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Edward I

Caernarvon Castle.

When I first researched Edward I, I had the impression of a fearsome warrior, invading Wales, beating up his gay son for not being aggressive enough, and on his deathbed demanding that his bones be carried off to Scotland so that his spirit could carry on the fight against Robert the Bruce. Dramatic stories grab most attention in history. Later I found out that the story of Edward's bones was probably concocted by a late fourteenth century writer named Froisset, no doubt to liven up his narrative. But stories weren't only created by the kind of historians who wanted to tell a dramatic tale. In the late nineteenth century the highly influential historian Bishop Stubbs of Oxford wanted to tell his own story. This was a learned tale of the development of modern British government. Bishop Stubbs' story was one for an intellectual crowd, but even though the audience was different, the desire to tell a story was the same. The tale had to have a discernable development with a beginning, middle and end. And Bishop Stubbs, being a Churchman, believed that history presented God's plan, a generally upward path towards enlightenment. According to Stubbs Edward I's reign was seen as crucial in fostering the development of Parliament, and what would become modern Britain. Stubbs' view became very dominant. So we had the vengeful bones for the general public, and the development of Parliament for the intellectuals. Personally I think the type of story which corresponds most closely with history is soap opera, which has no particular beginning or ending, and often seems to go in circles without getting anywhere. No resolution can ever be final when the story has to go on just the same next week. John Harvey, a historian who liked the "boil my bones and take them to Scotland" approach to history, was also remarkably perceptive when he wrote that the thirteenth century was "an extraordinary epoch, compounded by advance and regression in almost equal proportions" (The Plantagenets P88). The reign of Edward I certainly demonstrates this kind of strange endless advance and regression, more like a soap opera than a novel.


Westminster Abbey

Edward I was born at Westminster on the night of 17th June 1239, eldest child of Henry III and Eleanor of Aquitane. Henry III was looking to a new future for England. His father King John had seen the end of England as part of a large European Empire, which had endured since the reign of William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. England was now an island kingdom, and symbols of this new independence were required. Edward was christened in Westminster Abbey, which his father had rebuilt as a national symbol. Westminster Abbey had been originally consecrated in 1065, just before William the Conqueror invaded. Clearly Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey to evoke memories of England as it was before being conquered by a foreign power. Henry even named his son Edward after the last king to rule in England before the Norman Conquest, Edward the Confessor. And yet this wasn't only a time of looking back. Westminster Abbey was built in the very latest and most fashionable French style, suggesting a new future for England as an island kingdom. From the beginning, past and future, progress and regression were combined for Edward.

Edward was given an apartment in Windsor Castle soon after his birth, and entrusted to Hugh Gifford and his wife Sybil. Little is known of his childhood or education. But academic achievement was not considered vital for a king. Hunting and fighting were much more important. From the age of eight Edward had permission to hunt in Windsor Forest, an early incarnation of Windsor Great Park. Edward had to grow up quickly. On 1st November 1254 at age fifteen he was endowed with massive estates, knighted, and married to Eleanor of Castile, who he seemed to love dearly. From this point on he was considered to have come of age. In the 1250s Edward was leading his father's campaigns against the Welsh, though not successfully. His father also hoped for support from Edward in the struggle for power with England's powerful barons. But Edward was a fickle young man who around the time of crisis in 1258 could not really be counted on by either side. The barons in defending their desire for power were dressing their struggle up as "reform", something that historians like Stubbs loved to focus on. In reality England's barons were an argumentative crew, who sought only to maintain their old privileges of birth. The famous Magna Carta which Edward's grandfather King John had been forced to sign in 1215 was a means by which the barons hoped to defend their power. It was not a revolutionary call for representative government. Forty years later the barons in Edward's time were equally self interested in their reforming enthusiasms. The only exception was the baronial leader Simon de Montfort - and he soon found that any idealistic ideas potentially damaging to the nobility's interests weren't going anywhere. For a while young Edward's desire for power brought him into line with the barons, who were also struggling against the king for power. But if that made Edward seem like a forward looking reformer, it was only by accident. As historian Natalie Fryde has said in relation to the Magna Carta, reform at this time was a "transient weapon in a bitter political struggle" (The Tyranny and Fall of Edward the Second P3).



Vale of Evesham

Edward soon came to the conclusion that his position was better served by working with his father against the barons. After his brief youthful flirtation with "reform" Edward came back to his father's side. On 14th May 1264 they fought together against the rebel barons at the Battle of Lewes. During the battle Edward was led away on a futile charge. The royalists were defeated, and both King Henry and Prince Edward were captured. Edward managed to escape with the help of the Earl of Gloucester, who had fallen out with rebel leader Simon de Montfort. Edward then went on to rescue Henry and defeat de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. This was followed by a long and successful siege of Kenilworth Castle where rebels held out until December 1266. But then just as all this seemed to be leading up to something Edward decided it was time to find adventure elsewhere. He decided to go on the Ninth Crusade.

So in 1270 Edward travelled to Sardinia, where rampant disease amongst the crusading army forced a truce. It was a similar story in Palestine, where little was achieved, and disease was the main enemy. The most famous event of this crusade was not any great battle or victory, but an assassination attempt made on Edward in June 1272. He was attacked in his tent by a man with a poisoned dagger. Edward managed to kill his assailant, but was wounded in the fight. Tales arose of his wife Eleanor sucking poison from the wound. Such stories gave heroic shape to the formless mess of the crusade. The reality of Edward's expedition was a frustrating chaotic farce in which nothing much happened and a lot of men died of disease.

Recovering from his injury Edward decided to return home. He had reached Sicily when news arrived that his father had died on 16th November 1272. Edward continued to make slow progress back to what was now his kingdom of England. He landed in the summer of 1274, was lavishly entertained at Tonbridge Castle and Leeds Castle, and was then crowned at his father's great showpiece Westminster Abbey on 19th August. The reign that followed was a long one, of invasion and eventual conquest of Wales, of invasion, and eventual failure to conquer Scotland, and of a slow, confusing and poorly understood evolution of Parliament. You could make stories out of any number of themes in Edward's reign. Stubbs for example saw the barons insistence on consultation as the beginning of representative parliament. Stubbs dated Parliament's creation quite precisely to 1295. Modern research, quoted by Michael Prestwich in Edward I, shows that this was simply not so. Parliament in Edward's reign was a vague concept, lacking clear composition or function. It is very hard to describe a development of Parliament, impossible to make a coherent story out of the many meetings of different shapes and sizes, some called councils, some called parliaments. It is hard to give a sense of history going forward, when most of the time barons were disguising attempts to protect their old privileges, as reform.



Walls of Caernarvon Castle

While historians try to give shape to the history of Edward I, Edward was trying to do the same thing with history in his own time. This is seen most poignantly in Caernarvon Castle. Caernarvon was one of a number of castles built in north Wales during Edward's war of conquest there. Edward was fascinated by the legendary British past. He visited what he believed to be King Arthur's tomb at Glastonbury Abbey in 1278, and in building Caernarvon Castle he was referring back to a similar mythic past. Edward was powerfully influenced by the legend of Magnus Maximus, supposedly the father of the Roman emperor Constantine. The legend said that Maximus had a dream of a beautiful maiden who lived in a giant castle with multicoloured towers, at the mouth of a river. He was supposed to have found the maiden he dreamt of in Caernarvon during an expedition to Britannia. She turned out to be the daughter of an old English king looking for an heir. Following marriage to the beautiful girl, Magnus, so the story goes, became King of England. Edward's castle at Caernarvon made the legend into reality. His castle included dark coloured bands of masonry in its walls and towers. The towers were a polygonal shape, recalling the walls of Constantinople, which was Constantine's city. Edward was creating history, anchoring himself in tales which gave solidity to the past. We do the same today. Michael Hicks, the biographer of Richard III has written "In history what happened is often much less important than what is thought to have happened" (Richard The Third P199). Caernarvon Castle is a huge memorial to history, as it was thought to have happened. Looking up at its multicoloured walls is a reminder of how important stories are in history.

Edward's reign has been generally seen as a significant milestone on the way to modern Britain, as though the country is now a finished product. It isn't of course. History goes on, and the things we hold as important now might not be so judged in future. Ironically for a king supposedly moving humanity up the ladder of development, the end of his reign saw many setbacks. The war in Scotland, inspite of huge effort made and money spent was not going well. Scottish leader William Wallace was captured and executed in London, but the Scottish king Robert the Bruce continued to evade Edward's troops. Debts caused by the war were threatening the stability of government. Edward died on 7th July 1307 near Carlisle. There is no contemporary evidence that he called his son Edward to his bedside and demanded that his bones be taken to Scotland so that the old king's spirit could keep fighting there. The reign of Edward II, following that of his father, was not to see any apparent movement up any ladders. This for the influential historians of the late nineteenth century meant that the reign of Edward II was irrelevant. The spirit of Edward I, where a story of development had been told, had to somehow live on. He did so in the story of his determined bones.

Progress is such a difficult thing to describe in history, since we do not know what we are progressing towards. Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace: "The activity of Alexander or of Napoleon cannot be termed beneficial or harmful, since we cannot say for what it was beneficial or harmful. If that activity fails to please someone, this is only because it does not coincide with his restricted conception of what constitutes good" (War and Peace P1341). What constitutes good or bad will change with viewpoint, and history will never become a a ladder leading to some fanciful ending. The soap opera goes on. Some historians admire Edward, some, particularly perhaps the Scots, see him as a criminal. Edward killed William Wallace, and massacred the population of Berwick, before making it an English town. History is like the Robert Browning poem Prospice, which includes the line: "For sudden the worst becomes the best."