As the year 1295 opened, England’s King Edward I and his troops were wintering in Conwy castle, besieged by Welsh rebels. Food was running low; all the drink that remained was one small barrel of wine, left for the king’s personal use. Edward had this distributed among his men, the action of a good commander.
Wales had been in rebellion since the previous autumn; the Welsh had taken advantage of English pre-occupation with the war which had just started with France. The rising was a national one, headed by a then obscure figure, Madog ap Llywelyn. Wales had seemed conquered by 1283; now, the whole English achievement was under threat. Edward led a rapid raid from Conwy to the west, into the Lleyn peninsula, but it was elsewhere that the war was won. In March Madog was defeated in mid-Wales by forces under the earl of Warwick, at Maes Moydog.
There, an English commentator noted that Madog’s forces were “the best and bravest Welsh that anyone has seen”. They met the English head on, but to no avail. English archers and men-at-arms were too powerful. Madog himself escaped. Edward went on a triumphant tour of Wales, receiving submissions from a defeated people. Eventually Madog was captured, and led to miserable captivity in the Tower of London.
The end of the Welsh rebellion was marked by the start of the building of a great new castle, Beaumaris, in Anglesey, the last of the magnificent series of castles which marked Edward’s conquest. It was characterised by concentric lines of defences, two great twin-towered gatehouses, and a dock so ships could supply the fortress. Edward’s great mason from Savoy, Master James of St George, was in charge of the project. In July the king returned from his circuit of Wales to see the work under way; accounts show that one evening there he enjoyed entertainment provided by an English harpist, Adam of Clitheroe.
Wales was but one of the immense problems that Edward faced. England’s war with France was another. In the previous year the French had taken over much of Edward’s duchy of Gascony in south-western France, and English forces were hanging on there with difficulty. His soldiers achieved a measure of success at the start of the year, but at Easter the French under Charles of Valois invaded. Rioms was besieged, and a sortie by the English garrison was driven back “like sheep into the fold”. English holdings in Gascony were reduced to a couple of towns near Bordeaux, and Bayonne in the south.
To make things worse, the French took the war directly to the English. There was alarm in April when messengers reported that a large fleet was gathering across the Channel to attack England. In the event, attacks were more limited, but in August French galleys raided Dover, and the town of Winchelsea was assaulted. Royal proclamations declared that the English language itself was under threat from the French.
1295 in context
Later 13th-century Britain had a strong economy, but was showing signs of strain, and politically, peace was making way for war
England was prosperous in the 13th century, with a growing population. Great monastic estates, such as those of Winchester Cathedral Priory, or of the Cistercian monasteries of Yorkshire, were doing very well, as were the estates of earls and major barons.
Some knightly families, however, found it increasingly hard to maintain their status in society. More and more land was put under the plough, as agricultural activity expanded to feed an increasing numerous populace. Fenland was drained and exploited. The wool trade was booming. Italian merchants were attracted to England; they provided credit mechanisms that helped to fuel the expansion of trade. The urban economy thrived. New towns continued to be founded, if not at quite the rate of the first half of the century, and established towns expanded. This was an economic expansion driven by a commercially-minded populace, above all in England, but also in Scotland and Wales. By 1300, however, there were beginning to be indications that population growth was no longer matched by the expansion of resources and by levels of investment. The years of prosperity were coming to an end.
The major political crisis of this half-century in England began in 1258, and lasted until 1265, when the baronial leader, Simon de Montfort, was killed at Evesham. Edward I did much to restore the prestige of the crown after he came to the throne in 1272, but in his later years faced political difficulties, notably in 1297 when there was widespread opposition to his expensive military strategies and to the burden that warfare placed on the country. War meant heavy taxation, both on wool exports and on personal wealth.
Growing prosperity helped enable Edward I to extend his political influence in Britain. He conquered Wales in two campaigns, in 1277 and 1282–3; rebellion in 1294–5 saw the embers of resistance flare up for the last time until Owain Glyn Dwr’s rising in the early 15th century. Scotland was a different story. Relations between England and Scotland were peaceable for most of the 13th century. Edward I oversaw the hearings of the Great Cause in 1290, which determined that John Balliol, not Robert Bruce, should be king after the death of the heiress Margaret, the Maid of Norway. Scotland’s alliance with France led to Edward I’s invasion in 1296, and Balliol’s deposition, but in the next year William Wallace led a successful rebellion. The Wars of Independence had begun.
Relations with France were also peaceable until the 1290s. The war which began in 1294 was not of Edward I’s choosing. He was tricked by French diplomacy into thinking that a marriage alliance was about to be agreed; instead the French moved into his duchy of Gascony. The war, which saw heavy expenditure but no major battles, lasted until a truce was agreed in 1297. It was a precursor of the Hundred Years’ War which began in 1337, though in that conflict the English claim to the French throne provided an additional element.
Spies and lies
A spy scare heightened the atmosphere. A royal knight, Thomas Turberville, arrived in England claiming to have escaped from a French prison; in fact, he had been released on condition that he spied for the French. The report he wrote for them on the defenceless condition of the Isle of Wight, on English diplomacy, and on preparations to send troops to Gascony was revealed to the king, and he was arrested. After a trial he was drawn to the place of execution on an oxhide and hanged by an iron chain.
Edward’s strategy was to build up a grand alliance in the Low Countries and Germany against the French. The duke of Brabant, Edward’s son-in-law, came to Wales, and in Anglesey reached agreement to serve with 2,000 cavalry. The support of the counts of Guelders and Holland was bought, though in the latter case the count soon turned to the French. Most important was the count of Flanders, who was promised a huge subsidy. The French king Philip IV, however, summoned the count to Paris, and took his daughter hostage, so nullifying any English alliance. There was little hope of launching any expedition against Philip without Flemish support. Nonetheless, Edward had to continue to pay his remaining allies substantial sums.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, power was taken from the king, John Balliol, by his barons, and entrusted to a council. Balliol owed his throne to Edward I, who had supervised the hearings of the succession dispute between Balliol and Robert Bruce. He was distrusted as an English puppet, and the Scots now looked to France for support. The French were anxious to acquire the Scots as allies against the English, and 1295 saw the alliance forged that would lead to war in the following year.
In December Edward I issued writs summoning men to muster at Newcastle, ready for yet another war.
Heavy burden of taxation
What Edward needed to fight his wars was money. Putting down the Welsh rebellion was an unexpected expenditure. The forces in Gascony were expensive to maintain, and the allies were hungry for English silver. The level of financial crisis is suggested by the sudden dismissal of the treasurer, William March, in August. Taxes had been granted in the previous year, but Edward needed a new instalment. Parliament was therefore summoned. It consisted of prelates and magnates, summoned from an established list, and representatives of shires and boroughs, as well as representatives of the clergy.
A new formula was developed for the representatives; they were to come with full powers to represent their communities, and to do what was decided by common counsel. This would remain the standard form of summons for many years, and led later historians to dub this parliament, held at Westminster in November and early December, the Model Parliament. It was not, of course, thought of as such at the time, and did not attract much attention from chroniclers. The tax that was granted would be levied on a valuation of people’s personal property; the standard rate was an eleventh, but the towns and land that either was, or had been in the past, in the king’s possession paid at a rate of a seventh.
Taxation was a major burden. Recruitment was another. When Edward requested a group of nineteen magnates to go to Gascony, several, including the earl of Arundel, refused. Angrily the king ordered the exchequer to collect any debts that they might owe to the crown. The men duly sailed. That was in August. In October orders went for the recruitment of a huge force of 25,000 infantry. The appointed commander of the English infantry was Edmund, earl of Lancaster, the king’s brother. He, however, was in bad health, and departure was long delayed, into the next year. In Norfolk, Hugh Cressingham and William Mortimer arrived to collect troops for Gascony. Men were selected, and their local communities forced to pay for white tunics, swords and knives. Villages in one region produced roughly six men each. Some were sent home from the muster at Newmarket at once, as they were judged inadequate; others stayed four days, until the planned expedition was cancelled. A further burden was the compulsory purchase of foodstuffs by the crown, in support of its military efforts. Payment of money was disliked, but loss of carefully stored grain and other commodities was bitterly resented.
King Edward’s relationship with the church was difficult. A peace mission by two cardinals achieved nothing. In September a great ceremony took place at Canterbury, with the enthronement of a new archbishop, Robert Winchelsey, in the presence of the king and many nobles. It must have been an awkward occasion, for Edward was insistent that Winchelsey pay a substantial debt to the crown. In parliament, it proved hard to persuade the clergy to grant a tax of a tenth of their income.
This was not an easy year for the economy. Grain prices stood at high levels; poor weather meant a bad harvest. The 13th century had been one of expansion, as more and more land was put under the plough, but the boom years lay in the past. The main English export was wool, grown on the backs of some ten million sheep. Heavy customs duties, introduced in the previous year, combined with the war, had a serious effect on the level of exports. Italians had controlled much of the wool trade, but the great company of the Riccardi had been bankrupted in the previous year as a result of the war. They had lent heavily to Edward I, and their depositors in Italy were rightly suspicious, and withdrew their funds. The remaining companies in England were in an uncomfortable position, emphasised when in the autumn of 1295 they were threatened with the confiscation of the wool stocks they held.
This year showed how the English state could respond to the pressures of war. The need to obtain consent to taxation was important in the development of fully representative parliaments. The defeat of the Welsh rebellion marked a significant stage in the political unification of Britain, but events in Scotland pointed in a different direction, toward the Wars of Independence.
History facts: 1250–1299
Population of England: Probably five million
Life expectancy: Men, just over 30; women – under 30
Currency: Silver pennies. About £1,000,000 worth in circulation
Key years: other important events in the second half of the 13th century
1258 – The Provisions of Oxford. There was much discontent, above all directed against Henry III’s foreign favourites, and his ambitious plan to obtain the Sicilian throne for his second son Edmund. A reform scheme was set up, which established a council of 15 to control the king’s actions. This was elected by 12 from the baronial side, and 12 from the royalists. Further important reform measures followed in the next year, with the Provisions
1265 – The battle of Evesham. Simon de Montfort, leader of the baronial opposition, had triumphed in the previous year at Lewes. Now, he was defeated and slain at the hands of an army led by Henry III’s son Edward. This marked the end of the reform movement, though there was some continued resistance, notably from the garrison of Kenilworth. Not all the ideas about reform, particularly of the law, were forgotten; some were to be followed up in Edward I’s legislative programme.
1270 – Edward’s crusade. Edward joined crusading forces in North Africa. From there he went to Sicily, and then on to the Holy Land. Little was achieved in this expedition. Edward escaped assassination; the wound from his attacker’s knife was sucked by his queen Eleanor (or, according to one account, by his friend Otto de Grandson). Edward did not return to England until 1274.
1275 – Institution of customs duties. It was agreed in parliament that six shillings and eight pence should be paid on each sack of wool exported from England. This provided the crown with a new, permanent financial resource. It was intended in the first instance to provide a means of repaying Italian merchants for the loans they had advanced to make the crusade possible, and was important in providing Edward I with the resources he needed for his wars.
1277 –First Welsh war. Llywellyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Wales, had consistently refused to come to do homage to Edward I. Edward resorted to force to bring him to heel. The campaign saw the English march along the coast of North Wales, and invade Anglesey. There were no major battles, but Edward’s show of strength was sufficient to make Llywelyn come to terms. Work began on four great new English castles, at Flint, Rhuddlan, Aberystwyth and Builth.
1282 – Death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Wales. The Welsh rebelled in this year, and Edward embarked on full-scale conquest. He advanced along the coast of North Wales, but Llywelyn broke out of Snowdonia and marched south. At Irfon Bridge he was defeated by an army led by lords of the Welsh March, and was slain in the battle, probably by Stephen Frankton, a squire. Llywelyn was succeeded by his brother Dafydd, who was thus the last native Prince of Wales. He was captured in the following year, and was savagely executed at Shrewsbury.
1292 – The hearing of the Great Cause. The Great Cause, the succession dispute in Scotland, concluded. The main rival claimants, on the death of Alexander III’s heiress Margaret in 1290, were John Balliol and Robert Bruce. Edward I was invited to supervise the resolution of the dispute, and it was determined that the throne should go to Balliol. The decision may have been correct in law; it was also the one which suited Edward best.
1296 – Invasion of Scotland. The French looked to the Scots as allies in their war against the English. The Anglo-Scottish war began with a small cross-border raid by the Scots; Edward I launched a major invasion. Berwick was sacked, with appalling scenes of slaughter. The English were then victorious at Dunbar, took Edinburgh, marched north as far as Elgin, and deposed John Balliol. Success, however, was little more than superficial.
1297 – Political crisis. Edward I faced the opposition of the church and baronage to his campaign plans, and to the taxes and wool seizures needed for the financing of the expedition. The expedition went ahead, but the king had to concede that he would not impose such burdens again without the consent of the community of the realm.
Michael Prestwich is professor of history at the University of Durham. He has written extensively on 13th- and 14th-century history, and his books include Plantagenet England 1225–1360 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
This article was first published in the September 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine