I need little excuse to extol the many virtues of Edward III, I really don’t. But I was rather surprised when I researched for my day job into the topic of leadership skills and came to the conclusion that if you need an example of a great leader, Edward fulfils almost every criteria, constraints of Medieval technology and lack of email allowing.
I was looking into the subject of what makes a great leader and if you look on the internet there are lists and lists and lists of attributes that people believe makes one a good leader. It appears to depend very much on who you ask what the answer to the question of ‘what makes a leader?’ turns out to be, if the respondent is a leader themselves, a subordinate or the boss of a leader, and yes, leaders do have bosses. What the board are looking for in appointing a new leader is very different to what those who report to a leader want to see.
There are common themes however, that all agree to varying degrees. Leaders communicate well. They develop people. They allow others to take the credit. They lead by example. Leaders also inspire, are charismatic, are excellent at managing people. They have clear foresight. They innovate and they see beyond themselves and strive for something greater than they are.
So what does all this look like in practice? Well, that is really easy – just look at Edward.
Communication – well, this is not the easiest to deal with so let’s get it out of the way first. Communication in Medieval Europe was not what it is now. Communicating with someone in southern France could take months. Now it takes as long as it takes you to write an email and hit the Send button. So to what extent can we say Edward was a great communicator? Did he communicate?
He could read and write, and he used communiqués for his own uses, and he used his own code. Between 1327 and 1330 when he was under virtual house arrest, he added a line of text, ‘Pater Sancte,’ to those letters to the pope that were directly from him and not from Roger Mortimer. These letters are in the papal archives still.
|Edward's code clearly visible in an unprofessional hand, beneath the formal, neat and even official script|
He certainly understood the value of communication and he understood the need to standardise language. He decreed in 1362 that English should be the language of Law instead of French to that the average non-French speaking Englishman could understand the law.
|Battle of Sluys from Froissart|
Develop people / allow others to take credit – this is an area in which Edward excelled. A great leader will collect together a pool of talent to get things done. Churchill did this with his wartime
coalition government drawing on the best of all parties. Edward did the same thing. He used talent where he found it. He was wise enough to know where he had skill gaps and he filled them where he could. In 1333 the notorious pirate John Crabbe was captured in Berwick having fought on the behalf of the Scots. He had a long history of pillaging and plundering on the high seas, and the lower ones far closer to the English coast, and harrying English merchants, murdering their crew and stealing their cargo. Edward II sent many letters demanding restitution from the count of Flanders who was assumed to be directing his actions. However, despite having very much deserved it, Edward did not hang him. Edward was just twenty at the time, but he was already aware that John Crabbe could be useful. So he paid his gaoler Walter Manny £1000 for his custody and promptly pardoned him and brought him into his household. He managed castles, prisoners, ships, archers, anything that needed to be done that he could do he did, including using his knowledge of sailing at the battle of Sluys in 1340.
Similar was the fate of one Aimeric de Pavia, a Genoese soldier and sailor who survived the siege of Calais on the French side but served Edward for the rest of his life as captain of the king’s galleys. When the famous knight Geoffrey de Charny contacted de Pavia in 1348 to bribe him to hand over Calais, Aimeric appeared to accept but sent word straight to Edward allowing him to launch an ambush on the Frenchman and saved Calais. Aimeric sadly paid for this act with his life. A few years later de Charny captured him and hanged him.
|Here Geoffrey de Charny, left, confronts|
Edward, in the red with lions, fighting
under the banner of Walter Manny
That ambush at Calais illustrates another point about Edward, how he was happy to let others take the credit. He and his son Edward of Woodstock, later the Black Prince, travelled to Calais to counter the de Charny threat, with several men and soldiers, in disguise as merchants. Edward was very much in command. However, once the fighting started he joined the fray, not under his own banner, but under Walter Manny’s. It was something he often did in tournaments and games, rather than fight under his own colours, he would join the ranks of one of his friends.
Lead by example – this one is easy – he fought with his armies as was expected of a king of those times. He fought personally at Sluys and was wounded in the leg, immobilising him for two weeks and ruining a pair of boots. He probably saw little fighting himself at Crecy but at the crossing of the Somme it was he who personally managed the crossing of the baggage train while others fought the French on the other side of the river. He was in reserve at Crecy itself, but his son was in the vanguard so it was obvious to all that he had invested a great deal in the battle. He fought personally at Winchelsea and nearly drowned when his ship was sunk under him. As we have already seen, he fought at Calais.
|Fascinating 3D scans of the tunnels under|
Nottingham castle leading into the town
I really don’t need to go into how he inspired his men or how charismatic he was. People liked him. His wife was dippy about him: an anecdote included by Froissart that must have come from her or someone close to her spoke of how she cried when he had to leave after they met for the first time, in Hainault. In 1330 it was not Edward himself who captured Mortimer, but his friends who had entered Nottingham Castle via secret passages – and they did it solely for him. Mortimer was an able administrator and those who served Edward himself would have done perfectly well without Edward, but they chose to first put themselves in danger in front of Mortimer when he confronted a suspected plot and then to act directly against him. Back to Calais in 1349 he only had to lift his helm from his head and show his face to make others fight for him and to discourage the French from fighting against him.
Foresight and innovation – Edward again had these qualities in spades. In wartime he saw the potential of archers. The strength of an archer lay in their ability to attack from a safe distance – projectile warfare. Yes, the famous Genoese crossbowmen also did this, and from the behind the safety of their pavisses. But although they had a similar range, possibly a slightly longer range, they were slow to reload. They were utterly out-gunned by the English.
Another of Edward’s wartime innovations were cannon and ribalds. There is debate over how effective these weapons actually were, if they did more than merely make a bit of a racket, but I believe that is beside the point. They were there, for the first time, at Crecy under the command of Edward. Someone had to do it, had to try, and it was him. As they say, a good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed next week.
In peacetime he innovated as well. He owned a clock just a few years after they were perfected in Italy. He had hot and cold running water at three of his palaces.
By whatever criteria you wish to use, Edward measures up pretty well if not excellently. Sadly we do not have enough of his personal thoughts and feelings and the detail that we have for more recent leaders to judge if he consciously tried to be a great leader or whether he was a lucky combination of genes. Can he then further the understanding of whether a leader is truly born or if it is a skill that can be learned? Considering how his father embodied a great number of behaviours of poor leadership regardless of whether he was a good man or not, which is not under discussion here, does not help – was Edward acting deliberately, or was he just a natural where his father was just not?
|An unusually flattering image of Edward I, but|
was he really a 'git'?!
Edward I, his grandfather, is accepted as being a great leader, who displayed many of the skills that his grandson was to, but he was rather insular in his thoughts and his actions were motivated more by personal ego than the greater good. In a seminar session in my third year at uni a fellow student shocked the modern historians present with her judgement on Edward I – that he did what he did because he was, and I quote dear Amelia, ‘a git.’ Whatever motive Edward III had for going to war, the country benefited. His decisions were designed for the benefit of England, and not solely himself.
Let’s have a look at two of those now.
Edward went to war with France because he claimed he was the rightful heir. That the French changed the law to prevent him inheriting suggests that he was onto something. But, as kings of England before him had, he owed fealty for lands held in France, left-overs of the Angevin Empire. He was therefore subordinate to the French king, and if that is extrapolated, so was England. Philip VI even made comments to this effect. So, Edward claimed the throne through his mother and as a declared claimant he could not be subordinate to the French king for lands that he held in France. He elevated himself from a mere disruptive vassal to an equal. England was taken entirely out of the equation, as was any land he held in France, such as Calais that he declared was not part of any discussion while he laid siege to it. Clever.
Another of his actions was the sumptuary laws. It was Edward who declared that certain strata of society should not wear certain fabrics. It was not a status-based law but a monetary-based one, designed so that overly-competitive merchants or others would not bankrupt themselves and their families in competing with the Jones family across the way. Seen as a way of constraining lower social classes, it was meant as a protective measure – if you could afford it, great; if not, don’t. Sound advice, even now. I have not done any research into this particular area but laws designed to limit a person’s ability to bankrupt themselves, and their families, through unwise expenditure, was also being examined in Bohemia at the same time. Was this a mid-fourteenth century concern or a happy coincidence?
So, can we answer the question of whether leaders are born of created, just by looking at Edward? He seems to be a little of both. His abilities had to have been innate to be so well honed at such a young age. Such perfection cannot be learned, not in the toxic atmosphere that Edward found himself in as a teenager. Had he turned out to be a tyrant there would have been little surprise. And some of it had to be a reaction to seeing what the consequences were of getting it so badly wrong, having witnessed everything that had happened to his father. A lesser man with less support would have allowed the likes of Mortimer to continue, using it as a fabulous excuse for inaction. But that was not what Edward was. For the measures taken by Mortimer and Isabella in those last few months, Edward’s mother taking personal hold of the keys to Nottingham castle, Mortimer’s questioning of Edward’s household in front of him that sparked the whole rebellion, suggest very much that Edward was not to be trifled with, suggest that the ruling couple had good reason for their caution.
Edward was not perfect. No one is. Much of what he did is held up to criticism, and probably rightly so. Remember, however, that the great Winston Churchill was voted out of government twice in his illustrious career and at one time Nelson Mandela believed that violence was a legitimate form of protest. Imperfections and failures can make a person a great success.
Born or created, it doesn't really matter. A great leader is a great leader, whether they are naturals or strive to overcome their own personal shortcomings. That the best turned their talents to the greater good makes them more extraordinary. And for Edward to embody all of this makes him exceptional.