The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones
432 Pages, January 15th 2015, Simon and Schuster
A thrillingly intimate portrait of one of history’s most illustrious knights – William Marshal – that vividly evokes the grandeur and barbarity of the Middle Ages
William Marshal was the true Lancelot of his era – a peerless warrior and paragon of chivalry – yet over the centuries, the spectacular story of his achievements passed from memory. Marshal became just one more name in the dusty annals of history. Then, in 1861, a young French scholar named Paul Meyer made a startling discovery during an auction of rare medieval manuscripts. Meyer stumbled upon the sole surviving copy of an unknown text – the first contemporary biography of a medieval knight, later dubbed the History of William Marshal. This richly detailed work helped to resurrect Marshal’s reputation, putting flesh onto the bones of this otherwise obscure figure, yet even today William Marshal remains largely forgotten.
As a five-year-old boy, William was sentenced to execution and led to the gallows, yet this landless younger son survived his brush with death, and went on to train as a medieval knight. Against all odds, William Marshal rose through the ranks – serving at the right hand of five English monarchs – to become a celebrated tournament champion, a baron and politician and, ultimately, regent of the realm.
Marshal befriended the great figures of his day, from Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine to the infamous King John, and helped to negotiate the terms of Magna Carta – the first ‘bill of rights’. By the age of seventy, the once-forsaken child had been transformed into the most powerful man in England, yet he was forced to fight in the frontline of one final battle, striving to save the kingdom from French invasion in 1217.
In The Greatest Knight, renowned historian Thomas Asbridge draws upon the thirteenth-century biography and an array of other contemporary evidence to present a compelling account of William Marshal’s life and times. Asbridge follows Marshal on his journey from rural England onto the battlefields of France, to the desert castles of the Holy Land and the verdant shores of Ireland, charting the unparalleled rise to prominence of a man bound to a code of honour, yet driven by unquenchable ambition.
This knight’s tale lays bare the brutish realities of medieval warfare and the machinations of royal court, and draws us into the heart of a formative period of our history, when the West emerged from the Dark Ages and stood on the brink of modernity. It is the story of one remarkable man, the birth of the knightly class to which he belonged, and the forging of the English nation.
William Marshall is a popular subject for biography. I know of at least four such titles- mostly with a different focus or perspective.
Richard Brooks ‘The Knight Who Saved England’ (2013), had an emphasis on battles and military history. David Crouch’s ‘Knighhood, War and Chivalry’ is a more academic work.
Thomas Asbridge’s offering is a timely and accesible work, revealing much about Marshall’s ‘life and times’, as well as his famous role in the events surrounding the creation of the Magna Carta, and the aftermath.
I also liked the information about Knighthood and the role of a retainer in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In some ways, there seemed to be more focus on this than William’s later career as a major Magnate, the Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Striguil.
In the course of the narrative, something was revealed of what it meant to try to adhere to the code of Chivalry, which Marshall was hailed as a paragon of, but tends to be disparaged today.
Marshall was perhaps not the most Romantic or Charismatic of heroes- indeed sometimes he comes across as a rather plain and ordinary chap, who life was coloured by his involvement with the major events and figures of the age, and his tendency to ride the tide of politics and intruige, but generally come out on top.
More than once on the wrong side and embroiled in rebellion, sometimes reckless, and not always making good choices, the flawed man comes through- and also the virtues (that he seems to have believed in) such as loyalty to his Lord- even if that Lord’s cause seemed to have been hopeless.
Some have drawn attention to a few translation and technical errors (is it more correct to say hearing mass, or going to mass?), but this was still an informative, useful work and a good read. I want more than evern to read some Transcription of the ‘The Life of William Marshall’ (what a shame the only surviving copy is owned by America).
Some may accuse the author of having fallen into what some regard as the age-old biogaphers trap of growing to love and admire his subject to an undue degree, and so losing objectivity. Yet, perhaps, that admiration is not wholly undeserved.
Marshall may not have been the best warrior, or the most astute politican, but the contemporary adage of ‘The Greatest Knight’ seems well deserved.