Edward I: the dutiful conqueror

He has a reputation as a battle-hungry aggressor, determined to bend Scotland, Wales and France to his will. But, argues Andy King, it was Edward I’s deeply held belief in kingly duty, not innate bloodlust, that drove his appetite for war...

Edward I. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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On 19 August 1274, Edward, son of King Henry III, was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey. According to one contemporary account, at the height of the ceremony, when the archbishop of Canterbury placed the crown on his head, Edward at once took it off again, “proclaiming that it should never again sit on his head until he had got back the crown lands which his father had granted away”.

This was a dramatic, and very public, expression of Edward’s strongly held view of the rights and duties of a king – a view that England, with the lands and rights belonging to it, had descended to him from God’s providence, and that his primary duty was to protect or restore these lands and rights, in order to pass them on to his heirs.

Edward’s declaration came at a time when the rights of a sovereign lord over his subjects were looming ever larger in legal and political thought across western Christendom, as theorists turned back to the law codes of the Roman empire. England itself was bound to its neighbours by (sometimes conflicting) strands of sovereignty: kings of England had long claimed the overlordship of Wales and Scotland, while as dukes of Aquitaine they were subject to the overlordship of the king of France.

This increasing emphasis on the rights of the overlord would have crucial consequences for Edward’s reign. Although popular perception may cast him as a tyrant, a warrior king with a relentless taste for conflict, it was this context, and his unshakeable certainty in and devotion to a king’s rights and duties, that set the course for a lifetime of periodic warfare with England’s neighbours.

Conquest of Wales

It was in Wales that trouble was most obviously brewing. The Barons’ War in Henry III’s reign had provided the perfect opportunity for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Gwynedd, to extend his power into the Welsh Marches, seizing lands from Marcher lords – including Edward himself. These territorial acquisitions had been reluctantly conceded by Henry under the Treaty of Montgomery. But the dispossessed Marcher lords had other ideas and, as Edward succeeded to the English throne, they began to recover their lands by force. Llywelyn thus refused to pay homage to the new king of England, on the grounds that Edward was not fulfilling the terms of the treaty.

But Edward’s view was fundamentally different from – and incompatible with – Llywelyn’s. The Welsh prince was withholding the homage due to Edward as king of England; and Edward could not address Llywelyn’s concerns until Llywelyn acknowledged his lordship. In November 1276, after Llywelyn had refused repeated summons to do homage, Edward declared him a rebel. The following July, he led an army into Wales and forced Llywelyn’s capitulation. He was allowed to retain the title of Prince of Wales, but with greatly reduced lands. As far as Edward was concerned, the issue was settled.

Nevertheless, by 1282 he was once more facing revolt (as he saw it) in Wales. This time it was instigated by the Welsh princes who had supported Edward against Llywelyn in 1277, chief among them his own brother, Dafydd. Having received scant reward for their pains, they had also discovered that Edward’s direct rule was every bit as oppressive as Llywelyn’s. They were soon joined by Llywelyn himself.

It was in the face of this continued opposition that Edward determined to conquer Wales once and for all. A hard fought campaign ended with Llywelyn’s death and Dafydd’s capture and gruesomely exemplary execution as, Edward proclaimed, “the last survivor of the family of traitors… whom the king received as an exile, nourished as an orphan, and endowed with lands, and cherished with clothing under his protection”.

Gwynedd was rebranded the Principality of Wales (the title would subsequently be used to endow heirs to the English throne – a practice which continues to this day), and the lands of the Welsh princes were granted out to English magnates. But in other ways the settlement was essentially conservative. Wales remained entirely separate from the realm of England, while the Marcher lords retained their privileges and the Welsh their law (albeit stripped of those elements deemed offensive to Edward and God).

Hammer of the Scots?

The issue of the English overlordship of Scotland had lain dormant for most of the 13th century and would remain so for the first half of Edward’s reign. Alexander III, king of the Scots and Edward’s brother-in-law, did homage to Edward for the estates he held in England, but Edward did not press the larger issue of homage for Scotland. And there matters may have rested – had not Alexander fallen from his horse and broken his neck in 1286. His heir was his three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the king of Norway’s daughter. The prospect of an infant queen rocked the political stability of Scotland, where Robert Bruce (Robert I’s grandfather) was laying claim to the kingship.

With Edward’s close familial ties, and a reputation for settling international disputes, it was natural that the Scots turned to him for help. It was agreed that Queen Margaret should be married to Edward’s son (the future Edward II) – a marriage which, had it taken place, might have ushered in the Union of the Crowns some 300 years early and set the history of Britain on a very different course. But the unfortunate Margaret died during the passage from Norway, leaving a succession crisis in her wake.

The two principal claimants were Bruce and John Balliol – and both had an arguable case. Once more, the Scots turned to Edward, asking him to arbitrate between these two rival candidates. But, ever the opportunist, Edward seized the moment to make real England’s claims to overlordship, announcing that he intended “to do right to all those who can make any claim to the inheritance of the kingdom of Scotland”. Rather than arbitration, a neutral settlement of a dispute between two parties, he would give judgment in his court to allcomers, which – crucially – required recognition of his lordship. When the Scots argued that only “he who shall be king” had the authority to accept overlordship, Edward obtained the acceptance of each claimant individually (on the grounds that, logically, one of them must be “he who shall be king”). The stage was set for the series of hearings that would become known as the ‘Great Cause’.

In November 1292, Edward gave judgment in favour of John Balliol. A month later, King John did homage to Edward for the kingdom of Scotland, thereby formally recognising English overlordship. Edward was determined to demonstrate the reality of that overlordship. To this end, he had already arranged to receive a test case appeal from the Scottish courts. And in 1294, he demanded Scottish service on his planned expedition to Gascony.

Betrayal and revolt

The Gascon expedition was also in pursuit of Edward’s duty to protect his inheritance. He held Gascony within Philip IV’s France and so, as Duke of Aquitaine, owed homage to Philip. Consequently, Gascons could appeal against his decisions to Philip – just as Scots could appeal against John Balliol to Edward. And Philip was a king in Edward’s own mould, determined to enforce his rights to the full. In 1293, he summoned Edward to Paris to answer for the conduct of Gascon and English mariners, who were conducting a private war against their Norman rivals.

A deal was arranged: Edward would marry Margaret of France and (in order to save Philip’s face before his subjects) would hand over Aquitaine, on the understanding that it would then quietly be returned to Edward. But once Philip had the duchy in his grasp, he declared it forfeit. Edward had been out-manoeuvred – so comprehensively that one English chronicler concluded that he had lost his wits, “infatuated with an unlawful love for his relative Blanche”.

Edward now determined to recover his duchy by war. But the expedition planned for Gascony had to be diverted to Wales, for the Welsh seized the chance to rebel. Worse was to follow, for the Scots now allied themselves with France, forging the Franco-Scottish ‘Auld Alliance’ against England which would become a mainstay of both countries’ foreign policies for the next two and a half centuries. But in the short term, it profited the Scots little. In 1296, Edward marched north and rapidly conquered Scotland. Balliol was formally stripped of his kingship (quite literally – the lining was stripped from his royal tabard, earning him the derisive Scots epithet of ‘Toom Tabard’, or empty coat). His kingdom was abolished, reduced to the status of a mere ‘land’ administered by Englishmen for Edward’s benefit. According to a later chronicle, Edward handed over custody to a governor with the derisive comment: “He does good business, who rids himself of shit.”

The following year, faced with renewed demands for service against the French, and with no role in the government of their own country, the Scots rebelled, and William Wallace inflicted a devastating defeat on an English army at Stirling Bridge.

Edward would spend the next eight years slowly (and expensively) wearing down Scottish resistance. In this, he was aided by French difficulties with their own vassals in the County of Flanders. An agreement to end the Anglo-French war was patched together in 1299, and in 1303 Philip restored Aquitaine and abandoned the Scottish alliance. This gave Edward a free hand, and in 1304 the Scots were forced to come to terms.

Having learned from bitter experience, Edward now allowed the Scottish leaders a prominent role in his Scottish administration. But the reality of Edward’s sovereignty remained clear. Those parts of Scottish law that were “displeasing to God” were to be expunged – and again, the final word on what displeased God was Edward’s.

Given only a minor role in Edward’s administration was Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, grandson of the Great Cause claimant. Though Bruce had come over to the English in 1302, Edward had to concentrate on winning over his Scottish opponents; consequently, Bruce was left with nothing to show for his support for the English. Thwarted in his ambition, he had himself inaugurated as King of Scots in 1306.

Having strived for years to reduce Scotland to obedience, and having made what he regarded as a generous settlement, Edward was incensed. An army was rapidly dispatched northwards and the pope was persuaded to excommunicate Bruce. From Edward’s viewpoint, as with Dafydd ap Gruffydd, Bruce and his followers had proved themselves incorrigible rebels; he therefore inflicted punishments on those who had the misfortune to fall into his hands. These included the Earl of Atholl, the first earl to be executed since 1076. According to one chronicler, Edward displayed a streak of gallows humour: “The queen and many of his magnates pleaded that Atholl’s blood should not be spilt, because he was a close kinsman of the king; and so the king ordered him to be hanged higher than the others.”

A second King Arthur?

Edward died in July 1307, striving against illness to lead yet another army into Scotland. One later Scottish chronicler wrote a less than favourable obituary: “He troubled the whole world by his wickedness, and roused it by his cruelty; … he invaded Wales; he treacherously subdued unto him the Scots and their kingdom; John of Balliol, the king thereof, and his son, he cast into prison; … he slew the people, and committed other misdeeds without end.”

This view of Edward, as a war-mongering imperialist, still has currency; it is the picture painted by the Hollywood epic fantasy Braveheart (1995), in which Mel Gibson plays William Wallace leading the resistance to the tyrannical English. Not unnaturally, English commentators took a more sympathetic view. Recording Edward’s conquest of Scotland in 1296, the Yorkshire chronicler Peter Langtoft wrote: “Now the islanders are all joined together, And Albany reunited to the kingships, Of which King Edward is proclaimed lord. Cornwall and Wales are in his domain, And great Ireland at his will. There is no king, nor any prince, in all these countries Save King Edward, who has united them thus. Arthur never held these fiefs so fully!”

In an age that regarded King Arthur as a historical figure, the kings of England proclaimed themselves the rightful heirs to his dominion over Britain, while their lordship over Ireland was sanctioned by the pope. In the Middle Ages, the protection or recovery of lands and rights was one of the main grounds for a just war. From the English point of view, Edward was only taking what was rightfully his. In this, his ambitions were the same as most medieval kings. He was just more successful in putting them into effect.

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Andy King lectures in history at the University of Southampton and is the author of Edward I: A New King Arthur? (Allen Lane, 2016).