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History of the English People - Book IV The Parliament--1307-1461
Edward II 1307-1327
by Green, John Richard (M.A.)


Parliament and the Kings Robert Bruce
Edward the Second Thomas of Lancaster
Edward and the Ordainers     Bannockburn
Fall of Lancaster The Despensers
Isabella Deposition of Edward


Parliament and the Kings

In his calling together the estates of the realm Edward the First determined the course of English history. From the first moment of its appearance the Parliament became the centre of English affairs. The hundred years indeed which follow its assembly at Westminster saw its rise into a power which checked and overawed the Crown.

Of the kings in whose reigns the Parliament gathered this mighty strength not one was likely to look with indifference on the growth of a rival authority, and the bulk of them were men who in other times would have roughly checked it. What held their hand was the need of the Crown. The century and a half that followed the gathering of the estates at Westminster was a time of almost continual war, and of the financial pressure that springs from war. It was indeed war that had gathered them. In calling his Parliament Edward the First sought mainly an effective means of procuring supplies for that policy of national consolidation which had triumphed in Wales and which seemed to be triumphing in Scotland. But the triumph in Scotland soon proved a delusive one, and the strife brought wider strifes in its train. When Edward wrung from Balliol an acknowledgement of his suzerainty he foresaw little of the war with France, the war with Spain, the quarrel with the Papacy, the upgrowth of social, of political, of religious revolution within England itself, of which that acknowledgement was to be the prelude. But the thicker troubles gathered round England the more the royal treasury was drained, and now that arbitrary taxation was impossible the one means of filling it lay in a summons of the Houses. The Crown was chained to the Parliament by a tie of absolute need. From the first moment of parliamentary existence the life and power of the estates assembled at Westminster hung on the question of supplies. So long as war went on no ruler could dispense with the grants which fed the war and which Parliament alone could afford. But it was impossible to procure supplies save by redressing the grievances of which Parliament complained and by granting the powers which Parliament demanded. It was in vain that king after king, conscious that war bound them to the Parliament, strove to rid themselves of the war. So far was the ambition of our rulers from being the cause of the long struggle that, save in the one case of Henry the Fifth, the desperate effort of every ruler was to arrive at peace. Forced as they were to fight, their restless diplomacy strove to draw from victory as from defeat a means of escape from the strife that was enslaving the Crown. The royal Council, the royal favourites, were always on the side of peace. But fortunately for English freedom peace was impossible. The pride of the English people, the greed of France, foiled every attempt at accommodation. The wisest ministers sacrificed themselves in vain. King after king patched up truces which never grew into treaties, and concluded marriages which brought fresh discord instead of peace. War went ceaselessly on, and with the march of war went on the ceaseless growth of the Parliament.

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Robert Bruce

The death of Edward the First arrested only for a moment the advance of his army to the north. The Earl of Pembroke led it across the border, and found himself master of the country without a blow. Bruce's career became that of a desperate adventurer, for even the Highland chiefs in whose fastnesses he found shelter were bitterly hostile to one who claimed to be king of their foes in the Lowlands. It was this adversity that transformed the murderer of Comyn into the noble leader of a nation's cause. Strong and of commanding presence, brave and genial in temper, Bruce bore the hardships of his career with a courage and hopefulness that never failed. In the legends that clustered round his name we see him listening in Highland glens to the bay of the bloodhounds on his track, or holding a pass single-handed against a crowd of savage clansmen. Sometimes the small band which clung to him were forced to support themselves by hunting and fishing, sometimes to break up for safety as their enemies tracked them to their lair. Bruce himself had more than once to fling off his coat-of-mail and scramble barefoot for very life up the crags. Little by little, however, the dark sky cleared. The English pressure relaxed. James Douglas, the darling of Scottish story, was the first of the Lowland Barons to rally to the Bruce, and his daring gave heart to the king's cause. Once he surprised his own house, which had been given to an Englishman, ate the dinner which was prepared for its new owner, slew his captives, and tossed their bodies on to a pile of wood at the castle gate. Then he staved in the wine-vats that the wine might mingle with their blood, and set house and wood-pile on fire.

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Edward the Second

A ferocity like this degraded everywhere the work of freedom; but the revival of the country went steadily on. Pembroke and the English forces were in fact paralyzed by a strife which had broken out in England between the new king and his baronage. The moral purpose which had raised his father to grandeur was wholly wanting in Edward the Second; he was showy, idle, and stubborn in temper; but he was far from being destitute of the intellectual quickness which seemed inborn in the Plantagenets. He had no love for his father, but he had seen him in the later years of his reign struggling against the pressure of the baronage, evading his pledges as to taxation, and procuring absolution from his promise to observe the clauses added to the Charter. The son's purpose was the same, that of throwing off what he looked on as the yoke of the baronage; but the means by which he designed to bring about his purpose was the choice of a minister wholly dependent on the Crown. We have already noticed the change by which the "clerks of the King's chapel," who had been the ministers of arbitrary government under the Norman and Angevin sovereigns, had been quietly superseded by the prelates and lords of the Continual Council. At the close of the late reign a direct demand on the part of the barons to nominate the great officers of state had been curtly rejected, but the royal choice had been practically limited in the selection of its ministers to the class of prelates and nobles, and however closely connected with royalty they might be such officers always to a great extent shared the feelings and opinions of their order. The aim of the young king seems to have been to undo the change which had been silently brought about, and to imitate the policy of the contemporary sovereigns of France by choosing as his ministers men of an inferior position, wholly dependent on the Crown for their power, and representatives of nothing but the policy and interests of their master. Piers Gaveston, a foreigner sprung from a family of Guienne, had been his friend and companion during his father's reign, at the close of which he had been banished from the realm for his share in intrigues which divided Edward from his son. At the accession of the new king he was at once recalled, created Earl of Cornwall, and placed at the head of the administration. When Edward crossed the sea to wed Isabella of France, the daughter of Philip the Fair, a marriage planned by his father to provide against any further intervention of France in his difficulties with Scotland, the new minister was left as Regent in his room. The offence given by this rapid promotion was embittered by his personal temper. Gay, genial, thriftless, Gaveston showed in his first acts the quickness and audacity of Southern Gaul. The older ministers were dismissed, all claims of precedence or inheritance were set aside in the distribution of offices at the coronation, while taunts and defiances goaded the proud baronage to fury. The favourite was a fine soldier, and his lance unhorsed his opponents in tourney after tourney. His reckless wit flung nicknames about the Court, the Earl of Lancaster was "the Actor," Pembroke "the Jew," Warwick "the Black Dog." But taunt and defiance broke helplessly against the iron mass of the baronage. After a few months of power the formal demand of the Parliament for his dismissal could not be resisted, and in May 1308 Gaveston was formally banished from the realm.

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Thomas of Lancaster

But Edward was far from abandoning his favourite. In Ireland he was unfettered by the baronage, and here Gaveston found a refuge as the King's Lieutenant while Edward sought to obtain his recall by the intervention of France and the Papacy. But the financial pressure of the Scotch war again brought the king and his Parliament together in the spring of 1309. It was only by conceding the rights which his father had sought to establish of imposing import duties on the merchants by their own assent that he procured a subsidy. The firmness of the baronage sprang from their having found a head. In no point had the policy of Henry the Third more utterly broken down than in his attempt to weaken the power of the nobles by filling the great earldoms with kinsmen of the royal house. He had made Simon of Montfort his brother-in-law only to furnish a leader to the nation in the Barons' war. In loading his second son, Edmund Crouchback, with honours and estates he raised a family to greatness which overawed the Crown. Edmund had been created Earl of Lancaster; after Evesham he had received the forfeited Earldom of Leicester; he had been made Earl of Derby on the extinction of the house of Ferrers. His son, Thomas of Lancaster, was the son-in-law of Henry de Lacy, and was soon to add to these lordships the Earldom of Lincoln. And to the weight of these great baronies was added his royal blood. The father of Thomas had been a titular king of Sicily. His mother was dowager queen of Navarre. His half-sister by the mother's side was wife of the French king Philip le Bel and mother of the English queen Isabella. He was himself a grandson of Henry the Third and not far from the succession to the throne. Had Earl Thomas been a wiser and a nobler man, his adhesion to the cause of the baronage might have guided the king into a really national policy. As it was his weight proved irresistible. When Edward at the close of the Parliament recalled Gaveston the Earl of Lancaster withdrew from the royal Council, and a Parliament which met in the spring of 1310 resolved that the affairs of the realm should be entrusted for a year to a body of twenty-one "Ordainers" with Archbishop Winchelsey at their head.

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Edward and the Ordainers

Edward with Gaveston withdrew sullenly to the North. A triumph in Scotland would have given him strength to baffle the Ordainers, but he had little of his father's military skill, the wasted country made it hard to keep an army together, and after a fruitless campaign he fell back to his southern realm to meet the Parliament of 1311 and the "Ordinances" which the twenty-one laid before it. By this long and important statute Gaveston was banished, other advisers were driven from the Council, and the Florentine bankers whose loans had enabled Edward to hold the baronage at bay sent out of the realm. The customs duties imposed by Edward the First were declared to be illegal. Its administrative provisions showed the relations which the barons sought to establish between the new Parliament and the Crown. Parliaments were to be called every year, and in these assemblies the king's servants were to be brought, if need were, to justice. The great officers of state were to be appointed with the counsel and consent of the baronage, and to be sworn in Parliament. The same consent of the barons in Parliament was to be needful ere the king could declare war or absent himself from the realm. As the Ordinances show, the baronage still looked on Parliament rather as a political organization of the nobles than as a gathering of the three Estates of the realm. The lower clergy pass unnoticed; the Commons are regarded as mere taxpayers whose part was still confined to the presentation of petitions of grievances and the grant of money. But even in this imperfect fashion the Parliament was a real representation of the country. The barons no longer depended for their force on the rise of some active leader, or gathered in exceptional assemblies to wrest reforms from the Crown by threat of war. Their action was made regular and legal. Even if the Commons took little part in forming decisions, their force when formed hung on the assent of the knights and burgesses to them; and the grant which alone could purchase from the Crown the concessions which the Baronage demanded lay absolutely within the control of the Third Estate. It was this which made the king's struggles so fruitless. He assented to the Ordinances, and then withdrawing to the North recalled Gaveston and annulled them. But Winchelsey excommunicated the favourite, and the barons, gathering in arms, besieged him in Scarborough. His surrender in May 1312 ended the strife. The "Black Dog" of Warwick had sworn that the favourite should feel his teeth; and Gaveston flung himself in vain at the feet of the Earl of Lancaster, praying for pity "from his gentle lord." In defiance of the terms of his capitulation he was beheaded on Blacklow Hill.

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Bannockburn

The king's burst of grief was as fruitless as his threats of vengeance; a feigned submission of the conquerors completed the royal humiliation, and the barons knelt before Edward in Westminster Hall to receive a pardon which seemed the deathblow of the royal power. But if Edward was powerless to conquer the baronage he could still by evading the observance of the Ordinances throw the whole realm into confusion. The two years that follow Gaveston's death are among the darkest in our history. A terrible succession of famines intensified the suffering which sprang from the utter absence of all rule as dissension raged between the barons and the king. At last a common peril drew both parties together. The Scots had profited by the English troubles, and Bruce's "harrying of Buchan" after his defeat of its Earl, who had joined the English army, fairly turned the tide of success in his favour. Edinburgh, Roxburgh, Perth, and most of the Scotch fortresses fell one by one into King Robert's hands. The clergy met in council and owned him as their lawful lord. Gradually the Scotch barons who still held to the English cause were coerced into submission, and Bruce found himself strong enough to invest Stirling, the last and the most important of the Scotch fortresses which held out for Edward. Stirling was in fact the key of Scotland, and its danger roused England out of its civil strife to an effort for the recovery of its prey. At the close of 1313 Edward recognized the Ordinances, and a liberal grant from the Parliament enabled him to take the field. Lancaster indeed still held aloof on the ground that the king had not sought the assent of Parliament to the war, but thirty thousand men followed Edward to the North, and a host of wild marauders were summoned from Ireland and Wales. The army which Bruce gathered to oppose this inroad was formed almost wholly of footmen, and was stationed to the south of Stirling on a rising ground flanked by a little brook, the Bannockburn, which gave its name to the engagement. The battle took place on the twenty-fourth of June 1314. Again two systems of warfare were brought face to face as they had been brought at Falkirk, for Robert like Wallace drew up his forces in hollow squares or circles of spearmen. The English were dispirited at the very outset by the failure of an attempt to relieve Stirling and by the issue of a single combat between Bruce and Henry de Bohun, a knight who bore down upon him as he was riding peacefully along the front of his army. Robert was mounted on a small hackney and held only a light battle-axe in his hand, but warding off his opponent's spear he cleft his skull with so terrible a blow that the handle of his axe was shattered in his grasp. At the opening of the battle the English archers were thrown forward to rake the Scottish squares, but they were without support and were easily dispersed by a handful of horse whom Bruce held in reserve for the purpose. The body of men-at-arms next flung themselves on the Scottish front, but their charge was embarrassed by the narrow space along which the line was forced to move, and the steady resistance of the squares soon threw the knighthood into disorder. "The horses that were stickit," says an exulting Scotch writer, "rushed and reeled right rudely." In the moment of failure the sight of a body of camp-followers, whom they mistook for reinforcements to the enemy, spread panic through the English host. It broke in a headlong rout. Its thousands of brilliant horsemen were soon floundering in pits which guarded the level ground to Bruce's left, or riding in wild haste for the border. Few however were fortunate enough to reach it. Edward himself, with a body of five hundred knights, succeeded in escaping to Dunbar and the sea. But the flower of his knighthood fell into the hands of the victors, while the Irishry and the footmen were ruthlessly cut down by the country folk as they fled. For centuries to come the rich plunder of the English camp left its traces on the treasure-rolls and the vestment-rolls of castle and abbey throughout the Lowlands.

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Fall of Lancaster

Bannockburn left Bruce the master of Scotland: but terrible as the blow was England could not humble herself to relinquish her claim on the Scottish crown. Edward was eager indeed for a truce, but with equal firmness Bruce refused all negotiation while the royal title was withheld from him and steadily pushed on the recovery of his southern dominions. His progress was unhindered. Bannockburn left Edward powerless, and Lancaster at the head of the Ordainers became supreme. But it was still impossible to trust the king or to act with him, and in the dead-lock of both parties the Scots plundered as they would. Their ravages in the North brought shame on England such as it had never known. At last Bruce's capture of Berwick in the spring of 1318 forced the king to give way. The Ordinances were formally accepted, an amnesty granted, and a small number of peers belonging to the barons' party added to the great officers of state. Had a statesman been at the head of the baronage the weakness of Edward might have now been turned to good purpose. But the character of the Earl of Lancaster seems to have fallen far beneath the greatness of his position. Distrustful of his cousin, yet himself incapable of governing, he stood sullenly aloof from the royal Council and the royal armies, and Edward was able to lay his failure in recovering Berwick during the campaign of 1319 to the Earl's charge. His influence over the country was sensibly weakened; and in this weakness the new advisers on whom the king was leaning saw a hope of destroying his power. These were a younger and elder Hugh Le Despenser, son and grandson of the Justiciar who had fallen beside Earl Simon at Evesham. Greedy and ambitious as they may have been, they were able men, and their policy was of a higher stamp than the wilful defiance of Gaveston. It lay, if we may gather it from the faint indications which remain, in a frank recognition of the power of the three Estates as opposed to the separate action of the baronage. The rise of the younger Hugh, on whom the king bestowed the county of Glamorgan with the hand of one of its coheiresses, a daughter of Earl Gilbert of Gloucester, was rapid enough to excite general jealousy; and in 1321 Lancaster found little difficulty in extorting by force of arms his exile from the kingdom. But the tide of popular sympathy was already wavering, and it was turned to the royal cause by an insult offered to the queen, against whom Lady Badlesmere closed the doors of Ledes Castle. The unexpected energy shown by Edward in avenging this insult gave fresh strength to his cause. At the opening of 1322 he found himself strong enough to recall Despenser, and when Lancaster convoked the baronage to force him again into exile, the weakness of their party was shown by some negotiations into which the Earl entered with the Scots and by his precipitate retreat to the north on the advance of the royal army. At Boroughbridge his forces were arrested and dispersed, and Thomas himself, brought captive before Edward at Pontefract, was tried and condemned to death as a traitor. "Have mercy on me, King of Heaven," cried Lancaster, as, mounted on a grey pony without a bridle, he was hurried to execution, "for my earthly king has forsaken me." His death was followed by that of a number of his adherents and by the captivity of others; while a Parliament at York annulled the proceedings against the Despensers and repealed the Ordinances.

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The Despensers

It is to this Parliament however, and perhaps to the victorious confidence of the royalists, that we owe the famous provision which reveals the policy of the Despensers, the provision that all laws concerning "the estate of our Lord the King and his heirs or for the estate of the realm and the people shall be treated, accorded, and established in Parliaments by our Lord the King and by the consent of the prelates, earls, barons, and commonalty of the realm according as hath been hitherto accustomed." It would seem from the tenor of this remarkable enactment that much of the sudden revulsion of popular feeling had been owing to the assumption of all legislative action by the baronage alone. The same policy was seen in a reissue in the form of a royal Ordinance of some of the most beneficial provisions of the Ordinances which had been formally repealed. But the arrogance of the Despensers gave new offence; and the utter failure of a fresh campaign against Scotland again weakened the Crown. The barbarous forays in which the borderers under Earl Douglas were wasting Northumberland woke a general indignation; and a grant from the Parliament at York enabled Edward to march with a great army to the North. But Bruce as of old declined an engagement till the wasted Lowlands starved the invaders into a ruinous retreat. The failure forced England in the spring of 1323 to stoop to a truce for thirteen years, in the negotiation of which Bruce was suffered to take the royal title. We see in this act of the Despensers the first of a series of such attempts by which minister after minister strove to free the Crown from the bondage under which the war-pressure laid it to the growing power of Parliament; but it ended, as these after attempts ended, only in the ruin of the counsellors who planned it. The pride of the country had been roused by the struggle, and the humiliation of such a truce robbed the Crown of its temporary popularity. It led the way to the sudden catastrophe which closed this disastrous reign.

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Isabella

In his struggle with the Scots Edward, like his father, had been hampered not only by internal divisions but by the harassing intervention of France. The rising under Bruce had been backed by French aid as well as by a revival of the old quarrel over Guienne, and on the accession of Charles the Fourth in 1322 a demand of homage for Ponthieu and Gascony called Edward over sea. But the Despensers dared not let him quit the realm, and a fresh dispute as to the right of possession in the Agénois brought about the seizure of the bulk of Gascony by a sudden attack on the part of the French. The quarrel verged upon open war, and to close it Edward's queen, Isabella, a sister of the French king, undertook in 1325 to revisit her home and bring about a treaty of peace between the two countries. Isabella hated the Despensers; she was alienated from her husband; but hatred and alienation were as yet jealously concealed. At the close of the year the terms of peace seemed to be arranged; and though declining to cross the sea, Edward evaded the difficulty created by the demand for personal homage by investing his son with the Duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony, and despatching him to join his mother at Paris. The boy did homage to King Charles for the two Duchies, the question of the Agénois being reserved for legal decision, and Edward at once recalled his wife and son to England. Neither threats nor prayers however could induce either wife or child to return to his court. Roger Mortimer, the most powerful of the Marcher barons and a deadly foe to the Despensers, had taken refuge in France; and his influence over the queen made her the centre of a vast conspiracy. With the young Edward in her hands she was able to procure soldiers from the Count of Hainault by promising her son's hand to his daughter; the Italian bankers supplied funds; and after a year's preparation the Queen set sail in the autumn of 1326. A secret conspiracy of the baronage was revealed when the primate and nobles hurried to her standard on her landing at Orwell. Deserted by all and repulsed by the citizens of London whose aid he implored, the king fled hastily to the west and embarked with the Despensers for Lundy Island, which Despenser had fortified as a possible refuge; but contrary winds flung him again on the Welsh coast, where he fell into the hands of Earl Henry of Lancaster, the brother of the Earl whom they had slain. The younger Despenser, who accompanied him, was at once hung on a gibbet fifty feet high, and the king placed in ward at Kenilworth till his fate could be decided by a Parliament summoned for that purpose at Westminster in January 1327.

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Deposition of Edward

The peers who assembled fearlessly revived the constitutional usage of the earlier English freedom, and asserted their right to depose a king who had proved himself unworthy to rule. Not a voice was raised in Edward's behalf, and only four prelates protested when the young Prince was proclaimed king by acclamation and presented as their sovereign to the multitudes without. The revolution took legal form in a bill which charged the captive monarch with indolence, incapacity, the loss of Scotland, the violation of his coronation oath and oppression of the Church and baronage; and on the approval of this it was resolved that the reign of Edward of Caernarvon had ceased and that the crown had passed to his son, Edward of Windsor. A deputation of the Parliament proceeded to Kenilworth to procure the assent of the discrowned king to his own deposition, and Edward "clad in a plain black gown" bowed quietly to his fate. Sir William Trussel at once addressed him in words which better than any other mark the nature of the step which the Parliament had taken. "I, William Trussel, proctor of the earls, barons, and others, having for this full and sufficient power, do render and give back to you, Edward, once King of England, the homage and fealty of the persons named in my procuracy; and acquit and discharge them thereof in the best manner that law and custom will give. And I now make protestation in their name that they will no longer be in your fealty and allegiance, nor claim to hold anything of you as king, but will account you hereafter as a private person, without any manner of royal dignity." A significant act followed these emphatic words. Sir Thomas Blount, the steward of the household, broke his staff of office, a ceremony used only at a king's death, and declared that all persons engaged in the royal service were discharged. The act of Blount was only an omen of the fate which awaited the miserable king. In the following September he was murdered in Berkeley Castle.

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