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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

Edward I:  The Early Years

Henry III's efforts to rule unrestrained caused civil war, and victory in civil war allowed Henry and his son, the Lord Edward to do as they liked. It was the beginning of a period when royal rule was as secure as it ever was.

Edward I, whose effective reign began with the fall of Simon de Montfort, was close to being the ideal medieval king. He was personable, tall, handsome, superficially charming. He was a brave warrior and a good general. He was a diligent administrator. He combined the talents of Richard Lionheart and Bad King John. He was popular, at least in his early days, capable in just the way the ruling class wanted him to be capable, vigorous, and intelligent.

His position was so secure in the early 1270s that he left his aged father and toured the world, with no fear that the result might be political instability. He went crusading, one of the last western European royal princes to do so, and when he heard news of his father's death in 1272, he did not hurry back to be crowned. Instead, he spent two years in Gascony, shoring up the foundations of English rule in that country. Only in 1274 did he return to England for a coronation. The ancient Norman and Angevin custom of grabbing the royal treasure and getting oneself crowned immediately after the old king's death was obsolete

There is no doubt that he is the classic English example of a powerful later medieval king. He used that power for two purposes fairly typical of English kings: consolidating his government at home and extending it over other lands.  Both successes and failures enable us to trace the changing shape of medieval society around the year 1300.

One of the things Edward usually gets high marks for is reforming zeal. Reform, once again, has to be defined. Edward was concerned  the constant problem of corruption and abuse of power by royal officials.   Edward devoted much energy during the first half of his reign to calling his own officials to account for their actions.  In part this was an effort  to fight the slow transformation of appointive offices into hereditary positions. Thus the housecleaning desired by his subjects also benefited him in a very direct way.

Edward  began his reforms before he was king,  in 1267.  At a great meeting of king and nobility, (a  "parliament," in the terminology of the time,  Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest, and some of the reforms of the De Montfort era were confirmed.. This was enough to reconcile most of the population to royal rule.

When Edward returned to England in 1274 for his coronation, he plunged right into a further round of reform.

First was the  Ragman Quest. It was a series of inquests. Juries were formed in most localities to give information into royal rights and the conduct of officials. The information so gathered was written down, and each juror was required to affix his seal to the resulting documents. The parchment documents with the dangling seals were called "ragmen," and thus the name for the inquest as a whole. Such a procedure was not new, but the Ragman Quest was an unusually large, thorough, and systematic inquest.  The Ragman Quest brought to the royal attention the complaints of the hundreds and villages of England, at least those of the more substantial members of those communities. It laid the basis for much royal legislation over the next ten years or so.

The Ragman Quest also led to what is generally called the Quo Warranto proceedings. I have often emphasized the strength and organization of royal government in England.  But there were gaping holes in that organization. Many royal rights had been granted away in the past. Private lords enjoyed liberties that enabled them to exercise royal judicial and financial rights for their own profit.

Quo Warranto was an investigation into each of these liberties and privileges, aimed at requiring anyone who possessed one to justify his possession. "Quo warranto" means "by what warrant?" This is what the royal justices asked the lords who came before them. The justices wanted to see written proof that the king's ancestors had actually granted the privileges in question.

John, Earl of Warrenne, when questioned about his right to the liberties he held at Lewes, produced a rusty sword he said had been borne by his ancestor in the time of the Conqueror, with which he had conquered his lands. The story, true or not, indicates the resentment that Quo Warranto excited among the great lords.

Edward was strong enough to reclaim many powers that had been lost to the crown for decades or centuries, and limit many liberties that he could not abolish.

But great lords also won privileges from Edward.

A law of 1290 basically forbade subinfeudation. If a tenant  granted part of his fief away for money, in essence sold a piece of land, he forfeited the feudal service owing from that part of his fief. The buyer became a direct tenant of the seller's lord, and the seller lost any interest in or rights over the land.

The purpose of this law was to preserve the superior lord's feudal profits in an era where the buying and selling of land was increasingly common. It prevented the fragmentation of knight's fees into pieces so small that the knight service and customary payments were lost to the superior lord.

This measure of course benefited earls and other tenants-in-chief most, because it made their power over their vassals meaningful. But it also benefited the king, who was the greatest lord of all, one who had a keen interest in seeing that knight service was performed or at least commuted into money payments.

This technical matter illustrates a salient characteristic of Edward I's reign. It was a time of definition or perhaps redefinition, when old rules were adapted to take into account social changes. The redefinition augmented the authority of the crown, which had made itself the final arbiter in such matters, but also stabilized the power of the highest ranks of society.

Edward's program of defining, reclaiming, and extending royal rights over English society has its counterpart in his foreign policy.

English kings had long exercised overlordship over Wales and Scotland.  Edward tried to turn this vague suzerainty into a real rule over those lands, with mixed success.


There was  new and serious challenge to English overlordship.

During the 13th century, the princes of Gwynedd, the mountainous northwestern part of Wales, came close to uniting Wales under them. The last of them, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, built up his power while Henry III was distracted by Savoy and Sicily, increased it further by allying with the Montfortians in the civil war, and in 1267, when he made his peace with Henry and Edward, was acknowledged by the English rulers to be the overlord of nearly all the other Welsh princes. He called himself, with some justification, Prince of Wales.

When Edward became king, Llewelyn refused to do homage to Edward, and he provocatively married the daughter of Simon de Montfort, thus fulfilling a contract he had made with the dead earl some years before. In 1277 made war on Llywelyn , running a brilliant campaign.  He allied himself with Welsh allies, in the south while attacking Gwynedd from the east and using his fleet to seize the fertile isle of Anglesley, source of much of Gwynedd's food supply.   Edward was basically besieging Gwynedd, which was rugged enough to be a natural fortress.

Llywelyn surrendered in November of 1277. Llywelyn was not deposed, but Edward replaced him as the direct lord of every Welsh prince. Edward secured his power by building the first of his expensive, impressive, and nearly impregnable Welsh castles.

The Welsh princes soon found that Edward, the great definer of royal rights, was going to be a very onerous overlord. English justices were sent through most of Wales to take control of the legal process. Princes were constrained to attend English courts and argue their claims just as every other petitioner did.

In this situation, revolt was predictable.  The man who broke the peace (in 1282) was not Llywelyn, but his younger and troublesome brother David. He seized a royal castle in anger over some slight to his rights, and the action immediately touched off a general revolt that Llywelyn, who still thought of himself as a national leader, had to join to keep his credibility.

The Welsh won some impressive victories in the beginning, but Edward's general ship and his much greater resources made the war a short one. Llywelyn himself not been killed in December of 1282, and by June of 1283, Edward was in control of the country once more.

After the second Welsh war, all of Wales except the marcher lordships was subjected to royal authority. North Wales was divided into shires.  Big and stupendously expensive castles were built to foil further revolts. English criminal law was substituted for Welsh practices. The officials in charge of administering this revolution were, of course, almost entirely non-Welsh. This was the definitive conquest of Wales. What Edward won by arms was secured by the imposition of a new legal regime that made Wales scarcely more than another region of England -- though it had its own prince, the king's second son Edward, and some remaining peculiar customs.

In the early 1290's Edward upset the independent marcher lords of the Welsh border lands by abrogating their right to private war. His officials justified this by saying the king could alter ancient custom in the common interest, a doctrine that was very dangerous to any established lesser power. The earls of Hereford and Gloucester defied him by fighting each other anyway, and found themselves tried, imprisoned, and heavily fined. In doing this, Edward was storing up trouble for himself, but for the moment it was an impressive flexing of the royal muscles.

The Welsh conquest, which had been accomplished quickly if not cheaply, was the result of Edward's determination to define and enforce his royal rights as widely as possible. H
Edward is typical of the strong monarchs of his time, who had both the power and the ideology to make possible a more absolute style of monarchy.


Very soon after he put his Welsh settlement into effect, Edward found himself enmeshed very deeply in Scottish affairs. Once, however, circumstances involved him in the politics of the northern kingdom, his acquisitive instincts and the legalistic techniques of high medieval monarchy led him inevitably to attempted conquest.

The circumstances that brought Edward into Scotland were these. In 1286, the King of Scots, Alexander III, died unexpectedly. His only heir was his three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the daughter of the king of Norway. Arrangements were made to bring her to Scotland to serve as a royal figurehead. The council of regency negotiated with Edward for a marriage between Margaret and his son Edward, now his heir. This marriage would have led to a union of the crowns of England and Scotland. No one was too concerned about this. Many influential Scottish lords were lords in England, too, and could not see the English king as a foreign villain.

This contract collapsed, however, when the young Maid of Norway died on the voyage to Scotland.

There were many possible claimants to the throne. None of them were closely related to Alexander III. One serious candidates, Robert Brus, was the great-great-grandson of King David I, who had died 130 years previously; another, John Balliol, was one generation further removed from David. Twelve other candidates with more tenuous claims came forward. Who was to judge between the competitors?

The obvious answer was Edward. He was asked to be an arbiter and agreed to act as judge.

Edward required all of the competitors to acknowledge his feudal superiority over Scotland, and of course they did. The other nobles and churchmen of Scotland refused to do this, but they were ignored. Edward had gotten an important admission from the future king of Scots, whoever he might be.

In November of 1292, the decision was made by the English royal council and accepted by the Scots. John Balliol, a man with important holdings on both sides of the border, was named king. immediately afterwards he swore fealty to Edward as superior lord of Scotland.

Once Edward had wrung this concession from the new king of Scots, he gave it the widest possible interpretation. He insisted on acting not as a distant overlord, but as an active feudal superior who could sit in judgement on how the Scots king treated his own vassals. In other words, he treated John Balliol as he treated his English barons, or the Welsh princes after 1277.

By accepting appeals from Scotland and making unprecedented demands on John Balliol, Edward created a situation that could only result in war. The parallel with Wales between 1277 and 1282 is almost exact. The process took less than two years this time.

Edward had gotten himself in trouble in Gascony. The French king had confiscated that duchy and occupied it. In this crisis, the English king called all his vassals up for service in France -- and he included in this summons both the recently conquered Welsh and the Scots.

There was a major Welsh rising, which, since it failed, was the last for a century.

In Scotland, King John prepared to resist. But he had no more luck than the Welsh. In the spring of 1296, Berwick, then a Scottish town, was sacked and the male inhabitants were slaughtered. Soon after, the Scots royal army was routed. Thereafter King John surrendered his kingship to Edward. He was carted off to England, along with the Scottish royal regalia, the governmental records, and the Stone of Scone, symbol of the Scots monarchy. Edward insisted on receiving homage and fealty from 2000 Scots lords, prelates and even parish priests. As far as he was concerned, he had abolished Scotland as a separate kingdom.

In 1296, Edward I presented the picture of a great conqueror. His power in Britain was unprecedented. True, he was in trouble in Gascony, but his success had been astonishing to date. To this point, he is an example of how well the 13th century English monarchy, considered as a war machine, could work under the best possible leadership. After this date, Edward's career illustrates a different theme: however rich and powerful he seemed, he had already overextended himself. Not only did the Scots refuse to lie down and roll over, but Philip of France insisted on treating Edward much as he had treated Llywelyn ap Gruffydd or John Balliol.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.