New website launched for ‘From the Grassroots’

Plymouth Devonport election, 1950. Winston Churchill sat by ballot box with dignitaries. © Plymouth Arts and Heritage Service

Plymouth Devonport election, 1950. Winston Churchill sat by ballot box with dignitaries. © Plymouth Arts and Heritage Service

Today, we are delighted to launch our new, interactive website for our HLF-funded project From the Grassroots: An Oral History of Community Politics in Devon. The project is creating a sound archive of people involved in local politics within the county from 1945 until the present day. The website will showcase our interviews and research, as well as being an excellent way to keep you to date with the project’s events and volunteering opportunities.

In our Research section, you can browse our interviews with local political activists, find out more about them, and listen to clips from their Interviews. You can also explore Devon’s political history in our Themes section, which includes articles on specific historical topics with audioclips and, excitingly, archive video footage (thanks to the South West Film and Television Archive).

We are especially happy with a new Community section, where you can share your memories and thoughts about politics in Devon. You can sign up to our Community here [link], and once a member you can contribute in two ways. Firstly you can start discussions and share photographs in the Your Memories section, why not tell us about your first political memory, or your involvement in an election? Secondly, we will highlight some issues that emerge from our research in Talking Point and we’d love you hear your thoughts on these controversial topics! Here’s our first one (again with some great archive film from SWFTA) on Enoch Powell’s controversial visit to Exeter University in 1968.

Following soon will be a set of Schools resources, but in the meantime we have links to other useful websites for teachers and students of modern political history. And of course you can keep up-to-date by reading our News, and find out how you can Get Involved in the project yourself.

We will add new content to the website throughout the project, so keep checking back for more material as we continue – and do please let us know what you think! We’d love to hear from you.


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Nolo episcopari

On Monday, the Church of England voted to allow women bishops for the first time. This prompted Matthew Kilburn, research assistant in the Lords 1660-1715 section, to consider those appointed to bishoprics in that period…

‘Nobody actually wants to be a bishop! They all just have their arms twisted until they have no choice.’ So said an Anglican clergywoman friend on Monday 14 July 2014 on being congratulated on the Church of England’s decision that day to allow women to become bishops. It’s a historical myth that a churchman, when offered a bishopric, would decline the office twice with the words ‘nolo episcopari’, and only if he communicated the phrase a third time was the refusal taken literally. In the period 1660 to 1715 however, where the History of Parliament’s first accounts of the careers of bishops who sat in the House of Lords are nearing completion, there were several cases where bishops seem genuinely to have accepted office reluctantly, and a few where they were among the last to hear of their appointments.

Communications in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had obvious limitations. Before the telegraph, railway and telephone, let alone the internet, the monarch and their ministers in Westminster had to rely on fast post-horses and their ability to negotiate indifferent roads. Decisions at court could reach printed newspapers or handwritten newsletters before official notification was despatched to a potential office-holder. In April 1691 it was decided that the new bishop of Peterborough should be Richard Cumberland. According to a biography written by his son-in-law Squire Payne, published in 1720, the first Cumberland heard of it was when he read about his appointment in a newspaper he picked up in a coffee house in Stamford, where at the time he was vicar of the parish of All Saints.

Stamford, on the Great North Road, was not especially remote from London, but Carlisle, next to the border with Scotland, was the northernmost episcopal seat in England. In April 1702 the archdeacon of Carlisle, William Nicolson, wrote of his support for the promotion to the bishopric of the dean of Carlisle Cathedral, William Grahme. When Grahme refused the bishopric Nicolson mourned the disappearance of his chance of becoming dean of Carlisle himself. On 4 May 1702 he wrote to William Grahme’s brother, James, saying that he had just heard that John Robinson was to be the new bishop of Carlisle. However, the next day Queen Anne issued the formal direction to the clergy of Carlisle to elect Nicolson himself as their bishop. Nicolson’s name had been aired as a possible bishop of Carlisle the previous year, so though he seemed to have no intimations of advancement, perhaps he was deferring to James Grahme’s bias towards his brother’s prior claim.

The influence or reputation of a predecessor was a plausible deterrent to candidates for bishoprics, particularly if that predecessor was still living and had been removed for political reasons. It’s possible that Richard Cumberland was deliberately surprised by his appointment to Peterborough in 1691 as his predecessor, Thomas White, was still living but had been deprived for refusing to acknowledge William III and Mary II as sovereigns and break his oath to the deposed James II. This was definitely the case with Richard Kidder, who also in 1691 refused the bishopric of Bath and Wells because he did not want to challenge the popularity or authority of the deprived bishop, Thomas Ken. In the end he was ‘plainly bullied’ into accepting the bishopric when his refusals were ignored and his appointment was announced.

There were other reasons to refuse advancement. In 1681 John Tillotson, then dean of Canterbury, was offered the wealthy bishopric of Meath in Ireland by the lord-lieutenant, the duke of Ormond, but he declined to exchange his deanery of Canterbury and involvement in religious and political controversy in London for a ‘settled and easy station’ in a country of which he knew nothing. Making one’s desire for advancement known could make it impossible to turn a bishopric down. After years of feeling that he had unjustly been passed over for preferment, Laurence Womock was finally made a bishop in September 1683. Unfortunately the see, St David’s, incurred more costs than it brought him income and was remote and rugged compared to his comfortable old life as a canon of Ely. More expressions of grievance followed. The stress of dealing with a diocese where he did not speak the Welsh language of many of the inhabitants and which was remote from the centre of secular and church politics, London, did not prolong the already septuagenarian Womock’s life. He died in London in 1686. John Tillotson, though a devoted manager of the Church for William III and Mary II, postponed his acceptance of the role of archbishop of Canterbury for months in 1691 and it was accepted that the stress of the position led to his death in 1694. Even if no senior churchman in this period shared the fate of their pre-Civil War exemplar, the beheaded archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, it was apprehended that the work of being a bishop in this period could drastically shorten one’s life.


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The French Revolution, as seen from England

On Bastille day our director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses British views of the new regime in Paris…

Bastille day, the anniversary of the storming in 1789 of the brooding stronghold in Paris that represented for its inhabitants the arbitrary nature of the ancient regime, provides an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the advent of representative government in France on Britain and British observers. The French National Assembly had come into existence about a month before 14 July, when the Third Estate – the more popular element within the Estates General summoned to attempt to resolve the financial crisis of the French monarchy – declared itself the sole representative body of the nation and adopted its new title. The Assembly was in being until replaced by the Legislative Assembly in 1791 which was itself replaced by the Convention in 1792.

After the initial enthusiastic endorsements of the assertion of representative government, apparently à l’anglaise, British observers became progressively less impressed: and, in particular appalled by the way in which the Assembly conducted its business. Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France written in the first half of 1790 was famously splenetic about the febrile atmosphere in which the French National Assembly worked, among constant interruptions from members of the public:

The assembly, their organ, acts before them the farce of deliberation with as little decency as liberty. They act like the comedians of a fair before a riotous audience; they act amidst the tumultuous cries of a mixed mob of ferocious men, and of women lost to shame, who, according to their insolent fancies, direct, control, applaud, explode them; and sometimes mix and take their seats amongst them; domineering over them with a strange mixture of servile petulance and proud, presumptuous authority. As they have inverted order in all things, the gallery is in the place of the house. This assembly, which overthrows kings and kingdoms, has not even the physiognomy and aspect of a grave legislative body… Who is it that admires, and from the heart is attached to national representative assemblies, but must turn with horror and disgust from such a profane burlesque, and abominable perversion of that sacred institute?

It was a point echoed by many British commentators on events in France, including the agricultural improver Arthur Young, whose travels in the country from 1787 to 1790 are a key source for English attitudes to French politics. It was voiced by continental travellers to London as well, such as the Swiss, Henri Meister, who published his account of a stay in England in Switzerland in 1795: ‘Accustomed as I was to the tumult of our National Assembly, you may judge if I was not surprised to find in the House of Commons such decency, solemnity and stillness. … To be sure the people who filled the seats of this assembly are very unlike those who occupy with so much majesty the tribunes of our august Riding-house [the French Convention was housed in the indoor Riding Schoolin Paris at the time]. I did not observe one person who was not properly dressed, which is a proof how great an influence aristocracy has over this nation which calls itself a free people’. The contrast was equally drawn in Gillray’s print Patriotic Regeneration, published in March 1795. Behind Gillray’s frequently-made point about the revolutionary tendencies of the Foxite whig opposition to Pitt the younger and the dangers of parliamentary reform lies one about the debasement of political and parliamentary culture by a Frenchified idea of how a reformed parliamentary system might work.

Defenders of the National Assembly would counter attack by seizing on Meister’s ambiguously-put point about the influence of aristocracy. Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man contrasted its origin in popular election with the ‘vassal representatives’ of aristocratic pocket boroughs in the British system. The parliamentary language of its members, he claimed, ‘is free, bold, and manly’ (unlike the obsequious addresses to the king of their British counterparts); they debated ‘with the spirit of men, and the language of gentlemen’. They also made the obvious point that the British House of Commons could be just as badly behaved as those it criticised – as Mary Wollstonecraft said in her own acute and tart response to Burke, the House of Commons, despite its aristocratic pedigree, often resembled a bear garden.

Indeed, responses to the French Revolution and the split in the old Whig party made its debates take on a particularly edgy tone in the 1790s, though Burke’s own rebarbative temperament and rhetoric was often partly the cause of the problem. An opponent of his, the Foxite Whig Philip Francis, for example, enhanced his own reputation for acrimony in the ill-tempered debate at the opening of the new session on 15 December 1792 as he protested against the tone of the debate.

We are, or we pretend to be, a deliberative Assembly. We are debating upon a subject of the most grave, the most serious, the most solemn deliberation; that is, whether this nation shall, or shall not, be exposed to the hazards, and involved in the calamities of war. … [But] instead of discussing the great question of war and peace with temper, with a cool and careful consideration of arguments, without which there can be no wisdom either in the debate or the decision; instead of this, they in fact deprive themselves of all capacity to debate, of all faculty of judging; they listen with rapture to mere invectives, and echo them back again with shouts, with cries, and with clamours, renouncing and proscribing all liberty of opinion, all freedom of debate. Is this a British House of Commons, or am I suddenly transplanted by some enchantment into that Convention, against which the perpetual theme of reproach is, that they deliberate in passion and resolve by acclamation?


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MPs at the Battle of Flodden

In the run-up to September’s Scottish Independence referendum, we are publishing a series on the relationship between England and Scotland through the centuries. Our second blog takes a look at the parliamentarians who fought in another major battle: Flodden…

Between Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn and the union of the crowns under James VI & I there were a series of border confrontations between England and Scotland. The most devastating battle occurred in 1513, at Branxton Moor, known as the Battle of Flodden or Flodden field.

Henry VIII, eager for glory on the continent, had joined an alliance with Spain and Pope Julius II against France in 1511. Despite the marriage between Henry’s sister Margaret and the Scottish king, James IV, James upheld his obligations under the ‘auld alliance’ and in August 1513 invaded England to aid the French. Intending to divert English attention from the continent, James only advanced a few miles into Northumbria and set up a defensive camp at Flodden.

The English, under the regency of Catherine of Aragon whilst Henry VIII was away, had prepared for a Scottish invasion. Thomas Howard, the earl of Surrey, had been appointed Warden of the Northern Marches and responded by mustering an army. After Surrey arrived in Flodden and saw the impressive defences James had established, which unsurprisingly the Scottish king would not abandon, Surrey moved his army to Branxton Moor, north-east of Flodden and between the Scottish army and their supplies in Scotland.

James was forced to leave his commanding position, and the resulting battle on the moor during the afternoon of 9 September was a disaster for James and Scotland. Casualty members are still debated, but between 7,000 and 11,000 Scots died in the Battle (the English lost around 4,000). The defeat had greater political consequences however as the Scottish lost 13 barons, 5 heirs to titles, 3 bishops, 2 abbots, and, of course, James himself. Scotland was left with a 17-month-old monarch – James V – and there followed a period of political intrigue between the young king’s guardian and mother, Margaret, and the Scottish regent, John Stewart, 2nd duke of Albany.

On the English side the battle was a triumph, and the careers of many parliamentarians were furthered by their part in the victory. Many were knighted on the battlefield: for example Sir William Rous, who had been little known before Flodden but the following year helped escort Princess Mary to France to marry Louis XII, and the two sons of Sir Marmaduke Constable (Sir Marmaduke and Sir John). William Sabine, a ship owner, had helped to transport the royal army to France before heading north. He was quickly recruited into the army. His service helped his later career as a naval commander, merchant and official, sitting in the 1539 parliament through his connection with the Howard family.

Some had more difficult careers after the battle. Sir Christopher Dacre, brother to Thomas, 2nd lord Dacre, was also knighted after the battle thanks to the two brothers “marvels” against the Scots, despite losing 800 horses. The family were in serious trouble in 1534, however, when Sir Christopher and his nephew William, now 3rd Lord Dacre, were sent to the Tower accused of using their Scottish contacts to further their feuds with other English families. Dacre was later pardoned and probably sat in later parliaments.

For later English MPs, an ancestor who fought at Flodden was something to be proud of (such as George Buc and John Winchcombe , son of the renowned ‘Jack of Newbury’). Of course in the 18th century they were joined in the Commons by those, such as James Halyburton and Archibald Kennedy, who were equally proud of ancestors who had died on the opposite side.


You can read the first post in our England-Scotland series, on Parliament and Bannockburn here. The next in our series will discuss Scottish attitudes to James VI & I’s attempted union in the early 17th century, watch this space!

Posted in Early modern history, England and Scotland,, medieval history, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Finding latitude in longitude: Parliamentary funding of early modern science and technology

Three hundred years ago this month, Parliament passed the ‘Longitude Act’. In this guest blog post, Dr Alexi Baker, Cambridge post-doc from CRASSH and from the AHRC-funded project ‘The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, innovation and empire in the Georgian world’ discusses the impact this had on efforts to solve the problem of finding a ship’s longitude at sea…

This year marks the tercentenary of the first British Longitude Act in 1714. That milestone is being commemorated with the digitisation of, and a major project on, the Board of Longitude archives; events and exhibitions including at Greenwich; and a new £10 million ‘longitude prize’. The Act of 1714 was momentous because it established the first government funding and rewards for a specific ‘scientific’ problem – how ships could more accurately and reliably estimate their longitude coordinate while at sea. This and ensuing longitude acts passed between 1714 and 1828 set a precedent for government funding and, within fifty years, also gave rise to a unique standing body that encouraged and help to define British science and technology at large.

The first British Longitude Act might not have been possible without the concerted public campaign begun in 1713 by William Whiston and Humphry Ditton for a Parliamentary reward. Whiston and Ditton and their supporters tapped into an ever-increasing national interest in maritime trade, exploration, and defence and thus in improving maritime safety and speed. They may have been the first (and perhaps only) to wrongly suggest that Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s loss of thousands of men to shipwreck in the Isles of Scilly in 1707 was caused by a poor knowledge of longitude.

After hearing testimony from learned individuals including Isaac Newton, Parliament passed ‘An Act for Providing a Publick Reward for such Person or Persons as shall Discover the Longitude at Sea’ in July 1714. The authors of the Act cited its importance for the ‘Safety and Quickness of Voyages, the Preservation of Ships and the Lives of Men’, the ‘Trade of Great Britain’ and ‘the Honour of Kingdom’. The Act constituted 24 Commissioners, either by name or office, as acceptable judges for the new funding and rewards. These were drawn from long-time longitude authorities, navigational interests, and other powerful individuals.

If five or more thought a longitude proposal promising, they could direct the Commissioners of the Navy to have their Treasurer issue up to £2000 in total to conduct trials. After experiments were made, the Commissioners of the Longitude or ‘the major part of them’ were to determine whether the tested proposal was ‘Practicable, and to what Degree of Exactness’. The Act set up a three-tiered reward system for methods which were deemed successful, with: £10,000 to be given to the inventor of a method which could find the longitude ‘to One Degree of a great Circle, or Sixty Geographical Miles’; £15,000 if the method could find the longitude to two-thirds of that distance; and £20,000 if it found the longitude to half of the same distance.

Half of a reward would be paid when the Commissioners agreed that the method could further secure ships within the dangerous 80 miles off shore, and the other half when the method had been successfully tried on a voyage to the important trading centre of the West Indies. The Commissioners could also direct that lesser rewards be given to individuals who could not meet one of the three specific demands for accuracy but developed methods ‘found of considerable Use to the Publick’.

Most of these tenets appear to have been closely patterned after previous endeavours, including: Charles II’s appointment of commissioners to examine a specific proposal in 1674; a longitude reward established by the will of the Somerset gentleman Thomas Axe in 1691; and the Parliamentary testimony. There had been a number of longitude rewards and trials in other European countries during the preceding centuries as well. The Act of 1714 dramatically rejuvenated British and European interest in solving the longitude problem. However, it also suffered from great vagueness about the Commissioners of Longitude – and later from the potentially conflicting wording of the aims of and requirements for the rewards.

The legislation did not describe the new officials as a communal body – the early modern term ‘Commissioner’ did not necessarily indicate membership in an institution – nor provide basic institutional resources. Individual Commissioners stated that they did not think it preferable nor possible to consider every longitude proposal, publications such as newspapers did not refer to them as a standing body, and comparatively few complaints on that count have survived from reward-seekers.In the resulting confusion about proper channels and procedures, most supplicants continued to approach the individuals and institutions who had long been deemed longitude authorities. These included (primarily) the Astronomer Royal, the Royal Society, the Admiralty, and sometimes professors and the trading companies. Early sea trials actually took place under the auspices of one or more of these, but without funding approved through the Commissioners.

The Commissioners of Longitude only began to meet together sporadically in 1737 in response to the great interest surrounding the clockmaker John Harrison and soon a small number of additional schemes. It was mainly from the 1760s on that they redefined themselves as a standing body, and one increasingly known as ‘the Board of Longitude’. During that decade, they hired their first Secretary, sought recompense for travelling to meetings, and welcomed the soon-indispensable Nevil Maskelyne to their number as Astronomer Royal. The slower speed and greater consideration wrought by such bureaucratization was partially responsible for souring the decades-long collaboration between these officials and Harrison.

It is the later conflict with John Harrison which now most characterizes the Board of Longitude, and Parliament’s longitude legislation, in the public mind. However, the bulk of the body’s institutional existence and of the corresponding Parliamentary legislation took place afterwards. The Board involved itself in wide-ranging scientific, technological, and maritime activities – such as the annual publication of the Nautical Almanac, the improvement of diverse technologies, the establishment of observatories abroad, and voyages including those of Captain Cook and of Arctic exploration. This involved frequent collaboration with other learned and influential bodies, both foreign and domestic. On the whole, the history of the Commissioners and of Parliamentary longitude legislation involved finding ever-greater latitude in the search for the longitude.


Dr Baker is now a Mellon/Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at Cambridge. She is editing and co-authoring the project book: ‘The Board of Longitude 1714–1824: Science, Innovation and Empire’.

You can find out more about ‘The Board of Longitude’ project here and can view the digitized archives of the Board and related papers here.

To see what is happening to mark the anniversary at the Royal Museums Greenwich, visit their website.

Posted in 18th Century history, diplomatic history, social history | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Fighting in foreign wars: fears over English Catholics in the Netherlands’ war with Spain

Events in Iraq and Syria have led Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the Lords 1603-1660 section, to reflect on a similar situation at the turn of the 17th century…

The recent news that several hundred British nationals are fighting alongside Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq has given rise to fears for British domestic security, and that the ISIS fighters of today might become the terrorists of tomorrow. Perhaps surprisingly, similar concerns beset the English Protestant state just over four hundred years ago.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, England’s neighbours, the Dutch, fought (with English assistance) to throw off the rule of Catholic Spain and create a Protestant state of their own. During the lengthy war that followed, the Spanish forces in the Netherlands recruited from far and wide. Among those who joined the Army of Flanders in the early 1590s was a certain young Yorkshireman named Guy Fawkes. His commanding officer was another Englishman, Sir William Stanley, who had originally fought alongside the Dutch before defecting to Spain in 1587.

Prior to 1604 the number of Englishmen in Spanish military service was too small to be a cause of grave concern to the English government. However, this situation changed after England and Spain signed a treaty of peace in August 1604. For the first time the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands were granted permission to recruit English volunteers. The English government confidently assumed that few of its citizens would wish to serve a foreign Catholic power. It soon realized its mistake. In October 1605 Robert Cecil, chief minister to James I, expressed concern at the ‘strong and visible torrent’ of disenchanted young men who were crossing the Channel to take service in the Army of Flanders. His anxiety can only have increased the following month, when a group of Catholic hot-heads

An engraving of the principal conspirators of the Gun Powder Plot, (C) Palace of Westminster (WOA 1348)

An engraving of the principal conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, (C) Palace of Westminster (WOA 1348)

attempted to blow up both the royal family and Parliament. Chief among the conspirators was Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby, who had recently contemplated applying for a commission in the Army of Flanders. They were aided and abetted by Hugh Owen, the ‘Welsh Intelligencer’, who lived in Flanders and was responsible for putting Fawkes in touch with Catesby.


In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Cecil realized that it was imperative to stem the flow of English recruits to the Spanish Netherlands. While most of the plotters had never served in the Army of Flanders, the connections between the conspiracy and the Spanish Netherlands were impossible to ignore, and what was once no more than an irritant might soon become the basis for an invading army. However, it was equally impossible for Cecil to denounce publicly the peace treaty that he himself had helped to negotiate. For this reason, he was obliged to act through others. It was thus one of his clients, Sir Christopher Parkins, rather than Cecil himself, who told the House of Commons in February 1606 that the Englishmen serving in Flanders ‘intended all their purposes against England’. As a result of Cecil’s behind the scenes campaign, Parliament enacted legislation prohibiting Englishmen from undertaking military service for a Catholic prince. Ironically, this new law came into force at precisely the moment at which the threat it was designed to counter receded dramatically. In May 1606, to the surprise of the English ambassador in Brussels, the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands ordered the disbandment of the English regiment that had recently been formed after the soldiers mutinied for want of pay. The threat to England’s security had been averted not by Parliament but by the poverty of the Spanish crown.


For more on English involvement in the wars between the Netherlands and Spain, see Dr Paul Hunneyball’s blogpost: ‘How to cause a diplomatic incident with a false beard’, and for more on the Gunpowder plot, see: ‘Apprehending Guy Fawkes with his garters’.

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Parliament and Bannockburn

In the run up to September’s Scottish independence referendum, we’re publishing a series of blogposts on the relationship between England and Scotland over the centuries. We start with a guest blog from Dr Andrew Spencer of Christ’s College, Cambridge, who marks the 700 year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn…

‘The earls said they would not come to fight without parliament, in case they infringed the Ordinances.’ [Vita Edwardi Secundi, 1314]

One of the most important of the many reasons why the English lost the battle of Bannockburn 700 years ago was that they were chronically disunited, and the role of parliament in regulating the behaviour of the wayward King Edward II was central to that.

Bannockburn was not the battle that won Scotland’s independence. Instead it was confirmation of the independence that Robert Bruce had already largely achieved over the preceding seven years. When Edward I died in July 1307, he held all the major Scottish castles, while Bruce’s support was confined largely to parts of the Lowlands outside English control. By the time of the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, Bruce had systematically captured all the English castles in Scotland save Berwick and Stirling, had driven his leading enemies out of Scotland, and had his claim to the kingdom recognised by the French at a parliament at St Andrews in 1309.

Bruce’s remarkable military skill was partly responsible for this astonishing turnaround but just as significant was English neglect. Whereas under Edward I there had been major English military campaigns in Scotland in nine of the twelve summers after 1296, Edward II came north only once between 1307 and 1314. That campaign was more to escape his domestic enemies than to attack the Scots.

Edward launched his 1309-10 Scottish campaign to shield his great favourite, Piers Gaveston, from the wrath of the English barons who hated him for his control over access to the king’s person, his Gascon birth, and for his insolence towards them personally. Twice Gaveston was banished from the king’s side and twice Edward had brought him back. The crisis over Gaveston dragged on for five years and crippled both Edward’s kingship and the English position in Scotland.

In 1311 a group of powerful barons known as the Lords Ordainer sought to expel Gaveston once and for all and also to put a number of restraints on Edward’s exercise of power. This in itself was not new. The English baronage had sought to deal with inadequate kingship at various points in the thirteenth century by restricting the king’s rule, starting with Magna Carta in 1215. For the first time, however, parliament was given a prominent role in providing advice and assent to important policy decisions. The Ordinances of 1311 gave parliament the final say over all major grants of patronage, the appointment of all major crown officers, regulating those allowed to give counsel to the king, oversight of the exchequer, changes in the coinage, oversight and clarification of Magna Carta and, most importantly for a discussion of Bannockburn, the decision over when and where to go to war. The placing of these matters in the hands of parliament, rather than simply a small council of leading barons as had happened previously, was a sign of the growth of political society in the second half of the thirteenth century and a recognition of the importance of the gentry and England’s prosperous towns who made up the commons in parliament.

Unsurprisingly, Edward II tried to escape from the restrictions imposed by the Ordinances. His attempts to keep hold of Gaveston, however, ended in disaster in May 1312 when the Gascon was captured, tried and executed by a group of barons headed by the earls of Lancaster and Warwick. It was not until the parliament of September-November 1313 that Gaveston’s killers were pardoned, in return parliament granted Edward a tax for a new Scottish campaign. Finally, then, it seemed as if a united English military effort would at last be made in Scotland in 1314.

Things were not so simple, however. Agreement over the fate of the Ordinances had been postponed to an unspecified date while the next parliament, scheduled for April 1314, was cancelled because of the upcoming campaign. Four earls, including Lancaster and Warwick, used this as an excuse not to go on campaign, claiming that it had not been sanctioned by parliament as the Ordinances required. This was a transparent excuse as the grant of taxation in the previous parliament had clearly been intended for new expedition into Scotland, but they were keen for the Ordinances not to be forgotten. They were also probably frightened of what might happen to them during or after a campaign, knowing as they did that Edward had neither forgotten nor forgiven their part in Gaveston’s death.

The earls’ absence from Bannockburn, prompted by Edward’s cancellation of parliament, was an important factor in Edward’s defeat and Lancaster and Warwick took advantage of the catastrophe to try to reimpose the Ordinances at the next parliament in September 1314. Although Edward confirmed the Ordinances he was again soon able to avoid observing them fully. The next sixteen years were among the most miserable in English history. An agricultural crisis caused by a combination of appalling weather, cattle disease and overpopulation led to a population fall of perhaps ten per cent, while political stalemate between Edward and Lancaster left the Scots free to raid the north of England with virtual impunity for years. Edward defeated Lancaster in 1322 and finally repealed the Ordinances. A bloody purge of his enemies followed his victory, leading to four years of tyranny which ended only with Edward’s overthrow in 1326 by his wife, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. Further tit-for-tat political killings followed for another three years before Edward III took personal control in 1330 following a daring coup d’état against Mortimer. Only then was some order imposed on England and war with Scotland resumed once more.

Bannockburn will rightly be celebrated by Scots as a great victory that ensured their continued independence, but while we remember the consequences of victory for Scotland we should not forget the costs of defeat for England.


Andrew Spencer has recently published ‘Nobility and Kingship in Medieval England, the Earls and Edward I, 1272-1307’, available here from Cambridge University Press.

Keep following for the next in our series on England and Scotland, to be published in a few weeks’ time.

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