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.