From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The reign of Edward I marks an epoch in the history of the peoples of Great Britain. It saw the subjugation of Wales and her incorporation into the English kingdom. It saw that attempt at the incorporation of Scotland which aroused the fierce struggle for Scottish independence that was decisively concluded in the ensuing reign.
Scotland achieved her liberty; and if liberty were not itself priceless, we might be tempted to say that the price she paid in after years was excessive. In England it saw the final confirmation of the nationalism which had been developing during the previous century, and the establishment of the constitutional system, which assured to a representative parliament the control of the public purse and all which that control implies. It may be doubted whether any one of these things would have happened but for the personality of the king who occupied the throne of England.
For two hundred years England had been ruled by kings of whom all except the two last spent more than half their lives outside her borders. The two exceptions, John and Henry III, had both stood in direct antagonism to the national ideas growing up amongst the baronage, who had hitherto been as alien and un-English as the kings themselves. With those ideas Edward identified himself, so that he became the typical national leader, presenting in his own person and character with a singular precision those qualities which have ever since characterised the nation of which he was the head.
The English people, although foreign critics have always reproached them with inordinate greed, while to some they have appeared, like the Carthaginians to the Romans, as the typically "perfidious" race, have always prided themselves on their love of justice. No less have they prided themselves on their love of liberty, although again the foreign critic is apt to denounce their tyranny.
In fact they have always loved liberty passionately, in the concrete for themselves, and in the abstract for their neighbours. But this has not prevented them from being perfectly confident that it is good for other people to be ruled by them. There is, indeed ample warrant for that belief; but it has been apt to leave out of count the fact that other peoples hold the same view of liberty which they take for themselves, and prefer their own self-rule, however defective, to a rule forced, upon them, however admirable.
The Englishman loves strict justice administered without fear or favour, but he has an aptitude for persuading himself that the course of strict justice, and the course which coincides with his own interest, are identical; though if he. fail so to persuade himself, he will choose the course which he believes to be just. He will keep faith with resolute precision; the letter of his bond is sacred; but he is given to taking an advantage of the letter himself, and is somewhat inclined when occasion arises to evade the spirit in reliance on the letter. Hence the fervid denunciations of England as tyrannical and greedy, hypocritical and perfidious, by those who have suffered from her methods, Edward 1 was an exemplar of the English national character as here portrayed; whether we look at his Scottish or Welsh policy, or study his relations with the England baronage and the English people.
To Welsh and Scots he is the ruthless king, the tyrannical usurper, though he himself probably never had a doubt of the perfect righteousness of his treatment of both countries, He took for his own motto "Pactum serva," 'Keep troth' while his enemies denounced him as an unprincipled trickster.
The greatest Plantagenet
From a purely English point of view, however, Edward stands out as emphatically the greatest of the Plantagenets — the greatest, perhaps, of all England's rulers during the six centuries between the grandsons of Alfred and Queen Elizabeth. He completed the work of consolidating the English nation, although he failed in his design oi bringing the whole of Great Britain under a single sceptre.
No other country in Europe was formed into such a state of unity till nearly two hundred years afterwards. His legislation gave permanent shape to the law. His creation of the Model Parliament gave that assembly a form which-it retained for more than five hundred years, and made it the mouthpiece of the will of the nation; while its power of withholding supplies made the administration increasingly dependent on its support and goodwill, as the development of expenditure placed the government more and more at the mercy of those who held the purse-strings.
Government in England became essentially, as it had never been before, government by assent of the commons; government which was not controlled by the commons but must rest upon their support. The fact stands out, although it is not to be attributed to any relaxation on Edward's part of the absolutist theory. Rather it was his aim to create a force which would counterbalance that of the baronage and prevent baronial groups from dominating the Crown. But it followed also that the Crown must conciliate that force, lest it should make common cause with the baronage.
In another aspect also the reign of Edward I was of great importance, community of interests among English traders, and the expansion of trade with foreign countries. The reign falls broadly into two periods. The first, from 1272 to 1290 during which Edward was admirably served by his great Chancellor, Robert Burnell, was the period of legislation; within which fell also the conquest of Wales.
The second, from 1290 to 1307, was the period of a constitutional struggle in which the two most prominent incidents were the summoning of the Model Parliament and the Confirmation of the Charters. In this period falls also Edward's attempt to establish the English supremacy over Scotland.
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.