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Langshanks' legacy: The impact of Edward I on Anglo-Scottish relations

Langshanks' portrait in Westminster Abbey

Edward I of England was known as 'Langshanks' ('long-legs') and also had the title of 'Hammer of the Scots' for his brutal invasion of Scotland. He was certainly a force to be reckoned with, as he had conquered Wales by 1283 and took full advantage of the invitation by the Scots to select their king during a succession crisis in 1292. His invasion of Scotland in 1296 when the Scots sought an alliance with Edward's French enemies marked the beginning of the Wars of Independence, which raged throughout the 14th century and marked an almost permanent decline in Anglo-Scottish relations until James VI of Scotland was invited to claim the English throne in 1603.

Today I would like to delve into his motivations for seeking to expand his realm in a way that no English monarch had done before him. He campaigned across Britain and France, though the latter was par for the course for English monarchs at this time, as they were basically French themselves and held many lands and vassals there. Before becoming king he helped his father, Henry III, put down a rebellion of barons led by Simon de Montfort. He was also a crusader who went to fight the Muslims in Palestine in 1270 (where he was almost killed by one of the infamous Assassins), before returning to England to claim the throne in 1274 after his father had died.

It's important to remember too that at the time, the French-speaking world (which included England's aristocracy) was enthralled by the tales of King Arthur. Arthur's status as 'King of Britain' seems to have influenced how Edward saw himself and he began to take over the rest of Britain by conquering Wales; ironically the land of the very people whom Arthur would have belonged to. However, despite the fact that Arthur is supposed to have fought the English, England's rulers since 1066 were a French-speaking aristocracy. Therefore, the kings of the Plantagenet dynasty didn't identify with Arthur's Saxon foes, because the Anglo-Saxons' descendants were simply the Plantagenet's subjects.

A depiction of King Arthur from the 1480s

Clearly though, this was less about ethnic identity and more about expanding Edward's feudal domain so that he could claim the glory of doing what neither the Romans nor Æthelstan (a 10th century West Saxon king) could do: hold Britain as one realm. It was probably believed that Arthur had ruled over the entire island, so Edward likely saw himself as reinstating an ancient state and establishing order across a land of several kingdoms.

While there had been mutual aggression between Scotland and England in the past, there had been no Scottish raids for almost a century by the time Edward invaded; so by 1292 when Edward chose John Balliol to be Scotland's king, it's clear that he was intent on dominating what was essentially a neutral neighbor. The Scots probably wouldn't have sought alliance with the French had Edward not treated Balliol as a vassal. Edward's motivation for doing this was thus personal, but also dynastic ambition; he took advantage of Scotland's vulnerability and request for help for his own gain.

Perhaps understandably, he seized the opportunity to incorporate Scotland into his realm having already conquered Wales six years prior. The glory of becoming 'King of Britain' like Arthur was within his grasp; he had only to enforce his will on a neighbor whose aristocracy was clearly so divided amongst themselves that they had to ask Edward to choose their king for them, so that they wouldn't start butchering each other over the throne. Surely they were better off being guided by a steady and mighty hand, but which was ready to curl into a fist should they become too impudent.

John Balliol was later known as 'Toom Tabbard', meaning 'empty coat', referring to how deeply compromised he was as king of an independent Scotland

That is exactly what happened, since what the Scots saw in this was the initially friendly hand of their neighbor turn into talons, seeking to claim their country for his own. One could argue the Scots were naïve to trust Langshanks, but they were facing the real possibility of civil war and weren't willing to take that risk, so they took another instead. They probably didn't trust him so much as they saw asking his help as placing themselves in a vulnerable position they could better control. If a civil war broke out, Edward might have been much more effective in playing off different sides against each other and ended up with a firmer control of Scotland than he ultimately got.

The course of events thus actually gave an advantage to the Scots in uniting them against a common enemy. Though the divide-and-conquer strategy was still effective until Edward's death in 1307 (as many Scottish nobles held lands in England), the commoners were pretty much united in their resentment of the foreign occupation and only needed to overcome any fear of the English soldiers in order to join William Wallace and Andrew Moray in rebellion against them.

Fortunately for the Scots, Edward II had not the indomitable will of his father and Langshanks had also failed to hunt down Scotland's new king, Robert the Bruce, by the time he died. Though the English army was still a formidable force, the Scots were fighting for their freedom and many were determined to be rid of them. There were still some Scots who were willing to collaborate, including my own clan (but that was purely because Robert the Bruce had murdered their chieftain, John Comyn 'the Red', because the two disagreed about which one of them should be king).

Nevertheless, Langshanks' attempt to conquer Scotland led to poor relations with England for centuries to come. The First War of Independence ended in 1328 after Edward II was deposed and died in prison. His son, Edward III, tried to conquer Scotland again, but failed and ended the Second War of Independence in 1357; though war erupted again in 1400 when his grandson, Henry IV invaded Scotland. These hostile relations were also encouraged by the 'Auld Alliance' between Scotland and France, as Scotland became willing and able to support France in her wars with England (which were all fought over territory within France itself).

William Wallace himself had also done his fair share to antagonize the English, as his raids into Northern England after the Scots' victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297 marked the renewal of Scottish raiding. The Wars of Independence also had the effect of making the borderlands into a very dangerous place, where locals on both sides of the border hardened and became more clannish and self-reliant and became a nuisance to both the Scottish and English monarchs.

The Border reivers are the best-known expression of the Scottish Borderers hardening as a result poor relations between Scotland and England in the late middle ages, which made the Borders a more dangerous place

However, I still believe that Langshanks' ambition is the root cause of this longstanding antagonism, even though there had been hostility between Scotland and England centuries before his time. Not since the Romans had an army from the south attempted to actually conquer Scotland, because most of the time it was about countering raids and border disputes. English monarchs certainly tried to dominate their Scottish counterparts, the most famous examples prior to Edward I are Æthelstan of Wessex and William the Conqueror, who both gained the submission of the Scottish kings Constantine II and Malcolm III 'Canmore' in 934 and 1072 respectively.

Edward's invasion was different because he was attempting to annex Scotland to England, which again was likely a result of his conquest of Wales and becoming convinced he could do the same with Scotland. The dynamic between England and Wales was similar to that between England and Scotland, with various Anglo-Saxon kings attempting to dominate the Welsh. Later Norman and Breton warlords tried to carve out the south of the country for themselves, while paying lip service to the Norman and Plantagenet kings as overlords.

Therefore, Edward's approach was more akin to imperialism rather than the earlier, more tribal form of domination. It could be argued this already had a precedent with William the Conqueror, who seized England for himself when the opportunity of an uncertain succession presented itself, much like with Langshanks and Scotland. It could also be argued that England's kings would have become like this even if the Normans hadn't taken over, but the point I want to make here is that power is addictive and when one is successful in acquiring more, this can be a very dangerous combination in the hands of someone as ruthless as Langshanks was. Such ambition can have long-lasting repercussions, such as worsening relations between Scotland and England that have not fully healed to this day.

Conor Cummings

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