Book Review: A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris

He is known by several titles. Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots, Edward Plantagenet. He is Edward I and the author believes that his life is overdue a modern retelling of his life. Perhaps inspired by Alison Weir’s dominance of the Tudors, perhaps wanting to correct the injustices of Braveheart (cruel pagan indeed!), Morris has sought to provide a critical and factual account of his life largely bereft of personal prejudice. Some may sneer at the moral relativism of excusing Edward I’s anti-semitism as fairly conventional for the time, but for me this adds a harsh tone of reality for the King and his people of feeling toward the Jews in the 13th century.

Morris has worked well in carefully omitting whatever his own personal feelings are, showing in equal measure why Edward I was at once both a great and a terrible king, prolific builder, ruthless conqueror, shrewd businessman, tyrant, prolific taxer, defender of the faith concerned largely with ensuring the safety of his kingdom.

It is his history with Scotland that receives the most analysis. Morris carefully demonstrates the role Edward played in bringing the conflict between Robert Bruce and John Balliol to a close and the fact that the land north of the border would occupy his time right up to his death. His dealings with Scotland is a microcosm of the man: excellent diplomat on one hand, ruthless militarist on the other. One account describes his engineers building the largest trebuchet ever seen (which he named Warwolf) to besiege a certain castle; it was so large that the Scots, upon seeing it, decided to surrender. Edward refused to accept until the ‘Warwolf’ had been fully tested against them.

In conclusion, Morris highlights some interesting facts: Edward was so well travelled that it would see the dawn of the modern age before we would see another monarch who would visit as many countries.

Where the author falls down is in his apparent belief that Edward sought to create a proto ‘Britain’. Even the sub-title ‘Edward I and the forging of Britain’, as delectable as that might sound, urges us to caution. Certainly the case is compelling: he ended the Welsh royal line and first granted the title of the heir to the English throne ‘Prince of Wales’ but I’m not sure this can be indicative of anything other than a desire to expand the kingdom of England with a view to claiming lands he desired (Wales and Scotland) and lands he believed was his by right and had been lost by previous kings (France).

Overall this is an enlightening read about one of England’s most notorious kings.

4/5

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