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Friday 8 May 2015

King Arthur II - Edward I Re-Examined

Edward I does not enjoy a good reputation in the minds of many historians and most of those who enjoyed the movie, “Braveheart”. It would appear that, unlike many other English kings, he doesn’t enjoy the benefit of a contextual view of his life and times. This might be encouraged by the patriotic and hugely selective view that has made William Wallace become a virtual saint in Scotland. Without putting too blunt an end on the matter, Edward was a winner in imperialistic times and those he beat were his next door neighbours, the Scots, the Welsh and the French. His victory meant oppression and subjection of his neighbours delivered in a way that befitted a conquering king of his time. That does not rest well with the sympathies of a modern English culture that champions temperance, freedom and peaceful negotiation. However, for his time, Edward was considered a great king by his English subjects and yet it was a reputation hard-earned.  

Marc Morris’s biography of Edward I was the first written in a long time. He explains in his introduction that he was aware that few mainstream English historians held Edward in high regard from a moral point of view. Edward’s reputation as a tyrant and invader come from actions that are no worse than two of England’s most lionized medieval monarchs, Richard I, who Edward sought emulate on his own crusades, and Henry V, who hero-worshipped Edward’s iron-fist example. Both Richard and Henry have their detractors. Richard goes through rapid periods of reappraisal, from the epitome of courage in the name of the Christian faith that won him the title “The Lionheart” to a treasury-squandering, neglectful King who spent hardly any time in his home country and didn’t even speak its language and then back to a more balanced view. Henry, whose main achievement in his short-reign, was to take half of France, has enjoyed centuries of high praise. However, Ian Mortimer’s excellently researched and reasoned argument in “1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory” casts the king as a merciless, religious zealot even for his own time.  It would appear that Edward I has simply been neglected, left to be relegated to the role of arch-nemesis to Scotland’s 1990s tourist attraction, and England is quite content to leave him there whilst mainstream historians fend off Richard III supporters. 

Nevertheless, Morris’s book not only aims to re-set the balance of Edward’s moral position in context, but also argues the huge relevance of his rule. This is shown in his subtitle, “The Forging of Britain”. The fact that there have been seven reigning Edwards in England since Edward I and he became an exemplar of a strong rule to many medieval monarchs to follow must count something towards the English ideals. Edward’s name is a significant point addressed by Morris. He was actually the fourth King Edward of England, but the first since the Norman Conquest of 1066. The time between Edward I’s reign and that of Edward the Confessor was so long that it made sense to those who simply wished to distinguish between Edward II, Edward I’s son, and his father. However, the name is still significant. It was idiosyncratic for its time, being Anglo-Saxon in origin, unlike the anglicized French/Norman names of William, Henry, Richard and John that preceded him. Morris explains that this is due to Edward’s father, Henry III’s veneration of Edward the Confessor.
As we all know, Edward would not come to emulate his peaceful namesake. He was also a very different man from his father and the two even briefly opposed one another before Edward supported his father and earned a fearsome reputation in his merciless final battle against the rebellious Simon de Montefort. 

If there was any forging going on, much of it was of Edward’s own doing. Morris demonstrates, with one symbolic act taken by Edward in his second and decisive quashing of the Welsh rebellion, the King wished to imply a lineal connection with the great Arthur. Whilst addressing the interment and transportation of the fictitious grave of King Arthur under Edward’s orders, Morris takes his own decisive action. He compels all serious historians to admit what many have remained ambiguous about in their discussions of pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain that there never was a King Arthur. It’s a bold step, but given the sheer lack of reliable contemporary evidence there is of Arthur – even his actual historical placement is a matter of contention – I think Morris has a valid point and, at the very least, the burden of proof needs to be shifted in mainstream history. 

Morris’s discussions on Arthur do not take up a lot of room, but provide an interesting insight into Anglo/Welsh ideologies from Edward’s rule onwards. In the first instance, Edward supplants a Christ-like figure from Celtic mythology. Arthur is described as the “once and future king” by many. The prophesy being that he will return from Avalon to save Britain in direst hour. By transferring the bones to England’s seat of power was an act of absorbing the spirit of Arthur into Edward’s persona. Secondly, the main campaigns that defined Edward’s reign saw a brief period where England’s king ruled all of Britain. This “unification” is comparable to one of the distinguishing features of King Arthur’s legend. It is telling that the Arthurian legends became a part of Britain’s national identity and were celebrated as much in England as they were in Wales after Edward’s symbolic action. 

Context is a vital tool for the modern historian. It is easy to lose sight of the medieval world by looking at it through modern eyes and assuming a universal set of moral standards. It is easy to look back on England’s continued attacks on the French as a greedy lust of conquest and power during the middle ages. However, one mustn’t forget the strong attachment the Norman kings had to their homeland. Morris’s book reminds us of the odd dual roles a king like Edward had to play in international politics. As far as his own country was concerned, he was the absolute monarch and equal to any other king in the world. However, when it came to governing his troubled homeland in Normandy he was a duke under the King of France. Furthermore, as a Christian king, he was subjugated to the Catholic Church in Rome. All of this had a huge bearing on the way Edward operated. Edward’s reclamation of Normandy seems to be far more about defending England than it was to re-secure the homeland of his forefathers or as part of the aggressive expansionist policy that we associate with his reign. It is important to note that English shores were attacked by the French after they had taken Normandy and such unprovoked actions were a clear indication of what France intended to do after driving the English out of their own country.

The Crusades, which seem like such a total waste of scarce English resources and by far the least successful aspects of Edward’s time on the throne, were a product of their time. The Catholic Church demanded the Holy Land be won back to Christendom and this was a real pressure to any sovereign in Western Europe. To the medieval thinker, fighting in the Crusades was perhaps one of the most important things God’s appointed monarch could do for his country and mankind. On a spiritual level, the threat of actual damnation and the events of Judgement Day were a strong reality. On a political level, no European country wanted to be on the wrong side of the Church. Edward I died some 62 years before the birth of Jan Hus, which gives us an indication of how much he and his subjects would be influenced by the idea of the Pope’s absolute power over their souls.  

However, although Morris’s conclusion is that Edward was one of the better medieval monarchs in history and a “great” king by the standards of his people and many generations afterwards, he does not mitigate the other sides of his personality. He was an unruly youth and before he became king had switched political persuasions between the various nobles several times. His good reputation was not built upon a spotless record when he came to power. During his reign he worked hard to remove his “Leopard” title, which implied a sneaky and even treacherous reputation, and came from him leaving ahead of his troops early in his career. In an act that his own father compared to the rebellion of Henry II’s sons, Edward once sided with Simon de Montford. 

Nevertheless, Edward did not stay on de Montfort’s side for long and we can see the first signs of the merciless domination that would earn him his fearsome reputation in his final battle with the usurper. It is a battle where Edward instructed his troops to disregard all codes of chivalry and results in a wholesale slaughter, concluding with the savage and humiliating mutilation of Montfort’s corpse. It is often argued throughout the book that all natives of England’s neighbouring countries were regarded by the English to be different grades of barbarian. Edward regarded the Scottish crown to be subordinate to the English one despite this not officially being the case and the Scottish people to have not come on much since the days of Emperor Hadrian’s occupation of Britain. The Welsh were considered beneath them, only being granted a principality status and then even losing that following Edward’s second crushing of their rebellion. The Irish, who Edward never visited, are viewed as even lower with their people less subjected than being corralled away from the occupying English. However, the example he showed in the ultimate putting down of Montford’s men foreshadows his attitude settling matters. 

“The Hammer of the Scots” earned his title following Edward I’s political manoeuvrings when Scotland’s line of ascension was threatened by several rival claimants. Originally brought in to play an arbitrational role, Edward took full advantage of the desperate situation and sought to install his own puppet ruler. Matters are not so completely clear-cut that we can cast Edwards as a straightforward villainous expansionist, as this sort of politicking was rife throughout the world at the time, however, it would result in a relentless dispute with the Scots that would long outlast Edward’s lifetime. He may have inflicted massive defeats upon Scotland, but he would never get the same type of result he got with the Welsh and the legacy he left his woefully inept son would see one of Scotland’s greatest victories against the English.

I read the book at a time when Scotland was voting on whether or not it wished to be independent of Westminster. A tight result showed that it did wish to continue to be part of the existing union. I wrote this review some time later just prior to the 2015 General Election, where an overwhelming dominance in Scotland by the Scottish National Party showed that the fight was far from over. We live in age where travel and the internet has presented us with a far larger world than what Edward I knew existed and yet we often get the impression that we all have been brought closer together. However, many recent incidents show just how tribal and divisive human beings continue to be in their inter-dependent activity. Edward I's attempted absorption into the icon of King Arthur was rather apt. Arthur famously united Britain, which was the driving policy behind a lot of Edward's ambitions. Today we can see the reality of this over-simplified view of society.

Morris’s work never feels like a fawning apologist argument for Edward. Just as he goes to pains in explaining why Edward was and should be considered a great king of his day, he does not spare us the atrocities committed on Edward’s orders. One of these was his persecution of Jewish people, leading to a virtual genocide. The clear objective for what Morris tells us was the single largest mass execution of Jews in Britain was completely money orientated. 

“A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain” is the best historical book I have read since Ian Mortimer’s “1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory”. It sets a balance dictated by facts and reason, and ranks as one of the clearest examples of understanding contextual history.

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