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

I like the thirteenth century. To be honest, I like the period generally called “The Middle Ages” but especially the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. I know quite a lot about the general events of these few centuries. I am always looking for more, though; it’s the nature of the obsession.

I’ve been wanting to learn more about the Edwards for quite a while, too. Edwards I and III are so pivotal in English history; I felt a little bit guilty that I didn’t know their life stories off by heart. So I got this biography of Edward I a while ago, and picked it up last week.

And I couldn’t put it down. It’s a period that I’m interested in, sure, but the book itself is captivating. Morris takes the narrative chronologically through Edward I’s life, focusing in a big way on his international presence. The Crusades, Scotland, Wales, France, Castile….Edward I was a busy king. His military and financial motivations are described in amazing detail, and you understand the complete justification that he felt about attacking Wales and Scotland.

There are no frustrations with this biography – well, not in what it does present. The frustration that I felt came at the behaviours and mores of the thirteenth century: the xenophobia that led to the difficulties in Ireland (they’re barbarians, so we can’t let them use their laws! but they’re barbarians, so we can’t let them use our laws! No wonder the politics were messed up for so long), the greed combined with xenophobia that led to the expulsion of the Jews, the tension between family and politics (he’s my cousin/friend, but also my overlord, except that I don’t want him to be, etc.)

The one thing lacking in this book (for me, a romantic and a feminist) is more description of Edward’s personal life. We get quite a lot about Edward’s friends and alliances, but not quite as much as I would have liked about his relationship with Eleanor or with his second wife, Margaret of France. They’re not completely ignored or anything, but for such a passionate relationship (Eleanor) and one of the best-known memorials except for the Taj Mahal (the Eleanor Crosses), there’s not really a lot about Eleanor. And there’s almost nothing about Margaret of France – the alliance where they marry is mentioned, and then she vanishes until “by this time, a child had been born.” Presumably she must have had some presence in his life, for them to have had several children, but she’s essentially invisible in the narrative.

But it’s not really a flaw of the book; it is not pretending to be a comprehensive study of Edward the husband and lover. It does claim to be the story of “The Forging of Britain” – the story of how Britain began to be the political and geographical entity it is today. And the narrative does that. Edward I conquered Wales, took over Scotland (against the will of its current nobility), agreed to hold the first regular Parliaments, held the first Parliaments with commoner – or less high nobility, at least – participation, participated in overseas wars that a different country started (….in the Middle East….couched in pseudo-religious terms……sound familiar?). Almost everything that defines Britain as it is today began in the reign of Edward I, and the book does an exceptionally captivating job of describing it.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)