‘A Great and Terrible King’ (Windmill Books) A Great Story of a Controversial King – Book Review

This is the most comprehensive and fluent account I have ever read of Edward I, king of England.

But firstly, the cover. We are drawn to covers, of course, although sometimes we don’t like to admit it, that it might just be a tiny bit shallow to judge a book by its cover. Yet this cover says it all, really, a ruler who lived by the sword, who was both just and ruthless, as every successful monarch of the high middle ages had to be, like a roaring lion in human form.

Morris conveys convincingly the notion that we have to judge the man by his times and not our own; Edward was a crusader and a conqueror, subjugator of Wales and ‘Hammer of the Scots’.

The appalling treatment of William Wallace in 1305, accused of treason, and then hung, drawn and quartered whilst Edward was at play elsewhere, does not seem at all righteous to modern minds. After all Wallace was probably one of the very few Scottish nobles who did not swear allegiance to the English king: he was a Scottish patriot after all, but that would be lost on the empire building approach of Edward and the expediency of his reign.

So today Edward I may not be too popular in either Scotland or indeed Wales. But he failed to fully conquer Scotland, even though he was successful in planting his ‘own man’ (John Balliol) on the Scottish throne for a time.

And then there is the Statute of Jewry of 1275 where Edward acceded to the Church’s demands to try and limit the effects of usury. Morris deals with this in a most balanced way, I feel, trying to help us understand the reasons for this and what seems to us now the eventual cruel banishment of Jews from the kingdom of England in 1290. Naturally, today such action is not viewed in the same light; we live in a very different, more secular world.

Most especially this book conveys the sheer intensity of the personality of this monarch, his energy and drive, a man whose body was exhumed in 1774, confirming his oft used moniker of the time, Longshanks – that is, he had long legs.

The subtitle of Morris’ book is ‘And the forging of Britain’. Ultimately, the king was only partially successful in this and many of his achievements were undone by his son, Edward II, who lost at Bannockburn in 1314, which in turn led to the groundbreaking Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, where noble Scots claimed their long term independence from England.

All in all, a fabulous read, albeit keeping us at a safe distance from those terrible, tumultuous times.


Copyright Francis 2021

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