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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 1: Death of King Edward III


On 21st June 1377 the old King Edward III breathed his last and lay still in his great embroidered bed in the Palace of Sheen. His Mistress, Alice Perrers, whom everybody blamed for his long decline from rude and rumbustuous health into senile old age, closed his eyes, pocketed the rings from his fingers, and finally allowed the priests about his bedside to perform their sad offices.

Edward is not to be numbered among the truly great men and women that have sat on the English throne. There was not the political acumen which so distinguished Charles II, or the charisma and sheer greatness of Elizabeth I, perhaps the greatest monarch who has ever sat on the Throne of England. But Edward did succeed in performing his primary function of ruling his people. This was never an easy task in medieval England, and Edward had come to the Throne at a particularly difficult time. His Father, King Edward II, had been deposed and murdered in Berkeley Castle in 1327 after a turbulent reign in which he had shamelessly advanced his homosexual partners to the highest honours in the land. The Throne was no sinecure to the boy of 15 years (he was born in 1312)who was now called upon to occupy it. He was however successful in re-establishing the tarnished reputation of the throne in the eyes of his subjects, and there was a glittering Camelot atmosphere about the Court such as his subjects expected to see even if they did from time to time complain about the resultant expense and the taxes they were called on to bear. His beloved Queen, Philippa of Hainault, bore him five fine sons. In the order of their birth they were:-

1). Edward of Woodstock (1330),  Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince and the heir to the Throne,

2). Lionel of Antwerp (1338), Duke of Clarence,

3). John of Gaunt (1340), Duke of Lancaster,

4). Edmund of Langley (1342), Duke of York, and,

5). Thomas of Woodstock (1355), Duke of Gloucester.

[It was then a common practise to add to a christian name a reference to the place where the person was born.]

Philippa, turning a wise blind eye to the King's several mistresses, made a happy home life for the King, and when she died in 1369, he was inconsolable in his grief. He took to himself a mistress, and all were agreed that his choice was not the wisest.

King Edward III's reign was one where the pace of events was fast and sometimes furious. The outbreak of the Hundred years War with France in 1337 brought stunning military success in its train such as Englishmen had never dreamt of. The victories of Crecy in 1346 and Poictiers in 1356, where the English yeoman archers laid low the armoured chivalry of France and promoted the Black Prince to a chivalric and heroic status that few have ever achieved, made all Englishmen walk tall and dream of their new found military prowess. It is true that this produced some social problems, because the old feudal order depended on alliegence to a lord who in return provided military protection to the otherwise vulnerable community, and if a yeoman, not even a member of the gentry, could wield a weapon as formidable as the longbow undoubtedly was, then who needed a lord? This was not however a great obstacle to the general stability of society, and the knights who were the military leaders were looked up to and respected. Vast fortunes were being made in the wool trade by merchants whose entreprenurial spirit raised them above their humble origins to positions of power and wealth which they freely spent on the mini-cathedrals which still serve as parish churches in the Eastern part of the country. Curiously, the wool trade was enhanced by the disaster of the Black Death in 1348, when between a quarter and a third of the population had died. This disease, or The Plague as it was generally known, was transmitted to human-beings by the fleas from the rats which abounded in the insanitary living-conditions of the time. Originating in the East, it made its way across Europe to England in 1348, and remained endemic to England until the mid-17th-century. It took its name from the hideous swellings of the lymph glands, or buboes, in the armpits and groin and to the equally repellant black patches which often developed under the skin. In extreme cases, it attacked the lungs, but whether of the bubonic or pneumonic variety, it was almost always a killer; the patient usually died within the first few hours of the initial infection. Few sufferers recovered from its visitations. [Giovanna Boccaccio has left us a vivid account of the Plague in Florence in 'Tales od the Decammeron']

The Plague meant that there were too few men left to till the land, which had to be turned over to less labour intensive activity such as raising sheep. [Some recent research has shown a tendency already existed to switch from crop-growing to sheep even before the Black Death which greatly accelerated the process] Parliaments were becoming more assertive, but King Edward III was wise enough to understand their concerns, principally about taxation,  and to restrain only their more extreme demands which sometimes went too far.

One has only to read Chaucer's amusing account of the society of the time in his "Canterbury Tales" to appreciate what a vigourous and self-dependant, if not idyllic,  society over which King Edward III presided. One of the things which stands out is the respect paid to the Knight, who may well have portrayed Henry of Bolingbroke in the eyes of the contempory readers,  and to the Squire as military men who had travelled far and fought in strange lands and brought the Country renown. This did not however tell against the other members of the party; they were each worthy members of the society in which they lived, and each was essential to its well-being. One must of course bear in mind that Chaucer's party included, in general,  only the more prosperous and well-to-do members of society; the others, who were to rise in rebellion in 1381, were an under priveledged sub-strata, and nobody seems to have counted them as worthy objects for a pilgrimage to Canterbury.

Succession to the Throne

With a family such as King Edward's, there should have been no difficulty with the succession by a grown and thoroughly experienced man, but here Fate played, as Fate is apt to do, an unkind turn. His second son, Lionel Duke of Clarence, died suddenly in 1368, leaving a daughter, Philippa,  Countess of Ulster, whose marriage to Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, produced issue through which Richard, Duke of York, claimed his tenuous rights to the Throne nearly 100 years later. Those troubles lay far into the future into which no man could see. The succession in any case lay with the Black Prince, a charismatic character of immense presence and popularity, in his mid-thirties and at the height of his powers, who had every prospect of inheriting his Father's throne when the time came with the full approval of all his subjects. It was true that his marriage to Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, did not meet with unqualified approval, but Joan was one of the most beautiful women of her time, and in a marriage that was happy and secure, whatever may have been Joan's adventures in her earlier life, she had bourne to her husband two fine looking boys, Edward of Angouleme and Richard of Bordeaux.[Joan had been married twice before to Sir Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, and to William, Earl of Salisbury from whom she was divorced. In those times, this was regarded as a scandal] Again in 1368, that black year for the Plantagenet family, the Black Prince, on returning from his campaign in Spain, was struck down by a "great and grievous sickness" from which he was never to recover. His own doctors assured him that he would in time get better, but the French King Charles V heard from his own physicians, not one imagines without a certain relish, that the Prince was suffering from "a dropsy" which would never leave him. The French view turned out to be the better one, and during the siege of Limoges in 1370 the Black Prince, although in full armour, could do no more than lie in a litter. The process of the disease had so affected his mind that he forgot the chivalric ideals which had made him so famous to friend and foe alike to the extent that he ordered his soldiers to massacre the defenceless inhabitants,  and only countermanded the order when he saw three French Knights bravely trying to defend them. In January 1371, he had to bow to the inevitable, and hand the Lieutenancy of Acquitaine over to his younger brother, John of Gaunt, and return to England. Even then Fate would not leave him alone. Before embarking, his elder son, Edward of Angouleme, died of the Plague. This left only Richard, a boy of four years old, who was now the next in line to the Throne after his father.

Once at home, the Black Prince struggled to carry out the duties which were expected of the heir to the Throne, but by now he was an invalid, and his death in 1376 must have come as a merciful release. He was buried with great pomp in Canterbury Cathedral by his sorrowing Father, who then had to turn his attention to the immediate question of the succession.

The prospects, which a bare 10 years before had seemed so glittering and secure, were now far from promising. The immediate heir to the Throne was a boy of nine years old, and a Regency was inevitable. Richard of Bordeaux, born in 1367, could clearly not exercise the duties of Kingship for some time to come, and it seemed inevitable that King Edward III would go to his rest long before he came of age to do so. Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, took no interest in politics and was regarded as a nonentity. John of Gaunt,   Duke of Lancaster, was a brave soldier and an efficient administrator, but, largely due to his arrogant demeanour and loose morals, was intensely unpopular, whilst Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, young as he still was, already had the reputation of being difficult and quarrelsome. John of Gaunt had sired a large number of children, the foremost of whom was his son and heir Henry of Bolingbroke. Born in 1366 of John of Gaunts first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, Henry, the future King Henry IV,  was the heir to the vast Lancaster estates and was only a few months older than Richard. His Royal connections were already promising; his sister Philippa was to become Queen of Portugal, whilst his half-sister Catherine, by John of Gaunt's second wife, Constance, was to become Queen of Castile. More troublesome were John of Gaunts still illegitimate children, who later only became legitimated by Act of Parliament, the Beaufort family. [The first Act was passed in King Richard II's reign, but the more important Act was passed in 1406. [See page ] Born of Katherine Swynford, who later became John of Gaunt's third wife, they were to play a prominent and at times disasterous part in the Wars of the Roses. With such foresight as is granted to human beings, it was wise of King Edward III to identify Henry of Bolingbroke as a potential rival to Richard of Bordeaux, and to seek to prevent trouble arising between them in the future. Perhaps Henry of Bolingbroke was not, strictly speaking, the direct heir to the Throne after Richard himself. By the rules of primogeniture, this poisoned chalice could be said to belong to the Mortimers, the descendants of King Edwards second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. They however counted for nothing politically,  whilst Henry was due to become the richest subject in the Realm as the scion of its most prestigeous house after that of the King himself. [Only very recently during the summer of 1997, a Charter dated 1376 has been discovered which purported to give Henry of Bolingbroke a claim to the Throne immediately after Richard of Bordeaux - See Appendix 1]

King Edward III did what little still lay within his power to prevent the rivalry which could be foreseen in later years between Richard of Bordeaux, the rightful heir to the Throne, and Henry of Bolingbroke, who was likely to be his most powerful subject. On 23rd April 1377, in the last public duty he was to perform, he arranged a gorgeous ceremony in St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, where the two boys, by now ten and eleven, were knighted and invested with the Order of the Garter which he himself had founded earlier in his reign. The old King smiled indulgently upon his two grand-children as they knelt dutifully before him, and indeed they must have been a handsome pair. Each had inherited the magnificent Plantagenet looks, Richard with golden hair whilst Henry's was more auburn in colour, which were well offset by the splendid robes of the Order. The King must have hoped that the solemn ceremony and its surroundings, with its coats-of-arms of such past heroes as Sir John Chandos and Sir James Audley, would have impressed upon the two novitiates the sanctity of the oaths which they were now required to take. These obliged them not to bear arms against each other, but only to take them up in the war of his liege lord, or his own just quarrel. There was much more besides, and all leant towards the sacred bond which members of the greatest order of Chivalry were bound to observe towards each other. 

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003