Death, of course, is a pretty serious affair. I know I’m not alone in finding something compelling about the places where people are known to have met their ends; and something was compelling me to visit the place where one of England’s most formidable medieval kings, Edward I, snuffed it on 7th July 1307. No doubt a psychologist would be able to offer an explanation for both inducements.
In any event, there is something fascinating about Edward. Well-educated and highly intelligent, he brought stability to the land after the civil wars that blighted his father’s reign and is renowned as an effective monarch, a just law-maker. At 6’ 2”, Edward towered over the majority of his subjects – hence his nickname, “Edward Longshanks”. He was ruthless - as you would expect - and intimidating, with a reputation for having a furious temper; the Dean of St Paul’s is said to have died of fear in the king’s presence. Yet was he tender too? When his beloved wife Eleanor died in Nottinghamshire in 1290, he was so heartbroken that he ordered memorials to be built at every place her body rested on the way back to London, ending at Charing Cross. Edward and Eleanor were clearly a devoted couple and had at least fourteen children together; he had another two with Margaret, his second wife. But Edward was also a warrior, a crusader, conqueror, subjugator of the Welsh, builder of castles, persecutor of Jews, famed for his wars in France, Gascony, Flanders – and Scotland. Painted on his tomb in the 16th century were the words, Scottorum malleus – ‘hammer of the Scots’ – which he tried very hard to do, though I’m pretty sure Edward was motivated more by his own 13th century sense of order, and power; rather like ‘the Godfather’, this was business, and probably not personal. Neither he, nor I suspect any of his adversaries, were nationalists – a meaningless term in those far-off days.
Were the Scots grateful for all this attention? Surprisingly, they were not. But, even in England, Edward doesn’t always get a great press.
A memorial stands on the very spot where he died. It is on the English side of the Solway Firth, the large body of water that since 1092 has marked the border with south-west Scotland and which forms the mouth of the rivers Esk and Eden. Edward was on campaign at the time, with an enormous army poised to ford the water, invade Scotland and settle things once and for all with his one-time vassal, Robert the Bruce. Aging and ill, the king allegedly had dysentery: apparently, he just couldn’t keep going (so to speak) and expired in the arms of his servants, aged just 68. A memorial was first erected in 1685 (why did they wait that long?), though the current one dates from 1803, and it’s placed exactly where his tent was; don’t ask me how they know that.
To reach the memorial, you need to go through the tiny Cumbrian village of Burgh by Sands, west of Carlisle. It feels a bit like bandit country: a couple of locals stared at me as I drove through; surely, they’re used to seeing other people by now? They must have TVs and everything. I waved, beamed at them and, gratifyingly, they looked cross. Burgh is a pretty village, built where Hadrian’s Wall ran, with a must-see church, St Michael’s, and – potentially – a welcoming looking pub.
About a mile north of the village, the car bumps to a halt on a piece of gravelly mud. You can make out the shape of the memorial in the distance. I knew from a previously aborted attempt that my customary sartorial elegance would be misplaced, so I’d made a point of sporting a pair of scruffy jeans and had brought a pair of waterproof boots to change into. It was just as well, because the track was even soggier than it looked, and badly maintained. There was a piece of no man’s land, where the track ended near a pair of wrecked cars and the memorial lay in another direction. I negotiated a particularly boggy bit, crossed a stile, jumped from one strategically placed stone to the next and headed off on the final leg. It had only taken about 10 minutes, but it seemed like a trek to the end of the world. The only sounds were the wind, gusting hard and hissing through the coarse grass, and the faintly ethereal warbling whistle of a passing curlew. There was no sign of the Solway Firth, as such – I was probably too close to the ground to see it - but it seemed to be seeping up all around anyway.
The memorial was guarded by cows; not nice, quiet, bovine creatures, but curious, faintly menacing, ones with mad, staring, eyes. I’ve known cows all my life (well, you do, don’t you) and I swear they’re getting more aggressive. Anyway, I didn’t like the way these ones looked at me. I could see the headline: “Middle-aged fattish bloke with camera mauled by flock of cows”. Not prepared to go down without a fight, I picked up a stick and they backed away.
I had wanted to spend some time at the memorial pondering on the life of this terrible and intriguing king. I had even brought a Kit-Kat with me, as an aid to concentration. However, it was not a place for quiet contemplation. It was hard to picture a massive army camped hereabouts, banners waving, armour clanking, men calling to one another, the smoke from cooking fires in the air. All I could think was, “What a miserable place to die”. The monument itself is pretty unexceptional and surrounded by a rusting iron fence – presumably to keep cows, Scots, Welsh etc out. Depressed by the damp bleakness of the place, I just took a few snaps and left, making vaguely threatening noises at the cows as I went.
The Kit-Kat was eaten in the comfort of the car. Not much of a visitor experience, I thought; but that wasn’t really the point. Back in Burgh by Sands, which is definitely worth more than a casual glance, there’s a fine modern statue of Edward I on the village green, a gift from Story Construction to mark the 700th anniversary of the king’s death in 2007. It was sculpted by Christopher Kelly and unveiled by the Duke of Kent. It depicts a vigorous man in armour, brandishing a sword; Edward would have preferred to be remembered that way, rather than as a sick old man, expiring as his tired body failed him in a remote part of his kingdom on his way to yet another war. His body lay in state for awhile in nearby St Michael’s, before its long journey south and burial in Westminster Abbey on 27th October. The new king, Edward II, packed his father’s army up and sent it home.