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

I have not delved much into history before the Reformation. I think part of this reason is because I look up to those like Martin Luther and John Calvin that I want to know about that time in history. And of course, American History is so interesting to me because I live in America. I also think that sources for these times in history are so scant that it’s hard to publish something that is both interesting and accurate. But I think there is some merit to studying the Dark Ages, particularly knights. The main source for Asbridge’s book is in “The History of William Marshal.” This fairly recent source (written sometime soon after Marshal died but discovered in the 19th century) gives an interesting look into Medieval culture and, most importantly, to the person of William Marshal.

The conventional image of knights in our culture is eschewed I think. We think of knights from movies we’ve seen so obviously the scholastic merit of such images cannot be worthwhile. That is why, in part, I think “The Greatest Knight” is so interesting. William Marshal was a knight in the 12th and 13th centuries and often is attributed as the greatest knight that ever lived (hence the name of the book). He was born in England and rose to power not because his family had a large inheritance, but because at the age of 12 he was sent to the household of William of Tancarville  to start his training as a knight. Knights in those days were held together by a strict sense of chivalry. Often times today we say “chivalry is dead” because we believe “chivalry” is the unspoken rules of a gentleman. Chivalry was actually a much more complicated set of standards that were based around things like honor and uprightness.

After he became a knight, he entered tournaments to make his way. While his lord would house and fund him, he would bring back both wealth and commodities in winning tournaments. The tournaments were mock battles and two sides were pitted against each other. The knights would attempt to knock the other side off their horse. Marshal must have been an excellent horseman because while he lost some of his first tournaments, he began a streak that would be incomparable. According to “The History,” Marshal claims he bested over 500 knights during his life.

With this incredible streak, Marshal became a legend very quickly. He was welcomed into the knightly court of King Henry II, the first of 5 kings he would serve throughout his life. King Richard the Lionhearted (the one you remember from elementary school) desired the kingship and attempted to usurp the throne from Henry II. Marshal apparently de-horsed King Richard in protection of the king, apparently the only person to do so in his lifetime. After King Henry II perished and Richard claimed the throne, they let bygones be bygones, only after Marshal made a trek to the Holy Land (the Crusades had been warring for sometime at this point) as a last will and from King Henry II (I forget the exact reason he went; I listened to the audiobook so some of these elements are a little fuzzy). After his return, he served in the court of King Richard the Lionhearted, who as we know, made a Crusade to the Holy Land. Marshal did not tend to his King’s side, but rather kept watch over the kingdom and gaining valuable experience in the political realm.

After the Lionheart’s death, kingship was gained by King John. Simultaneously, war was taking place in Normandy against Phillip II. King John failed as a leader and a King and the war effort and after sometime, the Barons and Earls of England decided to curb his power by forcing him to sign an infamous document called the “Magna Carta.” William was part of these negotiations which make his legend even more intriguing. Asbridge notes that the first draft of the Magna Carta really wasn’t that important. Nor were the subsequent alterations as far as scope and impact in that time period. Where it really became a cornerstone of Western thought was the idea behind it of democracy and republicanism as it was used to create other documents such as the American Constitution.

The next king in line after King John died was King Henry III. A youth at the time of his ascension, Marshal was not able to pour much wisdom into King Henry III, as he began to become weak from age at an astonishing  72. He died surrounded by family in 1219 and was covered in silk he secretly brought back from the Holy Land.

This was a really interesting book although I wish I would have bought the book and not the audiobook. Sometimes when you are unfamiliar with names and places, it makes trying to follow the story difficult. Much more could be said about William Marshal, but I think you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out yourself!

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