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Edward I: 1272-1307

The final years of Henry III's reign are sufficiently peaceful for Edward, the king's heir, to depart on crusade for the Holy Land. He spends a year in Acre, fighting courageously but to no good effect in defence of the crumbling remnants of the Latin kingdom. He is on his way home, in Sicily, when he hears in 1272 of his father's death.

It is a measure of Edward's confidence in the stability of England, so recently convulsed in the civil war between king and barons, that he spends another two years abroad before returning to Dover in August 1274. He is crowned in Westminster Abbey two weeks later.

Edward's reign of thirty-five years contains several significant moments in English history. The submission of Wales to the English crown is achieved in 1284. The following years see the beginning of prolonged hostilities between England and Scotland. In the harsh saga of European Jewry the year 1290 is a bleak moment, when Edward becomes the first monarch to expel the Jews from his kingdom. Yet that same year prompts the king to a romantic gesture of marital love, rare in the Middle Ages, when he erects the Eleanor Crosses in memory of his wife.

In the government of his kingdom, Edward's policies are notable for his canny use of a gradually evolving institution - parliament.

Edward summons parliaments when he feels he needs them, and for whatever reasons the particular moment demands. To some of these assemblies (approximately one in seven, and usually when he has pressing needs for funds) he invites people of lesser rank than the magnates of nobility and church. Knights are summoned from the shires and citizens from the towns.

These men are genuinely representatives of their community. The king insists that they come with full delegated authority so that any agreement made in parliament (in particular a commitment to provide money) will be honoured by their county or borough. They are the origin of the Commons (or commoners) who eventually become the more powerful of the two houses of parliament.

For the first parliament of Edward's reign, in 1275, knights are summoned to Westminster together with 'citizens, burgesses or other honest men from each of the cities' in order to 'discuss together with the magnates the affairs of our kingdom'.

This parliament passes the first of the many statutes which have caused the reign of Edward I to be seen as a seminal period in the formulation of English law. The Statutes of Westminster of 1275 tackle such important matters as corruption and malpractice among local officials. They also decree that girls shall not be married until they are seven - an important limitation in the ruthless materialism of the medieval marriage market.

The parliament summoned by Edward in 1295 later comes to seem the most significant of his reign, because it prefigures a future pattern - as its subsequent name, the Model Parliament, implies.

This assembly in Westminster Hall represents the nation in a very real sense. The magnates are present in force (the two archbishops, all the bishops, 67 abbots, 8 earls, 41 barons) but they sit with elected representatives of the parish clergy (2 from each diocese) and of each shire (2 knights), city (2 citizens) and borough (2 burgesses). The underlying purpose is to raise money for the king, but that will be true of many subsequent parliaments. Meanwhile a valid pattern of representation has almost accidentally fallen into place.

Edward I and Wales:1277-1301

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, acknowledged prince of Wales by Henry III in 1267, seems almost to go out of his way to affront Henry's successor, Edward I, after his accession in 1272. He fails to attend the coronation in 1274, declines a summons to do homage, and refuses to discharge a large debt to the English king.

In 1277 Edward moves decisively against his recalcitrant vassal. Three English armies march into Wales, from Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. Llywelyn and his forces are soon isolated in the mountainous region of Snowdon. By early November lack of food compels them to surrender.

Llywelyn is forced to sign a treaty on November 9 at Conwy. It strips him of nearly all his territories, reducing the principality to the area of Snowdon. Anglesey is allowed him on lease from the king of England, but the rest of Wales is now to be administered by English agents - a role which they fulfil with such brutality that there is a widespread uprising, headed by Llywelyn, in 1282.

Edward reacts as forcefully as before, with another invasion of Wales during which Llywelyn is killed. But this time the English king takes the whole of Wales into his own hands.

By the statute issued at Rhuddlan in 1284 the principality of Wales is transformed into counties, on the English principle, to be governed by officials on behalf of the crown.

In 1301 Edward adds the final symbolic touch to this suppression of Wales. He revives the much cherished title of 'prince of Wales', bestowing it on his heir, the future Edward II. Ironically Wales now has what it has been fighting for. It is a principality, but an English one. The title has remained, through the centuries, the highest honour granted to the eldest son and heir apparent of the English monarch.

The Welsh, predictably, are unhappy with these arrangements (a further uprising in 1294-5 is ruthlessly crushed by Edward's armies). But the king has a powerful answer.

The very year after the death of Llywelyn, Edward begins the construction of the great castles which are still the glory of the northwest coast of Wales. Each is completed within a few years. Like the clench of a stone fist, these fortresses grip the final Welsh refuge - the region of Snowdonia - from Harlech (1283-9) in the south, to Caernarfon (1283-92) and Beaumaris (1295-8) on either side of the Menai Strait, and on to Conwy (1283-8) in the north. Overawed by these strongholds, Wales remains quiet for a century - till the time of Owain Glyn Dwr.

Edward I and Scotland: 1290-1297

Trouble with Scotland flares up shortly after Edward's suppression of the Welsh. Relations between England and Scotland have been calm in recent years. The Scottish nobles even accept Edward as arbitrator between the various claimants to the Scottish throne when it falls vacant in 1290. And his choice of John de Balliol from among the thirteen candidates receives immediate and widespread assent.

But the English king's treatment of the new king of Scots - and of the Scottish nobility in general - soon causes unrest north of the border.

Scottish resentment is expressed, in 1295, in a treaty with France against England. This prompts, in 1296, a swift and brutally effective invasion by Edward. It begins with the massacre of almost the entire male population of Berwick. Seventeen days later Stirling and Edinburgh castles are in English hands. John de Balliol and his court are prisoners, destined for the Tower of London. The sacred Scottish coronation seat, the Stone of Scone, travels south at the same time - to a new home (until 1996) in Westminster Abbey. An English government is set up north of the border.

Scotland is humiliated, but only briefly so. The very next year, 1297, a war of independence is launched.

Scotland's Wars of Independence: from1297

The main leader to emerge from the uprisings in Scotland in 1297 is William Wallace. Confronted by an English army outside Stirling, on September 11, he holds back his troops and thus entices the enemy across a narrow bridge over the river Forth. When about half are over the river, Wallace attacks so forcefully that nearly all the English on the northern bank are killed or are drowned in flight.

The prestige of this victory at Stirling Bridge enables Wallace to rule Scotland briefly on behalf of the imprisoned John de Balliol. But the situation brings Edward I north in person in 1298.

At Falkirk, in 1298, Edward avenges the humiliation of Stirling Bridge. English and Welsh archers inflict devastating casualties on the massed ranks of Scottish spearmen, in an early example of the power of the longbow (half a century before its more famous deployment at Crécy).

This defeat undermines the authority of Wallace, who vanishes from history until his capture and execution in 1305. But Edward is committed now to holding down the Scots by force of arms - a task more difficult, over a much wider region, than his subjection of Wales. And from 1306 he is confronted by a newly proclaimed Scottish king, in the person of Robert de Bruce.

Edward's last campaign is an expedition north to destroy Bruce, but he never reaches Scotland. He dies of illness, just short of the border near Carlisle, in July 1307. His obsessive desire to subdue Scotland is reflected in the epitaph on his tomb in Westminster Abbey: Edwardus Primus Malleus Scotorum hic est, 'Here lies Edward I, Hammer of the Scots'.

The death of Edward is Bruce's good fortune. Edward II lacks his father's mettle. Bruce's victory over him at Bannockburn in 1314 is a turning point in the relations between England and Scotland. By 1328, in the treaty of Northampton, the English finally recognize Bruce as Robert I of Scotland - abandoning at the same time the English king's claim to be his feudal overlord.

Edward II and Edward III: 1307-1377

The unruly mood of England's barons was an unsettling factor in the reigns of John and Henry III in the 13th century. The same unrest has a more profound effect on the throne in the 14th century. Two kings of England, Edward II and Richard II, are deposed and very probably murdered.

The central theme of the reign of Edward II is the persistent attempt of the barons to rid the country of the unsuitable young men whom the king selects as his favourites, and to whom he gives positions of power.

The first such favourite is Piers Gaveston, with whom Edward is assumed to have a homosexual relationship. Using the meetings of parliament to press their case, the barons twice succeed in forcing the king to banish Gaveston. Each time the young man is soon recalled, until the barons murder him in 1312.

The next favourite of significance is Hugh le Despenser. The power granted to him and to his family eventually provokes Edward's own queen, Isabella, to action. In alliance with her lover, Roger Mortimer, she marches against the Despensers. They are captured, and with them the king, in 1326. The Despensers are executed. The king is imprisoned.

In January 1327 Edward II is forced by his wife, Isabella, to renounce the throne in favour of their 15-year-old son, Edward III. Before the end of the year Edward II dies, a captive in Berkeley castle, almost certainly murdered. (His death is soon followed by a gory rumour, fuelled by rumours of the king's homosexuality, that the instrument of death is a red-hot skewer plunged up into the instestines.)

For four years Mortimer rules with Isabella in the young king's name, but in 1331 Edward III declares his independence in forceful manner. Mortimer is holding a council in Nottingham. The king makes his way into the castle by a subterranean passage, seizes the usurper and has him executed.

In a long reign, spanning half a century, Edward III contrives to rule without any major confrontation with the barons. The reason is partly a shared cause, the Hundred Years' War, which in its early stages brings a sense of glorious achievement to England's warriors.

But unrest returns when the throne is inherited in 1377 by a 10-year-old child, Edward's grandson Richard II.

England sophisticated: late 14th century

By the time of Richard II the English kingdom can hold its own in learning and the arts. The university of Oxford, which earlier in the century has produced William of Ockham (one of the last great figures of medieval scholasticism), is now buzzing with the radical notions of John Wycliffe. He dies in 1384, but his writings have a profound influence in Europe during the build-up towards the Reformation.

In art and literature there is the same excellence. Richard II commissions some of the best painting of the age, including the Wilton Diptych. A member of his court and adminstration is England's first outstanding poet, Geoffrey Chaucer.

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