British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Narrative History of England
Part 5: Medieval Britain (cont'd.) by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.



Henry III (1216-1272)
And so it was that John's young heir, Henry lll, came to the throne, to rule for 56 years, most of which were also spent in futile battles with the leading barons of England and his failure to recapture the lost Plantagenet lands in France. Henry also tried to take advantage of the Pope's offer of the kingdom of Sicily by making his youngest son Edmund king of that far-off island. To raise the funds to pay the ever increasing demands of the Bishop of Rome, Henry asked for taxes in a repeat of his revenue-raising efforts that had failed to bring military success in France and a crisis soon erupted. He had to agree to a meeting of "parliament" in which the opposition was led by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort.

Henry had already alienated his leading barons by marrying Eleanor of Provence, who brought many of her relatives to England to create an anti-foreigner element into the realm's political intrigues and helped solidify baronial resentment and suspicion of the incompetent, but pious king. The Barons showed their power by drawing up the Provisions of Oxford. Henry capitulated; he was forced to acquiesce to the setting up of a Council of Fifteen, with himself as a "first among equals." When the king later tried to reassert his authority, the barons once again rebelled. Under de Montfort, they captured Henry, and set up de Montfort as temporary ruler.

Henry's son Edward, showing much more resolve and military skills than his father, then raised an army, and at the decisive battle of Evesham in 1265, defeated de Montfort to restore Henry, who enjoyed his last few years in peace. He was especially gratified at the completion of Westminster Abbey and the reburial of the remains of Edward the Confessor there.

During Henry III's long reign, great progress was made in the direction of the English Church, not the least of which was the completion of the great cathedrals at Durham, Wells, Ely and Lincoln and the erection of the magnificent edifice at Salisbury with its spire lasting for many centuries as the tallest man-made structure in England. Most notable among many learned clerics of the period was Robert Grosstested, Bishop of Lincoln, who become Oxford University's first chancellor, setting that institution on the road to its eventual greatness and its enormous influence upon the nation's future leaders.

Henry's reign also saw the movement away from the monastic ideal to that of the Church working among the people. The Franciscans and Dominicans were particularly prominent in charitable work in the rapidly growing towns and villages of England. In the country, an important innovation was the introduction of windmills from Holland, which greatly aided in the draining of marshes and the milling of grain.

Though Henry lll in many ways was a weak and vacillating king, his reign produced a great milestone in the history of England, for the opposition of de Montfort and the Barons, though ultimately defeated, had produced a parliament in which commoners sat for the first time, and it was this, much more than the Magna Carta of John, that was to prove of immense significance in the future of democracy in England, and of "government by the people and for the people."

Edward I (1272-1307)
Seen by many historians as the ideal medieval king, Edward l enjoyed warfare and statecraft equally, and was determined to succeed in both. Henry's eldest son, he had conducted the ailing king's affairs in England during the last years of his father's life. Known as Edward Longshanks, he was a man whose immense strength and steely resolve had been ably shown on the crusade he undertook to the Holy Land in 1270. The death of Henry forced his return from Sicily, though it took him two years to return.

When he finally did arrive to claim his throne, King Edward immediately set about restoring order in England and wiping out corruption among the barons and royal officials. His great inquiry to recover royal rights and to re-establish law and justice became the largest official undertaking since the "Domesday Book" of two hundred years earlier. The proceedings took place under the Statute of Gloucester on 1278 and the Statute of Quo Warranto of 1290. The Statute of Mortmain of 1279 had decreed that no more land might be given into the hands to the church without royal license. All these efforts and the great statutes of Westminster of 1275 and 1285 were so successful in reforming and codifying English law that Edward was given the title of the "English Justinian." Of equal importance in the future development of the English civilization was Edward's fostering of the concept of representation in a people's parliament. Knights of the shire and burgesses of the boroughs were called to attend many of the king's parliaments. In 1295, his gathering contained all the elements later associated with the word "parliament," the writs issued to the sheriffs to call the knights and burgesses made it clear that they were to act according to common counsel of their respective local communities.

Ever anxious to raise funds for his never-ending wars, the king also established a long-lasting alliance between the Crown and the merchant classes, giving them protection in return for a grant of export duties on wool and other agricultural products. The wily king even granted foreign merchants freedom of trade in England in return for additional customs revenues. He desperately needed this income to fight his Welsh and Scottish wars.

The Conquest of Wales
Visitors to the Wales of today are sometimes astonished to see the extent of Edward's castle-building campaign. Huge forbidding castles, such as Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris are listed as World Heritage Sites along with others such as Flint and Rhuddlan. They show the extent to which Edward was determined to crush any Welsh aspirations of independence and to bring the country firmly under royal control.

The stubborn Welsh were a thorn in the side of Edward whose ambition was to rule the whole of Britain. They were a proud people, considering themselves the true Britons. Geoffrey of Monmouth (1090-1155) had claimed that they had come to the island of Britain from Troy under their leader Brutus. He also praised their history, written in the British tongue (Welsh). Another Norman-Welsh author, Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1243) had this to say about his fellow countrymen:

The English fight for power: the Welsh for liberty; the one to procure, gain, the other to avoid loss. The English hirelings for money; the Welsh patriots for their country.

When the English nation forged some kind of national identity under Alfred of Wessex, the Welsh put aside their constant infighting to create something of a nation themselves under a succession of strong leaders beginning with Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great) who ruled the greater part of Wales by the time of his death in 877. Rhodri's work of unification was then continued by his grandson, Hywel Dda (Howell the Good 904-50), whose codification of Welsh law has been described as among the most splendid creations of the culture of the Welsh.

Hywel was a lawgiver, not a military leader. In order to keep the peace throughout his kingdoms, he had to accept the position of sub-regulus to Athelstan of Wessex. In 1039, however, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn became king of Gwynedd and extended his authority throughout Wales, setting a precedent that was to continue throughout the Norman invasion of Britain. Under Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Wales was forged into a single political unit. In 1204, Llywelyn married King John's daughter Joan and was recognised by Henry III as pre-eminent in his territories. At his death, however, in 1240, fighting between his sons Dafydd and Gruffudd just about destroyed all their father had accomplished, and in 1254, Henry's son Edward was given control of all the Crown lands in Wales that had been ceded at the Treaty of Woodstock in 1247.

The situation was restored by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, recognised as Prince of Wales by Henry in 1267 and ruler of a kingdom set to conduct its own affairs free from English influence. The tide of affairs then undertook a complete reversal with the accession of Edward I to the throne of England in 1272.

Edward's armies were defeated when they first crossed Offas's Dyke into Wales. The English king's determination to crush his opposition, his enormous expenditure on troops and supplies and resistance to Llywelyn from minor Welsh princes who were jealous of his rule, soon meant that the small Welsh forces were forced into their mountain strongholds. At the Treaty of Aberconwy of 1287, Llywelyn was forced to concede much of his territories east of the River Conwy. Edward then began his castle-building campaign, beginning with Flint right on the English border and extending to Builth in mid-Wales.

Llywelyn was not yet finished. When his brother Dafydd rose in rebellion against the harsh repression of his people's laws and customs, Llywelyn took up the cause. According to one chronicler, the Welsh "preferred to be slain in war for their liberty than to suffer themselves to be unrighteously trampled upon by foreigners." Sadly, however, despite initial successes, Llywelyn was slain at Cilmeri, near Builth, when he was separated from his loyal troops, and Edward's troubles with the Welsh were at an end. Their "impetuous rashness" was now severely punished by the English king, intent on ridding himself of these stubborn people once and for all.

At the Statute of Rhuddlan, 1284, Wales was divided up into English counties; the English court pattern set firmly in place, and for all intents and purposes, Wales ceased to exist as a political unit. The situation seemed permanent when Edward followed up his castle building program by his completion of Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech. In 1300, Edward made his son (born at Caernarfon castle, in that mighty fortress overlooking the Menai Straits in Gwynedd) "Prince of Wales." The powerful king could now turn his attention to those other troublemakers, the Scots.

The Scots' Road to Independence
At roughly the same time that the people of Wales were separated from the invading Saxons by the artificial boundary of Offa's Dyke, MacAlpin had been creating a kingdom of Scotland. His successes in part were due to the threat coming from the raids of the Vikings, many of whom became settlers. The seizure of control over all Norway in 872 by Harald Fairhair caused many of the previously independent Jarls to look for new lands to establish themselves. One result of the coming of the Norsemen and Danes with their command of the sea, was that Scotland became surrounded and isolated. The old link with Ireland was broken and the country was now cut off from southern England and the Continent, thus the kingdom of Alba established by MacAlpin was thrown in upon itself and united against a common foe.

In 1018, under MacAlpin's descendant Malcolm II, the Angles were finally defeated in this northerly part of Britain and Lothian came under Scottish rule. The same year saw the death of the British (Celtic) King of Strathclyde who left no heir; his throne going to Malcolm's grandson Duncan. In 1034, Duncan became King of a much-expanded Scotland that included Pict-land, Scotland, Lothian, Cumbria and Strathclyde. It excluded large tracts in the North, the Shetlands, Orkneys and the Western Isles, held by the Scandinavians. There was still no established boundary between Scotland and England.

It was under the rule of David l, the ninth son of Malcom III, that Norman influence began to percolate through much of southern Scotland. David, King of Scotland, was also Prince of Cumbria, and through marriage, Earl of Northampton and Huntingdon. Brother-in-law to the King of England, he was raised and educated in England by Normans who "polished his manners from the rust of Scottish barbarity." In Scotland, he distributed large estates to his Anglo-Norman cronies who also took over important positions in the Church. In the Scottish Lowlands he introduced a feudal system of land ownership, founded on a new, French-speaking Anglo-Norman aristocracy that remained aloof from the majority of the Gaelic-speaking Celtic population.

At David's death in 1153, the kingdom of Scotland had been extended to include the Modern English counties of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmoreland, territories that were in future to be held by the kings of Scotland. Alas, the accession of Henry II to the English throne in 1154 had changed everything.

David had been succeeded by his grandson, Malcolm IV an eleven-year old boy He was no match for the powerful new King of England. At the Treaty of Chester, 1157 Henry's strength, "the authority of his might," forced Malcolm to give up the northern counties solely in return for the confirmation of his rights as Earl of Huntingdon. The Scottish border was considerably shifted northwards. And there it remained until the rash adventures of William, Malcolms' brother and successor, got him captured at Alnwich, imprisoned at Falaise in Normandy, and forced to acknowledge Henry's feudal superiority over himself and his Scottish kingdom. In addition, to add insult to injury, the strategic castles of edinburgh, Stirling, Roxburgh, Jedburgh and Berwick were to be held by England with English garrisons at Scottish expense.

Henry II's successor was Richard I, whose main concern was the Third Crusade. Desperately needing money to finance his overseas adventures, Richard freed William from all "compacts" extorted by Henry and restored the castles of Berwick and Roxburgh for a sum of 10,00 marks of silver. Thus the humiliation of the Falaise agreement was cancelled. Richard showed little interest in running his English kingdom, less interested in Scotland and departed for the crusade in 1189. Once again, Scotland was a free and independent country.

A new struggle for control of Scotland had begun at the death of Alexander III in 1286, leaving as heir his grandchild Margaret, the infant daughter of the King of Norway. English King Edward, with his eye on the complete subjugation of his northern neighbors, suggested that Margaret should marry his son, a desire consummated at a treaty signed and sealed at Birgham. Under the terms, Scotland was to remain a separate and independent kingdom, though Edward wished to keep English garrisons in a number of Scottish castles. On her way to Scotland, somewhere in the Orkney, the young Norwegian princess died, unable to enjoy the consignment of sweetmeats and raisins sent by the English King. The succession was now open to many claimants, the strongest of whom were John Balliol and Robert Bruce.

John Balliol was supported by King Edward, who believed him to be the weaker and more compliant of the two Scottish claimants. At a meeting of 104 auditors, with Edward as judge, the decision went in favor of Balliol, who was duly declared the rightful king in November, 1292. The English king's plans for a peaceful relationship with his northern neighbor now took a different turn. In exchange for his support, he demanded feudal superiority over Scotland, including homage from Balliol, judicial authority over the Scottish king in any disputes brought against him by his own subjects and defrayment of costs for the defence of England as well as active support in the war against France.

Even Balliol rebelled at these outrageous demands. Showing a hitherto unshown courage, in front of the English king he declared that he was the King of Scotland and should answer only to his own people and refused to supply military service to Edward. Overestimating his strength, he then concluded a treaty with France prior to planning an invasion of England.

Edward was ready. He went north to receive homage from a great number of Scottish nobles as their feudal lord, among them none other than Robert Bruce, who owned estates in England. Balliol immediately punished this treachery by seizing Bruce's lands in Scotland and giving them to his own brother-in-law, John Comyn. Yet within a few months, the Scottish king was to disappear from the scene. His army was defeated by Edward at Dunbar in April 1296. Soon after at Brechin, on 10 July, he surrendered his Scottish throne to the English king, who took into his possession the stone of Scone, "the coronation stone" of the Scottish kings. At a parliament which he summoned at Berwick, the English king received homage and the oath of fealty from over two thousand Scots. He seemed secure in Scotland.

Flushed with this success, Edward had gone too far. The rising tide of nationalist fervor in the face of the arrival of the English armies north of the border created the need for new Scottish leaders. With the killing of an English sheriff following a brawl with English soldiers in the marketplace at Lanark, a young Scottish knight, William Wallace found himself at the head of a fast-spreading movement of national resistance. At Stirling Bridge, a Scottish force led by Wallace, won an astonishing victory when it completely annihilated a large, lavishly-equipped English army under the command of Surrey, Edward l viceroy.

We can imagine the shock to the over-confident Edward and the extent to which he sought his revenge. At Falkirk, his re-organized army crushed the over-confident Scottish followers of Wallace, who was now finished as an effective leader and forced into hiding. Following the battle, a campaign began to ruthlessly suppress all attempts at reasserting Scottish independence. It was time for Robert Bruce to free himself from his fealty to Edward and lead the fight for Scotland.

At a meeting between the two surviving claimants for the Scottish throne in Greyfriar's Kirk at Dumfries, Robert Bruce murdered John Comyn, thus earning the enmity of the many powerful supporters of the Comyn family, but also excommunication from the Church. His answer was to strike out boldly, raising the Royal Standard at Scone and, on March 27, 1306, declaring himself King of Scots. Edward's reply was predictable; he sent a large army north, defeated Bruce at the battle of Methven, executed many of his supporters and forced the Scottish king to become a hunted outlaw.

The indefatigable Scottish leader bided his time. After a year of demoralization and widespread English terror let loose in Scotland, during which two of his brothers were killed, Bruce came out of hiding. Aided mightily by his Chief Lieutenant, Sir James Douglas, "the Black Douglas," he won his first victory on Palm Sunday, 1307. From all over Scotland, the clans answered the call and Bruce's forces gathered in strength to fight the English invaders, winning many encounters against cavalry with his spearmen.

The aging Edward, the so-called "hammer of the Scots," marched north at the head of a large army to punish the Scots' impudence; but the now weak and sick king was ineffectual as a military leader. He could only wish that after his death his bones would be carried at the head of his army until Scotland had been crushed. It was left to his son Edward to try to carry out his father's dying wish. He was no man for the task.

Edward ll was crowned King of England in 1307. Faced by too many problems at home and completely lacking the ruthfulness and resourcefulness of his father, the young king had no wish to get embroiled in the affairs of Scotland. Bruce was left alone to consolidate his gains and to punish those who opposed him. In 1311 he drove out the English garrisons in all their Scottish strongholds except Stirling and invaded northern England. King Edward finally, begrudgingly, bestirred himself from his dalliances at Court to respond and took a large army north.

On Mid-Summer's Day, the 24th of June, 1314 occurred one of the most momentous battles in British history. The armies of Robert Bruce, heavily outnumbered by their English rivals, but employing tactics that prevented the English army from effectively employing its strength, won a decisive victory at Bannockburn. Scotland was wrenched from English control, its armies free to invade and harass northern England. Such was Bruce's military successes that he was able to invade Ireland, where his brother Edward had been crowned King by the exuberant Irish. A second expedition carried out by Edward II north of the border was driven back and the English king was forced to seek for peace.

The Declaration of Arboath of 1320 stated that since ancient times the Scots had been free to choose their own kings, a freedom that was a gift from God. If Robert Bruce were to prove weak enough to acknowledge Edward as overlord, then he would be dismissed in favor of someone else. Though English kings still continued to call themselves rulers of Scotland, just as they called themselves rulers of France for centuries after being booted out of the continent, Scotland remained fully independent until 1603 (when James Stuart succeeded Elizabeth I).

Resource Information

Part 5: Medieval Britain, continued


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