Edmund Crouchback, the future King of Sicily and Earl of Lancaster, one of the most stalwart and respected historical figures of Medieval England, was born in London on 16 January 1245, the youngest surviving son of King Henry III of England and Queen Eleanor of Provence.
Before I had done much research on Prince Edmund, I had assumed ‘Crouchback’ had indicated that he had scoliosis. People with a slight ‘hunch’ to their back from scoliosis are quite capable of becoming excellent warriors (as Richard III would later prove as well) so having a ‘crouchback’ wouldn’t have interfered with his military duties. However, it is more likely that ‘crouchback’ actually meant ‘cross-back’, indicating that he always wore a crusader’s cross on his back.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “Edmund’s nickname … was misinterpreted, probably intentionally, by his direct descendant, King Henry IV, who, in claiming the throne (1399), asserted that Edmund had really been Henry III’s eldest son but had been disinherited as a hunchback.”
When you’ve usurped the throne, as King Henry IV had done, you need any edge you can get to justify your actions. However, there is no indication that Prince Edmund was anything other than a loyal younger brother to King Edward I.
In spite of being the younger son, he was clearly beloved of his parents and given his due as a prince. In 1255, as part of King Henry III’s negotiations with Pope Innocent IV, the 10 year old Edmund was given the nominal crown of the Kingdom of Sicily. Moreover, although he wasn’t part of the armed defense of King Henry III’s reign as Prince Edward was (Perhaps they younger prince was being held in ‘reserve’ away from the battlefield in case something happened to the royal heir in battle during the Second Barons’ War?), once Edward had defeated the king’s major rival, Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, Prince Edmund was granted all de Montfort’s former holdings and was created the new Earl of Leicester.
An earldom, a nominal crown, and vast tracts of land were not quite enough for the younger son of King Henry III, however, and so on 30 June 1267 the king made Edmund the Earl of Lancaster as well. The king also set up the young prince to aid in the hoped-for English take-over of Wales. Edmund was given Builth Wells, in the hopes he could take them away from their previous lord, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the Prince of Wales. Additionally, Edmund was given Prince Edward’s former holdings of Skenfrith, Grosmont, White Castle, and Monmouth to form a base for his assaults into Welsh territory.
King Henry and Prince Edmund had to eat a bit of crow just a few months later, when the king signed the Treaty of Montgomery with Llywelyn ap Gryffudd on 29th September of the same year, recognizing Llywelyn as the rightful Tywysog Cymru and reconfirming the Prince of Wales’ holdings.
With Llewelyn firmly embedded as Prince of Wales, King Henry III looked elsewhere to expand his youngest sons’ wealth. Edmund was given the lands of the rebel Lord Ferrers and made the new Earl of Derby, and a marriage was arranged for him with the 10 year old Aveline de Forz, the only surviving child and heir of William de Forz , Count of Aumale (4th Earl of Albermarle) and Lord of Holderness. Edmund had nearly married the girl’s mother, Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon, instead, but by marrying Aveline he was better positioned to obtain the Earldom of Devon, the feudal barony of Plympton, and the Lordship of the Isle of Wight by his wife’s inheritance, as well as the Earldom of Alermarle and the Lordships of Holderness.
Edmund and Aveline were wed on 8 April 1269 at Westminster Abbey, the first royal couple to be wed in the great cathedral. As was customary for the time, Edmund would wait until his wife was into her teens before consummating the marriage. In the meantime, he busied himself by preparing to follow his brother Edward on the Ninth Crusade.
In Palestine, Prince Edmund gained a reputation as a fearless and fearsome fighter. He brought Edward reinforcements from England and France, then helped his brother repulse attacks by Sultan Baibars of Egypt’s troops on Acre and Tripoli, although in reality they did little except distract Baibars from defending his Eastern front at Aleppo from the attacks of the expanding Mongol Empire. In May of 1272 the Sultan and Edward signed a truce, and Edward sent Edmund back to England to make sure the barons were trying to rebel against the ailing King Henry III while his sons were away.
When King Henry III died on 16 November 1272, Edmund kept England safely secure for his elder brother, allowing the new king to return at his leisure. In fact, Edmund did the opposite of trying to take his brother’s kingdom fro himself – he moved Grosmont Castle in the Welsh Marches with his wife and started an extensive building and renovation project there to house his hoped-for future children, and left the governance of England to the royal council, led by Robert Burnell.
King Edward the Longshanks didn’t return to England until 2 August 1274, and was crowned at Westminster on the 19th. The king and Edmund then turned their attention to Wales. They began to fortify the English holdings in the Marches, and to lay the groundwork to use the ambitions of Welsh lordlings and the jealousy of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s brother, Dafydd, to undermine the Tywysog Cymru and conquer Wales.
Just a few months into their planning, on 10 November 1274, Edmund’s 15 year old wife died, possibly from complications of childbirth or miscarriage. Edmund seems to have sincerely mourned his young wife, paying for an elaborate tomb with a marble effigy of Aveline on top to be installed in the Sacrarium of Westminster Abbey, on the north side of the altar. The effigy of Aveline was “richly gessoed and heavily gilded .. [her] mantle green, the surcoat red with purple lining and the kirtle blue.”
Regardless of how he felt emotionally, the newly-widowed Edmund needed to remarry and produce heirs. On 3 February 1276 Edmund wed married Blanche of Artois, the daughter of Count Robert I of Artois, niece of King Louis IX of France, and widow of King Henry I of Navarre. Their union would prove to fruitful, producing three sons who would live until adulthood.
Edmund continued to help his brother plan for the attempted conquest of Wales. Important allies of Llywelyn, his brother Dafydd ap Gruffudd and rival prince Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys, were both lured into the English fold by the promise of land and wealth. Llywellyn, in an attempt to solidify his position and gain a bargaining chip to use against the English crown, married Eleanor de Montfort, the youngest daughter of Simon de Montfort and, through her mother, Eleanor of England, the granddaughter of King John of England. She was a first cousin of King Edward and Edmund Crouchback, and her husband’s second cousin via his grandmother, Joan, the bastard daughter of King John. Eleanor and Llywelyn wed by proxy in the spring of 1275, and the bride headed toward Wales via ship from France.
Llywelyn now had a tentative claim, through his new wife, to the former lands of Simon de Montfort, which made up a large chunk of Edmund Crouchback’s properties. The king and his brother offered a large reward for Eleanor’s capture before she could get to Wales to consummate her marriage, her ship was captured of the coast of England, near the Isles of Scilly, by ‘privateers’ from Bristol. King Edward paid the pirates £20 and took his cousin to Windsor, where he kept her in comfortable imprisonment for almost three years.
King Edward declared war on Wales in November of 1276, and he set forth with Edmund Crouchback to punish the prince of Wales, whom Longshanks viewed as a rebellious vassal. Aided by Llywelyn’s brother and other short-sighted Welsh lords, English forces were able to fight their way into central Gwynedd, by July of 1277. The English, unable to decisively defeat the Welsh in open battle, used scorched-earth tactics to try to force Llewelyn to surrender. Edward’s troops thus confiscated or burned all the crops they could find, an eventually the starvation of his people forced Llewelyn to sue for peace and sign the the Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277.
Eleanor finally got to live with her husband as part of the treaty, but the peace was only temporary. Edmund Crouchback was sent into the lands formerly held by the Prince of Wales, and began overseeing the construction of fortifications, most notably of Aberystwyth Castle, and the subjugation of the Welsh to English law and custom. When Dafydd ap Gruffudd started a revolt in Wales in 1282 and burned Aberystwyth Castle, it was Edmund who led the English troops into Wales in his brother’s name, and the joint forces of Edmund and Roger Mortimer who captured and killed the Prince of Wales.
After the deaths of Llywelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffyudd and the imprisonment of their children, Welsh resistance was no longer able to formally organize against English occupation. On 3 March 1284, the Statute of Rhuddlan transformed Wales into an English Principality and vassal state. English migrants were brought into newly-built and heavily fortified towns across Wales, as part as an active plan for colonization and ethnocide.
Edmund Crouchback was tasked with helping King Edward hold Welsh lands and keep the Welsh populace under English control, as well battling the Scots to the north, and as serving as his brother’s representative in various diplomatic missions in Europe. He was basically his brother’s strong right hand in all that King Edward I did. Longshanks needed his brother’s help, because the Welsh and Scots were never more than a hairsbreadth away from insurrection at any time.
Edmund Crouchback’s last major campaign for his brother was against King Philip IV of France at the beginning of 1296. Longshanks had named his brother Lieutenant of Gascony, and Edmund set out to reclaim those lands from French occupation. Alas for the 51 year old Edmund, the royal coffers of England were thinned to the point of invisibility due to colonization in Wales and Scotland, and without money to pay his forces, Edmund had little chance of defeating the French. Unable to break the French fortifications at Bordeaux, Edmund Crouchback succumbed to what was probably dysentery on 5 June.
King Edward was both shocked and devastated by his brother’s death. He paid for masses to be said for ‘our dearest and only brother, who was always devoted and faithful to us…and in whom valour and many gifts of grace shone forth’.
Edmund Crouchback’s body was brought back to England and interred first at the Abbey of the Minoresses of St. Clare without Aldgate, a house of the Poor Clares (members of the Order of St Clare), which he had co-founded with his second wife. Edmund was later re-interred in a lavish tomb at Westminster Abbey on 24 March 1301, near the resting places of his first wife and his brother, King Edward I.