In contrast to his father, few English monarchs had such extensive leadership training and military preparation as Edward I. He was thirty-three years old when his father Henry III died, and by that point he had experienced the bitter sting of defeat as well as the sweet taste of victory over Simon de Montfort during the “Great Rebellion.” During the Battle of Evasham Edward had effectively saved his father from certain death. In addition to his early military prowess, Edward remained steadfast in his commitment to honoring English royal traditions. During his aging father’s elder years young Edward could have easily revolted and taken the Crown, but he remained patient and resolute, waiting for his turn to become king. Edward was, above all, a lover of order.
According to the Dominican chronicler, Nicholas Trivlet (a friend of the king), Edward was a tall man, standing head and shoulders above others. He had the long arms of a swordsman coupled with thin legs giving him the moniker “longshanks.” He also had a droopy eyelid like his father. Edward was a fierce hunter -a lover of the chase, competition, and tournaments. As Winston Churchill notes: “He [Edward] presents us with qualities which are a mixture of the administrative capacity of Henry II and the personal prowess and magnanimity of Couer de Lion. He sought a national kingship, an extension of his mastery throughout the British Isles, and a preponderant influence in the councils of Europe” (120-121). Edward swore to uphold Magna Carta and, privately, he vowed to bring all the British Isles under one banner, hence his other nickname: “Hammer of the Scots.” Winston Churchill calls Edward I “the last great figure in the formative period of English law” (131).
At the time of Henry III’s death, Edward was in Sicily recovering from an assassination attempt. He had been fighting in the Holy Land but had achieved very little when suddenly a man bearing a poison-tipped dagger stabbed Edward nearly killing him. The wound required a lengthy and painful surgery, Edward’s blackened flesh needed to be sliced off. He escaped to Sicily for recovery where he learned of his father’s death. Edward slowly made his way across Europe headed for England, stopping for a lengthy period in France to set his affairs in order, particularly in Gascony.
In 1254, Edward married Queen Eleanor of Castile. It was a long and happy marriage that yielded no less than fourteen children. Edward was the founder of a dynasty of English Kings, including his son and grandson who were also named Edward in homage to their Anglo-Saxon forebears. Following his father’s death, Edward was crowned King on August 19, 1274 at Westminster Abbey.
During Edward I’s reign, we bear witness to a burgeoning unity of the English feudal institutions, a unity which formed a lasting knightly and bourgeois society (one that would survive the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Wars of the Roses). Edward’s early years brought a flurry of new legislation, some dealing with administrative abuses and land reform, while others addressed widespread conspiracies about the English Jewry. Jews were maltreated, attacked, and finally expelled from the realm. European Jews initially came to England as merchants and money-lenders (Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest). They lent money to some of the most prominent noblemen, yet anti-semitic conspiracies proliferated until they were bankrupted and banished during the reign of Edward I. English Jews fled to Spain and North Africa while the bankers of Florence and Siena became the new lenders of choice for England. Jews would not again be open to England until the rule of Oliver Cromwell centuries later. In other words, a Calvinist Dictator (Cromwell) would break down the Jewish blockade that was once constructed by a Catholic king (Edward I).
Edward, ever the lover of order, formalized three main administrative departments in his government: the Exchequer in Westminster, which handled all revenue and accounts; the Chancery, which was a general secretariat for drafting royal writs and letters and so on; and the Wardrobe which financed domestic priorities. Through all of his administrative reforms, Edward relied heavily upon his able Chancellor, Robert Burnell, a seasoned government official and former bishop.
One undercurrent that pervaded throughout Edward’s reign was that of hostility with France. When the two countries squabbled over lands in the South of France (Gascony) which were now claimed by Phillip the Fair (Philip IV) King of France, Edward decided to regain his lost territory. By now, Edward was aging and he had lived with loss. His beloved wife Eleanor of Castile was dead in 1290 and buried at Westminster. His mother and three infant sons had also died. In addition, Burnell had died in 1292. These losses left Edward with few trusted advisers. On top of a confrontation with France, turmoil was bubbling up in Wales and Scotland, as well.
Rebellion in Wales
In June 1294 Edward approached the new “Parlement” for approval on war with France. The body approved the war and levied heavy taxes on the English subjects, and as tax collection proceeded, a bitterness spread through the people. In the winter of 1294, the Welsh revolted. Up until now, Wales had been ruled by a variety of tribal chieftains and its border with England was defended by a series of lords who more or less acted independently of England. Occasionally England would raid Wales but would inevitably fail to unite the guerrilla forces and their advantage of terrain: forests, mountain, and misty bogs. In 1258 Llywelyn ap Gruffudd declared himself Prince of Wales and he was recognized as such by most of the chieftains along with Henry III. When Edward took the Crown, the new Prince of Wales refused to acknowledge his overlordship so as years went by, King Edward I blockaded Wales and forced Llywelyn northward while putting down Welsh rebellions. Llywelyn was killed in 1282 and Edward quickly took control of large parts of Wales. He built large castles and instituted English cultural reforms while banning the Welsh language from any official government proceedings. Thus began some 700 years of Welsh subjugation.
Rebellion in Scotland
The rebellion in Wales was followed by a brewing conflict with France which remained from 1296 onward until Edward remarried in 1299, this time to King Philip IV of France’s sister, Marguerite. The conflict finally ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1303. However, it also forced Edward to confront his nobles and raise funds, including from the Scottish nobles in the north.
Edward saw an opportunity in 1286 when Alexander III, King of the Scots, died leaving his infant heir, Margaret “The Maid of Norway” to one day claim the crown. Edward I arranged a marriage between the infant Margaret and his five year old son, Edward, with the hopes of uniting the realms. Tragically, Margaret died the following year at sea while en route from Norway, unfortunately dashing hopes of a political unity between England and Scotland.
Realizing their predicament, the Scottish lords all submitted to King Edward I in 1291. In turn and in order to appear as a moderator, Edward selected John Balliol to become the new leader of the Scots. He believed Balliol would be a docile puppet who could perform the bidding of England, especially considering he had founded a college at Oxford and owned lands in England, but Edward could not have been more wrong. Instead of supporting Edward with his war in France, Scotland made an alliance with France. In a rage, Edward I stormed northward to Scotland massacring everyone along the border in the town of Berwick. Edward’s forces, led by the Earl of Surrey, defeated the Scottish army at Dunbar in 1296 and Balliol was locked away in the Tower of London. Edward dethroned Balliol and he removed the ancient ‘Stone of Scone’ also called the ‘Stone of Destiny’ which all Scottish Kings had been crowned upon for centuries. He brought it to Westminster where it sat beneath the English coronation chair for hundreds of years. Scotland was now directly occupied by England. Popular discontent was aroused among the people, particularly under the modest but fierce warrior named William Wallace. He led Scottish forces to victory against the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, but the following year he was sorely beaten at Falkirk. Wallace continued to fight but now most of the Scottish nobles had given up and submitted to Edward. In 1298, Wallace was captured and taken to London where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Wallace’s limbs were displayed as a warning at four different locations in northern England and Scotland: Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Aberdeen. His life was famously put to film in the not-so-historically accurate movie Braveheart with Mel Gibson.
Of William Wallace, Winston Churchill writes, “It has often been said that Joan of Arc first raised the standard of nationalism in the Western world. But over a century before she appeared an outlaw knight, William Wallace, arising from the recesses of South-West Scotland which had been his refuge, embodied, commanded, and led to victory the Scottish nation” (129).
The whispers of revolution continued in Scotland under the leadership of Robert Bruce, the chief rival of Balliol for the rule of Scotland. In 1306, Robert Bruce had himself crowned king of Scotland. He lost a battle at Methven and was then forced into hiding but shortly thereafter he re-emerged to spawn another revolt. Once again, Edward marched his troops northward but he never made it to Scotland. He died at Burgh-by-Sands near Carlisle just south of the border with Scotland in 1307. The fight against the Scots would be left to his son, Edward II, who would suffer a crushing loss at Bannockburn.
Edward I was buried at Westminster Abbey. His tomb engraving reads:
Hic est Edwadus Primus Scottorum Malleus
“Here is Edward I, Hammer of the Scots”
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the chronicles of Nicholas Trivlet.