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

I approached this new biography of William Marshal, who did indeed have a remarkable life, with some trepidation. The book’s title was a little too reminiscent of those breathless and overwrought sagas of how so-and-so saved the world, or at least civilization. Asbridge, however, presents a compelling, if not altogether convincing, case for Marshal’s preeminent status.

William Marshal’s first king was “young Henry,” the oldest son of Henry II, whose coronation as “junior king” allows him to be counted among the thrones in the title. Young Henry is usually overlooked and written off as charming but ineffective, and perhaps not overly bright. He died at the age of 28, six years before his father, without ever having wielded independent power.

Asbridge takes the opportunity to use William Marshal’s time in Young Henry’s household to re-examine the young man’s actual abilities, responsibilities and achievements in the context of the times. And it is in providing context, for the holders of the English throne and for William Marshal himself, that Asbridge shines.

Much of what is known about William Marshal as an individual comes from a long poem, The History of William Marshal, written as a eulogy not long after Marshal’s death. Discovered in the 19th century, the poem was first printed in toto in 1901. As the biography of a high-ranking but non-noble man of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, the History is unique, appreciated and now well known.

The poem itself, however, means little without that all-important context, so ably provided in The Greatest Knight.

Asbridge has a knack for introducing interesting pieces of widely-varying information, all important for understanding William Marshal and his world, in short, palatable and connected “doses.” What could have been unwelcome digressions in the hands of a less-skilled author, here become fascinating insights that deepen and widen the reader’s understanding and appreciation for 12th and 13th century life.

We learn, for instance, of the three types of horses that a knight would own: the palfrey for everyday riding and travel, the sumpter or packhorse, and the destrier or warhorse. The investment that a destrier represented is made very real by Asbridge’s context: ”for the average price of one destrier William could have purchased either 40 palfreys, 200 packhorses, 500 oxen or a staggering 4,500 sheep.”

When Marshal goes crusading after Young Henry’s death, we learn a brief history of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. When Marshal returns and joins the “grand travelling circus” that was the court of Henry II, we “see” Westminster Palace and the City of London, not only its architecture but also the life Marshal would have led within them.

The Greatest Knight centers on the battlefield and the court, Marshal’s milieu as a career soldier. He was, as Asbridge makes clear, a chivalric knight par excellence – but within the context (that word again!) of his times, not ours.

The path to landed estates and influence for a knight was by superlative military service followed up by persistent badgering of one’s lord for preferment. This self-aggrandizement and pushiness may not fit our preconceptions of noble knighthood, but in the 12th century the only rewards for modesty and humility were scorn and poverty.

Marshal, not about to settle for either, played the knightly role well indeed.

Marshal earned a reputation on the tournament circuit and then, through a display of personal courage in battle, was invited to join the household of Young Henry. He then went on to join the households of Young Henry’s father Henry II, and Henry II’s two sons, Richard the Lionheart and John, in succession. He demonstrated a continuing and growing ability to not only fight, but to lead fighters in military campaigns.

He also showed a remarkable loyalty and perseverance to each of his lords, in turn. Marshal then reaped his reward by pestering and nudging each of those liege lords to ensure that they simply could not overlook his value. And his persistence eventually paid off. Henry II promised him the hand of the great heiress Isabel of Clare; Richard the Lionheart fulfilled his father’s promise, thereby making Marshal one of England’s prime landholders; and John named him Earl of Pembroke, the title held by his wife’s family, making him one of England’s greatest lords.

As important as Marshal’s contributions were, however, “the power behind five English thrones” remains somewhat an exaggeration. The power behind “Young Henry” assuredly. For Henry II, Richard and John: yes at the end, not so much, and yes-no-yes. It is only with John’s young son, Henry III, that Marshal became once again “the” power, as Guardian of the Realm and Regent. Near the end of his life, the 70-year-old Marshal once again rose to the occasion, championing young Henry’s right to succeed his father and clearing the kingdom of his enemies.

Much of The Greatest Knight is, naturally, concerned with warfare. It is not usually a topic of personal interest for me but, in Asbridge’s hands, I not only followed the action but was caught in the drama of the encounters.

I loved the episode when, in 1197, the 50-year-old Marshal was sent to capture a French castle. After his men faltered, William (fully armed) fought his way up a ladder to the parapet. His men, cheered and rejuvenated at the sight, surged up behind him. Once at the top, William (no longer young, and unsteady from the exertion) first felled a dangerous opponent and then, to catch his breath, sat on him while his men took the castle. Other battles and sieges were described with equal clarity and animation.

I can recommend this book wholeheartedly both to those fascinated with the early Angevins and those interested in military history. While far from a light read, in The Greatest Knight, Asbridge shows a felicity of language and an eye for detail that makes William Marshal, and his five kings, come alive.