The Greatest Knight

Elizabeth Chadwick

Edition reviewed, Time Warner, 2006, ISBN 0-7515-3660-1

Set in England and France in 1167-1194, The Greatest Knight tells the story of William Marshal and his involvement with the Plantagenet King Henry II, his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their brood of wayward sons. Most of the major characters are historical figures, while William's mistress Clara is a fictional character created from an un-named woman briefly mentioned in the sources.

A younger son with few prospects of inheritance and little money, William earns a living by serving as a household knight. His prowess on the jousting field earns him fame and prizes, but the great turn in his fortune occurs when he saves Eleanor of Aquitaine from capture by enemy knights. Queen Eleanor herself ransoms William and rewards him with a place in the royal household as tutor to the princes Henry and Richard. William is now at the centre of the maelstrom surrounding the House of Plantagenet, as Henry II, Eleanor and their growing sons fight amongst themselves. Royal favour makes William rich beyond his dreams, but one false step in the fickle world of the court and he could lose it all for ever.

William Marshal is the central character and the reader sees much of the story through William's eyes. He is a thoroughly sympathetic character, level-headed, down-to-earth and with a gift for getting on with people, who somehow manages to look out for his own interests and yet still stay a decent man. Other important characters are rounded individuals with their own personalities. Henry II's eldest son Henry, known as The Young King after being crowned King of England in his father's lifetime, is a spoilt brat when we first meet him riding William's war-horse without permission and manages not to grow up at all throughout his career. William's elder brother John seems to be unlucky in all things, growing more embittered as his failures contrast with William's success, until he and William eventually end up on opposite sides of a civil war. John's unhappy love life, and the troubled marriage of the Young King to the lonely Marguerite, form a counterpoint to William's much more satisfactory romantic relationships, first with his (fictional) mistress Clara and later with his wife Isabelle de Clare. Isabelle was a great heiress and many years younger than William, and their marriage as portrayed in the novel rests on the twin foundations of expediency (Isabelle needed to marry to escape her restricted status as a ward of the Crown, William needed her lands) and mutual affection. Isabelle brings William not only financial security in the shape of her landed estates, but emotional security too. On several occasions William, who has led a peripatetic life around royal courts and the tourney circuit, refers to Isabelle as his "safe harbour".

Loyalty forms a major theme in the story. A medieval knight swore fidelity to a lord, and also owed loyalty to his king - so what was he to do when his lord quarrelled with the king? If he joined the king he had broken his oath, but if he stayed with his lord he had rebelled against the king. William has to confront this dilemma several times, and struggles to emerge with both his life and honour intact.

The novel is rich in historical details such as the food, clothes, buildings and weapons of the time. Much of the story concentrates on the personal and political battles of the court, with some battlefield action scenes such as the attack in the first chapter and William's rearguard action to defend Eleanor's escape. A welcome feature is the occasional note of humour, with comic vignettes such as the incident in which William gets his head stuck in a jousting helm and has to have it (the helm, fortunately, not the head) removed by the local blacksmith.

As the novel covers nearly three decades, the story sometimes leaps ahead by months or years at a time, so you need to pay attention to the dates in the chapter headings. A useful Author's Note explains the main sources for the novel, and notes where controversies remain and where fiction has filled in gaps in the history. Before reading this novel I knew two things about William Marshal. The first was the celebrated story of his father handing him over to King Stephen as a child hostage, promptly breaking the terms of the deal and then defying Stephen to hang young William by declaring, "I have the hammers and anvils to forge more and better sons!". The second, I'm afraid to say, was the scurrilous ballad The Confessions of Queen Eleanor, which is most unlikely to have any basis in fact. So it was very helpful to have a note of the history behind the novel and suggestions for further reading.

Convincing and colourful portrayal of William Marshal, one of the unsung champions of the Middle Ages.