21 October, 2008

Edward II, For Once, Is Competent

In 1320, Edward II, thirteen years after his accession and at the age of thirty-six, finally learned how to be a king - which, not surprisingly, amazed his contemporaries.

In June 1320, Edward travelled to France to perform homage for his French lands in Gascony and Ponthieu to his overlord and brother-in-law, Philip V. Some of Philip’s councillors demanded that he take an oath of fealty as well. A chancery clerk of Edward’s, an eyewitness, gives this account of what followed:

"And when some of the said prelates and nobles leaned towards our said lord [Edward II] and began to instruct him, our said lord now turned towards the said king [Philip V] without having been advised," and announced

"You will well remember that the homage which we did at Boulogne [in 1308] was done according to the form of the agreement between our ancestors, and according to the form in which our ancestors performed it, and your father [Philip IV] agreed to this form, and we have his letters regarding this, and we have now done homage in this same form. One cannot properly demand another form of us, and we will not recognise the validity of doing it. And as for this fealty, we are certain that we will not do it, and nor should it be demanded of us at a later time, and we are unable to believe that this fealty should be given as you demand of us."

The clerk continued "And then the king of France turned to the men of his council, and none of them could say anything to contradict the response of our said lord." [The clerk's account is my translation from the French.]

Edward’s articulate defence, spoken spontaneously without the benefit of any advice, had reduced them to stunned silence, and the question of fealty was quietly dropped. This shows that Edward was - or could be - a fluent, persuasive public speaker, that he could think on his feet, that he could marshal and enumerate facts and arguments, and that he well understood the issues at hand and the history behind them.

Parliament opened at Westminster on 6 October 1320. The opening speech – who gave it is not known – said that Edward had summoned it "in his great desire and wish to do all the things which concern a good lord for the benefit of his realm and of his people." (Apparently he'd finally realised that he was meant to be 'a good lord' to his people.) Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester, wrote approvingly - and, it has to be said, condescendingly - about Edward's behaviour at the parliament, in a letter to Pope John XXII:

"Besides which, Holy Father, your devoted son, our lord the king, in the parliament summoned to London bore himself splendidly, with prudence and discretion, contrary to his former habit rising early and presenting a nobler and pleasant countenance to prelates and lords. Present almost every day in person, he arranged what business was to be dealt with, discussed and determined. Where amendment was necessary he ingeniously supplied what was lacking, thus giving joy to his people, ensuring their security, and providing reliable hope of an improvement in behaviour."

Cobham also wrote to Cardinal Vitale Dufour: "Besides which, father and chosen lord, since you are looking for favourable news about the posture and bearing of our lord the king, let me tell you that in the parliament assembled in London…he bore himself honourably, prudently and with discretion. All those wishing to speak with reasonableness he listened to patiently, assigning prelates and lords for the hearing and implementation of petitions, and in many instances supplying ingeniously of his own discernment what he felt to be lacking. On that account our people rejoice greatly, there is considerable hope of an improvement in his behaviour and a greater possibility of unity and harmony."

From which we learn that Edward was actually getting up early for once (GASP!), and that he could be patient, wise, judicious, clever and capable. The chronicler Nicholas Trevet agrees with Thomas Cobham, saying that Edward "showed prudence in answering the petitions of the poor, and clemency as much as severity in judicial matters, to the amazement of many who were there." The Scalacronica of the 1350s - written by Sir Thomas Gray, whose father was taken prisoner at Bannockburn in 1314 - calls Edward, uniquely, "wise, gentle and amiable in conversation."

All of this goes some way to demonstrating that Edward II was far more capable than he's usually given credit for. People who have called Edward II stupid - for example, the early twentieth-century historians T. F. Tout, who described him as "a brutal, brainless athlete" and "incompetent, idle, frivolous and incurious," J. Mackinnon, who declared "a greater ninny never sat on the English throne,"* and H. Vickers, who called him "a scatter-brained wastrel" - entirely miss the point. Edward was not stupid or even close to it, and neither was he incompetent. He had ability in spades when he chose. Most of the time, though, he just couldn't be bothered.

[* Or words to that effect; I don't have the exact quote in front of me.]

Needless to say, this sudden burst of competence didn't last. On 26 October 1320, the day after the Westminster parliament ended, Edward ordered the Gower peninsula in South Wales to be taken into his own hands, prior to awarding it to his favourite Hugh Despenser and trampling over the rights of the Marcher lords. This foolish act led inexorably to the Despenser War a few months later, and, ultimately, to Edward's downfall and deposition.
Oh well. It was nice while it lasted.


- Cobham's letters: Roy Martin Haines, King Edward II (2003), p. 45.

- Trevet: The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England, Introduction to the October 1320 parliament.

- E. Pole Stuart, 'The Interview between Philip V and Edward II at Amiens in 1320', English Historical Review, 41 (1926), pp. 412-415.

- The Scalacronica of Sir Thomas Gray, ed. Herbert Maxwell (1907), pp. 74-75.


Carla said...

Mary Queen of Scots could be quite capable on occasions, but could never maintain it for long. I always have the feeling that she responded to high drama - perhaps because of the adrenaline rush? - but couldn't cope with the day-in-day-out grind of keeping on top of events all the time. Do you think something similar could be said of Edward?

Kathryn Warner said...

Carla: usually Edward was only roused to action when his favourites were threatened, and his personal feelings were therefore involved - such as in 1308/09, 1311/12, and 1321/22. What's interesting about 1320 was that, for once, England was more or less at peace, at least until that autumn - no war with France, no civil war pending, no overt conflict between Ed and his cousin the earl of Lancaster - which makes his unaccustomed energy and ability particularly noteworthy!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Maybe the chroniclers showed a competent Edward for a change, because there was nothing else going on. :)

We know they were not always just (look the accusations of cowardice when Edward fled from Bannockburn, which was the only sensible thing he could do) and I bet they concentrated on the high drama when it was going on and neglected to mention boring stuff like Ed saying wise things in parliament. The problem with Ed' government is that there was so much high drama that overshadowed the everyday stuff. :P

Brian Wainwright said...

To my mind the remarkable thing about our medieval sovereigns was how capable they were (as a bunch) taking into account that they were selected by nothing more than random birth. Historians tend to look only at final outcome - if you got deposed you are almost automatically assumed to be stupid, a 'tyrant', incompetent, etc. - and give little credit to the positive aspects of 'failed' reigns.

Jules Frusher said...

It's good to see some positive accounts about Edward for a change.

Perhap he was well aware of the early rumblings against Despenser and was trying to promote his governance in order to play a strong hand against any future opposition.

On the other hand, maybe he had been taking extra vitamins!

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Poor Edward. It sounds like the people usually around him didn't have very high expectations of him.

"And when some of the said prelates and nobles leaned towards our said lord and began to instruct him, our said lord now turned towards the said king without having been advised"? Shock! I am suddenly and unfairly reminded of popular perception of a certain George Bush.

Kathryn Warner said...

Gabriele: LOL, good point. ;)

Brian: very true. Edward's flaws (of which he had many, admittedly) tend to be magnified and exaggerated, and the positive aspects of his character and reign downplayed or, usually, ignored altogether. An article by JRS Phillips in the 2006 book The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives makes this point very well.

Lady D: maybe he'd discovered an early form of Red Bull. :-)

Ceirseach: to be fair, Ed hadn't given people much reason to have confidence in him, I supppose. I do love Trevet's comment "to the amazement of many who were there"!

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Exactly! And unless you start really caring about affairs of state all of a sudden, it's probably rather hard to break out of the rut of 'everyone expects this of me, it's easier not to bother surprising them, plus I have advisers to do all this and they do it better anyway and hey, I'm king, why SHOULDN'T I always sleep in late'.

Stuck in mediocrity by the force of the expectations around him. There's an angle that could make for some fun historical fiction.

Anerje said...

Intriguing to compare Edward II and Mary, Queen of Scots! IMO, Ed was no-where near the failure Mary was - I just don't think he was that intersted in governing his kingdom - it was a case of 'I'm the king and I want my own way', to put it simply. As Alianore says, he only re-acted when he was pesonally affronted or his favourites were - I don't think he was much bothered about anything else. Mary had a different set of problems - she'd been away from her kingdom for such a long time and been spoiled and petted at the French court, plus she was at a disadvantage being a woman. And her involvement with Darnley was shocking behaviour. Far worse than anythng Ed ever did.