The Legacy of Edward I: Beyond Robert Bruce and the Scots

This is something I worked on sometime ago. Now I am a medievalist but Late Medieval England is certainly not my thing. I had to do some research about Edward I as an undergraduate and I found it quite tough, as I wasn’t all that interested…However, the approach I took helped me understand a monarch and period in English History which is sometimes too focused on the events up in Scotland, and the quarrels between the English crown and Scotland. So, in the following lines, I invite you to consider this subject with different eyes, under a different light.

What was the legacy this king left? Was it all about the war with Scotland? Or about the fantastic collection of castles he left behind? Admittedly, we can see some resonance of the events of 1295-1307 and the fight against Robert Bruce and his fellow Scots in recent events: the Scottish referendum for independence happened now a few weeks ago. Certainly, the castle Edward built are magnificent pieces of architecture and represent a great network design for the defense of the country. In addition, Edward was successful in his military campaigns in both Wales and Gascony, but all these wars and building work drove his finances mad. Yet he developed some interesting ideas to get some coin to carry on his expensive military campaigns. In fact he was the first king to enjoy direct taxes, and also had the idea to tax the clergy, perhaps copied by the French king . But he needed more money. Considering that only the conquest of Wales implied £ 273,000, plus £ 750,000 more that he used to finance the conflicts during 1294-8, by 1307 he had spent almost £ 1.3 million…Edward needed a banker. He made himself acquaintance of the Simonetti family, who controlled part of the Riccardi Bank of Lucca. However the Simonetti ended up banned from the public offices of the Italian city and, eventually, led Edward to bankruptcy, or close enough to decide to make a change in his financial adviser cabinet- just like in modern politics.  In 1299 he turned his allegiance to the Frecobaldi family, from Florence, who had opened a an office in London in the 1270s. With new monetary support, Edward was ready now to carry on his enterprises, however his debt was enormous and it took a long time to recover from this medieval money “crisis”.

So far, Edward had projected the prospect of war and money deficit. Could things get worse? Well, the historian Stirckland points out that, apparently, during the last years of his life Edward turned into a violent man, a legacy that his son and grandson adopted too. Perhaps related with his angst was the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. Other acts of violence were performed by the man, although it is difficult to asses if they were a necessary evil of his wars or just pure anger. As a consequence we have several executions: Prince Daffydd in 1283, Rhys ap Maredudd in 1292 and William Wallace in 1305. To the pile of corpses, we must add the earl of Atholl, who became the first earl to be executed since 1076. It seems that Robert Bruce rebellion only made things worse, and the treatment he gave to his supporters and subjects has been recorded as nasty and shocking. Nonetheless, Edward had a good heart and intentions, at least when the conversation topic wasn’t that of war. He is well-known for being an incredibly active lawmaker. This has been disputed by some historians who attributed this success to his ministers. However, the evidences show that the new policies were made and worked out when he was in England, and while he was away, they just provided an effective government. Some examples of his advanced law system are the Statute of Westminster I (1275), about the liberties, and the Statute of Gloucester (1278), which made a point about liberties exercised before the king’s judgement. Moreover, the Statute of Mortmain (1279) forbid the granting of property to the church “unless the lord licensed it”, while the Statute of Westminster II(1285) discussed the rights between tenants and landowners. And, finally, those of Quo Warranto and Quia Emptores (1290) about franchise and tenures.

Nevertheless, many of these things are not regarded as part of his achievements or part of the legacy he left. Someone else could have conquered Wales. Some other king could have developed such laws. And certainly, he was not the only one that became bankrupt and created a violent environment. But there is only one thing that wouldn’t have been the same without Edward I and that has an immediate impact in the history of England, and thus shall be considered as his ultimate legacy. And that would be his son: Edward II. Edward II supposed the decline of all the might that his father was. He didn’t have his father’s courage nor his determination. He didn’t achieve much in any way. His legacy was one of unnecessary violence and incompetence. And so, we have to conclude that, if Edward II wouldn’t have been such a neglectful heir, the Scottish war would have been ended differently, and perhaps England’s finances would reach a healthier status sooner…

I guess I have one last and skeptic question. I have had some time now to reflect on my research and considerations of Edward I and his legacy and, although my point still stands about his other work and the futility of his son’s reign, I wonder if this was necessary. Playing my favourite historical game- Counterfactual History- I come to the conclusion that perhaps this was fated. What if Edward II wasn’t? Would we have got an Edward III? Well I guess the straight forward answer is: NO. And of course, that would have meant that one of the most renown medieval kings of England would have to be erased from the history books too…


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