h i s t o r y j on at h a n s ump t i on
Who Said Chivalry Was Dead?
Edward III and the Triumph of England: The Battle of Crécy and the Company of the Garter
By Richard Barber (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 650pp £30)
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
Edward III intimidating the French 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,
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