I confess that before I read Thomas Asbridge’s  “THE GREATEST KNIGHT”, I was already curious about this new biography of William Marshal. The lives of John FitzGilbert the Marshal and his son William are a lifelong study subject for me and I’ve read everything about them I can get my hands on.   Since this work shared the title of my 2004 novel THE GREATEST KNIGHT on the life of William Marshal and even the same font on the cover and cloudy background behind the sword, my interest was piqued even more.

The Greatest Knight

My UK novel of the same title, first published in 2004

William Marshal, circa 1146-1219 has been called the Greatest Knight who ever lived and we know about him through a rhyming biographical poem of over 20,000 lines commissioned by his family and written by a poet simply known as John.

 Despite the often highly positive spin the biography puts on the Marshal’s life, much of the “Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal” still rings true in its basics and the reader receives a strong flavour of the vigour of the Marshal’s character.  It’s a vivid glimpse into the world of the 12th and 13th century aristocracy – their cares and concerns, their pleasures and politics. It’s the first secular biography of an Englishman and a work of incalculable value, not least because of its survival, which is a story in itself.

That survival is the starting point of Thomas Asbridge’s work – how it was rediscovered at auction by historian Paul Meyer in the 19th century and how he lost the bid, but doggedly followed the manuscript’s trail, found it again, and translated it into the modern French of his own era along with a commentary.   It’s a fascinating story that draws the reader in and is one of the book’s most positive and interesting aspects.

Asbridge tells his tale in a strong, linear style that is engaging, entertaining and very readable which gives it wide appeal. You don’t have to be an academic to enjoy the writing.   He mostly relies on the “Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal”  as his source material and puts his own interpretations on the story, sometimes with results that will raise the eyebrows of those who know William Marshal well, but probably won’t be noticed by those who don’t.  I have to say that general readers may be misled at times about the Marshal’s character because Asbridge’s interpretation – and his facts – do not always stand up to scrutiny and are often very guilty of bias toward a modern mindset.  Basically he doesn’t get under the skin of the times.

Asbridge never seems to quite grasp the nuances. For example,  John FitzGilbert, William’s father is portrayed as a brutal weathercock.  But he was no more brutal than any other baron of his period, and it could be argued much less of a weathercock than a good number of his compatriots. Once he swore for the Empress he stuck to his word even though it meant the loss of an eye at Wherwell, and the potential loss of his son at Newbury, when John was the last man standing between King Stephen and the castle at Wallingford. The reader isn’t told this.  Asbridge tells us instead that King Stephen was ‘determined to punish John’s presumption’ and so in the fading days of his power, came to seize John’s castle at Newbury. But it was more than just royal displeasure and vindictiveness that brought Stephen to Newbury. The point of the Newbury incident is that Stephen needed to get to Wallingford before the future Henry II returned from Normandy, but he knew if he marched directly to Wallingford from his current base at Reading that  John FitzGilbert would come from Newbury, attack  him from behind and he’d end up sandwiched between the defending garrison at Wallingford and the Marshal forces in the rear.  So in order to have a good chance of success at Wallingford, he had to take out John Marshal first.  John Marshal knew there was no one else; he was the last man standing between Stephen and the destruction of  Wallingford.  That puts the whole situation in a very different light.

There’s the moment when John attacks his rival neighbour, Patrick of Salisbury. Asbridge tells us that this shows John’s capacity for ‘ruthless brutality’ – to attack a troop of more lightly armed men.  What he doesn’t tell the reader is that these lightly armed men were actually on their way to slaughter John and were carrying their heavy armour with them ready to put on just before they attacked him. But John got wind of their intent and hit them first.  Again, the reader is only told half the story and thus the nuances get changed. Asbridge tells us that William, as an adult evidently relished’ the story of how he was almost hanged when a hostage for his father’s word of honour, which his father then broke in order to fortify the defences at Newbury.  But we don’t know if he relished it or not.  There is no proof and the Histoire is the sole source of the incident and may or may not be true.  The evidence needs to be treated with caution, not accepted at Face value. (see my blog on the subject here:   Asbridge also tells us that William was left in a position of “forsaken peril” but the Histoire categorically states that a Marshal servant had been sent to spy on William and report back to the family.

Professor David Crouch, the senior authority on William Marshal  is of the opinion that John Marshal was “No coarse bandit. He played the great game of politics with talent and perception…John Marshal was the first great exemplar of lordship in his son’s life” and that he was “a definitie preudomme in his son’s eyes.”

When it comes to William  Marshal himself, I began to wonder how much notice Thomas Asbridge had actually paid to the Histoire although it seemed to be his main source of information.   For example, he tells us that “The Marshal himself seems to have shown only limited interest in the likes of dancing (and) music.”  In direct contradiction of this the Histoire tells us that William’s singing voice had a ‘pure, sweet tone’ and that he willingly sang for his comrades at a dance at a tourney and that it gave them ‘much pleasure and delight.’ (Lines 3471-3483)  Many years later on his deathbed, William said one day that he felt like singing, as he had not in three years. This clearly tells us that he had enjoyed song for most of his life. He also specifically called his daughters to sing for him and instructed them how to do so to the best of their ability and then joined in with them to show them how it was done.  (lines 18532-18580).  This is a man with only days to live.  It’s very, very obvious that he loved music, it was important to him and one of the few joys of his deathbed.

Asbridge alters one scene in the Histoire itself by not reading the text in primary source and by misunderstanding the English translation – hence the matter of the pike.  At a tourney at Pleurs, William Marshal got his head stuck inside his helmet and went to the smithy to have it prised off.  In the meantime he had been judged ‘man of the match’ which means he had won the main tourney prize, of a fish – a large pike. The Histoire tells us this in the original Old French word for the creature “luz”  The fish was in prime condition and more than two and a half feet long.  Pikes and swans were common tourney prizes at this time, as were other animals.  One particular tourney even had a bear as the prize.   Asbridge tells his readers that William has won a two and a half foot long spear!   Common sense would surely tell one that a spear of two and a half feet in length isn’t actually a spear and not a useful thing to win, especially not for the champion of the show.
I note that the error has since been corrected in the paperback edition, although the matter of the prize being a fish is not actually mentioned and the text just says that he won his prize. Presumably type setting did not allow for a greater correction to be incorporated.

The historical inaccuracies are evident even in the small things, the trivia. Asbridge for example, when describing the clothes William would have worn, dresses him in  a shirt with detachable sleeves, a ‘fact’ that appears to be picked up almost verbatim from the Danziger and Gillingham  book “1215”.  Asbridge says that William would have worn “a shirt, often with detachable sleeves.”  Danziger and Gillingham’s line (p22) says “a shirt with long sleeves that were often detachable.”  Neither Danziger nor Gillingham are clothing historians but I happen to know a few, as well as archaeologists  and I challenge anyone to find any time in the 12th or 13th century when shirts with detachable sleeves were worn; tunics perhaps, later on under Renaissance influence, but never, never shirts.  Trust me on this one.

The description of the Young King, eldest son of Henry II is almost identical to the one on Wikipedia and the problem is that the reader can’t know if this information is reliable because Asbridge doesn’t give proper sources or footnotes. There is no bibliography section, rather the books consulted are mentioned in the end notes which are far from reader friendly.   They are arranged in a chapter by chapter format, but are quotes from pages without reference numbers, leaving the reader utterly baffled and frustrated at having to hunt through the entire chapter for the lines in question.

I was somewhat surprised at some of the dates Asbridge uses. I was disappointed to see Eleanor of Aquitaine receiving the older research birthdate of 1122 instead of the now more usually accepted 1124.   King John’s birth year is cited as 1167 when it looks far more likely to be  1166. (See “Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady,” edited by John Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler, the chapter by Andrew Lewis on revising the birth date of King John. This also gives the revised birth date of 1124 for Eleanor of Aquitaine. Gerald of Wales also indicates the birth date of 1166 for John). William Longespee’s birth date is erroneously given as 1167 when we now know it was somewhere between 1175-80, shortly before his mother, Ida de Tosney married Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk.

The reader is told that Eleanor of Aquitaine was at the coronation of her son the Young King in 1170.  However she was in Normandy at the time, trying to prevent various agents of Thomas Becket making the crossing and preventing the coronation. (William FitzStephen Life of Becket).

Following the death of his lord the Young King, Asbridge has William setting off for the Holy Land in September 1183 to lay his lord’s cloak at the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre and suggests that he just possibly may have arrived there in that same month in time to fight Saladin – which is patently impossible even given a jet propelled horse.  One receives the impression the author wanted the Marshal to be there for the tabloid purposes of fighting Saladin but couldn’t quite make the dates fit the history.  Asbridge states that William ‘almost certainly’  went by sea because it’s the quickest way of getting there, but the truth is that we don’t know how he travelled and it is just as likely that he went overland, perhaps via Rome and Sicily. The Young King’s sister Joanna was Queen of Sicily and William may well have visited her with the cloak on the way to Jerusalem. He was on a journey of penance, atonement and pilgrimage, and the military aspect was but a single strand made of many. Rushing to Palestine to beat up Saracens may not have been foremost in his mind as he undertook the journey.

Asbridge suggests in one of the many ‘may have’ moments occupying the narrative that Richard the Lionheart was determined to  build a glorious reputation for himself in liberating Jerusalem and didn’t want the Marshal along on crusade with him in case he stole his limelight – he was jealous of him!  That begs the question why did he promote William and his affinity to such prominent positions in his government if he felt so insecure? Why not just dump the Marshal when he had the chance at Fontevraud in 1189 if he was  so worried about it?   Asbridge also speculates as to whether William would be considered a coward for staying at home, but since someone had to rule the country and since William had already made the pilgrimage and performed his deeds, it’s an argument that skates on broken ice.

 Another notion that had me scratching my head was Asbridge accusing the Marshal of ‘grumping, wheedling and whining’ to Henry II  for promotion.  That makes him sound like a child having a whinge in a supermarket. While the Marshal might have been pro-active in seeking promotion, and we know he complained to Henry II, “grumping, wheedling and whining” does not convey the resonances of the period and the way in which the reciprocation of patronage played out.   Would Henry II, famous for his impatience, have listened to a man who ‘grumped,’ ‘wheedled’ and ‘whined’?  It’s a little preposterous.

Positives?  The aforementioned story of the discovery and rescue of the manuscript is well written and fascinating.  Dr. Asbridge also gives a fine reassessment of the Young King which is long overdue and puts him in his full political context.  Rather than a foolish, spendthrift ‘Hooray Henry,’  this eldest surviving son of Henry II comes over as a politically astute young man frustrated by his father’s  controlling, micro-managing policies. That aspect of the biography is excellent and recommended as food for thought. It’s a great balancer to the more usual negative assessments of the Young King.

However, ultimately, Asbridge’s “Greatest  Knight” is an uneven work that doesn’t really get under the surface of the Marshal’s personality. The scholarship is at times sloppy and there are some truly bizarre interpretations of the motivations behind some  historical events without credible evidence to back them up.

 If it is taken too seriously or seeps into the public mindset, this work sadly has the potential to set back the progress made by more scholarly works of our understanding of the Marshal. If you do read this one, make sure you also read David Crouch on the Marshal to get a fully rounded picture. A third enlarged edition of David Crouch’s Marshal biography is available from early March 2016 and includes new material not published before. That’s the one to go for.

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