A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris

Even knowing that the movie Braveheart, and thus its antagonist, is considerably mythologized, this book takes me quite by surprise on a number of levels.  There is very little about Edward I that can be said to be of a small scale.  As the title of the book suggests, it’s almost as if this king could be two different people, unless one knows how to reconcile this dual persona with the understanding of life in medieval England.  To his people, and especially to those loyal to him, he was a man of incredible prowess, valor, and wisdom.  In times of war, such as those during his reign, a king such as him was ideally suited to his situation.  To those opposed to him, however… he was a monster in every sense of the word, especially by our modern standards.  And yet, it cannot be said that he was unjust by the standard of medieval kingship.  Quite the reverse, he was a man who founded his honor, his chivalry, and his actions in the field upon the word of law.  Both in war and in peaceful negotiation, the law was the foundation of everything.

Having said that, it’s a rare medieval king indeed who does not fudge such things for his own advantage, and Edward based much of his kingship on the “facts” of the legendary King Arthur.  Say what you will, it makes for a great story.

Edward is most notorious for being the “Hammer of the Scots,” a title bequeathed to him shortly after his death.  After the presentation of how those events played out, I can honestly say that I lost a great deal of respect for Scotland as a whole, and specifically for William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.  Peace between England and Scotland was practically a foregone conclusion before they happened.  Of course, they’ll say “subjugation.”  Are they wrong?  Not totally, but Edward had granted them a parliament of their own, a governance of their own, and the ability to handle to their own affairs.  Scotland was practically becoming a second England.  When the Bruce essentially slaps England’s friendship away for a  power grab, vengeance is the order of the day.  The author makes the claim that the idea of Great Britain begins here.  Based on what I read here, and with the hindsight of history, I’m forced to agree that Scotland might have spared herself centuries of bloody hardship.

And that is the other side of this tale, the vengeance of Edward, not only upon the Scots, but also upon the Irish, the Welsh, the Jews, the French, his own rebellious nobles, and indeed everyone else who presented a threat to the English crown, real or perceived.  In the midst of all this, we see someone who, in spite of his anger, exercises great powers of character assessment, wisdom, and even restraint at times when other power players around him are going off the rails.  As I say, it’s a surprising story, and it’s difficult to reconcile from a modern perspective.  This book comes as close as the average person might come to knowing how he might have been perceived in his own time by ally and foe alike.  All in all, a compelling read for those inclined to this era of history.

5 stars


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