By James Turner
Could one of the greatest warrior kings of medieval England have secretly suffered from a very modern seeming aliment and if so, was his lifelong and ardent devotion to the chivalric cult to blame?
Edward III was crowned on the 1st of February 1327 under highly unusual circumstances. The young king’s father, Edward II, had proven himself to be a largely ineffectual ruler and prone to lavishing inordinate gifts and lucrative offices upon a small circle of favourites. The result was years of political tumult and sporadic aristocratic uprisings which ultimately culminated in the king being overthrown and imprisoned by his wife, Isabella of France, and her romantic and political partner, Roger Mortimer. In 1325, Isabella had been dispatched on a diplomatic mission to the court of her brother, King Charles IV, in the hopes that their familial bond may secure a relatively favourable peace for the exhausted and defeated English. Instead, she met Roger Mortimer, an exiled lord of the Welsh Marches who had fled to the safety of the French court following his participation in an earlier unsuccessful rebellion against Edward II.
The couple soon became a focus for the swelling opposition to the king and in 1326 they invaded England with a small army composed of mercenaries and a smattering of diehard followers. Finding abundant support amongst members of the English nobility, the rapidly expanding rebel army marched through England with impunity as royalist resistance crumbled before it. Edward II was arrested and forced to abdicate in favour of his and Isabella’s eldest son. Obligingly, from the perspective of his captors at least, the recently dethroned king died shortly after his successor’s coronation. The fifteen-year-old Edward III, who surely had complex feelings about the suspicious circumstances of his father’s death and his own complicity with the rebels, was in effect a puppet king under the thumb of his mother and her paramour.
It was a novel arrangement which was to be tested from the very beginning. With the military situation in Scotland increasingly untenable, the regents agreed to a financially ruinous peace treaty with the Scots which the young king regarded as a personal humiliation. With the excitement and blush of rebellion fading and a new political status quo established, Isabella and Mortimer were also forced to contend with growing discontent from within the English aristocracy, including outright opposition from members of the extended royal family. Earl Henry of Lancaster, a grandson of Henry III and a cousin of the deposed Edward II, openly broke with the dowager queen’s party.
At this juncture, Edward III stayed loyal to his mother and Mortimer, acting as a figurehead in the campaign to suppress the Earl’s rebellion. The defeated rebels were treated with comparative leniency, the Earl being subject to an enormous fine, but worse was to come when the regents tried and executed Edward II’s younger brother, Edmund of Woodstock. Edmund’s death and the spottiness of the evidence against him, their being significant evidence that he was entrapped by Mortimer who convinced him Edward II was still alive and imprisoned, provoked widespread anger in England and Mortimer struggled to keep order during the subsequent meeting of parliament.
By 1330 Edward III, now married to the proactive and politically literate Philippa of Hainault, had judged that his time had come. With the help of his coterie of companions and childhood friends, Edward launched a daring raid on Nottingham Castle, capturing both Isabella and Mortimer. Mortimer was executed after perfunctory proceedings, while Isabella had the regency taken from her and was placed under a largely respectful but ever-watchful house arrest. When in 1332 the Disinherited, a confederacy of largely related Anglo-Scottish nobles who had lost their Scottish lands as a result of her opposition to the Bruce regime, won a surprise victory against King David of Scotland at the Battle of Dupplin Moor, Edward swiftly recognized an opportunity to reverse the humiliating terms of his parentally enforced capitulation.
Resurrecting his namesake’s dreams of English hegemony over the British Isles, Edward hastily raised a patchwork army and invaded Scotland. While the campaign in Scotland, often referred to as the Second War for Scottish Independence, would prove to be an extraordinarily complex and bitterly fought affair, Edward’s initial intervention made significant gains in restoring the English strategic position within Scotland. What’s more, his defeat of the formidable Sir Archibald Douglas and the principal Scottish army at the battle of Halidon Hill, secured the young king’s growing reputation as a talented warrior and military leader. A side effect of the ongoing attempts to conquer Scotland by Edward and his various deputies was an increase in tensions with the French, who were aligned with the Scottish as a result of their mutual history of conflict with England and the potential strategic benefits of cooperation.
In 1328 Edward’s maternal uncle, Charles IV of France, died without producing an immediate male heir. After a short delay to see if the pregnant queen would deliver a son, the throne was awarded to the late king’s cousin, Philip of Valois, the king’s nearest male relative through the male line, who was duly crowned Philip VI. Edward III, as Charles IV’s maternal nephew and grandson of Philip V, had a strong claim to the throne but precedence established by the resolutions of previous succession crises tended to favour the male line, even over more closely related individuals who derived their claim through their maternal connections.
Even more tellingly, the French aristocracy firmly rejected the notion of being ruled over by an unproven English king or his domineering mother, much preferring that one of their own ascend to the vacant throne. When this was all decided in 1328, Edward was still in his minority under the effective control of the regent, his mother. Meanwhile Isabella and Mortimer who were engaged in a life-and-death struggle for control of England had neither the inclination nor resources to contest the French throne while their grip on the English one remained so precarious. However, in 1337 when Philip VI formally announced the confiscation of the Duchy of Aquitaine, a remnant of Plantagenet Kings of England’s once vast continental domains, Edward countered by claiming the French throne by right of his status of the sole grandson of Philip V. The pursuit of this great endeavour, the capturing of the French throne, would unleash decades of war and devastation on France, while propelling its would-be-conquerors to the uttermost heights of glory.
Edward’s initial attempts to secure the French throne for himself by forging a series of alliances with neighbouring princes, essentially paying them to fight the French, was a massively expensive failure. Few of his newfound allies fully committed themselves to Edward’s war, often holding out for more money from the English king, while those few who did meaningfully engage the French found it difficult to coordinate with one another. Worse still, the massive sums of raw cash Edward required to construct and lubricate this diplomatic juggernaut pushed the finances of the English crown to the brink of ruin and brought him into conflict with successive parliaments.
Part of Edward’s issue was that his great undertaking, the pursuit of his dynastic claim to the French throne, was essentially personal in nature. In order to persuade the English aristocracy to participate, both militarily and financially in his campaigns, he needed to transform a personal dynastic claim into a shared enterprise in which the whole kingdom was deeply invested. Edward enacted this transformation with great dynamism and verve, effectively mobilizing his interests in the cult of chivalry and the great popularity of Romance literature.
Pageantry and spectacle had come to be seen as crucial aspects of tournaments during this period. Indeed, many such events involved elements of roleplay or narrative components, during which participants took on the role of Arthurian knights or other heroes of chivalric literature. In addition to the usual jousts and competitions, the participants of these themed events, often referred to as Hastiludes, engaged in elaborate chivalric rituals and performances that pantomimed their way through scenarios found within contemporary Romance literature. The Arthurian legends were one of the great pillars of medieval romance literature and Edward tactfully played upon the popularity of these events and the intimate association the Arthurian legends had with the British Isles, to stoke the English aristocracy’s appetite for glory and chivalric acclaim. The acclaim could only be found through participation in great and worthy chivalric undertakings, the only practical outlet of which was participation on the battlefield. Edward’s tireless, often flamboyant, promotion of these Arthurian-infused knightly ideals welded the English aristocracies’ sense of self, as knights and Englishmen, to Edward’s martial and imperial ambitions.
This association was soon further sealed by victory, as Edward led his forces into an unprecedented period of English military success and prestige. In a series of campaigns spanning decades, Edward and his allies greatly improved their strategic position in France, securing valuable footholds, winning victories at the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Nevilles Cross as well as capturing King Jean II of France and King David II of Scotland. Such victories were reinforced by Edward’s continued promotion of the chivalric cult and its studied conflation with the war. If the rapaciousness and totality with which Edward and his English followers pursued the conquest of France flew in the face of many of the more moderating chivalric or Arthurian ideals, this contradiction proved easy to ignore with the scent of victory in their nostrils.
In 1348, Edward’s previous scheme to re-found the legendary Arthurian Order of the Round Table, which would have included a large chunk of English and Aquitaine knighthood, was reworked into a smaller more manageable format. The Order of the Garter, which combined Edward’s polemic experimentation with knightly orders and shared chivalric enterprises with his promotion of the cult of St George, was formed of twenty-six knights. Counting both the king and his immediate heir amongst their number, almost all the founding members of the Garter were veterans of the Crecy campaign or had performed some other invaluable service to the war effort. While the abandoned Round Table project had attempted to unify and direct the collective knighthood of England, the Order of the Garter was a command cadre whose members could be entrusted with the management and prosecution of the English war effort.
That one of the founding members of the Order of the Garter, Roger Mortimer, was the grandson and namesake of Edward’s former enemy, demonstrates the enormous level of success the king had achieved in focusing the English aristocracy on chivalric and martial enterprises, effectively adopting his personal cause as a collective enterprise. Roger had distinguished himself during the Crecy campaign and because of dedication and abilities was entrusted with membership in the new knightly order intended to oversee the completion of Edward’s war. Under the king’s energetic leadership, this period of English military success led to a conflation between English identity and martial enterprise that quickly came to permeate English culture.
However, this newly acquired self-image and the English parliament’s expectations for further victories were inevitably challenged by a series of military and diplomatic setbacks. From around 1368 onwards Edward and the English were subject to an escalating series of setbacks and defeats. By the time of the king’s death in 1377, the English position in France had greatly eroded the triumphs of his earlier reign, a bitter and tantalizing memory. There are a number of factors that influenced this string of defeats and the reversal of Edward’s long-cherished imperial ambitions.
First of all was the adoption and implementation of radically new long-term strategies by Charles V, the latest in the long succession of French kings that Edward had faced. Charles reformed the way French armies were raised and operated, and successfully enacted a master strategic blueprint that allowed the French to take advantage of the invader’s logistical vulnerabilities. While Edward’s sons had eagerly joined him at the forefront of the attempt to conquer France, assuming key leadership positions within the English war effort, many of the king’s closest allies and childhood friends had fallen victim to disease and ill health. These losses not only represented personal blows to Edward but created a dearth of experience amongst the upper ranks of the English armies. Such difficulties were further compounded by simple war weariness, as the comparatively small kingdom strove to fight across multiple fronts throughout Europe. After more than two decades of sporadic but intense warfare, the English gentry and Parliament, which not long ago had lauded Edward, were beginning to find the task of financing the king’s ever-elusive dynastic ambitions increasingly onerous.
The failure of many of the English, increasingly reactive, campaigns during the latter part of the reign can be attributed to a lack of decisive leadership. The inconsistency and occasional inadequacies of English field commanders were further exacerbated by sluggish reactions on a strategic level and Edward’s growing difficulties in financing and supporting fresh military expeditions. Such failures must ultimately be attributed to the highest strata of the royalist party and Edward himself. By 1368 and the beginning of this precipitous decline in military fortunes, the king was 56 years old. He had outlived many of his contemporaries and had energetically orchestrated decades of war, often leading from the front. Such endeavours had won him land in France, glory in England and years of fretful, ultimately fruitless, peace.
But was this fundamental lack of leadership, which so hobbled the once invincible English on the battlefield and allowed war weariness to drive a wedge between parliament and the royalist party, merely the result of age and fatigue? To deny the possibility entirely would be to verge into hero worship and hagiography but it is nevertheless difficult to reconcile such decay with the ambitious warrior king who had so empathically wooed and inspired the English political community. Could this vertiginous decline in Edward’s leadership capabilities be the result of injuries sustained as a result of his cultivation of a chivalric image and lifelong participation in jousts?
The last decade or so has seen, a commendable if long overdue, increase in dialogues concerning player safety in both combat sports such as Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts as well as full contact sports like Rugby and the American incarnation of Football. An important result of these discussions has been the increased recognition that head trauma and concussions pose a cumulative and deleterious effect on participants’ long-term health and well-being. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE is a neurodegenerative ailment, the development of which has been strongly linked with repeated trauma to the head.
The disease is often degenerative in nature, worsening over time. Early symptoms include headaches, sudden dizziness, and confusion. As the disease develops, its victims begin to suffer from memory loss, poor judgement, loss of impulse control and erratic behaviour. The latter stages of the disease often present in the form of speech impediments, facial paralysis, deafness, vertigo, sensory processing disorder, a range of movement disorders, tremors, depression and dementia. This remorseless barrage of symptoms, many of which lead to further complications, means that long-term suffers struggle to communicate with others as well as experience debilitating mobility and coordination problems.
CTE has been identified in some form since the 1920s when it was known as Punch Drunk Syndrome and almost exclusively associated with boxers. A series of recent studies have vastly increased medical science’s understanding of the pathology of CTE, the exact mechanism through which it develops and the physical effect it has on the brain. One difficulty in this process has been that while individual symptoms of CTE can be identified in sufferers, the disease can only properly be diagnosed posthumously through an examination of the brain. In addition to a lot of complicated neurological and chemical aberrations that I don’t understand, CTE manifests as a reduction in brain mass and the atrophying of distinctive regions of the brain such as the frontal and temporal cortices, medial temporal lobe and hippocampus.
The need for an autopsy in acquiring a diagnosis of CTE makes it somewhat tricky to determine how likely people, who have suffered repeated head trauma, are to develop the disease or exactly what the threshold, in terms of trauma, is that triggers this development. However, in 2017 a study carried out on the brains of deceased American Football players found that 99% of the brains tested from members of the National Football League, 88% of those from the Canadian Football League and 91% of college football players involved in the study had CTE. It is currently believed the first stages of the disease manifest between eight and ten years after the infliction of repeated head trauma.
The apparent ubiquity of the disease amongst practitioners of a full contact sport such as American Football begs the question, just how likely was it to develop amongst dedicated jousters? If the repeated bone-crunching clash of athlete upon athlete is enough to inflict long-term damage on the participants’ brain tissue how much worse would the dolorous blow of lance being delivered with the full power of a knight and galloping warhorse behind it? To explore these questions, we’ll need to briefly survey the history and methodology of Jousting before continuing on to study Edward’s own extensive engagement with the sport.
While jousting had come to utterly dominate the tournament scene by the time Edward III took his first youthful forays into the chivalric cult and the intimately related, symbolism charged, pageantry of the world of courtly love, it originated as little more than a sideshow. The early tournaments of the twelfth century more closely resembled modern wargames and military exercises than they did professional sporting events. Indeed, military training in the elusive art of massed cavalry warfare was perhaps the principal purpose of the tournament. The central focus of the tournament was the mêlée, a grand mock battle involving two teams, each of which was routinely composed of upwards of a hundred or more knights.
These mock battlefields could stretch over a mile or more, often encompassing the land in between the separate villages or venues in which each prearranged team was billeted. In fact, a common complaint amongst the peasantry during this period was that bands of over-enthusiastic tourneying knights would trample through their fields and ruin their crops. After an initial massed cavalry charge involving both teams, the participants of the mêlée would attempt to maneuver against each other in formation, staging further charges and attempting to take one another prisoner so that they may be held for ransom.
While undoubtedly the central activity of these early tournaments, mêlées were often protracted affairs that took considerable time to organize. Even the essential task of forming two roughly numerically equal teams from the attending knights could become the subject of protracted negotiations. Jousting began as a sort of sideshow in which those knights who were either not participating in the mêlée or had been knocked out of its early stages were able to entertain themselves and display their martial prowess. Particularly unscrupulous knights would spend most of the day loitering around the campsite, perhaps participating in the occasional joust, before heading out to the mêlée with the goal of capturing one or more of their now exhausted opponents.
The popularity of jousting grew until it utterly eclipsed the mêlée and its emphasis on mass cavalry maneuvers and simulated warfare. While mêlées remained part of tournaments, even during the lifetime of Edward III, they were greatly reduced in size and scope and had effectively shed their role as battlefield simulations. While almost certainly less useful in the fostering of military discipline and unity, the reduced scale of the joust meant that they could be held in front of crowds which greatly enhanced their popularity and allowed spectators, many of whom were noble women, to engage with the pageantry and chivalric trappings that increasingly accompanied the sport. The inclusion of aristocratic women was particularly important in securing the enduring popularity of the joust because it allowed them to occupy or pantomime the role held by their equivalents within Arthurian Romance literature as the arbiters and judges of the worthiness of chivalric deeds.
Even with blunted weapons, which was the usual arrangement, tournaments were exceptionally dangerous. Serious injury and death were far from uncommon occurrences, and as a result, bishops and other senior figures within the Church made numerous attempts to ban tournaments throughout the first half of the twelfth century and beyond. Attempting to unhorse men through force of arms amidst massed cavalry formations was an inherently dangerous activity with knights being trampled to death or sustaining life-threatening injuries as a result of bad luck or over-enthusiastic opponents.
The monetary stakes at most tournaments were very real, affording participants the opportunity to make considerable sums of money by capturing and ransoming opponents. This financial impetus meant that few tournament goers would have been inclined to treat their opponents gently or give them space to recover, heightening the chances of permanent injury or death. Much like modern striking or full-contact sportsmen, participating knights were faced with a situation in which restraint and concern for one’s opponent seemed antithetical to the conditions of victory.
Another concern was that tournaments were irregular events in which teams were ad hoc conglomerations of individuals and knightly retinues. This meant that participants often found themselves in conflict with genuine enemies or rivals which often led to an escalation in the violence and intensity of the mêlée. During a tournament in 1272, that came to be known as the Little Battle of Chalons, the contest between the English and Burgundian knights reached such a fever pitch of intensity that both sides’ spectating infantry retinues were moved to intervene, leading to a spectacular escalation in bloodshed.
It is possible that during the early days of the tournament, it was considered good form to avoid hitting your opponent’s head, during the initial clash of lances, since the nasal helms and mail aventails worn during this period left a small portion of the face exposed. On the other hand, The History of William the Marshall records a bleakly humorous incident in 1177 where its subject, who at the time was cultivating fame and fortune by travelling across Europe’s rapidly deploying tourneying circuit, was unable to collect his prize because a blow from his opponent had deformed his helm in such a way that he was left unable to remove it without the aid of a local blacksmith. 1177 would have been exceptionally early for William to be wearing any sort of faceplate or enclosed helmet, suggesting perhaps that tournament participants were just expected to take their chances. Of course, The History of William the Marshall was written in the mid-1220s during which time enclosed helms had proliferated widely, essentially becoming the default, making it possible that the entire blacksmith incident was an invention by the work’s author.
Jousting was safer than the mêlée but initially only by a manner of degrees. Tournaments were still plagued with casualties even as the joust emerged as their central preoccupation. In 1186, Duke Geoffrey of Brittany, the son of Henry II of England, was trampled to death after being unhorsed during a joust. As a result of advances in armour technology and increasingly intricate and stringently enforced rules set, jousting had become considerably safer by the time the teenage Edward III began to engage in the sport in the late 1320s. However, injuries, even fatalities were still known to happen. John Beaumont, the son of Edward III’s former tutor and the brother-in-law of the King’s friend and distant cousin, Earl Henry of Lancaster and Leicester, was killed in a Hastiulde held at Northampton in 1342.
Indeed, it is possible that the jousts exposed their regular participants to long-term health concerns such as CTE to an even greater extent than the great mêlées of the twelfth century. Almost all of the many rule variants and scoring systems of jousting practiced throughout Europe incentivized strikes to the opponent’s head making repeated head trauma, the assumed cause of CTE, a very real danger for committed tournament participants. While the scale of traditional mêlées and their emphasis on collective maneuvering meant as lengthy as such events were, actual engagement with the enemy was sporadic. On the other hand, the relatively simplified logistics of jousting meant that participants could and indeed were often expected to run multiple courses against multiple opponents over the course of the day. Again, this heightened the chances of sustaining repeated head trauma.
Something to consider before we turn to examine Edward’s own jousting activities is that across a relatively lengthy game season, modern American Football players, the group most associated with CTE, play far more often and regularly than even the most enthusiastic jousters. In fact, the boxers of the 1920s amongst whose numbers the disease was first identified, tended to fight far more regularly than their modern equivalents. However, this does not take into account the extensive practice jousts that committed tournament goers would have to engage in to hone their skills nor the common custom amongst certain knights and nobles to spend a season travelling from tournament to tournament across Europe. It seems clear then that there were still plentiful opportunities for habitual jousters to suffer repeated head trauma within a reasonable short period of time.
Would it be fair to describe Edward III as a habitual jouster? Edward’s paternal grandfather, and to a lesser extent his father Edward II, had been major proponents of chivalric culture and Arthurian Romance literature. Edward grew up in a highly cultured and cosmopolitan court, flushed with the French and Spanish influence brought by respective generations of queens, that highly valued and lauded these staples of the medieval aristocratic monoculture. In 1332, Edward’s wife, Philippa of Hainault, presented him with a magnificent cup decorated with images of the Nine Worthies of Chivalry, a collection of paragons of knightly virtues drawn from history and literature that included such figures as Arthur, Charlemagne, Roland and Julius Caesar. Shortly after receiving this gift, the now twenty-something king commissioned a bedspread and matching pillows decorated with images taken from the life of Alexander the Great. It was only natural then that Edward’s search for suitable knightly and kingly role models led him to gravitate towards jousting, one of the most prestigious manifestations of chivalric culture.
In 1329, while still under the regency of his mother, Edward attended a series of lavish tournaments staged by Roger Mortimer at Herford, Ludlow, Bedford and Wigmore. While it is unclear if Edward competed in any of these tournaments, there would inevitably have been fears for the king’s safety perhaps mingled with concerns that his participation would detract from Mortimer’s role as host, attendance at these events impressed upon the young king the reflected charisma and political utility of such proceedings. Later that year, the seventeen-year-old king jousted in a number of tournaments held within England to celebrate his formal paying of homage to Philip VI, narrowly avoiding the formal confiscation of the king’s extensive French possessions. During the tournament at Dartford, the young king had a narrow escape when his agitated horse leapt into the Thames.
In 1330, Edward and his followers celebrated his overthrow of the regency and assumption of independent rule with a series of massive and ostentatiously staged tournaments culminating in the great tournament that accompanied the Christmas time celebrations of the royal court at Guilford. The following summer this trend repeated itself with the king laying on a series of tournaments at Dartford, Havering, Stepney, Bedford and Cheapside, all of which had overt Arthurian themes. Edward, alongside his companions, participated directly in these tournaments, often jousting in costume as the Arthurian knight Sir Lionel whose attributed coat of arms provided an obvious symbolic link with the heraldic leopards of England. Edward would compete in two further tournaments, both held at Dunstable, in 1334 and 1342 in the guise of Sir Lionel, after whom he named his third son.
Even as Edward took on the mantles of kingship and military command in a more serious and meaningful way, jousting still remained an integral part of life within Edward’s court, with tournaments regularly held to celebrate family events, victories or further rally the English aristocracy between campaigns in France. Tournament season was normally understood to last from Easter to Midsummer and Edward III regularly staged tournaments during this period to coincide with the Arthurian-associated feast of Pentecost. Such tournaments took place in Hereford in 1328, Brustwik in 1334 and Eltham in 1342. On occasion, Edward even staged tournaments in the middle of campaigns, holding Christmas tournaments at Roxburgh in 1134, Antwertp in 1338 and Melrose in 1341. Even on the verge of bankruptcy and in the midst of an ugly political struggle with John Stratford, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1341, Edward still threw and participated in a series of tournaments at Reading, King’s Langley and Norwich. In 1343, Edward held a tournament in Smithfield to mark the jousting debut of his eldest son during which the king and his friends rather inexplicably dressed as the pope and cardinals.
The establishment of the Order of the Garter in 1348 was in many ways the highest expression of Edward III’s attempts to use the trappings and aspirations of chivalric culture to harness the English aristocracy to the ongoing war with France. Even this organization, meant above all to support Edward’s military attempts to secure the French throne, was heavily influenced in its form and function by the king’s preoccupation with jousting. The two benches of the Garter Chapel were designed to demarcate jousting teams, one led by the king, and one led by his heir. It was only natural then that the Order’s founding and many of its subsequent meetings were marked by jousting. Perhaps inevitably, given the demands of coordinating an ever-growing military commitment across multiple theatres and with the Order of the Garter firmly established as a venue for jousting and chivalric celebration, the number of non-garter tournaments hosted by the royal court declined steadily through the 1350s. However, that is not to say that such displays disappeared entirely, indeed the tournament at Smithfield in 1357 was amongst the most ostentatious and magnificent ever thrown by Edward. Attended by the captured kings of Scotland and France, it was like the Garter meeting the following year meant to communicate Edward’s political preeminence and self-styled role as the greater sponsor of European chivalry.
By 1371, the deepening malaise of indecision and poor leadership that seemed to have settled on Edward during the latter half of his reign and the renewal of war with France, began to be compounded by serious illness. Earlier that year, Edward plagued by financial scandal had suffered a serious setback at the hands of an acrimonious parliament that demanded a number of crucial concessions from the king and expressed an extreme reluctance to further finance Edward’s wars in France. In August, the king was taken seriously ill with an unknown ailment. We know from the surviving court documents, he was treated by several doctors, all of whom were thanked for their good service and presented with generous gifts in October, but the exact nature of this illness remains unclear.
Despite this swift treatment, the now sixty-year-old king continued to suffer from bouts of illness and in 1372 unexpectedly declined to lead a new military expedition to France. In fact, the king and his advisors went so far as to extricate the royal household from its traditional role in financing the army; this establishment of a separate war treasury signalled decisively that while the war was to continue, it would do so without Edward III. On the surface, the business of the royal court and household continued much as it had before, with the king attending all the requisite ceremonial events such as the opening and closing of parliament. Edward had, however, begun what was to prove a lasting withdrawal from any attempt to formulate or direct policy within the kingdom. At the same time, the king seems to have begun to suffer from some mobility issues, ceasing to joust or hunt while the normally itinerant royal court began to restrict itself to a small circuit in the southeast of the country.
As the 1370s progressed, the increasingly ill and withdrawn Edward came to rely more and more on his principal advisor and functionary, the somewhat unscrupulous William Latimer. A veteran of the war in France, Latimer rose to the post of the Chamberlain of the royal household, a position from which he took control of most of the household’s financial mechanism and lobbied for further prestigious jobs such as the custodianship of Dover castle and the wardenship of the Cinque Ports. The true source of Latimer’s power was his ability to control access to the increasingly uncommunicative king, blocking members of the aristocracy from seeing Edward and positioning himself as the primary conduit of royal authority.
Similarly, the now widowed Edward was increasingly under the thumb of his mistress, Alice Perrers. While many of the stories circulated about her during the period carry with them a nasty misogynistic note, it does seem clear that, as with so many other members of the court, she was using her position to enrich herself. Moreover, the contemporary consternation with which the English aristocracy and parliament viewed the king’s passive acceptance of her maneuverings belied the growing acceptance amongst them that something was seriously wrong with the king. Despite Edward’s apparent reliance on Latimer and Perrers, when they were hauled before parliament on rather amorphous charges of corruption by the allies of the king’s son, John of Gaunt, the king lacked either the ability or inclination to defend them. Alice was forced to agree to refrain from attending the king or engaging in politics but was allowed to keep most of her possessions while Latimer was temporarily dismissed from the king’s service.
In 1376, the king’s health took another precipitous downturn. The chronicler of York attributes this collapse to an ulcer, a catch-all term used by medieval physicians for any sort of ulcer, growth or cancer. This diagnosis is collaborated by the specialized diet prescribed to Edward by his gaggle of physicians. On the other hand, the Benedictine monk, Thomas Willingham, writing in the decade immediately following the king’s death suggests the king’s ill health was brought about by a combination of grief and a frustrated obsessive love for Alice Perrers. This appraisal possibly hints at a contemporary appreciation that Edward was suffering from depression and mood swings. Both are symptoms of advanced CTE whose sufferers have been noted to display erratic behaviour, paranoia and intense jealousy. The king’s health further fluctuated throughout the remainder of the year and into 1377, adhering to an established pattern of apparent recovery, followed by sudden further collapse. Edward III died in Richmond on the 21 of June 1377.
As we have seen, cognitive decline and bouts of memory loss and confusion are symptoms of early-stage CTE and it is possible that both Edward’s deficiencies in leadership and the later collapse in health were both the result of the gradual progression of the degenerative disease. A range of movement disorders is associated with CTE, any combination of which could have seriously compromised Edward’s ability to ride for extended periods of time, while his increased withdrawal from society and apparent inability to assert himself could feasibly be the result of depression and dementia, compounded by a diminished ability to communicate. While we have no smoking gun, it seems plausible then that Edward who was still an active jouster in the mid-1340s sustained enough cumulative head trauma from jousting to develop a probably relatively mild case of CTE which affected his behaviour before further degenerating over the course of a decade.
Stacked against these syncretic elements is the pattern of recovery and reversals which Edward’s health seems to have undergone in the last years of his life. A diagnosis of degenerative CTE would be hard-pressed to explain these periods of apparent recovery or the rare moments where Edward bestirred himself to intervene in crucial matters of the succession. Edward’s piecemeal deterioration over the 1370s could just as plausibly be explained by a series of escalating strokes, starting with his collapse in 1371. While this interpretation does not provide a medical reason for Edward’s lack of leadership over the last decades, it is very possible that this decline was simply the result of age and fatigue; perhaps the king had simply striven for too long and experienced the death of too many friends and loved ones to throw himself into the war effort with energy and dynamism that had characterized his younger adventuring years. We should also keep in mind the compelling evidence that Edward suffered from an ulcer or stomach cancer. Although of course even if this was his ultimate cause of death it does not preclude the idea that he had suffered from other health problems.
Ultimately, we are left at the end of this investigation with more questions than answers but that is as it should be. Attempting to diagnose the long-term health concerns of a medieval king is in the light of available evidence incredibly rash. Instead, what I hope these discussions have achieved is to heighten our awareness that Edward III and all the other great warrior kings and heroes of our shared histories were, beneath the legends we have piled upon them, fundamentally made of the same stuff we are.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity. You can follow James on Twitter @HistorySchmstry