Post-classical history

Chapter Fifty-Seven


The Wars of Edward I

Between 1275 and 1299, Edward I of England claims Wales, the Scots fight for independence, and Philip IV of France spends too much money on war

IN 1275, Edward of England—aged thirty-six, in the third year of his reign—marched west to conquer the Prince of Wales.

Unlike Scotland, Wales had never possessed a High King who could boast the allegiance of the whole country. Instead, it had rivaling princes who claimed to rule one or more of a handful of small kingdoms: Gwynedd and Powys, Dyfed and Deheubarth, Morgannwg and Ceredigion. This made Wales vulnerable to the English kings, should they choose to push west past Offa’s Dyke, the border between Powys and the English county of Mercia. In 1247, Edward’s father Henry III had done just that. He had taken the northern territory known as the Perfeddwlad away from the Kingdom of Gwynedd and had then granted the Perfeddwlad to Edward, the crown prince, as his own particular possession.1

At the time, the Kingdom of Gwynedd was temporarily leaderless; its prince had died without an heir, and his brother’s four sons were fighting over the principality. By 1255, the second brother, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, had managed to come out on top. But the victory gave him a shrunken Kingdom of Gwynedd. He wanted the Perfeddwlad back.

Within the year, he had driven the English out of the Perfeddwlad. And his ambitions then expanded even farther, into the rest of Wales. He spent twenty years fighting: against the English outposts in Wales; against his fellow Welsh princes, forcing them to swear allegiance to him in place of the English king. Henry III, entangled in his bid for Sicily and his disputes with the barons, could not hold on to his Welsh claims or halt Llywelyn’s advance. In 1267, five years before his death, Henry had been forced to recognize Llywelyn ap Gruffudd with a new title: Prince of Wales, the first Welsh ruler to claim anything more than local authority.*

Edward I intended to empty this title of its power and to reclaim the Perfeddwlad for himself. Three years after his accession, he ordered Llywelyn to travel to England and pay him homage. Llywelyn refused, and Edward prepared to march into Gwynedd.

It took him a year to raise an army and the needed funds, but a slew of English barons agreed to fight with him in exchange for gifts of conquered Welsh land. When fighting actually began, Llywelyn found the Welsh princes he had cajoled into submission melting away, happy to let the English king deal with their overbearing countryman. His own younger brother Dafydd, who had long hoped to get the lordship of Wales for himself, joined Edward’s side. Edward, personally leading the campaign, cut Llywelyn off by land and hemmed him in by sea.2

By November 1277, Llywelyn was forced to agree to a peace treaty, the Treaty of Conway, that took away from him everything but his original small northwest corner of Gwynedd. Edward handed out Welsh lands to his barons in reward, took the Perfeddwlad for the crown, and gave Dafydd the rule over a chunk of the Gwynedd principality that had once belonged to his brother.

In five years, this arrangement fell apart. The English barons, as overlords to their Welsh tenants, were both dismissive and demanding; the English sheriff appointed to supervise Welsh affairs, Reginald de Gray, was harsh, dragging up decade-old offenses for trial and threatening petitioners with the death penalty; Dafydd himself was forced to obey English law in his own lands. “All Christians have laws and customs in their own lands,” complained one Welsh nobleman. “Even the Jews in England have laws among the English; we had our immutable laws and customs in our lands, until the English took them away.”3

Just before Easter 1282, Dafydd rallied the Welsh princes behind him. The first act of war was the sudden attack on an English-held castle, Hawarden, on the Saturday night before Palm Sunday. Within a week, Llywelyn had joined his brother (the English were now a greater threat than his sibling’s ambitions), and almost the entire country was in revolt.4

This time, Edward brought more men. Fighting in the north of Wales, fighting in the south of Wales: in December, the balance was still tipping rapidly back and forth between the sides. But on December 11, Llywelyn was ambushed by a band of English soldiers at a bridge crossing over the river Irfron. “Llywelyn ap Gruffydd is dead,” wrote the commander of the ambush, in his report on the incident, “his army defeated, and all the flower of his army dead.”5


57.1 Wars in Scotland and Wales

In fact, Llywelyn had only a small detachment with him; but with Llywelyn’s fall, the Welsh resistance lost its heart. Dafydd immediately declared himself Llywelyn’s successor as Prince of Wales and carried on the fight, but in June of 1283 he was turned over to the English by a handful of his own companions.

The war had been expensive and vexing, and Edward authorized a new punishment for Dafydd. He was drawn, hung, and quartered, a barbaric punishment carried out on a still-living rebel: dragged through the streets of London behind a horse, as a traitor; hung as a thief; and then cut down when still alive, disemboweled and his intestines burned in front of his eyes, an ancient penalty for homicide. Finally, says the contemporary Chronicle of Lanercost, “his limbs were cut into four parts as the penalty of a rebel, and exposed in four of the ceremonial places in England as a spectacle.” His right arm went to York, his left to Bristol, his right leg to Northampton, his left to Hereford. His head, bound in iron to keep it from falling apart as it decayed, was stuck on a spear shaft at the Tower of London.6

Edward then took the title Prince of Wales for himself. The 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan formally added Wales to the English empire. Llywelyn became known as Llywelyn the Last; Wales would never again have an independent ruler.

WAR IN SCOTLAND and war with France followed, hand in hand.

Alexander III, king of the Scots since 1249, had made an alliance with Henry III by marrying his daughter Margaret, Edward I’s younger sister. But after the wedding, he had refused Henry III’s demands that he pay homage to the English king as his overlord.

For nearly four decades, Alexander III protected his kingdom’s independence. His beloved wife and all three of his children died before him, his children in a rapid span between 1281 and 1284. Desperate for an heir, he married again, a young Frenchwoman named Yoleta de Dru. He was riding back home from a council late one March night, anxious for another visit to her bedchamber, when he outstripped his squires, took a wrong turn, and rode his horse off a steep cliff. He had reigned in Scotland for thirty-six years and nine months.7

His sole surviving heir was his granddaughter Margaret, child of his dead daughter Margaret and her husband, the king of Norway. Margaret was only three years old, but the nobles of Scotland consented to recognize her as their queen. In hopes of bringing a lasting peace, they also agreed, in the Treaty of Birgham, to betroth her to Edward’s own son; this would create a personal union between the two kingdoms of England and Scotland, on condition that Scotland would always keep its independence.8

Margaret was brought to Scotland in style, but the arrangement all fell apart in 1290, when she died in the Orkney Islands, aged seven. With no more royal family left, there were no fewer than thirteen candidates for the Scottish throne. The front-runners were Robert Bruce the Fifth, the dead king’s second cousin, and John Balliol, a great-great-great-grandson of David I.

Robert Bruce had perhaps the best claim to the throne, and his son Robert Bruce the Sixth was well known to Edward; he had been on the Ninth Crusade with Edward and had helped the English campaign in Wales. But Robert the Fifth was already eighty years old, and Edward threw his weight behind John Balliol’s candidacy. Balliol, a landowner in his forties, had no training as a soldier; he was married to an Englishwoman, owned an English estate, and already owed money to the English crown.9

A gathering of 104 Scottish aristocrats duly chose Balliol. “He was raised to the kingly seat at Scone,” the Chronicle of Lanercost records, “with the applause of a multitude of people assembled, the King of England’s attorneys also taking part.” It was traditional for Scottish kings to be crowned at Scone Abbey, in the southeast of Scotland, while seated on the Stone of Scone: a chunk of sandstone said to have been brought to Scotland by the legendary first king of the Scots, Fergus, sixteen hundred years before.10

Having English officials help conduct the ceremony was definitely not traditional. But their presence was a sign of things to come.

Balliol agreed, shortly after his coronation, to do homage to Edward as his feudal lord. It was not a popular act; Edward immediately showed himself far too willing to meddle in Scottish affairs, and Balliol was unwilling to defy him. But for two years, the two men maintained an uneasy peace—until Edward and Philip of France fell out, giving the Scots a chance to rid themselves of their overbearing master to the south.

THE DEATH of Philip the Bold in France, after his ill-considered campaign in Aragon, left his seventeen-year-old son Philip IV on the throne. A year before his accession, the boy had been married off to Queen Joan of Navarre, aged ten; this had brought Navarre and France together under one royal couple.

Philip hero-worshipped his dead grandfather Louis, and hoped to model himself after Philip Augustus, his great-grandfather: both of them, kings with a high view of their divine calling as ruler. In the young Philip, this took the form of a great need to exert his authority over the independent-minded dukes who still held much of his kingdom. And the most independent-minded of these was Edward I, who was Duke of Aquitaine as well as king of England; Aquitaine, the home of Eleanor, wife of Henry II and mother of both Richard Lionheart and John Lackland, still remained under English control.

Philip was thus, theoretically, the feudal lord of Edward—just as Edward was the feudal lord of John Balliol. In 1294, the French king ordered Edward to appear at the French royal court in order to answer for the behavior of Norman sailors who had taken part in a brawl with French ships just off the coast.

When Edward ignored the summons, Philip confiscated Aquitaine as punishment. Edward immediately began to round up allies on the continent. The Duke of Brittany and the Count of Flanders, both hoping to reduce Philip IV’s power, agreed to fight with him. He also sent an imperious message to John Balliol, ordering him to send Scottish troops as part of his feudal responsibility to his overlord.

Balliol sent back a meek reply, promising the soldiers; but at this, the aristocrats who had chosen him took the country out of his hands. Twelve of them formed a council to govern the country, and “it was decreed,” says the Chronicle of Lanercost, “that the king could do no act by himself.” Balliol was now no more than a figurehead, earning himself the contemptuous nickname of Toom Tabard, “Empty Suit.”

On behalf of the country, the Twelve Peers sent to Philip IV, offering to make a treaty with the French against the English. The Treaty of Paris, concluded in 1295, promised alliance with the French throne and hostility to the English. It also began decades of war between Scotland and England: to the English, the Scottish Wars; to the Scots, the Wars of Independence.11

Now Edward was faced with the necessity of fighting in both France and Scotland; in France, as a disobedient vassal; in Scotland, as the overlord of a disobedient vassal. Leaving the French war in the hands of his generals, he personally led an army towards the Scottish city of Berwick. At the same time, he sent a navy to assault Balliol by sea. He put Robert Bruce the Sixth, whom he trusted, in charge of the northern fortress Carlisle Castle, on the Scottish border: a key position not far from Hadrian’s Wall.

The English army made short work of Berwick. “The town [was] taken,” writes the Scottish chronicler John of Fordun, “and all were swept down; and, sparing neither sex nor age, the aforesaid king of England, in his tyrannous rage, bade them put to the sword 7500 souls of both sexes; so that, for two days, streams flowed from the bodies of the slain.”12

The Scottish defenders were driven steadily back into the north. One by one the castles of Scotland fell: Dunbar, Edinburgh, Stirling. At Montrose, Balliol gave up. He surrendered, coming out of the castle without his royal robes, waving a white wand.

Edward took him prisoner and declared victory over Scotland. On his way back to England, he detoured through Scone Abbey and seized the Stone of Scone. Balliol he imprisoned in the Tower of London; the Stone of Scone he set on the royal coronation seat of England, so that future English kings would be crowned kings of Scotland as well. He left vice-regents and English sheriffs to administer Scotland in his name. Scotland, he assumed, was his; just like Wales.

But unlike Wales, Scotland was accustomed to unifying itself behind a single strong leader.

The Twelve Peers had not given up. “They built castles,” says John of Fordun, “repaired those which were in ruins, set trusty garrisons in the strongest positions, and made ready to withstand bravely the lawless usupation of that most wicked king of England.” But none of the Twelve Peers emerged as the leader of Scottish rebellion. That role fell to the energetic second son of a minor landholder: William Wallace, aged twenty-five, six foot six and a hater of the English.

Wallace had already been declared an outlaw for taking private revenge on overbearing English soldiers. He had collected a band of freedom fighters (to the Scots) and brigands (in English eyes) who roved through Scotland with him, launching attacks on English garrisons and plundering English-held castles. According to an account written over 150 years later by an obscure poet known as Blind Harry, his fame was growing: “With a run of conquests he had slain / His foes, and all their cities storm’d and ta’en.”13

Since Edward did not send an army in response, Wallace’s attacks were probably on a much smaller scale. But in 1297 William Wallace precipitated open war.

Blind Harry says that he had fallen in love with Marion of Lanark, the beautiful young daughter of a local landowner. Since Lanark was the seat of a powerful English sheriff, the outlaw Wallace was forced to marry his beloved in secret. Caught visiting her, he fought his way out of Lanark, killing a good number of English soldiers on the way. The sheriff, Sir William Heselrig, put Marion to death in retaliation. Maddened by grief, Wallace came back to Lanark, broke into Heselrig’s castle at night, and dismembered the sheriff as he slept.14

Marion’s existence cannot be traced, but Wallace and his men certainly did attack and kill the English sheriff, as the first act in a coordinated uprising all across the country under Wallace’s leadership. “William Wallace lifted up his head from his den,” says the more sober account of John of Fordun, “and . . . there flocked to him all who were in bitterness of spirit and weighed down beneath the burden of bondage under the unbearable domination of English despotism. . . . So Wallace overthrew the English on all sides.”15

Now Edward took notice. He sent a “large force to repress this William’s boldness.” Wallace, advancing towards the enemy, met them at Stirling Bridge, over the Forth. On September 11, 1297, his army wiped out the English and killed their general. A thirty-two-year struggle, the First War of Scottish Independence, had formally begun.

MEANWHILE, THE ENGLISH were fighting the French in Aquitaine, and the war was more expensive than Philip IV had anticipated.

He had already declared special taxes on Jews and imposed a highly unpopular tax on the French church. In 1298, he devalued the French currency for the first time: seized it, melted it, and then reissued it with the same value but less silver in it, producing more coins with the same amount of precious metals. This backfired; the coins were immediately viewed as worth less, and inflation set in.16

Poorer than when the fight began, Philip IV agreed in 1299 to negotiate a peace with Edward I. To seal the deal, he approved the marriage of his sister Marguerite to the sixty-year-old Edward (Edward’s first and much-loved wife, Eleanor of Castile, had died in 1290). Philip IV was half Edward’s age, Marguerite only twenty. At the same time, Philip betrothed his five-year-old daughter Isabella to Edward’s fifteen-year-old son, the future Edward II of England.

In exchange for peace, he agreed to give no further aid to the Scots. Wallace and his rebels were isolated on their island, and Edward could now turn his full attention their way.


*The arrangement also involved Llywelyn’s promise to pay an annual tribute of three thousand marks to England, a deal that he kept only through 1270.

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