The King that Killed Braveheart

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A Brief History

On March 30, 1296, King Edward I of England, often better known as Edward Longshanks, sacked the Scottish town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, part of the ongoing war of England trying to maintain suzerainty over Scotland.  (Which means control of the direction and foreign policy of another nation without total ceding of local control.  Or something like that.)  As Scotland chafed under the English thumb, patriots such as William Wallace, a knight of murky origins, arose to fight the English during the struggle for total independence for Scotland.

Digging Deeper

Why “Longshanks?”  Meaning “Long Legs,” Edward was quite tall for his day at 6 feet 2 inches and had long legs.  Not unlike the nicknames of other monarchs such as Pepin the Short, Charles the Bald, and Charles the Fat.  (Question:  What sort of names would these Medieval people lay on our modern presidents and prime ministers?)  The name “Edward” was an unusual name for the 5th of the Plantagenet kings, as the name is Anglo-Saxon in origin and Longshanks was of Norman descent.  Apparently, Edward’s father, Henry III, was a fan of Edward the Confessor, the King of England from 1042 to1066.  (You may recognize the year 1066 as the year the Normans under William the Conqueror took over England.  Edward died several months before the Battle of Hastings in which England was lost.)  Edward Longshanks was also known by a martial nickname, “Hammer of the Scots,” a title based on his brutal wars against Scotland.

Born in 1239 at the Palace of Westminster, London, Edward was married off to Eleanor of Castile at the age of 15, a political move engineered to avoid the possibility of an invasion of England by Castile.  The Kingdom of England during Edward’s day also included considerable lands in France, some of which Edward was given control of as a young man.  Edward was not a particularly loyal or obedient son and clashed with the policies of his father.  During a civil war known as The Second Barons’ War, 1264-1267, Edward led Royalist forces against the rebellious barons.  Though taken hostage during the war, Edward eventually escaped to once again lead Royalist forces and defeated the main rebel, Simon de Montfort, at the battle of Evesham (1265), effectively ending the biggest threat to the crown, though not ending the war.

With the throne of England once more in secure hands, Edward planned his participation in the Eighth and Ninth Crusades (1270-1272).  As Lord Edward, heir to the throne of England, Edward commanded the Christian armies.  Thus, the Ninth Crusade is sometimes referred to as “Edward’s Crusade.”  The Eighth Crusade was under the leadership of Louis IX of France, but that king died right after arriving in Tunisia in 1270.  The goal of the Eighth Crusade was supposed to be the relief of the Christian settlement at Acre but was diverted to an assault against Tunis in an attempt to secure a solid base in North Africa.  Edward went on to Acre instead of following Louis to Tunis since Louis had died.  Christian forces did not fare well during the Ninth Crusade, and Edward was stabbed by an Assassin, though Edward killed the would be murderer.  Left wounded and ill from what might have been a poisoned dagger, Edward finally left Acre in September of 1272, his Crusade mostly a failure.

During his long, slow journey home from the Crusades, Edward learned of his father’s death.  Edward was proclaimed King of England and the associated lands in France without the benefit of a formal coronation.  Edward finally arrived in England in August of 1274 and was crowned King. Edward’s early reign was largely concerned with the subjugation of Wales, and then warfare on the mainland of France.  In 1301, the son of Edward, who later became Edward II, was named Prince of Wales, the first English heir to the throne to bear that title.  Edward had claimed the intention of mounting yet another Crusade, but never did manage to do so.

Edward’s wife, Eleanor, died in 1290, and Edward was betrothed to the half-sister of the King of France as part of the peace process on the Continent.  The marriage finally took place in 1299, signaling the end to an unproductive war for Edward.

Relations between England and Scotland then took center stage.  Scotland had been paying homage to the English throne for some time and was pretty much left alone.  The lack of a clear heir to the throne of Scotland in the 1290’s disrupted the stable relationship with England while a battle over succession to the Scottish throne went on.  The arranged marriage of the 3 year old granddaughter of the deceased Scottish king to the 6 year old son of Edward was supposed to make her (Margaret) the clear heir, but she died at the age of 7 before the marriage took place.  The battle over Scottish succession was known as “The Great Cause.”  While the Scots were amenable to Edward’s participation in the selection of their king, such participation would only be tolerated if it were unobtrusive and allowed the Scots their free choice.  A leading contender for the throne was Robert the Bruce (Robert de Brus, 5th Lord of Annandale) and another was John Balliol, who ascended to the throne with the support of Edward and other English lords and reigned (sort of) from 1292 to 1296.  His derisive nickname, “Toom Tabard,” means “Empty Coat,” an indication that his legitimacy was not widely accepted.  Edward had made John and Scotland vassals of England, a situation intolerable to Scottish nobility and John was deposed.

Chafing under English orders to support an English war with France, the Scots attacked, and Edward mounted his own assault against Scotland, seeking to pacify the rebellious nation.  A period of fighting between Scots patriots such as William Wallace and the English forces of Edward ensued, a conflict known as the First War of Scottish Independence, 1296-1328.  While the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton officially ended the war in 1328, the real fighting was over by 1314 when the Scots won at the Battle of Bannockburn.   Wallace, later known by his movie sobriquet of “Braveheart,” played by Mel Gibson in the historically inaccurate film of 1995, became a legendary fighter for Scottish “Freedom!” when he beat the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297), though he was later trounced in 1298 at the Battle of Falkirk.

William Wallace managed to remain free and on the loose to torment Edward and his allies until 1305, when he was turned over to Edward by a Scotsman loyal to the King.  Taken to London for trial for the crime of treason, Wallace’s conviction was a foregone conclusion.  He was executed in the manner prescribed for traitors, being hanged, drawn and quartered.  His gruesome death was in reality far worse than depicted in the movie.

The end of William Wallace was not the end of war between England and Scotland.  Edward Longshanks continued his campaign to pacify his northern neighbor and its King, Robert the Bruce.  After a battle at Loudoun Hill in May of 1307, the first major battle won by King Robert, Edward personally moved to engage Robert and his Scotsmen, but Longshanks developed dysentery and died in July of 1307.  The body of Edward I was taken to London to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

While Edward had fathered either 14 or 16 children by his first wife, only one son outlived Edward, and became the King on Edward’s death in 1307, King Edward II.  Edward also had 5 daughters that lived into adulthood.  Edward’s second marriage resulted in a daughter that died as a child and 2 sons that lived to adulthood.

Thanks in large part to the 1995 film, the Mel Gibson portrayal of William Wallace has greatly superseded Edward Longshanks in the public eye as a legendary and famous figure, even though Edward undoubtedly had a much greater influence on history than that of Wallace, a case of the victor being outshone by the vanquished.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who was the greater historical figure, Wallace or Edward I?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Morris, Mark. A Great and Terrible King.  Pegasus Books, 2015.

Prestwich, Michael. Edward I (The English Monarchs Series). Yale University Press, 2008.

The featured image in this article, an engraving by Edmund Evans (1826–1905) of Edward I being acknowledged as the suzerain of Scotland, is in the public domain, because it is a mere mechanical scan or photocopy of a public domain original, or – from the available evidence – is so similar to such a scan or photocopy that no copyright protection can be expected to arise. The original itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.  This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.