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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

Edward I:  Later Difficulties

Edward I inherited an enviable tradition of royal power. With it, among other things,  he launched a very ambitious and expensive foreign policy. Edward's policy, at least at first, was far more successful than his father's. Rather than trying to establish himself in southern or central Europe, he  tightened his control over small countries already dominated by England. With his resources he was able to conquer Wales and force the king of Scots to surrender his crown. By 1296, Edward had apparently conquered all of Britain, finishing a process of English expansion that began in the fifth century.

But a united Britain was not to be. By 1296, Edward was already involved in continental wars that were to frustrate his Scottish conquest and create many other problems for him.

There are two ironies in Edward's position in the mid-1290s. The first is that he did not have any continental ambitions. As far as we can tell, he simply wanted to hold on to what he already had, the Duchy of Gascony, what was left of Eleanor's Aquitaine.

But Philip IV (the Fair) of France was a man with just as high an opinion of his own royal power and dignity as Edward had. In 1293, Philip, who had just lost an embarrassing war with Aragon in Spain, was given a pretext to beat up on the English king.  English and Gascons fought a battle with Norman and Poitevin sailors, won, and sacked the French-ruled port of La Rochelle. Philip immediately demanded the Edward's subjects pay compensation to his own.

The second irony is that once Philip had a legal pretext, Edward was in the same uncomfortable relation to the French king that Llywelyn ap Gryffudd and John Balliol were to him. Edward was in regard to Gascony a vassal of the French king. The French king and his officials were very glad to have an opportunity to call him to account. As the most powerful of French vassals, Edward was a standing challenge to the superiority of the king in his own kingdom. Edward was summoned to Paris to answer the complaint against him. When he refused, the duchy was formally confiscated.

English negotiators were led to believe that if this confiscation was allowed to proceed, the duchy would be handed back on conditions acceptable to both sides. Thus French troops were allowed to occupy Gascon strongpoints without opposition. Once they got there, however, they showed no signs of leaving. In 1294, Edward was faced with the choice of fighting for Gascony or leaving. Of course, he decided to fight.

A war with France was no laughing matter, not at all comparable to fighting Welsh princes or the King of Scots.  France was, as it always had been, a much more populous and fertile country than England, and in the 1290s most of these resources were under the control of the king.  To fight France, Edward felt it necessary to call up all his vassals, even the Welsh princes and John Balliol and the Scots lords.

Their reaction was to revolt. Edward quickly reasserted his control over Wales, and his Scots war ended in the deposition of the Scots king. But despite these successes, the revolts were ominous symptoms of what kind of strain all-out war with France would be.

Both kings, that is Edward and Philip, put all they had into their preparations. In 1294 both decided to tax the clergy so they could fight each other. The pope was infuriated. Boniface VIII threatened Edward and Philip with excommunication and forbade the clergy to pay the taxes. In both cases, the kings browbeat their clergy into obedience. Edward did so by the shocking expedient of withdrawing royal protection from the church and its property. Eventually clerical opposition collapsed, and the pope had to back down.

This incident demonstrated that the predominance of the popes over secular rulers since the mid-eleventh century was over. The great monarchies, and not the international church, held the balance of power, because they now commanded resources and organization superior to that of the pope.

 From another point of view, however, the grab for clerical revenues was just one desperate expedient among many other, as two ambitious kings found the war they had undertaken to be far more expensive than they had anticipated.

Edward's strategy involved building an alliance in the Low Countries and Germany against France, (like King John had) but this was an expensive proposition (as in King John's time).

Despite the expense, the results were not impressive.. Edward's one success was to win over the Count of Flanders to his side. The Flemings were natural allies of the English. The industrial cities were dependent on English wool, and the count hated royal interference in his own affairs. Thus there was a considerable community of interest. But Flanders was politically divided, and so the count turned out to be a rather useless ally.

By 1297, Edward was strapped. He put the screws to the English clergy, and when he used several dubious methods to raise his revenue from the laity. Very quickly he had provoked strong political opposition.

In the spring of 1297, Edward ordered his officials to seize all foreign owned wool, which was to be sold for his own profit. Royal officials were so enthusiastic that they started seizing wools from English merchants as well. These protested and got some relief from the king. But wool immediately became the center of a more serious dispute.

Some of Edward's magnates, in particular the Earls of Hereford and Norfolk, were already upset about the conduct of the war. Those two earls were Constable and Marshal of the Kingdom respectively, in other words, Edward's chief military subordinates. Already by the the beginning of 1297, they were refusing to serve overseas unless the king went with them. Hereford was one of the marcher lords disciplined by Edward five years earlier, so resentment of the king may have motivated him. But Edward's expensive policy and the arbitrary measures he was increasingly turning to meant that the earls could were not alone in their discontent.

Dissatisfaction became open protest in August. Edward announced that high taxes on wool exports granted him in a meeting of parliament in 1294, a tax so high everyone called it "the bad tax," (maltolte) had been regranted him. No formal parliament or discussion had been held. He had merely secured the agreement of some of his closest supporters meeting in his private chambers. This was a violation of Magna Carta's provision that taxes were to be levied only with the agreement of the community of the realm -- which, to men of the 1290s, meant that all the important tenants-in-chief and representatives of the knights and commons should have been consulted.

The two earls protested at the Exchequer and then drew up a formal petition, which they presented to Edward as he was sailing to Flanders. He ignored them and left the country.

Opposition continued to grow. By the end of September, when a full parliament took place, (the Michaelmas Parliament)  presided over by regents for Edward, opposition was general enough that the king was forced to make concessions.

He reconfirmed Magna Carta and the Forest Charter, and repealed the "bad tax." He also agreed to the principle so dear to his opponents, that no extraordinary taxation should take place without "the common assent of the whole realm." This was the sharpest check that Edward's absolutist tendencies ever received. The Confirmation of the Charters became a building block of the English constitution. The example of aristocratic resistance on constitutional grounds was important in the next reign.

Once the Michaelmas parliament  was dismissed, Edward was again the boss, and he did not hesitate to continue his French war. But a new problem quickly arose.

In Scotland, Edward's officials had made themselves very unpopular in the north, and by 1297, there were already Scots fighting against them. Two men in particular were active, Andrew Moray, the son of a baron, and William Wallace, a knight. They called themselves "leaders of the army of Scotland." In September of 1297, just before the Confirmation of the Charters, their army destroyed a force of English knights at Stirling Bridge.  It was the signal for a full-scale Scottish revolt.

For a number of years, France and Scotland cooperated to make his life miserable. Edward could nearly always win his battles with the Scots. For instance, he led an army into Scotland in 1298 and destroyed William Wallace's army at Falkirk. But once he left Scotland the opposition reassembled and the country became uncontrollable once more. The efforts of Moray and Wallace had been successful enough to convince greater barons to throw their lot in with the resistance. Despite the loss at Falkirk, Robert Brus, Earl of Carrick and grandson of the competitor for the crown, and John Comyn, part of a very powerful family, became joint guardians of Scotland. The bishop of St. Andrews became a third guardian the next year. His participation was indicative of the solid support of the Scottish church for the cause of independence.

Edward returned to the country in force in 1300 and 1301, but was unable to win any meaningful victories. Soon after that, however, things began looking up for the English cause. The Brus and Comyn factions fell out in Scotland. Both men wanted to be the boss, and undoubtedly Brus wanted to revive his grandfather's claim to the throne. Their mutual hostility grew until, in 1302, Brus made his peace with the English king. Then the French war came to a sudden halt. Philip the Fair had attacked Flanders and found himself in terrible trouble. To cut his losses he had made a quick peace with Edward, and even gave Gascony back.

Thus Edward was free to throw all his resources against Scotland. He did so in 1303. A great army entered Scotland and found no organized resistance. Most Scottish leaders were willing to swear fealty to him, including John Comyn. Stirling Castle was taken from its Scottish garrison, and William Wallace was captured by deceit. He was dragged off to Westminster where he was tried and executed for treason, although he maintained he had never owed loyalty to Edward.

In 1305, Edward was able to set up an organized administration for Scotland. Many important Scots, including Comyn and Brus, took part in it. But the whole scheme fell apart in 1306, when Robert Brus decided to go into revolt once again. He apparently tried to interest John Comyn in the scheme, and when he refused to go along with it, Brus murdered him. This was a particularly shocking crime in that it took place in a church.

Once Brus had murdered Comyn, and assured the permanent hostility of his influential family, there was no turning back. He immediately summoned all Scots patriots to muster under his leadership, and he had himself declared king.

Robert Brus's coup almost failed at once. An English army under the Earl of Pembroke defeated his army and Brus had to leave the country. Edward treated all his supporters savagely.
The old irascible king seemed to have won again. Just to make sure, he organized another army to subdue Scotland thoroughly. None too soon: Brus was soon back in Scotland winning victories against English garrisons. Friars were going around Scotland repeating a prophecy of Merlin, that Le Roy Coveytous would die, and the people of Scotland and Britain -- that is, Wales -- would rise together and live in harmony to the end of the world.

Edward never got a chance to fight that last campaign. The covetous king did die, leaving a mess for his son to deal with as best he could.

The mess he left behind is what impresses me most about Edward I. The power he inherited was very great, unprecedented in centuries. His personal talents were exceptional. His situation seemed to offer great opportunities for extending his rulership even further. But despite the conquest of Wales,  Edward, so popular in his youth, lost the devotion of the political class long before he died. They resented his demands and feared his techniques of rule, which verged on the arbitrary. He bequeathed to his son great debts, an endless guerilla war on the northern frontier, and a restive baronage.

Philip the Fair, Edward's French contemporary, was a good match for him. He too inherited great power and harbored absolutist ambitions. He did everything Edward did, fought great wars, made great and unprecedented demands on his subjects, and, like Edward, expelled the Jews from his kingdom while confiscating their property. He went beyond Edward when he had his agents arrest the pope and accuse him of heresy, and when he denounced the Crusading Order of Knights Templar as secret apostates and idolaters, seized their property, and had lots of them burnt at the stake. Philip was a true believer in royal supremacy and spent his life enforcing his rights and destroying all possible opposition to his power.

Both men are rightfully seen as kings who, through their dedication to the supremacy of the royal power, unified their realms as they had never been unified before. They certainly helped build the French and English nations we know today.

But one is impressed not only by the cost to other people of their wars and ambitions, but also by the instability of the whole enterprise. It is not simply that Philip never got Gascony, or that Edward failed to subdue Scotland. It is that they undermined political consensus at the same time as they were vindicating their rights. When Philip died, his nobility and his towns were in revolt. It was only with great effort that his son conciliated the opposition. Edward's son quickly faced similar opposition.

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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.