The English Bishops, the Deposition of Edward II, and the ‘Articles of Accusation’

The deposition of Edward II was a watershed moment in the constitutional, political, and legal history of later medieval England. Previous kings might have had their difficulties – Stephen had fought a Civil War with Matilda and her son, Henry, which saw England descend into chaos; John’s relations with his baronage were so poor that he was forced to accede to Magna Carta and witness the French invade with the support of many of his own subjects; and Henry III endured a long conflict with Simon de Montfort, in which he had at times been the earl’s prisoner – but all had died as kings of England. The overthrow of Edward II, in which he surrendered his authority to his son, was thus an unprecedented event in post-Conquest England: an event for which there was no clear guidance in either civil or canon law; an event which was exploited as legal precedent in the travails of Richard II’s reign; and an event which cast a shadow long into the fifteenth century, where successive kings were removed and declared illegitimate by parliament.

The tomb of Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral


Naturally, as such a momentous event, it attracted the interest of numerous commentators, from the waspish Geoffrey le Baker, who sympathised with Edward and poured scorn upon his adversaries, to anonymous author of the Lanercost Chronicle, who lamented the state into which England had fallen into Edward’s reign, and emphasised the popularity of the actions taken against him. Nonetheless, perhaps the most interesting document regarding Edward II’s downfall are the ‘articles of accusation’. Preserved in two manuscripts – one in Lambeth Palace, and the other in the Winchester Cathedral Archives – this encapsulates the legal case against Edward. It advances six charges to justify his removal: his susceptibility to poor counsel, which had caused great damage to the realm; his inability to listen to good counsel; his catastrophic foreign policy in Scotland, Ireland, and Gascony; his destruction of the Holy Church; his breaching of his coronation oath; and his desertion of his realm. Together, all of this meant that he was incompetent to govern, and that he should be deprived of his authority and replaced by his eldest son, the future Edward III. According to the French Chronicle of London, these charges were pronounced before parliament by Walter Reynolds, archbishop of Canterbury, which prompted all the people to agree – and cry out loud – that Edward II should no longer reign, and that they should make his son king in his stead.

What was the role of the English Church, and particularly the English bishops, in the creation of this document? They seem to have been enormously influential. Firstly, this is suggested by the text of the articles themselves, and the prominence that they gave to clerical concerns. For instance, the second article castigates Edward for acting to ‘the destruction of Holy Church’, and the fourth laments how ‘by his pride and obstinacy and by evil counsel he has destroyed Holy Church and imprisoned some of the persons of the Holy Church and brought distress upon others’. Secondly, episcopal influence is intrinsically probable given the comparative expertise of the bishops on the one hand and Isabella (the queen) and Mortimer (her lover) on the other, the two central lay figures in Edward’s demise. Unsurprisingly for a French princess and a magnate from the Welsh Marshes, neither Isabella nor Mortimer appear to have had any significant legal knowledge or training. This was in stark contrast to their episcopal supporters, such as Adam Orleton, bishop of Hereford, who was a doctor of canon law by 1310, and John Stratford, bishop of Winchester, who was a doctor of civil law by 1312. It thus seems likely that they would have turned to such figures when it came to contriving novel legal justifications for Edward’s dethronement.

Thirdly, episcopal contribution to the articles is likely due to the circumstances in which they were composed. According to the Forma Deposicionis, a semi-official record of Edward’s deposition, they were drawn up at a meeting between the prelates and nobles, which was probably the same meeting referred to by Jean le Bel, where he said that a record was made of the ill-advised deeds the king had committed, so that it could be read out in open court, so the wisest of the land could decide how to proceed. If the bishops were present when the articles were compiled, it seems unlikely –given both their expertise and their grievances against Edward – that they would have been prepared to take a back seat. Finally, the most explicit evidence for episcopal involvement comes from Adam Orleton himself, writing later in 1334. He claimed that – while the articles emanated from the common counsel and assent of the prelates, earls, and barons, and indeed the whole community of the realm – they were conceived and dictated in the presence of John Stratford, before being incorporated into a public instrument by his secretary, William Mees.

It therefore seems clear that the English bishops – and perhaps most especially John Stratford, bishop of Winchester and later archbishop of Canterbury – were important figures in the creation of the ‘articles of accusation’. In consequence, they were at the heart of the quasi-legal aspects of Edward II’s deposition, the landmark event which May McKisack famously described as ‘the great divide in our later medieval history’.

The tomb of John Stratford, bishop of Winchester and later archbishop of Canterbury, in Canterbury Cathedral.

Sam Lane is a doctoral student in medieval history at Christ Church, Oxford, where he is working on a thesis concerning the political involvement of the English episcopate in the fourteenth century.

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