Edward I: Best of Kings, Worst of Kings?

Warmongering anti-semite, or constitutionalist and family man? Marc Morris takes a fresh look at the career of Edward I, whose reputation has suffered a roller-coaster ride over the centuries.

On an otherwise unremarkable building opposite Holborn tube station, some five or six storeys above the commuter throng, sits a serene and noble-looking Edward I (r. 1272-1307). The work of a young sculptor Richard Garbe (1876-1957), he was placed there in 1902, and evidently intended as a tribute: on the opposite corner of the same building sits a similar statue of Edward VII, who was crowned that same year.

The accession of a new King Edward, the first in 350 years, clearly prompted some of his subjects to look back through the annals of English history in search of a similarly named exemplar. No doubt they quickly dismissed as unsuitable the two boy kings, Edwards V (r.1483) and VI (r. 1547-53), the usurper Edward IV and the unspeakable Edward II (r. 1307-27), and ignored the three unnumbered pre-Conquest Edwards on the grounds of their comparative obscurity. Today they might have considered the merits of Edward III (r. 1327-77), a successful king whose reign witnessed the greatest English triumphs of the Hundred Years' War. But at the start of the twentieth century no one was in the mood to celebrate a man who appeared to have gone looking for glory on the battlefields of Europe; the victor of Crécy and the founder of the Order of the Garter was at that time regarded as a feckless and irresponsible warmonger.

By a process of elimination, therefore, it had to be a statue of Edward I. Like his namesake grandson, Edward had also been a warrior king. His wars, however, were perceived to have been conflicts of quite a different order, fought in the national interest, and forced on him by the rebelliousness of his subjects in Wales and Scotland. Moreover, the first Edward, unlike the third, could be held up as man possessed of strong moral fibre, uxorious to an almost Victorian degree, the father of no less than fifteen with his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, in whose memory he erected the celebrated Eleanor Crosses.

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