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Hello, this is Michael Anthony and you’re listening to British History 101, brought to you by Audible.com. Audible is the Internet’s leading provider in spoken-word entertainment and you can get a FREE audiobook download of your choice when you sign up at audiblepodcast.com/british101. Check out Audible NOW and browse their extensive library when you logon at audiblepodcast.com/british101.
Tonight, we will discuss a man far away from his homeland when he received news that he had become King of England. Prince Edward was born to Henry III and Eleanor of Provence in the evening of 17 June 1239 at the Palace of Westminster. He grew up to be an able and athletic boy, known for his physical strength and endurance but also for his impatience and sometimes cruelty in his youth. He eventually gained a leading role in his father’s royal council, thus gaining valuable insight into royal and political dealings long before he was to wear the crown himself. His political prowess was matched by his ability on the battlefield, and by the important year of 1265 he was already an accomplished general. This year is significant to our understanding of British (in this case, more specifically English) history because it saw the downfall of one of the country’s most powerful rebel lords, Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester. The Earl had revolted against Henry III’s government and captured the king and his entourage at Lewes in 1264, when he began a period of “protectorate” rule, lasting a little over a year. However, during the protectorate Edward escaped imprisonment and raised an army, facing de Montfort at Evesham on 4 August 1265. The King’s son was victorious, and soon Henry III was released and returned to his rightful reign over England.
Prince Edward was in Sicily on the return voyage from crusade (during which he survived an attempted assassination) when on 20 November 1272 he ascended to the throne of his father, King Henry III of England, who had died 4 days prior. As the new king was away, some sort of government naturally had to fall into place to run the country until the monarch returned, and that duty was shouldered by the Archbishop of York (as representative of the clergy), his brother Edmund of Cornwall (as representative of the royalty), and Gilbert of Gloucester (to represent the baronage). With the country in safe hands, Edward saw little reason to hurry back and took his time doing so. On the way, he stopped in France to do homage to his feudal lord, the King of France – as Edward held land in France but was not the sovereign overlord of those lands, he was technically subordinate to Phillip III. He finally set foot in his realm on 2 August 1274 at Dover, almost two years after he had ascended the throne. His coronation was 15 days later on 17 August at Westminster, where he received the homage of his English barons and – importantly, as we will later see – that of Alexander III, King of Scotland.
Edward was well-suited for the crown for his attributes aside from his imposing physique (although he suffered from lisp and a drooping eye) and penchant for tournaments. He believed in a strong monarchy (as was the fashion in Europe, similar to the times of Richard II that we discussed two weeks ago), but within the limits of the law. One should not interpret this, however, to mean that Edward was concerned solely with a system of fair justice and righteous legal code – this king had a brilliant mind when it came to the law, and he knew all of the nooks and crannies of laws and statutes that he could technically invoke to his own advantage. Regardless of this caveat, though, Edward’s reign would be marked by its legal achievements and contributions to English law.
King Edward’s kingship began with a threefold policy encompassing good government, a sense of nationality, and (probably most appealing to him) absolute monarchy. The King succeeded in two out of the three foci. Administrative enactments made Edward’s government more efficient and effective, correcting some of the problems which plagued that of his predecessor. Edward’s promotion of nationality was effective as well, with his conquest of Wales and extensive campaigning against Scotland. We’ll discuss those two in more detail momentarily. The final point, absolute monarchy, was where Edward failed. Problematic finances and the English entanglement in French politics due to Edward’s landholdings across the Channel prevented him from being completely in charge. As we’ve discussed before, wars are terribly expensive undertakings and somebody’s got to pay for it. As wealthy as the English monarchy was (and is), it maintained insufficient funds to pay for large-scale, protracted conflicts. Enter Parliament. Parliaments had to be called in order to raise enough money to go on campaign, and it wasn’t as though the King had simply to announce a session in order to fill his coffers – these things took time, and naturally not every session resulted in the monarch getting exactly what they wanted. We mentioned Magna Carta in our last episode and its relevance to Richard’s reign; the Great Charter was even more significant to Edward, as it had been signed during the reign of his grandfather and was still on the minds of the English baronage.
The first years of Edward’s reign were spent on restoring order to English law and making appropriate changes to the royal financial situation – Edward surely didn’t want to run a country with red ink abounding in his ledgers. The first parliament of Edward’s reign was called in 1275 and resulted in a broad legislation now known as the First Statute of Westminster. One of the most important results of this was, as Bright’s History of England puts it, that it “improved tardy processes of law,” thus streamlining judicial proceedings and meting out justice more efficiently. Edward must have been delighted when the same parliament also granted him an export tax on wool and leather, and hence more money right into the King’s wallet. The next three or four years saw Edward taking advantage of the legal system as mentioned a few minutes ago by assessment of property ownership all across the land: Edward wanted to know who owned what and, more importantly, who owed him what for those lands. These assessments were enacted to discern the proper royal revenue according to the law. An interesting part of this process was the passing of the Statute of Mortmain in 1279, which forbade the transference of property to the Church without the king’s explicit consent. This is fascinating because it was put into place to close something of a loophole that was used at the time. In order to avoid the high legal costs associated with land ownership, it could be arranged to donate land to the Church and receive it back as a Church fief, thus escaping the necessity of paying taxes and fees to the government. Edward saw that this bit of trickery was costing him a lot of money and needed to put a stop to it; thus, the Statute of Mortmain.
Let’s backtrack a few years. In 1274 at Edward’s coronation, one of the men expected to do him homage was Llewelyn, the dominant prince of the Welsh regions. At this time, the Prince of Wales was not a title held by a member of the English royal family – Llewelyn was, theoretically, prince over Wales in his own self-claimed right, but nonetheless was still expected to come to Westminster and honor the new king as Edward’s subject. Llewelyn did not. Edward apparently gave this recalcitrant prince six chances to save face and do homage to his king; Llewelyn didn’t use a single one. Aside from being interpreted as extremely rude, this gave rise to much more serious suspicions; after all, why wouldn’t Llewelyn come to Westminster, either for the coronation or any of the other five times he was invited to do so? What could he possibly be planning?
Royal suspicions were added to by the fact that Llewelyn was married to Simon de Montfort’s daughter. While this was obviously a problem to Edward, who had defeated de Montfort a decade earlier at Evesham, it also presented an opportunity to “flush out” Llewelyn. The girl and her brother, Almeric, were captured in 1276 on their way to Wales. Llewelyn (understandably) demanded her release, although he did so as an independent prince – he made this demand of Edward as though the two were equals, something toward which Edward would naturally be disinclined. This was Edward’s much-needed excuse, and he rallied an army about him and set off for Wales, with Llewelyn’s brother David joining the royal cause. Apparently, there was no love lost in that family. Llewelyn had little choice but to surrender was allowed to keep only a fraction of his former realm. He was confined to Anglesey and a few baronies around Snowdon; in addition, he was charged 52,000 marks for fines, war costs, and tribute. By some accounts, though, these fines were returned to Llewelyn once he finally submitted to King Edward. Perhaps all was well? Of course not. It’s never that simple.
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David, his brother’s old enemy and ally of the King, switched sides within a few years’ time and joined his former nemesis. Together, the two attacked Hawardyn Castle, also besieging Rhuddlan and Flint. The war was back on. David fought in the north, while his newly reconciled brother defended southern Wales. Alas, it was a futile effort, and Llewelyn was killed on the River Wye. His head was sent to London and put on public display, crowned with ivy. His brother was soon to suffer the same fate. He surrendered to the English forces but was condemned to death anyway. David was executed in 1283. I’d like to read an excerpt from The Autobiography of England and give a contemporary account of the events:
Finally, Edward had rid himself of his Welsh enemies. To give his victory an even deeper foundation, Edward forced the Welsh into something of a second-class status, prohibiting them from bearing arms and forcing English institutions upon the fiercely proud people. To cap it all off, he built a famous circle of castles around the nation, some pictures of which you can see by going to the blog and clicking on the link I’ve provided there. Furthermore, Edward would make the Welsh (as Simon Schama put it) as English as could be – his son, the future Edward II, was born in 1301 at Caernarvon Castle and given the title Prince of Wales. The heir to the English throne was now head Welshman, and Edward’s subjugation was complete.
The Welsh weren’t the only ones to suffer from Edward’s malice. By the time the extremely expensive war was over, those who had financed it were simply out of money – the Jews with whom Edward had contracted loans had nothing left to give. Thinking they were apparently of no further use to him, Edward simple had a few executed and the rest exiled from England; thousands upon thousands of Jews were forced out of their homes and away from the king. Edward had just ethnically cleansed England.
Edward faced another challenge in 1290. The king of Scotland, Alexander III, was killed when he fell from his horse. His only living was his granddaughter Margaret, whose mother had married the King of Norway in 1285. Edward saw his opportunity: if he could marry his son to Margaret, the Maid of Norway, he would be king of Scotland by right of marriage – and thus, the crowns of England and Scotland would be united. Edward’s family could rule a united kingdom.
Unfortunately for Edward’s ambitions, this was not to be. Margaret died en route from Norway in September 1290, and Edward’s plan was ruined. Only a few weeks later, his beloved wife Eleanor of Castile died. The usually hard-hearted king was deeply distraught, so much so that he ordered the erection of 12 crosses, one at each site at which Eleanor’s funeral procession stopped on the way to London for her funeral. The most famous of these is the one at London’s Charing Cross Station (which is actually a 19th century replica of the original). Eleanor was buried on 17 December 1290 at Westminster Abbey. With his wife dead and his future hopes for Scottish rule, Edward must have been rather upset. Had the marriage taken place, a peaceful alliance could have been built between the two crowns. Violence, instead, would argue the question for centuries.
The King decided that he would make a judgment as to who would sit on the Scottish throne now that Margaret was dead. Many claimants came forward, but the two most significant were John Balliol and Robert Bruce. After deliberation it was decided that Balliol had the stronger claim on the throne and he was crowned on 30 November 1292. Edward gave his assent with the condition that Balliol do him homage. Even with a new king, however, Edward was bent on Scottish domination and repeatedly humiliated and undermined Balliol’s authority. This led eventually to Edward’s nightmare of 1295. Facing military action against France, Edward demanded Balliol’s military service in the fight against the enemy beyond the Channel. Balliol refused; in fact, the Scottish signed the Auld Alliance with France in support of the French king against Edward. Balliol held out for two years against Edward’s resulting invasion. He renounced his allegiance to Edward in 1296; in that same year, he was defeated and deposed by the English king, with the incredibly symbolic Stone of Scone being moved from Scotland to Westminster to be housed in a special chair built by Edward I to commemorate his defeat of the Scots. This chair can, in fact, still be seen today – it is the chair in which all English monarchs have been crowned since Edward, and the Stone is still kept beneath it. Having submitted to the man he had so long resisted, Balliol lived on the rest of his life under supervision in the Tower of London.
The man immortalized by Mel Gibson soon came to prominence (although in some different ways than the film Braveheart may have you believe). Regardless of the film’s inaccuracies, however, the war against the Scots raged on, and William Wallace proved to Edward that England was, in fact, not invincible at Stirling Bridge in 1297. The English were soundly beaten, and it appeared for the moment that Wallace would indeed put up great resistance to Edward. Unfortunately it was not to last, and Wallace was defeated at Falkirk in 1298. The Scottish wars continued on, Edward always trying to dominate his northern neighbor.Wallace was eventually executed in 1305, publicly humiliated in front of the English but made a martyr for the Scottish, a legend which lives today. We’ll go into greater detail about William Wallace in a later episode.
Wallace’s death in 1305 certainly wasn’t the end of Scottish resistance. The following year, Robert the Bruce, John Balliol’s old rival for the throne was crowned King of the Scots. Edward set out once again to put down an enemy, but never saw it happen. He died on 7 July 1307 at Burgh-on-Sands near Carlisle. One of his final requests was that his flesh be boiled away from his bones, which were to be carried wherever his army fought – that way, should the Scots be defeated, Edward would still be leading them. His tomb today bears the title “Hammer of the Scots,” although that is certainly inaccurate. A letter from the Scots to the pope in 1320 declared “We will never on any conditions submit to the dominion of the English.” Despite the modern situation, Edward made a good effort but was most definitely not the “Hammer of the Scots” he wanted to be remembered as.
That’s all for this episode of British History 101. If you’d like to get in touch with me, send questions, comments, rants, and raves to BritishHistory101@gmail.com. Check out the website at BritishHistory101.com, where you’ll find a transcript of this and past episodes and links to a few sites related to this show. You can also reach me by snail mail through the address:
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I want to send out a huge THANK YOU to listener Michele from California. I was delighted when checked the mail last week to find a copy of Those Damned Rebels: The American Revolution as seen through British Eyes waiting in the box for me. I can’t wait to read it and use it for the show! Thanks again, Michele!
Thank you so much for joining me tonight – I appreciate everyone’s time, whether you’re one of our listeners in Texas, Florida, Brazil, Zambia, Spain, Switzerland, Jakarta, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, or the Sceptred Isles themselves. I can’t tell you how much I always look forward to this chat with my friends from all around the globe. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll talk again soon.