Wednesday, April 22, 2015

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

Browsing in the bookstore a while back, in the nonfiction/biography section, I happened across A Great and Terrible King. Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris. I came SO close to buying it, because I really did want to read, as its jacket blurb pronounced it: "A major biography of a truly formidable king, whose reign was one of the most dramatic and important of the entire Middle Ages, leading to war and conquest on an unprecedented scale." The book has an eye-catching cover, too. A headless man–mimicking all the headless historical women covers that were so popular not so long ago!

I really don’t know enough about Edward I (1239-1307), king of England (1272-1307), nicknamed Longshanks and Hammer of the Scots. However, since I still have a stack of biographies already purchased on people I’d like to know more about, I reluctantly put the book back on the shelf. But it kept nagging at me. So I did the next best thing and got it out from the library. With a due back date soon and a long car ride last weekend, not to mention the nonfiction challenge, the book was bumped to the top of my TBR list.

And I’m so glad I read it.

Edward I is a fascinating king who lived through a tumultuous period in medieval history (aren’t they all?) who is credited with shaping Britain into what it is today. He was, at least as emphasized in this book, a warrior king, fighting someone or another throughout his reign. He conquered/annexed Wales and attempted to do the same with Scotland. (He is the king who fought William Wallace and Robert Bruce–think Braveheart.) He also went on Crusade and scuffled with France. While his subjects resented all this because of the constant demands for men, money, and resources, they nevertheless considered him a great king because of it.

So, was he a great and terrible king? I initially thought the title was one of admiration and the term "terrible" had more of a connotation of "one who inspires terror." Sort of more along the lines of "awesome." But as I read, I realized that no, he was actually terrible.

Who was Edward and what did he accomplish? Did he forge a united, national identity? Did he strengthen the legal system? Was he pious? Etc. Etc.? Or was he a greedy, grasping, bigoted war-monger whose loyalty was questionable and whose word could not be trusted, who left his kingdom bled dry?

The book follows Edward’s career chronologically, which I liked. It was a logical, linear presentation of the history. It’s a compact account, only 378 pages with the notes, bibliography, and index bringing it up to 462. So history buffs who are well-acquainted with Edward and his friends and foes will no doubt find that things were left out or dealt with only superficially. But for people like me who wanted to get Edward more firmly set in their minds and arrange the medieval puzzle pieces around him, this was the perfect book.

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