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24.04.01 Childs/Schofield (eds.), The Reign of Edward II, 1307-27

24.04.01 Childs/Schofield (eds.), The Reign of Edward II, 1307-27

The Manchester Medieval Sources series leads the field in producing accessible and affordable editions of medieval sources in translation. This book is no exception, providing an invaluable new resource for students and academics alike. The introduction provides a concise review of the scholarship on the reign of Edward II, and each of the nine sections then has its own short introduction to highlight the themes of the source extracts contained within it. The bibliography gives an up-to-date guide to the relevant literature. The nine sections are arranged chronologically and are focused on the politics and constitutional developments of the reign.

Sources are drawn from a wide range of chronicles, administrative documents (including records of the royal chancery, exchequer and rolls and petitions of parliament), and from the “political songs” compiled into an edition by Thomas Wright in the nineteenth century. In addition, the editors included several graphs to better explain the economic trends (showing wool exports and grain prices). Each source extract is given a clear title, although in the instances where the source translations are drawn from modern scholarship, only that reference is given, e.g.: “Boulogne Agreement, Phillips, Aymer de Valence (22).”For academics at least, it would be useful to have the original source reference included too and a note on the original language of the text (almost always either Latin or Anglo-Norman French).

The first section concentrates on “Early Opposition” to Edward II. The introduction emphasises the precarious financial situation Edward II inherited from his father, and the first signs of attempts to place constitutional limits on royal power, in light of the over-bearing influence of the king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston. The editors point to an interesting contrast between the picture painted of Gaveston in the chronicles compared with the administrative chancery rolls. The former contain “lurid accounts” of Gaveston’s deviousness, including the “pilfering of wedding gifts” whilst Edward and Isabella were still in France. Reference to the chancery rolls, however, “suggests that Gaveston was rather more restrained during the period of his custodianship” (14). The editors suggest that among the nobles, disdain for Gaveston intersected with more abstract ideas of reform: “a rich vein of reform and constraint of royal and household government running through the political substrata of this era” (16). This led to the formulation of the Ordinances of 1311, a document which overlaid “broad political agendas with personal claims and ambitions” (18). Finally, there is an interesting question about the death of Gaveston and whether it was “execution” or “judicial murder.” (19) Possibly it was not even really “judicial” at all, since there was no trial, just a summary beheading.

Section II focuses on the king’s wealth. This was a time when the royal coffers were expanding, with the development of taxes, both on trade and direct taxation of the king’s subjects. Grants of money from the church and the confiscation of Templar lands also added to the balance sheet. However, Edward II had inherited debts from his father; added to this, the royal exchequer was disorganised. Thus, complaints on these matters featured in the Ordinances. More cataclysmically, a famine hit England in 1315-1317, exacerbated by inflation and Scottish raiding in the north (the graph of grain prices in this section shows a peak at time of the famine and the chronicle extracts convey the extent of human suffering). The editors’ view is that the government did show a “moral compulsion” to alleviate people’s suffering, even if they were unsuccessful (56). Edward’s government achieved solvency and reform of exchequer and royal household in the 1320s. The editors do not extend their analysis into the interesting realm of environmental history. Evidence from ice-core sampling suggests that there were dramatic fluctuations in temperature, and it would have been interesting to see this discussed. After all, scholars such as Bruce Campbell have argued that climatic change had a profound impact on late medieval society.[1]

Section III discusses the role of parliament. Edward II’s reign was a time when parliament established its constitutional position as a forum for consultation with representatives of the wider populace who could, theoretically at least, provide a check to royal power. It was called more frequently, and the format of business was regularised. Proposals for taxation were brought before parliament and redress of grievances was sought through the petitioning process (the commons brought petitions from the 1320s onwards) (85). The political opposition Edward II faced played out partly in parliament, although the editors conclude that ultimately the deposition was not enacted by parliament, even if it provided a forum for some of the dramatic events of 1327 (86). One of the documents extracts included here is from the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum (110-112) a somewhat enigmatic document that has been much debated by medievalists. A recent article by Gwilym Dodd sheds light on its context and authorship. [2]

Sections IV-VI focus on the middle years of the reign, and the challenges Edward faced in the military and political spheres. War with Scotland is discussed first in section IV and here the editors are clear on their condemnation: “By any reasonable estimate Scotland was a test that Edward II failed and failed repeatedly” (115). One of the reasons given for the deposition was the loss of Scotland. In particular, the defeat inflicted on the English forces at Bannockburn in 1314 sealed Edward’s reputation for military incompetency. By 1320, Scottish nobles added their seals to the Declaration of Arbroath, an eloquent declaration of Scottish independence, and the English were forced into a truce in 1323. Section Vdeals with the middle years of the reign, when tensions between king and his political opponents began to escalate once again. The arrival of papal nuncios to help negotiate between the factions signalled international awareness of Edward’s difficulties. In 1313, Edward issued a pardon to Gaveston’s killers (the need for a pardon sent the clear message that the act was illegal). By 1317 Thomas of Lancaster was distancing himself from the crown, and by 1321 the rise of the Despensers (father and son, both called Hugh) was causing unrest among the other nobles. This tension spilt over into civil war in the 1320s and section VI discusses the civil war and the statute of York of 1322. Thomas of Lancaster’s summary trial and execution leads the editors to discuss a number of interesting sources that demonstrate popular support for Lancaster after his death, with poems and wall paintings likening him to St Thomas of Canterbury. Pilgrims soon started to go to both his tomb at Pontefract and the site of his memorial to the Ordinances at St Pauls in London. In both places miracles were attested. In one rare and fascinating peasant will, written in Suffolk in 1329, money was left to cover expenses of a pilgrimage to Lancaster’s shrine (204). Ultimately, the crown profited financially from Lancaster’s lands and fines paid by contrariants who had supported him, but stoked up tensions that led to the deposition.

Section VII discusses the French War, where again the editors are clear in their view: “Edward’s French war was unnecessary, fairly small-scale and unsuccessful...” (212). However, the repercussions were magnified when Edward allowed his wife and son to go to France, where exiled opponents could coalesce around them. Problems of homage, disputed legal appeals to the king of France, and porous borders had long presented a challenge to English kings asserting their rights over lands across the channel. The loss of inherited lands was humiliating enough to be included in the justification for Edward’s deposition (216). This section includes letters from Queen Isabella, showing her involvement in peace negotiations with her brother, Charles IV, and expressing her fear of Hugh Despenser (232, 238). These letters provide fascinating insights into Isabella’s role and the gendered discourse she used to negotiate her position. The editors might have included Isabella’s household accounts and her letters to the city of London here too, in order to give credit to the important role of queenship alongside (or in tension with) Edward’s kingship.

Sections VIII-IX discuss the final years of tyranny and deposition, and then Edward’s death and “afterlife.” Edward’s opponents justified their actions in deposing the king in terms of Edward’s inadequacy, rather than his tyranny (246). They mentioned the harshness of the punishments he meted out to opponents after Boroughbridge, his reliance on favourites, and the failures in France and Scotland (242). The deposition itself was declared by Mortimer with the common assent of the magnates. Parliament provided the forum, but it was not a “parliamentary deposition.” There is no surviving record of the deposition procedure itself. It was given legal form and the support of the Church (through sermons) and acclamation of the people. At a surface level this was presented as Edward’s “willing” resignation in favour of his son and heir, and the transition was a remarkably peaceful one. The editors include one source that gives a popular voice: Robert le Messager of Newington was accused of “uttering indecent words” about the king, criticising him for defeat at Bannockburn. This defeat Robert attributed to Edward’s unwillingness to hear Mass, instead indulging in inappropriate “rustic pursuits” such as making ditches and digging (263). As the editors point out this was a criticism of Edward articulated in the chronicles too, showing a common thread in popular and elite discourse about royal governance.

More evidence on the popular voice might have provided the editors with a way to develop their analysis of politics outside of elite circles (6). Such evidence exists, albeit in fragmentary form, in the records of the royal judicial courts. In 1312, the sheriff of Lostwithiel in Cornwall was accused of voicing his criticism of Antony de Pessagno, one of the Italian moneylenders to the king, before the full county court. In 1316 Thomas Tynwelle, a clerk in Oxford was informed on for saying that the king “was not the son of lord Edward recently king of England.” In Coventry, a man called John of Nottingham was accused of attempting to kill the king and the two Despensers through the arts of necromancy, fashioning wax images and preparing to stab them. This case might have been what prompted Hugh Despenser to write to the pope to complain about “magical and secret dealings” which threatened his life. In 1326 Nicholas de Wymbyssh resisted royal officials when they tried to requisition hay for the king’s horses and “created a scandal before a large number of people” by saying that the hay was being taken for Hugh Despenser “a traitor and enemy of the king and the realm.” [3]

Section IX discusses Edward’s death (probably murder) and the subsequent Kent plot of 1330. It also addresses the posthumous cult around Edward II and rumours that he was still alive. In particular the Fieschi letter is a fascinating document that gave details of Edward’s supposed escape from captivity and subsequent journey across the continent to Italy. In Richard II’s reign, the king’s political opponents known as the Appellants searched records of the deposition and Richard II himself made considerable efforts to have his great-grandfather canonised. Inevitably, the editors have to prioritise certain themes over others. I have mentioned a few areas not included in this book, including environmental history, the role of queenship, and popular politics, and to that list I would also add discussion of Edward’s sexuality and the trials of the Templars, in order to direct readers who are interested in the scholarship on Edward II’s reign. This is in no way a criticism of this excellent collection. The edition is a much needed, accessible collection of sources that will be a mainstay of reading lists for years to come.



1. B. M. S. Campbell, The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016): J. Titow, “Evidence of Weather in the Account Rolls of the Bishopric of Winchester, 1209-1350,” Economic History Review 12.3 (1960): 360- 407.

2. G. Dodd, “Parliament, Politics and Protocol: The Modus tenendi parliamentum and the Settlement of the Realm under Edward II,” Journal of Medieval History 48 (2022): 631-663.

3. H. Lacey, “Defaming the King: Reporting Disloyal Speech in Fourteenth-Century England,” in Monarchy, State and Political Culture in England, 1300-1500: Essays in Honour of W. Mark Ormrod, Boydell and Brewer, eds. G. Dodd and C.D. Taylor (York: York Medieval Press / Boydell & Brewer, 2020), 71-93; H. Lacey, “The Voices of Royal Subjects? Political Speech in the Judicial and Governmental Records of Fourteenth-Century England,” Anales de la Universidad de Alicante, Historia Medieval n.19 (2015-2016): 241-268.