Edward I of England, Hammer of the Scots, born 18 June 1239, was at 6 foot 2, a giant of a man for the time, earning him the nickname Edward Longshanks. He was 33 by the time he came to the throne following the death of his father, Henry III, in 1272.
Edward I has been described variously through time as a murderer, pagan, ambitious and self-serving. He was also an astute political leader, a good soldier and had the virtues of fairness and moderation in many instances. An intelligent man, he was fluent in English, French and Latin and after the chaotic years of his father’s rule, was an ardent reformer.
He was also an excellent administrator and a good negotiator and held the respect of his subjects.
As a young man, Edward and his father were, during 1264-5, held captive by his uncle, Simon de Montfort during the Barons’ War. But he less a prisoner and more of a confined guest. When offered a number of new horses to try out, Edward took the opportunity to make his escape. Edward organised an attack against de Montfort which resulted in his uncle’s death at the Battle of Evesham.
Edward married twice, first as a fifteen-year-old to Eleanor of Castile, then, ten years after her death in 1290, to Margaret of France, a woman forty years his younger. Between them, his wives bore him at least 20 children, Edward still fathering children as a 67-year-old.
The blot on Edward’s reputation was his expulsion of England’s Jews in 1290. Acting on common prejudice, including his own, and financially motivated by seizing Jewish property and assets, 3,000 Jews were forcibly evicted, many killed in the process.
Edward’s ambition however was his great driving force and he never ceased in his attempts to increase his lands. Wars against the Welsh and the French did much for his power, but it was the war he fought against his northern neighbour that was to consume a large part of his time, wealth and lives of his soldiers.
Hammer of the Scots
Following the death by accident of Scotland’s Alexander III in 1286, Edward presided over the choosing of his successor, eventually facilitating the crowning of John Balliol. Although initially loyal to England, Edward’s demands on Scotland pushed de Balliol into seeking an alliance with the French. After a decade, Edward had de Balliol disposed and advanced on Scotland. His invasion of Scotland in 1296 was textbook. Sweeping north, he ravaged the town of Berwick, slaughtering the inhabitants in an orgy of terror, hoping to terrify the Scots into submission. From there he defeated the Scottish army at Dunbar, before carrying on with a lightning advance to the north.
Following the defeat at Stirling in 1297, Edward returned to Scotland in July 1298, leading an army to Falkirk where he decisively defeated the Scots.
The Scots rallied around William Wallace until his capture and grisly execution by the English in 1305, and then Robert the Bruce. Edward’s war against the Scots continued for the rest of his life, invading Scotland periodically to suppress revolts, until his death on 7 July 1307.
He left a country much improved and an empire enlarged when he died. His tomb, in Westminster Abbey, is inscribed with the words, ‘Hammer of the Scots’. His son, Edward II (Eleanor’s youngest son), however, was not of the same ilk and saw his army defeated in Scotland within a few years of his father’s death, finally ending English attempts to seize control of Scotland.
Stone of Scone
Part of Edward’s attempts to subjugate the Scots was the removal, following the disposition of de Balliol, of the Stone of Scone. The stone, a 336lb block of yellow sandstone inscribed with a Latin cross, had been in Scottish possession since 840 CE and, incorporated into the king’s throne, was an integral part of the coronation of Scottish kings. In 1296, Edward had it removed and transported to London where it was to serve a similar coronation function, symbolising that the king of England was also king of Scotland. Possession of the stone remained a thorny issue for centuries to come and indeed was stolen from its place in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1950 by a group of Scottish nationalists. It was recovered and eventually officially returned to Scotland in 1996, exactly 700 years after its removal.