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The Story of England by  Samuel B. Harding


 

 

THE FIRST TWO EDWARDS


[106] IT was to Prince Edward that the people looked for good government after the death of Simon de Montfort. He was a young man, sober in judgment, and known to be in favor of just and orderly rule. Thenceforth, Henry III. was guided by his son Edward, and other counselors; and, for the remaining seven years of his life, the country was quite and prosperous.

Meanwhile, Prince Edward found stirring work to do in the last of the Crusades. He had always loved warlike exercises, and by his success in tournaments had become one of the most famous knights in Europe. He was religious by nature, and so, when he found a time in which he was not needed at home, he was glad to take a share in the Crusades.

In spite of several Crusades which had been under- [107] taken since the time of Richard I., the Turks still held Palestine and the Holy City of Jerusalem. In 1270 Prince Edward set out with a small company of followers, and remained about a year in Syria, fighting with great skill and courage. But he could do little toward driving out he Turks. At one time he nearly lost his life, as the result of a Mohammedan plot. While he was resting in his tent, without his armor, one day, a messenger entered on the pretext of bringing a letter from the "Old Man of the Mountain," the ruler of a Mohammedan sect, whose capital was on Mount Lebanon. These people were called "Assassins," a name meaning "drunk with haschisch" (a drink made from hemp); and they were ready for any desperate errand of murder upon which their master sent them. As the Prince was reading the letter, the "assassin" drew a poisoned dagger, and struck him, but fortunately only wounded him in the arm. The "assassin" was at once slain. As a result of prompt measures, Edward's wound soon healed, and not long afterward he departed for England.

When Sicily was reached, news came that Henry III. was dead, and that Edward I. had been proclaimed King. Edward did not hurry home to be crowned, but instead remained in his territory of Gascony for a time, to settle affairs there. At Châlons, his life was again placed in danger, in a [108] tournament, which was entered upon as a friendly trial of skill, but which was turned into a deadly battle. Many knights were slain, and Edward himself was in great danger, before he and his Englishmen won the day.


[Illustration]

Seal of Edward I

Edward's life was always full of activity. He was strong and brave, very tall and straight, with broad, deep chest, dark eyes, and brown flowing hair. Because of his long legs and arms he was called "Longshanks." He was a good swordsman, a good rider, and a good speaker. He bore an English name, and was the first King since the Norman Conquest who used English as his ordinary speech. As Prince he had been loved by the people, and as King he proved himself a wise guardian of the people's welfare. He reigned from 1272 to 1307, and he was guided always by the motto which at last was placed on his tomb—"Keep Faith." Though he sometimes had disputes with his people, yet he always "kept faith" with them.


[Illustration]

A Cross Erected by Edward I to the Memory of his Queen

Edward's greatest title to fame rests on the improvements which he made in the English laws.

In Europe, as a whole, the wanderings of the nations were now over. The Crusades had come to an end, and strong governments were beginning to arise. Everywhere there was need that old laws should be revised and new ones made to suit the new time.

This was the work which Edward I. did in England. He revised and put in order the old laws, and he made many new laws, so that he was regarded as a great "law-giver." We may truly say that the roots of the English law, as we have it today, go back to the time of Edward I.

First, Edward punished his own officers and judges for abusing their powers.

[109] Then he made laws to check the power of the great feudal lords.

Still another law, called the "Statute of Mortmain," forbade that any more land should be given or sold to the Church, especially the monasteries, without the King's consent. Monasteries were "corporations," which "never died," no matter how often the individual members of the body might change; so land held by them was called land in "mortmain,"—that is, in a "dead hand" which never relaxed. A great part of the land of England—perhaps one-third—was already in the hands of the Church; and since, the King's rights of taxation, and the like, were less over the Church lands than over other lands, it was important that the amount of land so held should not be increased.

Another great statute required that every free man should have arms and armor according to his means, and should appear for review twice a year. Those who were too poor to have armor and swords were required to have bows and arrows, and soon the English people became famed for their skill as archers. Other provisions of this law required that "watch and ward" should be kept in [110] the towns at night, to guard against crimes; and that when an offense was committed, all the people should join in "hue and cry" after the offender, until he was caught.

A great part of Edward's reign was taken up with the wars which he waged with the Welsh and the Scots, in the endeavor to bring all parts of Great Britain under the rule of the English King.

The trouble first arose with the Welsh, who inhabited the mountainous region in the western part of Great Britain. They were descendants of those Britons who were driven westward by the invading Anglo-Saxons, until the Severn river formed their eastern boundary. In the time of the Normans, powerful Norman lords established themselves along the borders of the Welsh territory, as "lords of the Marches." The Welsh were a high-spirited and courageous people, and they made constant, though usually unsuccessful, attacks upon these "lords marcher."

When Edward became King, Prince Llewelyn of Wales refused to do homage. Edward invaded Wales, and besieged the Welsh so closely, in the mountainous country, that they were forced by cold and hunger to surrender. In a second war, a few years later, Prince Llewelyn was killed. This ended the independence of Wales.

The country has ever since remained under the rule of England, and the title "Prince of Wales" has usually been borne by the eldest son of the English Sovereign. Edward gave Wales a system of government like that of the English shires, and ruled it wisely and justly.

[111] Edward I. also fought a long war with Scotland. He wished to unite the English and the Scots under one rule, but he managed the matter so badly that, when he died, the Scots hated the English, and the union was farther off than ever.

The story of Scotland is a long one, and we can tell only a small part of it here. In the old days, one of the rulers had become the vassal of an Anglo-Saxon King, and two centuries later another had yielded to Henry II. Thus the Kings of England claimed the overlordship of Scotland. In Edward I.'s time a dispute arose for the crown, and the Scottish lords appealed to King Edward to decide who had the best right. Edward decided in favor of John Balliol, who had the best claim, and he was thereupon crowned King of Scotland.

When Edward began to exercise certain rights as overlord of Scotland, Balliol resisted. Thus began the Scottish war, which, except for some short interruptions, lasted during the rest of Edward's life. Balliol was driven from his throne, and an English guardian was placed over the country. A fiery leader of the Scots then appeared, named William Wallace, who won a great victory over the English at Stirling.

But soon King Edward won a greater victory over Wallace, at Falkirk. The Scots, armed with long spears or pikes, were drawn up in four great circles, and waited to be attacked.

"I have brought you to the ring," cried Wallace to the English, "now dance if you can."

The Scottish spearmen were able to turn back the charges of the English horsemen. But when Edward brought up his archers, their deadly arrows broke up the Scottish circles, and gave the victory to the English.

[112] A few years later, Wallace was taken prisoner, and was cruelly put to death. Soon the Scots rebelled again, under Robert Bruce, whom they crowned King. Bruce suffered many defeats, and at one time was almost ready to give up the fight. A story is told how, one day as he lay hid, he watched a spider repair her web over and over again, until at last it held fast; and thus he, too, took courage and persevered.

After Edward's death (in 1307) Bruce conquered nearly all Scotland, until only the castle of Stirling held out against him. To save Stirling, Edward II., the unworthy son of Edward I., led a great army into Scotland, and fought a battle at Bannockburn. The English were poorly led, while Bruce showed himself a good general. The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, makes Bruce address his soldiers in these words:

"Scots wha ha'e wi' Wallace bled,

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led!

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to glorious victorie!


"Wha will be a traitor knave?

Wha can fill a coward's grave?

Wha sae base as be a slave?

Traitor! coward! turn and flee!


"Wha for Scotland's King and law

Freedom's sword will strongly draw

Free-man stand or free-man fa',

Caledonian! on wi' me!"

The result of the battle was a great victory for the Scots. The plans of Edward I. to conquer Scotland [113] thus came to nothing, and the Scots kept their independence.

The reign of Edward II. lasted twenty years (1307 to 1327), and in every way was a failure. His great father had trained him carefully to war and to business; but Edward II. proved utterly worthless, and thought only of his pleasures. His chief companion was a reckless favorite, named Piers Gaveston, who was as light-headed as the King himself. Gaveston called the greatest noblemen of the kingdom by such names as "the Actor," "the Hog," "the Black Dog." Three times he was sent out of England into exile, but each time he came back. The third time that Gaveston returned, the barons besieged the castle in which he took refuge; and, when it was captured, the baron whom he called "the Black Dog" had him put to death.

Again we find the barons making war upon the King, as in the time of Henry III., but their aims were now more selfish than they were when Simon de Montfort was at their head. It was partly because of this that Edward II. was able to rule as long as he did, in spite of his misgovernment and failures.

But at last a great conspiracy was formed against him, in which his Queen, Isabella, herself joined. The King's fourteen year old son (later Edward III.) was with the Queen. Bishops and nobles aided them, and the Londoners murdered the King's ministers. When the King's new favorites were captured, they were put to death. Edward II. stood practically alone, and after trying unsuccessfully to escape to Ireland he fell into the hands of his enemies.

Then, in a Parliament held in 1327, the question was put—

[114] "Whether they would have father or son for King?"

The answer was overwhelmingly against Edward II. He was declared incapable of ruling, and was deposed. To show that Edward's reign was really over, the High Steward stepped forward and broke across his knee the white staff which was the sign of the Steward's office.

But, so long as Edward  lived, his enemies feared lest he might recover his power, and undo the work which they had done. So, a few months later, the unhappy man was murdered by those who had him in charge.

This was the first time since the Norman Conquest, that the Great Council, which we now call Parliament, had exercised the right to depose a King. Before we go further, we must see what this body was, and how its powers had grown; for the growth of Parliament is the most important fact in all the history of this period.




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