Edward I's Policies
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Edward I's Policies
We have seen that Edward's policy during the first twenty years of his reign tended to restrict the individual powers of the great nobles. This was the effect of the legislation from the Statute of Gloucester to Quia Emptores. A like effect was produced by the conquest of Wales, so far as the Marcher earldoms were concerned; since it was no longer necessary to concede to the earls that freedom of action which in practice was required so long as it could be pleaded that the Marches were virtually in a persistent state of war. The same sort of policy was observed by Edward during the remainder of his reign. When Gloucester and Hereford attempted to assert their traditional authority, they were promptly taught that their independence had disappeared with the disappearance of its raison d'etre; and that was the main cause of Hereford's subsequent attitude of persistent opposition to the king.
Struggles with nobles
Edward, however, sought to strengthen the Crown as against the great feudatories in another way, by the absorption of great estates into the lordship of the royal house. First Gloucester, and afterwards Hereford's successor, were compelled, willingly or unwillingly, to marry two of the king's daughters, so that the earls of the next generation were both of the blood royal. The third member of the baronage who had stood in conspicuous opposition to the king was Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk.
His estates were entailed on the heirs of his body; and since he was childless, they passed on his death to the Crown, In like manner Cornwall lapsed to the Crown on the death of its earl, the king's cousin. Thomas of Lancaster, Edward's nephew, held three earldoms, to which two more were ultimately added by his marriage to the daughter of the Earl of Lincoln'. The immediate effect was to secure a great preponderance for the blood royal among the greater barons. The same policy with the same end in view was pursued by the king's grandson, Edward III; although, as we shall presently find, it subsequently bore fruit of a very different kind from that which had been intended.
In the second place, the king aimed at procuring authority for pronouncements which should secure to him beyond cavil powers of raising money without a direct appeal to the goodwill of his subjects. To that end his statutes defined feudal aids and expressly authorised the levying of the "Great and Ancient Customs," the fixed tax on exported wool. But he was in no haste to procure definitions which expressly limited his powers of exaction, and tried his hardest to avoid formal ratifications of the Charters in terms which expressly required the assent of parliament to various imposts such as the tallages which had from time to time been levied from the towns. The tallages, as we have seen, were not formally surrendered by him in his Confirmation of the Charters, despite the petition of the barons which was subsequently treated as a statute.
In effect, Edward devised or applied various means of raising money, to which exception was taken sooner or later as contravening the principle that only specified taxes might be raised without parliament's consent. Thus under pressure of circumstances the king seized the wool of the merchants, or war supplies, as being within the prerogative of the Crown, though of his grace he consented to compensate the sufferers for their losses. Long custom treated an estate of a certain value as being a knight's holding; and on it he based a decree that every one in possession of such a holding must take up knighthood, and pay the feudal fee on taking up knighthood, on pain of a heavy fine.
He made, at the very close of his reign, a bargain with the foreign merchants, in accordance with which he of his own authority imposed what were afterwards called the New and Small Customs as opposed to the Great and Ancient Customs - additional taxes on exported goods. On occasion, instead of applying to parliament, he bargained with separate sections of the community for particular grants. Hardly any Of these methods were decisively challenged at the time; but all later provided bones of contention between Crown and parliament when parliament learnt to think of financial control as a means to the control of policy and administration.
Borrowing from the Jews
Apart from these various sources of supply, legitimate or otherwise, English kings in the past had been in the habit of meeting financial emergencies by borrowing; and the source from which alone they could borrow was the Jewish community. The ethical standard upheld by the medieval Church forbade Christian men the practice of usury, that is, of lending money at interest.
The Jews recognised no such moral restriction, and as a body they derived their wealth not from trading but from financing their neighbours. Socially they were outside the pale; but the kings of England generally took them under their own protection, because they were a useful source from which the Crown could obtain supplies upon reasonable terms, as their protector. That proviso did not apply to private persons who found themselves driven to borrowing; and the Jews were detested both on the ground of religious prejudice and as extortioners.
Expulsion of the Jews
Perhaps the most popular act of Edward was his expulsion of the Jews from England; a measure which, while it gratified popular prejudice, appeared to be conspicuously disinterested because the Crown thereby deprived itself of the source from which it had hitherto been able to borrow on emergency. But in fact Edward found a substitute for the Jews. The great commercial houses of the cities of northern Italy had already developed a financial business, in spite of ecclesiastical doctrines as to usury, which had deprived the Jews of their monopoly; and the expulsion of the Jews made room for the Lombards and Florentines. The Crown in fact probably lost little by the exchange.
Before the time of King Edward the development of national commerce had not presented itself to the kings as an object of policy. The mere expansion of trade developed the consciousness of common interests as opposed to merely local interests among the English producers, and so fostered that national idea which was so prominent in Edward's own mind; and a similar notion is latent in Edward's habit of negotiating with mercantile groups in preference to individual boroughs.
These beginnings, however, of the nationalisation of commerce went on side by side with the development of the corporate life of the boroughs themselves, both being encouraged by the final recognition of borough representatives as an element of the national parliament. And here we may note in the boroughs, beside the gilds-merchant, the growth of the craft-gilds, to which the authority of the gilds merchant was gradually transferred.
The craft-gilds were associations of the members of the separate trades or crafts; and we must not be led by modern analogies to imagine that they consisted of handworkers in opposition to capitalist employers. In the thirteenth century the trader was a master craftsman who was already a free burgess. He might or might not have journeymen and apprentices in his employ, but in any case he was practically certain to be a worker himself. And every apprentice and nearly every journeyman looked forward to the time when he should himself become a master craftsman and a burgess.
There was no active antagonism between employer and employed when the employed looked upon himself as an employer in the making. Nor was there direct antagonism between the gild-merchant and the craft-gild, because the master craftsman was of necessity a member of the gild-merchant - seeing that if he were not so he could not carry on his trade. In the main, the substitution of the leading craft-gilds for the gild-merchant as the local authority for the regulation of trade was not the outcome of the struggle between rival organisations but merely a matter of practical administrative convenience.
Exports and Imports
The national idea was, as we have seen, only in embryo, and the commercial idea of breeding and accumulating wealth was only in embryo. Commerce was practically the local exchange of goods of which there happened to be a superfluity, for goods of which there happened to be a deficiency, and the local producer was extremely jealous of the competition of the outside producer, whom he called a "foreigner." But Edward saw in the development of a national commerce a means not only to increasing the material prosperity of his subjects, but also to filling the royal exchequer. By increasing the volume of exports and imports, the produce of the customs, new or old, would be proportionately increased. The superior quality of certain English products, notably wool and hides and some other raw materials, had created a demand for them on the Continent, notably for the looms of Flanders. The export was to be encouraged; and Edward sought to concentrate it at particular ports, partly because the trade could thereby be better supervised in the interests of the traders, and partly because the customs could be more easily collected in the interests of the Crown.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.