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

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On an otherwise unremarkable I 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 Crecy 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.

There was more to recommend Edward I, however, besides his martial and marital virtues. What endeared him most to observers at the turn of the nineteenth century were his roles as lawgiver and constitution-builder. It was in the 1870s that William Stubbs, one of the founding fathers of history as a modern academic subject at Oxford, had first published his Constitutional History of England, in which he argued that it was under Edward's firm guiding hand that that most cherished of English institutions--Parliament--had attained its definitive form; so much so that he dubbed the not-especially-noteworthy assembly of 1295 'the Model Parliament'.

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Recognition of Edward's achievement as a legislator, meanwhile, had a much longer pedigree. In the early seventeenth century the lawyer Edward Coke, surveying veying the statute book and noting how much of its contents had originated in the late thirteenth century, declared that we should regard Edward I as 'our Justinian'--implying, of course, that the king rivalled the Roman emperor who had codified imperial law. It was an epithet that stuck. In 1902--again, the year of the coronation, and just as the two statutes were being hoisted into place in Holborn--the juror and writer Edward Jenks published a biography of Edward I to which he gave the subtitle the English Justinian. For some, it seems, the dawn of a new Edwardian age was a positive invitation to sing the praises of their new king's most illustrious namesake. A certain Wallace Leonard Palmer spotted a gap in Shakespeare's canon and began penning his own cod-Shakespearean epic The Life and Death of Edward I: a play in four acts. Alas, by the time it was published in 1910 the world had moved on, Edward VII was dead and buried, and--to the great loss of theatre-lovers everywhere--Palmer's masterpiece has rested in utter obscurity ever since.

There were other reasons, however, why this burst of enthusiasm for Edward I at the start of the twentieth century should have proved short-lived. …