Wednesday, 7 May 2014


I have the privilege of interviewing historian Marc Morris. Marc is the author of The Norman ConquestCastleA Great and Terrible King . All books come highly recommended! Here Marc speaks to me about all of them. 

You say yourself that you cut your teeth on studying and writing about the 13th century; what then drew you to the Conquest and what were the differences you found in studying each period?

Well, although my thesis was on the thirteenth century, I'd define my specialism as 1066-1307 - that's the period I taught for a few terms in Oxford and London. So it was a case of looking for a large topic within that time period, and the Conquest seemed the obvious choice.

The differences were considerable, for reasons I touch upon at the top of the Conquest book, and boil down to the massive amount of evidence that survives for the thirteenth century, compared to the little that survives from the eleventh. Sometimes I found the secondary material for the Conquest period frustrating, because once you scratched it and looked at the evidence for a particular argument, often it was flimsy or non-existent. It meant that I spent more time analysing the evidence with the reader in the Conquest book than I did in A Great and Terrible King.

I have read your book about the Norman Conquest and I noticed that you say in your intro that you were neither pro English nor pro Norman. When I read the account of William’s Harrying in the North, I couldn’t help but be affected emotionally by the brutality of his actions. Did this change your feelings toward either side or did you manage to still remain impartial to either side?

I don't think my feelings towards either side changed greatly during the writing of the book. I don't feel particularly strongly disposed either way, because I don't identify particularly with either the English or the Normans - these were people from a thousand years ago, so it's possible to view their lives more dispassionately than say, the lives of one's grandparents. The Harrying was a terribly brutal episode, and it seems clear that, although historians will rightly point out harrying was standard practice in medieval warfare, the scale of the suffering in 1069-70 shocked some contemporaries. I gave the last word to Orderic Vitalis, who condemned William for the Harrying, because I think his reaction is a fair one.

Was there anything about the two protagonists, William and Harold, that you admired or disliked?

Again, not really. I don't think in the eleventh century it's really possible to reveal the true characters of these individuals, so judging them or developing feelings for them seems fairly redundant. What we think we know of Harold is based on the description of him in a book commissioned by his sister; what we think we know of William is written by his sycophantic chaplain, William of Poitiers. Both should be taken with a large dollop of salt.

If you had to pick a side, which one would it have been and why?

I say in the introduction to the Conquest book that I'd pick the Normans, but only because I know they're going to win. I don't think if I'd lined up with Harold it would have made much different to the result.

Many people believe Edward I to have been a rotten king, cruel and vicious. How would you describe him having written a biography of him?

Well, I'd certainly reject that description. He was considered by his contemporaries - and not just his English subjects - to be one of the greatest kings that had ever reigned. I don't even think that in the first half of his reign he showed himself to be particularly cruel and vicious - no more so than any other contemporary ruler, and certainly not as cruel as, say, King John, or Henry I, or William the Conqueror. One of the most significant judgements on Edward's character comes from the author of the 'Song of Lewes', written in the wake of the Battle of Lewes, and - crucially - written by his enemies. It praises his valour and commends his conduct in the battle. What it condemns him for is duplicity, and that was a charge repeated by others throughout his life. The Welsh complained of it, and so did the Scots. In the case of Scotland, the charge is hard to throw out. Edward resorted to some fairly low chicanery and bullying to get the Scots to admit he was their overlord. In the end, of course, these tactics came back to bite him, and the Scots vindicated their right to independence. It was only during the last couple of years of his life, fighting final campaign in Scotland, that his actions can be considered truly cruel and vicious.

What is it about the 13th century that drew you to study that period?

My A Level history was fifteenth and sixteenth century England, beginning with the Wars of the Roses. Those wars of course are the prequel to the Tudor period, but to me they always felt like the end of story, and I wanted to know the beginning. I kept reading passing references to Magna Carta, Simon de Montfort and so on, and thinking, 'I'd like to know more about that'. There was a big gap in my knowledge after the Norman Conquest, which I'd done in my early teens. When I got to university I was delighted to discover that there was a course that covered the period 1066-1400.

The other reason was good teachers. In London I was taught by David Carpenter, who is one of the leading experts on the thirteenth century, with a great skill in communicating with his students and enthusing them to learn.

When researching for your debut book Castle, what was the most enjoyable aspect? 

Spending a lot of time in the castles themselves. That book was written to accompany a TV series, so the research had mostly been done before I sat down to write. I'd been shut up in the Bodleian Library and the National Archives for several years, so it was very liberating to be taken around the country to all these spectacular buildings and asked lots of questions by an enthusiastic bunch of TV people. The collaborative aspect of making a TV programme was fun, and very productive in terms of ideas.

Do you have a favourite castle and why?

Yes, Dover. I would not have said that five years ago, but since then English Heritage have completely transformed the visitor experience there by fitting out the Great Tower so it looks like a twelfth century royal palace. They have taken an empty building and made it magical. My two sons (aged 5 and 3) love going there, and since we live not far away, we're there almost every other week.

Tell us briefly about the Bigod family and what fascinated you about them?

I think there you've made an a priori assumption! There was plenty about the Bigods that singularly failed to fascinate me - not least spending months tracing their debts to the crown in royal financial accounts. The Bigods were earls of Norfolk in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, one of the most powerful families in England, and as such major players in national politics. So part of the 'fun' (perhaps too strong a word) of studying them was the ability to look at those politics in detail from a particular point of view. I think the bit I enjoyed the most was researching their affairs in Wales and Ireland, where they also acquired major estates in the thirteenth century. I knew very little about Welsh and Irish society, so this opened up new topics to me.

Which of your books gave you the most of a headache to write and which the most enjoyment?

They seem to be getting progressively harder. Castle was the most fun to write - it was my first, and I had to write it quite quickly to coincide with the TV series. I also remember enjoying writing Edward I, though it involved a lot more work. With The Norman Conquest it was very difficult to find a way to sustain the narrative beyond the Harrying of the North, and the last chapters didn't come together until quite late.

And what now for you?

I'm working on a biography of King John. It's an even bigger headache than The Norman Conquest...

You can find all Marc's books on amazon and other leading book sites. 
You can follow Marc on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Brilliant Interview Paula. Love Marc's books .

  2. Fantastic interview. Have Marc's castle book but need the others. I am especially interested in the Norman and Bigod books.