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'The Greatest Knight' is the true story of a medieval knight, told with rich detail

Drawing on a 13th-century manuscript, Thomas Asbridge has fashioned a rare and fascinating biography.

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    The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones
    By Thomas Asbridge
    HarperCollins
    464 pp.
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The man who became the greatest knight of medieval England nearly died long before he ever swung a war hammer in a melee or unhorsed an enemy at a joust. Almost a third of children did not survive childhood in the 12th century, but few faced a demise as dramatic as five-year-old William Marshal. His father gave young William to King Stephen as a war hostage in 1152, a common method of pledging good faith to guarantee the terms of a truce. But William’s father promptly broke his word, resumed hostilities, and told the king he was perfectly content to lose his son, “since he still had the anvils and the hammers to forge even finer ones.”

This seeming indifference might have been a bluff, but it placed the young hostage in tremendous danger. King Stephen threatened to hang the child, use him as a human shield during a frontal assault, and catapult him at a fortress. But whenever he tried to execute William, the boy’s youthful innocence proved disarming. He asked to play with a guard’s spear on the way to the gallows, and he even leapt happily into the sling of a catapult, imagining it was a swing. The king could not bring himself to kill his hostage, and William was eventually returned to his family.

This boyhood brush with mortality was just the first of many dangers he confronted over a long career. But if Marshal had not survived a different type of existential threat, the bulk of his exploits would be forgotten. In the middle of the 19th century, a French scholar discovered the sole surviving manuscript of a 13th-century biography in verse of William Marshal: the "History of William Marshal." Commissioned by one of Marshal’s sons, the work celebrates the glorious achievements of Marshal’s life.

Though this singular source was found in the 19th century, William Marshal has remained relatively unknown beyond academic circles. Thomas Asbridge’s new book, The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones, aims to introduce Marshal to a wider audience. Drawing on the 13th-century manuscript, Asbridge has fashioned a rare and fascinating tale: a biography of a medieval knight told with all the rich detail, dialogue, and action that is usually possible only for figures from later periods.

Marshal’s education as a knight began when he was only 13. Because warhorses (destriers), armor, and weaponry were incredibly expensive, the typical route to knighthood involved securing the support of a wealthy patron. Marshal was sent to a baron in northern France, where he joined his new lord’s mesnie – the group of elite warriors and bodyguards that functioned as a nobleman’s extended family. His training revolved around the development of combat skills and horsemanship, both of which 35 pounds of medieval armor made exhausting and difficult.

He soon won fame fighting in medieval tournaments – chaotic and dangerous events that became intensely popular across France in the 12th century. Though less organized and more dangerous than modern athletic events, these tournaments prefigured the contemporary world of professional sports in some striking ways: Knights traveled on a well-known circuit of tournaments, fought together on teams that wore particular identifying colors, attracted crowds of spectators, and sometimes gained wealth and fame after an outstanding performance.

Asbridge’s descriptions of these tournaments – picture hundreds of armed and mounted knights clashing across miles of open countryside – form some of the most vivid sections in the book. Knights were not generally seeking to kill one another, though death was a constant possibility. Their goal was to capture other men as hostages so that they could later ransom them for vast sums. A code of knightly chivalry made the social cost of breaking a sworn promise sufficient guarantee of payment. Thus a captured knight was often released upon his word alone.

Marshal’s success in tournaments helped earn him a fortune and an appointment as the tutor-in-arms for the young Prince Henry, son of Henry II. The two became friends and comrades, and they often fought together in tournaments. Young Henry was anxious to gain territory of his own, and he soon became embroiled in various wars and rebellions against his father and his brother Richard the Lionheart.

A turbulent period of civil wars and the ongoing threat to the English crown from the French Capetian dynasty provided Marshal with ample opportunities to display his martial prowess in actual warfare. But perhaps more impressive than his many daring feats in battle was his consummate skill in political maneuvering. Throughout his long career, Marshal served five monarchs: Henry II; his sons Young Henry, Richard the Lionheart, and King John; and his grandson Henry III, who was only nine years old when thrust into power.

Given the intricate web of internecine feuds and betrayals within the royal family, remaining alive and in favor demanded a discerning grasp of shifting political winds and the quirks of particular monarchs. Marshal won grants of vast territories in England, France, Ireland, and Wales. Born the younger son of the minor nobleman, he died a very wealthy and influential man. In his later years he even helped oversee the drafting of the Magna Carta.

Asbridge is a wonderful guide to the complex politics and history of medieval England. He is sensitive to the dangers of blindly trusting the often fawning biography of Marshal that survived from the 13th century. But much of the biography’s material finds confirmation in other sources, and he rounds out his story with fascinating accounts of medieval etiquette, royal politics, and siege warfare.

Marshal’s life offers a uniquely vivid view of the world of medieval knights that eventually found expression in Arthurian legends. But Marshal is also a captivating figure in his own right. As a 70-year-old, he still donned armor and even led a royalist faction against a group of rebels. Before the famous battle of Lincoln, he was so eager – or possibly senile – that he forgot to wear his helmet while dressing for combat.  A squire caught him just in time and handed him the helmet as he galloped off to confront men half his age.  

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