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.