Happy birthday to one of England’s most notable monarchs, King Edward I, who was born on 17 (or the early hours of the 18th) June 1239 to King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence at the Palace of Westminster. Edward’s moniker as king was Longshanks because he was so tall, but he could have justifiably been called Edward the Great and Terrible, because he did some astoundingly awesome and yet horrific things in the name of kingship.
Edward Longshanks had many admirable qualities. He was a loving husband, loyal and devoted to his queen, Eleanor of Castile, and an excellent father. Unlike most royals of the Middle Ages, he was a bit of a hands-on parent, spending more time with his offspring than was expected of him. Perhaps it was because he lost so many of them as infants and young children, but he cherished the ones who lived. He was particularly delighted in his daughters, especially the eldest, Eleanor. Not for HIS daughters would there be child marriages for state reasons. They had a say in their spouses, and no matter how early they were betrothed, they were in their late teens or older before they wed. More than one of them even married secretly for love, knowing their father would forgive them. Even the daughter who became a nun was given a very generous allowance and regularly visited by her royal father.
He was an able lawmaker and administrator, doing his best to restore justice in England. From the moment he first came to the throne, he “replaced most local officials, such as the escheators and sheriffs … in preparation for an extensive inquest covering all of England, that would hear complaints about abuse of power by royal officers”. He also spent his reign strengthening England as a country by establishing a permanent Parliament and coalescing power for the state by taking it away from the fragmentary and rebellious barons.
He was sincerely devout, and did his best to live a ‘good’ Christian life as he understood it. Unfortunately, this belief included slaughtering ‘infidels’ in the name of the ultimate passivist, Jesus. It also meant asking for forgiveness (and being sure of receiving it) when he had to commit barbaric cruelty in the name of the Church or State.
King Edward I is a prime example of how seemingly good men can commit heinous atrocities.
The excuse good men use for doing bad things is usually that they are acting for the ‘greater good’. For Edward, the greater good was English expansion and monarchial control. The delusion that the ends always justify the means gives a person carte blanche to perform acts of brutality and inhumanity. Moreover, since God had appointed him as king, Edward convinced himself he was doing the Lord’s work. Anything done for the supposed furtherance of Christianity was axiomatically justifiable, or at least forgivable. It was the same reasoning that the Europeans had used to comfort themselves as they raped and pillaged their way through the Middle East during the Crusades, and it gave Edward the rationale he needed to commit the first ethnic cleansing in Europe when he issued an edict in 1290 expelling all Jews from England.
The Jewish population were deprived of their money and property in the course of the expulsion, and many of the refugees were also deprived of their lives. Edward, of course, kept all the proceeds of this cleansing for the crown. He then took these ill-gotten gains and financed some attempted cultural genocide against the Welsh and Scottish. He wanted, no more and no less, than to make the Welsh and Scots into his subjects and to do that he needed to make them part of England. In addition to killing the inhabitants of those countries, he stripped them of their symbols of nationality. He wanted no one to remain Welsh or Scots; it was Englishman or nothing. He had sadly underestimated the Welsh and Scots regarding their attachment to their heritage, but he did a lot of damage trying to enforce cultural uniformity.
Edward moved against the Welsh in 1277, and again in 1282. During the English conquest of Wales, English forces under Edward were accused of slaughtering the old, infirm, children, women, and priests during their rampages. When the English divided up the newly-annexed territory, thousands of Welsh peasants were uprooted from their farming lands and left to survive or starve on their own. The Welsh leader, Dafydd ap Gruffydd was ritualistically tortured to death in 1283, but a worse fate awaited his sons by Elizabeth Ferrers. Llywelyn ap Dafydd (b. 1267) was in his early teens when he was captured by the English after his father’s defeat, and his younger brother Owain ap Dafydd (b.1275) was only seven or eight. The boys were imprisoned in Bristol Castle under Edward’s orders, and there Llywelyn died “mysteriously” in 1287 or 1288, but Owain remained in captivity for the next forty or so years … forced to sleep in “a wooden cage bound with iron”.
The Scots also saw Edward’s brutality firsthand when the king attempted to overtake Scotland during a Scottish crisis of succession. As Edward moved into Scottish lands, his troops killed thousands of non-combatants as he sacked towns and manors. Especially brutal was the taking of Berwick, a border town nearly as important to the Scottish economy as London was to England. Walter Bower recorded in his chronicle the Scotichronicon,
‘When the town had been taken in this way and its citizens had submitted, Edward spared no one, whatever the age or sex, and for two days streams of blood flowed from the bodies of the slain, for in his tyrannous rage he ordered 7,500 souls of both sexes to be massacred…So that mills could be turned round by the flow of their blood.’
Edward would continue to batter Scotland, decimating its lands and economy until he finally died on his way to north to fight once more in 1307. So ended the reign of what was arguably one of the most successful and most repellent kings in English history.