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The failure to develop any special claims for the rank of
earl is seemingly underlined by the fairly desperate attempts of certain
thirteenth-century earls to invest their other honorific titles with greater
meaning. Simon de Montfort, the celebrated earl of Leicester
who effectively seized control of Henry
government after the battle of Lewes in 1264, sought to bolster his precarious
position by investigating his rights as hereditary steward of the king’s
household – even to the extent of quizzing an aged and distant female relative
about their precise extent. Similarly, when Roger
and Humphrey de
opposed Edward
plan to lead an army to Gascony
in 1297, they took their stand not as the earls of Norfolk
and Hereford,
but in their capacities as the king’s hereditary marshal and constable.

And yet, as the thirteenth century progressed, and the power
of the Crown increased inexorably, the notion did begin to develop that earls
were in some sense uniquely placed to challenge it. The germ of such an idea
can be found as early as the 1230s, in a legal treatise known as
, notable in almost every other respect for its
staunch defence of royal supremacy. In one particular passage, inspired by a
rebellion against Henry III in 1233–34, the author speaks of the necessity of
‘bridling’ the king if he goes beyond the rule of law. He is not terribly
specific about what this entails or who is to do it – responsibility for
dragging the king into line falls to the ‘his court – that is, his earls and
barons’. Elsewhere, however,
had more to say
on the subject of earls. They are called
plural of comes), he said, because they are the king’s companions.
Etymologically speaking, he was quite right: originally comes had simply meant
‘companion’; it was first used as an official title in the fourth century for
the courtiers of the Roman emperors.
Having reasserted this
expanded on it: the king’s associates
helped him to govern the people, he said, and the swords with which they were
girded signified the defence of the kingdom.

From these two unconnected and rather unpromising strands a
new theory of what it meant to be an earl was woven in the latter part of the
thirteenth century, when the power of the English medieval monarchy reached its
highest point. During the reign of Edward I (1272–1307), huge armies, tens of
thousands strong, conquered Wales
and invaded Scotland, while
in England
royal lawyers were pushing the Crown’s rights to their utmost limits, even to
the extent of debating whether in all instances the king was bound by the law.
Just as military expansion provoked resistance from the likes of
and William Wallace, so too did the
extension of the king’s power in England find its opponents. The
Mirror of Justices, a legal diatribe written in the period 1285–90, took as its
main theme the idea that the king should not be allowed to rule unfettered.
Taking his cue from the earlier comments of
the author of The Mirror concocted a spurious historical justification for what
he saw as the proper function of
vis-à-vis the
king. When the Anglo-Saxons, he says, first came to Britain, they were a folk led by as
many as forty sovereigns; only after a long time fighting among themselves did
they agree to put themselves under the rule of a single king, whom they elected
and crowned. The forty sovereigns, the author then explained, settled down to
govern and defend individual districts, which were known as counties, so-called
because the sovereigns were the king’s companions. From all this nonsense a
powerful conclusion flowed: namely, that it was the special job of the earls to
bring the king to book if he should govern badly.

Frustratingly, we do not know who wrote The Mirror of
Justices, or for whom it was written. It is interesting to note, however, that
in its detestation for royal justices and its appeal to an imagined past in
which the king and earls were partners, the Mirror chimes very well with the
views famously put into the mouth of John de
earl of Surrey in precisely the same period. According to a later chronicler,
reacted angrily when called before the king’s
justices to defend his rights. When asked ‘by what warrant’ (quo
) he held his lands, the earl produced an ancient
and rusty sword, and said
at this, my lords: this is my warrant!
For my ancestors came
with William the Bastard and conquered their lands with the sword, and by the
sword I will defend them from anyone intending to seize them.
The king
did not conquer and subject the land by himself, but our forebears were sharers
and partners
with him.’

It is unlikely that appeals to history of this kind would have convinced
Edward I to share more of his authority with his earls, or to allow that they
had the right to correct his actions. This was, after all, a king who regarded
history as yet another weapon in his own
; who
ordered every monastery in England to search their chronicles for historical
precedents that would justify his superior lordship of Scotland, and who had
dug up King Arthur at Glastonbury to prove to the Welsh that their legendary
leader was not coming back to save them. When, in 1297, the earl of Norfolk chose to make a
stand against Edward, he appealed to the rights of the community as set down in
, and what he called ‘human and divine
reason’. It was only after the king’s death that the theories that had been
germinating in his reign began to be advanced as political argument. During the
reign of Edward II (1307–27) there was far less talk of community, and much
greater emphasis on the importance of earls. Chroniclers who otherwise lamented
of certain individual earls
nevertheless claimed that England’s
woes – especially its embarrassing defeats in Scotland – were caused by their
‘There was a time,’ opined one anonymous writer, ‘when
fifteen earls or more were wont to follow the standard of English kings to
battle. But now only five or six earls bear help to our king.’ Such sentiments
caught on fast, to the extent that by the beginning of the next reign the
necessity of having more earls was accepted as self-evident truth even by the
king himself. In 1337, Edward III declared that royalty worked best when ‘
buttressed by wise counsels and fortified by
mighty powers’, expressed regret at the
decline in
and ranks of dignity’, and aimed to set things
right by the simultaneous creation of no less than six new earldoms. It was the
first deliberate attempt to increase the numbers of earls since the reign of
King Stephen two hundred years before.

Fortunately, much had changed in that time: England’s
aristocracy now had a much greater sense of themselves as the leading members
of a united kingdom.
When Hugh de Courtenay, created earl of Devon
by Edward III in 1335, went around boasting that his new title made him the
king’s equal and gave him the right to make laws, there was little cause for
genuine alarm. Courtenay had been a victim of Edward
masterful meanness, denied his ancestral right to inherit his earldom when
still a teenager. Having spent almost forty years pressing for redress, he was
no doubt rather surprised in his old age to find his claim suddenly upheld, and
seems to have let his imagination get the better of him. Back in the real
world, there was no likelihood that England might fragment into tiny
pieces, each governed by an independent earl who thought himself the equal of
the king. It was no longer possible to say to the king, ‘I am an earl,
therefore you cannot touch me’. Instead, the earls had developed a new theory:
something along the lines of ‘we are earls, and therefore we can replace you’.
Before the deposition of Edward II in 1327, no king of England had
been permanently removed in this way. In the late
Ages, however, many others would share his fate. And it was the earls, above
all, who were the kingmakers.


Edward I


Many people, confronted with the long line of heroes and
villains who have at one time or another sat on England’s throne, would no doubt
struggle to identify Edward I. His life, unlike those of several of his
successors, was never celebrated by Shakespeare; he was neither hunchbacked nor
notably handsome; he did not murder any nephews nor meet with a grisly end; to
the best of our knowledge, he never urged his men once more unto the breach,
nor offered his kingdom in exchange for a horse. It is understandable,
therefore, that this thirteenth-century king should sometimes slip from our
collective national consciousness, or be confused with his numerous royal
namesakes (altogether we have had eleven King Edwards). But it is also a great
pity, because Edward I was the most important of them all, and, indeed, one of
the most important monarchs this nation has ever known.

Edward has not been entirely overlooked in popular culture.
In 1995 he made his big-screen debut in
appearing as ‘
’, the villainous nemesis of
the film’s hero, Sir William Wallace. The nickname, at least, had some basis in
contemporary fact: Edward was a remarkably tall man for his day and age,
standing around six foot two in his silken socks (such was the length of his
corpse when exhumed in 1774). But otherwise, as you might expect, Gibson’s
biopic provides a poor guide to understanding the king’s character and
motivations, especially since it deals with only the last decade of a
remarkably long reign. Edward was the longest lived of all England’s
medieval monarchs, 68 years old when he died in the summer of 1307. Not until Elizabeth I limped on
into the seventeenth century was his record broken.

And what a life he had lived. Before his accession, Edward
had served one of the toughest apprenticeships of any English ruler, having
seen his father, the ineffectual Henry III, stripped of power, and having
suffered defeat and imprisonment at the hands of his uncle, Simon de Montfort.
It fell to Edward to lead the royalist
restore Henry to full authority, a feat he eventually achieved in 1265 at
Evesham, where he met Montfort in battle and had
hacked to death.

Restoring the power of the Crown
remained one of Edward’s principal preoccupations for the rest of his days. The
other was recovering Jerusalem
for Christendom. In 1270, still uncrowned, Edward became the second of only two
English kings (the other being his great uncle, Richard the
to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. It was,
much to his disappointment, an unsuccessful expedition, and it remained
Edward’s lifelong ambition to return east at the head of a far greater host.
Nevertheless, his crusade, and his other youthful adventures in Europe (to Spain,
for instance, where he married Eleanor of Castile), made Edward the most widely
travelled English monarch until well into the modern age. Not until the future
Edward VII visited India
in 1875 did any king or queen travel further.

Plans for a new crusade, however, were
ultimately dashed by struggles closer to home. Edward returned from the East
determined to assert his authority on all fronts. One of his initial projects,
for example, was to rebuild the Tower
of London – the massive
scale of the site that exists today is largely Edward’s achievement. A grander
architectural legacy still arose as a consequence of the king’s intervention in
which prior to this point was essentially an independent country. When the
native Welsh princes met Edward’s demands for submission with defiance, the
king responded by terminating their power forever. In 1277 and 1283 Wales was
conquered in two devastating campaigns, and conquest was cemented with the most
spectacular string of castles ever created. The mighty fortresses at
, Conwy,
Caernarfon (to name just the four most famous) are all World Heritage Sites,
and testimony to the awesome power that the English medieval state achieved
with Edward I at the helm.

For the first half of his reign Edward
enjoyed almost unqualified success. As well as victory in Wales, there were
triumphs on the domestic front. The Crown’s finances were righted by the
creation of a national customs system; new laws were promulgated and the peace
well kept. Parliament, a novel but hitherto malfunctioning institution, was
transformed into a forum in which the nation could come together and devise
common remedies. In 1290, for example, the knights of the shires assembled in Westminster to solve the
pressing problems associated with Jewish credit. In a profoundly anti-Semitic
age, the solution was a simple one, and Edward ordered the total expulsion of
all Jews from his kingdom – the first European monarch to take such a measure.

From that moment on, however, Edward’s
success started to unravel. Just a few weeks after the Expulsion, he lost his
beloved queen, Eleanor of Castile. Around the same time, news arrived of the
death of Margaret, the so-called ‘Maid of Norway’, heiress to the Scottish
throne and fiancée of Edward’s namesake son. The collapse of this matrimonial
alliance – a scheme that would have seen England
and Scotland
united in 1290 rather than 1603 – persuaded Edward to impose himself on the
Scots by force. They responded by allying themselves with the French, and the
English king soon found himself at war with two formerly friendly neighbours.
Edward spent his final years, not fighting in the Holy
Land as he had hoped, but engaged in a ceaseless round of
campaigns north of the Border. It was en route towards the Border that he
eventually died, trying but failing to stamp out the rebellion of Robert Bruce.
A king both great and terrible, he left England far stronger and more
united than he found it at the time of his accession. But he left a legacy of
division between the peoples of the British Isles
that has lasted from his day to our own.

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