A contemporary historian who knew him said Edward I of England was very tall, with long neck, arms and legs, and gave him the nickname ‘Longshanks’. It is certain that he was an excellent horseman, and expert with a sword or axe. He looked sinister, as his left eyelid drooped, but his councillors learned quickly to listen very carefully to the king, who was prone to fits of typically Plantagenet bad temper. He threw his daughter Elizabeth’s coronet into a blazing fire in one of these fits, and in another he actually threw one of his errant son Edward’s male lovers out of a tower window.
Edward was born in 1239, a son of King Henry III. Still young, he married first a Spanish princess or infanta called Eleanor of Castile, and second a princess of France, Margaret. He was fond of fighting, strategy and pitched battles, and earned a fearsome reputation fighting for his father Henry. Historians like to compare Edward’s military and legal skills with those of the Emperor Justinian, but perhaps this is wishful thinking.
To extent and defend English royal power he defeated serious opposers such as Simon de Montfort (1265), conquered Wales (1277 – 82), and suppressed Scotland (1296 – 1305). Virtually at the same time he fought to protect his lands in Gascony, which the French king was eager to grab.
His legal reforms were many and varied: the Statute of Westminster (1275, feudal administration), Quo Warrento (1278, crown lands) and the Statute of Winchester (1285, law and order in general). Though he had never heard of democracy, he actually called a parliament in 1295.
The ‘untrustworthy’ label probably comes from his generous endowment of an abbey at Vale Royal (Cheshire), which he subsequently ceased to support. He was lightly pious, but this did not prevent him from dealing severely with the clergy and their leader the Archbishop of Canterbury when they tried to avoid paying taxes that he had imposed. What he really wanted to do was ‘go on a Crusade’, that bizarre idea of a holiday for many early English kings. Events prevented him from doing so.
Edward did not gain much popularity from his barons when he banned jousting, a favourite sport of the nobility. The reason, he explained, was that he wished to ensure that the barons and knights did not allow their attention to wander from the task of military campaigning.
His popularity waned more when he decided not to create any more peerages, not even to those men who had been loyal. But his rather dubious treasurer Langton made a fortune out of his position, and it was up to Edward’s unsatisfactory son Edward II to put Langton on trial for corruption after his father’s death.
It must be said that Edward ‘Hammer of the Scots’ was not loved much by his barons, but the ordinary people saw him as a great king. He was certainly respected, and greatly feared, with reason. There is an excellent impersonation of Edward I by the actor Patrick MacGoohan in the otherwise dreadful and inaccurate film Braveheart (1995) It is almost, but not quite, worth seeing this piece of rubbish just to watch MacGoohan as Edward I. Everything else in the movie is invented or manipulated ‘history’ of the kind that should be avoided.