determined on the advice of her confessor. From which, it would seem all was not well in the young people’s marriage. Arthur (and Henry VII, no doubt!) was alarmed by discovering just how intensely devout his new wife was. I do not know what Katherine was doing to cause such concern, but whatever it was, she was clearly going far further than the conventional Tudors liked. Well, conventional at that time, because Henry VIII’s Great Matter lay in the future. The begetting of heirs was the whole point of royal marriage, so anything that might get in the way of this was to be stopped immediately, if not sooner!

After Arthur’s untimely death, a treaty for marriage was drawn up for the widowed Katherine to marry his younger brother, the future King Henry VIII. It was signed on 23rd June 1504, and the two were formally betrothed on 25th June. Henry was 12, Katherine 17. Two years later, on 27th June, 1505, Henry appeared before Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, and the Lord Privy Seal. The young prince had reached his maturity, and wished it to be formally recorded that he disowned his part of the marriage contract.

young henry viii

Now, why? What brought this about? Had the Pope’s response to Arthur finally arrived, and Prince Henry seen it? Whenever the letter from Rome turned up, I think that Henry read it in the first half of 1505.

The fact that the register of briefs at the Vatican is dated October 1505, does not mean the pope’s letter was written then. It merely records the letter. So was Henry now warned of exactly how extreme and pious his new bride would be? Arthur had learned too late, after marriage. Henry, Prince of Wales, may have also been devout, but clearly not to the same degree as Katherine. However, on the death in 1509 of his father, Henry VII, the marriage took place anyway. Something else had clearly happened since his appearance before Bishop Fox. Might it have been that the Pope’s instructions had taken effect, and Katherine had moderated her religious devotions? I have no idea what else it might have been, only that once old Henry VII was dead and buried, his son married Katherine after all.


It is always said that for a number of years Henry and Katherine were happy together, until the absence of a male heir—and the increasing likelihood of Katherine’s age preventing such an heir—prompted Henry to start looking around. Had this lack of an heir caused such anxiety to Katherine that she resumed her former devotions? Certainly she would turn to God for divine help.

Did it then become a vicious circle, with Henry being more and more alienated by such extreme religion, and Katherine seeking more and more comfort from her devotions? Was this another cause of his suggestion that she and Arthur had after all consummated their marriage, making his own marriage to her invalid? If such a charge could be made to stick, so to speak, it would certainly rid him of an increasingly inconvenient wife. By then he wanted to marry the enchanting vixen Anne Boleyn, of course, but infuriatingly, the Pope wouldn’t agree to it! If the Pope had granted Henry his wish, would we still be a predominantly Catholic country? Certainly we would have been for a lot longer than actually happened.

The fact that Arthur had approached the Pope on the matter of Katherine’s religious activities being detrimental to the bearing of children, was something that I believe Henry pounced upon.  Leviticus 20:21 was very clear: “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”  

So, was it in Henry’s mind that by continuing such extreme devotions, Katherine was knowingly preventing further living births? Did he believe that this was why his marriage had resulted in one living child, a girl, all other pregnancies having ended in miscarriages or stillbirths? It would also have been easy enough for Henry to convince himself that Katherine’s marriage to Arthur had been consummated. All this, and fascinatingly desirable Anne Boleyn was there, tantalising Henry with her inaccessible charms.  But even without Anne, would Henry have wanted to end his marriage anyway, because he so desperately wanted a male heir and knew that Katherine’s age, apart from anything else, was against such a likelihood?

So, was Anne only one aspect of Henry’s wish to be free of Katherine? Were there in fact two Great Matters wrapped up as one? The first due to religion having led to childlessness; the other due to lust, that was to prompt a change of religion?

The above has been prompted by the essay by John J. Thompson, and is my conclusion from the facts as presented. I recommend that the essay be read in its entirety, because its details about the prayer roll are fascinating. Although, one thing does need pointing out. Henry VII was never the Duke of Richmond!

The little chapel in Westminster Abbey, beloved of Richard II….

CHAPEL OF OUR LADY OF THE PEW. Doorway from N. ambulatory

Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew, Westminster Abbey, opposite Tomb of Edward the Confessor

Tucked away off the north ambulatory of Westminster Abbey, so small it doesn’t seem possible it’s anything more than an entrance to the adjacent Chapel of St John the Baptist (which is also known as the Chapel of St Erasmus) is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew. The original entrance to the St John the Baptist chapel was closed in 1524 to accommodate the tomb of Bishop Ruthall, and a way was knocked through from the tiny Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew instead.

It is situated opposite the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor, and is only 5’ square, so strictly standing room only. But there was once an important royal worshipper who went there alone. King Richard II knelt in prayer there, in front of the beautiful Wilton Diptych, which was kept on a ledge in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. [Not the statue that is there now—the first image of the Virgin Mary was presented by Mary, Countess of Pembroke, who died 1377. The hooks and outline of this image still remain.]


It is said that as a boy, Richard prayed here before riding out to face the Peasants’ Revolt at Mile End. As a man, he knelt to pray for the soul of his dearly missed wife, Queen Anne of Bohemia. And he would have been there countless times afterward.

The chapel has been described thus: “The vaulting has red stars on a white ground with a roof boss depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, who is dressed in red. The ribs have barber pole bands and rosettes and the walls are diapered over with pine-shaped designs, on each of which is a fleur de lys. This was a popular design in the late 14th century. The antlers and head of a white hart, a badge of Richard II, can still be made out.”

The name Our Lady of the Pew might have been taken from the French Notre-Dame-du-Puy, or, alternatively, from the original meaning of “pew”, a small enclosure. At the beginning of the reign of Richard II the chapel was even smaller than now! Little more than 4’ 9”.

There was at one time no access from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew into the Baptist’s chapel, but the two were probably joined by an aperture through the party wall to afford Richard II a view of the services held in the Baptist’s chapel. It must have been almost claustrophobic for him, but also how very private. He used it for his own personal devotions, and although it has been altered since his day, it somehow retains a sense of him.

Chapel St John Baptist, Westminster Abbey, showing narrow doorway knocked through from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew

Chapel of St John the Baptist, Westminster Abbey, showing in the centre the narrow doorway knocked through from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew

Looking into the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew  from the Baptist’s chapel, showing how very small it is. To the left, beyond the niche in the wall, is the way out into the ambulatory.

You will find a great deal more about this little chapel in Fourteenth Century England, Volume 3 by Chris Given-Wilson.

One thing puzzles me, however. If you stand outside the chapel, with your back to the shrine of the Confessor, you will see two “angels” on either side of the arched entrance. They are label- or head-stops, depicting what appear to be two young men with shields.

The one on the left seems very like Richard II, and his shield is definitely royal, with leopards and fleur-de-lis. His eyes seem like those of Richard as depicted in his tomb effigy. The one on the right has much curlier hair, but similar eyes, and holds the arms that have been credited to the Confessor.

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