Longsword by David Pilling

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Book review

As a change of tack from my usual fiction-related mutterings, here is my review of Dr Caroline Burt's 2013 study of the governance of Edward I:

Dr Caroline Burt’s monograph seeks to reposition Edward I as one of medieval England’s most capable, effective and forceful rulers. Her focus is domestic government rather than military or foreign policy and how Edwardian government operated at a local level. To this end Burt selects three counties, Shopshire, Warwickshire and Kent, and analyses how Edward’s legislation affected these localities. Burt’s particular expertise is 13th century law, and she has a happy knack for explaining complex legal processes via plain, economic language.

Burt begins by explaining the ideas and arguments that underpinned European kingship in this era, with emphasis on the development of ‘the common good’ as the particular responsibility of kings. The language of this concept was influenced by roman and Canon law initially claimed by popes and emperors to expand their authority. In England these ideas, transferred from the continent, meshed with the rise of common law and the Montfortian reforms introduced via the crises of the 1250s and 60s. Thus Edward’s political education was steeped in the language of reform, and many ideas endured despite his destruction of their promoter, Simon de Montfort. One of his first acts as king was to address a major grievance of 1258, that Henry III’s subjects found both the king and royal justice inaccessible. The Statute of Westminster I, enacted in 1275, made improvements to the provision of access to royal justice, increasing the number of options available to litigants. In addition freemen were encouraged to bring formal or unwritten complaints to the government, while the number of commissions of oyer and terminer increased fourfold from 1273-1275. In 1278 Edward directly addressed another of the grievances of 1258, that more local men should be appointed to the shrievalty, and this policy remained generally consistent thereafter.

Burt challenges Michael Prestwich’s long-established view that Edward’s legislative reforms were largely the work of lawyers, with minimal input from the king. She highlights the interventionist nature of Edwardian government, especially in the localities, where the king’s personal choice and promotion of officials had considerable influence on government and public order. Edward’s appointment of capable soldier-administrators to the shrievalty in Shropshire, for instance, both ensured adequate government and the defence of this volatile region. Royal commissions sent to individual counties, along with Edward’s intervention in local disputes, combined effectively to suppress crime and the threat of private war. In this context, Edward’s humiliation of the Earls of Gloucester and Hereford in 1290 was not simply an exercise in ‘masterfulness’, as Professor Rees-Davies put it, but part of a conscious ongoing policy to bring peace and order to the March. Edward’s policy was necessarily dictated by varying conditions: in Warwickshire, for instance, there were many tensions left over from the crises of the previous reign. Each area of the kingdom had its own weak spots and were remedied in different ways. In Kent, ad hoc commissions were set up to deal with local grievances, while the Warden of the Cinque Ports was given a specific brief to deal with crime. In Warwickshire Edward exercised a hands-off policy, relying instead on greater access to royal courts to reduce the level of disorder.

The overall affect of policy, coupled with vast swathes of new legislation, made the first twenty years of Edward’s reign remarkably successful. In 1286 he felt secure enough to leave England for three years to attend to affairs on the continent. His departure coincided with a general rise in domestic crime, a pattern that was repeated in future years as Edward became increasingly embroiled in foreign wars. The notion of ‘great men’ influencing events is unpopular these days, yet Burt provides compelling statistical evidence of the importance of the monarch’s personal presence and intervention in government. Put simply, whenever Edward was distracted from domestic affairs, the level of crime and disorder went up. When he devoted his energies to goverment, it went down again. Part of this may have been due to the fear and respect of his subjects for Edward’s tough attitude towards lawbreakers; or simply that in time of peace he was able to direct his full resources to tackling crime.

No ruler, however tough or capable, could shoulder the burdens of governance alone. Burt pays due tribute to Edward’s advisors, especially his Chancellor, Robert Burnell, and the chief justice Ralph Hengham. Burnell in particular forged a close working relationship with the king, and from 1274 to Burnell’s death in 1292 the two men seem to have barely spent a day apart. Burt speculates, as others have, how this relationship worked: the most likely interpretation is that Edward provided the drive and energy for political reform, while Burnell supplied the creative and technical detail. After Burnell’s death the pace of new legislation slowed, but this doesn’t mean Edward was suddenly bereft of ideas. His government after this date could prove surprisingly sophisticated. Burt notes that the proclamation Edward issued on August 12th 1297, justifying prises taken for the French war, drew on recent scholarship: the language deployed was almost a facsimile of De Regimine Principium by Thomas Aquinas. It seems scarcely credible that Edward spent his spare time reading Aquinas, but someone in his administration was clearly aware of the work and alerted the king to its usefulness.

From 1294 onwards, Edward’s rule ran into serious difficulties. The king’s military commitments rapidly increased until he found himself at war on three fronts: Scotland, Gascony, and Wales. This in turn had the inevitable effect on public order as nobles were called away to fight and increasingly oppressive taxes imposed. Edward declared the poor of his realm should not be prised, but the burdens of prise and purveyance were clearly felt by all classes of society. By 1297 the crisis was acute and Edward faced the prospect of civil war; at the same time his armies were defeated in Gascony and Scotland. His military fortunes improved when he signed a peace treaty with the French and defeated the Scots at Falkirk, but he remained obdurate against domestic opposition. His displays of bad faith at this time recalled the worst days of his youth, and suggest that in some respects the leopard had not changed his spots: at one point he sneaked out of London with the minimum of dignity, simply to avoid signing a charter of concessions. In the end Edward swallowed his pride and signed the Confirmatio Cartarum, which brought a swift end to the crisis. The protests against his rule were specific, rather than an expression of general dissatisfaction, and might have been dealt with much earlier if Edward himself was not so inflexible in the face of opposition.

A decade of war had an inevitable effect on the state of order in the localities. By the early 1300s Edward was obliged to react to the crime-wave sweeping across England, probably a consequence of bands of soldiery turning to robbery and homicide between campaigns.The king’s solution was the trailbaston commissions, so-called after the clubs or ‘bastons’ that many of the lawbreakers carried. These new commissions were authorised to investigate all crimes committed in England since 1297. In cases where no private accuser could be found, suspects would be tried at the king’s suit. As Burt states, this last measure was unprecedented and a prime example of Edward’s personal intervention in law and law enforcement. Trailbaston was accompanied by a typically forceful public statement from the king, in which he declared his intention to wreak vengeance on those who ‘flouted’ his lordship and whose ‘outrages were like the beginning of civil war.’ The commissions proved successful, at least in the short term: record numbers of criminals were rounded up, long-running disputes ended, violence and lawlessness reduced to manageable levels. As an added bonus, the crown benefited from revenues brought by forfeiture of land and property.

Edward’s finances also benefited from improved relations with the papacy, which permitted him to exploit the revenues of vacant bishoprics and money from crusading taxes. In his last years the king’s cash-flow was also supplemented by a loan from the Frescobaldi, who had replaced the Riccardi as his chief source of borrowing. Much of this debt was repaid, but other debts were not, and Edward’s finances were in a parlous state by the time of his death. These debts appear to have had little practical consequence, however, and Edward II experienced no difficulty obtaining a general grant to taxation in 1308. The recent popular notion that Edward went 'bankrupt' during his reign as a result of massive expenditure on castle-building in Wales is incorrect.

The book does have flaws. Burt’s grip on affairs in Wales, the war of 1282 in particular, is sometimes tenuous: in the index she refers to Dafydd ap Gruffudd as ‘Dafydd ap Llywelyn’, and elsewhere misdates the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and the Battle of Maes Moydog. The war of Madog ap Llywelyn is better represented, and provides an interesting example of what Edward could achieve when driven to compromise. Madog’s revolt, Burt argues, demonstrated to the king that he could not hope to keep his gains in Wales without a measure of conciliation. To that end Madog was permitted to live, albeit in prison, and his son Maredudd recruited into the King’s Welshmen (a supplementary unit of the royal bodyguard). Morgan ap Maredudd, leader of the Welsh resistance in Glamorgan, was not only pardoned but knighted and became one of Edward’s chief captains in Scotland. Elsewhere, the weakness of Burt’s statistical arguments is that greater access to royal courts led to an increase in litigation, which in turn generated more documentation. Thus the statistics, based as they are on the frequency of surviving memoranda, are potentially misleading. The author acknowledges this problem and seeks to contextualise whenever possible.