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

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

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: An eminently readable and major biography of Edward Longshanks, expeller of Jews, harrasser of the Scots and Welsh, crusader, and mourning widower. It's an intelligent but accessible look at a pivotal moment in British medieval history.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Hutchinson
ISBN: 0091796849

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Marc Morris is another one of those Oxbridge-educated academic broadcasters - we like them lots, don't we? He presented the Channel 4 series Castle a couple of years back and it was a great favourite hereabouts. So he has all the right credentials for armchair historians like me. I was really looking forward to his book on Edward I, Longshanks, the long-lived medieval king who conquered Wales and Scotland, pacified a civil war, went on Crusade and, infamously, expelled the Jews. I wasn't disappointed.

Edward I of England was known as Edward the Lawgiver. Much of his reign was about consolidating the power of the crown, and to this end his legislation benefited a great majority of his citizens, as it curbed the power of the great lords. He was also known as The Hammer of the Scots - as anyone who has seen the film Braveheart will know. He came to the throne shortly after a bloody civil war in England in which he had taken a great part in the defeat of Simon de Montfort. He conquered Wales. He went on Crusade. By the end of his reign, all Jews had been expelled from the realm. He had fifteen children with his wife Eleanor and when she died, he constructed the famous series of crosses in her memory, leading all the way to Charing Cross - chere reine. Marc Morris's book covers this pivotal period in England's history.

History's popularity has made it a tricky area for writers. The academic/lay divide has blurred and while this is a great thing for readers, it does make the pitch difficult for writers, I think. Lay readers aren't interested in the belt and braces noting and sourcing that are indispensible in an academic text; they find them offputting. Lay readers thirst for the bread and butter of fiction - narrative, conflict, characterisation and drama. And of course, history has all these things in spades. It is the driving force of all fiction. Morris here, like the wonderful Alison Weir, has trodden this tricky path with wonderful skill. There aren't any flights of fancy or unsubstantiated speculations, but the canvas of thirteenth century England unfolds with all the panoply and fanfare the armchair historian could wish for. It's utterly compelling.

The writing is elegant and precise and direct enough to compel the narrative - and the reader. And Morris allows us the odd idiom, always well-chosen. From page eight, when Edward the Confessor is described as having all-round wonderfulness in Henry III's mind, I knew I was in for a happy read.

Highly, highly recommended.

My thanks to the good people at Hutchinson for sending the book.

Another Edward, this time the Sixth, has an equally interesting and accessible biography by Chris Skidmore.

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Buy A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris at Amazon.com.


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