The Greatest Knight: the remarkable life of William Marshal, the power behind five English thrones – Thomas Asbridge

I knew a little about William Marshal – he’s cropped up in quite a few books about the early Plantagenets – but I didn’t know anything about where he came from and how he became the go-to man when Kings were having problems hanging onto their thrones.

This book does an excellent job filling in those gaps and, as far as possible with someone who lived such a long time ago, bring the person to life.

I loved the story of the discovery of the manuscript in the 19th century that turned out to be a 13th century biography/hagiography of William, possibly commissioned by his son. This means that far more can be learned about William than about most of his contemporaries. The author of this book is quite clear about taking some of his source materials, including this manuscript, with a pinch of salt. I also like the fact that the author is clear about the fact that to us, in 21st century, William may seem mercenary and cruel but that in his own time he was seen as the model of chivalry. It is useful to keep being reminded that the past is very much a different country where we may not understand the norms and behaviours expected.

William comes out of the book as very much a man of his time and also an honourable man. In his later life, during the various challenges to Richard I, John and Henry III crowns, he chose to support the Plantagenet dynasty, sometimes to his own detriment.

My very few frustrations with the book are ones that are common to reading biographies: what happened next to people who are part of the subject’s life story but not central to it. In this case I want to know what happened to Queen Marguerite, wife of Henry the Young King, Queen Berengaria and Queen Isabella of Angouleme once their kingly spouses died. The problem of reading biographies, one leads to another 5, which lead to…

Overall, I found this a really enjoyable, readable book that gave me a good understanding of William Marshal and a better understanding of his era.

Thanks Tom and Sophie for a great Christmas present.

One thought on “The Greatest Knight: the remarkable life of William Marshal, the power behind five English thrones – Thomas Asbridge

  1. Reblogged this on Medieval Otaku and commented:
    I recently finished this book and wanted to write a review of it. However, I find myself far too tired to write today. And so, I’m pleased to refer you to this blog, which conveys a similar impression to mine of the book in question.

    By the way, one of the reasons William Marshall is called “the greatest knight” happens to do with the fact that he defeated 500 other knights in tournaments and on the battlefield–fighting his last battle at age 70! Anyone with an interest in medieval times will enjoy this book.


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