A Great And Terrible King: Edward I And The Forging Of Britain, by Marc Morris
This is a very good book, but it is also one whose importance and whose focuses have to be understood in a larger context. Edward I’s life and action both as a prince and as a king were immensely complex, and this book is largely a chronological account of his life, most of which he spent as a very active king who sought to increase his power simultaneously in the Levant, Gascony, and the British Isles, a task in which he was mostly but not uniformly successful. This book puts his ambitions and efforts into a context that points out the need for domestic political support, the judgment of his own competence, his complicated family relations with his parents, uncles, cousins, and son, and spends a great deal of talking about the fateful actions he took with regards to the Jews of the realm who were exploited and ruined during his reign. This is a book that prompts the reader to ponder about the connection between ambitions and resources, and between justice and expediency, in a way that demonstrates the relevance of Edward’s achievements and behaviors to the present day.
This particular book is a large one at nearly 400 pages, divided into twelve chapters. The author begins with a preface where the author claims only a modest understanding of the relevant secondary sources for Edward I’s life, before discussing the situation of England at the time of his birth and childhood, where he was given an unfashionable name that became fashionable because of the way he lived it (1). After that the author talks about the family feud between the Plantagents and Montforts (and others) that led to a great deal of complex struggles in realm and Parliament (2). The author then moves to the crusading engaged in by Edward I while still a prince during a time of relative internal peace (3), followed by his return to take the throne upon the death of his father (4). The author moves to talking about the way that Edward I dealt with the disobedient Prince of Wales and ended Welsh sovereignty thus far for good (5) before turning to his struggle for Arthur’s (imaginary) crown (6). A chapter on the peaceful endeavors of the king (7) leads to a discussion of the great cause for Scotland that dominated the end of his reign (8), and the struggle for mastery over both Scotland and Gascony that ensued over the next few years (9). After this the author speaks about Edward’s failure in uniting the kingdom (10) as well as the lasting vengeance that followed his reign (11) between the Scots and English, as well as the author’s verdict that Edward I truly was a great and terrible king (12).
This book works best when seen in the larger context of Plantagenet kingship over England and its associated territory. Edward struggled with the complex family relationships, showing effectiveness in the manner of a Henry II or a Richard I rather than the ineffectiveness of his father or grandfather. He had to deal with a realm that was burdened by heavy taxes and that demanded as a price for tax increases harsh and unjust treatment of an unpopular minority in the Jews. He was able to conquer Wales but found that it did not provide him with any more money than it had provided the divided Welsh princes who had ruled before. Likewise, his efforts to increase English power projection in Gascony, France, Ireland, and Scotland only ended up with his having more problems with his overburdened taxpayers and with the rulers of other nations who were alarmed at his vaulting ambitions. Not content to conquer Wales and consolidate English dominion there, he sought to conquer Scotland to and ensured several centuries of brutal conflict there, all while failing to wrestle with the conflicts that would periodically tear England apart.