The Five-Minute Medievalist talks about the life and times of Edward I, King of England.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Braveheart, you probably remember Edward as the grouchy old king who famously pushed his son’s lover out the window. I probably don’t need to tell you at this point that Braveheart’s not the best place to find your history, but Edward I was the man who decided he was going to conquer Scotland. Beyond just his campaigns in Scotland, though, Edward was a fascinating man and a really interesting part of the Middle Ages.
Edward was born in 1239 and he was the grandson of the infamous King John of Robin Hood legends. Edward grew to be over six feet tall, which gave him the nickname “Longshanks” or “long legs”. When he was just fifteen years old, Edward was knighted and he was married to the twelve-year-old half-sister of the King of Castile as part of a peace treaty. Now, they were both very young, but somehow, the marriage worked out. Edward and Eleanor became constant companions and friends for their thirty-six-year marriage. And they had sixteen kids.
When Eleanor died, Edward went on procession through southern England, and everywhere he stopped, he built a cross in her memory. Some of these “Eleanor Crosses” are still in existence today.
When Edward was in his teens and early twenties, England was a bit of a nightmare. His uncle, Simon de Montfort, was in constant rebellion against his father, King Henry III, and the two of them exchanged power and control over the kingdom back and forth over years. It was a crazy time, and Edward did crazy things, like even robbing the Knights Templar to fund his mercenaries to help get his dad out of the Tower of London.
Edward was taken hostage several times during this conflict, but he had this unchivalrous habit of promising to behave himself and then escaping. My favourite story is the one in which Edward asked his guards if he could borrow their horses to race. All day he went back and forth, racing the guards’ horses, racing the guards’ horses, until he finally came to the last pair. But instead of racing the last pair, he took off and escaped.
It’s like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and I can’t actually believe that it worked. Edward probably couldn’t believe it, either.
Shortly after his escape with the horse trick, Edward defeated his uncle Simon de Montfort in a terrible, bloody battle in 1265. You would think that at that point Edward would’ve had enough of battle, but nope – he decided he was going to go on crusade with Louis IX of France, later known as St. Louis. Even though Louis died almost immediately, Edward decided to sail on to Acre and still attempt to be a crusader, even though he was pretty much the only one who was still into it at that time. Finally, after someone tried to assassinate him, Edward decided he’d had enough of the Holy Land. The story goes that Edward was stabbed with a poisoned blade and that his wife Eleanor – who was on crusade with him, believe it or not – sucked the poison out of the wound herself. (What a woman!) Chances are, the whole poison thing didn’t happen, but Edward was stabbed, and he was lucky to have escaped with his life.
It was on his long journey home that Edward learned that he had become king. He was 33 years old, and his experience with the ups and downs of his father’s rule gave him some pretty firm ideas about how he wanted to run things.
When he finally got back to England in 1274, Edward immediately did a survey of the entire country, the results of which are now called the Hundred Rolls. He wanted to find out what people owned, but also if they were happy with how they were being governed. And then he summoned the biggest parliament England had ever seen and he immediately set about creating new laws.
In the meantime, there was rebellion in Wales. Edward didn’t immediately set out to flatten Wales, but he lost patience with them and eventually conquered the whole country, building giant castles which you can still see in places like Conwy and Caernarfon. Then, he turned his attention to Scotland. Although Edward died before he could ever actually conquer Scotland, he did fight in fierce battles against generals such as William Wallace – who he did execute in a particularly nasty way – and Robert the Bruce. His ruthlessness in Scotland is what gave him his other nickname: “The Hammer of the Scots”. This may have also had something to do with the fact that he built the world’s largest trebuchet to besiege Stirling Castle. And even though they surrendered before he could fire a stone, he made the people stay in there anyway, just so he could try it out.
Edward I died in 1307 at the ripe old (medieval) age of 68. He’d lived a complex and fascinating life as a ruthless general, a domineering king, and a family man. If you want to spend more than five minutes with Edward I, I’d recommend reading Marc Morris’ book, A Great and Terrible King – which sums up Edward so neatly in just that once sentence. Thanks, everyone, for watching. I’ll see you next time!
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