EDWARD I (1239-1307), King of England (1272-1307) was the embodiment of many of the perceptions and ideals of the medieval king. He was very tall (nicknamed “Longshanks”), intelligent, articulate and at his succession, already an experienced battle commander, having been the architect of the victory over Simon de Montfort at Evesham in 1265 and distinguishing himself in action during the truncated Eighth Crusade (1270).
He was very aware of his rights and privileges as the monarch of a major European feudal realm; but unlike his father, Henry III – indeed any king since Henry II a hundred years before – he also recognised the rights of his subjects and was a passionate believer in good and fair (for the period) governance. And he kept his word - as a young prince, when asked to break the oath he and his father, Henry III had made unwillingly at Oxford in 1258, he refused, although the barons had broken theirs. In his private life his love of his wife, Eleanor of Castile, and his very public and prolonged mourning after her death in 1290 are well recorded. Some of the 12 “Eleanor Crosses” he had erected in memoriam at the resting places for her funeral cortege on its way from Lincoln to Westminster still stand.
He was, however, ruthless and could be extremely cruel. He had the Plantagenet temper and was quick to take offence.
In the early years of his reign, free from the interminable struggles against France, hardly any aspect of the government of the realm, the relationship between Crown and Church, or the issue of law and order, was left untouched in Statutes approved at a series of Parliaments. He even re-confirmed the Magna Carta.
The Welsh and England had had a restive relationship for centuries, paralleled by frequent periods of unrest within Wales as local rulers fought for supremacy. By 1250 the Welsh prince, Llewellyn II ap Gruffydd had been reduced to the rank of an English baron, owing fealty to the Crown of England. During the next couple of decades Llewellyn extended his control until, in 1267, the Treaty of Montgomery recognised him as “Prince of Wales”, and although still a vassal of the King of England, he ruled a land recognised as purely Welsh.
In 1276 Edward perceived that Llewellyn had breached the Treaty of Montgomery. In what must be one of the greatest examples of overkill in medieval European history he mobilised the total forces of his realm, augmented by foreign troops and a large fleet, and in 1277 invaded Wales. The subsequent Peace of Aberconway was breached by Welsh forces hostile to Llewellyn and in 1282 Edward pounced again. Llewellan was killed in a skirmish, and his brother Dafydd was hunted down and hideously executed. A string of great concentric castles was built, and English law and customs began their march into the Welsh interior. The investiture of his son, Edward as Prince of Wales (which legend tells us was at Caernarvon Castle in 1284, but was in reality at Lincoln 17 years later) retained the perception of the State as a principality, but it was the principality belonging to the heir to the English throne.
The matter of Scotland had different causes and a much different outcome. In 1290, as self-appointed arbiter on who should be appointed to the Scottish throne left vacant by the death of the heirless “Maid of Norway”. The man Edward chose, John Baliol, was unpopular. He was also placed in the invidious position of being forced to pay homage to Edward and to supply Scottish forces for forthcoming hostilities in France. He made a treaty with France. When Edward’s forces attacked France, the Scots attacked England. So Edward invaded Scotland. He was immediately successful, but holding on to the prize was difficult. First William Wallace (until captured and killed in 1305), then Robert the Bruce, led rebellions against the invaders. Edward did not live to see the result of Bruce’s uprising. In 1307 he died.
Edward’s legacy is complicated. He left a country bankrupted by the almost constant warfare of the previous twenty years. He had secured his country’s western borders, but committed to the upkeep of massive castles and a holding army in Wales. His treatment of the Scots still causes rancour in Anglo-Scottish relations today. This may or may not be balanced by the progress made in England’s standards of governance, and the greater reliance on parliament.
References: • Arthur Bryant: “Makers of the Realm” • Norman Davies: “The Isles” • “The Oxford Companion to British History”