Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Greatest Knight


Rating: 5 Stars


Without a doubt, William Marshal is the greatest unknown figure in England's history. He lived and thrived in the age we look back on now with rose-colored glasses, imagining chivalrous knights and jousting tournaments. Yet in truth, Marshal truly did epitomize that idea of chivalry and fidelity, remaining true to his monarch time and again - especially in the case of King John, who he could have easily abandoned with all the back-stabbing, or in the case of King Henry III who he could have simply turned his back on when the boy king lacked support for his reign among the many nobles who sought allegiance with France.

Marshal is a figure I've long been familiar with, at least in regards to his exploits with Richard the Lion Heart and the terrible King John. Yet there's so much more to this remarkable man's story and here it finally is, being told in such a way as Marshal deserves. That is not to say he was a perfect saint in a violent age; Marshal was a warrior through and through. But this perspective must be kept in accordance with the age in which he lived. As a younger son with no land or prospects, becoming a knight is truly the only option he had. Driven by ambition, Marshal grabbed hold of his destiny and went full throttle, serving five kings in his lifetime and outliving four of them - Young Henry, Henry II, Richard I and John.

The story is not just of the life and largely forgotten legacy of William Marshal, but of England. As Marshal rose to prominence, he was tasked more and more as defender of the realm. Time and again he fought alongside his king - or in the case of Henry III and the decisive battle at Lincoln, fought on behalf of. It seems almost impossible, but it's true; Marshal's final military battle occurred around the age of 70, leading his troops in order to drive back the always-meddling Capetian monarchs, sending them back to France where they belong. Marshal survived, won the day, and eventually retired from public life when he realized his body was finally betraying him, that he could no longer perform his duties to the crown as he'd done for five decades. Marshal was afforded two things that many of his contemporaries were not: a long, full life, and a peaceful death at home in bed.

This is a must read for anyone who enjoys the study of this turbulent age in England. It but only recounts the life of Marshal, and the breaking up of his hard-won dynasty after his death, but details how his life and career were interwoven - and ultimately tied-to in some cases - the many other great figures of his day: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and Richard I. Though this is a substantial book given the slim amount of source material, it was not a dry, academic read. Marshal's life was so intriguing and entertaining, there's no way the book could be anything but. Definitely a must-read.

It troubles me that such a remarkable man, one who played such an important role in England's history, is not given due respect. William Marshal is unknown to many today but it is my sincere hope that with the publication of this wonderfully written and well-researched biography, he can once again be back in the spotlight where he belongs.


I don't normally buy books, which I know seems unusual for someone who loves to read as much as I do. Truthfully, it i just not practical when I live in an apartment that is already brimming with baby toys and books ad clothes and furniture. I love the library system here and have access to pretty much any book in the country, based on the system OPL uses that allows us to borrow from libraries all over the US (still have to pay shopping fees, which are usually only a couple dollars though). This book is one of the exceptions - Mom took me book shopping for Mother's Day and this was my without a doubt must-have.

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