The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones

432 Pages, January 15th 2015, Simon and Schuster

24502121A 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.

King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant by Stephen Church

Pan MacMillan, 12th March 2015, 352 Pages

25127022“No English king has suffered a worse press than King John: but how to disentangle legend and reality?

The youngest of the five sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the empire builders of the Angevin dynasty, John had small hope of securing any significant inheritance. Then, in 1199, on the death of his older brother Richard, John took possession of the vast Angevin lands in England and on the continent. But by his death in 1216, he had lost almost all that he inherited, and had come perilously close to losing his English kingdom, too.

Drawing on thousands of contemporary sources, Stephen Church tells John’s story – from boyhood and the succession crises of his early adulthood, to accession, rebellion and civil war. In doing so, he reveals exactly why John’s reign went so disastrously wrong and how John’s failure led to the great cornerstone of Britain’s constitution: Magna Carta. Vivid and authoritative, this is history at its visceral best.”

This was the first of several titles on my reading list for my studies on early English Feudalism, the government and the Magna Carta. In this regard I found it useful. I understand some reviewers have found it slow or dry, and this may be the case, but perhaps it was intended to be more academic than written for a popular audience. It should be stated early on that this book is not primarily focused on the Magna Carta, but more on the life, political and military career of John as youngest son, heir of Richard and eventually King.

It is about his relations and interactions with family members and the nobility, the circumstances and decisions which shaped his career, and the events that led up to him losing his hold on power, and dying a virtual fugitive in his own kingdom. It is not a wholly negative appraisal, for it emerges that there were times when the King genuinely wanted to do what he thought to be the right thing- to fight to retake Normandy, and his subjects seemed to regard him as a promising ruler at the beginning.

The passage on the death of Prince Arthur also proved enlightening- John almost certainly did kill him, but it appears that by the teens dealings with Phillip of France to cede land or do homage for it, John and his adherents considered him to be giving away the family inheritance, and so guilty of treason. Not that this justifies the action, but it helps the audience to get an impression of what might have happened and why.
It also sheds a useful light on the workings of the political and administrative system of the age- and why it was so difficult for one person to resist the King. To be successful, there had to be a large scale rebellion. Perhaps the book fails to draw any definitive conclusions about John’s character and legacy, but does help to demonstrate maybe not all the misfortune of the early 1200s can be attributed wholly to John’s tyranny. The loss of Normandy proved disastrous for England- an event John attempted to fight against and to resolve, but the raising of revenue by taxation, always unpopular, seems to have been particularly problematic and controversial, leading some of the abuses later mentioned in the Magna Carta.

Overall The Making of a Tyrant was a useful and pertinent title for useful contribution, amongst several, to the scholarship on this period. The bibliography and other such might be of more interest to researchers than general readers, but I would still recommend it to those interested in the style, approach and scope of the work.
I received a free copy of this book directly from the publisher for review. This did not affect my opinions, which were freely expressed and entirely my own.

Magna Carta- By David Carpenter

624 Pages, January 2015, Penguin Classics

23035951For its 800th anniversary, a new edition of one of democracy’s founding legal documents, with extensive new commentary.

Wrested by rebellious barons from a very reluctant King John, Magna Carta set out a series of rights and duties that have been appealed to, ignored, suppressed, and argued about ever since.

Here, David Carpenter’s forceful new translation is accompanied by extensive commentary that sheds new light on this illustrious legal document.”

I could call this the essential study guide to the Magna Carta (or at least one of them), because it literally covers everything from the historical background, and sources for King John’s reign, to the government system of the charter, as well as later reissues and interpretations.
Such sections help to shed light on the workings of John’s Regime, and the ways in which it was upon to corruption and abuse- but also that Britain was not some kind of backwards state that could not function without a despotic monarch. I found especially interesting and relevant to my studies the sections on how the Charter impacted different groups in society- especially women, and how women responded to its demands.

At nearly 600 pages it is a weighty tome (although the last 150 pages consist mostly of notes, Index etc), and I would say it could be rather dry and hard-going for the general reader. For those interested in simply a general introduction Dan Jones book, or 1215: Year of the Magna Carta would probably be a better option. Though it is worth the read for those persistent, and wishing for a more in-depth study. My copy is much dog-eared and underlined.

It is however, eminently useful for students of the thirteenth century, and a useful accompaniment to the current exhibition at the British Library where a number of the sources mentioned are exhibited. Academically recommended.

The Arrow of Sherwood by Lauren Johnson

Kindle Edition

Pen and Sword Books, August 2013

246638851193. A Crusader returns from the Holy Land to his home in Nottinghamshire, where he is known as a murderer. His name is Robin of Locksley. Following a youth spent with lowborn friends Robin is determined to settle into the role his father wanted for him: a lord dispensing justice to the county. But a false rumour of his death in the East has stolen Robin’s lands from him, and the country he left only four years before is now crippled by taxation and struggling to maintain the King’s law. It seems Robin must choose between his desire to regain his lost inheritance and his intention to help the commons.

In this lucidly imagined and carefully researched recreation of the era of King Richard ‘the Lionheart’, England is torn between the land-owning Norman lords and their English subjects, and it soon becomes clear that Robin can accomplish more outside the law than within it…

In this her first novel, Lauren Johnson’s knowledge as a historian brings a vividness to the project, presenting us with an authentic depiction of the sights, sounds, conflicts and furies that defined this era. A story of redemption, loss, romance and adventure, this novel will excite and enthral.

Writing and telling stories has been Lauren’s passion since she was a child. Since graduating in History from Oxford University she has pursued her interest in storytelling as Research Manager for a historical interpretation company based at heritage sites including Hampton Court Palace, Dover Castle and the Tower of London. There, she had plenty of practice at immersing visitors in a living historical world – a skill she has now brought to the world of historical fiction.


The Arrow of Sherwood was well-told re-imagining of the Robin Hood stories, but was free of the political correctness or silliness that blights a lot of modern dramatic adaptations. All the well-known characters were present, and some of the situations and scenarios are reminiscent of some movies (Will Scarlette as Robin’s illegitimate half-brother Marian acting on her own to help the poor etc), but this was a novel that very much has stands out on its own.

Some of the characterization was a break from the ordinary, and no so black and white as it is in some versions, and even Robin’s own role of helping the poor comes across as more plausible than it might be in other tellings. Robin works largely within the law, for the most part (albeit often through deception), and within the system of the age, he is a rebel with a cause, but not one who turns his back on birth and social position to pursue some utopian egalitarian vision of society, or runs away from the world at the first opportunity.

Lauren Johnson is a professional historian, immersed in the period – although the emphasis is on the story, the details about the legal and administrative system of the time period add an interesting element to the story, also giving it a more credible edge. I believe the author expressed a wish to write a more accurate version of the Robin Hood stories, and she has certainly delivered. Whilst the story is not full of fast paced action (which sometimes comes at the cost of good storytelling), this novel is a satisfying, original and largely character driven  retelling which is faithful to the spirit of the original tales while firmly grounded in the time period.

On a personal level, I was also pleased to find a novel that was not crammed with sex scenes and gratuitous violence to ‘spice’ things up. Recommended for historical fiction lovers and fans of the Robin Hood tales.

Of beasts and men…Modern barbarism and ‘Medeval’ backwardness….?

Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths by Regine Pernoud

March 2000 Ignatius Press

246258This was a fascinating and informative book. Some of the early chapters were not quite what I expected. The one on the supposed ‘Clumsiness and Awkwardness’ was mostly about architecture, and the following on literature, which would not seem to be suggested by the title.

Also, as the book was originally written in French as is translated, some of the grammar and word syntax is a little dubious- though this does improve.
The later chapters, especially those on women and the controversial issue of religious inquisitions, I found far more informative and useful. Debunking some myths, and establishing such ideas in the context of the beliefs of the times
Many of the practices for which the Middle Ages are condemned, such as slavery, actually developed as a response to the re-introduction of Roman Law in the early Renaissance and Post Renaissance period. The obsession with all things classical actually did more harm than good.

On the contrary, the growth of Christianity resulting in the development of rules on free consent in marriage, and the outlawing of slavery in many European slaves. Serfdom, it is argued- was not equivalent to slavery- as slaves in the Roman Empire were not free to marry, or indeed own land- whereas this was theoretically possible for medieval serfs. Indeed, it is further asserted nobles were as much ‘tied to the land’ as serfs- for they could not abandon their estates and their responsibilities than could peasants.
Some of the later chapters on methodology and the theoretical aspects history were of particular interest and relevance to me.
Altogether, this was a good book challenging a lot of generalizations about this period, and recommended for any who wish to develop a more well-rounded view of the time, removed from Hollywood and popular myth.

Regine Pernoud’s short work has particular resonance today, although written some 40 years ago- when ‘Medieval’ has become a byword for all things regarded as barbarous, brutal, uncivilized and backwards- when the actions of extremist groups are described with this word. Yet is this adage deserved?
Certainly there were acts of violence and questionable ideas in the Middle Ages but it was also in which the church legislated against forced marriage “that everywhere progress in free choice of a spouse accompanied progress in the spread of Christianity“.1 In England free choice actually caused problems- for a mere verbal contract between two parties could constitute a valid marriage. Pernoud argues that today, it is largely in the formerly Christian lands that freedom of marriage persists rather than others where it has only recently been granted….this right is recognized in Magna Carta, which forbids forced marriage of widows. 2

Women could run businesses, and take up a variety of occupations “schoolmistress, doctor, apothecary, plasterer, dyer and so on…abbesses” and female landowners had powers that would perhaps be envied today.3 Although not entirely ‘tolerated’ according to the modern understanding, sexual misdemeanors such as adultery and homosexuality were not punishable by death- as they are in some states today. In England, the development of the notion of Rule of Law can be traced on the Middle Ages- the Magna Carta established the notion that nobody, even the King was above the law- by which in later centuries they would be held to account.

In spite of some of the undoubted inequalities of Medieval society, the way in which some states and groups today which might be denounced as ‘Medieval’ entirely exclude women from formal education- or attempt to do so- is hard to reconcile with the fact that the Medieval Period have us Europe’s first professional female author- Christine de Pizan- alongside other women who composed works of poetry, history or religious devotion.
In truth, the medieval period was a formative whose people deserve to be accorded the respect we would give other cultures today- not consigned to the rubbish bin of historical misunderstanding and dismissed as ignorant savages.


1. Regine Pernoud, Anne Englund Nash (trans.) Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (Ignatius Press, 2000), p103.
2. Ibid, p104. See the sixth and seventh clauses of the Magna Carta.
3. Ibid, p105, 111.