Edward III, one of the great Plantagenet kings of England, was born in 1312, the eldest son of King Edward II of England and Isabella of France, the daughter of King Philip IV of France. He became king at the age of fourteen. Due to Edward III’s young age when he became king, his mother acted as regent, with her lover Roger Mortimer, Earl of March at her side. There was considerable conflict between the king and his guardians, and in 1330, Edward III acted to remove Mortimer from power. After Mortimer’s execution in 1330 and Isabella’s exile to northern England, Edward III reigned until his death in 1377.
Edward III was a successful warrior king who led campaigns in Scotland and France. He was a canny politician, able to convince Parliament to fund his military efforts, and he founded the Order of the Garter.
He was also king when the Black Death struck England in 1348. Two of his children died of the plague (see below), and roughly one third of England’s population was lost. While some places survived with minimal losses, other villages disappeared entirely.
Edward III’s Claim to the Throne of France
The other major event of Edward III’s reign was the start of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). While the causes of the war were many and complex, the king’s justification for the war was the denial of his claim to the French throne. His mother was the daughter of King Philip IV of France, and her three older brothers were all successive kings of France and all died without sons. Thus, Edward III of England was the closet male relation. However, the French throne went to Philip de Valois, who became Philip VI of France. Philip was the grandson of King Philip III of France (Edward III’s great-grandfather) through a junior line of the family, although his claim was through the male line. Edward’s claim was through his mother and thus was denied on the basis of Salic Law, which meant that the throne of France could not pass through a woman.
Edward III’s Children
Edward III’s connection to the French monarchy complicated the succession to the French throne and on the surface led to war with France. In a similar fashion, Edward III’s descendants had competing claims to the English throne, claims that ultimately led to the War of the Roses. Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainault, had twelve children, nine of whom survived childhood. Five of these were sons.
- Edward of Woodstock was the eldest. He is known as the Black Prince and began his celebrated military career in 1346, at the age of sixteen. He died in 1376, and his son became King Richard II upon the death of Edward III in 1377.
- The second surviving son was Lionel of Antwerp, the Duke of Clarence. He had one daughter, and his great-granddaughter, Anne Mortimer, married into the House of York, which became one of the bases for the Yorkist claim to the throne.
- The third son, John of Gaunt, became Duke of Lancaster upon the death of his father-in-law. His oldest son, Henry of Bolingbroke, deposed Richard II and made himself King Henry IV in 1399/1400.
- The fourth son was Edmund of Langley, the first Duke of York. His younger son Richard married Anne Mortimer, the great-granddaughter of Lionel of Antwerp, thus strengthening the Yorkist claim to the throne.
- The youngest surviving son was Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. He and his nephew, King Richard II, came into conflict in the 1380s. The Duke was murdered in 1397 while in prison in Calais, France.
- William of Hatfield lived about one month after birth, and Thomas of Windsor survived only a year, a victim of the plague.
Edward III and Philippa had five daughters:
- Isabella, who married Enguerrand de Coucy
- Joan, who died of plague while traveling to marry Pedro of Castille
- Blanche, who died shortly after birth
- Mary, who married the Duke of Brittany
- Margaret, who married the Earl of Pembroke
While the senior line of the Plantagenet kings died out with Richard II, the descendants of Edward III’s younger sons would fight over the throne through the fifteenth century and the War of the Roses.
Edward III ruled England during a period of demographic crisis (the Black Death) and military success in the Hundred Years’ War. His family ties to the French monarchy became part of his justification for the war with France. Less than a century after his death, the warring Houses of York and Lancaster would base their claims to the throne on being descended from Edward III.