Many of you will know of the devastation wrought by Edward I during Scotland’s War of Independence at the end of the thirteenth century. Not so well known is how he ‘hammered’ the women of Scotland ─ the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and, of course, the widows of those he considered traitorous rebels.
How did Edward come to take this position? Widely regarded as a great king by English chroniclers, he was renowned for his profound understanding of the legal system and its processes. This commitment to the laws of the land gave Edward a pivotal role consolidating the structure and foundation of English society which allowed him to use the law, legitimately, to perpetuate his own power and wealth. Regaining English lands lost in France and pacifying his own Duchy of Gascony in the southwest proved too compelling for Edward to ignore. And wars cost money!
Through his Plantagenet line, Edward inherited the energy and foul temper of his great grandfather, Henry 11, who imprisoned his estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, sixteen years for treason. Nor did Edward shrink from taking a stand based upon his beliefs and values. His actions show his overwhelming and obsessive desire to unify England, Scotland and Wales under his sovereignty. This valorous, uncompromising figure saw it as his right and destiny. In time, Wales and Scotland felt the keen weight of the oppressor’s boot upon their backs.
Edward believed the Scottish kings had paid homage to himself as their overlord but the canny Scots, ever mindful of their larger and more powerful neighbor, chose to offer homage only for those lands they held in England. At other times, when left with no other option, they chose their words with even greater care. But Edward’s belief was paramount – the Scottish lords had bent their knee both to him and to prior English kings, and therefore any rebellion against his rule was treason.
As a monarch, he held a keen awareness of what constituted treason. Edward meted out tortuous punishments to William Wallace, Simon Fraser and many other patriots. His capacity for cruelty came to the fore in the face of such a tenuous, unrelenting foe. Under normal convention, lords captured in battle might be ransomed but Edward’s view that they were traitors precluded them from this sanctuary.
Scotland was an ancient country in its own right with a pedigree far older than Edward’s England. Thus the Scots knew that keeping their independence was a well and just cause. To this end, Scotland’s community of the realm allied itself to Edward’s enemy, the King of France, and sought the support of the Pope. Their attempts only aggravated Edward’s temper, honing his vicious streak to a knife edge!
The wives of Scotland’s slain patriots found themselves in the unenviable position of having to petition Edward for leniency rather than suffer the forfeiture of their lands and livelihoods. Reflecting Scotland and England’s ambiguous social and political relationship, many of the Scots’ cross border lords had English wives. For those women whose husbands were imprisoned, Edward chose in the first instance to insist that the women and their families move back to England. If they complied and showed their loyalty to the English crown, then their economic position was viewed with greater sympathy. However, Edward, who always had his eye on the economic and strategic value of these female petitioners, purloined the greater proportion of their wealth. Because many of these women were related to either his friends or associates, Edward stood a greater chance of being able to manipulate and influence his prisoners as well as his own lords, once the wives were back on English soil.
For the families of the Scots’ lords whose loyalty remained with Scotland, the English monarch refused their petitions and gifted their lands to his own lords. Thus for many a wife whose husband had been slaughtered or imprisoned, the future was bleak indeed. Some died of starvation or spent the remainder of their lives in dire misery.
What must it have been like for these women, with their great broods of children as well as dependent relatives and extensive households, brought to ruination by war? What pragmatic wife would not have buckled under this pressure as England grew in power and strength over Scotland? Some remained openly loyal, for others their loyalty was subverted by hunger and the will to survive. For a time!
How Edward must have crowed when fate delivered him Bruce’s wife, his daughter and two of his sisters, as well as Lady Isobel of Buchan, who took part in the second crowning that elevated Robert, Earl of Carrick, to King of Scots. Now, we see Edward perpetuate a horror of unimaginable proportion upon the kinfolk of Robert the Bruce.
To place noblewomen in cages bordered on the unacceptable even within those harsh times. Isobel of Buchan and Mary Bruce spent many years of pain and suffering caged, whilst Robert’s daughter and sister, Christina, were both sentenced to indefinite solitary confinement in English convents. What depravity of mind would lead a king to imprison women in cages, hung on the exterior wall of castles, exposed to the bitter elements and the abuse of passers-by? The burden of hate that soured Edward’s heart and soul must have been bitter indeed towards those who crossed him ─ but Edward was an old hand at this; history tells he had already imprisoned Owen, son of Daffyd ap Gryyffyd, in a cage at Bristol Castle a year before!
In a time when ‘oubliettes’ ─ dark pits into which prisoners were dropped and left to die without food or water ─ were commonplace for folk who committed misdemeanors, such deprivation is not outstanding. And decades earlier, Edward’s grandfather, King John, imprisoned the outspoken wife and son of an Anglo-Irish lord in a pit where they were left to rot. Perhaps then, in Edward’s case, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
What is significant is the English king’s unshakable view that the Scots and Welsh were traitorous rebels ─ vermin to be exterminated ─ which denied them the normal rights of the time. But unable to overcome him any other way, the great and glorious King Edward stooped to punish Robert, King of Scots, by ‘hammering’ his female kinfolk. In 1307, he died, his abiding angst unresolved, knowing that he had severely underestimated Robert the Bruce, King of Scots . . .