14 August, 2007

The Greatest Knight, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

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.

19 comments:

Daphne said...

I read this earlier in the year and loved it. I think it's one of my favorite HF books and I'm looking forward to reading the sequel. Great review!

Steven said...

I hadn't heard of this book until I read your review. I'm an avid student of medieval history as well, and I try to read all the historical fiction I can find set in this period. Thanks for the review and recommendation. I'll have to check it out.

Carla said...

Daphne - thanks. It's a good read, isn't it? I'm looking forward to the John Marshal book too.

Steven - hello and welcome, and I hope you enjoy the novel. Elizabeth Chadwick has written many others in the medieval setting and you can find details on her website. Are there particular aspects of medieval history you're especially interested in?

Marg said...

I loved this and the sequel when I read it. I am looking forward to her next book!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Many thanks for the lovely review Carla. William Marshal has left an indelible impression on my life and I feel privileged to have shared his while writing the book.

Carla said...

Marg - so am I!

Elizabeth - you're welcome! I really enjoyed the novel - I do like to read about men as well as women.

Bernita said...

I have always liked William Marshal.
Thank you Carla and Elizabeth.

Steven said...

Carla, I tend to focus on medieval England and France, mostly from the time of the conquest by William up through the mid 1300s. I have a small collection of books, a dozen or so, right now. Any recommended readings?

Steven said...

Also, I'm adding your blog to my blogroll. Take care.

Carla said...

Bernita - He seems to have been an impressive man, doesn't he? I knew relatively little about him.

Steven - Well, medieval history is one of my areas of interest, so reviews will turn up here from time to time. You might like to have a look at the reviews page on my website, where there are several reviews of books set in the medieval period. The English Resistance is a non-fiction account of the immediate post-Conquest period in England, and The Winter Mantle (by the same author as The Greatest Knight) covers a similar period but in fiction. Odinn's Child is set in the 11th-century Norse world and Warriors ofthe Dragon Gold is the run-up to the Conquest from the English side. The Heaven Tree and its sequels are set in 13th-century England and Wales.

If you like military action-adventure, Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest series is set during the Hundred Years War (The Archer's Tale/Harlequin, Vagabond and Heretic). If medieval mysteries are your thing, the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters are good fun, mostly set on the English-Welsh border in the time of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda/Maud. Sharon Kay Penman's Here be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning cover the English and Welsh wars of the 12th/13th century, and When Christ and His Saints Slept and Time and Chance cover the Stephen/Maud civil war and the early years of Henry II. How's that to be going on with?

Steven said...

Good stuff. Thanks for the recommendations. I've read all of the Grail Quest. Loved it. Bernard Cornwell is my favorite among historical fiction authors. I'm currently reading his Saxon Series. Other novels I've read in that period include: The Pillars of the Earth, The Name of the Rose, Eaters of the Dead, Timeline, The Iron Lance to name a few.

Carla said...

I enjoy Bernard Cornwell's novels too and have read most of them. I think I like the first Sharpe series the best.

Gabriele C. said...

I had come across William Marshal while doing what little research I did for my first novel aka the Big Mess, but decided not to have him as character, because he'd have outshone my MC Roderic. *grin*

I read THE GREATEST KNIGHT and have the sequel on my TBR pile - pretty high up, in fact. :)

Carla said...

Ah yes, can't have a secondary character stealing the limelight from the hero :-) I could really sympathise with poor John Marshal in The Greatest Knight, it must have been very galling to be always in younger brother William's shadow.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I suspect John Marshal, William's brother, struggled with inadequacy against William's charisma and skills for much of his lifetime. I am sure there was plenty of sibling rivalry, sometimes quite cutting. Actually John was the third son and only got to inherit the family lands because his two older half brothers died in young manhood, so while growing up he must have wondered about his lot in life. William was the one who got sent away to train in a magnificent household. Then again, I suppose to be fair, John might have trained elsewhere too, but the records don't show it.
Gabriele, I laughed at your comment about Big Mess - loved it and from my own experience I know what you mean!

Constance said...

This sounds like one I'll have to read for the historical details- even if its not my time period. :)
Great review as always.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - John's troubled relationship with William comes over very clearly. If the family didn't send John away to train, what sort of thing would they have intended to do with him? Would he have been intended as a sort of assistant to his elder brother(s)?

Constance - hope you enjoy it!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I think he may well have ended up a local 'hearth knight'. If the older sons hadn't died, one would have inherited the title of King's Marshal and his father's lands. The second, with any luck, might have got something from his mother, Aline, to live on. I suppose John might have hoped to claim Ludgershall plus its castle because it looks as if it came to the family with John the elder's marriage to his second wife Sybilla, John jnr's mother. Certainly John jnr could have tried to wangle the maternal lands to live on. So William, 4th in line would be the first son with absolutely no prospects other than working for someone else. Henry was destined for the church and Ancel was another superfluous son who had to go the hearth knight route.
Bottom line: John jnr would probably have had a small amount of land to call his own, but would probably have also been a gofer for his older bros.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - many thanks for the information! So the elder brothers who died were only half-brothers? I hadn't realised that. Would John have had any say in his fate? I'm just wondering if he felt gofering for his brothers and having his mother's modest roof over his head was a more attractive prospect than possibly getting killed as someone's hearth knight - less exciting, perhaps, but also a lot less risky.