‘Formidable’ may well be the best word to describe Edward I of England.
Edward I became King of England in 1272, and reigned until his death in 1307. He was one of the most important Medieval kings of our country.
Edward was a terrifyingly successful warrior-king, and his battle-hungry endevours subjugated the Welsh people to English rule.
After conquering Wales in 1284, Edward set his sights on capturing Scotland. He died before the Scots were brought to kneel before the English crown – but his death-bed wish was to see Scotland defeated.
Edward I of England was responsible for some of the most incredible Medieval castles that were ever built, which is why I like to feature him on this site. His awe-inspiring “Iron Ring” of castles in North Wales really defined a generation of castle building – and included masterpieces such as Harlech Castle and the walled castle-city of Caernarfon.
These fortresses were very much built in Edward’s image – formidable, battle-hungry hulks of buildings, constructed to maintain English power over neighbouring nations.
Edward I: England’s Warrior King
Edward was born in 1239 – the son of Henry III, one of the weakest Medieval kings of England. Henry’s reign had been marked by rebellion, confusion and indecision – his greatest achievement amounted just to rebuilding Westminster Abbey in London.
Edward, by contrast, was hale, hearty and bullishly confident. Enjoying hunting, riding and with a taste for battle, Edward consciously recoiled from associations with his father – striking his own course with inherited lands in France.
And, while Edward planned to embark on adventurous crusades in Europe, his father Henry lost his grip on England.
Squeezed by a dismal bank balance, Henry III found himself at loggerheads with seven of the most powerful barons of England. Concerned that the King was trying to wring money from them, they forced him into signing the Provisions of Oxford – effectively handing control of England to a council of 15 barons.
Henry III was weak enough to sign, but this was the beginnings of civil war – the Second Baron’s War. His own supporters were pitched against the demands of the barons, lead by Simon de Montfort.
Battle between the two sides wasn’t far away. In 1263, King Henry III and Edward lost the Battle of Lewes, and were taken hostage by the barons. It took Edward more than a year to escape his house arrest and, when he did, he exerted his wrath upon his captors.
In 1265, Edward rode into battle at Evesham – leading Royalist forces to comprehensively defeat the baron’s troops. Although de Monfort was killed (and killed bloodily, at that) that didn’t stop his supporters from fleeing to Kenilworth Castle to hole themselves up in one final siege.
The 1266 siege of Kenilworth Castle classes as one of the great Medieval castle sieges – featuring huge, stone-launching trebuchets and six-months of misery for those holed up inside.
Edward I and Wales: The ‘Hammer of the Welsh’?
After his capture in the Baron’s War, Henry III’s lacklusture rule of England limped to a miserable end. Edward entertained himself by heading to on a Holy Crusade on the continent, while his father struggled onwards.
While Edward was away at battle in 1272, a messenger reached him. His father had died – and he was now King of England.
Edward travelled back to his homeland with a renewed appetite for power – and also for battle. In his early 30s, he was a man who wanted to make his mark upon the world – and, very quickly, it became clear that Wales was in his sights.
Back in Medieval times, mountainous Wales was an entirely separate political identity to the body of England. Marked by border scrambles and partial Norman conquest after 1066, Wales was a prize for a king hungry for more land and more power.
Due to long-running political feuds in the aftermath of the Second Baron’s War (described above), Edward was quickly drawn into conflict with Prince Llywelyn (‘Llwelyn the Last’) of Wales.
In 1277, Edward lead an army of 15,500 into the province. He was victorious – and the English captured a vast chunk of North Wales.
To consolidate this first wave of conquest, Edward built his first round of castles in North Wales – including castles in Flint, Rhuddlan and Builth.
This wasn’t the end of the story, though. In 1282, Wales rebelled again – ostensibly at the unfairness of English law being applied to their lands.
Edward was enraged – and set out to capture Wales once and for all. He co-ordinated a three-pronged assault of Wales, resulting in the death of Llywelyn the Last at Orewin Bridge.
Accordingly, Wales became a principality of England. And, despite frequent small uprisings well into the 1300s, Welsh lands were transferred into the hands of English owners.
Primarily within the Principality of North Wales, Edward embarked on a lavish and phenomenal extensive programme of castle building – constructing the fortresses of Harlech, Caernarfon, and Beaumaris.
This was an ‘iron ring’ of castles – designed to consolidate his rule over the new Welsh territories.
Edward and Scotland – Hammer of the Scots
You’ll commonly hear Edward I of England referred to by another epithet – “The Hammer of the Scots”.
This little nickname was actually given to him long after his death, and I’d argue that it’s a touch inappropriate. Although Edward did indeed unleash his wrath upon the Scots, they successfully fought back: whereas the Welsh succumbed to his forces.
The chaos began in 1286 when Alexander III of Scotland died without any obvious heir. The next in line to the throne – Margaret of Norway, who was aged just three – died en route to Scotland, creating a constitutional crisis.
Edward was called in to try and help make the constitutional decision, but did it under one proviso: that his involvement asserted that he was the feudal overload over all of Scotland.
This was an ostentatious grab at power, and one that the Scots rightly resisted. But Edward was tenacious: forcing Scots to appear in front of English parliaments, and even forcing their service alongside England’s army in France.
The Scots rebelled against the insolence, and Edward crushed them at the bloody battle of Berwick in 1296.
But if his strong-arm tactics had been successful against Wales, Scotland was a much tougher nut to crack. Two charismatic leaders – Andrew de Moray and William Wallace – channelled the popular discontent running through the country.
In 1297, the Scottish forces dealt the English army a humiliating defeat at the battle of Stirling Bridge – declaring Scotland an independent nation. Edward retaliated with a dramatic victory at Falkirk in 1298.
Emboldened by the victory, Edward pressed harder and harder against Scotland – laying siege to the triangular-shaped Caerlaverock Castle and advancing further into the country. In 1303, Edward prepared for the final conquest: and by 1304, virtually all of Scotland cowered under submission.
The Scots caused looked hopeless in 1305, with the capture and dramatic execution of William Wallace. But in 1306, Robert the Bruce (one of the previous claimants to the Scots crown) acted boldly: claiming himself King of Scotland, as crowned by his sister.
Edward saw this as just another insurrection of a captured territory: and acted to brutally quash the uprising. But discontent was simmering, and he underestimated the phenomenal popular will of Scotland.
In addition, England was battle-worn and broke: the cost of Edward’s exploits in Wales and the iron ring of castles had left very little money in the treasure-chest.
To add to these plights, Edward was in poor health. Exhausted by war and dysentery, the king collapsed in 1307 just south of the Scottish border. When he died, he may have been forgiven for thinking that Scotland was now an English province going through a rebellious teenage phase.
But he’d have been wrong. In 1308, his son, now King Edward II, gave up the disastrous military mission, ceding to the Scots wishes of independence. Scotland remained free – for a few more years at least.
Edward I: What Maketh the Man?
Edward was 6″2 (188cm) tall, making him a a monster by Medieval standards. His towering stature earned him the nickname ‘Longshanks’ (‘long limbs’, to translate a little). His attitude and temperament undoubtedly matched his threatening exterior.
But was Edward really a monster – or just a Medieval monarch?
The character and personality of Edward I has been argued over by historians – and embedded in popular culture.
Edward I of England was the villain of the supremely popular movie, Braveheart. Admittedly, it’s not the first place I’d look for historical accuracy, but the film depicted him as a vindictive tyrant, hell-bent on oppressing the Scottish people.
That depiction of Edward has been quite popular among academics, too. Edward has been historically thought of as a ‘strong-arm’ king – keen on fighting and hunting, as well as being blood-thirsty for battle.
A more modern view is taken in Marc Morris’ recent (and very highly recommended) book on Edward, “A Great and Terrible King”.(Affiliate link to Amazon.com).
Marc Morris argues that our modern sensibilities rather cloud our judgment of Edward I.
He argues that Edward wasn’t a brute – instead, he was wryly intelligent and highly political.
He agrees that Edward enjoyed battle and bloodshed, but thinks that we need to see this in the context of Medieval times – which were much more violent and unruly.
Indeed, he argues, a strong king was needed to keep unruly England in check. Henry III – Edward’s father – was indisputably a weak and pathetic little man.
Edward I, in contrast, was a strong and ferocious king, who formed Britain as we know it today.
I’ve read this book, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in Edward I. It’s a punchy, interesting and really well-researched piece on one of the most interesting Kings of England.