Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Ed One, Part One

King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) isn't everyone's cup of mead these days. His reputation has taken a battering in recent times, thanks in part to his villainous turn in Braveheart and popular novels by Edith Pargeter and Sharon Penman. My intention here isn't to try and give his character a polish, or tip another bucket of slime over it, but to take a look at him as a fighter. His career was a long one, so I'll divide it into two parts.

Ned Longshanks
Sandwiched between two kings (Henry III and Edward II) with little military capacity, Edward has traditionally been held up as a great soldier and battlefield commander. Some doubt has been cast on that recently - were all those huge castles in Wales really necessary? Wasn't the invasion of Scotland nothing but a massive waste of time and resources? Etc. Personally I'm not convinced by the revisionism, and want to steady General Longshanks on his wobbling pedestal.

As a youth, Edward didn't show much promise as a soldier or anything else. Encouraged by his ambitious kinsmen, the Lusignans, he rode about with a band of cronies behaving like a vicious thug and making a fool of himself at tournaments. The chronicler Matthew Paris, no fan of the prince, reported with glee that Edward and the Lusignans were badly beaten at certain tournaments in France, and lost all their horses and armour. Paris also recounted a nasty story of Edward ordering his cronies to mutilate a peasant they met on the road, lopping off the luckless youth's ears and gouging out an eye. Whether the story was true or not, the teenage Edward doesn't come across as a pleasant individual. "If he does these things when the wood is green," wrote Paris, "what will he do once it is ripe?"

Matthew Paris
There were hints of something more to Edward. Men were drawn to him, and he showed a definite talent for leadership. When the tension between his father Henry III and Simon de Montfort exploded into civil war, Edward was keen to prove his worth. In April 1264 he stormed Northampton via a clever ruse, sending troops through a side-entrance to catch the rebel barons in flank while they were busy fending off an attack on the gatehouse. Edward also showed his devious side: at Gloucester he was almost caught by his hated rival, Robert de Ferrers, but persuaded the gullible Henry de Montfort, one of Simon's sons, to strike a truce - long enough for Edward to slip out of the town and get away.

Edward's inconstancy, his willingness to break his word for the sake of advantage, was remarked on by contemporaries. The Song of Lewes, composed to praise the rebel barons, described him as "a lion in pride and fierceness, but a pard (a semi-mythical creature) by his inconstancy and changeableness...changing his word and promise, cloaking himself in pleasant speech." In fairness his enemies were no different. When a party of rebel barons surrendered to Edward at Bycarr's Dyke in Lincolnshire, promising never to rise in arms against the crown again, they promptly broke their oath and went on the rampage, burning and looting and ravaging the northern counties.

'Use up the Irish'...etc etc
At the Battle of Lewes in May 1264 Edward famously lost the battle for the royalists, charging off after the beaten Londoners and only returning after the rest of his father's army had been routed. The prince had no choice but to surrender to the victorious de Montfort. He spent the next year as a hostage, and the sheer humiliation and danger of his position seems to have forged a new resolve in him. With the Earl of Gloucester's connivance, he engineered a clever escape, riding away from his baffled guards to raise a new army in the Welsh Marches.

The following campaign saw Edward out-fox and out-fight the de Montfort clan. At Kenilworth he fell upon the rebels quartered in the town, slaughtering and killing many, taking others captive. Simon de Montfort's son, another Simon, only escaped by swimming the moat in his nightshirt to the safety of the castle. Deprived of his son's troops, Simon senior was trapped inside the Vale of Evesham. The old man took a certain grim pleasure in the cleverness of Edward's tactics: "Our enemies come on well," he remarked as the royalists advanced on Evesham under false banners, "but they learned it from me." In the following battle de Montfort's outnumbered army was smashed and their commander's corpse hacked to pieces. Here Edward showed his savage and vengeful side, hanging the dead man's testicles either side of his nose and sending his severed foot in a box (gift-wrapped, perhaps?) as a present to the wife of a royalist baron. Edward's cruel streak, inherited from his Angevin forebears - the 'Devil's Brood' - never left him, though it was arguably softened for a while due to the influence of his wife, Eleanor of Castile.

After Evesham, Edward truly came to the fore. With his aged father gently fading into the background, the prince assumed full control of the royal armies. He was in the field for almost two years fighting to suppress the Disinherited, a second wave of rebel barons who sprang to arms shortly after Evesham. In the winter of 1265 and spring of 1266 he was constantly on the move, crushing a rebellion in Northumberland and besieging the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, where northern barons led by John de Eyvill had holed up. He also found time to rush south and flush out a gang of outlaws haunting the region of Alton Pass, which controlled the highway to Southampton. While his men stormed the barriers guarding the outlaw hideout, Edward engaged their leader, a gigantic knight named Adam de Gurdon, in single combat. Edward beat de Gurdon to his knees and had him carried away in chains to Windsor. There was no such mercy for the outlaw knight's followers, who were hanged on trees near their camp. After this exploit Edward was present at the epic siege of Kenilworth, the strongest castle in England. The bloody-minded rebel garrison held out until December 1266, when cold and starvation forced them to surrender.

As a general, Edward had showed he could move swiftly when the need arose, taking even skilled veterans like Simon de Montfort by surprise. He also seemed to be trying to improve the quality of English infantry. In 1266 he and his chief lieutenant, Roger de Leyburn, were engaged in clearing Essex of rebels and retaking the Cinque Ports, which controlled the Channel and English trade with France. The surviving pay rolls for this brief campaign show that Edward was employing hundreds of Welsh archers, expert longbowmen from Gwent and the Marches. More archers and crossbowmen were recruited to serve in the Nottingham garrison and fight outlaws in Sherwood. Edward, it seemed, had come to appreciate the value of missile troops and the longbow in particular.

The long civil war finally came to an end in the summer of 1267, when the last major baronial rebels laid down their arms and received a pardon at St Pauls in London. After receiving their submission, Edward reduced the last rebel outpost at the Isle of Ely, building a pontoon bridge and setting fire to the dry reeds (William the Conqueror's old strategy) to force the outlaws inside to surrender.

There's little doubt that without Edward's energy and leadership, the revolt of the Disinherited might have dragged on for much longer. Two years later, with England at peace, he felt confident enough to head off on Crusade, taking a few chums with him. Of his adventures in the Holy Land, and the wars in Wales, France and Scotland, more to come in Part Deux...


  1. Nice post. And while Edward undoubtedly had quite the nasty streak, he was a product of his times. Personally, I rather admire the man (can one say that out loud?)

    1. I guess they can :) I can only speak for myself but I too grudgingly admire Edward's effectiveness.

  2. He appears to have had a modicum of charisma. And I like the way he treated his wives.