The name William Marshal was not wholly unknown to me going into Asbridge’s The Greatest Knight, but the details of Marshal’s life, those were very sketchy indeed. I’ve only just started the second section of the biography, which opens in 1166, shortly after Marshal had been knighted, but prior to that my notes on his early life include things like:
- Castration sure was the In Thing in the 1100’s.
- Not cool, John Marshal. Not cool. (William’s dad; John used William’s life as collateral and then refused to uphold his end of the deal with Stephen, aka the King of England. Basically, John was like, ‘No big, go ahead and kill my five year-old son. I can always make more.’)
- Adela of Blois: “…a rare and remarkable woman, truly capable of wielding power in a man’s world.” That is a genuinely fascinating tidbit. Now. Would you care to tell me the how and why? Anyone? Asbridge? No? Well all right, I’ll try to find a biography or another book* dealing with the time period in which she is covered more thoroughly. (The facts as presented in TGK: Adela was the daughter of William the Conqueror, sister of Henry I, and mother of Stephen, King of England. That’s it. That’s what I know about this rare and remarkable woman based on my reading of this book.)
- Bring on all the mentions of Arthurian legends, please! (Geoffrey of Monmouth was considered a hack, you say? Do tell!) (But I’d also love to read more about these stories in terms of the shadow Camelot cast and how it affected real-life, code-honoring knights.)
You’d think the only names in use during the 1100’s were William and Henry, but let me assure you, putting that really, another one? nitpick aside, it’s easy enough to keep the many, many players straight and in their rightful place. Asbridge has a way of unspooling events in a very to-the-point manner that tows the reader right along. I also appreciated Asbridge’s tendency to not frame Marshal’s earliest years in absolute terms (because my first instinct, especially here where the subject is from such a bygone time, is to ask But how do you know? whenever the author seems a little too sure of certain facts). I should note, too, that Asbridge draws on a thirteenth-century biography that he admits is biased in Marshal’s favor (and also skips over or has very little to say about certain periods of the man’s life). So far, there’s been a bit of name-dropping, particularly Richard the Lionheart, which I get, but I’m looking forward to reaching the point in the book in which the man himself is present in Marshal’s life. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s arrival on the page, I’m anticipating that even more.
[*Adela is mentioned in Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I by Tracy Joanne Borman. Harder to find but most relevant is Adela of Blois: Countess and Lord by Kimberly A. LoPrete.]
If you read The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English Thrones and get bitten by the William Marshal bug and/or decide to become a knight in your spare time, you might also want to check out:
- The Knight Who Saved England: William Marshal and the French Invasion, 1217 by Richard Brooks
- William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry by Georges Duby
- The Greatest Knight: The Unsung Story of the Queen’s Champion by Elizabeth Chadwick (fiction)
- The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones
- The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey Monmouth