Post-classical history


Plantagenet Britain?



The Hammer – Edward I

the tall, lithe, sinewy creature described by his contemporaries, fine and attractive, clear and emphatic in speech, uncertain in temper, reasonable in counsel

Sir Maurice Powicke1

King of all Britain

In March 1304 Edward I held a parliament at St Andrew’s ‘where he proclaimed his peace’.2 It was attended by 129 major Scottish landowners, who had been summoned by Edward as King of England, including most of their earls, barons, bishops and abbots, among them the Earl of Carrick – Robert the Bruce.3 Scotland no longer existed as a separate kingdom.

Until recently Edward I ranked with Alfred the Great in the national myth. There was plenty of the family demon about him when angry, but with his superb physique and dynamism he seemed more like a daemon from Greek mythology – halfway between man and god. We think of him as conqueror of Wales and ‘Hammer of the Scots’, forgetting his role as lawgiver, for he was very much the heir of his great-grandfather, Henry II. The Jacobean jurist, Sir Edward Coke, called him ‘The English Justinian’, and if Edward cannot take all the credit for the law’s progress during his reign, he certainly drove it. Unfortunately, he rarely comes alive in the chronicles because there was no one of Matthew Paris’s calibre to guess at what was in his mind.

Early years

Born in 1239, as a young man Edward seemed so unstable that Matthew Paris dreaded how he might turn out. Having been close to the Lusignans, he joined the reformers and Simon de Montfort, then rallied to his father – whoever wrote the Song of Lewes in 1264 jeered that he changed his loyalties as the fabulous Pard did its spots. But when a former supporter of Simon, Sir Adam Gurdon, one of the ‘dispossessed’ who had taken to highway robbery, ambushed the prince in a Hampshire forest, Edward not only worsted Gurdon in single combat, but turned him into a loyal supporter. In any case, outwitting and destroying de Montfort was no small achievement.


In the summer of 1270 Edward crossed to France, then sailed from Aigues-Mortes to join the Eighth Crusade at the siege of Tunis, where he learned that its leader, his uncle Louis IX, had just died. He sailed on to Palestine, landing at the capital, Acre, in May 1271 with less than a thousand troops. The kingdom of Jerusalem, now a mere strip of land along the coast, was reeling from the attacks of Sultan Baibars of Egypt, a Kipchak Turk who sometimes skinned prisoners alive. All that Edward could do was to lead a few raids.

Nevertheless, in June 1272 Baibars tried to murder him, using a Muslim whom the English trusted. Coming to his tent late at night when he was alone, the man stabbed him with a poisoned dagger, and, although Edward killed his assailant, he nearly died. The story of his wife sucking the venom from his wound is improbable – more likely, the flesh around it was cut away – but he made a complete recovery.

When Edward left Acre for Sicily in September 1272, the kingdom of Jerusalem was no more secure than when he arrived, but he had gained enormous prestige. He also made useful friends – Archbishop Tebaldo Visconti, a pilgrim to the Holy Land, and Fra’ Joseph de Chauncy, Prior of the Knights Hospitaller of England, whom he made his treasurer. He had learned, too, how impregnable castles supplied from the sea could protect exposed territory.

In Sicily, news came of the deaths of his five-year-old son John and of King Henry. When the Sicilian king, Charles of Anjou, marvelled that Edward mourned his child so little and his father so much, he answered that he could beget another son but fathers were irreplaceable. At Orvieto he was greeted magnificently by his friend Visconti, now Pope Gregory X. He also received a warm welcome in Savoy from his mother’s kindred, staying at the count’s new castle of St Georges d’Esperance and meeting its architect, James of St George. In France, the Count of Chalons-sur-Marne tried to seize him during a tournament, hoping to extract a rich ransom – instead, Edward captured the count. At Paris he paid neatly phrased homage to St Louis’s son, Philip III, ‘for all the lands I ought to hold from you’.4

Landing at Dover on 2 August 1274, Edward and Eleanor were crowned at Westminster a fortnight later. As Stubbs says, ‘He had all the powers of Henry II without his vices and he had too that sympathy with the people whom he ruled.’5 The ceremony was attended by the King of Scots, Alexander III, who paid homage.

The start of the reign

By now central government was increasingly sophisticated, with the Exchequer for revenue, the Chancery for law and administration, and the Wardrobe for the executive. Edward found the right man to manage these departments, a young chancery clerk from Shropshire, Robert Burnell, who understood what he wanted. When appointed chancellor (in place of justiciar), Burnell established the Chancery court at London so that it no longer accompanied the king on progress. Ignoring Burnell’s greed and scandalous private life, Edward got the best out of him, even if eventually it cost the Crown over eighty manors.

The upheavals of the 1260s had resulted in a dramatic rise in murder, robbery, rape and arson. Edward’s solution was a team of judges who prosecuted on the slightest evidence of wrongdoing. Accompanied by the judges of King’s Bench, he spent the winter on progress through the Midlands and southern England, finding so much proof of extortion, bribery, embezzlement and wrongful imprisonment that he dismissed nineteen sheriffs. Equipped with a list of forty questions supplied by him, commissioners investigated abuses in each hundred, especially of Crown rights and revenues by local landowners, and of extortion by bailiffs (sheriffs’ officials). Tagged by countless parchment slips with the seals of those who made depositions, their reports – the Hundred Rolls – became known as the ‘ragman rolls’.

During the next thirteen years, the ‘period of statutes’, Edward clarified and improved the legal code. It is wrong to compare him to Justinian, as he had no intention of creating a new, all-embracing body of law, but simply wanted to make the machinery work by codifying what had grown up haphazardly. He succeeded. ‘For ages after Edward’s day king and parliament left private law and private procedure, criminal law and criminal procedure, pretty much to themselves.’6 The future of Common Law (the unenacted law of the land as opposed to statutes) became assured, resulting in a new class of lay lawyers.

The man

When Edward’s skeleton at Westminster Abbey was examined in 1774, it measured 6 ft 2 in. (Most contemporaries were 5 ft 6 in.) A painting on a wall of the abbey, dating from just after his death, shows a handsome, athletic man with a clean-shaven, hawk-like profile.

‘Elegantly built, enormously tall, he towered head and shoulders above ordinary men’, says the Dominican Nicholas Trivet, who often saw him. ‘His hair, in boyhood between silver and yellow, became darker during his youth, turning swan white when he grew old. His forehead, like the rest of his face, was broad while he had a drooping left eye that gave a certain look of his father. He spoke with a slight lisp, but was always eloquent in arguing or persuading. His arms, as long as the rest of his body, were muscular and ideally suited for swordsmanship. His girth was widest round the chest. His long legs helped him keep a firm seat when riding the most mettlesome horse.’7

High spirited, Edward was only saddened by the death of those he loved. His greatest fault was a temper he sometimes regretted. As a young man, he ordered his attendants to put out the eyes and crop the ears of a youth who had angered him. During his daughter Elizabeth’s wedding to the Count of Hainault, he snatched the coronet off her head and threw it in the fire, while more than once he struck courtiers or servants. A dean of St Paul’s who tried to rebuke him dropped dead from fright. Yet he could be merciful. ‘Forgiveness?’ he once said. ‘Why, I’d give that to a dog if he asked me for it.’ He knew how to be gracious and had a sense of fun, losing a war horse on a bet with his laundress and buying it back.

Edward was deeply in love with his wife Eleanor, to whom he had been betrothed when he was fifteen and she about twelve. If she resembled the sculpture at Lincoln Cathedral, she must indeed have been beautiful. Over a dozen children were born to them, and he never took mistresses. Like their uncle Louis, Eleanor’s father had been a crusader hero, King Ferdinand III ‘el Santo’, who regained much of Spain from the Moors. (Ironically, she was descended from Mohammed, one of her forebears having married a daughter of a Caliph of Cordoba.) She was also half-French, inheriting the county of Abbeville from her mother. Like her husband, she loved Arthurian romances, employing scribes to copy them; and when they were on Crusade she commissioned as a present for him a French translation of Vegetius’s treaty on war, De Re Militari. Eleanor’s avaricious streak – she bought up loans from Jewish moneylenders – did not affect their relations.

Family ties meant much to the king, because of a happy childhood. When his mother died in 1291, he wrote to a cousin that since his father’s death she had been closer to him than any other human being.8 He admired his uncle Louis IX deeply, although nobody was more different, and stayed on friendly terms with Louis’s son, Philip III – a bond between ruling families unique in thirteenth-century Europe.

While giving alms as lavishly as his father and annually touching hundreds of sufferers for the King’s Evil (scrofula), Edward was less pious. Nor did he have Henry III’s cult of St Edward. When he had the Painted Chamber at Westminster redecorated, it was with scenes from the life of Judas Maccabeus instead of the Confessor’s. His favourite saint was Thomas Becket, to whose shrine he once sent a wax image of a sick gyrfalcon, praying for the bird’s cure.

As a young man he loved tournaments – according to some, he was the best lance in Christendom. His pleasures were not those of the mind, and while he enjoyed tales of King Arthur and the music of Welsh harpers he was less well read than Henry III, except in law. His Latin was poor even by thirteenth-century standards, but he wrote French and some Spanish, and spoke English. If he had idle moods (hunting, hawking, playing chess) that hint at boredom, never for a moment did he lose his love of power.

King Arthur

On his way home from Palestine, Edward commissioned Rustichello da Pisa (who later helped Marco Polo with his Travels) to write the Romance of King Arthur, a compendium of Arthurian tales. In 1278 he and Eleanor went to Glastonbury Abbey when the supposed bodies of Arthur and Guinevere, found in the previous century, had been rediscovered, and moved them to a worthier tomb before the high altar, helping personally to carry Arthur’s coffin. It was probably Edward who ordered the construction of the Round Table still displayed in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle.

Enlisting the Arthurian cult in his campaign to rule all Britain, in 1284 he staged a Round Table tournament in north Wales, portraying his conquest of the Welsh as an adventure of the sort undertaken by Arthur’s knights. Champions from all over Europe came to the joust, where he was presented with Arthur’s crown, discovered just in time. He held another Round Table tournament at Falkirk in 1302, to show that subduing Scots was an Arthurian duty.

Pillars of the realm

The earls could not help being dwarfed by the king’s huge shadow. Two were Plantagenets, his brother Edmund ‘Crouchback’ of Lancaster and his cousin Richard of Cornwall – both mediocrities who never caused trouble. Another two were uncles, Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, Henry III’s Lusignan half-brother, and John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, who had married Henry’s half-sister. The king treated his impeccably loyal nephew John of Brittany, later Earl of Richmond, almost as a son, and he took a prominent part in the Gascon and Scottish campaigns.

Among those unrelated to the king, Gilbert de Clare, the immensely rich Earl of Gloucester, red-headed, stupid and unreliable, who had fought on de Montfort’s side at Lewes, was less of a nuisance than might have been expected despite a tendency to quarrel with everybody. He married Edward’s daughter, Joan of Acre. However, Roger Bigod of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal, and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and hereditary constable, neither of whom had blood ties with the king, were less inclined to obey. Edward had no trouble from William Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, a fine soldier who rescued him when he was trapped by Welsh rebels at Conwy in 1295. The magnate he most trusted was Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, whom he left as Protector of England when away on the Scottish campaigns.

From the mid-1260s until Edward’s death his greatest friend was the Savoyard Othon de Grandson, who accompanied him on Crusade. The king’s right-hand man, Othon took a prominent part in the Welsh wars, helped to govern Gascony and fought the Scots. His family home at Grandson near Lausanne may have inspired Edward’s castles in Wales.

The first great statutes

In 1275 the king presided over the enactment of the First Statute of Westminster, which strictly speaking was a code rather than a statute. Fifty-one clauses in Norman French, it overhauled and corrected the entire legal system, making justice available to everyone, rich or poor. Hitherto, only the person dispossessed had been able to sue someone who stole his or her land, but now heirs might sue. Abuse of wardship, unfair demands for feudal dues, coroners’ duties, all received attention. The statute was not just an expression of the royal will, but reflected Magna Carta. Three years later, the Statute of Gloucester (or Quo Warranto) put right abuses uncovered by the Ragman Rolls. In future, disputes in the hundred courts over ownership of land were to be investigated by the travelling judges, to ensure that great men had not stolen the property of lesser, while plaintiffs could recover costs. It made local government fairer, defining and limiting the magnates’ power to administer law in their own courts.

The barons were angry at being asked to show by what right they held their land, ‘Quo Warranto’. ‘Look, my lords, this is my right’, shouted the Earl of Surrey, brandishing an old sword. ‘My ancestors came with William the Bastard and won my lands by the sword, and I’ll use the same sword to keep them!’9 A less formidable ruler than Edward might have faced a serious revolt and, well aware of it, he weakened the magnates by securing control of as many earldoms as possible. Royal marriages helped, while Cornwall and Norfolk were escheated to the Crown after their holders died without heirs of the body.

Another Becket?

Having made Robert Burnell Bishop of Bath and Wells, the king wanted him as Archbishop of Canterbury when the see fell vacant in 1278, but, learning that Burnell kept a mistress by whom he had sons and daughters, the pope would not allow it. Instead, a zealous Franciscan friar from Sussex was appointed, John Pecham, who denounced the custom of giving benefices to bureaucrats. He also promised to excommunicate judges who refused to arrest men under the bishops’ ban, and Crown lawyers who interfered in canon law cases or infringed clerical freedoms listed in Magna Carta, posting copies of the Great Charter on church doors. When parliament met in 1279, the king ordered Pecham to withdraw his threats and remove the charter from church doors. Reluctantly, the archbishop complied. Pointedly, the king issued the Statute of Mortmain, forbidding bequests of land to the Church without royal permission.

Pecham grumbled for the rest of his life, but was too frightened of Edward to disobey.

Conquering Wales

Medieval Englishmen thought of Welshmen in much the same way nineteenth-century Americans would think of the Sioux. Apart from the principality of Gwynedd (Snowdonia and Anglesey), Wales was a mosaic of lordships, divided between native chieftains, the Crown and Marchers. The Marchers were English barons, usually with large estates in England, who had occupied the fertile south and east, and brought in settlers.

While accepting Edward’s suzerainty, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd of Gwynedd, Prince of Wales, regarded himself as an independent sovereign and overlord of the Welsh chieftains in the south. Several times Edward ordered him to come to court and pay homage as his grandfather had done, but Llewelyn declined. In 1275 Llewelyn’s brother Dafydd fled to England after plotting to depose him, and was given sanctuary. When Simon de Montfort’s daughter Eleanor, to whom Llewelyn had been betrothed for ten years, sailed to Wales for their wedding, her ship was intercepted and she was taken to Windsor. The king refused to release her until the prince paid homage. At the end of 1276 Edward appointed commanders for north Wales, west Wales and the central Marches. Allying with disaffected Welsh chieftains, they quickly overran the new lands acquired by Llewelyn.10

The king understood Welsh tactics very well – to raid, then hide among trackless hills, hardy mountain ponies giving them mobility. Living in rough bothies, they could move their families and flocks at a moment’s notice, luring enemies into harsh country where bad weather and lack of provisions took a severe toll. ‘Grievous is war there, and hard to endure’, says a chronicler. ‘When it is summer elsewhere, it is winter in Wales.’11 Their weapons were spears, javelins and long knives, while men of the south used bows that could send an arrow through a church door. If unable to face a charge by mailed knights, they were lethally effective in ambushes.

Edward did not intend to conquer Wales, however, merely to tame Llewelyn. In July 1277 he assembled an army 16,000 strong (with 9,000 mercenaries from south Wales) at Worcester, where munitions and food were stockpiled, and marched up to Flint. He brought woodmen and miners to build roads through the woods and mountains, to dig earthworks and erect stockades, as well as masons and labourers to construct castles. Thirty Cinque Port ships with supplies were stationed on the River Dee.

From his headquarters at Flint, Edward invaded Gwynedd and Powys, destroying crops and livestock, capturing enemy strongholds. By 29 July he was at Deganwy on the River Conwy’s west bank, sending troops over to Anglesey, who burned the harvest on which the prince’s people relied to feed them in winter. His area commanders had already wrecked much of Llewelyn’s regime – and what was left disintegrated. Early in November 1277 at the treaty of Conwy, Llewelyn formally surrendered half his territory, agreeing to pay an indemnity of £50,000. When he did homage for his ‘fief’, the king not only remitted the indemnity but let him marry Eleanor de Montfort, giving a wedding banquet at Worcester in their honour.

Having hoped to replace his brother as Prince of Wales, Dafydd was furious. Eventually, knowing that his fellow countrymen resented the arrival of new settlers and the replacement of the code of Hywel Dda with English law, on Easter Sunday 1282 Dafydd ‘went playing the fox’.12 He and his men got into Hawarden Castle near Flint by bearing palms in token of peace, then slaughtered the garrison to show that he too hated Englishmen. Other castles fell, and even if they did not fall, the Welsh who lived around them rose, defeating the Earl of Gloucester at Llandeilo in June and massacring settlers. Realizing this was a revolt by the whole nation, Llewelyn assumed leadership. Trying to lessen the English campaign’s impact by broadening the front, he moved down to Powys.

Llewelyn rushed back to Gwynedd, however, when a shipborne force under Luke de Tany occupied Anglesey in October, building a bridge of boats across the Menai Strait to attack western Snowdonia. Meanwhile, the king established his headquarters at Rhuddlan, subduing the Perfyddwlad (Flint and Denbighshire) and eastern Gwynedd. At the same time, Marchers cowed the Welsh in their area, burning churches and slaughtering men, women and children – including babies at the breast. Yet Edward was so alarmed that secretly he offered Llewelyn an English earldom in exchange for Gwynedd.

In October the Welsh were encouraged by the death of Roger Mortimer, a Marcher lord who had been one of the king’s principal commanders. In November it seemed they might win. Ambushed on the way back from a raid, Luke de Tany was drowned with many troops (including twenty knights) when the pontoon bridge collapsed into the sea as they retreated. The English counteroffensive had stalled, and Llewelyn finally rejected peace offers.

This only hardened Edward’s determination. He did not see the struggle as conquest – he was punishing rebellion. To avoid being starved out of Snowdonia, Llewelyn returned to Powys, where on 11 December 1282 during a skirmish at a bridge over the River Irfon near Builth, he was run through with a lance by a knight who did not recognize him. His head was displayed on a stake at London, crowned with an ivy wreath. After the death of ‘Llewelyn the Last’, who despite his volatility had been a superb leader, the spirit went out of the Welsh.

The war was not over, as his successor, his brother Prince Dafydd, knew he could expect no mercy. Ignoring the winter weather, Edward marched into Snowdonia in January 1283, taking the enemy’s remaining castles. When Castell-y-Bere, the last stronghold in Welsh hands, fell in April, Dafydd fled into the mountains. Betrayed by a fellow countryman, he was caught hiding in a marsh and taken in chains to the king at Rhuddlan, then tried at Shrewsbury in September by a ‘parliament’ of barons. It condemned him to be drawn on a hurdle to a gallows, half-hanged, then cut down alive for castration, disembowelment and quartering – the first to suffer this ghastly penalty.

The Welsh had never stood a chance, overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Mustering so many men was a remarkable achievement by Edward’s bureaucracy.13 Munitions as well as men were assembled in huge quantities, crossbow bolts ordered by tens of thousands. The king’s tactics may sometimes be questioned, but not his logistics.

In spring 1284 Edward issued the Statutes of Wales, replacing Welsh cantreds with English shires and hundreds in regions annexed by the Crown such as Gwynedd, although Marcher lordships retained their autonomy. English criminal law was introduced, but this time the Welsh kept some of Hywel Dda’s code for civil matters. New towns were founded in freshly conquered areas, five defended by huge castles where settlers could take refuge. Because of thirteenth-century land hunger there was no shortage of ‘Saxon’ immigrants, who were encouraged to settle by the king.

The biggest of eight new castles was Caernarfon, with its polygonal towers; almost a town. Edward’s architect was James of Savoy, whose work he had seen when returning from the Holy Land. Operating from Harlech, which he had designed and where he was castellan, James constructed all eight. Intended to hold down a conquered country, they were within close reach of the sea, so that troops and supplies could be rushed in by ship.

In 1294, when Edward was preparing for war with France, there was a dangerous revolt in north Wales, led by Madog ap Llewelyn, a member of the old ruling family, who called himself Prince of Wales. Still only half-built, Caernarfon was captured, but at Harlech forty men held off Madog’s entire army. The size of the force Edward sent to deal with the rising, twice as big as in 1277 and formed of troops needed in Gascony, shows his alarm. He took charge of operations in December, but his baggage train was ambushed and he found himself besieged in Conwy – sharing his one barrel of wine with his men. Madog was decisively defeated in March, however, all resistance petering out by summer.


Where finance was concerned, Edward was thoroughly unscrupulous. Having sucked dry the Jews (who were outside the law), he confiscated their property and in 1290 expelled the entire community from England – about 2,000 souls. He had paid for the Welsh wars by borrowing from the Riccardi of Lucca, who were allowed to collect customs duties on wool. Owing to commitments elsewhere, the Riccardi could not help with his request for a big loan in 1294, so Edward took the wool duties away from them and seized their other English assets (such as security for loans), which ruined them.

Later, he persuaded the Frescobaldi at Florence to lend him large sums, again in return for wool duties, but insolvency loomed. The only hope was taxing his subjects, but he had to secure their consent. ‘After 1215 the next great halting place in the history of the national assembly is the year 1295’, wrote Maitland, referring to the Model Parliament at Westminster in which earls, barons and knights agreed to give a twelfth of their movable goods to pay for war with France, burgesses agreeing on an eighth.14 Yet it is anachronistic to think of Edward as founding parliamentary government – he soon reverted to sporadic bursts of arbitrary taxation.

At the same time, he did his best to stimulate the economy, issuing a new coinage in 1279 and introducing a Statute of Merchants in 1285 that ordered debtors to pay bills on pain of imprisonment or distraint. Aware that Winchelsea, with a bigger fleet than any other Cinque Port, was vanishing under the sea, Edward began building a town and haven in 1283 to replace it, employing an architect who had built fortified towns (bastides) for him in Gascony. Laid out on a grid pattern, it was given seventy huge cellars to encourage the wine trade with Bordeaux.

The deaths of Eleanor of Castile and Robert Burnell

In autumn 1290 Eleanor of Castile fell gravely ill near Lincoln and Edward hurried north to be with her, but she died before he arrived. Heartbroken, he rode with her corpse to Westminster, and later had a stone cross (originally wooden) erected at each halting place. A contemporary translator of Langtoft’s chronicle comments. ‘On fell things he thought and wax[ed] heavy as lead . . . His solace was all [be]reft that she from him was gone.’15

Robert Burnell died in 1292. Three years later his place was taken by Walter Langton, Keeper of the Wardrobe, who became treasurer and Bishop of Lichfield. Even greedier than Burnell, he aroused widespread dislike. Later he was charged with adultery and murder – helping his mistress to strangle her husband – besides being accused of ‘intercourse with the devil’ whose backside he was said to have kissed; but he was acquitted. The king ignored these peccadilloes, regarding Walter as his eyes and ears.


Another blow was Philip IV’s abandonment of the family entente. Guyenne (Gascony) had been Edward’s patrimony when he was a boy. He knew it well, having spent 1254–6 there, besides visiting it on his way back from the Crusades. As a French-speaking Englishman, with southern blood from his mother and grandmother, he felt at home there. He visited again from 1286 to 1289, overhauling the region’s administration, improving its legal system, building bastides and exacting homage from its noblemen – many of whom had fought for him in Wales.

The sphinx-like Philip ‘the Handsome’, who succeeded his father as king in 1285, was the most formidable man in Europe; he later bridled the papacy and destroyed the Templars. His forebears had conquered most of the Plantagenet lands and he wanted Gascony too, despite Edward paying homage for it. In 1293 mercantile rivalry erupted in a pirate war, during which Gascon sailors sacked La Rochelle and a Cinque Ports fleet routed a Norman flotilla. Philip saw his chance. Marching into the Agenais and Perigord, he seized Bordeaux, then summoned the English king to Paris for trial as a contumacious vassal.

Still believing in the family entente, Edward sent his brother Edmund of Lancaster, who brokered a peace deal. To show good faith, Gascony’s border strongholds were temporarily surrendered to Philip, who was allowed to station small, token forces in important towns, while Edward would marry Philip’s sister Margaret on the understanding that the duchy was to be inherited by their children. The French king promised to return Gascony within forty days and cancel Edward’s summons to Paris.

However, Philip then occupied towns all over the duchy. War followed, sieges and skirmishes rather than battles, and a campaign at sea, Edward building thirty galleys, each with sixty oars a side. But his army had to be diverted to crush the Welsh rising of 1294 so that most of Gascony stayed in enemy hands. Edward’s next move was an alliance with the Count of Flanders and the Rhineland princes, whereupon Philip withdrew most of his troops to guard his northern frontier. When the Germans did not cooperate, Edward abandoned his plan of attacking from the north and in 1297 agreed a truce with Philip, who five years later – after a terrible defeat by the Flemish at Courtrai – returned Gascony to him.

In 1299 Edward married Philip’s half-sister, Margaret of France. Peter Langtoft says he had hoped to marry her elder sister Blanche, sending envoys to Paris to learn if she was pretty and had a good figure. They reported that ‘in body, in face, in leg, in hand, in foot, no fairer creature could found in the whole world’.16 Sadly, Blanche preferred to marry the Duke of Austria, who was expected to become emperor. But Edward’s second marriage was unusually happy, despite his bride being forty years younger than him. He doted on ‘the lady Margaret in whose least finger there is more goodness and beauty, whoever sees her, than in the fair Idoine whom Amadas loved’.17 When she went down with measles, he warned the doctor not to let her travel before she was fully cured or ‘by God’s thigh, you’ll pay for it’,18 while he was always giving her presents despite her extravagance. Margaret returned his affection, seeing him as a father figure, and nursed him devotedly during his last years. They had two sons and a daughter.

Civil war?

The king grew increasingly autocratic, seizing woolsacks, sheepskins and hides awaiting export, which he released only on payment of a fine. Confiscating all coined money in cathedral or abbey treasuries, he demanded that the clergy pay half their annual income or be outlawed. When the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Winchelsey, obtained a bull forbidding clergy to pay taxes without papal approval, Edward again threatened them with outlawry, and they paid.

Throughout the Gascon campaign, his attitude towards his subjects was, ‘I am castle for you and wall and house, while you are barbican and gate’, and they were in duty bound to help him.19 But the lords refused to accept any obligation to fight beyond the seas. When in February 1297, at a council of the baronage in Salisbury, he ordered Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, to cross to Gascony while he himself led a force to Flanders, Bigod declined. ‘By God, earl, you shall either go or hang!’, shouted the king. ‘By God, O king’, Bigod shouted back, ‘I shall neither go nor hang!’20 The council broke up and, joined by Humphrey Bohun, Earl of Hereford and thirty other magnates, Bigod assembled 1,500 men-at-arms at Montgomery before marching to London. There the two leaders declared in July that they would not serve in Gascony or Flanders and would resist attempts to seize their goods. Angrily, Edward took away Bigod’s office as Earl Marshal of England and Bohun’s as constable.

A week later, during a public reconciliation with Archbishop Winchelsey on a platform outside Westminster Hall, Edward tried persuasion. Admitting his subjects might not be entirely happy at the way he ruled, he told the crowd that taxes were needed to defend them. ‘And now I am going to risk my life for you. I beg you, if I return, receive me as you have now and I will restore all I have taken. If I don’t return, crown my son as your king.’21 He then repeated his demands for money. Despite the tears that greeted the speech, the earls produced a document of remonstrance against high taxes. Even so, Edward extracted funds for his expedition, levying a tax on the clergy which they had not agreed. In August, when he joined his invasion fleet at Portsmouth, the earls went to the Exchequer to prevent further taxes being collected and drew up another remonstrance, De Tallagio. Civil war seemed inevitable, but the opposition lacked a Simon de Montfort.

An unexpected disaster came to the king’s rescue while he was in Flanders, when the Scots destroyed an English army at Stirling Bridge. The north country faced invasion and the magnates rallied to Edward. As soon as he returned from Flanders, he made sure of their loyalty by promising to confirm both Magna Carta and the Forest Charter.


The king had neither time nor resources to waste on Ireland, where English settlers and native Irish went on fighting without respite, although in 1292 the Anglo-Irish lords granted him a subsidy while he used troops supplied by them in Wales and in Gascony. Crushing Madog and thwarting Philip were demanding enough.

Alexander III, King of Scots had died in 1286 after a fall from his horse. His heir was his baby granddaughter Margaret, the Fair Maid of Norway, and for the moment Scotland was governed by six guardians, who in 1290 announced her betrothal to Edward’s eldest son. But Margaret died the same year. Relations between England and Scotland were friendly, the two previous kings having married English princesses, so it seemed reasonable for the Scots to ask Edward to arbitrate on the ‘Great Cause’ and decide who should inherit the throne.

Although one Scots chronicler thought Edward had already announced his intention of subjugating Scotland, it is unlikely.22 What he wanted at this stage was to be overlord in fact and not just name. Amiably enough, at Norham in Northumberland he met the Scots magnates, who recognized him as sovereign lord while their country’s throne was vacant. The two main candidates, both descended from David I, were John Balliol, a great English baron with a Scots wife of royal blood, and Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale. Edward decided in favour of Balliol, who was crowned King of Scots at Scone on St Andrew’s Day 1292.

Edward’s conditions were unworkable. John had to pay homage as his vassal (in the way he himself did to Philip IV for Gascony), supply troops to fight his enemies and let the Scots appeal to him from their own courts in disputed cases. In 1293 Balliol obeyed a summons to Westminster to attend an appeal by Macduff of Fife against impeachment by the Scottish parliament and, although he refused to discuss Macduff’s case, his attendance angered the Scots. Two years later Scotland was infuriated when, as feudal overlord, Edward ordered King John and twenty of his lords to come to London and serve in Gascony. The Scots responded by giving John twelve advisers, who turned him into a puppet king. Not only did they ally with Philip IV (the start of the Auld Alliance), but in 1296 they made Balliol withdraw his homage to the King of England.

Edward ordered John to meet him at Berwick, storming the city when he failed to appear and massacring 12,000 men and women. Shortly afterwards, the Earl of Surrey routed a Scots army at Dunbar with a single charge. In despair, Balliol begged Edward’s forgiveness, submitting to ceremonial ‘degradation’ at Montrose in July, during which the Lion of Scotland was torn from his surcoat – earning him the name ‘Toom Tabard’ (Empty Coat). Then he was sent to the Tower of London.

In August Edward held a Scottish parliament amid the ruins of Berwick, where the Scottish lords swore fealty to him and were allowed to keep their lands on condition they attended the parliament of England at Bury St Edmunds in November. Edward went home with the Stone of Scone and the Black Rood of St Margaret, entrusting the country to three Englishmen – Surrey as guardian of the land, Walter of Amersham as chancellor and Hugh de Cressingham as treasurer. Edward had united the British isles, claimed an Austin canon at Bridlington Priory in Yorkshire, Peter Langtoft, writing joyfully that it had been prophesied by Merlin. This may have been the king’s view, but it was not that of the Scots,23 especially after Cressingham began levying heavy taxes.

In May 1297 William Wallace, a man of knightly family said by an English chronicler to be already a blood-stained brigand,24 murdered the English sheriff of Lanark. Raising a small army with Andrew Moray, he waited for the Earl of Surrey and Hugh de Cressingham, who marched north in September with 15,000 troops to put him down. When Hugh led the English vanguard across Stirling Bridge over the Forth near Cambuskenneth, they were cut off by Wallace’s 5,000 men and annihilated. (An English source says Wallace had the skin flayed from Cressingham’s body, ‘head to heel’, to make a sword belt.) Surrey fled with what was left of the royal army.

Seizing Berwick, Wallace ravaged Northumberland and Cumberland, burning and killing, while all Scotland rose in revolt. English troops withdrew, only a few castles holding out, although closely besieged. Garrisons who surrendered to Wallace after being promised their lives were massacred. Calling himself Guardian of the Realm, he tried to re-establish law and order in Balliol’s name, but the Scots magnates were afraid to join him.

Although nearly sixty, which was advanced old age, Edward was still vigorous, a commander who slept on the bare ground like his men. Although about to attack King Philip, he hurried home from Flanders, and in July 1298 he confronted Wallace at Falkirk in Stirlingshire with 2,500 men-at-arms and 16,000 foot soldiers. These included archers and a big contingent of Welshmen skilled at pursuing a defeated enemy over rough country. Wallace, with about 10,000 pike-men and as few as 200 horse, adopted defensive tactics, positioning his infantry in ‘schiltrons’ (hedgehog-like rings), which proved disastrous. After routing the enemy’s mounted troops, Edward used his archers to shoot down the pike-men at close range and his men-at-arms finished off the survivors. While English casualties were very low, 5,000 Scots were killed or wounded, although Wallace escaped into the moors and forests.

His place was taken by two joint-guardians, Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick (not to be confused with his grandson) and John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who fought back with raids and ambushes, avoiding pitched battles. Edward won, however, because of superior resources and merciless determination. He did not see himself as an invader, but as a king asserting his rights over rebels.

Problems at home

Walter Langton at the Exchequer and John Droxford, Keeper of the Wardrobe, raised as much cash as they could from Crown revenues but it was insufficient. When the subsidy for which Edward asked the Lincoln parliament of 1301 was reluctantly agreed, a bill of complaint demanded that Magna Carta be more strictly interpreted and the Forest Laws become fairer. There was also a plea for Langton’s dismissal, which the king angrily rejected. Even so, his subjects supported the Scottish war and there were no more clashes of this sort.

The clergy were another matter. Aware that Archbishop Winchelsey had encouraged the trouble at Lincoln, Edward grew even angrier when he produced a letter from Pope Boniface claiming that Scotland had always been a papal fief and ordering Edward to restore Balliol. Unctuously, Winchelsey told the king to obey ‘in the name of Mount Zion and Jerusalem’, to which Edward retorted, ‘For Zion’s sake I will not be silent and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be at rest, but with all my strength I shall defend my right.’25Finally, a new pope, Clement V, who as a Gascon was well disposed towards Edward, endorsed his Scottish policy and allowed a further tax on English clergy, calling the archbishop to Rome on a matter of discipline so that he was effectively in exile.

Edward would not tolerate independent minded prelates. In 1304, after giving a post to a papal instead of a royal nominee, Archbishop Corbridge of York emerged from an interview with the king so shaken that he took to his bed and died. When Bishop Bek of Durham, who had accompanied Edward to the Holy Land and been invaluable in dealing with the Scots, refused to accept his judgement on a dispute, the king confiscated his estates.

The monks of Westminster were a nuisance in their own way. In 1303 they helped an Oxfordshire merchant, Richard Puddlicott, and his gang to dig a tunnel into the crypt that held the royal treasure, stealing plate, jewels and coins worth £100,000. The gang were caught and hanged after the objects appeared on the London market. Although spared the death penalty, ten monks went to the Tower.

The final conquest of Scotland

Edward was perfectly sincere when he explained in a letter to the pope that English monarchs took precedence over Scottish monarchs as descendants of the eldest son of the Trojan Brutus, Britain’s first king, whereas Scottish monarchs only descended from a second son. This was clearly stated by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae whose veracity was only questioned by a few lunatic intellectuals. No doubt Edward treated with contempt a counter-claim by the Scots that their pedigree outdid descent from Brutus because they descended from Pharaoh’s daughter, Scotia, through her son Erk.

Edward sometimes took part in the campaigns that followed Falkirk. In May 1303 he began a final conquest of Scotland, a military progress in strength through Perth, Brechin and Aberdeen up to the Moray Firth. In January 1304, led by the guardian of the realm John Comyn, the Scottish nobility surrendered en bloc, on the understanding their country’s laws and liberties would be as in King Alexander’s time. A parliament was held at St Andrew’s where, instead of threatening the assembly, Edward was at his most diplomatic. Scots who submitted were regranted their lands, while a joint Anglo-Scots committee was to meet at Westminster and plan a new form of government for Scotland. Pope Boniface VIII ordered the Scottish bishops to end their quarrel with Edward. Until now they had opposed him, their envoys trying to persuade Rome of their cause’s justice, but Boniface needed England’s support against Philip of France. Prelates such as Wishart of Glasgow, who for years had striven for independence, attended the St Andrew’s parliament.

Edward intended to rule Scotland in the way he did Ireland. There would be a Scottish parliament, but statutes made in England would be enforced by the king’s lieutenant as they were across the Irish Sea. Petitions (like Irish and Gascon petitions) would be heard by the English parliament. John of Brittany was lieutenant and the Earl of Atholl was justiciar north of the Forth, while Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, was sheriff of Ayr and Lanark.

In July the last opposition ended with the fall of Stirling Castle, besieged since April. A crossbow bolt had gone through Edward’s clothes while riding round the walls and a stone from a mangonel frightened his horse into throwing him. Undeterred, he had ordered his son to strip the lead off the roofs of local churches, to use as counterweights for his trebuchets – siege machines that hurled boulders and Greek fire. When the castle surrendered, he controlled the whole country apart from the trackless Highlands.26

Sir William Wallace was caught near Glasgow in August 1305, betrayed by a fellow Scot. A giant, taller than Edward, his appearance was ideally suited for a show trial at Westminster Hall, during which he was made to wear a laurel crown and not allowed to reply to such charges as making English captives of both sexes strip naked and sing before they were tortured to death. Hanged, drawn and quartered three weeks after his capture, as savagely as possible, his quarters were sent for display in Scotland while his head was set up over London Bridge.

Edward’s dream was wrecked by Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick (grandson of John Balliol’s competitor for the Scots crown), whom the king had failed to reward adequately. In February 1306, before the high altar of the Franciscan church at Dumfries, Robert knifed John Comyn of Badenoch, the former Guardian of Scotland who might have stopped him from claiming the throne. Then he had himself crowned King of Scots at Scone on 25 March by his mistress Isabel, Countess of Buchan, sister to the Earl of Fife – the hereditary enthroner. At first, his cause seemed hopeless, the English calling him ‘Hob in the Moors’.

Any nobleman who supported Bruce was executed horribly if he was caught by Edward, while rank and file troops taken prisoner were hanged or beheaded on the spot. Nor did ladies escape. Robert’s sister Mary Bruce and the Countess of Buchan, who had crowned him, were imprisoned in wooden cages hung from towers, although they were fed regularly and provided with privies.

The heir

Bruce’s decision to claim the throne of Scotland was based on the calculation that Edward could not live long, and on a low opinion of his heir – whom Bruce must have met at the siege of Stirling. The Anglo-Scots regime had no chance of surviving without a strong man.

In 1301 the seventeen-year-old Prince Edward had been proclaimed Prince of Wales at Caernarfon. The king did his best to train the youth, who accompanied him on the Scottish campaigns. When he was knighted at Whitsun 1306, his father gave a Feast of the Swans at Westminster, when two swans with gilded feathers were brought in, escorted by trumpeters. The king, who had come to the palace in a litter, rose and swore by God and the swans never to rest until he had defeated the crowned traitor and the perjured nation (Bruce and the Scots), after which he would go on Crusade. Then his son rose too, swearing never to sleep twice in the same place before avenging his father’s wrongs.

The king had no illusions about his successor. In 1305, when the treasurer Langton complained that Prince Edward had hunted unlawfully in his woods, using abusive language, the king forbade the prince to come within 30 miles of court and stopped his allowance; for six months the young man and his household starved, until the queen intervened. Early in 1307 he asked Langton to ask his father to make his friend Piers Gaveston Count of Ponthieu. Summoning him, the king shouted, ‘Why do you want to give land away when you never get hold of any for yourself, you misbegotten son of a whore? As there’s a God, if it wasn’t that I might wreck the kingdom, you’d never inherit anything from me!’ Grabbing Edward’s hair with both hands, he tore out as much as he could until he was exhausted, then threw him out of the room.27

The last campaign

By his mid-sixties Edward was slowing down. Referring to his return from campaigning in Scotland towards the end of the reign, the chronicler Langtoft chides him for ‘long morning’s sleep, delight in luxury and surfeit in the evenings’.28 He suffered from insomnia, stating in a statute of 1306 that he could not sleep, ‘tossed about by the waves of various thoughts’ in worrying over what was best for his subjects.29 Nonetheless, he insisted on going to Scotland that autumn after Aymer de Valence’s victory over Bruce at Methven. However, he collapsed at Lanercost Priory in Cumberland where, joined by Queen Margaret, he was forced to spend the winter – glass windows being fitted to their apartments. Despite difficulty in walking, in March 1307 he managed to hold a parliament at Carlisle.

On 3 July, despite suffering from dysentery, King Edward set out to crush the Scots, riding at the head of his troops instead of in a litter. Had the king lived another year, Bruce would have been a dead man – but he could only cover 2 miles a day, and died in his servants’ arms at a hamlet in the marshes near Burgh-by-Sands, not far from the Solway Firth, on 7 July. There is a story that on his deathbed he ordered his son to have the flesh boiled off his bones and buried, and then to carry the bones into battle against the Scots.


Edward I died on the edge of an abyss.30 Scotland still refused to accept his rule, Wales only did so under compulsion and Gascony remained at risk, while tax demands had alienated barons and clergy without raising enough money – by 1307 he was £200,000 in debt. Even so, he almost succeeded in unifying Britain and was unrivalled as a lawmaker. It is not easy to warm to a ruler who added hanging, drawing and quartering to the penal code, yet England never had a greater man on the throne.

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