Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain Paperback – June 14, 2016 by Marc Morris (Pegasus Books)

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

Edward I (1239-1307, reigned from 1272) was a remarkable ruler, both good and bad. He was first and foremost a warrior but in the early years of his reign he displayed an interest in good government -- and it helped that his interests coincided with those of his subjects who had suffered from civil strife during the years of Edward's predessor and father, the wretched Henry III. Of necessity, and since Edward was 33 when he succeeded his father, the reader has to endure a complicated tale of Henry's failures and the idiotic policies he pursued which led to civil war and years of intrigue, betrayal, the breaking of holy vows, and erratic kingship. This can be tedious for the casual reader. Morris, however, manages to untangle all of these strings in a clear and concise narrative.

While waiting to assume the throne, Edward led an interesting life. He came under the spell of Simon de Montfort and for a time he was in conflict with Henry III. Later, he returned to his loyalty to his father and this section, too, Morris untangles (and it IS complicated). Of interest to many is Morris' narrative of Edward's adventures during the Crusades (and almost losing his life in the process). He was on his way home when he learned that he was now king of Englad after Henry III finally obliged many by dying. It is here that Edward comes into his own.

Morris deals with all of Edward's wars, first against Wales and then later against Scotland. The propriety or impropriety of these wars is left to the reader to decide. This is a very good military history of the times: marches, counter marches, more victories than not, betrayals and all the rest. Running like threads throughout this part of the book some are interesting problems that Edward faced while fighting his wars. First, Edward was impecunious throughout most of his reign. This brought him into continual conflict with his many parliaments, where he often faced off against Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, and Roger Winchelsea, Archbishop of Canterbury, when Edward applied to the laity and clergy to pay for all of his wars. Second, Edward's lordship of Gascony was a constant trouble, as its inhabitants were unruly and a series of French kings kept a predatory eye on his territory, one of the last remnants of Henry II's Angevin empire. Third, Edward's dubious claims to Scottish lordship troubled the rest of his reign. Here he faced the unremitting antipathy of Roger Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, William Wallace, and various obstreperous Scottish lords. Dealing was these people was fairly straightforward compared to what Edward had to endure from the ultra-slippery Bruce family, especially Robert the younger. Edward was facing yet another Scottish rebellion when he died at Burgh by Sands in Cumbria, bringing to a close one of the most eventful lives experienced by any monarch.

What this biography is not is a look at life at Edward's court. Such a peripatetic King had little time for the usual stories of activities that fill biographies of, say, the Tudor house. This is a male-dominated narrative. Edward's first queen, Eleanor of Castile, provides what little there is of female perspectives. We learn little about his daughters and very little about his second wife, Margaret of France, sister to Philip IV. Of all of Edward's children we learn most about his son Alfonso and, towards the end of the book, and inevitably, his eventual heir who became Edward II. Morris tries to steer clear of lurid premonitions about Edward II, who later was also in the running for worst king of England. Still, there is no getting around the epic character flaws of Edward I's heir, but Morris is both frank and tactful about this aspect of Edward I's troubles.

Readers will also have to look elsewhere for more information about William Wallace, the Welsh princes, and other legendary characters. In sum, however, this book is highly readable and, as mentioned before, Morris never loses control of his narrative. It is consistently clear, closely reasoned, and speculation is kept to an utter minimum. It appears that Morris will publish a biography of Edward I's grandfather, King John of ill fame, and I hope that Marc Morris will continue to publish more excellent biographies of British monarchs.

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