The Greatest Knight: William Marshall as the Pinnacle of Masculine Achievement
The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge is much more than a biography of one of the most masculine men in history. It is simultaneously the story of the fall of the Angevin Empire, a balanced look at notorious figures like King Richard the Lionheart and his despised brother King John, and an in-depth view at the class of medieval knights.
But more than anything, it is an inspirational tale of a man who went from being left for dead by his father at the age of five to holding the highest office possible in medieval England short of being royalty.
The Early Years
Throughout the book Thomas Asbridge puts the life of William Marshal in complete historical context. He begins by detailing the civil war raging in the Angevin Empire (most of the British Isle, Normandy, and modern day Western France) and the role William’s father played in this war.
William was a hostage to the Angevin King, King Stephen, at age five. It was common practice for the king to take the sons of local barons as hostages to keep their loyalty. William’s father chose to war against King Stephen, despite William being his hostage. Stephen was expected to kill William. He reportedly even got very close to doing so. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
King Stephen showed mercy to the boy. Although some surely saw this as a weakness, King Stephen did not have the heart to kill the innocent child.
William came close to death at such a young age. Surely this early peril affected William Marshall throughout his life.
In the telling of Marshall’s early years Asbridge guides us through the common and brutal practices of warfare in medieval England. Ruthless total war was expected and any less was considered a sign of weakness. It was a hard land and a hard age, one beautifully illustrated by Asbridge’s words.
William was able to train for knighthood knight and become a knight as a young adult. Here Asbridge guides us through the key logistics of both becoming and staying a knight. It was expensive business. Through several episodes of William’s life Asbridge is able to explain just how much wealth was necessary for knighthood.
He also explains some key mechanics of knightly battles. One common misconception, which I also had, was just how deadly battle and warfare were for knights. I assumed it to be a bloody ordeal. Actually it was rare for knights to die on the battlefield. This was a testament to their armor.
Knights also had to have some sort of financial gain. They were cared for, but not unconditionally. They were expected to protect their lords and take what they needed to do so. We often don’t like to think of knights as the type to plunder, but it was necessary.
Perhaps most importantly, Asbridge has a great deal to say about chivalry. To put it mildly, William Marshall was and is the exemplar of chivalry. Perhaps we think of William Marshall when imagine a knight as a steadfast pillar of honor.
In defense of So Many Kings
William Marshall experienced some hardships early on. Thankfully, he was championed by some powerful people. He earned their faith in him in knightly tournaments (which are also expertly explained by Asbridge) and on the battlefield. He was able find a place as a knight in service of the queen of the Angevin Empire, and then the already declared heir to the Empire, King Henry.
The current King, Henry II, despite his old age, would not relinquish authority to his son, also named Henry, even though the son was already declared the King in his place. This resulted in not one but two civil wars, both of which were initiated by the young King Henry’s ambition to finally rule the Empire.
Throughout the wars and the period in-between William Marshall proved himself to be a faithful servant and an expert warrior, with fighting skills matched by only a few. It was his strength in arms that initially took him from being just another warrior to one of the most famous knights in all of Western Europe.
Despite the animosities between all members of this family William Marshall enjoyed royal favor. This was due to his unwavering loyalty. Even when his lords were near death and defeat he did not abandon them for personal gain. Many others did.
When King Henry II defeated the young Henry, William Marshall never left the young King’s side. Henry II took Marshall to be his own knight and adviser. When Richard The Lionheart, Henry II’s second son, defeated his father to rule the Empire William did not abandon King Henry II. Because he admired William’s loyalty and knightly skills, Richard granted William many lands and titles and made him a prominent member of his own court.
William would also be a prominent figure in England during the tumultuous reign of King John, Henry II’s youngest son.
Savior of the English People
There is much written on Richard The Lionheart and the despised King John. Abridge presents a balanced view of these figures, views too nuanced to summarize easily.
Thanks to King John, the English kingdom was in turmoil. Many local barons wished to submit the crown to the French Prince. But William Marshall wouldn’t have it. He remained loyal to the rightful king, John’s son Henry III, even though he was just a lad.
The French along with the local English barons were the odds-on favorites to succeed in this revolt. The boy king only had a few willing to stand by his side. But William Marshall was chief among them.
Now in his seventies, William lead the suppression of the revolt personally. He plunged in to battle and wrought havoc amongst his enemies as a seventy year old man. His leadership against the odds allowed the boy king to take his rightful place as ruler. William Marshall served as his guardian and oversaw the administration of the kingdom to ensure further revolts were unlikely.
Deliverance from Obscurity
William Marshall’s rise from royal hostage to protector of a nation is so incredible it is a wonder that his name is so unknown. Did I mention that he is one of the primary authors of the Magna Carta? He is.
The best aspect of this excellent book is that it takes an unknown hero, one of the best in all of Western European history, and make his story known.
The story of William Marshall is one of masculine excellence. He is one of the few men in history that boasts accomplishments as monumental as Genghis Khan. For that reason alone he serves as a masculine role model to modern men and an idol of masculine achievement.