By Joseph Sarr
The Colorado Historian, Vol.2 (2012)
Introduction: Following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the new line of kings that descended from William the Conqueror enjoyed a very secure and independent base of power. The once firm foundations of the English throne fractured throughout the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries thanks to the disastrous reigns of King John and Henry III. Although the crown managed to right itself under the acclaimed rule of Edward I “Longshanks,” in 1272, the damage was done. The two previous rulers, through their tyranny and extravagance, convinced the nobility of England that the throne was incapable of ruling on its own. The issuing of Magna Carta in 1215 effectively curtailed Norman and Angevin power. Simultaneously, the baronage slowly accumulated more influence in governing England. A capable monarch, however, could run the country while limited by institutional guidelines. Even though his constant warmongering frustrated his nobles and drained the royal coffers to near depletion, Edward I’s actions and decisions ultimately strengthened the English state by pacifying its enemies and satisfying its barons. Unfortunately, this monarchical redemption was short-lived. The king’s son, Edward II, assumed the crown in 1307 and held it until 1327. During his reign, the new ruler had managed to reverse most of his father’s advancements by completely alienating virtually every political constituency in England. The result was the first successful overthrow of an English king. Even though depositions and revolutions occurred with astonishing frequency during the early modern period, the notion was quite unheard of in fourteenth-century England. Edward II managed to shatter this norm because of how specific baronial expectations of kings had become. Up until his rule, English history had shown that prosperity increasingly occurred under the guidance of a politically-active, militaristic ruler, one who was strong-willed and independent enough to stand on his own, yet flexible enough to appease the baronage. Edward I’s successful reign further defined this unspoken, yet growingly relevant archetype. Edward II, through a fatal combination of his passive and alienating behavior, dependence on favoritism, and constant military failures, fell short of such rigid expectations that his barons were ultimately forced to take extreme measures against him.
Although historians generally agree that Edward II’s reign was a complete failure, and that the king himself was rather inept, debate has centered on the specific causes for his downfall. Early studies on the king were surprisingly sympathetic to him. James Conway Davies, a historian who wrote in 1918 on baronial unrest, portrayed Edward II as a poor leader, but not a terrible person. He was simply unprepared to handle the baronial opposition that had accumulated against the throne over time. Davies argued that the decline in the power of feudal relations, starting primarily during the reign of Henry II, increased discontent among the barons. As administrative power consolidated within the king’s household, magnates grew greedier for their share of the wealth. By the fourteenth century, baronial ambivalence to the power of the throne necessitated a particular type of king: a strong-willed military commander who could placate the opposition through force of personality and an insatiable political drive. Even though Edward I certainly fulfilled such an assertive role, his son, by his very personality, was doomed from the start. Although Davies’ early analysis acknowledged the problems of Edward II’s passivity and favoritism, he placed greater emphasis on the issue of baronial discontent, which had risen to a boil under previous kings. Davies also rarely explored the other problems that Edward II inherited from his father in great detail, such as debt and the war with Scotland.