Edward I: Man of principle or grasping opportunist?

Was the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ driven by a deep commitment to the wellbeing of his people, or a fierce determination to enhance his own power? Historians have argued over this question for centuries, but the king’s biographer, Caroline Burt, thinks she may have found the answer.

This article was first published in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

A contemporary illumination shows Edward I with priests and members of his court

A contemporary illumination shows Edward I with priests and members of his court. (Credit: British Library/AKG Images)

Ever since he breathed his last in Cumbria in 1307 – on his way to confronting a Scottish rebellion – King Edward I has occupied a unique place in England’s popular consciousness. He is the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, the conqueror of Wales, the ferocious warrior-king who left behind him a string of castles so mighty that they still stand today, among them Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris.

For centuries, Edward also occupied a unique – and exalted – position in English historians’ pantheon of monarchs. Here was one of the country’s great medieval kings, credited not just with beginning the unification of the British Isles, but also for masterminding vast improvements to England’s legal system. 

He was “the truest man in all things,” gushed a contemporary ballad-writer. Another observed that no king “better sustained his land; all that he wished to do he brought wisely to a conclusion”. 

Six hundred years later, Bishop William Stubbs, one of the great medievalists of the era, declared that Edward “possessed in the highest degree the great qualities and manifold accomplishments of his race”. Twentieth-century historian Maurice Powicke was equally impressed, writing of the king’s “love of decency and order”. 

Welsh and Scottish commentators have, not surprisingly, offered a more scathing assessment of Edward’s achievements. What is more surprising is that, in the 20th century, Edward’s Celtic critics increasingly found allies in England.

TF Tout, for example, referred to Edward as a “dour scheming autocrat”, while others argued that he was both ruthless in his pursuit of gain for his family members, and over-ambitious in his plans at home. This, they contested, led to repeated failure and, according to one historian, “mediocrity”. 

The most famous historian of Edward I, Michael Prestwich, has also made some criticisms of Edward. He has pointed, for example, to the fact that the king left the country £200,000 in debt at his death in July 1307 – a staggering sum in modern terms. In fact, by the time Prestwich wrote his biography of Edward in 1988, he was commenting that the king’s reputation had reached “a cyclic low”.

Prestwich was, in one sense, right: history is cyclical. In fact, it seems that the pendulum has begun to swing back in Edward’s favour: in 2010, Andrew Spencer argued that the king fostered a good relationship with his nobility. John Maddicott has similarly pointed to the king’s success in cleaning up the mess that his father, Henry III, made of kingship – a mess that culminated in a bloody civil war in the 1260s. Edward, he argues, was intelligent, he was good at showing his subjects that he would not treat them as his father had done. He won their trust in the first few years of his reign when a number of civil war rebels were at large and potentially able to make trouble for him.

 

The Edward effect

So the picture is constantly changing. But the question is, what picture should we paint of Edward?

The first problem facing those seeking to answer this question is that, until now, historians have not yet looked in any great detail at how Edward’s actions affected his people. In modern terms, that would be like examining government policy on the NHS – the recent Health Bill, for example – but never assessing how the resulting changes played out on the ground. Did the provision of healthcare improve or deteriorate? 

Modern government is far more sophisticated than its medieval predecessors. All the same, a 13th-century king’s duties to his people were much the same as those of any latter-day government to its citizens. People expect to be defended from invasion by foreign powers and they expect governments to protect them and their property from assault at home. How did Edward fare on this front? We know that he was accomplished at defending the nation, but we are yet to investigate in any great depth his success at maintaining order in England’s villages, towns and cities.

Edward I rides to London in a mid-14th-century illumination from the French verse novel Roman de Brut by the Norman poet Wace. (Credit: AKG Images)

Another problem facing historians of Edward is that we have not yet examined whether there was any political philosophy – a set of ideas – that underpinned his kingship. This is not just about whether Edward had a game plan for kingship, but about what he actually believed. There are entire doctoral theses dedicated to what political beliefs informed the policies of modern leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Yet this has simply not been the case with Edward I – or, for that matter, many English medieval kings. 

Some have argued that there is no need for such a study – because Edward’s reign wasn’t shaped by a single, overarching principle. Michael Prestwich wrote in 1996 that, while there is no doubt that Edward was “throughout imbued with a fierce determination to preserve, protect and enhance his rights as king”, “my belief is that Edward was essentially an opportunist, and that his actions and policies are best explained in terms of their immediate circumstances.” 

But is he right? Was there really no ideal behind Edward’s policies? Historians have never demurred from the view that Edward was a stickler for royal rights and authority. He began his reign with a massive enquiry (the so-called Hundred Rolls of 1274–75) into royal jurisdictional rights that he believed had been recently usurped, and followed this with a 20-year campaign to restore those rights. Edward also fought with successive archbishops of Canterbury about the limits of church jurisdiction in England, and went to war with both Wales and Scotland on the basis that their princes had failed to do their duties as his feudal vassals. 

That Edward took a dim view of those who failed to defer to his royal authority is confirmed by his reaction to a territorial dispute between the earls of Gloucester and Hereford in the 1280s.

When the king returned to England from France to discover that the two earls were steadfastly ignoring all pleas to settle with each other – and had even resisted the entreaties of the archbishop of Canterbury to make peace – he sentenced them to imprisonment. 

It is through this incident, however, that I think we can come to a more sophisticated appreciation of what motivated Edward as king. He was, he told the warring earls, acting for his “crown and dignity” as “debtor of justice to all” and “guardian of the common utility”. This suggests that Edward clearly equated the dignity of his office with the provision of justice to his people, not just with upholding crown rights. He made similar statements elsewhere both before and during his reign. In 1259, while still prince, he wrote to his chief officer in Chester that: “If common justice is denied to any one of our subjects by our bailiffs, we lose the favour of God and man, and our lordship is belittled.” In 1278, he would preface a statute with a note that the “better administration of justice” was a requirement of “kingly office”.

We could argue that all this adds up to what we might call enlightened self-interest, not a fundamental philosophy. To take the NHS analogy again, what this means is that you might not believe in universal healthcare as a principle, but you support it on the basis that, without it, you may one day require treatment that you can’t afford.

Edward attends a parliamentary meeting in this illumination. The king took a dim view of those who failed to defer to his authority. (Credit: AKG Images)

Courting favour

Which is true of Edward I? Without a doubt, he had a sense of things that were likely to win him favour with his subjects. He ordered wide-ranging enquiries into corrupt officials in the first year of his reign, and changed all the sheriffs in England. We can point to several other examples of popular royal policies, such as his decision to sack many of his judges in the late 1280s. 

But examples of populism such as these don’t help us answer the question. Rather, the best measure of whether a belief is a fundamental one is the extent to which a ruler maintains a commitment to it when it patently isn’t popular. Here we are in luck, because Edward did just that in the late 1290s. 

From 1294, Edward had been at war with the French king Philip IV, who had confiscated the English duchy of Gascony in south-west France. He had also been in Wales tackling a rebellion against military service and taxation, and had faced revolt in Scotland too, led most famously by William Wallace of Braveheart legend. War costs money, a lot of money, and by the late 1290s, Edward was in a fix. He needed more cash, but his subjects were bled white by his financial demands. Led by a number of nobles, they protested that they could not afford to continue as he wished. The earls also questioned elements of Edward’s military strategy. 

Yet Edward would not give in. His job, he argued, was to protect the “common good of the realm”. His subjects had acknowledged that the military situation constituted an emergency; they were therefore obliged to support him financially and had no right to question his strategy. They in turn argued that it was not in the interests of the common good to oppress one’s people with unaffordable burdens of taxation. It was a political impasse. 

The king was finally forced, very much against his will, to make some concessions (which in calmer times he reversed), but he would not be moved on the fundamental point of principle: the king’s duty was to protect the common good, and it was his prerogative to decide how to do so. 

If Edward had been a hardened pragmatist, or had even understood the notion of enlightened self-interest, it is difficult to see how he could have acted in this way. He had a clear sense that kingship was about rights and responsibilities; failure in either respect brought the office and its holder into disrepute.

But what of the impact of Edwardian government? Did Edward’s commitment to justice actually mean anything for his subjects in practice? The answer is yes. It should be remembered that medieval England had neither a professional police force nor a standing army. Instead local men were tasked with keeping order by the crown, and they took those responsibilities seriously; they had to if order was not to collapse.

An illumination from the 14th-century Chroniques de France ou de St Denis shows John Balliol, king of Scotland, paying homage to Edward. (Credit: AKG Images)

To ensure that they fulfilled their duties, and that they knew the eye of the king was upon them should they be inclined to some light corruption, Edward ordered repeated enquiries into the behaviour of his officialdom, collecting complaints, sometimes anonymously, from local people. At the same time, he made great improvements to the legal system and to the administration of justice, and on the ground efforts were made to tackle disorder systematically.

When evil-doers were noticed in a county, the government was quick to issue orders to deal with them. In Kent in 1273 the king ordered a local judge to make enquiry into men who had committed murders there and who “propose to do worse things as the king hears for certain”. There is strong evidence that all this had positive effects: there was a fall in the number of disputes, and serious crime, though far from non-existent, was regularly dealt with where it arose. 

Yet when the country was at war, order was much harder to maintain. Local law-enforcement officers were often away fighting and large bands of heavily armed troops were moving through the country. In short, it was a recipe for violence and disorder. When Edward returned finally from wars in France and Scotland in the early 1300s he was consequently faced with one of the worst situations any medieval king had to endure. In response he was typically ambitious, ordering the most wide-ranging criminal investigations ever yet seen in England. When he died in 1307, it seems clear that his efforts were bearing fruit.

Edward I was in many ways a remarkable king, but how different was he from other medieval monarchs? In my opinion, he easily stands comparison with the best kings of the period: Henry II, Edward III and Henry V. But did they have such a clear conceptual understanding of kingship as Edward? This has never been systematically investigated, yet it seems that the ideas upon which Edward drew were entirely mainstream – all contemporary writers acknowledged that the duty of the king was to protect the common good and that he was steward of his office. 

All this was of course deeply religious in its inspiration (this was the age of great political theologians like Thomas Aquinas), something that has often recently been alluded to in reference to the motivations of our own Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, this comparison with our current monarch reinforces a further, crucial point. Despite the passing of seven centuries, monarchy and the duties of political office have not changed – even if the age is now one of constitutional monarchy and prime ministerial office.

Caroline Burt teaches and directs studies in history at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where she is also admissions tutor. Her book on Edward I was published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press and she is currently working on a new project on Edward II.

 

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