The Solway Firth forms a natural border between England and Scotland. Over ten miles wide at its mouth, it narrows to a patchwork of marshland and estuaries where the rivers Esk and Eden flow into the sea, and which can be forded at low tide through the spring and summer months. It’s a quiet corner of England, bypassed by commerce and the tourist hoards who prefer the picturesque setting of the South Lakes or the highlands and islands of Scotland and yet its story, still visible along the coastline records two defining moments in our nations’ history.
In AD 121 the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Britain, as part of a tour aimed at containing and consolidating his vast empire. He marked the outer limit with the construction of a series of forts and a wall stretching from Bowness on Solway to the northeast coast, separating the Scots and Picts from the northern Celtic tribes. A remarkable piece of engineering it also made a statement of division both psychological and physical which would have the effect of creating two nations on one small island.
On the marshland a quarter mile from the small village of Burgh by Sands, a large sandstone monument marks the spot where King Edward 1, aged and debilitated by dysentery died, while leading his army into Scotland.
Edward 1 ‘Longshanks’ was an imposing man. Standing 6’2’ tall he epitomized medieval kingship. A strong ruler and lawgiver, a fearless soldier and devout Christian, he left his mark on our country as few other monarchs have. He brought stability to the fractious feudal realm he inherited, upheld and enshrined in law the principles of Magna Carta and created the modern constituency based parliament. He was equally pious and generous, intimidating and cruel; and it’s through his subjugation of the Welsh princes and his wars in Scotland that he remains such a divisive figure to this day – especially north of the border.
One popular story of his death tells of him requesting that his body be boiled and his flesh stripped from the bones, which were to be placed in a casket and carried at the head of the army on future invasions of Scotland. It goes on to say that his son, the future Edward 11 ignored his request burying him at Westminster Abbey with the Latin epithet ‘Hammer of the Scots’ inscribed on his tomb. It’s a good story, but it isn’t true.
Knowing his son to be weak and fearful for his kingdom he summoned the barons to discuss the accession and future of the realm. On his death he was taken to the nearby church of St Michael’s where he was embalmed, and lay in state surrounded by his royal standards for ten days before being taken on a slow procession to London. He was interred at the abbey in a plain tomb bearing only his coat of arms. The inscription: Edwardus Primus Scottorum Malleus, hic est 1308 Pactum Serva. Here lies Edward 1. Hammer of the Scots. Keep the Vow; was added in the 16th century.
Fearing a counter-invasion, news of his death was suppressed with severe penalties imposed on anyone who talked. When word eventually filtered through Robert the Bruce brought his army across the marsh; passing the stone cairn marking the place where the king died, and exacted his bloody revenge on the towns and villages along the coast. Even the monastery at Holm Cultram (Abbeytown) where his father is buried wasn’t spared.
Hadrian’s border issues, Edward’s megalomania, Robert the Bruce’s revenge. It’s a small place with a big story and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
From Thomas Gray’s’ The Bard – A Pindaric Ode’
Ruin seize thee, ruthless king!
Confusion on thy banners wait,
Though fanned by Conquest’s crimson wing
They mock the air with idle state.
Helm nor hauberk’s twisted mail,
Nor even thy virtues, tyrant, shall avail
To save thy secret soul from nightly fears,
From Cambria’s curse, from Cambria’s tears!’
Such were the sounds, that o’er the crested pride
Of the first Edward scattered wild dismay,
As down the steep of Snowdon’s shaggy side
He wound with toilsome march his long array.
Next month: Seeking out the Thin Places