A case can be made that Edward I was the greatest English king of the Middle Ages. A strong ruler, he was a man blessed with a strong sense of duty. Although he was no democrat, he believed the king should promote the general welfare and place himself above class or faction–a revolutionary concept in the 13th century. Although he has been called ‘the English Justinian’ because of his legal codes, Edward was first and foremost a military man, one of the great generals of the medieval world.
Edward was born in June 1239, the son of King Henry III. Weak and indecisive, Henry was not a bad man–just a bad king. He was devoted to his family and took great pleasure in art and architecture. One of his pet projects was the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey in the Gothic style that was just coming into vogue. Unfortunately, Henry’s private virtues became public vices. Because of his devotion to his wife, he gave the queen’s undeserving foreign relatives places at court. Worse still, Henry’s building projects were a drain on the exchequer, and his excessive piety made him a dupe of the papacy. That mix of piety, politics and penury–he was always short of funds–bore bitter fruit. Simon de Montfort, leader of the baronial opposition, led an open revolt that defeated the king at the Battle of Lewes in 1264.
Lewes gave Prince Edward his first real taste of combat. As a headstrong young blade of 25, he took exception to the London troops of Montfort’s army, sincerely believing they had insulted his mother. When the battle opened on May 14, Edward led a cavalry charge that scattered the London burghers like dead leaves in a windstorm. Intoxicated by the chase, he began a single-minded pursuit of his fleeing quarry that took him miles from the battlefield. Once his thirst for vengeance was appeased, Edward returned to Lewes–only to find that Montfort had defeated his father’s main army. Assailed from both flanks by Montfort’s knights, the dumbfounded prince was forced to surrender. But a great lesson had been learned–from then on, with few exceptions, his intellect would govern his passions.
Eventually Edward escaped, joined forces with Roger Mortimer, Earl of Gloucester, and together they defeated Simon de Montfort at Evesham on August 4, 1265. By then, Edward was king in all but name, since his father was growing old and was as self-absorbed as ever. Fired with chivalric zeal and a surfeit of youthful energy, Prince Edward ‘took the cross’–that is, declared himself a crusader pledged to free the Holy Land from the grip of the Muslim ‘infidels.’
In 1271, Edward reached the Middle East with a small army of 1,000 men and amazed everyone by chalking up a series of victories over the Muslim forces of the Mamluk Sultan Baybars Bundukdari of Egypt. The prince captured Nazareth, scoring a moral victory by liberating the hometown of Jesus Christ, but his forces were too small to consolidate his gains.
Once, when Edward was resting in his tent, a Muslim assassin broke in and attacked him with a poisoned knife. The prince quickly killed his assailant but was wounded in the arm. Soon the limb swelled, and the foul-smelling flesh grew black. Gangrene had set in. Handicapped by the lack of medical knowledge at the time, the doctors were baffled and lost hope. But one brave physician cut away the blackened tissue and hoped for the best. By some miracle, Edward survived. The next year, 1272, a truce was arranged between Baybars and the Crusaders, enabling Edward to go home at last. While en route to England, he received word that his father was dead and he was now king in his own right.
On August 2, 1274, the new king landed at Dover after an absence of four years. Crowds gave a tumultuous welcome to their new monarch, who, at 6 feet 2 inches, towered over contemporaries. He was handsome, but his piercing blue eyes were slightly offset by a drooping left eyelid. Like most of his Plantagenet dynasty, Edward had a volcanic temper that sometimes erupted into murderous rages. Generally, though, he was too intelligent to let his anger get the better of him.
A few years after his accession to the throne, Edward was forced to deal with Wales, the mountainous land to the west of England. Politically, Wales was a confusing mosaic of divided loyalties. In the south and central portions of the country, Anglo-Norman barons, called Marcher lords, managed to subdue and pacify the Welsh tribesmen, but in the north the situation was different. There, a line of Gwynedd princes high in the mountains of Snowdonia refused to submit to the English yoke. One Welsh ruler, Llewellyn-ap-Graffyd, declared himself prince of Wales and set about expanding his domain at the expense of the Marcher lords.
Initially Edward had little interest in Wales, and he might have accepted Llewellyn’s independence if the latter had rendered lip service to his feudal obligations to the English crown. But Llewellyn’s arrogance seemed to grow with his power, and he refused to render homage to Edward. Thoroughly aroused, the king was determined to bring his rebellious vassal to heel.
In July 1277, in the town of Worcester, Edward gathered one of the biggest armies ever seen in Britain. The feudal levy summoned 1,000 armored knights, while a number of English shires–Cheshire, Derbyshire, Shropshire and others–supplied about 15,000 foot soldiers, including many Welshmen and Gascon crossbowmen.
The northern Welsh under Llewellyn were not prepared to meet Edward on his own terms, so they melted back into the misty valleys and snow-dappled peaks of their mountainous homeland. Natural guerrillas, they lived off the land when fighting and generally preferred ambushes to pitched battles.
The men of southern Wales generally had spears, but the northern tribes possessed a formidable new weapon–the longbow. One chronicler described it as ‘made of wild elm, unpolished, rude and uncouth,’ but in the hands of a trained archer it was a formidable weapon, hitting targets with such force that a longbow shaft could pierce chain mail and pin a man to his horse.
Edward advanced along the north Welsh coast, marching slowly up the valleys of the Severn and the Dee. Leaving a chain of rising fortresses in his wake, Edward continued on until he reached the mouth of the Conway River. There, the king unveiled his trump card–sea power. Just off the coast, on the island of Anglesey, was some of the most fertile soil in Wales, the breadbasket of Llewellyn’s tribes. Thanks to ships provided by Edward’s Cinque Ports, Anglesey was quickly taken.
Ringed in by hostile troops and threatened by starvation, Llewellyn sued for peace. After a few years’ respite, however, Llewellyn’s brother David raised the standard of revolt. The 1282 rebellion was a replay of the 1277 campaign, but this time Llewellyn was killed in a chance encounter, and his head was sent to adorn London Bridge. David was captured and executed, and the rebellion he had hatched collapsed.
Edward decided that only more castles could help sink English roots and stabilize the shifting political soil of Wales. Luckily for the king, his reign coincided with the great age of medieval military architecture, and he found a builder of genius in Master James of St. George.
Master James’ fertile imagination produced a series of elaborate designs, each adapted to the particular needs of an individual site. Even today, Conway, Harlech, Rhuddlan, Beaumaris and Caernarvon castles give an overwhelming impression of strength and majesty.
Wales was pacified, at least for the moment, so Edward turned his attention to Scotland. The Scottish throne was empty, and there were no less than 13 claimants for it. To solve the impasse, the claimants asked Edward to be arbiter and choose a candidate among their number. The English king should have known better; the Scottish succession was a morass of claims and counterclaims.
After fevered consultations with barons, lawyers and churchmen, Edward chose John Bailol as king of the Scots. Bailol was a weakling, but the fractious Scottish nobles stiffened his backbone enough to defy Edward. Once again, Edward could brook no disobedience from a man he considered his feudal underling. The English monarch invaded Scotland with a large army, and in March 1296, he proceeded to besiege the important Scottish town of Berwick. Feeling overconfident, the citizens of Berwick shouted insults at Edward, in particular making fun of his ‘long shanks.’
Mounted on his great warhorse Bayard, Edward personally led the assault on Berwick. Hooves flailing, Bayard leapt across a ditch, bounded over a low palisade and brought his royal master into the very heart of the city. Soon English troops poured into the narrow streets and fighting gave way to a general massacre of the inhabitants.
In short order Bailol was deposed, and Edward ruled the northern kingdom through a series of military garrisons. But Edward’s brutal conquest had unleashed a sort of early nationalistic spirit among the Scots. A Scottish knight, William Wallace, gathered an army and managed to defeat an English force at Stirling Bridge on September 11, 1297. With his prestige on the line, Edward–though he was now growing old–took to the field once again and invaded Scotland.
On July 22, 1298, the English and Scottish armies met at Falkirk. The backbone of Wallace’s forces was his infantry, drawn up in four phalanx-style formations called schiltrons. Bristling with spears, the schiltrons seemed invulnerable to the kind of cavalry charge favored by medieval knights. And sure enough, before Edward could fully deploy his unwieldy army, his knights rushed forward in a headlong charge. Try as they might, the English knights could make no impression on the prickly Scottish formations, and round one went to the stubborn Celts.
But Edward had a surprise waiting in the wings–swarms of Welsh archers, who came forward in large numbers to discharge their deadly shafts. The schiltrons were quickly reduced to heaps of dead and wounded men, and the remaining Scottish infantry became easy prey for Edward’s cavalry. Only Wallace and a handful of fugitives escaped the terrible slaughter, and the back of Scottish resistance seemed broken forever. At Falkirk, Edward Long Shanks acquired a new nickname: Scottorum malleus (Hammer of the Scots). The battle validated his reputation as a general and showcased his tactical skills. His adoption of the Welsh longbow foreshadowed the English triumphs at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt.
Eventually, Wallace was captured and hanged, drawn and quartered, but his grisly fate left the Scots uncowed. Time and again, Edward had to return to Scotland in an attempt to crush the embers of revolt. Yet every time he returned home, the flame of Scots nationalism would blaze anew. A new Scottish champion, Robert the Bruce, declared himself king of Scotland and girded himself for another English invasion. It was not long in coming.
Edward, white-haired and ailing, must have felt he was an English Sisyphus, condemned to roll the rock of conquest forward again and again. At 69–something akin to 90 by the standards of the Middle Ages–the king had little reason to find happiness in his waning years. His son and heir, Prince Edward of Caernarvon, was a homosexual and a worthless spendthrift, more interested in fine clothes than the arts of war.
King Edward moved forward toward Scotland, but his battle-scarred and aging body could not obey the commands of his iron will. He died on July 6, 1307, a short distance from the Scottish border at Burgh-on-Sands. Later, Edward II would return to Scotland in force–only to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, on June 23, 1314, by which Scotland won its independence from England.
Although he was not the equal of a Caesar or Napoleon, Edward I was still a great commander who grasped the essentials of war. Even his enemies recognized his military greatness. Comparing Edward I to his son Edward II, Robert the Bruce once declared, ‘I am more afraid of the bones of the father dead, than of the living son; and, by all the saints, it was more difficult to get a half a foot of the land from the old king than a whole kingdom from the son!’
This article was written by Eric Niderost and originally published in the December 1995 issue of Military History magazine.
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