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

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

By Thomas Asbridge

HarperCollins, 2014
ISBN: 9780062262059
Epub edition.

Reviewed by David Balfour

In 1861, a student at the Ècole des Chartes, was commissioned by the Bibliothèque Impériale to attend a Sotheby’s auction in London to bid on items for the library’s collection.  At the auction, the young medievalist was particularly intrigued by an item identified only as a “Norman-French Chronicle on English Affairs (in Verse).” But the ₤380 winning bid was far beyond the limited funds afforded to him, and the manuscript disappeared into a private collection.  That student, Paul Meyer, never lost his interest in the work, however, and in 1881, by then a distinguished scholar and director of the Ècole, he was finally able to relocate it.  What he discovered was even more remarkable than he had dreamed: a long narrative in verse by an anonymous Anglo-Norman poet recounting the life of William Marshal (c.1145-1219).  The younger son of a minor Anglo-Norman noble, Marshal, through his considerable martial and political skills, had risen from a landless knight to become the earl of Striguil and Pembroke, and ultimately the regent of England during the minority of Henry III.  Along the way, he had played an important role in several key events, including the genesis of Magna Carta, yet had remained, prior to the manuscript’s discovery, a “shadowy presence” to modern scholars.  That situation changed dramatically when Meyer published the edited manuscript in 3 volumes as L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal comte de Striguil et de Pembroke (1891-1901).

This work had been commissioned by the heirs of William Marshal shortly after his death. Composed from available documents as well as recollections of Marshal’s family and close associates, the Histoire offers a unique account of a noteworthy medieval personage in rich detail that far exceeds that available for even the most celebrated figures of the period.  Consequently, Marshal has attracted the attention of many modern researchers.  Thomas Asbridge, a Reader in Medieval history at Queen Mary University in London, readily acknowledges the substantial contributions of his predecessors, particularly Sidney Painter, who in 1933 published the first scholarly biography of Marshal, and David Crouch, whose 2002 work, “established the foundation (and set the bar) for all modern study of Marshal’s life.”

In light of the contributions made by these earlier scholars, a new biographer of Marshal faces a challenge in producing something that is fresh and significant, but Asbridge has succeeded admirably in doing so by setting Marshal’s story firmly within the context of the earl’s political, social, and cultural milieu.  In writing a genuine “life and times,” the author has produced not only a well-balanced and fascinating portrait of Marshal, but a work that serves as an excellent introduction to the late 12th/early 13th century Anglo-French world.

Asbridge tells the story of Marshal’s rise from landless younger son to regent of England in a lively narrative, interspersed with lengthy digressions on a range of pertinent topics including the nature of the office of marshal; medieval attitudes and practices related to childhood and child-rearing; the breeding, care and value of warhorses; and the evolution of knighthood, tournaments, and the concept of chivalry.  These discourses are fascinating and informative, though at times readers may forget that they are reading a biography of William Marshal.  But collectively they are vital to understanding Marshal and his place in his world, and are particularly valuable to readers not already familiar with the period.

Asbridge draws heavily on the Histoire while carefully taking into account its obvious pro-Marshal biases.  Likewise, the author makes sound use of a wide variety of narrative and record materials from the period, as well as the significant secondary sources.  The author’s own conclusions, though rarely groundbreaking, are judicious, balanced, and  consistently grounded in the ideals and expectations of Marshal’s time and class.  In regard to chivalric values, for instance, Asbridge cites Marshal’s “steadfast loyalty” among other virtues, but also characterizes him as “miserly,” “materialistic,’’ and “self-serving.”  While these latter qualities may strike a discordant note with some modern readers whose conception of chivalry is shaped largely by contemporary media, Asbridge demonstrates that a thoroughgoing idealist could not have survived—much less thrived, as Marshal notably did—in the shark-pool that was the medieval, Anglo-Norman aristocracy.  For Asbridge, what separated Marshal from most of the prominent knights of his time was that he combined extraordinary military prowess with great political acumen and an ability to “temper his martial ferocity in the setting of the royal court.”  Although the precise nature and extent of Marshal’s role in the formulation of Magna Carta cannot be fully determined, Asbridge concludes that, through his overall influence, Marshal was “instrumental in shaping” the England of his day, and, by extension, “the basis of the principles by which much of the world is now governed.”

Asbridge provides documentation sufficient for scholars, but which will not prove overly obtrusive to non-professional readers.  There are several useful ancillary materials including photos, a chronology, maps, genealogies, and capsule descriptions of the numerous individuals who appear prominently in the biography.

Asbridge writes in a style that is lucid, colorful, and engaging.  This is one of the more purely enjoyable works on medieval history that has appeared recently, as well as a solid work of scholarship.

~ David Balfour is Professor of History at College of St. Joseph

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