In the winter of 1342–43 King Edward III spent several months away from home fighting in Brittany. He kept in close touch with his family by letter, writing regularly to his wife, Queen Philippa, as his ‘sweetheart’.


Soon after his return home, Edward made for the queen’s manor of Havering in Essex, where he was reunited with a number of his growing brood of children. The king, delighting in this moment of domesticity, chose to eat his dinner in the company of Lionel of Antwerp, then aged four, John of Gaunt, who had just turned three, and Edmund of Langley, a toddler of 18 months. It was surely a riotous homecoming.

Edward III was nothing if not a family man. For 40 years and more, his devotion to his children was the primary driver of policy. It is easy to see why Edward should have invested so much in his dynasty. His parents, Edward II and Queen Isabella, had been notoriously at odds with each other.

When the prince was 12, the queen had openly charged the king’s favourite, Hugh Despenser, with creating discord between the royal couple. Retreating to France with her son, Isabella had begun an adulterous relationship with Roger Mortimer, with whom she hatched a plot to invade England. Within a year of his deposition, Edward II was declared dead, most likely murdered by Roger’s henchmen. When Edward III eventually seized his moment in 1330 and removed his mother and Mortimer from power, he referred publicly to the trauma that had been suffered within the ruling house.

The process of political healing now depended, to a significant degree, on the restoration of dynastic unity. One way of achieving this was to punish the defectors. Queen Isabella may not have been locked away by her son, but she was certainly subjected to an elaborate regime of religious observance designed to demonstrate her public contrition.

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The real focus of attention, however, was on the current and future generations. Edward III was supremely lucky in his own bride. Edward and Philippa had been married in 1328 to seal the political alliance that earlier supported Queen Isabella’s invasion of England. But if the teenage couple were not in love at the start, they quickly developed a strong bond of affection.

Philippa was often entrusted with important functions of state while the king was away fighting in the wars. (See Hundred Years’ War box below). In the conventional courtly manner, the couple exchanged sumptuous gifts like the spectacular sapphire brooch that Edward gave Philippa at New Year 1332. More tellingly, they spent as much of their time as possible in each other’s company. On some occasions, Philippa even accompanied her husband to military headquarters in northern England and Flanders. And where the queen went, the royal children often went too.

Indulgent father

Edward’s contemporaries were very clear that his abundance of offspring was a blessing. In 1362, on the occasion of the king’s 50th birthday, parliament was told that “God has truly blessed him in many ways, and especially in the begetting of his sons”. Between 1330 and 1355 Queen Philippa had at least 12 pregnancies, and nine children survived to their teens.

Edward was an indulgent father. The oldest son, Edward of Woodstock (later known as the Black Prince), was set up with his own household while he was still an infant. The younger children, however, remained in the queen’s care. After the infant Prince Lionel was betrothed in 1342, his fiancée, the ten-year-old Elizabeth de Burgh, joined him in the royal nursery. Thomas of Woodstock, the baby of the family, was kept particularly close: the aged Edward III lavished large sums of money on the tight hose and figure-hugging tunics sported by this popinjay prince.

From birth, Edward’s sons and daughters were caught up in a ceaseless round of dynastic negotiations. In 1340, Edward took the extraordinary decision to announce himself King of France by right of descent through his mother. In order to challenge the ruling Valois dynasty, he now had to find as many allies as possible.

The use of royal children as diplomatic pawns had its fair share of casualties: Princess Isabella was jilted by the Count of Flanders in 1347; and poor Princess Joan became one of the first English victims of the Black Death when she died at Bordeaux in 1348, en route to her wedding with the heir to Castile’s throne.

But Edward persevered. Only the older royal children were allowed some say in their choice of partners. Edward of Woodstock, the heir to the throne and a bachelor in his early 30s, surprised everyone in 1361 by marrying his cousin, Joan of Kent. The king, eager to make the best of the situation, quickly negotiated the papal dispensations that the couple had neglected to obtain, organised a second wedding for them at Windsor Castle, and hosted a great tournament in London around the provocative theme of the seven deadly sins.

All that said, it is clear that Edward III intended his children to serve, and benefit from, his great scheme of strategic alliances. The king viewed his wars as the means of re-assembling that great agglomeration of lordships across the British Isles and the continent over which Henry II had once ruled. The capture of David II of Scotland in 1346 and of John II of France in 1356 gave Edward the diplomatic leverage that he thought might bring these ambitions to fruition.

In the early 1360s the king rolled out his great plan. He would give up the claim to the throne of France, but would have sovereign control of much of northern and western France. Edward of Woodstock, already Prince of Wales, was made Prince of Aquitaine and sent to Bordeaux to head up a glittering new Plantagenet court. The Duke of Brittany, who was married first to the English Princess Mary and then to a stepdaughter of the Black Prince, would acknowledge the King of England as his liege lord. Lionel of Antwerp, created Duke of Clarence, took up the destiny marked out for him through his marriage to a great Anglo-Irish heiress and assumed the lieutenancy of Ireland.

As for John of Gaunt, he would be adopted by the childless David II as heir to the throne of Scotland. Edmund of Langley would marry Margaret de Mâle, heiress to the Count of Flanders, and bring within his father’s sway a vast new domain in the Low Countries and Burgundy. Even Thomas of Woodstock, still an infant, was not forgotten, gaining rights to a series of lordships in the French county of Poitou.

How realistic was this great scheme? It rested on the idea of a loose confederation of dependent states bound together by family and feudal ties. This was very different from the highly centralised model of empire imagined by Edward I and from the concept of national sovereignty that was gradually being adopted by rulers of England and France.

Laying the ground

Yet there were also plenty of examples in contemporary and later Europe of multiple states managed by single dynasties. Nor had Edward III failed to lay the ground for these plans. John of Gaunt’s marriage to the heiress to the duchy of Lancaster gave him the power base in the north of England essential to supporting a title to the kingdom of Scotland. Prince Lionel’s regime in Ireland was carefully planned to continue into the next generation through the early betrothal of his only child, Philippa, to another powerful landholder in the lordship, the future Earl of March. Unlike Henry II, Edward III could also rely on the uncompromising commitment of his sons. The idea of open revolt within the dynasty remained anathema.

And yet the scheme was fundamentally flawed. David II and John II may have played along with Edward, but there was no prospect that their advisors or successors would countenance a Plantagenet takeover. Flanders proved the crucible of defeat. Faced with the implacable opposition of new French king, Charles V, who wanted Margaret de Mâle for his brother, Edward should have made a dignified retreat. But pride got the better of him. Lionel of Antwerp was withdrawn from Ireland and sent to northern Italy in 1368 to marry the daughter of the lord of Pavia. Tub-thumping Englishmen predicted that the prince might go on to be king of the Romans and even Holy Roman Emperor. In reality, this was no more than a bungled attempt to put last-moment pressure on the pope to allow Edmund of Langley to have his Flemish bride.

One error then bred more. Faced with a serious downturn in his fortunes in Scotland and France, Edward III allowed his sons to believe that they might now find royal titles for themselves in the war-torn kingdom of Castile. In 1371–72 John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley were allowed to marry Constanza and Isabella, the co-heiresses to the former Castilian ruler Peter I. Thus began a generation of activity in the Iberian peninsula whose dubious benefits to England would cause controversy throughout the reign of Richard II.

Edward III’s dream of empire was finally ruined by a series of personal tragedies. In 1368, soon after starting his new career in Italy, Prince Lionel died at Alba. The Black Prince caught dysentery while fighting in Castile in 1367 and was forced to withdraw from campaigning in France after 1371, returning to England to spend his last years as a semi-invalid. In 1372, the Earl of Pembroke, who had married the now-dead Princess Margaret, was taken prisoner by the French at the battle of La Rochelle, and died shortly after his release in 1375.

In the early 1360s the king had entered an ill-advised liaison with a London merchant’s wife, Alice Perrers, who bore him at least three illegitimate children. After Queen Philippa’s death in 1369 the aspiring royal mistress stirred up a good deal of suspicion and enmity both at court and in the country. By the time Edward’s government faced its supreme political test, in the Good Parliament of 1376 (so-called on account of the parliament’s concerted efforts to clean up corruption within the royal court), the king himself was confined to his sickbed; and the Black Prince, whom many continued to see as England’s saviour, died while the assembly was in session.

It was indeed a pitiful end to a glorious reign. And yet the memory of this great family endured. In 1377 the chancellor challenged parliament to consider “if ever any Christian king or other lord in the world had so noble and gracious a lady for his wife, or such children – princes, dukes and others – as our lord the king has had”.

Under the strong direction of John of Gaunt, the remaining members of the royal family drew together in support of the new heir to the throne, the ten-year-old Richard of Bordeaux, and committed itself to the impending challenge of a royal minority. There was to be no further open disaffection within the family until the adult Richard II ruined the Edwardian legacy by quarrelling with Thomas of Woodstock and with Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke.

It was only in the 16th century that Tudor historians began to consider that the size of Edward’s family had been a liability to the crown, and that the intervening Wars of the Roses had been caused by the presence in England of a series of noble families all descended from the stock of Edward III.

Had Edward been able to respond to those criticisms, he would no doubt have argued that they simply proved the wisdom of a dynastic policy that had aimed to channel princely ambition into foreign wars and imperial dreams. Modern sensibilities may shy away from such aggressive models of state-building. But on the remarkable record of dynastic stability and harmony that prevailed in England from 1330 to 1380, it is surely hard to deny that Edward had a point.

Mark Ormrod is a professor in history at the University of York and the author of Edward III (Yale English Monarchs Series, October 2011).

The Hundred Years’ War explained

In 1337 Philip VI of France and Edward III of England declared war in a long-standing dispute over the English-held duchy of Aquitaine. In 1340 Edward declared himself King of France in order to make it possible to win allies within enemy territory.

In 1346 Edward defeated Philip VI at the battle of Crécy and went on to take Calais in 1347. Philip’s son, John II, was taken prisoner by the Black Prince at Poitiers in 1356. Peace terms were agreed at Brétigny in 1360: Edward was to renounce his claim to France in return for sovereign control of Aquitaine. But the treaty was never fully implemented, and in 1369 hostilities resumed.

Richard II and Henry IV played a waiting game, but Henry V embarked upon a full-scale return to war. His success at Agincourt in 1415 led to the Treaty of Troyes of 1420, by which he was declared heir to Charles VI of France. In 1422 Henry VI became, in theory, king of England and France. But the French, led by Joan of Arc, resisted; and by 1453 all English territory in France, save Calais, was lost.


This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine