When Henry III died in November 1272, Edward was in Sicily returning from his crusade. Instead of hurrying home, he went to Gascony to set the province in order. It was not until August 1274 that he reached England. His delay reflected his confidence in his ministers. The council left behind to look after his affairs had from the start played a major part in the government of the kingdom, designedly so since it controlled many sheriffdoms and royal castles. Now its members, led by Edward’s clerk Robert Burnell, took over the reins at the centre. If they passed on problems, they also suggested solutions. The problems were formidable. With former rebels still saddled with heavy fines to recover their lands, and with widespread veneration for Simon de Montfort shown in pilgrimages to Evesham, there were constant fears of a renewal of civil war. The government had great difficulty prising Edward’s brother Edmund from Chartley castle which he seized in April 1273. It struggled to contain the conflicts between Llywelyn and the earls of Gloucester and Hereford; it failed to enforce an embargo on wool exports to Flanders, making Edward (as he himself complained) a laughing stock; and in January 1273 it suspended the general eyres then in progress in the counties, an act of conciliation given the eyre’s lucrative crown pleas business, which reflected the general unpopularity of the king’s government in the shires. And over everything hung the financial weakness of the crown, a long-term problem exacerbated by the recent civil war. Essentially Edward needed to open up new sources of revenue, and forge a new relationship with the kingdom in order to do so. His achievement lay in establishing a new tax-based parliamentary state, and making the monarchy for the first time since 1066 at one rather than at odds with the Englishness of its people. Edward by these means gained the power to wage his wars against the Welsh and the Scots. There were also certain internal victims of his rule. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290. The burdens of his wars fell with disproportionate heaviness on the peasantry.
In 1274 Edward was thirty-five. Already a veteran in war and politics, he had learnt from his father’s mistakes and his own early tribulations. Sketches and paintings show him with a straight nose and a massive rounded chin. When measured in 1774, his skeleton was six feet two inches in height; Edward stood literally head and shoulders above most contemporaries. He had the personality to go with the physique. Henry III had been a rex pacificus. Edward was a rex bellicosus. He had taken part in tournaments across France in his youth, won the battle of Evesham, and then gone on crusade. Both as a skilled strategist and a fighting knight (his personal duel with the rebel Adam Gurdun became the stuff of legend), he fulfilled all the expectations of the warrior king, expectations to be amply fulfilled by his victories in Wales and Scotland. Yet Edward also had a burning sense of the civilian duties of kingship – the preservation of the rights of the crown, the dispensation of justice and the maintenance of order. His father at heart had been soft andsimplex. Edward by contrast was a man ‘of tried prudence in affairs of state’, as the chronicler Trevet put it. In his struggles after 1258 to free himself from baronial control, he had won over individual magnates by acts of patronage, and had seen how reform of the realm could conciliate local society. He was superbly equipped for kingship.
Edward’s queen, Eleanor of Castile, played no role comparable with that of Eleanor of Provence. The elder Eleanor’s exploits had received a mixed press from monastic chroniclers. On the one hand she had displayed ‘the serpentine wiles of a woman’ when persuading her husband to overthrow the Provisions of Oxford. On the other, she had been the ‘most powerful virago’ when raising an army to rescue her husband after his capture at Lewes. There was, however, no opportunity for the second Eleanor to be like the first. She had an important diplomatic role, thanks to her Castilian kin and her inheritance (she gained the county of Ponthieu following her mother’s death in 1279). But unlike her mother-in-law she had no family party in England, for no Castilians were ever established there. Although she had six children who survived infancy, she died too soon (in 1290) to play a political role through promoting their careers. There is no reason to think that Eleanor resented her position, nor did it reduce her simply to a meek intercessor whose ‘pity should surpass the pity of all men and women’, as Archbishop Pecham put it. Eleanor certainly had a gentle and pious side. She protested at the early marriage of one of her daughters and was a great patron of the Dominican friars. When, however, she intervened for the earl of Cornwall in 1287, it was by arguing that the charges of incompetence brought against him were unjustified, not by playing the pity card. Indeed, Pecham himself lamented that Eleanor seemed more inclined to push Edward towards severity than mercy. She was a clever operator at court where Edward’s lasting love (he was never unfaithful) gave her unique influence. Apart from when he was on campaign and she was in late pregnancy, the couple were rarely separated.
Eleanor’s major objective, at Edward’s urging, was to build up for herself a great landed estate, giving the same kind of landed base as the pre-1154 queens but without it having to come from the king (see above, pp. 192–3). In this she was doing better than her mother-in-law who also acquired land but largely on a temporary basis through wardships. Eleanor monitored the land market and pounced on those owing money to the Jews or otherwise in difficulties. By the time of her death she had acquired properties worth some £2,600 a year, including William of Leybourne’s castle of Leeds in Kent. Careful about her good name at court, she seemed careless about her reputation in the country. ‘The king would like to get our gold / The queen our manors fair to hold’ ran one satire. Edward’s grief on Eleanor’s death in 1290 was profound. The great stone crosses, which marked the resting places of her body on its journey from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey where a beautiful gilt-bronze effigy was placed above her tomb, were intended to inspire prayers for her soul. With their graceful and imposing statues of the queen the crosses also summed up the resurgence of queenship which the two Eleanors had effected, in different ways, in the thirteenth century.
As soon as he returned to England in August 1274 Edward set about restoring the power and authority of the crown. In one area his determination was given striking physical manifestation. London had been the great seat of the Montfortian rebellion, so between 1275 and 1285 Edward spent some £21,000 building the Tower’s present outer walls, moat and water gates. In 1285 he suspended the city’s liberties, keeping the government in his own hands down to 1298. None of this would have been possible had Edward not restored the financial position of the crown. Here his task was formidable. At the start of the reign revenue was some £25,000 a year. Back in 1130 the revenue had been of similar size but since then the course of inflation, particularly in the early thirteenth century, had reduced the real value of money between two and three times over. The income which made Henry I rich left Edward poor. Nor was it easy to improve the situation. Henry III had been unable to sustain the higher revenues he generated for a while in the 1240s. John’s far more spectacular efforts had provoked Magna Carta. The problem was compounded by the decline in the proportion of easy uncontentious income from land. In 1130 not far short of£10,000 of royal revenue had come from the king’s own lands. If all of these had been retained, they might well have been worth in the thirteenth century upwards of £30,000 a year. The monarchy would still have been rich. In fact, however, so much land was given away for purposes of patronage after 1130 that even when exploited to the full in the 1240s what remained was only worth around £6,000 annually. There were also other sources of revenue which had become less lucrative. The heavy taxation between 1240 and 1260 had exhausted the wealth of the Jews; the money from general eyres was coming in more slowly as, swamped by business, they took longer and longer to complete; respect for the church meant that Edward, like his father, did not keep bishoprics deliberately vacant so as to take their revenues; and finally Magna Carta had made it more difficult to sell justice and charge hefty fines for succession to inheritances. What made all this worse was that while in real terms the wealth of the English kings had declined, that of the Capetian kings of France had spectacularly increased.
In this situation Edward developed a whole range of policies designed to increase his revenues, some more successful than others. Edward believed that during his father’s lax rule privileges (or ‘liberties’) had leaked far too easily from the crown, with a commensurate loss of revenue. In the localities, for example, lay and ecclesiastical lords had set up private gallows, and usurped the jurisdiction of the hundred courts by preventing the attendance of their men. Edward’s response came in 1278. When the general eyre was revived in that year it began to hear special quo warranto cases under which all who held lands and ‘liberties’ claimable by the crown had to show their warrant for them. Just how successful the campaign was is open to question. It certainly caused annoyance. According to one story John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, when he came before the judges flung down a rusty sword: his warrant was that his ancestors had conquered England with King William in 1066. The mighty Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, was forced to disgorge some of his father’s gains, but many cases dragged on for years and never came to a conclusion. Often defendants were able to show that their lands and liberties had been conceded in royal charters, a warrant acceptable from the start. In 1290 Edward agreed to confirm all liberties enjoyed continuously since 1189, even if unsupported by written title. In 1294 with the suspension of the general eyres the whole campaign came to an end. It had asserted the principle that a warrant acceptable to the king was necessary, and may well have stopped fresh losses. But it had done little to increase royal revenues or impede developing patterns of magnate rule in the shires, to which we will return.
Edward’s determination to preserve and increase the stock of royal lands was more successful. Henry III had stopped alienating royal demesnes, but had still given away (often in feckless fashion) escheats which had come into his hands, notably from ‘the lands of the Normans’. Apart from gifts to his close family, Edward stopped alienations altogether. He also bent his energies to the acquisition of land, his wife’s activities being part of a much wider enterprise. Henry III in an isolated act had bought out the heirs to the earldom of Chester. Under Edward procuring land, in large amounts and small, through purchase and pressure, became a matter of consistent, insistent policy. In 1293, in his most spectacular coup, he bought the Isle of Wight for £4,000 from the dying Isabella de Forz, countess of Devon. Edward also acquired two earldoms, the first (at the end of Henry’s reign) by saddling the earl of Derby, Robert de Ferrers, with an unpayable £50,000 redemption fine, the second in 1302 by purchasing the reversion of the earldom of Norfolk from the childless Roger Bigod. Queen Eleanor’s lands were kept to form the dower lands of Edward’s second wife, while the earldoms of Derby and Norfolk were used to endow respectively his brother Edmund and his son by his second marriage. The original stock of crown lands thus remained intact.
However, the most important developments under Edward lay not in rebuilding old sources of revenue but in opening up new ones. This brings us to the customs, general taxation and Italian bankers. Experiments with customs under King John and again in 1266 had met with only mixed success. The real start came in 1275 when, after negotiations with merchants (whom Edward could threaten with punishment for breaching the recent embargo on wool exports), the April parliament conceded a customs duty of a third of a pound (6s. 8d.) to be levied on every exported sack of wool. Wool was England’s greatest export, most of it going to support the Flemish cloth industry. Buoyant prices meant that it could easily support the new customs. From 1275 they were a permanent feature of English royal finance, bringing in around £10,000 a year with another £1,000 a year from Ireland.
Edward also had far more success than previous kings in levying general taxation. This involved the movable property, essentially the corn and the animals, of everyone being valued, and a percentage of that value being given to the king. The movables on the church’s lands held for rents and knight service were also included in the levy. Only its spiritual property, essentially tithes and glebe land (which might be taxed separately) and the movables of the poor were exempt. The absolutely cardinal fact about taxation in this form was the enormous amounts it could raise. It had the power to transform the king’s financial position. John’s thirteenth of 1207 (that is a levy at the rate of 13 per cent) yielded some £60,000. The trouble was that for all practical purposes such taxation required the consent of parliament, consent which Henry III was consistently refused between 1237 and 1270. Edward changed all that. His taxation was new both in its scale and regularity.
Rate of Tax
These taxes were collected with remarkable efficiency so that the yield was little short of the assessment.
Edward had opened up new sources of revenue. He also handled them in an entirely new way through the use of Italian bankers, the Riccardi of Lucca. The Riccardi were one of the great international banking firms produced by the commercial expansion of the thirteenth century. In England they were heavily engaged in the wool trade and also lent money. Henry III had done business with Luke of Lucca, head of the house in England, but on a small scale. Edward used the firm not for occasional loans but to fund over many years a large proportion of his expenditure. Above all the Riccardi supplied cash for the wardrobe, the great spending department travelling with the king, in some years furnishing nearly all its money usually in the form of a small number of large advances. The reason the Riccardi were able to make these advances was that Edward had entrusted them with the entire management and receipt of the customs revenues, and also with a good proportion of the issues from taxation. Since they could also use nearly £50,000 raised from the church, which they kept as bankers for Edward’s second crusade whenever it should take place, they always had money on which to draw. All this was in striking contrast with wardrobe funding under Henry III when the money came in dribs and drabs from the exchequer and many other sources. Thus under Edward royal finance achieved a hitherto undreamt-of stability and smoothness.
Edward finally dismissed the Riccardi in 1294 when they failed to meet his sudden demands produced by wars in France and Wales. Thereafter wardrobe finance became much more hand-to-mouth. Yet the appalling strains of the period after 1294 (with the war with Scotland soon increasing the demands on revenues) revealed the strength of the Edwardian system. If the wardrobe by 1307 had run up debts of £200,000, that just showed how successful it had been in obtaining money and services on credit. The flexibility of the customs was shown by the way the duty between 1294 and 1297 was raised from a third of a pound to two pounds. Although the amounts raised by individual taxes declined, Edward was able to levy them at an unheard-of pace and they were still collected with great efficiency. Between 1294 and 1307 he raised six taxes with a total yield of £270,000, £191,200 coming between 1294 and 1297. Meanwhile taxation on the spiritual property of the church brought in some £224,600. Between 1294 and 1298 Edward was able to spend some £750,000 on war.
Some reflection of the gigantic difference in power between Edward and Henry III is provided by the figures for their wardrobe receipts (although these, of course, were only part of their revenues). Between 1234 and 1258 they averaged roughly £12,000 a year. Between 1274 and 1293 the figure was £38,000, and between 1294 and 1303 £75,000. Whether Edward was wealthier than King John is debatable, given the course of inflation and other difficulties of comparison. The real point is that a far higher proportion of Edward’s revenues came from taxation: according to one calculation, the tax yield between 1290 and 1307 was some 120 to 200 per cent higher in real terms than it had been between 1199 and 1216. Edward tapped the wealth of all sections of society in a way not seen since the Conquest.
The power and authority of Edward’s kingship was revealed both in its ideology and governmental apparatus. The God-given nature of his rule was as visible as his father’s, but in a different way. He was equally punctilious in attending Mass, and making offerings to shrines and churches as he travelled the country. But he no longer fed paupers at court (giving money instead), lost interest in Edward the Confessor, stopped work at Westminster Abbey, and conjured up no ‘St Henry’ to rival St Louis (Louis IX was canonized in 1297). As a committed crusader – he took the cross again in 1287 – Edward had nothing more to prove. To gain God’s favour for his first crusade and his war in Wales he founded a great Cistercian abbey at Vale Royal in Cheshire, here, as with the Eleanor crosses, imitating Capetian practice. Likewise in imitation of the Capetians he touched for the scrofula, on average nearly a thousand people coming before him every year. The face of Edward’s monarchy was also martial, quite unlike that of his father. At the centre of the realm, in his great chamber at Westminster, he surrounded Henry III’s painting of the Coronation of the Confessor with tiers of paintings depicting battle scenes from the life of the warrior king of the Old Testament, Judas Maccabeus. Edward’s lawyers, buoyed up by his might, made higher claims for royal power than ever canvassed under John or Henry. The king was, they said (drawing here on Roman law), ‘for the common utility, by his prerogative, in many cases above the laws and customs used in his kingdom’.
Alongside the Riccardi, the scope and power of Edward’s kingship depended on the traditional institutions of central government: at Westminster the common bench and the exchequer; and travelling with the king, the chancery and the wardrobe. All these institutions worked through written documents and together generated a massive amount of them. The idea that orders were more likely to be effective when they were put in writing and recorded, that disputes were more likely to be settled if the courts made official records of the cases they heard, and, most deep-rooted of all, that records were vital for getting in the king’s revenues and monitoring how they were spent, these ideas had long informed the workings of English government and encouraged the increasing reliance on documents (see above, p. 460). They were ideas which in a way reached fulfilment in the Edwardian state. Indeed, at the exchequer there was a belief that they had been fulfilled almost to excess.
The extraordinary expansion in the work of the common bench under Edward will be discussed later. For the exchequer, on the other hand, the early years of the reign saw its partial eclipse. The exchequer had always performed two main tasks. One was to collect, store and (as ordered) disburse the king’s revenues, much of the disbursement taking the form of sending money to the king himself where it was paid into his chamber or (after 1216) his wardrobe. (In fact there was little difference between the two departments.) The second task was to audit annually the accounts of the sheriffs and all the other officials and individuals who owed money to the king, the result of the audit being recorded on the pipe roll. The first task had always been subject to one limitation, that imposed when the king ordered sheriffs and others owing him money to pay it direct to the chamber or wardrobe, thus bypassing the exchequer, something he was most likely to do when in urgent need of cash. This had happened to such an extent under Henry III that by 1258 there was a feeling among reformers and exchequer officials that financial affairs would be less chaotic if revenue was always paid initially into the exchequer. This was not, however, Edward’s view. On the contrary, the assignments to the Riccardi reduced the proportion of revenue going through the hands of the exchequer to an altogether new low.
The exchequer none the less remained central to the workings of royal finance. Even where collectors of revenue and individual debtors paid their money direct to the wardrobe or the Riccardi, it still had to audit the transaction. Otherwise the money would continue to appear on the pipe roll as being owed to the king. The auditing functions of the exchequer thus remained unimpaired under Edward. Indeed they greatly expanded as it began to take cognizance of the king’s new revenues, auditing accounts for the customs and the taxation on movables. It also heard the accounts of the Riccardi and, with an annual regularity never achieved before, the keepers of the wardrobe. All this activity was facilitated by moves to control the amount of documentation the exchequer had to produce. Since their first appearance in the twelfth century the pipe rolls had grown to unwieldy size. That for 1242 (the latest chronologically to be published) runs to 440 pages of modern print compared with the 161 pages of the roll of 1130. In part this was because a much larger number of people owed money to the crown. But it was also because the rolls were becoming clogged with a growing backlog of debts which there was no hope of recovering. Already in 1270 a reform had removed many of these ‘desperate debts’ from the pipe roll; in 1284 another measure excised further redundant sections. The exchequer was well prepared for the testing years after 1290. While its auditing functions ultimately fell into disarray, it came once again to play a major role in the collection and disbursement of royal revenue, in part thanks to the fall of the Riccardi. It was no longer a question of reducing the documentation: the memoranda rolls, which recorded a great deal of its business, tripled in size after 1290 from thirty to ninety membranes. That taxation continued to be collected so efficiently in this period owed a great deal to exchequer activity.
In 1274, on his return to England, Edward gave the chancellorship to his faithful clerk, Robert Burnell. Except for periods during military campaigns, the chancery largely followed the king until Burnell’s death in 1292. A large part of the government of the realm depended on the concessions, proclamations and orders which it wrote and sealed for the king in the form of charters, letters patents and letters close (see above, p. 199). Much of this output, running to several thousand separate items each year, was recorded on the annual charter, patent, close, liberate and fine rolls which in 1291–2 took up some seventy membranes of parchment, many of them closely written on both sides. In fact the rolls had been much the same size at the start of Edward’s reign. The real increase in chancery business after 1272 was in the production of the letters or writs close which initiated and processed the common law legal procedures, writs so numerous and standard form (‘of course’) that they were never enrolled. By the 1320s (when numbers can first be calculated) well over 20,000 of these writs were being issued annually. It was the volume of this business which led to the chancery in the fourteenth century ceasing to follow the court and taking up near permanent residence at Westminster.
Even in Burnell’s day, the chancery with about a hundred clerks was essentially separate from the royal household. The wardrobe, on the other hand, was at the household’s heart. For all the importance of the exchequer, it was the real nerve centre of royal finance, receiving and spending a large part of the revenues, as we have seen, and vastly expanding its activities in time of war. In the later years of the reign, with the decline of the Riccardi, wardrobe officials supplemented the flow of cash from the exchequer by actively seeking out for themselves money they could take into their coffers. When the chancery was separated from the king, the wardrobe also had the task of writing many of his letters, sealing them with the private or privy seal of which it was custodian. Ultimately in the fourteenth century, with the chancery having moved out of court, it was through such letters that the king most often expressed his wishes. Under Edward, the wardrobe was staffed by able and long-serving clerks like William of Louth and Walter Langton, several of whom went on to the treasurership of the exchequer and bishoprics, thus helping to bind together the royal administration as well as church and state.
The household also had a military wing headed by the king’s stewards, usually one or two of whom were in office at any one time. Below the stewards were (around 1285) some eighty knights, a hundred esquires and thirty serjeants-at-arms, all retained with annual money fees. Around 1240 Henry III too had been giving money fees to about seventy knights, but Edward’s household was far more militaristic, in part because it had a much higher number of knights actually ‘staying with the king at court’, as the wardrobe accounts put it. The household knights, many from families with a long tradition of service – Gorges, Leybourne, Seagrave – might not reap the landed rewards of their forebears under Henry (although they did gain marriages and wardships), but they had the honour of serving a famous king. Like household knights in the past, they were bound by a special oath to report anything spoken against the king, and were often sent out as castellans, investigators and diplomats, receiving, Edward decreed, the same wages as if they were actually present at court. In effect wherever they were, so was the king. Some of Edward’s bannerets (a title now given to senior knights) were among the king’s closest councillors and received personal summonses to parliament. Above all, the household forces, always quickly expandable, formed the nucleus of royal armies, contributing to the Welsh war of 1282–3 a third of the paid cavalry in the army.
The food, drink and horse fodder of the royal household cost around £12,000 a year in the 1280s, perhaps some £4,000 to £5,000 more than thirty years before. Around 570 members were in receipt of annual robes. The household’s records in 1285–6 fill some 250 pages of modern print. Around the household was the wider court composed of the judges of the king’s bench, who heard the cases of special concern to the king (see above, pp. 347–8), the other sworn councillors, and the regional magnates who came in and out as the king travelled the country. Such contact with local society was important, yet there is little sign that Edward, any more than his father, travelled for the purposes of routine government. If he was more itinerant, the purpose was for fighting or hunting. The Northamptonshire and New Forest hunting lodges came back into fashion. Apart from emergencies, Edward’s remained a southern-based kingship. Fundamentally the realm came to him – above all, as we shall see, at the time of parliament.
The restoration of the resources and prestige of monarchy made Edward a powerful and sometimes oppressive ruler. Oppressive was certainly how he seemed after 1294 when he strained every nerve to raise men and revenue for wars in Wales, Scotland, Flanders and Gascony. In 1297 he ruthlessly crushed the church’s resistance to taxation of its spiritual property by sequestrating its lands. In many ways Edward’s rule after 1294 was comparable with John’s after 1204: both kings were driving forward their governments in order to raise money for foreign war. Yet the political results were quite different. John’s government ended in Magna Carta and civil war. Henry III’s rather different misrule also culminated in a revolution. Nothing like this happened to Edward. He certainly faced serious unrest and in 1297 and 1300 confirmed Magna Carta, abolished the extra duty on wool, agreed that no taxation could be levied without consent, and accepted limitations on his right to take ‘prise’. This was the ancient right of compulsory purchase to obtain goods for the royal household, which Edward had expanded to gain supplies for his armies as well. These were significant concessions but they were small beer compared with those of 1258. There was no attempt to impose a council on the king, take the control of government out of his hands, and carry through wide-ranging reforms in the localities. That was partly because of Edward’s immense prestige as a war leader. But it was also because there was in his kingship elements that had been lacking under John and Henry III – a political balance and stability, fruit of his conciliation of interest groups and his reform of the realm.
Outside the great quarrel in the 1290s, Edward maintained a good working relationship with the church. He twice accepted Robert Burnell’s failure to become archbishop of Canterbury, the pope appointing instead two distinguished churchmen in Robert Kilwardby (1273–8) and John Pecham (1279–92). In return there was always a spread of curial bishops including Burnell himself at Bath and Wells and John Kirkby at Ely, both of whom continued in royal service after their elevation to the bench. The pope, until his unavailing protest in 1297, permitted taxation of the church’s spiritual property and even allowed Edward eventually to take the money supposedly reserved for his second crusade. (Its withdrawal from the Riccardi contributed to their fall.)
Edward could certainly treat his magnates in masterful fashion. He forced Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, to pay the debts he owed the crown; in 1290–91 he briefly imprisoned the earls of Gloucester and Hereford, and seized their lordships of Glamorgan and Brecon when they defied his orders and resorted to violence during a quarrel in the March. Although only partially successful, his quo warranto inquiries put far more pressure on the liberties of magnates than anything attempted by his father. This was, however, only part of the picture. Whatever was said by his judges, Edward’s general conduct of business nearly always remained within the letter of the law. In acquiring property he resorted to sharp practice, but never arbitrary dispossession. On the whole he accepted the limits set by chapter 39 of the 1215 Charter. He also abided by the Great Charter’s regulations on relief, the sale of justice and the treatment of widows. Edward quickly rehabilitated some former Montfortians, notably John de Vesci (see above, pp. 425–6), John fitz John, Nicholas of Seagrave, and Thomas Cantilupe who became bishop of Hereford. He was extremely close to several of his greatest barons, including Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, John de Warenne, earl of Surrey (despite his rusty sword), and Roger de Mortimer, giving them extensive lands from the conquest of Wales. If his tightfistedness outside his Welsh conquests meant that he could not pose as the true Arthurian king (for whom largesse was a cardinal virtue), at least he avoided the factional struggles and scrambles for patronage which had plagued his open-handed father. If Edward was mean, he was at least mean to everyone.
Beneath the magnates, Edward, far more than any previous king, reached out and won the favour of the knights and those below them in local society, precisely the groups who had, through their representatives in parliament, to consent to the new taxation. Edward had been profoundly influenced by the Montfortian period between 1258 and 1267. He had seen how the realm could be reformed through the use of inquiries, eyres, legislation and parliament. He would do the same. In 1274–5 he staged a great inquiry into both the usurpation of royal rights and the malpractices of local officials. Many of the abuses brought to light were dealt with in the Statute of Westminster I (1275), legislation avowedly designed ‘for the common good and the relief of those who are oppressed’.
Also important for that relief were changes at the centre. A major problem with Henry III’s government, after the suspension of the justiciarship and the Bishop Neville type chancellorship, had been the lack of clear targets at the centre at which those in the localities could fire off their complaints. One solution in 1258 had been the revival of the justiciarship. Edward would not repeat that experiment, but he did have a chancellor very similar to Neville in Bishop Burnell. Scion of a knightly family from Acton Burnell in Shropshire (where he built a superb church and manor house), Burnell looked after his own interests but until his death in 1292 he ran the chancery in an accessible, evenhanded manner, stressing repeatedly the duty of his officials to act justly. Edward’s routine government seemed far more open and equitable than that of his father.
One man, however, could only do so much, and therefore Edward innovated, using parliament in a way never envisaged before, to hear petitions for justice and favour from his subjects. Until his departure for Gascony in 1286 at least two parliaments were held each year; they were able therefore to hear petitions on a regular basis. Before each meeting, proclamations were made calling for such petitions to be delivered by a certain date, and they were then heard, during the parliament, by the council or its committees. The response was sufficiently overwhelming to necessitate in 1280 the introduction of some filtering measures to prevent petitions swamping other business. For ‘the people’ for whom Edward so often expressed concern, the hearing of petitions was parliament’s most important function.
Many of the petitions protested about the abuses by local officials and a main thrust of Edward’s policies was indeed to make local government less oppressive. To that end he eschewed some of his father’s unpopular policies: the sheriffs were never made to answer for increments above the county farms of pre-1258 levels; the forest eyres were never as lucrative as those held between 1246 and 1251; and in 1278 Edward dismissed most of the sheriffs and ‘replaced them with knights from their own counties’, as the annals of Dunstable put it. Thereafter for the most part it was county knights, serving in their own shires, who peopled the office. The long-standing demand of the counties for sheriffs to be such local worthies – a key feature of the reforms of 1258 – had thus been achieved.
Another important feature of the reforms of 1258–9 had been to send the justices round the shires to hear complaints or plaints (querelae), which could be brought by word of mouth or written ‘bill’. That had been unpopular with some magnates who found their officials under attack, and the special eyres ended in 1260. Edward was more determined. When he restarted the general eyres in 1278, the judges were empowered to hear and determine querelae against all comers. Although on some eyres few plaints were heard (for reasons which are unclear), from now on they formed a separate section of the eyre’s business.
Many plaints were of ‘trespass’, and it was essentially in Edward’s reign that the action of trespass came to prominence. As a result a whole army of new business ultimately marched into the king’s courts. Trespass became defined as an act by force of arms and in breach of the peace which was yet not serious enough to be a crown plea. By alleging trespass it was possible to bring a range of minor misdemeanours (assault, seizure of corn and animals, for example) into the king’s courts, the preferred method ultimately becoming the civil writ of trespass. By the 1300s large numbers of cases were being heard by the common bench at Westminster. This was part and parcel of a general expansion of royal justice which had been continuing since the time of Henry II but now gathered quite extraordinary pace. Here Edward’s legislation helped the process by making technical changes which maintained the popularity of old actions like novel disseisin and gave others an entirely new place in the limelight. Fifty replevin cases (in which plaintiffs sought the return of beasts seized by lords for arrears of service) came before the common bench between 1200 and 1267, and 1,500 between 1272 and 1307. Throughout the century there was also a steady growth in the forms of legal action. There were fifteen of these in 1189, sixty-five around 1270 and well over a hundred in 1307. In order to cope with the increase of business, significant developments took place during Edward’s reign in the structure of royal courts. After 1278 the general eyre remained in permanent session, with no interval between the completion of each nation-wide visitation. At the same time, in the long gaps between the eyres’ appearance in individual counties circuit justices were commissioned more regularly than before to hear petty assizes and try those held in gaols. From about 1275 justices were also appointed, frequently in response to petitions in parliament, to hear and determine (‘oyer and terminer’) specific cases, often of trespass. And above all, largely because that was what litigants wanted, there was a vast increase in business done by common bench at Westminster, this being facilitated by widening the scope of the writs of pone and recordari which transferred business there. One reflection of the increase is the number of membranes of parchment the bench needed to record its business: forty-nine in 1200, 352 in 1275, and a colossal 1,520 in 1306. No wonder by that time there were twenty-three clerks writing the rolls!
In parallel with this increase in litigation and development in court structures, Edward’s reign saw a transformation in the judiciary. For the first time it could be thought of as fully professional. Since the reign of Henry II there had been ministers who over many years had heard pleas both at the centre and in the localities. Increasingly in the thirteenth century such men came to specialize in legal work to the exclusion of anything else. Under Edward these long-serving professionals (like Ralph de Hengham and William of Bereford) were more numerous than ever before. It was also established for the first time that all the judges of the central courts (the common bench at Westminster and the king’s bench travelling with the king) were entitled to salaries. An important change was likewise taking place in patterns of recruitment. Previously common bench justices had been drawn from clerks of former justices and from other branches of administration; by the end of Edward’s reign, the judiciary was being recruited from the small group of serjeants (‘barristers’ in modern terminology) who pleaded in the central courts, particularly the common bench.
This reflected another important development in Edward’s reign: the full emergence of a legal profession. In the 1260s there were around ten professional attorneys working at the common bench. By the early 1300s there were over 200 of them. These men represented their clients in court but did not actually plead. That was left to the serjeant barristers just mentioned, so already the division of the legal profession into barristers and solicitors was emerging. Serjeants formed the cream of the profession. They had to know both the standard form pleadings required by the numerous writs originating the actions, and the labyrinthine procedural rules governing the progress of each case. Hence, of course, the need for the profession in the first place. By the 1290s there were around thirty serjeants at the common bench, with entry being confined to apprentices trained by sitting in court and listening to the arguments. The monopoly the serjeants ultimately established over promotion to the judiciary meant that judges would be laymen (for clerks, prevented from pleading in court, could not be serjeants), members of a legal profession, and graduates of the courts, not the universities. They were for these reasons often unversed in either canon or Roman law; much of England’s legal insularity can be attributed to this fact.
Under Edward, therefore, a law state had emerged as well as a tax state. Just as far more people than ever before paid taxes on a regular basis, so more than ever before they were involved in litigation through royal procedures in royal courts. In part this was simply due to the removal of cases from lower courts, especially the county courts. But it also represented a real increase in business, an increase which can only be explained by people positively wanting the kind of justice the king provided. The law state and the tax state were intimately related. It was because Edward dispensed justice and reformed the realm that his parliaments were ready to grant him taxes in a way those of Henry III had not. The Statute of Westminster I was promulgated ‘with the counsel and assent of the community of the land’ at a parliament attended by knights and burgesses. As the chronicler Wykes put it, such reforms served to ‘join the hearts of the people to the king in the sincerity of inestimable love’.
The Statute of Westminster I was the first of the great Edwardian statutes. It was followed by the Statutes of Jewry (1275), Gloucester (1278), Mortmain (1279), Acton Burnell (1283), Westminster II, Merchants and Winchester (all 1285), and Quo WarrantoandQuia Emptores (1290). In the years after 1234 Henry III had made some attempt to reform the realm through legislation, but Edward’s efforts lasted much longer and were more detailed and wide-ranging. West minster II itself runs to thirty pages of closely packed modern print. Not all the legislation was effective, but if there was a problem Edwardian government at least attempted a solution. The statutes dealt with a wide variety of issues including the workings of the common law, the maintenance of order, debts owed to merchants, and the difficulties created for lords by sub-enfeoffment. Taken as a whole they struck a balance between the claims of various interest groups, and in effect met the needs of ‘the community of the realm’. They are a remarkable testimony to the grasp and hard thinking of royal officials and the sense of politics and responsibility of Edward himself.
One area where Edward’s legislation seemed least effective was that of law and order, but it was also here that co-operation between king and community was in a sense at its most impressive. In his Statute of Winchester of 1285 Edward complained that there were more robberies and homicides than ever and that local juries refused to indict criminals when, as was often the case, they were local people. Edward’s government was thus failing in its most basic task, the maintenance of the peace. The structures of law enforcement were, of course, very old. While lords in manorial and private hundred courts dealt with cases of minor disorder and sometimes had the right to hang petty thieves caught red-handed, all major crimes were included among the pleas of the crown, as they had been in effect since Anglo-Saxon times. In a knife carrying society there was plenty of violence about. Even a small county like Berkshire had twenty homicides a year in the 1270s. Some of these deaths were the result of domestic violence; others, like many thefts and robberies, were the work of ‘genuine criminals’, often operating in gangs – criminals who largely came from and preyed upon the poorest sections of society. Edward’s view that crime was increasing finds some support from statistics drawn from thirteenth-century eyre rolls. The rolls also reveal a chronic failure to arrest and convict criminals, not unlike the situation today. On the Surrey eyre of 1263 (not untypical), of the 232 persons accused of serious crime (including homicide), only 105 were brought before the judges and of these 73 were found not guilty, leaving only 32 who were actually convicted and hanged. Meanwhile 125 of the accused had absconded and had been outlawed – joining the ranks of the ‘strangers’ and ‘unknown malefactors’ increasingly blamed for crime. (They were responsible for 35 per cent of serious thefts reported in Lincolnshire legal records between 1281 and 1284.)
In his Statute of Winchester, Edward tried to address these problems by reinforcing earlier measures which had provided compensation for victims of robberies and set up a system of ‘watch and ward’, with watchmen in villages and constables in hundreds. Since Edward failed (other than intermittently) to appoint officials to enforce the statute, it is hardly surprising that by 1300 he acknowledged its failure. In South-wark the watchmen had gone off to the pub and then to bed. There is, however, a more positive side to all this. The hundred jurors, when they came before the justices in eyre, did at least identify large numbers of those outlawed as members of tithings, that is the units of ten men into which the peasant population was grouped for law-keeping purposes (see above, p. 62). In that respect the tithing system was working for thus placarded it must have been very difficult for outlaws to return to their local communities. Equally it may be that an accused’s appearance before the judges and subsequent acquittal were often agreed beforehand within the local community, and were part of a process of settlement arranged by neighbours. The forms were royal but the justice communal, and perhaps all the better for that. The workings of law enforcement brought together all sections of society: the peasants in the tithing groups; the freemen on the hundred juries; the gentry holding office as sheriffs and coroners; the king’s ministers appearing in the shires as justices in eyre; and the king himself in parliament overseeing the whole complex system.
Parliament was indeed the forum which held Edward’s realm together. Its core was formed by the king’s council, which included the justices of both the benches and the chief officials of the exchequer. One reason why parliaments met so regularly was to bring together the different parts of this expanding bureaucracy. Many of the great lay and ecclesiastical magnates were themselves on the council. Those who were not received an individual summons to parliament, the criteria often being wealth and status rather than baronial rank, the division of baronies and the rise of new men having rendered tenure by barony increasingly meaningless. The parliamentary peerage of the fourteenth century was beginning to develop. Meanwhile the House of Commons had actually arrived.
Before 1272 Henry III, both controlled by Simon de Montfort and as a free agent, had occasionally summoned knights and burgesses to parliament. Edward came to do so on a much more regular basis. One reason for this was that representatives could provide political support and spread the royal message in the localities. Edward’s ministers had summoned knights and burgesses to the parliament of January 1273, where they swore allegiance to the new king and doubtless applauded the abandonment of the general eyre. In April 1275, the representatives went home to spread the glad news of the Statute of Westminster. In 1283 they came to Shrewsbury to witness Edward’s triumph over Wales, the London burgesses taking back Prince Dafydd’s head to be displayed on the Tower. There was also, however, another reason for the summoning of representatives, one which pre-eminently secured their place in parliament: no tax was obtainable without their consent (see above, pp. 355–6). Edward therefore had no alternative but to summon representatives to the parliaments of 1275, 1282 and 1290, parliaments where taxes were conceded. If the majority of Edward’s early parliaments were still of the old-style magnate type, regular taxation, if it came, would be bound to change all that. So it did during the emergency caused by the French, Welsh and Scottish wars of the 1290s, with representatives attending four of the eight parliaments held between 1294 and 1297. One dramatic episode showed that from this there was no escape. In July 1297 Edward asserted that a tax had been granted ‘by earls, barons, knights and laymen of all our kingdom’, yet the magnates had not been properly summoned and the knights and burgesses had not been summoned at all. The earls of Hereford and Norfolk marched into the exchequer and said so. Edward was forced to back down and later in the year, in the ‘Confirmation of the Charters’, he accepted that taxation could only be levied ‘with the common assent of all the realm’.
The attendance of representatives was now almost finally fixed. Between 1300 and 1307 they came to seven of the nine parliaments, even though taxation was only conceded at two of them. The Edwardian parliaments also saw the increasing appearance of the lower clergy (the deans and priors of the cathedral churches, the archdeacons and the delegates of the parish clergy), the reason again being to get their consent to taxation of their spiritualities. Edward’s parliaments, with seventy-four knights (two from each shire), around eighty burgesses (two from each town, although the number of towns summoned varied) and no less than 148 members of the lower clergy, were fully representative of the realm in a way parliaments ceased to be later when clerical taxation was considered in a separate assembly, Convocation. Parliament had come a long way since Magna Carta, which had envisaged baronial and other tenants-in-chief alone providing ‘common consent’. In contrast, a tract ‘How to Hold a Parliament’, written in the early fourteenth century, asserted that in all things ‘which ought to be granted, done or refused in parliament’, the knights from the shires carried more weight than the greatest earl. The magnates, it opined, spoke merely for themselves. It was the knights and burgesses who represented ‘the whole community of England’. This parliamentary state necessitated, of course, a new kind of parliamentary monarch. There too Edward proved remarkably adept – not surprisingly perhaps since his experience stretched back to 1259 when the community of the bachelry of England had made its protest to him. In 1290 Edward restrained his temper, prolonged parliamentary sessions over many weeks, placated both knights and magnates with concessions, and in the end gained the largest tax of his reign.
In the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries a sense of community and national identity had been shaped in part by opposition to the crown. Edward’s achievement in the first twenty years of his reign was to close this gap between monarchy and nation. His reforms, as we have seen, ‘joined the hearts of the people to the king’. His approach to patronage at last erased the idea that the king was rewarding foreign kinsmen and ministers at the expense of his native subjects. That Edward’s most trusted councillor, Otto of Grandson, was a Savoyard caused hardly a ripple. Edward’s uncle, William de Valence, so divisive a figure in the reign of Henry III, settled down as an unremarkable member of the regime. Matthias Bezille, reviled as a foreigner by the Gloucestershire gentry in 1261, produced descendants who themselves became members of the country gentry. Whereas Henry III was accused of bringing in foreigners to blot out the name of the English, in 1295 it was Edward who warned that a French invasion aimed to abolish ‘the English tongue’. The eulogies poured forth on Edward’s death in 1307 show that his reputation had survived the heavy burdens placed on the kingdom after 1294. Indeed no king since the Conquest had received such glowing tributes. One ballad written significantly in English and thus intended for a wide audience imagined Edward on his deathbed:
‘Clerkes, knytes, barouns’, he sayde,
‘Y charge ou by oure sware [your oath]
That the to Engelonde be trewe.’
At last the king himself was the leader of the English nation, not its enemy.
Edward deserves this fanfare, yet for some in the lower orders of society as also for the Jews it would have struck a discordant note. The king would certainly have regarded the peasants as part of the nation which he led. They were integral, as we have seen, to the system of law enforcement. They also reaped some benefit from reforms which restrained the abuses of local officials, and made litigation easier. A great many legal actions, as in the past, were between freemen of peasant condition over small amounts of land. Probably it was in such cases that royal justice was at its most effective. Peasant communities thought enough of the impartiality of the royal courts to bring actions in them against their lords, sometimes clubbing together to pay their serjeant barristers. They may also have gained indirectly from the common law, for it inspired record-keeping and comparable forms of action in manorial courts, both of which gave peasants greater security.
Yet while Edward might declare that ‘we are all to obtain one reward in Christ, whether of servile or of free conditions’, that ‘one reward’ was indeed in the next life, not in this. None of Edward’s legislation altered the fact that the unfree half of the peasantry remained completely debarred from the king’s courts.
What can a serf do unless serve, and his son?
He shall be a pure serf deprived of freedom.
The law’s judgement and the king’s court prove this ran the triumphal poem of Leicester abbey in 1276 after its villeins of Stoughton had failed to prove they were free sokemen. The peasantry also suffered particularly heavily in the latter part of the reign from the demands of the crown. It was largely their goods which were taken to supply royal armies under the right of prise. It was they who supplied the king with foot soldiers. The obligation on everyone to bear arms for the maintenance of the peace and defence of the realm was ancient, but it was one thing to send village contingents to resist foreign invasion as in 1264, and quite another to dispatch them (organized by new officials called ‘commissioners of array’) to Wales, Scotland and Gascony as in the 1290s. Although Edward normally offered pay after the muster, it was up to the villages to find the troops and their equipment. Launditch hundred in Norfolk in 1295 had to spend £52 raising 187 men for Gascony. Worse than either prise or military service was the burden of taxation, for it was both heavier (Launditch’s bill in 1294 was £242) and general throughout the country. (Prise and military service bore most heavily on counties nearest to campaigns.) Admittedly a significant proportion of the English peasantry were too poor to be taxed, but that still left many who were liable. What made their sufferings disproportionately heavy was that they lacked the resources to bribe the tax collectors. There could be no equivalent of the entertainment of the assessors offered by Merton College, Oxford, which dramatically reduced its tax burden at Cuxham in the 1290s. So, as one lampoon put it, the rich man worth £40 is taxed at 12d., and so is the man with ‘a heap of children’ whom ‘poverty hath brought to the ground’. In the 1260s Nicholas Franciscus, a peasant from Westerham in Kent, declared that the king’s bailiffs deserved to be hanged because they never did good when they could do ill, a very Robin Hood type of utterance. Many in Edward’s reign probably expressed similar sentiments about royal officials, if not perhaps of the king himself.
It was not, of course, merely royal officials who were oppressive. Throughout Edward’s reign peasant communities continued to resist their lords both by violence and litigation (see above, pp. 413–14). Meanwhile there was a large criminal underclass, swollen perhaps by over-population, ‘the unknown malefactors’ and ‘vagrants’ referred to so often in the eyre rolls. In the 1260s peasants had felt genuinely embraced by the great movement of ‘baronial’ reform. That is far less clear of the protests of the 1290s, for all their limitations on prise and taxation. By the end of the thirteenth century a general peasants’ revolt may not have been very far away. The Ordinances of 1311 expressed concern that ‘the people of the land will rise by reason of the prises and other oppressions made in these times’. Edward’s power was always based on the exploitation by him and his lords of the great bulk of the population.
If the peasants, for all their burdens, were part of Edward’s people, the Jews emphatically were not. In 1290 he expelled them from the country. There was one primary reason why Edward was prepared to take this step. The heavy taxation between 1240 and 1260 had destroyed the wealth of the Jews and thus their value to the crown. Concentrated in twenty-one towns with ‘chests’ in which were deposited the records of their business dealings, Jewish numbers had declined from between 3,000 and 5,000 in the 1240s to less than 2,000 forty years later. In most towns, as had always been the case, the bulk of the business was controlled by a handful of Jews (in Lincoln there were a dominant six, three of whom had London connections), but the scale of their transactions was small compared with those of the past. The total value of the debts owed to the Jews in 1290 was around £20,000 compared with nearly £80,000 in the 1240s. Whereas between 1241 and 1256 the crown gained not far short of £73,333 in Jewish taxation, between 1272 and 1290 it only made £9,300. Another £11,000 came from the seizure of property following coin-clipping allegations in 1278, but that only served to weaken the community further.
Edward could afford to be influenced by ‘religious’ considerations. A strand of church thought (mentioned by Edward himself in his Statute of Jewry in 1275) had always been that the Jews should be preserved and protected because they were reminders of Christ’s passion, but during the thirteenth century other more hostile views were gaining ground. Legislation against usury reached a climax in the Council of Lyons in 1274. In 1286 Pope Honorius IV wrote to England fiercely criticizing the contacts permitted between Christians and Jews, and demanding more rigorous separation between the two. Edward himself had already moved in that direction by laying down the precise dimensions of the badge (the tabula) which Jews were to wear so that they could be shunned on sight. Another solution was through a policy of muscular conversion. Edward tried to force the Jews to attend the preaching of the friars, and to cope with the results he optimistically enlarged the House for Converted Jews founded by his father.
If, however, the Jews obstinately refused to convert, there was a growing belief that they should not be preserved but expelled – the dangers of contact, with horrific events like those at Lincoln fresh in people’s minds (see above, p. 349), were just too great. During Henry’s reign they were indeed expelled from a number of English towns (including Montfort’s Leicester) and in 1275 Edward allowed his mother to remove them from her dower lands. In 1253 (while still on crusade) Louis IX had ordered all Jews to leave France save those who were traders and workers. Most significantly of all, Edward himself anticipated the expulsion of Jews from England by expelling them from Gascony when he was in the province in 1287. Making little money from the suppression, the king’s motives were again ‘religious’: a thank-offering for his recovery from serious illness which also prompted his related (though abortive) decision once more to go on crusade.
There was one other continental precedent which revealed very real material benefits from Jewish expulsion. In December 1289 Charles of Salerno had expelled the Jews from his counties of Maine and Anjou quite specifically in return for a tax ‘as some recompense for the profit we lose’. Edward was well informed about Charles, having secured his release from Aragonese captivity only the year before. His example tapped into an existing English background in which the king had for some time been imposing restrictions on the Jews in return for parliamentary taxation. The great tax of 1275 was related to the Statute of Jewry which abolished usury altogether, and instructed the Jews to live henceforth by lawful merchandise and labour. In this perspective, final expulsion in return for a tax must have seemed but a logical concluding step.
Getting the tax, of course, depended on expulsion being something which parliament wanted. Paradoxically, religious considerations aside, that may have been less true in 1290 than earlier in the century. The evaporation of Jewish wealth had reduced the numbers and status of their creditors. Great lay and ecclesiastical magnates had taken their overdrafts elsewhere: in 1281 it was to the Riccardi that the earl of Norfolk owed £1,133. Up to a point, moreover, the Jews after the 1275 Statute had adapted to a new non-usurious way of life. A large proportion of the bonds found in the chests in 1290 recorded debts owed not in money but in commodities, notably wool. That may simply have been a way of disguising usurious loans, about whose continuation Edward complained. But it is also likely that Jews were genuinely working as commodity traders, advancing money in return for wool and corn which they then sold on at a profit. The intense hostility to the Jews seen in Lincoln in the 1250s was not always typical. In Hereford in 1286 large numbers of Christians enjoyed the plays, sports and minstrelsy at a Jewish wedding, to the scandal of the bishop.
If, however, these developments had reduced hostility to the Jews, it had certainly not been eliminated. The Jews could not escape their history. In the 1275 Statute, Edward explained how he had seen ‘the disinheriting of the good men of his land that has happened by the usuries which the Jews have made in the past’. Although their new clients were declining in importance, their old ones remained on the books until the debts were paid off. As late as 1264–5, when the Montfortian government made concessions over Jewish debts, the beneficiaries included many of magnate status. The legislation of 1269–70 prevented such debts being sold to Christians but only if they had no royal licence, which of course was often granted. So the queen and other courtiers bought them up and forced the victims to sell land in payment. The 1275 legislation likewise still allowed Jews to collect their old debts and indeed to seize land in the process. Although most of these magnate debts seem to have been liquidated in one way or another by 1290, they must have left a terrible residue of bitterness. For the knights it was not simply a question of residue, for they continued to contract debts. The Lincoln records of 1290 show that twenty-four of the 185 debtors (owing 25 per cent of the total outstanding) were knights or members of knightly families. A good many knights were also among the debtors of Aaron le Blund in Hereford. If some of these debts represented genuine commodity transactions, that is hardly likely to have been the case with all of them. So the knights in the 1290 parliament saw the expulsion of the Jews as having immediate financial benefits for themselves or their fellows.
* * *
By an unpleasant paradox the expulsion of the Jews showed Edward at his most ruthless and also his most conciliatory. Sacrificed on the parliamentary altar in return for taxation, they were victims of the consensus which underlay the might of the Edwardian state. In terms of the reach of the common law, that state was surely unique in its scope. In no previous period had so many people pursued and settled their disputes through royal procedures before royal justices. No one forced them to do so. The common law grew almost entirely in response to demand.
Whether, in terms of his English resources, Edward was uniquely powerful is more difficult to say, given the difficulties of making comparisons with earlier kings. Certainly the Edwardian state had more records and bureaucracy than ever before, but that is not the same thing. Already in 1230 the pipe roll was over twice the size of the roll for 1130, mentioning three times as many people and places, yet the revenue recorded was actually slightly less. It is at least debatable whether Edward’s taxes raised any more money in real terms than the pre-Conquest gelds, although the latter required the barest fraction of the 25,000 pages of returns (if put into modern print) generated by a single Edwardian levy with everyone’s corn and cattle listed and valued in remorseless detail. The fact was that a state which depended on tapping the wealth of large numbers of individuals needed far more bureaucracy and record-keeping than one where a large proportion of the revenue came from crown lands and a land tax.
The parliamentary tax-based state, with its bureaucracy and records, was therefore very much the consequence of declining revenue from land. It was also the product of weakness in other areas. Although impossible to measure in any precise way, Magna Carta had constituted a watershed between different styles of government, making it much harder for the king to treat individuals in an arbitrary manner, especially when it came to taking their money. The 1215 Charter itself pointed the way forward when it accepted the levying of general taxation if sanctioned by ‘common counsel’.
The Edwardian state was also linked to changing structures of local power where again the balance was shifting in some ways against the king. True, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the king had prevented the localities falling under the control of competing magnates basing their power on castles, feudal honours and the tenure of liberties and local office. The king certainly allowed large numbers of hundreds to pass into private hands (over half the 628 hundreds in 1279 were privately held) but he had maintained his hold over the trial and punishment of serious crime, had reduced the earldoms to titular status, and had stopped the sheriffdoms becoming hereditary. He had also developed a direct relationship with his free subjects through the cascading procedures of the common law and had taxed everyone in the land. There were, however, other changes in the thirteenth century which served to diminish the king’s local ‘punch’. First, after 1236 there was the disappearance of the ‘curial sheriffs’, the sheriffs close to the king with the resources and court clout to uphold his will against the mightiest magnate (see above, pp. 350–51). And then came the end of the general eyre. It was suspended with the outbreak of war with France in 1294 and never properly revived. The eyres, weighed down with crown pleas, civil pleas, plaints and quo warranto cases were taking longer and longer to complete. The Suffolk eyre of 1240 already lasted about four weeks; that of 1286 took more than twice as long. A good deal of the eyre’s work could be hived off to justices of gaol delivery, assize, and oyer and terminer, while the escheators could carry out its inquiries into royal rights. Justices of ‘trailbaston’, introduced in the 1300s, could target cases of serious disorder. By 1330, however, the king’s judges themselves looked back nostalgically to the great age of the eyre in the thirteenth century, when it had maintained the peace and given justice to all without fear or favour. The single-purpose judicial commissions, even if headed by professional judges, could not replicate the eyre’s overarching supervision of government and people in the shires. With the criminals, litigants, attorneys, local officials, assize juries, and juries for crown pleas from all the hundreds, over 5,000 people, it has been calculated, came before the judges when they visited Suffolk in 1240.
These changes were part of a general process in which the gentry came to staff local government office, monopolizing the old office of the sheriff, holding the new ones which royal government called into being, and helping to man the judicial commissions which replaced the eyre. In the fourteenth century, with the emergence of the justices of the peace, they obtained the primary responsibility for the trial and punishment of crime. This did not necessarily mean the gentry ruled the shires at the king’s command. If that was the pattern in some areas, in others magnates strove to assert their own local rule by taking into their retinues and rewarding with money fees the gentry holders of local office, finding such men much easier to control than the curial sheriffs and justices in eyre of the past. They thus combated the threat implicit in the way the king had established a direct relationship with the gentry. Up to a point, therefore, the king had defeated one form of magnate power in the localities only to succumb to another, sometimes called by historians ‘bastard feudalism’. Those on the losing side of the battles for local control complained increasingly at fourteenth century parliaments about magnates corrupting the entire workings of government. The king was now not too powerful but too weak. Things really had come full circle since 1215.
The basic fact was that these new local structures marched well with the developing tax-based parliamentary state. With Magna Carta restricting the financial burdens that could be placed on great magnates, the king had less need of great curial sheriffs to coerce them to pay their debts. Conversely, in order to get parliamentary consent to taxation, he had more need to conciliate local society, and one way of doing that was by allowing the gentry to staff the shire offices. The conciliation of local society itself had a long history, for Henry I had made concessions to under-tenants in his Coronation Charter of 1100. The political community had always been much larger than a few hundred lay and ecclesiastical barons. The difference was that the king was now dependent on taxation which only knights and burgesses gathered in parliament could grant. All this created an entirely new situation with which kings had to deal. When they did deal with it, they could obtain taxation and wield great power, like Edward I. In Edward’s reign the rest of Britain bore the consequences.
There was another way too in which Edward’s career marked a watershed, and again it was one where the consequences were first felt in Wales and Scotland. Politics were becoming more brutal. The chivalry introduced by the Conquest, in which the nobility were neither killed in battle nor executed for political crimes, was coming to an end. The first sign of that had been at Evesham where over thirty knights were deliberately killed in an unprecedented slaughter. Indeed Edward before the battle appointed a death-squad with no other task but to kill Montfort. In part this was because, with no precedent for political executions among the high nobility, murder on the battlefield was the only way to get rid of him. Yet under Edward executions also began. True, the victims were Welsh and Scots, but they were still men of the highest status: Dafydd, the self-styled prince of Wales, in 1283; the earl of Atholl in 1306. The Osney chronicler rightly described Dafydd’s execution with its horrific ritual of drawing, hanging, beheading, eviscerating and quartering as ‘unprecedented in past times’. In the next reign, that of Edward II, the English nobility too became engulfed in the blood-letting and a pattern was set for the rest of the Middle Ages. In battle the cry became ‘Kill the nobles, spare the commons’, the very reverse of what had happened in battles between 1106 and 1264.
These changes needed no new theory. The concept of treason, in the sense of breach of faith to one’s lord, was very old, and it certainly could cover all cases of political revolt. Equally old was the idea that the penalty could be death. What happened under the Normans and Angevins was that kings decided not to impose the penalty. A major reason for that had been the structure of the Anglo-Norman polity (see above, pp. 126–7). With a nobility straddling England and Normandy, and with open frontiers into the rest of France, it was only too likely that an execution in England would set off a revolt somewhere in the overseas dominions. Although these basic conditions ended in 1204 with the loss of Normandy, for a while the amnesty continued. The long period without executions or killings in battle had created a virtuous cycle which the aristocracy was loath to break. John had wanted to execute the Rochester garrison in 1215 but was stopped when his own followers declared that if he did so it would be their turn next when they were captured. With its original props knocked away, however, the virtuous cycle came under increasing strain with each political crisis, and partially broke at Evesham. Once it had broken the waters were always likely to flow into an altogether different cycle – a vicious and far more enduring one of killings tit for tat. Ultimately it was the execution of Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s earl of Cornwall, by the nobles themselves which set off Edward’s own revenging executions. The clement centuries had given place to the centuries of blood.
The loss of Normandy had made English politics more enclosed and intense. It also meant that Edward could give far more attention than his predecessors to the matter of Britain.