The century between 1272 and 1377 witnessed profound changes in English politics and institutions. Under the three Edwards - Edward I (1272-1307), his son Edward II (1307-27) and his grandson Edward III (1327-77) - royal government expanded and reached deeper into local communities than it ever had, as a result of both the king’s ambitions and the needs of the communities themselves. In turn, groups that had just begun to have a voice in national affairs in the middle of the thirteenth century gained greater prominence and, through the Commons in parliament and the justices of the peace in the counties, an increased role in government and politics. This broadening of the political community did not, however, displace the lay and ecclesiastical lords as the chief counsellors of the king. Their relations with the king remained the focal point of politics throughout the century.
The reconstruction of political history under the three Edwards has changed significantly over the past century. The period was first viewed through a constitutional lens created by nineteenth-century historians, most notably William Stubbs and
T. F. Tout. For Stubbs, the archetypal Whig historian, the period marked one stage in the inexorable development of parliament as a democratic institution and he assessed political actors according to their role in the design of the English constitution. Tout’s focus was slightly different. He saw the period as an epic struggle between kings who used their household offices, notably the wardrobe and chamber, as instruments of their untrammelled prerogative and the barons who regarded chancery, exchequer and council as great state offices acting to check the king’s will. For both, medieval politics was fundamentally about the nature of the English constitution. Accordingly, they focused their attention on the reigns of Edward I and Edward II, where the elements of constitutionalism and baronial opposition appeared to be most pronounced.
The work of Stubbs and Tout has engendered a rich tradition of constitutional and administrative history, though modern historians have tried to explain administrative changes during the century not as the unfolding of a grand constitutional drama, but as a response to the immediate pressures of war, finance and politics. The tradition is visible in constitutional histories, in J. F. Willard’s enormous collaborative effort to show how the medieval government actually performed in one decade in the three volumes of The English Government at Work 1327-1330 (1940-50), and in studies of particular institutions such as Chris Given-Wilson’s The Royal Household and the Ewing’s Affinity (1986). A flourishing subset of this tradition is the history of parliament, where the Whig view of a linear march towards democracy has been replaced by debates over the development of parliamentary institutions, the function of parliament and the political importance of the Commons. An important offshoot of administrative history has been war itself: how the king recruited and paid his armies, how the country was organized for war, and how the crown financed its wars. Exploiting the abundant exchequer and household records, Michael Prestwich, G. L. Harriss, E. B. Fryde, W. M. Ormrod and others have established with greater accuracy the costs of war, the returns from taxation, the mechanisms of royal finance and the effects of currency manipulation.
Recent approaches to political history, flowing out of a tradition of social history largely identified with K. B. McFarlane, have aimed at deconstructing the constitutional vision of the nineteenth century by studying the social context of relations between the king and magnates. Biographical studies of political figures such as Edward I, Edward III, Thomas of Lancaster, Aymer de Valence and others have seriously eroded assumptions that the magnates were inherently opposed to the king or that they acted in conformity to a fixed set of constitutional ideals. Their emphasis has been on the qualities of individuals and the problems of reaching political consensus, raising the important question of whether politics was based merely on personality and contingency or whether there was a broad, underlying pattern to events.
As institutions, personalities and finances have become better understood, historical debate has been centred on an assessment of how government and politics under the three Edwards impinged upon different segments of the population and affected the development of the English state. On the one hand, some argue that the growth of what has been called a ‘war state’ imposed a heavy burden on the population and concentrated authority in the hands of powerful elites both nationally and in the counties who used royal institutions to advance their personal interests, while others see institutional changes as reasonable efforts to meet the government’s responsibilities and develop a consensual basis of governing.