09 June 2021
Steve Roberts takes us on a tour through the landscapes that the first Edwardian kings - Edward I, Edward II and Edward III - would have known.
So, I’m on the trail of three Edwards (Edward I, Edward II and Edward III) who ruled one after the other from the late-13th to the late-14th century.
I’ve likened the three reigns to a sarnie, beautiful home-cooked bread at either end with a measly, naff filling in between. I will explain but first I’m going to commence my Edwardian search in Evesham where we’ll find my ‘alma mater’. For those not familiar with Latin, that translates literally as ‘nourishing mother’ and is commonly used to refer to one’s old school or college. I really should just have said ‘where you’ll find my old school’ as it was during Edward III’s reign that English had become the language of instruction in our schools, from c.1350.
Why start in Evesham? Well, the Worcestershire market town and market gardening metropolis hosted a battle on 4 August 1265. It was the climactic action of the 2nd Barons’ War and it was the scrap that heralded the arrival of Prince Edward, the future Edward I, as a true battlefield commander and a force to be reckoned with. It just so happens that my ‘alma mater’ lies adjacent to the battlefield. It’s quite possible that the school playing fields, which more recently saw ‘yours truly’ reluctantly playing rugby and other disorganised team sports, might have seen refugees from that battle being clobbered and cleaved. The king on that day, Henry III, might have got cleaved himself, but had his bacon saved by his son, Prince Edward, who would duly become a formidable king on his father’s death in 1272.
It was the events of that day in 1265 that persuaded me that my future lay in academia, specifically history, rather than lobbing an ovoid about whilst being pursued by over-large human beings. I’ve walked the ‘field’ many times and pondered that it was here, on this blessed plot, that a spotty youth fell in love with studying the past. The battle (or massacre to be strictly accurate) saw the rebel baronial leader Simon de Montfort killed and mutilated, a bit of royal vengeance for having the audacity to be a pain in the neck. This man, de Montfort, is often lauded as the ‘father of parliamentary democracy’ in our country, and is also venerated in the States, as a man who stood against royal misrule and called a parliament in that same year of 1265, the most representative yet summoned. It’s perhaps not as simple as that as de Montfort, the king’s brother-in-law, was ambitious and self-serving too, and, well, a bit of pain in the neck. Prince Edward, when he became Edward I, was the epitome of the wise and martial king. He’d outwitted de Montfort, an experienced commander, at Evesham, his first step along a battle-scarred road that would see him dubbed the ‘Hammer of the Scots’. The parliament he called in 1295 has been celebrated as the ‘Model Parliament’. Why, it was even more representative than that of his late uncle. It seems Edward not only finished de Montfort off: he learned much from him.
Incidentally, I had much to learn myself back in the day, but principally about romancing. I recall taking one of my early girlfriends on a tour of the battlefield thinking it might impress her. It was a relationship that didn’t even last into the following week.
Talking of romance, I think Edward I knew a bit about that. That might surprise you as we tend to think of him as a saddle-sore leader who was forever duffing up the Welsh, and if not the Welsh, the Scots. Edward’s conquest of Wales would see numerous mighty castles spring up to flatten the local populace, whilst his moniker of the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ was well-earned. If you’ve ever watched the film Braveheart it’s set during this reign, or at least the vast bulk of it is. Scottish rebel Sir William Wallace proves to be another pain in the neck until he’s eventually captured and cruelly executed in London using that nasty procedure reserved for traitors and entitled ‘hanging, drawing and quartering’. These were cruel times for sure and it didn’t often pay to offend a sitting monarch.
Romance is in the air, though. Edward was married twice, and it does seem that hitch-up number one was a genuine love match and this at a time when dynastic marriages were rife. Edward wed Eleanor of Castile in 1254 when he was 15. She would have been a couple of years younger. They would have quite a few children, notably another Prince Edward, who was destined to be our Edward II, a wholly different fish to his father.
When Eleanor died in November 1290, aged in her late-40s, Edward I appears to have been distraught. She’d been a healthy, robust lass. We can assume as much as she’d survived some 16 pregnancies in that era of nil birth control. It seems though that after her last pregnancy there was more prescribing of meds as the queen’s health began to give cause for concern. Edward was with her when she died near Lincoln.
The Eleanor Crosses
The arrangements Edward now put in her place for her funerary rights set down a marker for anyone wanting to pay a fitting tribute to a much-loved partner.
The Eleanor Cross at Geddington, one of 12 such crosses erected by Edward I in honour of his first queen, Eleanor of Castile. He must have really loved her (author – ‘Lofty’ at English Wikipedia, source – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by ‘Kurpfalzbilder.de’ using CommonsHelper).
As the queen’s body was escorted south from Lincoln to London, the king gave orders that monuments would be raised at each overnight stop, these being the ‘Eleanor Crosses’, 12 in total, of which three originals survive, one of which, the best preserved, is at Geddington in Northamptonshire. I brought ‘Mrs Steve’ here on 16 August 1993, two days before our ninth wedding anniversary. Visiting an Eleanor Cross seems to be more auspicious than trapsing around a battlefield as far as one’s romantic prospects are concerned. We’re still married and in love after 36 years. I’m sure Edward would have been impressed as he and Eleanor had also been wed 36 years. Spooky that. Edward would marry again to Margaret of France, a daughter of the French king, in 1299.
Now, I mentioned Edward I rampaging through Wales and sticking up his castles, of which one was Caernarvon (or Caernarfon). This is a place that connected our first two Edwards for Edward I built it, whilst his son, ‘Edward of Caernarvon’, was born there and would be the first English Prince of Wales, which must have irritated the Welsh no end. This was still annoying the Welsh in the 20th century when Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales at, you’ve guessed it, Caernarvon, was met with a certain amount of rowdy protest.
Caernarvon Castle, built by Edward I and the birthplace of his son, the first English Prince of Wales, the future Edward II (author – Herbert Ortner, source – Own image).
It was in September 2010 that Mrs Steve and I had rocked up in North Wales for a week. I always feel comfortable in Wales, being a Roberts (a sound Welsh name) and also a great respecter of the Ancient Brits, those natives who inhabited Wales and Cornwall as the Anglo-Saxons (from modern-day Denmark and Germany) occupied the south-east and eventually forged a new nation named ‘England’. The Welsh and Cornish have much in common, including their own ancient languages and a love of Rugby Union, that game that largely passed me by when I was a youth, miserable on the sports field and unlucky in love. I digress slightly.
On that Welsh trip we also went to Conwy (or Conway) and walked the walls, more Edwardian fortification designed to keep the natives cowed in their own country. If you’re wondering about the different spellings of these places, it is, of course, because the English and Welsh have their preferred ways of doing things, now just as much as in the 13th century. There had been a castle of sorts at Caernarvon from the late-11th century, so not long after the Norman Conquest. What Edward did was start replacing it with today’s solid stone edifice, with the Edwardian town and castle becoming the administrative centre for North Wales, which meant the castle was developed on a suitably impressive scale. Conwy Castle and the town walls were built meanwhile between 1283 and 1289, also as part of Edward’s conquest of the principality.
The English lorded it over the Welsh and tried to do the same with the Scots who kicked against the English as much as they could with the Anglo-Scottish Wars punctuated by numerous pitched battles which usually turned out in favour of the English, the notable exception of course being Bannockburn (1314) when Robert the Bruce stuffed Edward II’s army. The Scots were still at it in the 20th century, defeating the English World Cup winners at Wembley in 1967, with some optimistic Scots imagining that they were now the champs.
Things have changed in recent times with devolved administrations in both Wales and Scotland and good luck to them say I. I no longer know whether to regard myself as English, British or European and I suspect that a lot of folk suffer similar paroxysms of identity crisis. Who are we exactly? Back in the time of the first Edwardians, I would have regarded myself as ‘English’ (there was no Britain or UK to speak of until the merging of the English and Scottish crowns courtesy of James VI and I in 1603). Back to the plot though and we’re coming on to Edward II, an unmitigated disaster.
Edward II was less fortunate with his choice of soulmate. He married Isabella of France in 1308. He would have been aged 23, whilst his bride was 12 and presumably still playing with her medieval Barbie doll. Any childish simplicity was soon replaced with fiendish cruelty as she morphed into the lady known to history as the ‘She Wolf of France’, which didn’t augur well as far as Edward was concerned.
Edward was nothing like his father, inept in war (he lost at Bannockburn in 1314) and with a propensity for ‘favourites’, men whom he promoted and rewarded to the irritation of others. The first was Piers Gaveston, created Earl of Cornwall, the last the Despensers, father and son. Gaveston was captured and executed by Edward’s marginalised nobles, whilst the Despensers would fall in the earthquake that also did for the king. It’s a bit like the unpopular, key advisers of 2020 who get up to all sorts, but unlike Edward’s favourites, appear un-sackable.
The She Wolf detested her husband and took a lover, Roger Mortimer. The king, still seemingly trusting her, sent her on a diplomatic mission to France. She returned with troops, landing on the Suffolk coast with the young Prince Edward secured (the future Edward III). The Despensers would be executed, the story being that the She Wolf enjoyed a hearty meal whilst enjoying the spectacle as Hugh the younger Despenser was dealt with at Hereford (another hanging, drawing and quartering victim). His father, Hugh the elder, was decapitated in Bristol. She was certainly She Wolf by name and nature.
Now, Mrs Steve and I have been to Berkeley Castle, in June 1993. We travelled around a lot back then as you might have gathered. The gardens at the castle are splendid with very colourful beds. We noticed some ‘kniphofia’ or ‘tritoma’ growing, which normally would have been fine, but at Berkeley sent a chill down our collective spine. You see, it all has to do with the ultimate fate of Edward II, who it is believed was done to death at the castle here on 21 September 1327. I say ‘believed’ as there are often conspiracy theories when someone comes to a sticky end and this tale is no exception with some claiming that it didn’t happen like that and the king actually survived until 1330. Somehow, I can’t see Isabella allowing that.
As I’m sure you know the generally accepted story is that Edward II met his end via a red-hot poker inserted where the sun rarely shines. Those of you who are horticulturally-minded will understand about ‘kniphofia’ or ‘tritoma’ now, as these plants are commonly referred to as ‘red hot pokers’. I guess if the unhappy Edward’s ghost haunts Berkeley Castle then they act as constant reminders. I wrote about Edward’s fate once for a specialist military history magazine and was coy (shall we say) about his end, pussy-footing around it to some extent. When the proof came back from my editor I was amused to find the relevant bit of my draft rewritten with some rather direct colloquialisms such as ‘shoved’ and ‘backside’. I’m sure you get my drift.
Isabella (banished) and Mortimer (executed) got their comeuppance when Edward III flexed his muscles and overthrow his father’s tormentors. Edward would be a chip off the old block, but his grandfather’s block, rather than his Dad’s. It’s the sandwich remember. Whereas Edward I’s targets had mostly been the Welsh and Scots, Edward III had the French in his sights, launching the Hundred Years’ War in an attempt to get his mitts on the French throne. His claim was tenuous methinks, but his armies persuasive with stellar victories at the likes of Sluys, Crecy and Poitiers. The grand prize eluded him, though. At least you can defeat an enemy you can see.
Another enemy arrived unseen and unheralded at Melcombe Regis (Weymouth) in June 1348. It would become known as the Black Death. I’m writing this in November 2020, the tail-end of the year in which the world combatted ‘Covid-19’. Coronavirus arrived in the UK courtesy of air travel. Progress can be double-edged: the convenience of air travel suits a virus as much as people. Back in Edward III’s reign the plague travelled more slowly, at the speed of a boat.
I’ve been to Weymouth many times. It’s due west along the coast from where I live in Christchurch. I’ve been there for footie, holidays with much-loved grandchildren and on assignment, which is how I came to be there in November 2016. I wasn’t seeking out the Black Death per se, but I stumbled across the plaque proclaiming that: ‘The Black Death entered England in 1348 through this port. It killed 30-50% of the country’s total population’. If I’m honest it sent a bit of a chill through me then. It would do the same four years on by a factor of several.
The Black Death entered England through the port of Melcombe Regis in 1348 during the reign of Edward III (Steve Roberts).
It just shows that even when you’re a powerful, all-conquering monarch, you can’t control everything. I think back to Canute (Cnut) and his waves. One thing we’ve learned in 2020 is that even the world’s most powerful nations can have little defence against a virus that cruelly thrives on people’s natural instinct to be sociable.
For more on the three Edwards, read Steve's article in the July 2021 issue of Family Tree magazine
About the author
Steve Roberts is a freelance writer and author of Lesser Known Christchurch.