‘Biography’, wrote John Dryden, ‘is in dignity inferior to history and annals; in pleasure and instruction it equals, or even excels both of them.’ He goes on to explain that biography includes both the narrative of annals and ‘the loftiness and gravity of general history’; but the reader is also ‘led into the private lodgings of the hero’, and Dryden pictures ‘a Scipio and a Lelius gathering cockle-shells on the shore, Augustus playing at bounding-stones with boys’. The modern scholarly world has been suspicious of biography for the last half-century, and the great series of volumes on English monarchs has preferred ‘loftiness and gravity’ even to the narrative of a king’s life; these are studies on the important topics of a sovereign’s reign, framed around that life, but by no means a straightforward chronological account.
In the last decade or so, old-fashioned biography has made something of a comeback, and its virtues have been rediscovered. Marc Morris’s new account of the life of Edward I is a splendid example of the genre. Edward’s life is in many ways an ideal subject for such an approach,