Did Edward Longshanks outlaw the burning of peat moss?
September 7, 2018 7:13 AM   Subscribe

I've seen this mentioned in a modern-day environmental document but cannot find a more substantial reference. Any ideas?
posted by mareli to Technology (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Edward I banned the burning of coal ("sea coal") in 1272.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:27 AM on September 7, 2018

Peat (not "peat moss") was a common fuel for cooking and heating in Scotland (still is in some places). Edward's ban on sea coal was issued in the interest of cleaner air. It is possible that the ban extended to peat. The Scots, being disinclined to pay much attention to anything the English tried to dictate to them, probably would have paid no attention.
posted by John Borrowman at 12:14 PM on September 7, 2018

Right, I knew that, it's peat, not peat moss.
posted by mareli at 1:34 PM on September 7, 2018

Well, he tried banning coal, but it didn't take.

I doubt that he would have tried to ban peat burning - peat has a lovely smell, though maybe in a city it would put out a lot of smoke. It was used heavily in the East Anglian fens (eastern England - Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Peterborough, Lincolnshire) throughout the 16th-18th centuries.
posted by jb at 2:24 PM on September 7, 2018

I read a book last year about the history of coal called Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freece.

I don't recall exact details, but I do remember her discussing different types of coal (sea coal sounds familiar), their use in the UK, and early efforts to ban or limit coal. The book also has a list of sources.
posted by unannihilated at 10:05 PM on September 7, 2018

It is rather unlikely that Edward I banned sea-coal in 1272 - for the simple reason that, on his accession as king, he was on his way back from Crusade and didn't make it back to England until 1274. This is not to say that nothing was done governmentally in that time, just that it's unlikely that an air quality law would be on the list of priorities (I don't have access to the content, but you can just look at the index for the patent rolls for his reign, and compare the amount for 1272-3 to every other year - it's pretty obvious that only the essentials were being done while he had yet to return to England).

An Environmental History of Medieval Europe (2014) gives a date of 1315 for an English royal prohibition on coal burning (so Edward II, not I). It also notes that this was basically unsuccessful; coal burning did reduce in the later 14th century, but this was due to population collapse.

The same book also discusses peat burning; it notes that peat was systematically exploited in the Low Countries for fuel, but in other places it "served local needs", at least partly due to its low energy density.

It is also worth noting that the greatest loss of peatland in the medieval period was due to its drainage so that it could be used as farmland, not because of its use as fuel.

Checking the numbers elsewhere, peat has around four times less energy density than coal, and about half that of wood (though with considerable variation among types of wood). The cost of transportation for fuel was one of the significant issues (hence 'sea coal' included coal that was mined, because all of it was transported by sea - the only economically viable method of transporting it anything other than a very short distance in the medieval period). So if you have peat locally, it's a good source of fuel; if you live in the Low Countries with poor tree cover but good river transport, it's a good source of fuel; if you live in medieval London it's a stupid source of fuel.

tl;dr: It is unlikely for the reasons mentioned above that peat was used as a fuel in England outside of peat-bearing areas (mainly East Anglia and the North), therefore it is unlikley that there would have been a prohibition on its use. Coal was, for a period in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a cause of significant air pollution in urban areas of England, and was subject to a ban, but this was under Edward II, not I.
posted by Vortisaur at 2:53 AM on September 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

That British History Online site, from Vortisaur's first link, notes that Edward I tried again in 1306, issuing a "severe proclamation against the use of sea coals." This, after the king had set up "the world's first air pollution commission" in 1285. (Bans were rarely successful; see also Britain's Clean Air Acts.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:40 PM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

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