We review the first major biography for a generation of Edward I – a truly great and terrible king. But was he even Edward I?
A Great and Terrible King – The Blurb
“Edward I is familiar to millions as ‘Longshanks’, conqueror of Scotland and nemesis of Sir William Wallace (‘Braveheart’). Edward was born to rule England, but believed that it was his right to rule all of Britain. His reign was one of the most dramatic of the entire Middle Ages, leading to war and conquest on an unprecedented scale, and leaving a legacy of division that has lasted from his day to our own.
In his astonishingly action-packed life, Edward defeated and killed the famous Simon de Montfort in battle; travelled across Europe to the Holy Land on crusade; conquered Wales, extinguishing forever its native rulers, and constructed – at Conwy, Harlech, Beaumaris and Caernarfon – the most magnificent chain of castles ever created. After the death of his first wife he erected the Eleanor Crosses – the grandest funeral monuments ever fashioned for an English monarch.”
1st, 3rd or 4th?
Morris provides some fascinating facts surrounding Edward from the get go. Setting straight some misconceptions (no he is not Edward the Confessor) and clarifying any confusion (if you want to get technical he was actually Edward IV). With his reign taking place in the 13th century, Edward is the furthest back in history I have ever travelled in relation to British Kings and Queens. Would a medieval King be as interesting as a Tudor one?
More a half marathon
I always judge a biography on two things – how easy is it to read and how much do I feel like I come away with having learnt? If I find myself relentlessly quoting facts to my husband, the book’s done good. With A Great and Terrible King I was informing said husband about the origins of the title ‘Prince of Wales’, describing how in fact the Welsh are actually more British than the English and why Charing Cross is called Charing Cross. At 379 pages it’s not as long as some biographies I’ve read and whilst it does take some effort, it’s more a half marathon than a whole.
Given Edward’s rule took place firmly in the medieval period, I was surprised to read how mobile he was during his lifetime. In fact for years at a time he wasn’t even in England! He spent considerable time in Wales, fighting and building castle. He travelled to Spain, France, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus and North Africa. I haven’t even been to all of those places! Not only that but his wife Eleanor accompanied him despite sixteen pregnancies. In the medieval age. What a woman! Contrast this with later Kings such as Henry VIII who hardly every seemed to leave London. The Londoners didn’t even like Edward. Neither did the Welsh and I’ve now learnt buckets about the fraught past between England and Wales.
Wales not Scotland
Yes you read that right, Wales not Scotland. For a King most famous in modern day for slaying Mel Gibson (Braveheart) Scotland was not mentioned in anything more than a passing breath until nearly two thirds of the way into the book. William Wallace waiting until page 300 to make an entrance. Being an avid Braveheart fan I went in to the book prepared to dislike ‘Longshanks’ (you also find out why he gets that name). Yet for the two thirds where Scotland wasn’t the focus Morris painstakingly paints Edward as a good King. Revolutionary, peace keeping, brave, a devoted husband. It’s only when the King of Scotland, Alexander III, dies intestate (and perhaps also when Edward’s wife dies) that the Great becomes the Terrible.
It did seem presumptuous and greedy for Edward to suddenly decide that Scotland should be his. Yet despite this I still waited for the Longshanks I watched on film to appear in the book. He never totally did and I have to wonder how much of this was down to Morris. He certainly goes to pains to point out that Edward’s treatment/expulsion of the Jews was in keeping with the sentiment of the time and regarded as his most commendable achievement by his obituarist. I won’t mention Hitler here, but it’s not too far a jump.
Sum it up
Be him the first of his name or the fourth, I don’t mind I enjoyed reading the book regardless. I feel more aware, certainly of the Welsh’s struggles and it never felt a slog. Always a bonus! If you like Royal biographies try George III, A Personal History.