Based on fact, this is the story of William Marshal, the greatest knight of the Middle Ages, unsurpassed in the tourneys, adeptly manoeuvring through the colourful, dangerous world of Angevin politics to become one of the most powerful magnates of the realm and eventually regent of England. From minor beginnings and a narrow escape from death in childhood, William Marshal steadily rises through the ranks to become tutor in arms to the son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. A champion on the tourney field, William must face the danger and petty jealousy targeting a royal favourite. Dogged by scandal, banished from court, his services are nevertheless sought throughout Europe and when William's honour is vindicated, he returns to court and wins greater
acclaim and power than before. A crusader and the only knight ever to unhorse
the legendary Richard Coeur de Lion, William's courage and steadfastness are
rewarded by the hand in marriage of Anglo-Irish heiress Isobel de Clare, 19
years old, the grandaughter of kings and his equal in every way.
Elizabeth Chadwick is one of my favourite authors. I've read quite a few of her books so far and I have really enjoyed them all with one or two being special favourites. I was very enthusiastic when I found out she was going to write a book about William Marshal which I had already found in some books as a secondary character and was curious about.
The Greatest Knight is a biography; it tells the story from when a young William is sent as a hostage to his king and it ends when he is already well established in life. I found it really interesting how the author makes the period come alive. With a real character, whose life is well documented she might have had some restraints in describing facts and mixing it with fiction but the truth is that you don't even notice where one ends and the other begins. It’s a compelling and interesting story and if there's a flaw it must be that Marshall sounds too good to be true.
He is heavily influenced by Eleanor of Aquitaine and throughout his life tries to follow the rules of courtly love when dealing with the ladies, be them queens or not. He comes across as honest, loyal and charismatic. We follow him through defeat and imprisonment, military successes, court intrigues and banishment and finally as a valued knight of the king's household. He seems almost larger than life but he is also a man of his time when reaching for the highest matrimonial prize and planning to win Isobel de Clare's hand in marriage and lands.
I found Chadwick's descriptions of life as a knight going from tournament from tournament particularly vivid and interesting. We get to know how important it was to win and take ransoms and how perilous a life it was. And when William is appointed to Prince Henry's (the Young King) service how difficult it is to be true to one self and still obey your lord. If we usually have an interesting outlook of the politics of the day, here William and his life take centre stage and it's in connection with him that we follow the major events of that period. There is a lot going on and some things had to be left out but that just made me want to go and do my own research.
A very enjoyable read and now I'm off to pick The Scarlet Lion from the TBR pile and continue reading about William Marshal.