Villains Month: Edward the Longshanks

Historical villains can be a sticky wicket. After all, history is murky, filled with gaps of knowledge and an inability to truly grasp the motivations or morality of those involved. One culture’s villain is another’s hero, and to flat out call a historical person a villain takes a knowledge of history that I simply do not possess. That said, fictional counterparts of historical figures are fair game, which brings me to the Braveheart version of Edward the Longshanks, King of England and hammer of Scotland.

Again, I point out that this is not about the real Edward I of England. From most historical accounts, he seemed to be a competent king who ran the country well, and if he was ruthless in some ways, that doesn’t separate him overmuch from most powerful men of his time period. As for Edward the Longshanks of the movie, however, he is pretty unambiguously a villain, committing numerous atrocities against the Scots. He is certainly a warrior king, constantly going off to conquer new territory, and is quite a capable strategist and fighter himself. He’s also extremely intimidating, and despite his age, there is no question that he is hard as nails and commands any room he’s in with his sheer presence.

It’s this hardness, I believe, that drives Longshanks to such extreme lengths in his suppression of the Scots, as well as his personal life. Being king is not, I would imagine, an easy job, and there is probably a lot of pressure not to appear weak, lest one’s rivals attempt to seize power. Longshanks was quite adept at proving his strength, and part of this was because he crushed his enemies without mercy and used any dirty tactic to win, everything from peace talks where he assassinated everyone who came, to enacting the custom of prima nocta on the Scots to breed the people out of their own land. He was also troubled by the fact that his son and heir, Edward II, was not very manly by his definition, leading him to beat his son regularly and even kill the boy’s gay lover. I’m sure that to some degree he did this because he wanted the younger Edward to toughen up for when he would become king, but more than that, his son’s weakness reflected badly on him, making him seem weaker. Thus was it with the rebellion in Scotland. If the Scots, whom the great powers of Europe would surely have seen as a less advanced people than the English, could make a fool of Longshanks by subverting his authority, then how tough could he possibly be? He therefore had to spare no expense and commit atrocities aplenty to ensure Wallace and his rebellion would not succeed.

And it’s worth noting that he was for the most part successful. Despite some initial successes by the Scots, Longshanks brought his full might to bear against the Scots at Falkirk, summoning his own private army, as well as mercenaries and conscripts from throughout his empire into a massive force. Not only this, he pitted the Scottish noblemen against Wallace, bribing most of them to simply leave the battlefield, and even convinced Robert the Bruce to serve as his personal bodyguard. In the midst of the battle, while his own troops were embroiled in melee with the Scottish, he had his archers fire into the field, killing soldiers from both sides. His cold rationale, “We have reserves,” even disquiets his own men, though they don’t dare disobey. With this brutal and efficient slaughter, Longshanks effectively breaks the back of the Scottish rebellion for many years. William Wallace, for all his strength, courage, and wit, never even comes within striking distance of him.

In the end, Longshanks’s endless duplicity manages to capture Wallace and have him tortured and executed, though it is a hollow victory for him because of his declining health. For all his unwillingness to show weakness or softness of any kind, he is only a man, and even a man as tough as he eventually succumbs to age, which seems to suggest his worldview is flawed. Edward II was destined to be an ineffective king, one Princess Isabella swore she would kill after telling Longshanks that her child was illegitimate, and by killing Wallace, all he had done was create a hero around whom the Scots could rally. His hardness and ruthlessness only left him alone and hated, and created a world that would crumble without him because he had forged no human connections.

Edward the Longshanks is an effective villain because he is an absolutely unbending man with absolute power, one who played the games of politics and war with equal fervor. His strength was built around being feared rather than loved; indeed, we never see him have any moments of intimacy or vulnerability with anyone until his death approaches, and even then, he fights this weakness with his every remaining breath. It should also be noted that a great deal of this power and presence is due to the incredible acting skill of Patrick McGoohan, who never once flinched or showed anything but the grimmest mirth. Longshanks is powerful and terrible, and it’s easy to see how he ruled one of the world’s most powerful empires so effectively.