Longsword by David Pilling

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Take a look at this guy. It's a climactic scene in *That Movie*, and old beardy here in the unflattering metal hat is about to order his archers to shoot at his own men in order to win a battle. Check out those true-blue eyes. Brrr. And the prosthetic nose.

Pretty nasty, huh? That's the least of his crimes. Elsewhere in *That Movie* he institutes the mass rape of newlywed women in Scotland, hangs unarmed Scottish noblemen, beats the tar out of his own son and – in a scene that appears to be played for laughs - throws a homosexual out of a window.

That's Edward Longshanks for you, the 'most ruthless man to ever sit on the English throne' according to the strange leper/hobbit-type creature that is Robert de Bruce's father in *That Movie*. He's a mean, nasty, cruel, inhuman piece of work, played to perfection by the late Patrick McGoohan. And what's more, he's got one of those posh BBC English accents, which is always a clear sign of evil.
Turning to a 1960s textbook my father gave me - 'The Living World of History', no less - we have a rather different description of the same man: 'King Edward I, who reigned from 1272 to 1307, was a rare character. Tall and erect and sinewy, his length of leg gained him the nickname of "Longshanks." He was a proud and truly royal prince, a fearless and peerless knight, and altogether a man's man."

So there - separated by just a few decades, we have one portrayal of Edward as a peerlessly erect - *blush* - prince, and then the sneering slimeball of Mel's opus. Divergence of opinion on Edward is nothing new. Victorian historians tended to lionise him, such as Bishop William Stubbs, who called him The English Justinian. We don't hark much to the Victorians these days, what with them being horrid imperialists who got sexually aroused by table legs and all - yah, no, it's totally true, I saw it on a documentary somewhere - but the generally positive view of Edward's reign and achievements is still maintained by modern academics such as Michael Prestwich.

Elsewhere opinions on Edward are pretty negative, and undoubtedly influenced by *That Movie*. I've noticed in recent weeks some extreme comments made about him on internet and Facebook forums (surely the founts of all knowledge), including wild claims that he was in the habit of torturing and murdering his prisoners, and a sort of medieval Hitler who committed mass genocide on a more or less daily basis. The poor guy can’t catch a break anywhere, and one recent author of self-proclaimed ‘historical integrity’ claims that Edward wasn’t even his father’s son, but the bastard offspring of an affair between Simon de Montfort and Eleanor of Provence. Portraying English medieval queens as wanton adulteresses who had affairs and then foisted their backstairs spawn on the throne is a nasty tendency in recent historical fiction, and really needs to stop.

Edward could certainly be cruel. Matthew Paris records an unpleasant story, possibly untrue, of the youthful Edward and his Lusignan buddies setting upon and mutilating a defenceless peasant for a laugh. He at times behaved with great savagery in Scotland and Wales, including the infamous massacre at Berwick, the incarceration of Bruce's female relatives in hanging cages, and his refusal to allow the garrison at Stirling to surrender until he had tried out his new toy, the gigantic siege engine 'War-Wolf', on the defences. More horrors could be added to that list. Medieval warfare was unimaginably brutal, and Edward's enemies were equally ruthless. 
Contemporaries accorded Edward a great deal more respect than they did his predecessor and successor. Hard he may have been, but the 'first knight of Christendom' united England after the catastrophes of his father's reign, earned a heroic reputation on Crusade, made monumental legal reforms, and strengthened the power of the English crown. More than that, he was lucky (he once narrowly avoided being crushed by a collapsing ceiling while playing chess), had the gift of inspiring loyalty in his barons (most of the time) and was supremely successful in war. 'England rejoice, thy prince is peerless,' was the verdict of the Lanercost chronicler after the Battle of Falkirk, which was the kind of press Henry III and Edward II could only dream about. Bar a serious crisis in the late 1290s, Edward was extremely popular with his English subjects. One of the most popular acts of his reign – obscene to modern eyes – was his expulsion of the Jews in 1290. As Sharon Penman said on her blog recently, Anti-Semitism was a virus that all medieval Christians inhaled at birth, and the English were no exception.  
In person, Edward must have been mesmerizing. At six feet two inches, he was taller than most of his contemporaries, with arms too long for his body, a drooping eyelid inherited from his father (not Simon de Montfort) and a lisp. His rages were terrifying, and one prelate was said to have dropped dead from sheer fright after Edward erupted at him. He did indeed assault his son, the future Edward II, on at least one occasion, tearing clumps of hair from the prince’s head and kicking him out of the room after Young Ned had unwisely asked for lands to be bestowed on his best friend, Piers Gaveston.
There was a softer side to this towering bully, and some evidence of a sense of humour. He broke down and wept when informed that his (real) father had died, and fell to pieces when he lost his beloved first wife, Eleanor of Castile. “My harp is turned to mourning”, he wrote as her funeral cort├ęge travelled south to London, and the final staging-post of her journey, Charing Cross, is testament to his love for her: ‘Charing’ is a corruption of ‘Cher Reine’ or ‘Dear Queen’. A record of a bet Edward had with the royal laundress Matilda of Waltham, in which he challenged her to a horse-race (and lost), suggests he was capable of cracking a smile, as does the letter he wrote in the 1300s concerning Nicholas de Segrave: that knight, Edward recommended, was to be given plenty of parkland to roam in, for ‘we well know his talent for running away’. The joke creaks, but it’s something.
And then there are the slaughtered innocents of Berwick. Ultimately, Edward was a hard man in a hard time, and in many ways an alien and repellent figure to our eyes. But very few medieval kings could possibly be described as pleasant people by modern standards, and it wasn’t their job to be nice. As cruel and as able as his despised grandfather, King John, but a great deal luckier and more successful, Edward I could perhaps be judged as W.L Warren judged John: a man with ‘the abilities of a great ruler, but the inclinations of a petty tyrant’.



  1. Hi David

    Really interesting and colourful post about Edward the 1st. To be honest I've always seen Edward as a nasty tyrant but I'm begining to learn through debating on FB (yes debate does create an educating millieu sometimes even on FB)that there are many aspects to consider when it comes to historical royal figures. I am coming to realise that they are all capable of terrible deeds at some point or another. And 90 of them have committed at least one horrific 'crime' if you like. Mind you, if I was a Welshman, I think I might be justified in my dislike of Edward who was particularly harsh on them and the great Prince Llewellyn
    ap Gruffydd.

  2. Thanks Paula! I thought I would try and present him, warts and all, not that the life of a king who lived almost 70 years can be adequately summarised in such a short blog post. Yes, if I was Welsh I wouldn't like Edward much either - though facts are awkward things. Edward would never have conquered Gwynedd and beaten Wallace without thousands of willing Welsh mercenaries...

    As an aside, Llewellyn's 'greatness' is debatable, imo.

  3. Really enjoyed this post. Yes, it does seem that in certain quarters these days, Edward I is only ever described as some kind of genocidal maniac, one of the worst men who ever lived without a single redeeming feature. Even given the fact that it's entirely understandable that he would be disliked in Wales, it gets a bit silly and one-dimensional. I'm not particularly a fan of his, admittedly, but he was a complex man who (as you say) lived for nearly 70 years, and whose legal reforms we can be grateful for.