A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris

Review by Scott Daly

For me, Edward I is one of the most misunderstood Kings in British History. The man known in his time as ‘Longshanks’, and who’s tomb in Westminster Abbey bears the inscription ‘Scottorum Malleus’ (Hammer of the Scots), has been given somewhat of a rough ride recently, largely thanks to a certain Hollywood film-maker. Marc Morris’s book A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, seeks to cast Edward in a new light.

And on the whole, Morris succeeds brilliantly. From the onset its clear that a massive amount of research has gone into this book. Edwards early life and his role during Henry III’s power struggle with Simon de Montfort is exhaustively explained. In fact during the first two chapters of this book I found myself wondering whether this book was about Edward I or Simon de Montfort. But all this detailed exposition only serves to paint a tapestry of the medieval world in which Edward inherited his Kingdom, and how his early experiences under the reign of his father shaped his Kingship. Unlike Henry III, Edward I would not be dominated by his nobility.

And by the end of this book, the reader is left in no doubt that Edward was a true Medieval Colossus. By the time he ascended to the throne in 1272, he had already been on (an albeit unsuccessful) crusade, and right up until his last days he harboured ambitions of retaking Jerusalem. His wars with Wales and Scotland were bloody and brutal, and its easy to think of Edward as a Warmongerer, a kind of Medieval George W. Bush. But Morris manages to judge Edward purely by the standards of his time. What medieval King could have allowed such rebellious threats to exist and expect to reign securely?

My only criticism of this book is that while it is thoroughly detailed and researched, its a little light on historical anecdotes, the small stories from primary sources that really bring Medieval history to life. When they are to be found, they are brilliant. The gruesome end of Simon de Montfort for example, when he was killed by Edwards forces at Evesham his genitals were cut off, placed in his mouth and his severed head presented to his wife. Or upon handing over control of Scotland to his leuitenant after the first war of conquest, Edward remarked, ‘A man does good business, when he rids himself of a turd’. But I read Morris’s account of the English sack of Berwick in 1296 with frustration, for I didnt feel the true gruesomeness of the assualt was captured. Instead Morris argues that Edward ‘acted entirely in keeping with the traditions of Medieval Warfare’. The author seems to be fearful of being too revealing at this point, incase the audience should be alienated against Edward too much, and it’s a shame.

However, despite this minor gripe, I found this book to be a highly enjoyable, educational read, since there aren’t too many modern books out there about Edward I. I would suggest this is an essential read for any fan of Medieval History.

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25 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, Medieval history

25 responses to “A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris

  1. Thanks for a very generous and considered review. Re: the siege of Berwick, it was undoubtedly gruesome, but where the truth lies is a matter of interpretation. One English chronicler reported, in delight, that over 11,000 Scots had been killed, which is a clear exaggeration – no town in Scotland had that many inhabitants in the c13th. The siege has long been used to bash Edward; for a necessary corrective, see M. Strickland, ‘A Law of Arms or a Law of War? Conduct in Edward I’s Campaigns in Scotland, 1296-1307′, Violence in Medieval Society, ed R.W. Kaeuper (Woodbridge, 2000).

    all best wishes
    Marc

  2. James Daly

    Hi Marc, many thanks for your comment. It’s Scott’s first review, so I think he will be pretty pleased to get a reply from the author within 12 hours of it being uploaded!

    Personally I’m not a specialist in medieval history, but I know what you mean about interpretation. Particularly with older history, where we are relying on chroniclers and few primary documents. And of course, truth in history is a debate all of its own!

  3. Scott Daly

    Hi Marc, thanks for the unexpected comment, indeed I am pleased to get a response from the author!

    The issue over the seige of Berwick was really only a minor criticism. I seem to recall watching a programme on the History Channel (sorry I can’t be more specific, it was a few years ago now and the exact name of the programme escapes me) which recounted the seige. The particular story that stayed with me was how apparently Edward only called off the sack of the town when he saw a soldier behead a pregnant woman who was in labour. Like you say, the truth is open to interpretation, but this is exactly what fascinates me about this period in history.

    I look forward to reading more of your material that you will hopefully release in the future.

  4. Heccy

    Can anyone recommend any books about Simon de Montfort?

  5. Scott Daly

    I havent read any myself, and searching on amazon only reveals a few limited ‘oxford history of’ type publications. Frustratingly, it seems unfashionable for books about people such as de Montfort to be written. I have had similar problems trying to find books on Edward II.

    Simon de Montfort does seem like a fascinating character to me though, kind of like a medieval Oliver Cromwell. Interestingly too, they both ended up having their bodies desecrated by their enemies…..strange how history repeats itself isn’t it?

  6. The definitive biography of Simon de Montfort is the one by John Maddicott, published by Cambridge University Press in 1994.

  7. James Daly

    There you are Scott, get on Amazon!

  8. Hazel

    On another web site, Marc Morris responded that Jeremy Goldsmith didn’t get it. Mr. Goldsmith is an expert in his field. So, if he doesn’t get it, I, a mere mortal, should no doubt keep my thoughts to myself. But, I think to put myself in Mr. Goldsmith’s company. I don’t get it.

    I admit that, from the English point of view, King Edward I was a “great and terrible” king. Well, I suppose, from any point of view, he was “great and terrible”. Nevertheless, what this great and terrible king did is, to my poor mind, inexcusable and not to be whitewashed with any complimentary names.

    I am only halfway through the book and my mind keeps hashing these thoughts: What was done in Wales was tragic and inexcusable. I am sure the same can be said for Scotland and Ireland but I’ll stick to my last. What was done to the Celtic nations is an equivalent of what my ancestors did to the Native Americans. But, there is one big difference and this is my point.

    Today, in the twenty-first century, our authors in America are admitting that what our ancestors did was criminal. Mr. Morris, on the other hand, an Oxford-educated historian of the twenty first century, seems to be “praising Caesar” to the hilt and putting all the blame on the natives for daring to protect and defend their own land from an invader who used every form of chicanery he could think of to steal this land. I do not recall the exact words now but, in one line, you actually put the blame for the last battle squarely on Llywelyn. What? Edward was guilty of invading, conquering, slaughtering and “enslaving” his people. Llywelyn said “no”. Llywelyn was guilty of malfeasance against his own family but he was not guilty of an invasion by foreigners.

    Did I not know better, I would believe you are saying that, when a foreign king invades my country and tells me to kneel down humbly and I resist, I am guilty of causing a great slaughter of innocents. Instead, I should bow down with great joy and welcome the conquering hero? Our native Americans welcomed my ancestors and see what it gained them.

    Mr. Morris, did you really mean to glorify Edward for his sword-bearing march through Wales? Was there not a point to be made for the fact that the Welsh were not invading England; the English were invading Wales?

    All right. I am not expert and I may be missing a few points in your writing but I truly believe that you have over-glorified Edward I.

  9. Andrew Borrill

    I have read this book, and I am in the process of reading michael prestwich’s book on Edward, and I have throughly enjoyed both. However I have a question I am unable to paint a picture in my mind of what Edward looked like due to conflicting accounts does anybody have a grasp on this,, and could inform me please. Thank you

  10. Scott Daly

    Hazel, you forget that Llewelyn refused to pay homage to Edward, his overlord, and had also conquered large parts of wales himself in 1267. I do not place the blame for what happened in Wales squarely at the feet of Edward I. Did Edward take advantage of Llewelyn’s posturing for territorial gains? Undoubtedly he did. I disagree with your assessment of Morris’s work; I can recall no point in this book in which Morris ‘praises ceaser’ as you put it. Describing a medieval monarch as a ‘Great King’ is never the same as calling him a ‘Good Man’. Medieval Kings are largely judged by the way in which they handle rebellions(of course other factors are important too), or indeed by the number of rebellions during their reigns. As I said in my review ‘Which Medieval King could have allowed such rebellious threats to exist and expect to reign securely?’. Such Kings that did (Henry III, Edward II) are certainly not remembered as particularly good Kings. And yes, Edward’s actions in Wales and Scotland are highly deplorable (all invasions tend to be), yet I believe we must endeavour to judge such men by the standards of their own age in order to understand why they did the things they did.

    The best description I have heard someone give to Edward is ‘fearsome’. For me it is the perfect word to describe this man – he was not especially loved by his people, but he was feared and respected by all.

  11. James Daly

    I think something that is very important is not to judge events that happened hundreds of years ago by todays standards. By contemporary codes of kingship, if Edward hadn’t behaved the way he did, he would not have been king much longer. We have to try and cast off our 21st-century tinted glasses; they distort the view. And sadly I do think that modern welsh and scottish nationalism have affected perspectives too.

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