I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately. Sometimes I don’t notice until I write my reviews. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris is an historical biography of Edward I, king of England 1272 – 1307.
Historical biographies are as much about the social and political landscape of the times as they are about the person at the centre of the story. Which is why I will read historical biographies but have very little patience with contemporary ones. But give me a bit of medieval history and I’m happy.
Given that Edward didn’t become King until he was thirty-three and the book starts with his birth, it also covers the second half of his father’s reign. Henry III, by contrast, came to the throne at the age of nine. The two men were of very different character, which provides a nice ‘compare and contrast’ element to the story.
What comes across was that Edward I was an effective king. Many of the things he did were questionable by modern standards, such as his treatment of the Jews or of the conquered Welsh, but he wouldn’t have been judged as harshly by his contemporaries. There is some interesting discussion on the changes in the moral climate and I liked that Morris didn’t excuse or gloss over anything while at the same time put his actions in context. It’s a fine line to walk.
The book also highlights how hard it is to judge an entire life. Edward I did more than any other medieval English king to create the modern kingdoms that form Britain. And we still live with the legacy of that today. He was an action-hero figure of a king, constantly on the move and almost permanently at war. His expertise at diplomacy was a bit patchier; sometimes he seemed to have a golden touch and at others everything went to pieces.
There is much more to Edward I than being the villain of Braveheart. This was a fascinating read, I learnt a lot, and I really enjoyed it.