The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

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

By Thomas Asbridge (Harper Collins, 2014) 444 pages

TGK Asbirdge

I have really weird interests in certain historical periods and the geography they involve. The cutoffs at the ends are usually precise: one starts with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Another stretches from the end of Livy’s narrative in 293 BCE to the start of the war with Hannibal and so spans the whole missing Second Decade of Livy. And then there’s this one that starts with the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE and peters out sometime around 1453 with the end of the Hundred Years War (and the end of the Byzantine Empire). William Marshal, who probably lived from 1147 to 1219 (see the genealogy and family tree on page 389 and the other information on pages 162-3), has a career that falls right into the sweet spot of my interest.

Marshal served four and a half English kings: Henry II, Henry the Young King (who never ruled on his own and therefore I count as a half-king), Richard the Lionheart, John (who was so bad as a ruler that no one ever used his throne name again), and Henry III. So the claim that Marshal was the “greatest knight” is backed up by some pretty solid evidence, including the claim that Marshal was the only knight ever to unhorse the crusading king Richard the Lionheart with a lance. And Marshal was treated quite shabbily by some of these kings, like the time that five-year-old William Marshal was held as a hostage by King Stephen, a monarch that is often overlooked in the rush to get from the family of the Conqueror to the Angevins proper. Asbridge prefers the “Angevin” designation to the common “Plantagenet” name I learned mainly through Thomas Costain’s four-book series, but I never like the Plantagenet thing anyway. But back to Marshal: the story goes that as a hostage, young Marshal treated the threats of hanging and being catapulted to death as games to play with his captors and so won over the stern King Stephen with his childish innocence.

How could we possibly know such a detail from the life of William Marshal? I mean, the monks wrote about the great events of the day, and the kings had the royal scribes or whatever to record their daily activities. But of the common people, or even the knights and nobles, we know little, especially before the invention of the printing press (another of those 1400 watershed events). For William Marshal’s life, we owe the good eyes of a French scholar named Paul Meyer. In early 1861, as detailed in the book’s preface, he saw an intriguing manuscript at Sotheby’s auction house in London. It was part of the Savile collection, a group of rare manuscripts put together in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

Meyer became a great scholar (his evidence cleared Alfred Dreyfus of espionage charges in 1898), but in 1861 he was only twenty-one and unable to do anything but examine the book before the auction. And there, inside the brown leather, was an account in verse of (as Meyer recorded in his notebook) “an original chronicle, which seems to report the conflict that broke out in England during the reign of Stephen, nephew of Henry I.” Once Meyer became a respected scholar, he tried to find the intriguing manuscript, but it had disappeared into an enormous collection of 60,000 manuscripts (!) held by Sir Thomas Phillipps, and miscataloged to boot. Not until 1881 was Meyer able to read the story of Sir William Marshal, knight, earl, raider, tournament winner, pilgrim, landholder, early Irish settler, and friend of kings, all set out in 19,215 lines of medieval French verse.

I found the account that Asbridge presents of medieval times, especially the tournament circuit in France in the 1100s, and the tension between the conquered English and their Norman (French) overlords, absolutely fascinating. England is not the England of Robin Hood, but the England Richard treats like a source of money and goods to accomplish his real goals of conquest, a place where he spent only a few months of his entire reign. Most of the drama of Marshal’s life plays out on the tournament circuit of Norman France, where the practice was still legal. Even here, the noble combatants often used the jousts and contests as an excuse to get all rowdy and terrorize the countryside (page 62 and 65 has nice details on this).

I learned a lot more about medieval tournaments and combat than I ever knew from this book. I also learned the difference between the Occitan “Langue d’Oc” (where “yes” is “oc”) and French “Langue D’Oeuil” (where “yes” is “oeuil” or the modern “oui”)(page 79). Oddly, this difference plays a role in the Joan of Arc book from last week: when the inquisitor asks with an Occitan accent what language Joan’s voices speak to her in, Joan retorts that “they speak better French than you do.” Joan rocks, I think.

One of the claims of the book is that men like William Marshal helped to usher in the fall of the noble-knight-vassal-peasant system. Asbridge’s argument is persuasive, and includes the observation that the rise of a more stable, moneyed economy meant that knights could just pay their way out of that nasty-dangerous warfare thing and sit home in the castle while contributing to the ruler’s war chest or supplying a bunch of paid mercenary volunteers to do their dirty work. Sturdy household knights became rich nobles, and much of this evolution took place during Marshal’s lifetime.

The defining moment of King John’s reign is, of course, the Magna Carta forced on him by his nobles to limit the whims of majesty. But I never realized how complex the process and document were: the clauses cited on pages 332 and 333 make readers almost feel sorry for poor King John.  But King John wasted no time trying to destroy the lives and careers of those who opposed him. William Marshal, who owed almost everything he had to the kings of England, officially backed his king instead of the French invaders under Louis of France – yes, 1066 was the last successful invasion of England, but Louis had no problem rampaging through Kent. Only after John’s death did the nobles decide they would rather have a weak Henry III than a strong Louis ruling over them.

On a complete tangent, this book made me aware of a great film featuring a fictionalized “Thomas Marshal” and his knights. In 2011, the movie Ironclad depicted the siege of Rochester Castle by King John in 1215. Although in many ways a complete fantasy, the film does capture the real brutality of the times and the fine line the well-off had to walk to stay in the good graces of everyone who mattered. The peasants ran into the woods and the monks headed for the hills (of Rome), but those with castles to defend were sort of stuck with defending it.

This is the second book in as many weeks that impressed me with both the selection and the quality of the color illustrations. Where else can you find illustrations of the shields of nobles and knights (facing page 141)? Or the seals they affixed to the Magna Carta (referenced on pages 349 and 366)?

I love books that are so good you don’t want them to end, that teach you many things you did not know before, and that are well-written and illustrated. This book has it all.


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