This is one of my infrequent book reviews where I make a recommendation on a book you could enjoy on a trip you are about to take. I try and recommend lighter and easier to enjoy books and I provide a link to the book on Amazon.com in kindle format in my reviews so you can download it right away if you are reading this in an airport and are interested. I actually use Audible.com a fair bit and listen too books when driving or traveling (link is also below), but I find reading more efficient and I still read 4-5 books a month.
For those that access my blog via a computer or other device that has a full browser that shows the full site, you will notice that I have a statue of a knight as my banner image across the top. That knight is William Marshal and I recently finished a book called “The Greatest Knight:The Remarkable Life of William Marshal” that tells his story. The book is written by Thomas Asbridge, a noted historian who has written several other books on the Crusades.
William Marshal was a younger son of a minor noble in England. Born in 1146, he lived in the era of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine and he served both of them and their sons, Henry, Richard the Lionhearted and John (the king who was so terrible that no other British King has been named John since), and finally as Regent for John’s son Henry who became Henry III of England. He died around the age of 72 in 1219. He was almost killed at the age of by King Steven when his father had given him up as a hostage to the King and then promptly broke his word. When King Steven threatened to kill him, William’s father told him to go ahead, saying ‘I still have the hammer and anvil with witch to forge still more and better sons.” King Steven decided to spare him and he went on to have a remarkable career.
Asbridge bases his book on a book dating from just after William’s death called “The History of William Marshal” which was commissioned by his family and disappeared from history only to be recovered in the very late 1800’s. The advantage of this source material compared to other histories of the time is that it was not written by the clergy and it represents the point of view of the nobles and knightly class who had very different goals than the Church.
Hostage, youngest son, poor knight, servant of kings and the realm, tournament champion, the story of William Marshal and his time is very interesting. The book moves along at a good pace and paints pictures with enough detail that the important facts are clear but not so detailed that it gets bogged down.
William Marshal was so deeply involved in British history from the 1160’s to 1219, and so much happened then that the writer easily could have fallen deeply into various rabbit holes and bogged the story down. Fortunately this does not happen. Instead, a vivid and engaging story of the greatest knight is told and by the end the reader is left with no doubt as to why the title applies to William Marshal. He not only was a great warrior, he was a key person behind the Magna Carta which is considered to be a significant constitutional document for England and thus for much of the Western world.
If I had to sum up the lesson that William Marshal can teach us today, it is that being true to your word and duties, even when difficult, is the right course of action. Several times during his life he had to choose between duty to his King or an easier path that would lead to more immediate, material reward. In every case, William chose duty and loyalty. That is not to say he liked his King in all cases (he did not appear to like John at all) but he still knew what his duty was and made the difficulty but right choice every day.
The author fills in the historical details of people and places when needed, but he does not get in the way of this rags to riches story. William started off almost penniless and ended as one of the most powerful and richest men in England. He was a sports star of his day, a noted and respected tournament champion and he also was a feared and renowned warrior. He inspired great personal loyalty in his friends and allies and they were steadfast in their support of him.
I recommend the book. The story is interesting and well written. The history of those times is fascinating. And the main focus, William, is deserving of his fame. What would William Marshal do?