Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.10.08, Burt, Edward I and the Governance of England

13.10.08, Burt, Edward I and the Governance of England

Although there are fewer lengthy narrative sources for thirteenth- century England as compared with the twelfth, this decline is more than compensated by the massive increase in the number and variety of surviving documentary sources from the royal government. Ever since F. M. Powicke and J. E. Morris demonstrated in the early decades of the twentieth century the enormous importance of these documentary sources, administrative, legal, political, and military historians have returned to exchequer rolls, chancery rolls, justice rolls, bench rolls, royal correspondence, wardrobe accounts, and a vast host of miscellaneous writs, memoranda, and contracts to unearth new information and refine older interpretations regarding a host of questions concerning royal rule. Nevertheless, despite the enormous attention devoted by scholars to England in the thirteenth century, and particularly to the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), the vast scope of the documentary evidence, with millions of individual texts, means that very few conclusions regarding this period can be understood as completely settled. Not only is entirely new information being developed by scholars investigating previously under-utilized sources, but this new information often requires a revision of scholarly interpretations about sources that have benefitted from significant analysis. This process of developing new information and reinterpretation of texts that shed light on royal rule is manifest in Caroline Burt's path-breaking examination of Edward I's governance in England, which is the first to consider in detail how this king responded to the issues of law and order in the shires over the course of his entire reign.

Edward I's reign was remarkable for its achievements in law, administration and war. However, the last third of this period was marked by prolonged and often unsuccessful military campaigns abroad, and by sustained social unrest at home. The difficulties Edward faced in both the foreign and domestic spheres, as well as the disastrous reign of his son Edward II, have tended to color scholarly assessments, and many historians have pointed to putative flaws in Edward I's character as the source of his problems. Burt has taken a fundamentally different approach, largely eschewing a study focused on personality, and turning instead to one that analyzes Edward I's principles and policies as a guide to understanding both his unquestionable successes, and also the unrest in England from the mid 1290s up through middle of the next decade. Although Burt considers the broader geo-political context of Edward's reign, her primary attention is on the efforts of the royal government to maintain law and order within the kingdom through the development of legal institutions that were intended to make royal justice available to ever larger numbers of the king's subjects. In order to demonstrate how these legal institutions, including general eyres, commissions of oyer and terminer, querelae, and trailbaston commissions, operated, Burt offers cases studies of three shires, Shropshire, Warwickshire, and Kent, which are presented as representative of the kingdom as a whole.

In a lengthy introduction, Burt provides a thorough discussion of the historiographical traditions regarding Edward I as a ruler. She then turns to an explanation of her decision to choose three shires to serve as case studies, explaining the ways in which developments here can be understood to reflect developments in other regions of England. Finally, and very usefully for those readers who are not well-versed in English legal history, Burt details the sources of information that are available for legal matters during Edward I's reign, and how these texts can be analyzed to answer questions about the intended goals of royal policies concerning the maintenance of law and order, and the effectiveness of the royal government in carrying out its goals.

Following the introduction, the volume is organized in two parts, the first thematic, and the second chronological. The first part comprises three chapters: Royal Government, Political Ideas, and The Localities: Shropshire, Warwickshire and Kent. In the first chapter Burt discusses the expansion of royal government over the course of the thirteenth century. She attributes this expansion, particularly in legal matters, to the desire, on the one hand, of the royal government to gain revenues by tapping into the economic resources of middling and smaller landowners, who previously had been dominated by local territorial magnates. The second, concomitant cause was the desire by these same middling and small-scale landowners to gain access to royal justice in an effort to escape domination at the hands of local magnates. In chapter two, Burt considers the development of political concepts regarding the content and nature of royal rule with a focus on a transition from "personal lordship" to public authority. Burt attributes the creation of a new concept of the public nature of government to a synthesis of positive Aristotelian views of the state, Roman law, and English common law. Ultimately, Burt concludes, this synthesis led to both a greater definition and also limitation on princely authority. In the final chapter of Part I, Burt provides an overview of the geography, topography, political organization, and social structures in each of the three shires that serve as case studies for the effectiveness of royal policies to maintain law and order.

The second part of the book is organized in 6 chronological chapters that cover the years, 1254-1272, 1272-1277, 1278-1285, 1286-1293, 1294-1301, and 1302-1307, respectively. In each of these chapters, Burt discusses the policy decisions made by Edward, first as prince and then as king, to maintain peace and order in England through the vast increase in the availability of royal justice to people at all levels of society. Crucial in these discussions is Burt's demonstration that Edward was very concerned to make all people, including the magnates, subject to the same set of laws. Among the king's noteworthy initiatives was to investigate and punish corruption by royal officials, who not only undermined his own authority through their actions, but also harmed the public good. Contrary to much of the previous scholarship regarding Edward, Burt emphasizes that the king followed a consistent set of policies that were based on his views of the integrity of the royal office as well as the king's obligation to seek the common good of all of his people. Although Burt concedes that Edward was willing to ignore his own principles in a few cases related to the private interests of members of his family, she demonstrates quite effectively that as both prince and king, Edward was far from the mercurial and stubborn autocrat depicted in much of the scholarly tradition.

In assessing the government's efforts to foster access to royal justice in the three shires that serve as case studies, Burt gives high marks to Edward during the first two decades of his reign. Although outbreaks of war in 1277, 1282-1283, and 1287 all put a temporary stop to royal legal and administrative initiatives, the consistent efforts of Edward to press forward led to considerable success. By contrast, the period of almost continuous warfare in Gascony, Wales, Flanders, and particularly Scotland in the period 1294-1305, led to a significant break down in public order. However, rather than blame Edward's personality, and his conflict with the great magnates, for social upheaval, Burt makes clear that it was the exigencies of war, itself, that was at the root of increased crime and disorder. Burt does acknowledge that Edward's guiding principle, namely that he was responsible for the commonwealth, was the cause of political conflict, particularly Edward's view that it was his right to draw in a virtually unlimited manner on the resources of his subjects in time of extreme necessity. This view was rejected by the magnates with respect to war in Flanders. However, when faced with a Scottish invasion of the northern shires, Edward was able to mobilize the political community for war, and to persuade both magnates and men at lower levels of society to accept his requests for taxations, supplies, and troops. Ultimately, as Burt demonstrates, Edward acted decisively to combat the lawlessness that arose from the friction of war through the establishment of a new, and effective, legal institution, the commissions of trailbaston, in which itinerant justices traveled to each shire to seek out and punish serious felonies, including homicide, assault, and major thefts. Burt's positive assessment of both the institution of the trailbaston and its effectiveness marks a significant departure from the generally negative conclusions drawn by previous scholars. Following Part II, Burt ties together the main arguments of her study in a brief conclusion.

The volume is equipped with a very extensive scholarly apparatus of notes, as well as almost thirty tables and figures that provide lists of justices responsible for gaol delivery, sheriffs in the three shires that serve as case studies, lists of the commissions of oyer and terminer in these counties, numbers of membranes in the records of the king's bench along with lists of frequent litigants, and lists of cases appearing before the court of common pleas. In addition, Burt includes nine maps. The volume is rounded out with an index of names, and a thorough bibliography of both published and unpublished sources as well as scholarly works.

Because the focus of Burt's study is on the efforts of the royal government to maintain peace and order, a great many of the documents used in the text are legal sources, including King's Bench Indictments, King's Bench Plea Rolls, Eyre rolls, and Gaol Delivery Records. However, Burt does also draw on a very wide range of other types of documents, including both unpublished manuscripts and edited texts, to provide the political, economic, and military contexts in which royal policy initiatives took place. Among the many advantages of this broad-based use of sources is Burt's ability to trace out the careers of many of Edward I's officials, who worked for the government both at the local level, and also in closer proximity to the king, himself.

The one concern that this reviewer had regarding Burt's text relates to chapter two, and the discussion of the development of the political concepts that undergirded Edward I's conception of royal rule. While there can be no doubt that Edward did see himself as the ruler of state and as the holder of a public office with responsibilities for the common good, it is not the case that such ideas were first developed as a result of the reintroduction of Aristotelian texts into the West and the rediscovery of Justinian's law code during the twelfth century. It has become fashionable among some scholars to revitalize the justly defunct "feudal" construct through an emphasis on lordship as the contrapositive of government. However, the distinction between public and private domains, and the role of the king as a protector of the commonwealth (res publica) was an essential feature of early medieval political thought, and is pervasive in the writings of both historians and political theorists. Far from being an anomaly, Edward I participated in a long tradition of political thought in which the ruler held a public office with concomitant responsibilities to maintain the welfare of the res publica.

However, this one issue should not be understood to detract from the overall success of this admirable book. By focusing on royal policies rather than on personality, and by tracing out the effects of royal initiatives at the local level over a lengthy period, Burt provides a compelling and persuasive alternate view of Edward I as a ruler who was motivated by principle, and who was convinced of his duty to care for the common good. In so doing, Burt provides a model for examining royal policies in other areas of governmental activity. Although specialists likely will disagree with Burt's interpretation of one or another text, or her conclusions regarding particular episodes of Edward I's career, future discussions of Edward as king will have to take account of this study. In addition to its considerable value for specialists, this book also will be accessible to students. Burt's clear and precise prose, as well as her efforts to clarify technical matters of law and governmental organization, make this text highly suitable for graduate courses as well as for upper division undergraduate courses in the history of medieval England, medieval law, and medieval government.