A King Under Heel: The Ordinances, 1311

In early March 1310, another highly volatile parliament was underway in England in which the king, Edward II, clashed vehemently with the majority of his magnates. His cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, six years his senior and now the figurehead of noble opposition to the crown’s perceived overindulgences, began proceedings by reading out a barbed petition, which was nothing short of an damning indictment of the king’s three year rule to date.[1] The twenty-five year old Edward listened as Lancaster accused him of being guided by evil counsel; that he had improvised the crown since he came to power, that he was unable to maintain his own royal household except through extortion, so expensive was it to maintain. His overbearing tactics to fund his private affairs and make good his largesse was encroaching upon the lives of his subjects it was claimed, breaching that now long established legal corner stone, Magna Carta, first sealed in 1215 on the fields of Runnymede.

The earl, pumped up by his own over-mighty convictions and a taste for the kill, did not stop there. In fact he had merely got going. Edward, he declared, was losing Scotland to the upstart rebel Robert Bruce, self proclaimed as its king since 1306 and now winning back great swathes of that kingdom. Edward was dismembering crown lands in England and Ireland by granting them to his favourites and in turn to their personal retinues. Taxes granted to the king by the community of the realm in the last parliament and previously at Northampton shortly after the king’s accession to fight in Scotland had been squandered, but Lancaster failed to say on what precisely. The king still levied prise, a seemingly hateful policy of royal purveyance, usually only exercised in times of war yet now demanded with impunity which added to the suffering of the king’s faithful subjects. If this was not enough, the puffed up earl in full oration and undoubtedly relishing his moment, finished with a flourish, announcing that the king had need to look to the ordinance of his barons to avoid further danger, and by calling upon them, as they were faithfully bound to him by allegiance, to address such issues and concerns on his behalf.[2]

King Edward, unsurprisingly, having listened patiently to the bitter vitriol, looked around the room at his assembled magnates, their faces stern and unbending, and simply refused outright. Parliament however held firm, with those few not in agreement with Lancaster too afraid to speak out and therefore unable to aid the king in his hour of need. As Edward became further entrenched in his position, the tone of the opposition became uglier and declared that if the king refused to stand by the decisions made by the community of the realm then he was in breach of his sacred coronation oath, and as such they were duty-bound to retract their oaths of allegiance. The threat, whether real or not, was one that Edward could not afford to test. Deposing a king with no heir male to succeed him, as Edward had no sons at this time, was most likely never a serious option that parliament would pursue, but, under immense pressure over a number of days and faced with nowhere to go under a barrage of repetitive demands for reform, Edward was reluctantly forced to relent. He must have felt embattled and overwhelmed.


On 16 March 1310 the king issued letters patent agreeing to the election of twenty-one Ordainers who were to have authority to review and reform the government of the kingdom and his royal household, so long as those reforms were not prejudicial to his sovereignty. Their term, Edward agreed, was to run for exactly one year starting on 29 September 1310.[3] In this the king, while forced into yet another another political corner during his reign, was shrewd enough to ensure the letters patent aimed to protect his rights., in effect creating a loophole through which he could repudiate anything he felt came too close to his royal dignity. Much like his father before hime, Edward II had grasped the rules of the political game enough to know how to fight for his inherited rights, albeit in defence rather than attack.

The Ordainers wasted no time. Three days after Edward issued his instructions, six preliminary ordinances were drafted at the house of the Carmelites in the city of London and presented to the king. Although these would later be incorporated into the New Ordinances a year later, they demanded the ongoing protection of the liberties of the Church, that the Ordainers base themselves in London under the protection of the king and the the mayor and alderman of the city were to have access to the records of the exchequer and chancery. No stone was to be left unturned. The king was not to gift land, revenues, wardships and marriages without the Ordainers express approval; revenues from the custom duties were to be paid directly to the exchequer and not to the king’s household cutting off his financial independence; foreign merchants who had profited from the custom duties since 1307 should be arrested and their goods seized until they had accounted to the exchequer; and finally, that Edward uphold Magna Carta in its full form.[4] It was not a good omen as control over the king’s household was handed over and prised open for review. Nevertheless, Edward strategically delayed giving his consent until 2 August, some four-and-a-half months after he first received the parliamentary petition. In doing so he was able to make key appointments and place his supporters around him when he could tell he needed them most.

On 20 March, while Parliament remained in session until 12 April, twenty-one ordainers were duly elected, the composition of which was a fair balance between ardent reformers and those more sympathetic to the king. The nineteen bishops who attended parliament elected the earls of Lincoln and Pembroke as the first two ordainers. Of the twelve earls at Westminster they elected two bishops, Ralph Baldock and Simon of Ghent. These four then together elected two barons, Hugh de Veer and William le Marshall. The six subsequently elected the remaining fifteen of their body, which included Robert Winchelsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of Salisbury Chichester, Norwich, St David’s and Llandaff. Of the earls, Gloucester, Lancaster, Hereford, Arundel and Warwick each found a seat, with the barons Robert fitz Roger, Hugh de Courtenany, William Martin and John Gray. Of the remaining earls, Surrey and Oxford, the latter who was a political nonentity during Edward’s reign, were not elected; nor unsurprisingly was the king’s lover and favourite, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall.

As the body of ordainers was constituted and their work became real, Edward was clearly frustrated by these forced concessions and the manner in which they had been granted. On 11 May, in a defiant mood, he had the Bishop of Chichester replaced as chancellor with his long-term ally and treasurer, Walter Reynolds, Bishop of Worcester. Reynolds, in turn, was backfilled as treasurer by John Sandale.[5] The king was testing the waters, for by this date the preliminary ordinances had not yet been formally granted by the crown, who only did so on 2 August. Edward was, in other words, technically free to make the appointment without first seeking approval from the new body of Lords Ordainer. Nevertheless, it rattled the body, which distrusted the king’s intent and only hardened their already enflamed resolve to bring him to heel.

While the Lord Ordainers busied themselves for the next year with the work of reform, Edward sought to distract both himself and his court by raising a long overdue military campaign against Scotland. Edward hoped that a concerted campaign north of the border could either slow down the work of the ordainers, who had until 29 September 1311 to complete their commission, or give the king distance from them. Taking a modestly sized army of 4,700 knights, infantry and archers, the king headed with Piers Gaveston and the earls of Gloucester, Surrey and Richmond across into Scotland, leaving the Earl of Lincoln as his regent.[6] Lancaster, Hereford, Pembroke and Warwick all refused to attend, focusing instead they said on their work as ordainers, now undertaken in London, as the king knew all too well. Instead each sent the minimum number of men they were legally obliged to muster, which amounted to five knights’ fees each, and eight in the case of Lancaster. Success for Edward in Scotland was not something they openly relished, as it would give him a renewed platform on which to challenge any reform of his household or government more widely. The zeal for political revision was so great that Hereford, Pembroke and Warwick, all of whom had lands to lose in Scotland, preferred to stay south.

Edward heads north in a bid to put distance between him and the Lords Ordainer

Edward’s Scottish campaign of 1310-11 was hampered by limited numbers, money and the strategic aims of King Robert’s guerrilla tactics which denied Edward the opportunity for open confrontation on the field. As the King of England remained in Scotland over winter and well into 1311, on 5 February the aged and sage-like Earl of Lincoln, a stalwart of the previous reign, died in London removing at a stroke an earl who may have been able to moderate the ordainers as they composed their reforms. Edward replaced him as regent of the realm with Gloucester, who was sent south and who was given the justices William de Bereford and Henry le Scrope to advise him.[7] Gloucester though was no Lincoln and before long was at loggerheads with the stubborn and argumentative Lancaster. On 3 March the royalist Bishop of Durham, Anthony Bek also died. For the king, the death of Henry de Lacy meant that Thomas of Lancaster, already earl of Lancaster, Leicester and Derby, would inherit Henry’s earldoms of Lincoln and Salisbury through right of Thomas’ wife Alice, making Thomas by far the premier earl in England, as he now commanded a vast fortune of more than £11,000 a year. In contrast, Gaveston’s lands from his earldom of Cornwall amounted to an annual income of £4,000, while Gloucester could boast £6,000 by 1314.[8] Overnight, Lancaster, already over-mighty in his bearing, had just become more intolerable.

It didn’t take long for the earl, the figurehead lead Ordainer, to flex his muscles. He was now Edward’s main problem. As the earl headed north to meet the king to swear fealty for his additional two earldoms, Lancaster refused to meet the king in Scotland, wary that his oath could be legally challenged if offered out of the kingdom. Edward refused to move south until eventually, after heated exchanges, the king moved a few miles across the border to accept Lancaster who was on bended knee. During the exchange, Thomas refused to speak to Piers Gaveston, a man he hated with a passion. On 27 May, Edward reluctantly released the de Lacy lands to his cousin.

With his Scottish campaign quickly running out of money, Edward had no choice but to head south. On 16 June, a week before he left Berwick, the king sent out summons for parliament to convene in London for 8 August, most likely with foreboding. He had done his utmost to delay the ordainers in their work but this only antagonised them, most notably when he decided that the exchequer should relocate to York while the king was on campaign. Even Lincoln before his death was so outraged by this proposal that he had threatened to resign his position as regent if Edward did not change his mind. To make matters worse, in October 1310, the king had appointed Gaveston as Justice of the Forest north of the Trent and constable of Nottingham castle; the former a lucrative position and one gained without the consent of the ordainers as was now proscribed by the preliminary ordinances of that year. It was not a shrewd move. As ever, Edward was allowing his personal feelings to dictate his policy.[9]

On his way south, the king got sight of a first draft of the legislation he was about to be presented with. It made for difficult reading. Walking into parliament on 16 August, he knew he was going to be fighting not only for his lover Gaveston, much despised by his magnates, but now for something far more reaching; his own greater sovereignty.

The Lords Ordainer presented forty-one clauses that sought to fundamentally erode royal sovereignty

The Ordinances of 1311 were, beyond question, one of the fundamental pieces of legislation laid in front of a medieval king in its attempt to curb the power and authority of the crown. The document contained a comprehensive set of forty-one clauses, mostly restricting the king’s authority in some form or other. The king, they ordained, was not to exercise patronage without the approval of parliament; in clause nine he was forbidden to go to war or leave the kingdom without prior approval; clause ten abolished prises through purveyance altogether; customs were to be paid directly into the exchequer and not be collected by others including the royal financier America dei Frescobaldi, whom Edward relied on for foreign loans; the king’s household could no longer be financed directly, receiving its income from the exchequer only, limiting the king’s ability to spend independently. Clause twenty-one ordained that parliament was to meet at least once a year, twice if necessary, in a convenient location, no longer on the whim of the king. Clause fourteen removed the right for Edward to appoint his own royal administrators including the treasurer, chancellor, steward, chief justices and keeper of the privy seal. Clause thirteen demanded that all ‘evil counsellors’ were to be removed and replaced with suitable alternatives. These clauses and many more were so far-reaching that they effectively rendered the king entirely subject to the community of the realm in all aspects of his power, meaning as always at this time, the nobility.[10] It was a straightjacket calculated to curb entirely the power and independence of the king and a means by which the nobility could take control of his personal household. In a period when kings ruled and not reigned, this was a significant constitutional change. Such attempts to curb royal power had not been seen since Simon de Montfort put the Provisions of Oxford before Henry III in 1258. In short, the Ordinances were revolutionary.

If this was not in itself shocking enough for Edward, there was the expected declaration that the Earl of Cornwall was considered one of the king’s evil counsellors – being singled out in a comprehensive clause of his very own. The nobility’s patience with Piers Gaveston had come to an end. Clause twenty set out that Gaveston was ‘evil’ and had ill advised the king, detached him from his natural royal lieges and his people, had robbed the kingdom and the crown of lands and wealth which he has stowed abroad; that he had drawn to him men whom by oath supported him against all others, assumed royal dignity, taken offices for himself and his supporters displacing men of honour, even after the preliminary ordinances had prohibited it; he had taken the king to war in Scotland without the consent of all the nobles thereby endangering him, and was so corrupt that he simply had to go. In fact they had decided and set out, learning from their previous experiences in bringing about failed former exiles, not only had Piers to leave England, but he was to leave Edward’s dominion altogether – England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and his lands held in France. Gaveston was, they declared, never to return under any circumstance and should he do so he would be excommunicate, and any persons aiding him would be treated as felons and face the full penalty of the law.[11]

Faced with such an overwhelming attack on his own royal sovereignty and his favourite, Edward did the only thing he could. He refused all the demands outright and declared that the authority of the Ordainers was to reform only things that did not touch upon his sovereignty. Parliament bullied the king hard and threatened outright civil war. Edward held firm but was counselled by those more moderate that he simply did not have enough men or money to fight back. In desperation he hit out, applying strategies he had used more successfully in the past when backed into a political corner. The king reminded the assembled nobles that they had themselves allowed the Earl of Cornwall to return from his second exile in 1309 and were agreed in restoring Gaveston to his earldom. It changed nothing they replied. Edward then declared he would accept all forty clauses so long as they dropped clause twenty and stopped pursuing his lover. This was, on the face of it, an act of desperation to hold onto Gaveston when exile this time would mean losing him altogether. However, despite what many critics has said since, Edward was not foolish enough to expect to agree to the Ordinances and then live them. He, like his father, grandfather and many ancestors before him, undoubtedly would apply the same strategy in times of crisis; accept the terms now, keep Piers if he could and seek to undermine or overturn the Ordinances later, most likely through papal annulment as they had been forced upon the king under duress which invalidated them in the eyes of medieval society, including the Church.

In 1311, the Ordinances were proclaimed throughout the kingdom

The nobles, all too aware of this refused outright. Gaveston they declared again must go, and all forty-one of the clauses were to be adopted. If not, they would be forced to defend themselves with arms. Under enormous emotional duress and surrounded by very few, if any counsellors who advised him to hold out, Edward had no choice but to accept the Ordinances in full which he duly did on 27 September 1311; two days before the Ordainer’s official commission ran out. The Ordinances were then published in the churchyard of St Paul’s by the Bishop of Salisbury, who was acting on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to an audience that included the chief leaders Lancaster and Warwick, as well as Hereford, Pembroke, Arundel and Oxford. On 10 October, copies of the Ordinances were sent out to every county across Edward’s dominions and were proclaimed as law by the sheriffs. To commemorate their achievement and Edward’s capitulation, Lancaster had a stone tablet erected in St Paul’s churchyard to mark the occasion. The king, furious and utterly exhausted, had temporarily lost.

The Ordinances would go on to dominate the politics of the next eleven years in Edward’s reign before the king was finally strong enough to repeal them at the York Parliament of 1322, hot on the heels of his most magnificent victory over the Contrariant rebels and the execution of his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster in that year. In the intervening time, Edward was faced with intense pressure from hard liners like Lancaster and Warwick to implement the terms of this enforced piece of legislation, leaving the king sometimes with no choice but to do so. However, Edward was also canny, and for many years was able to side step many of the clauses, especially as he focussed his efforts in building up support for his rule more broadly. The potency and effectiveness of the Ordinances were soon diluted. The death of the Earl of Warwick in 1315 helped, and when Lancaster’s disinterest in actual day-to-day government became apparent to all from 1316, he too lost his dominant voice at court, spending years sulking on his private estates being as obstructive as possible. Government in England became paralysed for years. Ultimately therefore, the legacy of the Ordinances of 1311, a revolutionary document designed to clip the wings of the crown forever, although initially extreme and hard hitting, was short-lived, just as Edward II had hoped. Their failure was ultimately Edward’s success.


Stephen Spinks is author of a medieval series of works focussing on the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. His books, available globally, include; Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance and Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation


Further Reading:

A Royal Traitor: The Life & Execution of Thomas of Lancaster [22 March 2017, fourteenthcenturyfiend.com] (click here)

A Lesson in Loyalty: The Life of Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke (Part One) [3 September 2017,  fourteenthcenturyfiend.com].(click here)

Piers Gaveston: Life, Love & Death (An Overview) [12 December 2016, fourteenthcenturyfiend.com(click here)

Ancient Customs & Conflict: Edward II and the Contrariant Rebels (Part Two) [22 May 2020, fourteenthcenturyfiend.com(click here)


Extended evidential footnotes:

[1] Annales Londonienses 1195-1330, in W. Stubbs, ed Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, Vol I, Rolls Series, lxxvi (London, 1882), 168-9.

[2] Ibid. Phillips, S. Edward II (New Haven & London, 2010), 165.

[3] Spinks, Stephen. Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance (Stroud, 2017). 90.

[4] Foedera, Conventiones, Litterae et Cujuscunque Generis Acta Publica, ed T. Ryder vol I, ii (London, 1816-20), 113. Ann Lond, 173.

[5] Annales Paulini 1307-1340 in W. Stubbs, ed Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, Vol I, Rolls Series, lxxvi (London, 1882), 269.

[6] Johannis de Trokelowe et Henrich de Blaneford Chronica et Annales, ed H.T. Riley, Rolls Series (London, HMSO, 1866), 72-3.

[7] Foedera, 129.

[8] Maddicott, J.R. Thomas of Lancaster, 1307-1322: A Study in the Reign of Edward II (Oxford, 1970), 23. Hamilton, J.S. Piers Gaveston: Earl of Cornwall, 1307-1312: Politics and Patronage in the Reign of Edward II (Detroit and London, 1988), 40.

[9] Spinks, 93.

[10] English Historical Documents, vol 3, 1189-1327, ed. Harry Rothwell (London, 1975), 527-539

[11] Ibid, 532.

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