The Wars of Edward III. – Review

The Wars of Edward III. – Review – book review

Sean McGlynn

The Wars of Edward III Clifford Rogers (ed) Boydell 2000 xxvii + 384 pp 40 [pounds sterling] ISBN 0-85115-646-0

`SEE US FIGHT THIS BATTLE, And reap rich harvest in the field of Cressy; Then go to England, tell them how we fight, And set all hearts on fire to be with us.’

The above fragment from William Blake’s King Edward the Third, in which the monarch is exhorting an ally on the eve of Crecy with all the Shakespearean echoes of Henry V’s oration at Agincourt, is symptomatic of the fascination that the Hundred Years’ War holds for a wide audience. This fascination is particularly strong for the victors of Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). Edward, founder of the Order of the Garter, is notably regarded as a chivalrous king in a chivalrous time; but as W. J. Ashley wrote in his collection of sources from 1887, Edward III and his Wars: `The age of Edward III is the age of chivalry. This is alike its praise and its condemnation’.

As this new collection of documents makes painfully clear, contemporary sources, despite widespread approval of acts of knightly valour and martial prowess, are never reluctant to draw attention to the horror and brutality that were more a part of medieval warfare than chivalry ever was. Other compilations serving Edward and the Hundred Years’ War exist –Ashley’s own, Thompson’s in 1966 (not cited here), Allmand’s from 1973, Barber’s from 1979 — but Rogers’ edition, which encompasses Scotland, includes a good many further pieces appearing for the first time in English and some never published before. It is therefore valuable in making a wide range of primary evidence accessible to a new generation. It has extracts from over fifty campaign bulletins, administrative documents and chronicles (including, of course, the famous Froissart). Its readers will receive a real insight into the mentality and logic of war in the middle ages and an understanding of its stark realities. Campaigning, sieges, ravaging, financial motivation and the occasional battle are all vividly conveyed by those who fought in the war or were directly affected by it. The latter probably outweighed the former. A papal commissioners’ survey of war-ravaged Cambresis in northeast France from 1340 reports that in the `diocese of Laon, seventy-eight parish villages large and small were completely or in large part burned, plundered and laid waste by the enemy in the year 1339, and up to the present have been devastated again and again’. A map graphically follows the course of devastation in detail.

The second half of the book comprises eight previously published articles considering the huge military, economic, diplomatic and political implications of Edward’s wars, not least of which was the institutionalisation of parliament. These pieces range from 1952 to 1994 and one or two can seem a little dated. Serious scholars will have most of these already but they are helpfully gathered together nonetheless, for the book’s real utility lies in its presentation as an exceedingly useful teaching tool.

Edward’s earlier and successful strategy of aggression in France was eventually countered by the battle-avoidance policy of Charles the Wise and Constable de Guesclin. The French also shadowed enemy forces in an attempt to check their destructive chevauchees (`war-rides’), something William the Bastard did in mid-eleventh-century Normandy; this reviewer can see little difference between Edward’s war-rides and ravaging expeditions from earlier centuries. There persists in academic circles an obstructive and false divide between the high and late middle ages (chronocentric study can impair all historical periods). This division hampers (and, indeed, causes) the heated debate over the medieval military revolution (if one believes in such a thing). New tactics, new emphasis on infantry and archers, standing armies — these are purported developments that emerged during Edward’s reign. Unfortunately, this subject is afforded little space here, a disappointment given Rogers’ own work in this area. We must eagerly await his forthcoming monograph on Edwardian strategy to complement this excellent and very welcome resource book.

Sean McGlynn is the author of The Invasion of England 1216 (Sutton Publishing, 1998.

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