The Plantagenets Mini-Series Part III: Edward I & Edward II

Edward I

Born: 17 or 18 June 1239, Palace of Westminster, London, England
Succeeded: Henry III (his father)
Coronation: 19 August 1274
Marriage: Eleanor of Castile (m. 1254, died 1290); Margaret of France (m. 1299)
Reigned: 20 November 1272 – 7 July 1307
Died: 7 July 1307, Burgh by Sands, Cumberland, England
Preceded: Edward II (his eldest surviving son)

Edward I (r. 1272-1307)

Edward I (also known as “Longshanks” for his 6’2” height) was in Sicily in 1272 when he learned of his father’s death. However, he did not rush back to England. Firstly, he paid homage to King Philip III of France (the son and heir of Louis IX), and allegedly said to him: ‘I do you homage for all the lands which I ought to hold of you.’

Edward’s first task as king was to reunite his realm, divided by the bitter baronial wars under Henry III. Yet rather than punishing the barons for defying the Crown, Edward instead forgave them and allowed them to buy their properties (which had been confiscated) back. This was a good diplomatic move from Edward: it made him seem magnanimous, while it also raised funds for the Crown. Moreover, Edward had also learned from the rebel barons that the power lay in the towns and villages, so set out to find information on corruption, once again reinforcing the relationship between the king and the people versus the ‘fat cats’. This particular corruption was recorded in a document known as the Hundred Rolls.

“I do you homage for all the lands which I ought to hold of you.”

Edward I paying homage to King Philip III of France in 1272

The Hundred Rolls were too detailed to gather any real problems, though. For instance, one example is that of Hugo Bunting, bailiff of Stamford, who levied an illicit toll of five shillings on William Gabbecrocky when he took some of his millstones through the middle of the town. Imagine this level of detail, multiplied by the entire country! As a result, very few prosecutions took place, but the public relations counted: Edward was showing that he could guarantee rights for all of his subjects, and that he cared about the people. It was a fantastic start to his reign and also an effective answer to the barons who claimed that a strong royal government equated to an oppressive royal government.

The next problem facing Edward was from over the border: Wales. By the 1270s, Wales had experienced their first taste of nationhood: taking advantage of Henry III’s baronial wars, Llwelyn the Great and his grandson Llwelyn ap Gryffydd had extended control over the majority of Wales from their base in Snowdonia in 1276, but Edward did not want to accept Wales as an independent power. Instead, Edward insisted on the homage – or ritual submission – which the rulers of Wales traditionally paid to the kings of England. Llwelyn was summoned three times and refused all three times. As a result, Edward declared war on Wales on 12 November 1276.

Llwelyn’s army was no match for Edward’s, and Wales were forced to accept English laws by 9 November 1277. It had taken Edward just short of a year to force the Welsh king into submission. Upon the victory, Edward imposed a peace treaty on Wales, but they found it humiliating, and it also failed to give Daffydd ap Gryffydd (Llwelyn’s brother) the rewards he expected. In 1282 the Welsh rebelled again.

Wales faced another huge English army, but rather than the hand-to-hand combat of the 1276-77 campaign, Edward instead opted to lay siege to Snowdonia and starve them out. Wales was crushed under this military occupation. Edward also declared that waging war against the king was treason – a new crime which needed a new punishment. Daffydd was the first to suffer at the hands of this punishment: he was hung, drawn and quartered. It was another resounding victory for Edward I against Wales.

By the mid-1280s, Edward’s empire was at its peak: it stretched from east to west across the British Isles, but the Philip III was threatening his lands in Gascony, while Scotland was almost about to fall into his hands. In 1286, King Alexander III of Scotland was killed when he fell off his horse, and his only granddaughter, Margaret the ‘Maid of Norway’ was seen as his heir. Edward I proposed that she should marry his son and heir, Prince Edward. The Scottish magnates agreed to this proposal at the Treaty of Birgham in July 1290, but insisted that Scotland should retain its own laws and customs.

Unfortunately for Scotland, Margaret died aged 6 in Orkney in September 1290. Edward seized this opportunity to assert his overlordship for the throne of Scotland. He proposed John Balliol to be king of Scotland (Balliol’s claim was through the fact that he was David I’s [r. 1124-53] great-great-great-grandson through his mother, and therefore one generation closer than his main rival Robert Bruce, grandfather of the famous Robert the Bruce). On St. Andrew’s Day 1292, Balliol was enthroned and proclaimed King of Scotland at Scone.

John Balliol (r. 1292-96)

Yet this had not gone as smoothly as it seems. In order to fund the conquests and parliaments in Scotland, Edward had had to tax the population heavily, and eventually he expelled the Jews in 1290. Approximately 3000 left and did not return until they were invited back by Cromwell over 300 years later. Anti-Semitism was rife in England in the late thirteenth century, and ne chronicler reported that knights of the shire were so pleased about the Jews’ expulsion that they offered one-fifteenth of their goods to Edward I as tax, while the church also donated generously. It yielded £116,000 – the single biggest tax collected in Britain during the entire Middle Ages. Historian Marc Morris actually states that the expulsion of the Jews was ‘the most popular act Edward ever committed.’

Up until Balliol’s crowning, Edward was justified in his claim that his actions had helped to maintain peace in Scotland. But from 1292 onwards, his controlling treatment of the Scots ultimately provoked a long and disastrous war. In 1295, Edward summoned the Model Parliament (as per Magna Carta, people could not be taxed without their consent, and Edward needed the funds in order to wage war against Philip IV and Scotland) in order to vote whether to continue funding for his conflicts. Fierce resistance to the English did not help the Scottish cause, and war had also broken out in France.

However, as Scotland had been so close to Edward’s grasp since 1292, he did not give up on the Scottish cause. This contributes to Edward’s namesake, ‘Hammer of the Scots.’ Scotland was provoked into rebellion, and Berwick was the first town to fall. Edward reclaimed it, and then took Dunbar. He famously besieged Edinburgh castle overnight in November 1296 after five days, and then Sterling fell before Edward had even arrived. Edward I boasted that Scotland had fallen in just 21 weeks. Most significantly in the Siege of Edinburgh Castle, Edward I had removed the Stone of Scone, the sacred stone on which Scottish kings had been crowned upon for 400 years. He took it to Westminster Abbey and it was kept there for the next 700 years!

Edinburgh Castle

After defeating the Scots so easily in 1296, Edward turned his attention to France. He left for Gascony on 24 August 1297, and left John de Warenne to subdue to Scottish revolts. On 11 September, de Warenne’s forces met the Scottish leader William Wallace’s forces on the banks of the River Forth, near Sterling Bridge. After lengthy negotiations, Huge Cressingham (England’s treasurer of Scotland) lost patience and crossed the bridge to meet Wallace. Wallace’s troops slaughtered the vanguard while the English could do nothing but look on helplessly. Cressingham was killed, and his skin was apparently made into a belt for Wallace.

In France, the Flanders campaign was collapsing. None of the German soldiers Edward had paid for turned up, while the French were suffering financial problems of their own, so a truce was agreed in October 1297.

Edward returned to England in March 1298. In May, he moved his government to York, to help administer the war effort. In June, he mustered an army of 28,000 men at Roxburgh just over the Scottish border, and battle commenced on 22 July 1298. Similarly to his Welsh campaigns of the 1270s and 1280s, the English army completely outnumbered their opponents, and they won a resounding victory.

The years from 1298-1303 saw very little action north of the border, and any of the minor campaigns achieved very little. The Lanercost chronicler commented on the campaign of 1300, saying that ‘the king did nothing remarkable this time against the Scots whose land he entered, because they always fled before him, skulking in moors and woods; wherefore his army was taken back to England.’

However, in 1305, William Wallace was betrayed by Edward I, and Edward decided to make an example of him. He put him on trial and executed him in London in the same manner Daffydd had been 23 years earlier. In Scotland, Robert the Bruce crowned himself king in 1306, despite the absence of the Stone of Destiny. As with Wales in the 1280s, Edward saw Scottish resistance not as war, but as rebellion against his legitimate rule.

In 1307, Edward was on his way north to Scotland to wage war against Bruce when he fell ill. On 7 July 1307, Edward I died. His body was sent back to Westminster Abbey, and the words ‘Malleus Scoturum’ (Hammer of the Scots) are inscribed on his tomb. Edward’s death was kept a secret for almost a fortnight. 

The chronicler Walter of Guisborough wrote that anybody who spoke about it was imprisoned. Most chroniclers wrote about how England was in despair after Edward’s death, and when the news reached Pope Clement V he reportedly could not stand because of grief. Other chroniclers also shared their views about Edward’s death: Peter Langtoft, an English chronicler, wrote that ‘[Edward I] was so noble and great, so potent in arms, that a man could talk of him for as long as the world endures.’ In contrast, Scottish chronicler John of Fordun wrote that ‘[Edward I] stirred up war as soon as he had become a knight…he troubled the whole world by his wickedness and roused it by his cruelty…’

Edward I’s legacy as a king is second to none. Undoubtedly, he was one of the greatest kings in the medieval world, and certainly one of the most renowned Plantagenets. His reputation is helped slightly by the fact that his reign was so successful because he fell in between to less-successful kings. But nevertheless, he deserves all praise in his own right. He subdued the Welsh and the Scots, and for brief periods between 1296-97 and 1304-06, he ruled over the entirety of the British Isles. No monarch had managed to do this before him, and it would not be achieved again until the seventeenth century. However, the story of Edward I’s successor, Edward II, is very different.

Edward II

Born: 25 April 1284, Caernarfon Castle, Gwynedd, Wales
Succeeded: Edward I (his father)
Coronation: 25 February 1308
Marriage: Isabella of France (m. 1308)
Reigned: 8 July 1307 – 20 January 1327
Died: 21 September 1327, Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, England
Preceded: Edward III (his eldest son)

Edward II (r. 1307-27)

Edward II was the fourteenth child of sixteen children that Edward I and Eleanor of Castile had, and the fourth eldest son: all three of his older brothers (John, Henry and Alphonso) all died before they were 12 years old, and before Edward I died. Edward II’s chance of becoming king was slim from the onset, but stranger things have happened in British history for sure!

Edward II was born in Caernarfon Castle in Wales on 25 April 1284, two years after his father had subdued the second Welsh rebellion. In April 1290, he was betrothed to Margaret Maid of Norway, but she died before they had even met. In 1299, in order to facilitate an Anglo-French peace, Edward was betrothed to Philip IV’s daughter Isabella, but they did not marry until after Edward came to the throne. In 1301, Edward became the first heir to the English throne to bear the title ‘Prince of Wales’.

There were accusations that Edward II had a homosexual relationship with a French nobleman called Piers Gaveston. This plagued Edward’s reign and his reputation as a king. He had asked Edward I to bestow some lands upon Gaveston, and Edward I allegedly replied ‘You want to give lands away? You, who never won any?’ and threw him out of a room. Gaveston was then exiled from England for six months.

“You want to give lands away? You, who never won any?”

Edward I replying to Edward II after being asked to bestow lands upon Piers Gaveston

Edward II was crowned upon his father’s death. He was present at Loudon Hill in Scotland where Edward I died. According to the fourteenth-century chronicler Jean Froissart, upon his death, Edward I asked Edward II to carry his bones on campaign with him in Scotland. Instead, Edward II sent his body back to Westminster, and this is what cursed his reign, according to Froissart.

After the failure at Loudon Hill in 1307, Edward II stayed out of Scotland for three years. He returned again in the winter of 1310-11, and it was another military disaster. England lost 10 castles. David Simpkin argues that it was either an example of his determination to succeed in Scotland like his father or an attempt to avoid meeting his adversaries in London and face the repercussions of another failed campaign. The anonymous chronicler and author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi contended that had Edward returned to London in the immediate aftermath of the campaign, that ‘death, imprisonment or worse would perhaps befall him.’

The result of the failed 1310-11 campaign led to the establishment of the Ordinances, a group of ‘Ordainers’ whom Edward was to consult before any further military campaigns. This idea relates to John and Henry III, and the struggles they both faced after the implementation of Magna Carta in 1216.

Robert the Bruce (r. 1306-29)

In 1312, Piers Gaveston was captured and allegedly tried for treason, and then executed. Edward was furious and accused the Ordainers of murder, but nothing came of it. The Ordainers had removed the threat of Gaveston to the English throne by their logic. Edward then stayed out of Scotland for a further two years after 1312, and this was a huge diplomatic error, as it gave Robert Bruce more power and the upper hand in the Scottish Wars of Independence. Bruce reclaimed Roxburgh Castle and Edinburgh Castle in early 1314 and essentially invited Edward into battle with him. 

The resulting confrontation was the Battle of Bannockburn, one of the most catastrophic defeats in English military history. Although it only lasted from 23 – 24 June 1314, the losses were enormous. From their camp on the south side of the Bannockburn, an English knight (Alexander de Seton) slipped away into the Scottish camp and told Bruce’s forces that morale was low: ‘Sir, if ever you intend to undertake to reconquer Scotland, the time is now. The English have lost heart and are discouraged.’ However, de Seton’s escape from the English camp was not the reason for defeat at Bannockburn.

The Earl of Gloucester argued with the Earl of Hereford over who should lead the vanguard, and he also argued with Edward II, leading to Edward accusing Gloucester of cowardice. Provoked by the king’s comments, Gloucester advanced to meet the Scottish forces and was killed. The Scots pushed the English back into the Bannockburn stream, and, hemmed in against the river banks, the English lost formation and broke rank. The battle was a disaster. According to the contemporary chronicler John of Trokelowe, Edward ‘fought like a lion’ and had to be dragged away from the battlefield. Regardless of personal bias from the chroniclers, it was clear that the defeat humiliated Edward as a military leader, especially given the success of his father on the battlefield.

In the aftermath of Bannockburn, the Vita Edwardi Secundi argued that Bruce’s army numbered 40,000 men to England’s 20,000. This has since been disproved: it is highly unlikely that Bruce’s army numbered even 6000 men, compared to England’s 20,000 soldiers. Harold Hutchinson, one of the few historians sympathetic towards Edward II, argues that the huge numbers of English soldiers undoubtedly led to overconfidence among the ranks.

Following the defeat in Scotland and upon his return to England, circumstances went from bad to worse for Edward II. Torrential rains in the summer and autumn and a harsh winter of 1314-15 killed sheep, cattle and other livestock, and led to a famine in England. The bad weather continued almost relentlessly until 1321, but it was between 1315-17 that the famine affected England the most. The famine also affected Scotland too, and both English and Scottish forces on the border raided their opposing country to try and steal crops. It was during this period that Bruce raided as fair south as Yorkshire.

And Edward’s next conflict was in Yorkshire – the Battle of Byland Abbey, on 14 October 1322. Once again, it was another defeat for Edward. The Scots had surpassed the English with their warfare techniques, and had abandoned the warhorse for more foot soldiers, resulting in a quick and resounding victory for the Scots.

In an attempt to bring peace between England and Scotland, Andrew Harclay, First Earl of Carlisle, signed a secret peace treaty with Bruce in January 1323. The treaty would recognise Bruce as rightful king of Scotland in return for protection of the northern English counties from Scottish raids. Edward II found out about the treaty and was enraged and had Harclay executed. Rather hypocritically and ironically, Edward then signed the Truce of Bishopthorpe in May 1323 which recognised Bruce as the rightful king of Scotland, and was to keep peace for fifteen years.

It was not just Scotland that troubled Edward II. In France, the War of Saint-Sardos broke out in 1324. Edward’s brother-in-law Charles had become king of France in 1322 (Charles IV), and was significantly more aggressive than his predecessors. In 1323, he demanded that Edward come to Paris and pay homage to him. Edward refused, and a group of Edward’s soldiers hung a French official in October 1323, leading to relations to sour further between the two kings, leading to a confrontation in Gascony.

Edward’s army in Gascony was 4400 strong, while Charles’ – commanded by Charles of Valois – was 7000 strong. Valois took the Agenais and cut off Bordeaux, and successfully ended the war less than six weeks after it had begun. It was another military failure for Edward, although given the numbers of the armies, it is understandable that the English did not win.

The fact that Edward had invaded his wife’s lands infuriated her. For the most part, they were a distant couple anyway (which enhanced rumours of Edward’s alleged homosexuality), but he still expected her to return to England. Instead, she stayed in France with her brother and Edward’s son and heir, Prince Edward.

By 1326, when Isabella had still not returned to England, it was clear that she was having an affair with Roger Mortimer, one of the exiled Marcher Lords from the “Civil War” of 1321. Both Isabella and Mortimer wanted rid of Edward II and a noble family who had been on the royalist side of the 1321 conflict, the Despensers. Edward’s opponents gathered around Isabella and Mortimer in France, and Edward feared that they would invade England.

In August and September 1326, Edward mobilised defences along the south and east coasts of England to protect against a possible invasion. He also issued a nationalistic appeal for people to defend England, but as both he and the Despensers were widely disliked, it came to little avail.

On 24th September 1326, Roger Mortimer, Isabella, Prince Edward and Edward II’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock arrived on the Suffolk coastline and were met with very little resistance. From his base at the Tower of London, Edward attempted to gather support from Londoners, but instead his government turned against him. Edward fled from England, and into Wales.

Upon reaching Cardiff, Edward went into hiding in Caerphilly Castle, while his authority completely collapsed in England, under Isabella and Mortimer’s rule. He then fled to Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, where it was deemed more secure, but on the night of 21 September 1327, Edward II died.

According to some contemporary chroniclers, Edward was murdered with the aid of a red-hot poker, but again this is just a claim likely related to the rumours of his homosexuality. Nevertheless, on 23 September, Edward III was informed of his father’s death, and the tumultuous start to his reign begun.

Edward II’s legacy is a difficult one to decipher. For some contemporaries, he was a useless king, a homosexual and a weak military leader, and this rhetoric was also echoed by historians up until the late twentieth century. However, as societal changes came around in the twenty-first century, historians do not regard Edward’s possible homosexuality as a weak factor in his kingship. It is also worth noting that Edward II’s reign followed Edward I’s and preceded Edward III’s – two of the finest warrior kings in medieval Europe, and they were always going to overshadow Edward II’s reign. But more on Edward III next time!

For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.

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