Edward III - 1327-1377
Like many monarchs who rule for a long time - and Edward's reign lasted for over fifty years - we can see many changes. The vigorous fourteen-year- old who boldly seized the throne was certainly not the same man who slipped into a rather feeble old age, mocked by his greedy mistress, half a century later.
The beginning of Edward's reign was awe-inspiring. Although only fourteen when he became king, he swiftly seized real power, personally capturing his mother and her lover Mortimer as they shared a bedroom in Nottingham Castle. After a show trial, Mortimer was executed, and Isabella, though pardoned, was put under virtual house arrest for the rest of her life at Castle Rising in Norfolk. Then, with supreme self-confidence, Edward began a reign of magnificent success.
The conflict with France known as The Hundred Years War began ten years after Edward III became king, and asserted his claim to the throne of France. The war began well with the Battle of Crecy and then Poitiers. This is where the French King John II was taken prisoner by Edward's son, the Black Prince, who was regarded as one of the most formidable knights in Europe.
After the victory Edward signed a Treaty of Bretigny by which he gave up a claim to the French throne in exchange for Calais, Guienne, Gascony and Poitou.
While his son waged war Edward devoted himself to the unification and strengthening of his English kingdom. Unlike his father, he picked good advisers, one of whom was his own wife Philippa of Hainault.
Philippa bore him thirteen children. He also took advice from Parliament which he divided into Lords and Commons and in which English was the spoken language rather than French.
Among the members of his court was the remarkable Controller of Customs, Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote The Canterbury Tales, a book which was a product of the mixture of Saxon and French which was to be the rich and varied English tongue of Shakespeare.
Inspired by the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Edward deliberately tried to recreate the courtly life of Camelot, and in pursuit of this ideal he founded England's noblest order of chivalry - the Order of the Garter - which still remains the highest honour which can be conferred.
It was at a Round Table tournament held at Windsor in 1334 that Edward swore to establish a new order of Arthurian knights, and then, four years later, at a ball to celebrate the capture of Calais, the garter of one of the court ladies fell to the floor. With a dramatic royal gesture, Edward immediately picked it up and tied it round his own leg. His famous remark as he did so, 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' ('Evil be to him who evil thinks'), is still the proud motto of the Garter Knights, for this was the occasion when he fulfilled his vow to create his company of noble knights. The Garter Chapel at Windsor continues to give a thrill of historical greatness even today, and we must remember that it is to Edward III that we are indebted for this unique feature of English history.
A setback to a successful reign was the Black Death from 1348 to 1350. This was a plague which killed off a third of the inhabitants of England and brought agriculture and other activities to a standstill. It did not, however, stop the momentum of Edward's reign during which much was done to iron out grievances between the King and the barons and increase Parliament's right to look into public abuses.
The last years of Edward's reign mirrored the first, in that a woman again dominated him. Philippa died in 1369 and Edward took the unscrupulous Alice Perrers as his mistress. With Edward in his dotage and the Black Prince ill, Perrers and William Latimer (the chamberlain of the household) dominated the court with the support of John of Gaunt. Edward, the Black Prince, died in 1376 and the old king spent the last year of his life grieving, dying at Sheen Palace in 1377.
The nature of English society transformed greatly during Edward II's reign. Edward learned from the mistakes of his father and affected more cordial relations with the nobility than any previous monarch.
Despite the important events in his life, it is not easy to know Edward as a person. His marriage to Philippa of Hainault was fruitful: seven sons and five daughters. However, his real effigy in Westminster Abbey seems almost too perfect, aloof and God-like. He must have known that his death would be a signal for chaos.
Key Events during the Reign of Edward III
1327 - Edward III accedes to the throne after his father, Edward II, is deposed.
1328 - Edward marries Philippa of Hainault.
1330 - Edward takes power after 3 years of government by his mother, Isabella and her lover Mortimer. Mortimer is tried and executed.
1332 - Parliament is divided into two houses - Lords and Commons - for the first time.
1333 - Edward defeats the Scottish army at the Battle of Halidon Hill.
1337 - Start of the 100 Years' War, which lasts intermittently until 1453.
1340 - Edward defeats a superior French fleet at the Battle of Sluys.
1346 - English defeat French at Battle of Crecy.
1348-50 - Black Death kills one-third of the English population.
1352 - First Statute of Treason.
1369 - Death of Philippa of Hainault.
1376 - Death of Black Prince.
1377 - Edward III dies of a stroke at Sheen Palace, Surrey.