Henry’s heir was a swarthy giant of 6ft 2in, as Provencal (through his mother) as he was Plantagenet. Edward I (1272 – 1307) first heard of his father’s death when stopping in Sicily on his way back from a crusade. Such was his lack of urgency that he spent two years in France before arriving in England in 1274. Now aged thirty-five, he had rescued his father from the barons’ rebellion, but he had been an early supporter of de Montfort and understood the need for kingly power in a constitutional framework.
He also suffered from a Plantagenet temper and habit of violence. He was to treat Celts as he treated Gascons, with a belligerence that sapped his reign of peace and resources. His one apparent gentleness was toward his wife, Eleanor of Castile, who bore him sixteen children.
Edward’s coronation in 1274 saw the greatest bout of feasting London could remember. Monasteries were commanded to send swans, peacocks, cranes, pike, eel and salmon. The Westminster Hall banquet consumed 60 cattle, 40 pigs and 3,000 chickens. the fountains of Cheapside ran with red and white wine and knights were told to set horses loose in the streets, for people to catch and keep. Guided by an able chancellor, Robert Burnell, Edward issued writs summoning juries in every hundred to prepare a census and register of grievances. Commisioners were sent out to gather material for the Hundred Rolls, leading to a series of Westminster statutes which became the first body of English laws founded on the principles of Magna Carta. They regulated land, trade, the church and public order and were passed by a series of parliaments of ‘high and low’, of barons, knights and burgesses, summoned by Edward over the first fifteen years of his reign. If Henry III can claim parliament’s paternity, Edward was its midwife (to see related article, click here).
The new king’s most dramatic measure was an inquiry into ‘by what warrant’ feudal barons held land and administered local law, a Domesday Book of power. They were ordered to appear before circuit justices and prove their inherited entitlements. This was not popular. When Earl Warenne, lord of the Scottish marches, was challenged by inspectors for his warrant, he flourished the rusty sword his ancestors had used at Hastings and declared, ‘This is my warrant’. Nor were the barons alone in experiencing Edward’s muscle. By the 1270s Wales had experienced its first taste of coherent nationhood. Taking advantage of Henry III’s baronial wars, Llywelyn the Great and his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, had extended their authority over most of Wales and were recognised by Henry III in the 1267 Treaty of Montgomery. But since ap Gruffudd had been an ally of de Montfort, whose daughter he married, Edward required his homage at his coronation. When the Welshmen failed to attend, it was considered rebellion.
Edward’s invasion of north Wales in 1277 was the most costly military enterprise ever staged in the British Isles and instilled a hostility that lingers to this day. A large force of 15,000 professional soldiers gathered at Chester, attended by coastal transports, road builders and baggage trains. A Savoy architect, Master James of St George, was commissioned to bring masons from every corner of Edward’s domain, and by August the royal army had crossed Gwynedd to Anglesey. The fields were harvested to feed the army and deny food to the Welsh. Llywelyn promptly surrendered without the fight and paid homage to Edward, but the fine imposed on him of £30,000 was unpayable and left the Welsh king at the mercy of English justice. When he failed to pay and his brother, Dafydd, rebelled three years later, the Llywelyns were utterly crushed. Ap Gruffudd died in a skirmish 1282, while Dafydd was hanged, drawn and quartered, the first victim of what became the standard punishment for treason.
Edward now secured his conquest. Master James’s north-Welsh castles, modeled on the crusader castles of the Levant, were designed to ‘shock and awe’ the Welsh. Caernarfon borrowed motifs from the walls of Constantinople, evoking Edward’s dream of a north-European empire. The king adopted the ‘crown’ of King Arthur and claim to have found and reburied the remains of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury. Round the castles at Beaumaris, Harlech, Caernarfon and Conwy were built bastides or fortified towns, similar to those in Gascony, their grid plan still evident today. English colonists were introduced and the Welsh banned from holding property or trading within the walls.
After wales, Edward turned to Scotland. Here the death of Alexander III in 1286 precipitated a conflict over the succession between John Balliol and Robert Bruce. English sovereignity north of the border dated back to the homage intermittently paid by Scottish kings to Saxon ones, which Edward revived by sponsoring Balliol. This so infuriated the Scottish barons that they did something that became habitual when Scotland was in trouble with England, and turned for aid to France.
Edward’s military prowess was such that he might have secured a consensual union of the Celtic regions, had he not repressed them so brutally. As it was he found himself in the familiar trap of England’s medieval monarchs, encircled by resentful Celts and opportunistic French. In 1290 he supplemented his coffers by the drastic step of expelling England’s entire Jewish population and seizing the property of those indebted to them. Some 3,000 Jews made their way to the eastern ports to find refuge in Poland and the Baltic states, not to return until invited back by Cromwell. The same year saw Queen Eleanor die in Lincoln, to Edward’s mortification. He had her body carried to London and ‘cher reine’ crosses erected at each stopping point, the last being at Charing Cross in London.
Edward was now short of money. He converted his private ‘wardrobe’ into a ‘privy’ chamber, financed by a privy purse and overseen by a privy council composed of the king’s own circle of advisers, circumventing those stipulated under Henry III’s charters. But everything had to be paid for somehow. Edward was aware that his subjects were ‘fearful that the aid and taxes which they had paid to us out of liberality and goodwill… may in future become a servile obligation for them and their heirs’. He was the first monarch to articulate so clearly the relation between money and consent. Accordingly, in 1295 he summoned a new parliament, to be dubbed the Model Parliament, to vote money for his continual wars. He gathered earls, barons, bishops and abbots to a baronial chamber, and 292 representatives of the commons, including burgesses from seventy boroughs. It was the first bicameral (two houses) parliament, and it was soon needed. Edward was consuming some £25,000 a year on his wars.
In 1296 Balliol of Scotland was forced by his barons to renounce his homage to Edward, who responded by putting the border town of Berwick to the sword. Balliol was ritually humiliated, stripped of his crown, sceptre and orb, and taken to England as a prisoner. With him came Scotland’s ‘stone of destiny’, the stone of Scone. Apart from a brief theft by students in 1950, it remained in Westminster Abbey under Edward’s throne until 1996, when it was returned by John Major’s government as an eccentric alternative to devolution.
A Scottish nobleman, William Wallace, next raised the flag of revolt, defeating English soldiers outside Stirling and making a tax-gatherer’s skin into his belt. He roamed free for almost a decade until 1305, when he was finally captured, brought to London and hanged, drawn and quartered. Even that was not deterrent enough. A year later, Robert the Bruce took up Wallace’s mantle and crowned himself king of Scotland. A furious Edward murdered every one of Bruce’s relatives he could find in England, and knighted 300 young noblemen for what he planned as a final campaign against the Scots. On the journey north the sixty-eight-year-old Edward fell ill near Carlisle. He demanded to be raised from his litter and placed on his horse to lead his army onwards, but he died soon after, to be eulogised as ‘a great and terrible king… a conqueror of lands and a flower of chivalry’. On his grimly unadorned tomb in Westminster Abbey is carved Edwardus primus scottorum malleus hic est (Edward I, hammer of the Scots, lies here). But the hammering had left no peace, only Celtic lands ground into sullen rebellion.
The new king, the twenty-three-year-old Edward II (1307 – 27), was so utterly unlike his warrior father that some questioned his paternity. At the time of his accession he was in the process of marrying Isabella, the twelve-year-old daughter of the king of France; she, like many queens of weak English kings, was to be a force in her own right. The new bride was confronted by Edward’s frivolous behaviour with his close friend, Piers Gaveston, who had been banished by Edward I as an unsuitable companion for his son, but who was now recalled. Isabella’s family were so appalled at the two men’s antics during the wedding banquet, which Gaveston attended in imperial purple trimmed with pearls, that they walked out.
Whether or not the king was homosexual, he was clearly infatuated by Gaveston. England now had a free-standing council which the king could not ignore and his early attempt to rescind powers granted to it by his father ensured a reaction. In 1308 the council declared its loyalty ‘to the crown’ rather than the king’s person, and then banished Gaveston. When an obsessed Edward insisted on his return, the man was seized and summarily killed. The grief-stricken king kept the corpse at his side for weeks, until it was dragged stinking away.
Two years later Edward revived his father’s campaign to bring the Scots to heel. He proved to be a brave soldier but a hopeless tactician. Leading a large but undisciplined army north to relieve the besieged castle at Stirling, he was enticed into an ambush by a small Scottish force under Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn outside the town. Two battles on succeeding days led to the most humiliating defeat of an English army on British soil since Hastings. Edward lost two-thirds of his men and had to flee by ship from Dunbar.
Gaveston had been replaced in the king’s affection by the ruthless and unpopular Hugh Despenser. He was granted the earldom of Gloucester with extensive Marcher lands in Glamorgan and Carmarthen, but he then won the king’s approval to seize the de Clare property in Gower and Usk. Such a threat to inheritance in land was too much for the barons to tolerate, and the result was a resumption of baronial wars against the king. The barons were led by the Marcher lord, Roger of Mortimer, who was forced by Despenser to flee to France. There in 1325 Mortimer met Edward’s now estranged twenty-nine-year-old wife, Isabella, who shared his hatred of the king’s upstart friend. A handsome and intelligent woman, she declared that ‘someone has come between my husband and myself. I shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged.’ She did more than that. In Paris Isabella and Mortimer became lovers, to the scandal of the French court, and were banished to Flanders on the order of Isabella’s brother, the king.
Within a year Isabella had amassed enough support from dissident barons in England to risk a return. In September 1326 she and Mortimer landed in east Anglia and, in a swift campaign, forced Edward and Despenser to flee to the west of the country, where Despenser was captured and tried at Hereford in her presence. he was treated with signal brutality, strung up, castrated, forced to watch his genitals being burned, hanged and, while still (amazingly) conscious, disembowelled and quartered. Not for nothing was Isabella dubbed ‘the she-wolf of France’.
The queen had more trouble disposing of her husband. A parliament summoned to Westminster faced the same problem as was later posed by Richard II and Charles I: how to dispose of a legitimate king anointed in the name of God. Even the barons balked at this. Edward had not been tried, nor had he committed any crime. The bishops advised that the head of state could not be deposed but only invited to abdicate. When this was put to Edward in Kenilworth in January 1327, he tearfully agreed, provided his fourteen-year-old child by Isabella, also Edward, was crowned in his stead. That coronation duly took place and the former king was moved to Berkley castle, where he was murdered later that year, probably on Isabella’s orders. Reports of Edward’s impalement on a red hot spear, symbol of his rumoured penchant for buggery, are regarded as propaganda. He was probably stifled.
Edward II’s twenty-year reign, for all its political and military incompetence, was one of culture and finery. He was a man of taste, expressed above all in his patronage of Gothic architecture and illuminated manuscripts. The serene staircase and chapter house at Wells date from his reign. he was the first king to found colleges at Oxford and Cambridge and he commissioned exquisite psalters and gospels. But such qualities counted for nothing in a king who could not hold his crown or secure his legacy. Edward’s reign gave way to the dictatorship of Mortimer and Isabella, as notional regents for the young Edward III (1327 – 77).
The boy was as unlike his father as his father had been unlike Edward I. He lived under what was widely regarded as the tyranny of his mother until, in 1330 at the age of seventeen, he made a bold move. Isabella and Mortimer were staying with the court in Nottingham castle, where Edward and a posse of twenty-three noblemen stole through a secret passage and seized the couple in the keep. Mortimer was taken to London and executed. Edward agreeing only to his pregnant mother’s plea that ‘gentle Mortimer’ be spared the torment of hanging, drawing and quartering. The queen was sent to comfortable banishment at Castle Rising in Norfolk. Edward took the throne in what was to be the apotheosis of chivalric monarchy.
by Simon Jenkins, A Short History of England