Wednesday 19 August 2009

Edward III-Father of the English Nation

I've been reading Ian Mortimer's book, The Perfect King: the Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation. Yes, there is much in Mortimer's thesis that stands up to scrutiny. Perhaps the most common perception of Edward's reign is one that brought England success in war, from the Halidon Hill and Neville's Cross against Scotland, to the even greater victories against France at Crecy and Poitiers. In 1356 England had two enemy kings in captivity: David II of Scotland and John II of France. In some ways the country had reached the high point in its Medieval history. But success in war brought two more innovations: the enhanced role of ordinary people in attaining military success, and the rise of Parliament as a unique English political institution.

Before Edward England had continued to rely on the feudal levy for its military arm, which meant, in essence, dependency on the great feudal nobility and the armed knight. But Edward's wars saw the recruitment of professional armies, where the decisive arm was not the knight but the plebeian archer.

It was through Edward's wars that the ordinary people of England (and Wales!) acquired a direct interest in the course and the outcome of the nation's foreign adventures, which did much to forge a common sense of nationhood, distinctly lacking at earlier periods. Even more important, the wars demanded money, and money meant Parliamentary grants, and Parliamentary grants meant detailed scrutiny of expenditure, as well as the granting of petitions. By the end of Edward's reign the Commons were able not only able to introduce legislation, but also to hold officials to account. His successor, Richard II was to discover just how assertive Parliament could be.

It was Edward who raised England from the nadir of the reign of his father, and created a sense of common identity and purpose. More than that, it was his patronage that turned St. George into a national saint, and he was the first king to give first place to the English language, as opposed to the Norman-French favoured by his predecessors. Not only did he use English himself in everyday discourse, but also in 1362 he passed legislation recognising English as 'the tongue of the nation.' Where he led the great nobility followed. So, the answer has to be, yes: Edward has every justified right to be considered as the father of the English nation.

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