Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

King Edmund I (not Blackadder...)

I meant to write something on King Edmund I (reigned 1272-96), youngest son and successor of Henry III, to mark the anniversary of his death on 5th June, but got caught up with other things. Hence this is late...very, very late! Hopefully still of interest though.
The arms of Edmund of Lancaster, before his coronation

As we all know, Edmund became king unexpectedly after the death of his older brother Edward, stabbed by an assassin in the Holy Land in 1271-2. Edward's surgeons managed to cut away most of the diseased flesh around the wound, but the knife was poisoned, and Edward eventually succumbed.

Edmund himself was traveling to join his brother on Crusade at the time of the assassination, having contracted in England to serve Edward at the head of a hundred knights in return for 10,000 marks and shipping. He only reached the Holy Land in the late summer of 1271, by which time (we're uncertain when exactly Edward was killed) his brother may have already been dead. Stricken by grief, and hard pressed financially - he was forced to borrow money from creditors in Acre, and to send home to his mother for more funds - he departed in May 1272, having accomplished little of note. His little army made its way safely but sadly back to England, carrying the body of his older brother. For the rest of his life Edmund harboured frustrated ambitions to return to the Holy Land, and even took a second Crusading vow in November 1289, never to be fulfilled.

He eventually arrived home in 1274, having sent the grievous news of Edward's death on ahead to his parents. Henry III had died two years earlier, struck down by a fatal stroke as soon as word of his eldest son's demise was delivered to him by a trembling envoy. His queen Eleanor never really recovered and, after receiving King Edmund in London, retired to spend the rest of her days in the quiet sanctuary of the Abbey of St Mary and St Melor at Amesbury, praying for Edward's soul. 

As king, Edmund's chief domestic concern was to maintain the fragile peace in England, still recovering from the effects of the Second Baron's War, and to hang on to the remaining Plantagenet territories in France. Shortly after his coronation he was besieged by complaints of the abuses of local sheriffs, which he made some effort to rectify by removing the worst offenders from office. He also tried to improve the chaotic state of law and order, the inevitable result of civil war, but with only limited success: by the 1290s, twenty years into his reign, much of the north and midlands remained unsafe, and there were complaints of outlaw bands roving to and fro at will, 'despoiling and slaying religious and secular persons'. Edmund was much hampered by the attitude of ex-baronial rebels, such as Henry de Hastings, John Giffard and John Deyville, who instead of enforcing the law actively helped to break it, and were often accused of sheltering bands of robbers on their estates. 


Before he left for the Holy Land, Edmund had acquired the vast estates that later came to form the duchy of Lancaster: many of them in dubious circumstances following the harsh legal actions taken against Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby. Edmund had also received many other grants from his father, including a great number of lands and castles in Wales. Even before his brother's death, Edmund was in receipt of immense power and landed wealth, making him one of the most important Marcher barons in the kingdom. As such, he had a personal interest in the enforcement of crown authority in Wales. This set him on an inevitable collision with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the ambitious prince of Gwynedd who had caused so much trouble for Edmund's father. Three times Edmund summoned Llewellyn to London, to pledge his allegiance to the English crown. Three times Llewellyn refused, probably suspicious of English intentions, especially since Edmund had given shelter to his rebel brother Dafydd. 

Surviving copy of the Treaty of Conway
It soon became clear that a military settlement would have to be forced on the prince, but this was far easier said than done. Edmund was only too aware of the appalling defeats Anglo-Norman armies had suffered in Wales, the most recent being the destruction of a mercenary army under Stephen Bauzan at Coed Llathen in 1256. A competent but cautious soldier, Edmund was unwilling to summon the vast resources needed to break Llewellyn, and effectively pawn the English crown to Italian bankers. Instead he followed the example of his grandfather, King John, and attempted to exert pressure on Llewellyn by using his fellow Marcher lords and native Welsh rulers to increase royal territory and power in North Wales. 

The prince remained obdurate, and was only brought to the negotiating table after a partial invasion of North Wales in 1278. Edmund built a new castle at Rhuddlan and, using it as his base, advanced some way into Welsh territory at the head of an army of Marcher lords and a limited number of Gascon and Basque mercenaries. The campaign ground to a halt in bad weather, but Llewellyn was sufficiently unnerved by the scale of the king's Welsh support to agree to terms. The Treaty of Conway, signed in May 1279, agreed that Llewellyn would acknowledge the King of England as his feudal lord, in return for which he would be permitted to rule Gwynedd unmolested by Marcher or Crown ambitions.

The campaign of 1279 and subsequent treaty may have been mere face-saving exercises for Edmund, but he quickly took advantage of the peace. He bestowed a number of marcher lordships on Dafydd, setting up an effective buffer zone between Gwynedd and the English heartlands, and tacitly encouraging Dafydd to encroach on his brother's territory. Llewellyn and Dafydd were at daggers drawn for the next five years, until Dafydd contrived to have his brother poisoned. The treacherous nobleman duly succeeded to the lordship of Gwynedd, but spent the rest of his days fighting off ambitious kinsmen and outraged supporters of his late brother. England, by and large, was left in peace until the accession of Dafydd's fiery son, Owain y Gwyall (Owain 'of the axe') in 1301.

Scotland and France Edmund was anxious to maintain good relations with his brother kings in France and Scotland, and went to great efforts to do so. Upon the death of his sister, Margaret, wife of King Alexander III of Scotland, in 1275, he offered his daughter Mary as Alexander's new bride. Alexander accepted, but no children were born to the royal couple before his untimely death in 1290, breaking his neck while out hunting. Unable to agree a successor, in 1296 the Scottish barons invited Edmund to choose a new king from among them. By now seriously ill, Edmund half-heartedly proposed that his eldest son, Thomas, be married to Alexander's only living child, the infant Margaret, the 'Maid of Norway.' Edmund didn't live to witness the untimely death of Margaret in September 1296, and the English crown under his eighteen-year old successor Thomas I (1296-1318) had no influence on the choice of John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, as the new King of Scots. Aside from Scotland and Wales, Edmund was chiefly interested in retaining Gascony, Ponthieu and Aquitaine, the rump of the once-mighty Angevin Empire in France. A better diplomat than he was a soldier, he managed to keep on largely friendly terms with his cousins Philippe III and Philippe IV of France until the very end of his reign. Upon the death of his first wife, Queen Aveline, he married Blanche of Artois in 1275, the widow of the King of Navarre. By virtue of this union Edmund was de facto governor of Champagne until 1284, and acquired the courtesy title of Count of Champagne and Brie. When duty allowed, he paid regular visits to Champagne and Navarre, and personally quelled a civil revolt at Provins in January 1280. 

Despite his personal ties to France, Edmund was unable to deter the energetic and ambitious French king, Philippe IV, from exploiting the trouble that flared up between sailors of Normandy and Gascony in 1293, resulting in the bloody sack of La Rochelle. Various conferences between English and French diplomats came to nothing, and in 1294 Aquitaine was formally confiscated by Philippe. 

Furious at being duped, Edmund made immediate preparations for war. He was hampered by the indifferent attitude of his barons, who had little enthusiasm for military service overseas, and his own increasingly bad health. Accompanied by Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, Edmund finally sailed at the head of an army of mercenaries to reinforce his garrisons in south-west France. The following campaign achieved little. After sailing up the Gironde to Bourg and Blaye, Edmund collected what forces he could and advanced on Bordeaux in late March, but the occupying French forces had had time to prepare and the city proved impregnable. A few English soldiers did manage to force an entry, but the gates were closed behind them and they were taken. It seems that an attempt was then made to bribe some citizens into handing the city over to the English, but this was discovered. With money running short, and, in the knowledge of the approach of a large French force, Edmund raised the siege and withdrew. He fell ill about Whitsun and died on 5 June 1296 at Bayonne. 

Detail from tomb effigy of Edmund I

He had instructed that his body was not to be buried until his debts had been paid, so the body was embalmed and kept by the Franciscans of Bayonne until it was shipped back to England in 1297 and honourably buried in Westminster Abbey. Edmund's elaborately carved tomb survives, fittingly, next to his brother's. His first wife, Avelina, is also buried there, her small canopied tomb surviving on the north side of the presbytery. With his second wife, Blanche, who survived him, Edmund had three sons, Thomas, Henry, and John, and one daughter. 

During the disastrous reign of his ill-fated successor, Thomas, the modest successes of Edmund I came to be fondly remembered as a sort of golden age. Following the assassination of Thomas in 1318 by his own wife, Alice de Lacy, the crown passed to Edmund's younger son Henry IV (1318-1333) who abdicated on account of blindness in favour of his son Henry V (1333-61), known to later generations as Henry the Conqueror, or Henry the Great.


  1. What a saga.

    When I visited England 15 years ago, I was fortunate enough to tour Westminster Abbey. I knew some history, but not enough. What I wouldn't give to go back now and see it all again.

    1. Petrea, I made it all up, or most of it - an attempt at alternative history! :)

  2. David, you're such a naughty boy! We, the poor readers of yours, all have fallen victim to your prank. I knew at once that we all must have felt a little bit confused by the above post, hence the much-telling lack of comments :-) Anyway, my suspicions were already aroused with Ned's death in the Holy Land- to my knowledge, he did survive :-) The tomb image of Henry III and ther caption beneath served as the final proof of how mischievous you could be (and how creative). But to your credit, great alternative story :-D

    1. :) I thought it might be a good premise for an alt-history novel. We'll see...

    2. Ha ha David. Very clever. Then again there have been times when I have been tempted- very tempted- especially when people try to attribute the events of 1483-5 to some kind of 'Lancastrian Conspiracy' when almost all of the Lancastrians were dead.

      I am inclined to spin a yearn about it all being planned by the ghost of Henry V (1413-1422) in cahoots with Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset.

    3. Thanks Anna! Alt-history can be a lot of fun.

  3. Edmund, his wife, Blanche, and their unfortunate son, Henry, all appear as characters in Sharon Kay Penman's Welsh trilogy, but you know that :-) Just as a recommendation to your readers who will surely want to learn more about Edmund, their interest kindled by your post :-)

    1. Is the Henry you refer to Henry of Lancaster? How was he unfortunate? I know he went blind in later life.

  4. God, I've just had the two Henrys mixed, and, if that was not enough, their parents mixed :-) I meant Henry of Almain, the son of Richard of Cornwall, Henry III's brother... How could this happen??? :-D

    1. Ah ha! Yes, H of Almain was indeed unfortunate. Apparently his murderers shouted 'This is for Evesham!' or similar as they stabbed him.

  5. Darn, now I'm going to have to read an actual book!