Book Review: The Greatest Knight, by Thomas Asbridge.

My favorite historical fiction author of books about the Plantagenet era in England and France is Sharon Kay Penman. A peripheral character in several of her books is William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke. Marshall was such an intriguing personality that when I learned of Thomas Asbridge’s non-fiction biography of the man, I snapped it up.
Asbridge’s biography of William Marshall is based largely on a biography commissioned by Marshall’s eldest son in the early thirteenth century, compiled and written by an Anglo-Norman scribe. The survival and discovery of a unique copy of this book is a story in itself and is told in Asbridge’s prologue. Asbridge also draws on a number of contemporary sources and the book is the product of meticulous scholarship.
When I first encountered William Marshall in Penman’s book When Christ and his Saints Slept, he is a five year old hostage, having been given up to King Stephen of England by his father, the minor lord, John Marshall. It is 1152, toward the end of a long civil war between King Steven, the nephew of Henry I, and Empress Matilda, Henry I’s daughter and only legitimate surviving offspring. John Marshall has no intention of caving in to King Stephen’s demands and King Stephen threatens to hang little Will, Marshall’s youngest son. John Marshall replies that he still has the hammers and anvils to forge even better sons, so Stephen should go ahead. Thinking it’s all a game, Will goes willingly to the gallows, but, perhaps seeing the grim faces of the onlookers, he decides he doesn’t want to play this game any longer and asks King Stephen to let him go. In the end, King Stephen cannot bring himself to hang the child and spares the boy’s life.
The Greatest Knight depicts in as much detail as is possible from 12th century sources, William’s remarkable life after that incident, and his amazing rise to the top of the hierarchy of English nobility.
At age 13 William went to Normandy to serve in the household of Baron William of Tancarville, a relative of his mother, Sybil of Salisbury. There he trained in the martial arts, fencing, spear throwing, and horsemanship. He excelled in all such activities and was eventually knighted by his patron. After a falling-out with his patron, he began to compete in tournaments and quickly made a name for himself and acquired a modest amount of wealth by capturing opponents and collecting ransoms.
He eventually returned to England and took service with his maternal uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury, a vassal of the Angevin King Henry II (son of Empress Matilda). Earl Patrick and his mesnie were soon called upon to go to Aquitaine to quell a rebellion there. Traveling as a bodyguard for Henry’s Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the party was ambushed and Earl Patrick was killed and William was taken prisoner but Eleanor successfully escaped to safety. Eleanor eventually paid a ransom for William’s release and he became directly employed by the Angevin household. He was assigned to mentor Henry and Eleanor’s eldest son, Henry.
King Henry had crowned his son King when the boy was 15, but gave him no real power. As he grew to manhood, young Henry began to chafe at the bitt, eventually rising in rebellion against his father, encouraged by his father-in-law, Louis Capet, King of France, and abetted as well by his mother Eleanor and his brothers Richard and Geoffrey. Will Marshall remained loyal to the younger Henry, and thus became a traitor in the eyes of the crown. The wily King eventually put down the rebellion, imprisoned his wife and forgave his sons. During the next few years, young Henry and Will and their mesnie spent their time in the Tournament circuit, eventually becoming a formidable team, winning wealth and renown.
In 1183, young King Henry died from the “flux.” As he was dying he charged William Marshall with the task of transporting his “crusading cloak,” a cloak that had had a cross affixed to it to signify young Henry’s intention to take the cross, to Jerusalem and deposit it in the Holy Sepulchre. Thus William made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on behalf of his deceased lord. When he returned, he took service with the old king, Henry II.
Will remained loyal to King Henry until the latter’s death, even when it was clear that Henry had lost his power to a coalition of his son Richard and Philip Capet, the King of France. After Henry’s death, however, Richard the Lionhearted was impressed with William Marshall’s fidelity to the deceased King and appointed him to be one of the Justiciers who ruled England while Richard was on crusade in the Holy Land.
After King Richard died, his younger brother John became King. William Marshall’s relationship with John was stormy at times, but he remained loyal throughout the King’s reign, never joining the barons of England in their rebellion. He did have a part in negotiating the pact between King John and his barons, made at Runnymede in 1215, which came to be known as the Magna Carta.
The most significant event in William Marshall’s life came after the death of King John. The throne of England was claimed by Louis, Prince of France, who launched an invasion of England. Many of the disaffected barons sided with Louis, but William Marshall strongly supported the succession of King John’s eldest son Henry, then only nine years old. Against all odds he defeated Prince Louis’ forces at the battle of Lincoln in 1217 to secure the throne for Henry III.
Thomas Asbridges’ superbly researched book brings to life the world of the Plantagenet era and the culture of medieval knighthood.

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