Edward III’s fifty-year reign was one of the transformative periods of England’s history. When he came to the throne in 1327, the English were not much regarded as warriors and their European influence was slight. Writing in the 1360s, Petrarch recalled that in his youth the English had been ‘the most timid of all the uncouth races’. Yet now, he wrote, men who had ‘once been even lower than the wretched Scots have crushed the realm of France with fire and steel’. The Hainault chronicler Jean le Bel said much the same. The English did not count in the 1320s, he thought, but had become the most celebrated soldiers of Europe by the 1350s. In the minds of contemporaries, all of this was the personal achievement of Edward III and the handful of kinsmen and companions who served as his principal captains.
In a sense, it was: Edward and his son, the Black Prince, won their battles. Yet, though undoubtedly great soldiers, they were not great war leaders. Wars are not won by battles alone; they depend mainly on strategic insight, persistence and, above all, superior financial resources and organisation. Edward was uninterested in finance and bored by administration. He was also a poor diplomat, who never understood the limits of what fighting could achieve and constantly overplayed his hand. Edward’s conquests were spectacular, but they were due mainly to divisions within France, which temporarily prevented its rulers from marshalling the resources of their much richer country. Unlike his great-grandson, Henry V, Edward III never succeeded in building up a governmental machine equal to the task of occupying the regions that he had conquered or extracting the revenue from them needed to sustain their administration and defence. As a result, in the 1370s he lost almost everything to a man who was in many ways his polar opposite. Charles V of France was a sickly ruler who never commanded an army in person and founded no orders of chivalry. He fought his campaign from the council chamber; he was ‘just a lawyer’, according to a disdainful put-down of Edward’s son, John of Gaunt. None of Charles V’s captains, not even the great Bertrand du Guesclin, could match the English in the field. They never won a major battle against an English army. Yet they prevailed by superior organisation, planning and finance, and by more capable diplomacy.
This story calls for a more nuanced treatment of Edward’s reign than the traditional blood-and-thunder narrative. In practice, Edward’s historical reputation has varied with the interests of professional historians. For a century up to the 1960s, they were mainly interested in the things that Edward was bad at – the relations between king and Parliament, and the organisation of government. Consequently they had little time for Edward III. Bishop Stubbs found his wars ‘tedious’. The nobility were dismissed as reactionary backwoodsmen and largely ignored in favour of the bishops and pen-pushers who provided the subject matter of so many doctoral theses. All of this changed as a later generation of historians moved away from institutional history towards the ideology of government and abandoned ecclesiastical history to rediscover the nobles who had always dominated politics. Chivalry, which Stubbs and his lugubrious followers dismissed as so much flummery and humbug, is now intensively studied. The seminal figures behind this shift were the Oxford historians Kenneth Bruce McFarlane and Maurice Keen. Edward himself would have thought it very fitting. He was conscious of his image and worked hard to cultivate his reputation as the prince of courtesy, the king of European chivalry and the icon of contemporary fashion. With the revival of interest in medieval courtesy, chivalry and fashion, his stock has risen.
Richard Barber, who has combined half a century of historical scholarship with a successful career as a publisher, has been one of the flag-bearers of this movement. He has written extensively about the ideology of the medieval nobility, with works on Arthurian legend and the Holy Grail, knighthood and chivalry, and a biography of the Black Prince to his name. Essentially, he shares the interests of Edward III himself, and in Edward III and the Triumph of England he has written the kind of book that the king would have enjoyed: full of battles, glitter and ceremony, with little or nothing about such vulgar matters as money or government. The focus is on the opening years of the Hundred Years War, the Crécy campaign and the foundation of the Order of the Garter. The narrative of the reign ends in 1347, with the capture of Calais, and the book continues from there as a kind of group biography of the early knights of the Garter up to Edward’s last notable victory, at Nájera in Castile in 1367. Following a theme of his earlier books, Barber considers the collective ideology of the group of knights and captains of which Edward was the commanding figure and the way in which they celebrated their triumphs in the brief period before their threadbare nature became apparent.
The Order of the Garter, the story of which provides the main theme of the book, is Edward III’s only lasting monument. It is the only medieval order of chivalry to survive into the modern age, with its prestige very much intact. The prototype was the Round Table, a gathering of knights at Windsor in 1344 based on the legendary round table of King Arthur, out of which Edward intended to create a permanent fraternity of 300 knights. This ambitious project faded away within a few months of its conception, and the construction of a great hall at Windsor to accommodate the annual banquets was abandoned. When the idea of a new secular order of chivalry was revived, it was as an elite body of just 26 knights, including the sovereign and the Prince of Wales, arranged in two equal jousting teams. The project was closely associated with the Crécy campaign. Indeed, the Exchequer accounts suggest that the garter device was originally distributed to the principal captains serving in the campaign as a mark of association with Edward. The formal creation of the order in 1348 was an act of gratitude for victory at Crécy, a celebration of chivalric values and a formidable instrument of patronage – members of the order were acknowledged internationally as leaders in the world of European knightly endeavour. It provides a useful peg on which to hang an account of the great military heroes of the period.
Richard Barber does this very well. He has an original eye and an elegant pen. But he takes Edward III and his friends too much at their own estimation and misses the broader context. What did these wars mean? Why were they fought? What impact did they have on England outside the charmed circle of the Garter knights and men just like them? Above all, where did the victories of Edward III and the Black Prince lead? The sad answer is that the triumphs of the reign merely served to dramatise its tragic conclusion, which Barber leaves out by stopping his narrative in 1367. One would never guess that the reign of Edward III was a hollow failure that ended in bankruptcy and defeat, or that, for all his valour, he achieved not one of the political objectives for which he had set out on his adventure in the 1330s. There must surely be some test of success other than glamour.