Wednesday, 21 April 2021

The Greatest Knight

I have been reading this:

Asbridge, T. (2015). The Greatest Knight. London: Simon and Schuster.

So, who was this greatest knight? The answer is in the subtitle, which I think, over-claims the subject’s influence:

The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones.

The book is certainly about William Marshal, and he did live through the reigns of five English kings: Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, John and Henry III. Given that he was born in around 1147, it is a bit of a stretch to argue that he was a power behind Stephen’s throne (Stephen died in 1154, just after not hanging William). Still, authors are rarely responsible for the overall titles of books, and you could argue that William was significant in the life of Henry the Young King, Henry II’s oldest son, who predeceased Henry II.

We know a fair bit about William Marshal because his son had a life written about him, composed, apparently, in medieval French verse. This was unknown until 1860 when it was sold at auction to a private collector and disappeared for another twenty years when it was verified as a (the only surviving copy of) the life.

As I noted, William first arrived in the public domain at the age of about five, when he was a hostage for his father’s good behaviour, in the hands of King Stephen. His grandfather, Gilbert Gifford, it seems, had arrived from France with the Normans, whether with the Conqueror or shortly afterwards is not known. He was the royal muster-marshal and held land in Wiltshire. His son, John, seems to have been involved in the civil war, known as the Anarchy on the side of the Empress. John’s second marriage to Sybil, sister of Earl Patrick of Salisbury led to William and his elder brother John.

As a younger son of a minor noble and royal functionary William was probably viewed as rather expendable. Hence being sent as a hostage for good behaviour to the opposition and, thus, being threatened with hanging when that good behaviour was not forthcoming. The threat must have made a bit of an impression on the lad, though.

By the time he died, of course, William was a large landowner in England, Wales and Ireland, Earl of Pembroke, and Protector of the Nation. He had also fought and defeated, by a mix of force, diplomacy, politics and being trusted by more or less everyone at some level, the French invasion and civil war that occurred just after the death of King John. At the age of 70 or so, he had commanded the English / Royalist / Henrician faction at the Battle of Lincoln, and had also been more or less guiding the country when the reinforcements for the French were defeated at the Battle of Sandwich. William watched this one from the shore – I wonder whether he had a picnic while doing so…

Anyway, William worked his way up from being an undistinguished squire, through the tournament circuit, to being part of the household of first, Henry the Young King, then Henry II (as a household knight, he had a chance to kill Richard the Lionheart while covering the King’s retreat. He unhorsed him instead (which had the same effect – Henry got away). After Henry II’s death, he made it up with Richard (he was getting a reputation for loyalty, having been one of the last knights to remain with Henry the Younger) and was part of his household as well.

In the meantime, he had also gone on crusade (as a pledge he had been given by Henry the Young King, who had taken the cross but died before going anywhere) and avoided getting involved with the Second Crusade which landed up in disaster at the Horns of Hattin. He did not go on crusade with Richard but fought with him in Normandy once Richard got back (and had been ransomed). He charted a careful course during the attempted usurpation of John and even managed to stay in John’s good books for the early part of the realm. This, it seems to me, was quite an achievement.

In the meantime, he had married his ward, Isabel of Clare, who brought with her huge tracts of land in Wales, including Chepstow Castle and Pembroke Castle, and large slabs of Leinster in Ireland. In part William managed to ride out the problems of John’s later reign by staying in Ireland, but inevitably got sucked into the crisis of 1215 which finished up a Runnymede. He was also with John as the latter started to undermine Magna Carta.

On John’s death, William decided on loyalty to the child king Henry II and, as noted, led the resistance and victory over the French / ‘rebel’ side. It was the government of the young Henry which issued and re-issued Magna Carta, making it the important foundation document of the English legal system that it is regarded as today.

An interesting career for a Twelfth-Century knight, then. He certainly lived much longer than most people of the era (Isabel died a year after him, in 1220, ages in her forties). The book, possibly to pad it out a bit, possibly to add much-needed context, has a fair number of asides on such things as tournaments (which were not genteel jousts, but played for keeps or at least ransoms), the politics of households (not families – the households of kings and senior nobility), assorted characters both great and small, and so on.

It was definitely worth reading and will stay on my shelf. Biographies of knights, particularly early ones like William Marshal, are rather few and far between. Was he the ‘greatest knight’? The depends on what you mean. He seems to have been loyal to his masters, which stood him in good stead in the end and had a fair eye to the main chance of accumulating money and land. He does not seem to have had any mistresses and his marriage to Isabel seems to have been happy. On the other hand, chivalry was only just being invented during his lifetime, so perhaps we should not hold him to the behaviour requirements of a later age.

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