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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: October 2019

4 - Food, Famine, and Edward II's Military Failures


Historians have often denounced King Edward II of England (r. 1307–26) for his social, political, and martial failures. His reign was punctuated by military disasters, prompting many historians to call Edward's generalship unlucky at best and completely incompetent at worst. For example, Seymour Phillips, in comparing Edward II to his bellicose father, concluded that Edward had “little capacity as a military commander.” Similarly, Natalie Fryde called Edward's leadership amidst obviously disadvantageous circumstances “the height of futility” that “makes one wonder what precisely Edward hoped to achieve.” The emphasis has generally been on Edward's weaknesses as a strategist and tactician. But this approach tends to downplay factors that were at least as important in explaining Edward's defeats and ultimate martial humiliation: flaws in his military organization and preparation, particularly his logistical planning and his handling of supply problems. In these Edward demonstrated a greatly uneven aptitude, with episodes of significant incompetence punctuated by illustrations of more skillful handling. This can be explained partly by the increased difficulty and pressures of the problem of logistics and supply, although a decline in the ability of the English crown to manage it also was responsible. Edward's irregular logistical proficiency thus weakened his overall military capabilities, and contributed to both his subsequent reputation for general ineptitude and the military failures that characterized his reign.

At first glance, Edward's logistical preparations do not seem much different from those of his father, nor do his policies portend woeful martial disaster. Employing the same system of purveyance or prise – the forced sale of commodities at prices set by the royal government – to obtain goods necessary for feeding his armies, Edward tapped into the surplus agricultural production of not only England, but also his dominions of Ireland and Gascony; during the Great Famine of 1315–17, his supply ventures necessarily extended further afield. At times (and at great cost) Edward relied on the Italian merchants Antonio Pessagno and Manentius Francisci to finance and oversee the purchase of victuals. Pessagno, who had been instrumental in the supply operations for the Bannockburn campaign of 1314, for which he provided at least half of all victuals, was reliable, had resources and connections, and clearly delivered.