The Greatest Knight is a wonderfully comprehensive biography of the knight William Marshal, who served the succession of Angevin kings until his death in the early 1200s
I was surprised at how many history buffs popped up on Instagram to say hi after I posted my thoughts there! I ended up with more book recommendations, chats on historical fiction books, photos of a new monument to Marshal, and some new Insta-friends. Definitely a pleasant surprise
I loved reading the fictional account of Marshal’s life presented by Jeff Wheeler in The First Argentines series. Now I am finally reading some of the source material he recommended.
What I liked about Thomas Asbridge’s account is that he put everything into historical context for people, like me, who aren’t experts on the Angevins and Plantagenets and medieval history in general. I know next to nothing about the Anglo-Norman conflicts and the crusades, so reading isolated accounts can be confusing.
How did medieval parents grieve? Who can urinate in a great lord’s hall? What did tournaments look like? Who crusaded against whom? All very important things to know. Asbridge also looked critically at a lot of source material to point to what was probably embellished and probably accurate – also where the holes and gaps in knowledge are.
One favorite theme (among many) was the evolution of the archetypal knight, the class in general, and how warfare evolved during this period!
Marshal was an incredible figure. I appreciate the fact that he was still leading and fighting in battles into his 70s (unheard of in that era, the life span was much shorter) when I have 50 year old patients who refuse to get out of bed and wipe their own butts! An amazing man, truly
We get the conflicts and successions and battles, the tournament years, some hints at family life. I think what surprised me most was how each Lord just wanted more land, more power, more castles, more everything, even when they could hardly handle what they already had.
Also some of the early papacy and church dictates were hilarious, like how anyone that dies in a tournament is denied a Christian burial. I didn’t realize how involved the pope was, or even that Ireland was ever an English holding.
My favorite anecdote was the story of the knight that pulled himself out of the saddle, and Marshal found himself leading just a horse at the end of his charge 🤣
In one sentence on the Wheeler books, I think he did an amazing job converting Marshal and the Angevins into a fictional series. Wheeler took some liberties with names, places, and sequences of events, but I was surprised to recognize so many real events from his books and sometimes know what would come next. I do truly wish that the real William Marshal had had an ugly horse, that would have been the icing on the cake
One other thing that Wheeler did well – one of my favorite scenes of the entire series and also in the Marshal biography – was the battle of Lincoln! Woooo talk about chills. He wasn’t using the “Dex Aie” at that point but I was happy to hear it was a real rallying cry.
Overall – The Greatest Knight is a fast paced, easy read that doesn’t even feel like nonfiction. I think this is such a fascinating time period and I have been recommended the BBC series produced by the author which I can’t wait to try to find. There are also the Elizabeth Chadwick books for more historical fiction focused on Marshal: I’d like to read that too and then compare her series with Wheeler’s!
Bookish Quick Facts:
- Title- The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones
- Author: Thomas Asbridge
- Publisher & Release: Ecco, December 2014
- Length: 464 pages
- Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐✨ for fans of medieval history!
Here’s the synopsis:
A thrillingly intimate portrait of one of history’s most illustrious knights – William Marshal – that vividly evokes the grandeur and barbarity of the Middle Ages
William Marshal was the true Lancelot of his era – a peerless warrior and paragon of chivalry – yet over the centuries, the spectacular story of his achievements passed from memory. Marshal became just one more name in the dusty annals of history. Then, in 1861, a young French scholar named Paul Meyer made a startling discovery during an auction of rare medieval manuscripts. Meyer stumbled upon the sole surviving copy of an unknown text – the first contemporary biography of a medieval knight, later dubbed the History of William Marshal. This richly detailed work helped to resurrect Marshal’s reputation, putting flesh onto the bones of this otherwise obscure figure, yet even today William Marshal remains largely forgotten.
As a five-year-old boy, William was sentenced to execution and led to the gallows, yet this landless younger son survived his brush with death, and went on to train as a medieval knight. Against all odds, William Marshal rose through the ranks – serving at the right hand of five English monarchs – to become a celebrated tournament champion, a baron and politician and, ultimately, regent of the realm.
Marshal befriended the great figures of his day, from Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine to the infamous King John, and helped to negotiate the terms of Magna Carta – the first ‘bill of rights’. By the age of seventy, the once-forsaken child had been transformed into the most powerful man in England, yet he was forced to fight in the frontline of one final battle, striving to save the kingdom from French invasion in 1217.
In The Greatest Knight, renowned historian Thomas Asbridge draws upon the thirteenth-century biography and an array of other contemporary evidence to present a compelling account of William Marshal’s life and times. Asbridge follows Marshal on his journey from rural England onto the battlefields of France, to the desert castles of the Holy Land and the verdant shores of Ireland, charting the unparalleled rise to prominence of a man bound to a code of honour, yet driven by unquenchable ambition.
This knight’s tale lays bare the brutish realities of medieval warfare and the machinations of royal court, and draws us into the heart of a formative period of our history, when the West emerged from the Dark Ages and stood on the brink of modernity. It is the story of one remarkable man, the birth of the knightly class to which he belonged, and the forging of the English nation.