The Letters of Edward I

Political Communication in the Thirteenth Century


Dr Neal, many thanks for joining us for this issue of the Medieval Herald. May we begin with a quick summary of your studies and career to date?

I’ve had a rather unusual career path! I hold undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in both Arts and Sciences, and had always been drawn in both directions. I actually worked for a while as a research scientist and I enjoyed many aspects of it, but I eventually realised that the thing that would keep me getting up in the morning was my fascination with the medieval past. I would set up the day’s experiments and sit by the bench in my lab coat reading about charter diplomatic while the beakers bubbled away doing their thing. That was when I knew I needed to see if I could make an academic career in medieval history work, and so far, it’s been worth the gamble.

Your book has really tapped into something – we’ve been receiving enquiries and review requests for months. What came first for you, Edward or the matter of royal correspondence?

Correspondence, definitely. Edward crystalised fairly early on as the right case study, on account of the enormous volume of surviving material, but it was always letters and letter-writing that really interested me. I had read Michael Clanchy’s famous From Memory to Written Record, and I was very taken with the idea of the ‘literate mentality’ and how it spread. But that book never really explores how letters fit into such a concept, even though they are one of the types of document that explicitly travel from one person to another, conveying ideas. At the same time, I was encountering lots of work on medieval theories of letter-writing (the ars dictaminis), but it never seemed to address how any of that theory related to practice. So, I focused quite quickly on letters and letter-writing as something I needed to know more about.

Were letters Edward’s primary means of communication? Who would have received them?

I don’t know that I would go so far as to say they were his primary means of communication, but certainly a critical one. Edward’s letters went mainly to those who had some kind of investment in his kingship. And I mean that both in a personal and political sense – of course, the two can’t really be disentangled. The king’s letters were addressed to people who had a part to play upholding his governance, either because of their noble status, or because they had been appointed to a specific office (or both). 

One of the arguments I make in the book is that for these people, being involved in correspondence with the king was both a practical requirement of their position, and an ideological expression of it. To receive the king’s letter was a sign of your special status, your inclusion in the ‘governance club’. And I argue that Edward and his secretariat exploited that opportunity to shape the way that his correspondents saw their relationship to the crown. Even rather mundane royal letters served the ultimate purpose of trying to influence the priorities, assumptions and expectations of the elite. I should say, I’m not talking here about the type of letter known as a writ ‘de cursu’, which was basically a kind of form letter you could purchase in order to take your legal case further through the courts; or ‘letters patent’ that were addressed to ‘all who read or hear’. Those worked differently: I expect I’ll get around to talking about them in another book or article at some point!

As I see it, letters of the kind I discuss in the book sat quite high up in a hierarchy of forms of royal communication. The most important and prestigious one would be speaking in person, for instance between the king and his intimate counsellors and household members; and then perhaps in public contexts like parliaments. Letters would be next on the list, because conceptually they replaced discussion when the parties couldn’t physically be in each other’s presence. And, of course, since Edward was ruling over such a large area and taking part in diplomacy over a wider area still, it was probably fairly rare for him to be present personally in a particular place, so letters were a much more common form of communication with the king than speech. In that sense, you could certainly call them a ‘primary’ means.

Can we assume that they were written or dictated by Edward himself?

There were many more letters sent in the king’s name than he would have had time to be involved in directly. But there is good evidence that he sometimes involved himself in dictating and even editing the finished product. And he could occasionally be quite a micro-manager, giving minute instructions as to how a letter was to be phrased, or to whom it should or shouldn’t be sent. He wouldn’t have been the hand holding the pen, but that wasn’t for lack of interest – it was a matter of the division of labour. 

I like to use the analogy of a businessman in the 1960s: he didn’t use the typewriter for his correspondence himself, because that was the job of his underlings. He reserved his energies for executive-level decisions. Similarly, kings didn’t write in the thirteenth century: they had clerks for that. But it’s clear that Edward was careful to appoint men to his secretariat whom he could trust to know what he would want to say and what would be in his interests. They sort of ‘absorbed’ the royal voice and could reproduce it faithfully; and several of them were highly trained in rhetorical arts and could help to craft his letters into the most powerful possible expression of his intent. 

The letters that survive were a product of a collaboration between Edward, his clerks, and occasionally a wider council. I argue in the book that Edward sometimes treated the production of important letters as an opportunity for political performance, making sure the ‘right’ people heard what he was dictating, and using that as a way to encourage them to identify with his aims, or to show that he was acting like a good lord towards them.

Do they reveal a particular personal style? What do they tell us of Edward’s approach to administration and governance? 

Interestingly, draft letters suggest that Edward could be quite profane when he expressed his displeasure. There are some that show his ‘rough and ready’ language had to be edited out by clerks, or perhaps by the king himself once he’d got the urge out of his system and had time to reflect. It supports the impression we get from the rude remark he’s supposed to have made when he handed command of Scotland over to his lieutenant, saying that it was good business to ‘rid oneself of a turd.’ 

When we look at them as a group, Edward’s letters give us an important impression of the ‘corporate tone’ of his reign. A useful analogy is the modern university: its communications are generated by multiple offices, but they tend to reflect the tone set by senior management. And when there’s a change of management, there tends to be an adjustment to the ‘messaging’, so to speak. A similar phenomenon produced an Edwardian ‘style’ of correspondence, even when the king wasn’t personally involved. As soon as he came to power, even before he made it back to England from crusade, his letters home were already laying out the ideology that he wanted to define his kingship, centring justice, counsel, due process, and the love and loyalty of his officials. His clerks at home took up this style and reproduced it, sometimes even re-using or adapting the phrases of a previous letter, so that royal correspondence reflected his approach to governance from the very start. 

How, if at all, did Edward’s approach to these letters change over time?

At the level of detail, his approach was changing all the time. Despite their very formulaic appearance, the king’s letters were actually tailored quite closely to specific moments of communication. But his approach also changed over time in a bigger way. In particular, he became more commanding in the later years of his reign. He doesn’t seem to have been the kind of person who responded well to criticism! After the difficult years of the mid-1290s, he gradually abandoned the kind of collaborative language for encouraging the elite to work with him and see themselves as his natural ally that had been a feature of his early style. He resorted more and more to direct commands under the privy seal instead, bringing more and more of the work of correspondence under his personal supervision. 

I argue that this change reflected the way that he came to see the political community: less as peers in a collaborative process, and more as divided between potential opponents and those who would unquestioningly carry out his wishes. As he got older and progressively more frustrated by the setbacks that he faced in domestic and diplomatic affairs, he seems to have become rather impatient with the energy it took to try to win people over with words. He focused more on giving commands to people who were fairly certain to do as they were told; and if they didn’t, he made his anger much clearer than he would previously have done. I think his success in making use of letters in this controlling way contributed to the complaints that were levelled at his son’s use of the privy seal, but a full exploration of those connections might have to be a job for another book.

Is there any letter or chain of correspondence that most intrigued or surprised you? 

My favourites are the surviving drafts where you can see the king and his clerks changing their minds about how something should be worded. It gives you so much insight into their priorities and anxieties. Occasionally these changes reflect big political concerns, like how to avoid accidentally conceding any political power to the prince of Wales when replying to his complaints. But I find the small changes particularly revealing because they show how tightly the image of the king’s relationship to his correspondents was controlled. 

For instance, there’s one draft letter to John I of Scotland that was drawn up at around the time a French plot against Edward was uncovered, at the same time that the Scots were rumoured to be in secret negotiations with the French. The letter was initially going to address King John as ‘Your Nobility’, but that was crossed out and replaced by a simple ‘you’. It amazes me how much threatening contempt can be wrapped up in such a tiny word. The Scottish king would have been in no doubt about the message he was being sent.

How many letters still exist? Where are they held and did you get to view them all?

There are thousands! A great number of them are in The National Archives in Kew (Surrey), spread over several classes of record. And that’s just the ones that we have the whole text of, not counting the correspondence that was recorded (or ‘enrolled’) in an abbreviated form. 

The ones that I have particularly focused on are in the collection known as Ancient Correspondence (also known as SC 1), which are a miscellany of letters that didn’t obviously fit into the other categories of government papers that were being generated in the early days of the Public Records Office. Since I’m based in Melbourne it’s not a simple thing to access them. Relatively few have been printed, and they represent a sort of skewed selection of the king’s letters that tends to focus on ‘big ticket’ politics and diplomacy. So just looking at those doesn’t convey the mass of more mundane interactions that were critical to setting up people’s background expectations of royal correspondence. I definitely needed to see a wider selection of them. By great good fortune, I was awarded a Menzies Bicentennial Scholarship early on in my project, which allowed me to spend three months at TNA from a temporary base at King’s College London. I amassed an enormous library of photographs of almost all of the SC 1 items, so that I could consult them at my leisure back home. And I had opportunities to pay shorter, follow-up visits to check things and to look at materials elsewhere in the Archives and in other UK collections as my project grew.

Can you give us some idea of how you went about your research and roughly how long it took you?

I’ve been working on these letters for about 10 years, although I don’t think it really crystalised into the book as you see it now until fairly late in that process. It took me a while to find the shape of my unique take on the materials. I started by just reading lots and lots of letters, immersing myself in the language and looking for patterns, and also for moments when those patterns were abandoned or subverted in some way. And then I tried to locate as much of the background context to each one that I could, so that I could try to figure out why the letter might be phrased in a certain way, and what that phrasing might have meant to the person receiving the letter. I argue in the book that both the pattern and the exception were meaningful. The fact that so many royal letters were worded in similar ways was not just a matter of convenience. It actually helped to establish a quasi-legal aura of authority for the king’s letters. It made them harder to disobey or disregard. And the exceptions were what added the individual ‘flavour’ to a letter – whether it was more than usually flattering, or derogatory; or if it emphasised the king’s obligation to do justice, or conversely, his right to royal prerogative. All of those minute changes of emphasis taking place against a very standardised background made them all the more obvious to contemporaries.

Will you continue to research Edward I or royal communications, or do you have other plans now?

There’s certainly a lot more to say about this, and I will probably keep coming back to this material over time: there’s so much of it! For example, I had planned to make the royal relationship to colonial Ireland a focus of my discussion in this book, but I had actually written about 50,000 words too many, and in the process of trimming the draft to fit into a single book with one key thread, Ireland ended up being cut down to a relatively passing concern. I think it’s a matter that definitely warrants revisiting soon. But I’m also keen to work on some other projects for a while, and give my ideas on royal correspondence a chance to refresh themselves. 

I’m currently working on a collaborative project with my Monash colleague, Constant Mews, on the long history of political complaint and advice in medieval western Europe. I’ve been reading a lot of sermons and treatises on political theory, and thinking about how these things related to each other, and if and how their message might have reached those in power and had any practical influence. And I have an idea for a big project on medieval diplomacy and women’s role in it that I really want to explore when I have a chance. There are so many great questions that need answering. I’m sure to run out of time before I run out of projects.

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?

It’s certainly been a strange time. As a scholar of the European Middle Ages based in the antipodes, I’m fairly used to having limited access to the raw materials, but this has taken that to another level. I was supposed to be in the UK for a couple of months on a big research trip over the summer of 2020, for example, but obviously that didn’t happen. My current project will have to be based mainly in printed materials and things that kind friends on social media (a number of whom are archivists!) can go and take a cheeky photo or two of for me. 

In Melbourne, as you may know, we also had quite a long, strict lockdown to try and get on top of the virus before it overwhelmed our systems, so I have basically been locked out of my office since March 2020. Even my own, quite substantial collection of edited sources has been out of reach. It has certainly given me a new appreciation of the e-book, and of the work of our wonderful university librarians who have been posting me the most critical stuff. Not to mention generous colleagues who are willing to share their resources. Overall, I’m being forced to return to what I already have on file and be creative with my questions, rather than to look at new things. Someone on Twitter referred to it as ‘pantry scholarship’, like when you need to make dinner, but all you’ve got left in the cupboard is a packet of pasta, a tin of tuna, and some lentils. You make of it what you can. That’s what research feels like right now.

2 b/w & 1 line illus.; 256pp
£60/$99, 9781783274154
Hardback and ebook
January 2021
Boydell Press



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Dr KATHLEEN B. NEAL is Lecturer in History at Monash University.