Books interview: Edward III and the triumph of England

Richard Barber is the author of a new book exploring the reign of Edward III and the crucial victory over the French army at Crécy in 1346. He spoke to Matt Elton about the king's strengths as a ruler and a strategist, and the reasons why he struggled later in his reign

"The important thing about the battle of Crécy is that Edward was clearly, in my view, using tactics and weapons that had never been seen on a battlefield before," says Richard Barber. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Do we get a sense of Edward’s personality early in his reign?

You begin to, yes, but really what’s more interesting was the group of people around him and the way in which he interacted with them. What emerges fairly rapidly – and this is a theme throughout the book – is that Edward’s great strength was that he didn’t interact with people in the way that

Edward II and Richard II did, which was to say “I am the king”. Edward was very much one of a group. He was first among equals, certainly at this stage in his reign.

Would you say that, in battle, he was stronger as a fighter or a strategist?

He is actually quite an all-rounder, and he’s clearly a thinker who is well advised and takes advice. I think that’s possibly one of the key things about Edward. Whether it’s about the reform of the law or what to do next in the middle of the battle, he doesn’t say “I know what do”: he sets the agenda but then lets other people work on it too and takes advice. It’s only in relation to parliament that he sometimes refuses to take advice, because it’s not an organised body and is quite difficult to deal with. But his great strength really is this business of acting together with people rather than going off on his own trail.

Moving ahead to the battle of Crécy, what kinds of tactics were used?

The important thing about Crécy is that Edward was clearly, in my view, using tactics and weapons that had never been seen on a battlefield before. And new evidence has come to light that indicates that Edward was actually fighting from inside a ring of carts. He was using archers, which in terms of continental warfare was completely new, and he was using guns, which were also completely new. He constructed this ring of carts in open country because there was nowhere that was suitable on the battlefield for the English technique of getting a defensive position with a narrow approach that archers could cover, so he created it. This is doubtless going to be argued about, but at least I’ve put it on the table for other people to knock it down!

What allowed him to be able to use all of these innovations at the same time?

Edward was interested in new technology: he had one of the first public clocks in England at Windsor and he liked new technology and new things. The archers, meanwhile, were an innovation in terms of continental warfare but were something that the English had particularly developed.

The other thing is that Edward was very good at improvising. The ring of carts was an improvisation in response to a situation using something that was known about – you can trace this ring of carts idea back into barbarian attacks on the Romans in the eighth century – but ringing them together so that you couldn’t break in, and the way that he used them to place the archers, that shows that he’s someone who can think and improvise. It may have been one of his knights who suggested it, of course, but he was open to this kind of suggestion.

What do we know about the Company of the Garter, which Edward founded?

This is rather sweeping, but nobody ever seems to have actually read the statutes before writing about the subject! There’s one military clause, which says you’ve got to be

a respectable knight, but it’s very vaguely phrased and is rather like saying that you’ve got to be a gentleman before you can be admitted to a club. There’s nothing that says they will hold a tournament every year on Saint George’s Day; they didn’t. There was one at the very beginning, and one that happens to coincide with Saint George’s

Day, but that’s all the evidence for regular tournaments, so it’s not a chivalric order of knighthood. What the statutes are is a great table of how many masses an earl or a knight has to pay for a deceased companion. So it’s an absolutely straight religious fraternity, like a guild of knights.

How important were tournaments as a social and political tool?

I think because of Edward’s own interests, they were extremely important. At one level, they were a bit like playing golf today: it was where you met and talked to people socially. But they had other real advantages, because they taught people how to work and fight together as a team.

What caused the downturn in his fortunes later in his reign?

I think Edward’s political strategy was quite limited. He didn’t understand how to bring the natives over, so to speak. He never managed to hold the people that came over to the English side, or he got the ones who were pretty devious anyway, such as Robert of Artois, who were more of a nuisance than they were worth. So he ended up with a successful English invasion of France but no French base and no French clientele, and he never managed to build it up.

So Edward’s political strategy was flawed only in that he hadn’t been able to solve something that very few people had, which was how to conquer a country which was basically, root and branch, hostile, and was also hostile because they don’t particularly like the idea, irrespective of nationality, of someone ruling them when they were used to being ruled with a pretty light rein.

You write a lot about sources. How difficult is it researching this period?

This is what I tried to show by starting the book by asking how we know what we know. I don’t think anyone’s quite set it out in this way before, but it is absolutely basic to our understanding of medieval history.

You get some very intelligent chroniclers who are really thinking about what they’re doing, not just putting down what they hear. There’s an author called Gilles Li Muisis who writes a wonderful passage about how, when you’re in the middle of battle, you really don’t have a clue what’s going on. It’s hugely useful to have somebody who is trying, within 10 years of events, to assess what happened.

Do you hope this book will change our understanding of Edward?

I wouldn’t claim to make anybody change their understanding, but what I hope they would do is go away and look at it all again and show me where I’m wrong!

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Richard Barber has written widely on medieval history. He is the author of Edward III and the Triumph of England (Allen Lane)