On this day 710 years ago, Edward I, that irascible and mighty king who had ruled England with an iron fist since 1272, died at Burgh-by-Sands, west of Carlisle. His death had been long in the coming, his health ailing steadily over the previous three years. The exact nature of his illness is unknown, but it was painful and prolonged. Throughout 1306 and into the first half of 1307, the king’s household accounts are littered with the many purchases of medicines, ointments and even leather leggings to help stave off his stubborn ailments. His legs were often treated, hence the leggings, and a neck brace was also made. His joints were apparently painful. He took herbal baths, drank pomegranate wine and a cordial which included crushed amber, jacinth (a reddish/orange gem), musk, pearls, gold and silver.(1). His immediate health came and went, some months he was carried in a litter, others he was mobile and able to attend parliament at Carlisle or in May inspect his troops assembled on the border for yet another campaign in Scotland.(2) As ever, the king held up to his iron clad legend. Despite the threat of imminent death he refused in that indomitable way to die.
War dominated the twilight years of Edward I’s life, no more so than in Gascony and Scotland, the latter in particular. Throughout the first seven years of the fourteenth century, the king wrestled to gain control over a divided Scotland, declaring himself its king and reducing the country to a ‘land’ rather than a ‘kingdom’, as noted in many legal documents from this period. The appointment and subsequent removal of John Balliol as King of the Scots in 1296, along with the Scottish regalia and Stone of Scone, created a power vacuum which the English king both engineered and exploited to best effect. As Scotland’s nobles fought each other, Edward gained control, albeit his rule was to be temporary and unsustainable. Frequent Scottish counter revolts resulted in numerous English campaigns north of the border and by 1306 the most brutal and savage had been fought.
The king, increasingly ill and agitated to finish the job, had a dragon banner raised symbolising the setting aside of the established rules of chivalry. The subsequent assault on his declared enemies, who were now treated a outlaws, was nothing short of brutal.(3) The resulting campaign saw most of Robert the Bruce’s brothers executed, along with the earl of Atholl, who despite his English ancestry (he was a descendent of King John) was hung on an enormous gallows built especially for the occasion. Bruce’s wife, daughter, sister and the countess of Buchan who had crowned Robert earlier that year were hunted down and cast into prisons or placed in convents. The latter two were kept in cages inside rooms at Roxburgh and Berwick. It is unlikely these cages were flung and suspended over the castle walls as has so often been suggested, rather they were made to provide greater internal security inside the castle rooms. It would be impossible to imagine that either person was able to survive the heat, cold, rain, gales and snow for three years. Exposure over the castle walls alone would have killed them within a year. Either way their treatment was harsh and a reflection that their legal status had been reduced to outlawry, being held captive in these cages until 1310 before they were transferred to slightly more comfortable lodgings. The net effect of such brutality only unified many of the Scots against Edward I who may previously have reluctantly come over to his banner. Instead many took the only course no really open to them and turned to their self-proclaimed king, Robert the Bruce who sought to remove the English from Scotland altogether. It is against this backdrop, as the final show down looked imminent, that Edward fought his final battle; albeit of a more mortal nature.
Determined to bring Bruce to heel, at the start of July 1307, the king ordered his assembled army further north. Riding out of Carlisle on 3rd, Edward and the army made slow progress, covering barely more than a couple of miles a day. The king contracted dysentery. By the 6th they reached Burgh-by-Sands on the English side of the northern border and there Edward rested in his tent. Early the following day, his servants entered to rouse the king, and as they lifted him from his bed, he fell back in their arms dead.(4) The leopard was no more. News of the king’s death was kept secret to avoid desertion amongst the English army or worse still an opportunistic attack from the Scots.(5) Letters were dispatched south to Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, one of the oldest and longest serving of the earls and a longtime friend of the king; a second letter was sent to Edward’s second wife, Queen Marguerite and a third to his eldest surviving son from his first marriage to Eleanor of Castile, Edward of Carnarvon, who received the news at Westminster on 11th and immediately rode north, claiming his birth right and subsuequently assumed the crown as Edward II.
Edward II temporarily secured the northern border, received the homages of the few remaining Scottish supporters and disbanded the Scottish campaign. His father’s body was sent south, arriving at Waltham Abbey in Essex where it laid in state, whilst vigils were conducted and prayers said for the dead king’s soul.(6) By September preparations were made for Edward I’s funeral, and by mid-October the late king’s body was moved from Waltham Abbey to the monastery of Holy Trinity and other such places and then eventually to St Paul’s. By the 26th October, it was moved to Westminster Abbey for the funeral which was conducted the following day.(7) In a solemn ceremony the king was laid to rest wearing his coronation robes which included a red silk tunic and cloth of gold lower garments, and a crown was placed on his head as was the tradition along with spectres in his hands marking his royal office.
He was then interred in a stark plain black purbeck marble tomb. There was no ornate effigy placed on top of it, and possibly sometime in the sixteenth century, the words Edwardus Primus Scottorum Malleus Hic Est or Edward the First Hammer of the Scots is here, were added and can still be seen today. Why the tomb was so plain has been the subject of much conjecture. Was his son pleased to be rid of him and indifferent to his father’s body? This seems very unlikely given Edward II would often remember his father in prayers, making offerings at various shrines around the country throughout his reign, as is noted in the latter’s chamber accounts. Another theory suggests that Edward I himself had expressed a wish for his body to boiled down and his bones taken on a return journey to the Holy Land on crusade fulfilling a recent vow the king had made, hence the tomb was kept plain and easily accessible in order to perform this task when the opportune moment came. Whilst we may never know for sure, we can be certain that the tomb reflected the personality of the man. Unfussy, steely, and formidable.
The tomb itself was eventually opened on 2 May 1774 by a curious dean of Westminster. The body was almost perfectly preserved with the dried skin still very visible and the body measured at six foot two inches tall.(8) The nickname ‘Longshanks’ therefore based on truth. The degree of preservation was possible due to the consistently low humidity and coolness of air at the abbey. Many of the other bodies interred here are no doubt in the same condition if they have not been disturbed.
‘The chin and lips were entire, but without any beard; and a sinking, or dip between the chin and the under-lip, was very conspicuous. Both the lips were prominent; the nose short, as if shrunk; but the apertures of the nostrils were visible. There was an unusual fall, or cavity, on that part of the bridge of the nose which separates the orbits of the eyes, and some globular substance possible fleshy part of the eye-balls, was moveable in their sockets under the envelope”. (9)
Edward I reigned over England for thirty-five years. He had brought peace, wealth and stability in his early years. By the close he left a legacy of debt, war, division and baronial oppression which his son inherited. Had the king lived longer, it was far from certain whether Edward I could ever have secured Scotland in the way he had hoped. He is however remembered as one the strongest and most successful of the Plantagenet monarchs who ruled England during the medieval period, and his legacy still lives with us today.
Stephen Spinks is author of ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance’ which is available for pre-order in hardback at Waterstones Amazon and Amberley and will be released on 15 November 2017.
(1) Prestwich, M. Edward I (Yale Monarchs Series), 556
(2) Ibid, 556
(3) Barbour, John. The Bruce. McDiarmid & Stevenson, vol II (Edinburgh, 1981), 37-39. Bingham, Caroline. Robert the Bruce (Constable, 1998), 131
(4) The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, ed H. Rothwell (Camden Society, 3rd series, lxxxix, 1957), 379. Prestwich, 557. Morris, M. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, (Windmill), 362
(5) Morris, 363
(6) Guisborough, 379
(7) Prestwich, 567 citing J. Ayloffe, ‘An Account of the Body of King Edward the First, as it appeared on the opening of his Tomb in the year 1774’, Archaeologia, iii (1786), 381
(8) Ibid, 558
(9) Prestwich, 567 citing J. Ayloffe, ‘An Account of the Body of King Edward the First’, 381
Feature: Edward I & Eleanor of Castile. BL Cotton Nero D. III, f.179v. A possible attempt at a life like representation as the image notes the king’s droopy eye-lid.
One: A king, believed to be Edward I on the Sedilla at Westminster Abbey. (Dean & Chapter Westminster Abbey)
Two: Fourteenth century manuscript depicting medieval warfare
Three: The opening of the tomb of Edward I in 1774, Society of Antiquaries of London