The Lion & the Lily: Edward III’s Claim to France

The Lion & the Lily: Edward III’s Claim to France

by Peggy M. Baker

Should the King of England also be the King of France? Today, it may seem not only unlikely, but overly aggressive, even greedy. Surely, ruling one kingdom is job enough for any man?

Not in the eyes of Edward III!

He wanted that French throne. As did his successors. But, why exactly did they think they had a right to it? The answer lies in the “rules” of inheritance, which differed between England and France.

Hugh Capet, king of France between 987 and 996, founded a great and long-lived dynasty that bore his name. The crown passed in an unbroken line of “Capetian” fathers and sons for over three hundred years. The line ended, however, with the sons of King Philip IV.

Philip IV had three sons and one daughter. Louis was born in 1289, Philip in 1293 and Charles in 1294. The youngest child, Isabella, was born in late 1295. Philip IV died in 1314 and was succeeded by his oldest son, who took the throne as Louis X.

Louis married twice. His first marriage ended in an annulment when his wife, Margaret, was found guilty of adultery. Margaret’s daughter Joan, born in 1312, was disinherited due to her highly questionable paternity.

Louis married again. When Louis died, his second wife Clemence was pregnant. The barons of France assembled and, to avoid a claim to the throne by the questionable Joan, declared that female succession to the throne was not allowable.

A council of twenty-four was formed to rule until Louis’ posthumous child was born. Louis’ younger brother Philip was named regent. Clemence’s baby son, John, died 18 November 1316, only five days old.

Infant John, ruler in name only, was succeeded by his uncle Philip, the second son of Philip IV.

This second Philip ruled as Philip V. To counteract a small movement on behalf of Louis’ daughter Joan, who had been previously disinherited, another assembly was called in 1317. It once again declared that a woman could not succeed to the throne of France. (As a consolation prize, Philip V did agree that Joan could become Queen of Navarre.)

Philip V had three daughters and no sons. The ruling of the assembly, convened by Philip, meant that his girls could not inherit his throne.

French nobles convene to discuss the succession. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

French nobles convene to discuss the succession. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

When Philip V died in 1322, therefore, he was succeeded by his brother Charles, the youngest son of Philip IV. Charles’ first marriage, like that of his older brother Louis, had ended when his then-wife was accused and found guilty of adultery. In his two subsequent marriages, no sons were born.

When Charles IV died in February 1328, there were no longer any living male heirs, in the direct male line, of Philip IV.

There was, however, a living male heir in the female line. Philip IV’s daughter Isabelle had married Edward II of England and given birth to a son, Edward III. Edward III was Philip IV’s grandson.

Edward Presents His Claim

The French barons assembled once again, after Charles V’s death, to consider the succession. Edward III’s representatives presented his claim to the crown of France by right of his mother, Isabella, daughter of Philip IV. Edward III was Philip IV’s grandson. Female inheritance or no, Edward was Philip’s closest male relative. The English argument was that, although a woman could not ascend the throne of France, she COULD pass a claim along to her son

Philip IV of France, Philip IV’s three sons and his daughter Isabella, Edward’s mother. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Philip IV of France, Philip IV’s three sons and his daughter Isabella, Edward’s mother. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Edward III would have been a highly problematic French king. He was English, he was only 15 years old, and he was not even the true ruler of England – his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer kept control of Edward’s realm until he was almost 18.

The French assembly ruled, with little debate and no dissent, that ancient French customs decreed that neither a woman nor her son could succeed to the French throne.

Having eliminated (or so they thought) Edward III’s claim, and viewing Philip IV’s line at the end, the French barons looked instead to the descendants of Philip IV’s younger brother Charles, Count of Valois. Charles himself had died in 1325, but he had a son named Philip, who had been born in 1293. This Philip, a nephew of Philip IV, took the throne as Philip VI, the first Valois king of France.

The teenage Edward III seemingly accepted the French decision. In June 1329, he traveled to France and paid homage to Philip VI for his French fiefs.

A young Edward III paid homage to Philip VI for his French territories. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

A young Edward III paid homage to Philip VI for his French territories. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

When, years later, he had grown into a strong and powerful monarch, however, he resurrected his claim and repudiated his oath. Edward III’s “right” to the French throne, through his mother Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France, would be the rationale for the invasion of France that began “The Hundred Years War.”

A “Cousins’ War”

The Hundred Years War was, like the later War of the Roses, a conflict among cousins. Edward III was a descendant of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England. His “line” ran directly from Henry and Eleanor through their royal descendants John, Henry III, Edward I and Edward II.

The last Capet kings of France, Philip IV and his three unfortunate sons, were also descendants of Eleanor of Aquitaine. As was his cousin, Philip VI, the first Valois king of France and Edward’s direct competitor!

The French line of descent came through Eleanor Plantagenet, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England. Eleanor married Alfonso VIII of Castile. Their daughter Blanche of Castile was chosen by her grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to be the bride of Louis VIII of France. Blanche and Louis became the parents of Louis IX of France and the grandparents of Louis IX’s son Philip III. Philip III had two sons. The older son became Philip IV. Their younger son, Charles of Valois was the father of Philip IV, the first of the Valois kings.

Among Europe’s royal families, family relationships didn’t calm tensions, they created them!

It was during the prolonged conflict (1339-1453) begun by Edward III that the French decision to disallow female inheritance was first labeled the “Salic Law.” The term was not actually used until 1464; it did not appear during the deliberations of the 14th century.

“Salic Law” is a body of very early statues daring from the late 5th century to the 9th century. The Salic Law provisions regarding female inheritance were vague and often contradictory. In any event, Salic Law was by now defunct.

It is possible that some memory of the Salic Law was the source of the so-called ancient customs invoked by the French peers to justify awarding the crown to Philip of Valois. It is just as likely, as the Hundred Years War between England and France continued, that French nationalists used the venerable term “Salic Law” to give added weight to their rationale for denying England’s kings the crown of France.

Edward III’s claim to be king of France, and his use of the French fleur-de-lis in his coat of arms, was continued by his successors for centuries. By 1558, the lands won in France by Edward III and his successors had been entirely lost.

Nevertheless, the monarchs of England (and, later, Great Britain) continued to use both the title King (or Queen) of France and the fleur-de-lis until 1800. In that year, Parliament and King George III were legislatively consolidating the “Kingdom of Great Britain” with the “Kingdom of Ireland.” The ensuing Act of Union, and the accompanying change of titles and coats of arms, led to the final elimination of the title “King of France” and ended the use of the fleur-de-lis.

Suggested Reading:

Capetian France 987-1328, by Elizabeth M. Hallam

The Capetians: Kings of France, 987-1328, by Jim Bradbury

Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery and Murder in Medieval England, by Alison Weir

Edward III, by W. Mark Ormrod