‘Le Roy Coveytous’: The Death of Edward I, 1307

Dr Callum Watson, Battle Coordinator

07 Jul 2018

On this day in 1307, King Edward I of England died at Burgh-on-Sands, near Carlisle in north-west England. For the English, he was a great lawmaker who rebuilt and reformed the English royal administration after the bitter civil conflicts of his father’s reign, and a capable warrior who had subdued the Welsh and sought tirelessly to assert English sovereignty throughout the British Isles. On the continent, he was remembered primarily as a diplomat and peacemaker, who worked hard to protect English interests in France and unite the kingdoms of Europe in the hopes of recapturing the Holy Land. For generations of Scottish writers, King Edward was little short of a monster – ‘easily one of the most evil men in history’ as someone once commented on one of our previous blog posts – a vicious and rapacious tyrant prone to arbitrary violence and wanton destruction. But which – if any – of these interpretations reflect the real King Edward. That’s what we’re going to explore today.

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A (possibly sixteenth-century) depiction of Edward I (top centre) presiding over a parliament. To his left (as we look at it) can be seen King Alexander III of Scotland, while on the other side sits Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales. King Edward’s relationship with both of these men would have an enormous impact on his reign. Image: Wikimedia

Edward was born at Westminster in 1239, amid much celebration. His childhood appears to have been fairly happy and peaceful, but his father – Henry III – was a king beset by demands from the nobility for reform in the way in which England was governed. The young Edward played a somewhat equivocal role in the disputes between his father and the barons, sometimes supporting the king and sometimes supporting the lords. Edward also seems to have regularly distracted himself from the political intrigues going on in England by travelling to the Continent to compete in tournaments. The future king appears to have been an able jouster, but not an exceptional one, and contemporary writers bemoaned the defeats the Lord Edward (as he was known before he was king) suffered in these tournaments. In 1264 King Louis IX of France was invited to mediate the ongoing dispute between Henry III and his barons, but Louis’s ruling – which greatly favoured Henry and roundly condemned the opposition to him – provoked outright civil war in England. Despite his previously ambiguous role in English politics, Edward was a fierce supporter of the royalists in the conflict. At the Battle of Lewes in May 1264, Edward led the royalist cavalry and achieved considerable personal success, but ultimately the battle was a victory for the barons and Edward was forced to surrender himself as a hostage. He was kept in close confinement until March 1265, but after that was allowed greater freedom in return for giving his approval to the baronial government. However, in May Edward exploited growing divisions among the barons to reignite the fighting, and in August he decisively defeated the barons at the Battle of Evesham. Fighting continued until 1267, but Edward’s victory at Evesham in 1265 was crucial in ensuring the eventual victory of the royalists and cemented his reputation as a formidable war leader.

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The tomb effigy of Eleanor of Castile, King Edward’s wife, at Westminster Abbey. Eleanor was married to Edward in 1254 in an effort to protect Gascony, then in English hands, from attack by her half-brother King Alfonso X of Castile. She accompanied Edward on his crusading adventures from 1270-1274 and according to a highly unlikely tale recorded by Ptolemy of Lucca she saved her husband’s life by sucking the poison from a wound he had received from an assassin’s knife! Edward apparently felt very strongly about her, because when she died in 1290 he had twelve monumental crosses built between Lincoln and Westminster, marking the places where he body rested on its way to be buried (only three of which survive today). Image: ODNB

Famously, Edward spent the period 1270-1274 on crusade. His decision to ‘take the cross’ may have been influenced by a desire to escape the continuing political disputes in England, or to compete with the King of France and his sons (who had declared their intention to go on crusade in March 1267), or simply to alleviate the pressure on his father to go on crusade (Henry III had expressed his intention to undertake a crusade as early as 1250, but the political crises of the 1250s and 1260s had prevented him from fulfilling this promise). Edward set off from England with a rather meagre force of 225 men-at-arms in July 1270 and arrived in Tunis towards the end of the year. However, by then Louis IX had contracted dysentery and died and the entire crusade had in effect been cancelled! Nevertheless, Edward and his men continued on to Sicily and from there to Acre in the Holy Land by May 1271. Naturally, with a force of less than 300 men Edward could do little beyond some perfunctory raiding against the Bahriyya Mamluks, who by now had Acre largely surrounded. Even these efforts were ultimately undercut by King Hugues III of Cyprus (titular King of Jerusalem), who in May 1272 brokered a ten-year truce with the Mamluk leader Baibars. In June 1272, shortly after the conclusion of the truce, Edward was attacked by an assassin armed with a poisoned knife. Edward was able to kill his assailant but was wounded in the process, and was forced to delay his return from Acre until September 1272 while he recovered from the poison. From Acre, Edward returned to Sicily and then southern Italy, where news finally reached him that his father had died. Although this was late 1272, Edward did not in fact return to England until 1274, engaging in diplomatic business as well as participating in at least one major tournament on his leisurely journey home. Edward’s reign began with a major programme of legal reform, perhaps the main thing he was remembered for by his contemporaries in England, and Professor Michael Prestwich has argued that this represented a genuine desire on Edward’s part to address the cause of the baronial unrest that had blighted his father’s reign. 

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Caernafon Castle in northern Wales, one of a series of strongholds built by Edward I to cement English control over the region. These castles served both a practical purpose – providing the English with fortified bases from which to conduct military operations against sources of potential unrest – and a more abstract purpose – providing a physical manifestation, and a powerful reminder, of English power. Image: Wikimedia

Edward’s reign was also notable for strenuous efforts to extend the authority of the English crown in the British Isles as a whole. His greatest success in this regard was in Wales, which during his reign was completed subsumed into the English kingdom. English interference in Wales had a long and often bloody history by the time Edward became king, but in the 1260s. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, had exploited the civil unrest in England during Henry III’s reign to challenge authority there. Edward himself campaigned in Wales in 1263, supported by Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd, but in 1267 the English were forced to make concessions to Llywelyn to secure peace. Llywelyn however seems to have overestimated the extent of his success and acted increasingly provocatively after Edward was crowned in 1274. Edward launched a punitive raid into Wales in 1277, and this was followed by a full-scale invasion in 1282-3. The English suffered a number of early setbacks – military defeats that in the long-run led them to recognise the potential of the longbow as a battlefield weapon – but ultimately Llywelyn was captured and executed. English administration was thus extended over all of Wales, a series of new castles were built along the north-west coast to secure physical control of the region, the ‘native’ Welsh nobility were disinherited on a large scale, and King Edward gave the title ‘Prince of Wales’ to his son and eventual successor, Edward of Caernarvon (the younger Edward had been born in one of his father’s new castles, probably precisely because the king wanted to add a semblance of legitimacy to his use of the title). 

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The seal of Robert Bruce, lord of Annandale and grandfather of King Robert I. Known as ‘the Competitor’ for his efforts to be recognised as King of Scots in the 1290s, Bruce had a long-standing association with Edward I. Owning extensive lands in England as well as Scotland, Bruce had supported Henry III during the civil war of the 1260s and had been captured fighting for the royalists at the Battle of Lewes in 1264. Bruce also accompanied Edward on crusade in 1270, and it is certainly tempting to speculate that his grandfather’s tales of his time on crusade may have influenced King Robert’s enthusiasm for crusading. Bruce’s previous association does not seem to have worked in his favour during the Great Cause, and despite Bruce’s frantic efforts Edward settled the succession dispute in favour of John Balliol in 1292. Image: Wikimedia

King Edward’s efforts to assert his authority in Scotland met with less success. For most of his reign, relations with Scotland had been very good, and indeed Edward’s sister Margaret had married King Alexander III of Scotland in 1251, making the two kings brothers-in-law. However, when Alexander III died unexpectedly in 1286, this provided Edward with a basis for interfering in the settlement of the succession crisis that Alexander’s death brought about. Initially, Edward seemed to have been satisfied by the terms of the Treaty of Birgham, which in 1290 stipulated that Alexander’s granddaughter Margaret of Norway would marry Edward’s son and heir. This raised the possibility that the same individual might soon become both King of Scots and King of England, although it is clear from the terms of the treaty that the Scots were eager to ensure that the kingdoms themselves would remain separate entities. However, by the end of the year Margaret was dead and a bitter rivalry had developed between the leading competitors for the crown, Robert Bruce (an old friend of King Edward) and John Balliol. As party to the Treaty of Birgham and a keen lawyer, Edward was easily able to justify his involvement in the arbitration over this dispute, but even after he had settled the issue in favour of Balliol Edward continued to provocatively interfere in Scottish politics. By 1296, the Scots had become so frustrated by Edward’s actions they had effectively removed Balliol from power and concluded a treaty with France, but this led Edward to mount a full-scale invasion of Scotland. Initial Scottish resistance was decisively broken at the Battle of Dunbar and Balliol submitted himself for imprisonment, but for reasons that remain obscure Edward decided to establish an English administration in Scotland that largely excluded the Scottish aristocracy and imposed English laws and customs on the whole of Scottish society. Naturally, this led to widespread popular resistance to English rule, initially led by the likes of William Wallace and Sir Andrew Murray but quickly being taken up by the ‘traditional’ defenders of the Scottish realm (i.e. the Scottish aristocracy). In the early years of the fourteenth-century, Edward was therefore forced to lead a series of military campaigns into Scotland to attempt the piecemeal conquest of the entire kingdom.

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A modern reconstruction giving an impression of how Edward I may have been equipped for battle. Although strictly speaking this was created to represent Edward’s son, Edward II, the surcoat, arms and armour are still broadly accurate for Edward I. Image: Battlepedia

By 1304, it seemed that Edward had at last been successful in crushing Scottish resistance, and when William Wallace was tortured to death at Smithfield the following year this appeared to have been confirmed. However, in 1306 Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick and for the last four years a supporter of English efforts in Scotland, stabbed his rival John Comyn to death before the high altar at Dumfries and declared himself King of Scots. By now, King Edward was old and sick, and so while he came north to Carlisle to be close to the action he did not lead the military efforts to bring the earl of Carrick, as Edward understood it, to justice. Nonetheless, at first it seemed that these efforts had been a stunning success, with the Scots defeated twice at the Battles of Methven and Tyndrum and ‘King Hobbe’ (as the English had come to call Bruce) driven into hiding. Yet Bruce remained at large and gradually gathered fresh support, and at Loudoun Hill in 1307 he inflicted an embarrassing – if small scale – reversal on Edward’s servants in Scotland. In response, King Edward prepared to lead an army into Scotland to deal with the problem himself, but the effort seems to have been too much for him and he died just short of the border. He had reportedly asked his son, now Edward II, to boil the flesh from his bones and carry them into battle against the Scots, but in the event the army was disbanded and Edward was buried, flesh and all, at Westminster Abbey. The epitaph on his unusually plain tomb identifies him as Scottorum Malleus – the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – and this image has most certainly stuck with subsequent Scottish writers. According to the late fourteenth-century Scottish poet John Barbour, Edward was a bitter and twisted old tyrant, who even on his deathbed ruthlessly ordered the execution of Scottish prisoners brought to before him seeking mercy and who regularly consulted a ‘spyryt’, a demonic familiar that filled his head with delusions and false promises of future glory. In fact, while Edward was undoubtedly a ruthless politician and a capable war leader, he was no more a monster than any successful medieval king, including his contemporary Robert Bruce. He was willing and able to exploit the weakness of his opponents to gain temporary advantage, he was not afraid to give and withhold support to differing – often contradictory – causes if it suited his purposes, and he could be unforgiving when dealing with his enemies. But all of these were crucial tools for a medieval king. Edward has rightly received considerable criticism over his dealings with the Scots – particularly for his inept attempt at establishing a workable administration in the aftermath of his invasion in 1296 – but he was certainly a more complex figure than the monster that Scottish writers of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries sought to portray him as.

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