The Price of Westminster Imperialism: King Edward I’s Attempts to Justify his Campaigns to Conquer Scotland and Wales

BY the third quarter of the thirteenth century, the attitude of the English towards their Welsh neighbours had exceeded far beyond the usual boundaries of tolerance. As John Chancellor remarks, to the average Englishman

“they, like the Irish, were a nation of barbarians. Their detestable sexual promiscuity played havoc with the laws of God and the principles of hereditary succession, while their lives were spent in theft and rapine of slothful ease.” [1]

Indeed, for a nation keen to enforce its tribal supremacy over the wild and untamed lands of the Celt, the increasing atmosphere of war appeared to have the full backing of the populace. Consequently, therefore, “in the face of such attitudes it is small wonder that, when Edward announced on 17th November 1276 his decision to go against Llewelyn, Prince of Gwynedd, as a rebel and disturber of the peace, he had the support of his English subjects.”[2] This point is crucial, because it demonstrates the initial popularity of the Welsh campaign and to a great extent is a justification of Edward’s own expansionist designs, regardless of the fact that imperialism is so often associated with personal ambition and moral bankruptcy. As far as Edward was concerned, any attempt to initiate a programme of English settlement in Wales would bring forth huge profits and generate much-needed income. On the other hand, the high tide of national consent was soon to be abruptly stemmed by the fact that all those in favour of Welsh suppression had to make the inevitable sacrifices that came with it. The conquest of the Welsh was certainly not an easy prospect. This fact is, perhaps, best illustrated by J.E. Lloyd:

“Invasions had no terror for men who could in a few hours pack up all their household goods in wagons or on the backs of sumpter-horses, drives their sheep and swine and cattle before them as they moved westward to the mountain passes, and cheerfully leave to the vengeance of the enemy the rudely-fashioned huts of lopped timber and wattle which had sheltered them and theirs for a season or two from the wind and rain of heaven.” [3]

Llewelyn was clearly within his rights. Although he only reluctantly agreed that Edward I was his overlord and ultimately controlled Wales in the manner of an English principality, he was adamant that his nation should be allowed to conduct its own internal affairs. After all, unlike the English feudal barons Llewelyn did not have to obtain royal approval for sheltering fugitives, building castles or creating new markets. In addition, any disputes arising between England and Wales were usually settled on the border by representatives from both sides. Prior to 1276 Llewelyn had retained the right to deal with his own vassals by subjecting them to the authority of Welsh law, but Edward was keen to establish a fully centralised administration based several hundred miles away at Westminster. As a result, the King demanded the right to hear petitions in London and to adjudicate on them “according to God and Justice and depending upon what the prelates and magnates of his realm advise, especially as no one supposes that such prudent men will give the King advice dissonant with or contrary to reason.”[4] In Edward’s opinion, of course, such reason could not be offered by a race of unclean, unwashed and uncivilised Welsh barbarians. Even in a purely ethical sense, Edward was clearly the aggressor and his campaign against the Welsh was completely unjustified. In the words of B. Wilkinson,

“nothing could compensate the Welsh for the surrender of liberty, the endangering of their native culture, and the decline of their national tongue.” [5]

But whilst the odds were clearly stacked in Edward’s favour, war rarely comes without its price and it became necessary for the King to raise financial capital by appealing to the more bigoted and prejudiced elements within his realm. During the early part of his reign, Edward usually presided over Parliament twice a year, once at Easter and again at Michaelmas. These meetings were primarily designed to address matters of taxation and raise money, for although Edward himself was said to have possessed a sound grasp of economics, he had also inherited a great deal of debt from his father, Henry III. But Edward can hardly be exonerated from blame himself for, as we shall soon see, his “pecuniary exigencies left their unfortunate influence on his popularity while he lived, and on the reputation he left behind him. He was to do many harsh, short-sighted, devious things to get himself out of tight financial corners, and his tendency to resort to legal captiousness always showed itself on these occasions.”[6] In April 1275, Edward invoked his very first parliament by summoning a special meeting of knights and burgesses at which he tried to clarify the need for effective resources. In short, if Edward was to launch a military force against the Welsh in accordance with the will of his subjects (which, in a more covert sense, meant obtaining public support for his own imperialistic designs), they would have to share the financial responsibilities which were likely to result from such a campaign.

Consequently, from that moment on Edward’s reign was placed on a permanent war footing. Large armies were required, especially as England was capable of destroying her Welsh neighbours by sheer weight of numbers. During the Welsh campaign Edward employed the services of up to 15,000 foot soldiers (of whom 9,000 were actually Welsh) and, at one stage, had a mobile infantry numbering no less than 30,000 men scattered throughout Wales. The men had to be clothed and fed, and the cost of transporting supplies from one place to another was simply immense. Prior to the war England had relied on the old feudal system, whereby a knight was bound to offer his services to the King for a period of around 40 days each year. This period was clearly inadequate for a highly progressive King such as Edward I and his ambitious nature eventually necessitated the creation of this country’s first mercenary force, even though the newer method of raising an army by payment was far more expensive. One or two contemporary historians (of which Michael Prestwich is most prominent), argue that feudalism was never fully eradicated and that Edward I still relied on this system to some extent. But regardless of the actual circumstances of military recruitment, the chief motive of the average knight (whether banneret or bachelor) was the attractive lure of obtaining land by way of conquest.

Parliamentary taxation, however, inevitably took its toll upon the beleaguered population. There were nine such taxes in the thirty-five years of Edward I’s reign, two before 1290 and a further seven between 1290 and 1307. In 1275 a total of £81,054 was raised from taxation, a figure which had increased to £116,348 by 1290. Maurice Powicke has stated that

“the most striking fact revealed by a general survey is the absence of local opposition to the assessment and collection of these subsidies. Here and there a steward tried to prevent the intrusion of the taxers into the hands of his lord; now and then minor disturbances are reported; but there would seem to have been no serious resistance.” [7]

But perhaps this is because tax collection was fraught with local corruption and the fact that many people found it preferable to bribe tax assessors than actually pay them? Overall this had a devastating effect on the economy and, as the years wore on, taxation – despite being significantly increased – began to raise less and less money. Edward’s use of parliamentary taxation, therefore, was also justified. It led to greed and self-interest in socio-economic terms whilst raising relatively little in the way of significant funds to support the military.

Revenue also had to be raised in order to pay for the King’s extensive programme of castle-building, a process of colonisation which was vital in the long-term establishment of royal authority. The Pipe Rolls indicate that something in the region of £80,000 was spent on the construction of eight castles up until the investiture of Edward of Caenarvon as Prince of Wales. Due to the fact that the Welsh themselves did not play any significant role in this highly visible and tangible attempt to expand the frontiers of English authority (even going so far as to destroy many castles during the rising of 1294), Edward was forced to gather together a travelling band of masons, quarriers, carpenters, diggers and smiths in order to see through his ambitious project. The labourers numbered between 2,500 and 3,500 men (an incredible figure when one takes into consideration the population of England during this period) and were employed for seven months at a time, often working on several different castles at once. Taken from a purely militaristic and colonialist perspective, Edward’s war against the Welsh was extremely well organised. Economically, however, the achievements of Edward’s reign had to be paid for in real terms and the first two Statutes of Westminster (in 1275 and 1285 respectively) smoothed the way by setting a new legal precedent. In reality, parliament may have been a way of gaining consent from one’s subjects, but it remained virtually powerless in a country which was ultimately governed by a power-mad autocrat. Indeed, the thirteenthcentury parliamentary system has been rightly described as ‘an occasion rather than a privilege’, and it should be remembered that the King still retained the right of veto over his subjects. Thirteenth-century chronicles contain more than a few unflattering stories concerning how Edward I allegedly swindled his aristocratic contemporaries out of their lands and forced many of them to rely on highway robbery and piracy as a means of making up for lost revenue. It could be argued that such people had only themselves to blame. On the other hand, perhaps this is further evidence of Edward I’s unreasonable behaviour in blind pursuit of military glory? Previous military excursions elsewhere (such as the Crusades or

those involving baronial fratricide) had always been paid for by rich Italian merchant bankers like Riccardi of Lucca, the Peruzzi, Bardi, Pozzi and Frescobaldi of Florence, but these sources were clearly not capable of financing a campaign the size of that now being envisaged by Edward I. Similarly, whereas Jewish money-lenders had always been a convenient source of income for any Christian keen to avoid the taint of usury by borrowing money at huge interest from a fellow congregationist (despite the Jews’ often voracious appetite for material enrichment at the expense of their embittered host community), this was no longer an option. Indeed, when “Edward came to the throne the Jews were so impoverished that their importance to the royal treasury was negligible.”[8] So it appears that the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 may have had more to do with the fact that this nation within a nation had outstayed its welcome, rather than fallen victim to a deliberate campaign of anti-Semitism. In the meantime, however, it had become necessary to find other sources of revenue. One such source was the wool trade.

In May 1275 a grant of custom was made on all exported wool, woolfells and hides. According to the official sources, two of the most respected individuals (many of whom were foreign merchants) from each wool-producing area were to ensure that customs dues found their way into the royal coffers, “namely 1/2 mark on each sack of wool, 1/2 mark on each 300 woolfells (which make one sack) and 1 mark on each last of hides going out of the realm, as well as in Ireland and Wales as in England, within liberties and without.”[9] This piece of highly unwelcome legislation was reinforced with a threat to all potential smugglers:

“if there is anyone who goes out of the realm with them otherwise he shall lose all the chattels he has and his person shall be at the King’s pleasure.” [10]

Wool was an extremely important commodity as far as England was concerned, and at this time the country exported most of it to Flanders where it was converted into cloth and then re-exported elsewhere. In total, the King managed to extract almost £10,000 a year from the wool trade, money which was initially pumped into his wars against the Welsh (including the risings of 1282 and 1294), but which also became a vital source of revenue for a new campaign against the equally ‘troublesome’ Scots. By the late-1290’s, however, the rich Italian merchants had become totally bankrupt.

Indeed, as Richard W. Kaeuper has noted: “Averaged over the twenty-two years of their service as crown bankers, Riccardi loans stood at £18,500 per annum, nearly half as much as the annual receipts accounted for by the household, the principal agency of Edward I’s government finance”[11] and therefore increasing pressure was being brought to bear on the King from all quarters. Italian failures can be attributed to the trade embargoes which had been caused by the Anglo-French war from 1294 onwards. Subsequently, Edward was forced to announce a state of national emergency and soon angered land-owners by further raising the wool tax.

Another contentious source of finance was the Church. By 1297 Edward had become embroiled in a series of wars in France, Flanders, Scotland, Gascony and Wales, and was clearly facing the biggest crisis of his reign. Parliament had become unsympathetic and the King’s constant demands for revenue fell on deaf ears. As a result, Edward began to look to the Church as a potential ally. In 1296, however, Pope Boniface VIII has issued his famous bull – Clericis Laicos – forbidding the taxation of the clergy without the authority of the Holy See. Disobedience of the bull would result in excommunication. For Edward, this piece of ecclesiastical legislation was an obstacle to his expansionist objectives. Nevertheless, the King ignored the Pope and demanded that the English Church contribute one-fifth of its income towards financing his various military campaigns. There is no reason to doubt that the Church was in a strong financial position during this period, indeed, the sources tell us that between 1256 and 1257 the total gross income of the Bishop of Ely, for example, was in the region of £2,300. Furthermore, between 1298 and 1299 this amount had risen to £3,500. This income was drawn from various sources, including customary rents, sale of works, contractual rents, as well as income generated from agricultural and judicial sources. But when the Archbishop of Canterbury – Robert Winchelsea – refused to give the King any money, Edward announced that he had outlawed the clergy itself and withdrawn the support of the monarchy. Lay fees were seized and clerics warned that ecclesiastical revenues would follow, although to their great relief the crisis was averted when the Pope issued a new bull – Etsi de Statu (July 1297) – in which he decreed that Clericis Laicos “did not apply when there was a state of emergency, and that the King could determine what constituted an emergency.”[12] But if one takes into consideration what may have happened to the country had not the Pope capitulated to the stubborn demands of an over-ambitious King, it soon becomes clear that despite its vast wealth Edward was not at all justified in his attempts to secure revenue from the Church. In the circumstances, however, Edward took a serious risk and managed to ride the storm.

Another storm on the horizon appeared in the shape of his baronial opponents and almost led to a situation not dissimilar to that which had engulfed the previous monarchy in civil war. Edward attempted to extend the duty of military service by ordering that those men with an annual land income of £20 should assist in the war against France. This had direct implications for Edward’s military excursions against Wales and Scotland, and when the Earl of Norfolk (Roger Bigod) and Hereford (Humphrey de Bohun) refused to go to Gascony, Edward attempted to raise another tax from the laity without consulting his knights and burgesses. The earls refused to collect the new tax and England was plunged into a state of domestic strife. Eventually, however, Edward realised that he could not wage a series of large-scale military campaigns without securing the support of the entire aristocracy. During his absence in Flanders, the King was forced to grant the Confirmation of the Charters (Confirmatio Cartarum) and basically restate his commitment to the principles of the Magna Carta. This concession on Edward’s part certainly seemed to appease his opponents and conveniently helped to avoid a second – and potentially more damaging – baronial revolt. Once again, the fact that Edward had managed to avert serious disaster at home does not in any way justify the overall damage he had caused by waging imperialist war against his neighbours.

Meanwhile, all eyes turned northwards. When William Wallace announced his support for John Balliol and inflicted a devastating defeat upon his hated English adversaries at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, Edward incurred even further expense by transferring his military headquarters to York. This, in fact, is precisely where it remained until 1304 and in numerical terms the army eventually grew to approximately 2,400 knights (of whom more than half received payment) and 10,500 Welsh archers. Between 1294 and 1298, it is estimated that these troops received a total of £360,000 in wages, including £250,000 spent on diplomatic subsidies (i.e. buying allegiance). The victorious Battle of Falkirk on 22nd July 1298 may have restored the dignity of the English military, but it hardly alleviated the financial pressures upon the country as a whole. The Scottish campaign was always hampered by the war with France on the one hand, and a fresh Welsh rising in 1294 on the other. The fact that Edward I was still attempting to subdue the Scots when he finally died in 1307, perhaps best demonstrates more than anything else that the economic catastrophe of his reign was chiefly exacerbated by his own stubborn refusal to accept that his suicidal foreign policies had failed the country as a whole. Edward’s accumulation of resources, therefore, cannot be validated because on the face of it they were sacrificed in the cause of monarchical selfishness.

To conclude, Edward I’s commitment of so many resources to the conquest of Wales and Scotland cannot be justified at all. He may have been a truly great and skilful leader in terms of his military prowess, but from an economic perspective he handled English finances in an extremely careless fashion. Whilst the original prospect of colonising Wales would have appeared viable to any expansionist monarch, once the socioeconomic effects of his campaigns had become apparent during the mid-1290’s Edward should have cancelled his plans instead of refusing to admit that it had become totally impossible to achieve his aims and objectives. In the circumstances, however, Edward did the worst thing possible and launched further wars against both France and Scotland. But such were the desires of an ambitious military leader who did not take kindly to being hampered by the stark realities of an administrative system which he himself had helped to develop. Politically, the actions of Edward I can never be justified because Wales and Scotland are – and will remain – historic entities in their own right. For many Celtic Nationalists, of course, King Edward was merely the first in a long line of Westminster-based imperialists with little or no regard for the cultural and linguistic diversity of the British Isles; an area which, in reality, represents a distinct family of nations rather than an empire at the beck and call of a distant English overlord. That the Welsh and Scots still continue to resist the encroachment of centralised rule is testimony to this fact.


1. John Chancellor, The Life and Times of Edward I (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981), p. 95.

2. Ibid.

3. J.E. Lloyd, History of Wales, ii, p. 607, quoted in F.M. Powicke’s King Henry III and the Lord Edward: The Community of the Realm In the Thirteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 619.

4. Quoted in John Chancellor, op.cit., p. 100.

5. B. Wilkinson, The Later Middle Ages In England: 1216-1485 (Longman, 1978), p. 88.

6. John Chancellor, op.cit., p. 129.

7. Sir Maurice Powicke, Thirteenth Century: 1216-1307 (Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 524.

8. John Chancellor, op.cit., p. 135.

9. Grant of Custom On Exported Wool, Woolfells and Hides (not later than 10th May), 1275.

10. Ibid.

11. Richard W. Kaeuper, War, Justice and Public Order: England and France In the Later Middle Ages (Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 45.

12. John Chancellor, op.cit., p. 145.


Arthur Bryant, The Age of Chivalry: The Story of England (The reprint Society, 1965).

George Holmes, The Later Middle Ages: 1272-1485 (Thomas Nelson, 1962).


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