I’ve always enjoyed those ‘what was happening on this day xxx years ago?’ kinds of posts. I think they give us some insight, because it helps us to imagine those events happening in real time. So I’m talking about Edward II’s parliament of September 1313 – 707 years ago exactly, down to the month.
A short introduction to our king. He was a handsome man by contemporary accounts, muscular, strong and over 6 foot tall. When he and his wife, Isabella, were caught in a burning tent just a few months before, in the summer of 1313, he carried her out in his arms.
But he was also a bit strange, especially in the eyes of his barons. He enjoyed fishing and swimming in the Thames with the peasants. He liked to build, to dig ditches, and to hang out with the common man. This kind of behaviour was seen an unseemly for a king, but people were mostly able to forgive him for it.
What they weren’t able to forgive was his tendency towards obsession. For much of his reign, Edward had a royal favourite – first Piers Gaveston, then Hugh Despenser. Both were men who were of relatively low station, but who Edward doted on – he tried to give Gaveston the royal Cornish estates, which had been in the royal family for generations, and he even made Hugh the head of his household, meaning that nobody could meet with him unless Hugh was also present. The barons loathed Gaveston, who used to insult them and call them names, and they used their power to restrict both the king and Gaveston, by issuing a series of laws called the Ordinances in 1311, taking some of the king’s powers away.
In 1312, they finally had enough of Gaveston – and, with civil war looming, they kidnapped and beheaded him on a country road.
Edward was not pleased, to put it mildly. War threatened between the two sides for years, and the baronial leaders – Thomas Lancaster and the Earl of Warwick – refused to enter the king’s presence without arms, fearing what he would do to them.
Edward’s last attempt to call a Parliament – in July – failed, so on 26th July (the day after it ended), he summoned another one, set to convene on 23rd September. In the writ of summons, the king declared his desire to have a ‘colloquium and tractatum’ to settle ‘various arduous affairs touching the king and the state of the kingdom.’ Effectively, he wanted to settle the pseudo-war with the barons once and for all.
Part of his reasoning must have been financial. After all, the king was unable to raise taxes – and therefore fund his government – without the approval of parliament, and parliament hadn’t approved a tax for him since 1309. He was strapped for cash, especially since the failed Scottish campaign of 1310 – and the looming conflict with France didn’t improve things.
Even before the parliament, though, Edward was searching for other solutions. He sent envoys to the pope in search of a large loan in 1312, and spent the summer of 1313 visiting the king of France in order to settle the matter of governing Gascony – a part of France which belonged to the English crown at the time. In short, he was prepared for the parliament to go badly.
In preparation for the hard negotiations they expected, Edward and Pembroke (one of his allies) met with their council on 17th September, most likely to decide strategy. Edward also called for two envoys from the French king, who would ostensibly help govern the negotiations.
This meeting was probably in response to the barons, who decided to meet beforehand, too. They, led by Lancaster, held a tournament at Brackley on the 19th. This was almost certainly not an innocent sporting event, but an opportunity to gather and decide on a strategy for facing the king – and Edward clearly suspected that too, because he ordered them to cancel it on 10th and 16th, but they went ahead anyway. Ah, medieval politics – discussing council matters over a joust or two.
The barons finally arrived in London on 23rd September, but wanted Edward to follow through on his promise of a royal pardon up front. (They were still enemies of the king for their execution of Gaveston.) Talks between the two sides were orchestrated by the papal envoys, Arnold of St Prisca and Arnold of Poitiers, as well as two neutral barons, the earls of Gloucester and Richmond. The back and forth over this matter lasted three weeks, but after years of deadlock, it seemed the two sides were finally close to an agreement. On the 14th of October, the barons formally met with the king in Westminster Hall, where he issued them with royal pardons for the killing of Gaveston. To mark the occasion, they dined with the king that night, and the following night the king dined with them. The rebel barons finally joined the parliament on 15th October, and on the 16th, the king formally published their pardons.
Hard negotiation continued. On 30th October, the barons agreed that the right to bear arms belonged to the king alone, and they would no longer come to parliament with armed retainers. On 5th November, the barons were formally acquitted of any problems related to the seizure of Gaveston’s property, and on 6th the king confirmed his previous royal pardon, but in return the barons had to agree to pardon Gaveston’s former associates – something they had, up until then, resisted.
Crucially for Edward, the parliament also finally granted him a new tax, which was to be collected by 25th June 1314. The money was to be used to fund a military campaign in Scotland, a campaign which was formally agreed on 28th of November and was almost certainly discussed during the parliament, which came to an end on 12th.
It’s easy to imagine Edward leaving this parliament feeling very pleased. Although he’d had to grant a pardon to the men who’d killed his favourite, he’d finally, after years of trying, been able to assert his authority over the barons and the Ordinances, fund his government, and regain control of his household and royal officers. The nobility were back on side, and plans were underway for the biggest Scottish campaign for a generation – it would have been easy for them to cast their eyes back to the glory days of his father’s reign, when many battles were won in Scotland and the kingdom itself seemed well within English grip.
Unfortunately, that Scottish campaign turned out to be the disastrous Bannockburn campaign (the one made famous by the movie Braveheart.) When he left London in November, there was no way he could have imagined that his next parliament, in September 1314, would be held in York, and he would arrive there fresh off fleeing Scotland by ship, in a hasty meeting to discuss the potential for an immediate Scottish counter-invasion which would put the north in peril. (Oh, and the barons insisted on replacing nearly all his household staff with people chosen by them. Eek.)