The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones 
by Thomas Asbridge.
Simon and Schuster, 444 pp., £20, January 2015, 978 0 7432 6862 2
Show More
Show More

Among​ many technical advances in archaeology in recent years, dendrochronology is one of the most satisfying. Now cloven and carved wood can speak to us and tell us its age. It needs the prompting of a computer, but informed by masses of e-data charting the sequences of variations in tree-rings, we can know when and even roughly where a tree was felled. Carpentry can often be far older than anyone imagined. At Chepstow Castle, a mighty Norman fortress designed to intimidate south Wales and western England, the great wooden door of the gatehouse – which is still in place – was until recently thought to be 15th century. Dendrochronology, however, has shown that it was installed around the year 1189. It was paid for, we now know, by William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke, who rose from relative obscurity to become regent for the young Henry III and one of the most powerful men in Europe. Marshal’s craftsmen used fast-grown trees for the door’s outer face and a powerful lattice of slow-grown timber for the reinforcement inside: no expense spared, no older wood reused, nothing but the best timber equipped with ironwork to match. The precise dating of the wood tells us that the gatehouse was an extremely advanced piece of military kit: experts used to think that the design of this great building implied a date half a century or so later.

William Marshal was a man for firsts. Another archaeological delight is to contemplate his grave-monument in London’s Temple Church, scarred in 1941 (with dark appropriateness) by a war whose technology was even more impersonally brutal than his own military prowess. There you may still look down on the face of one of the earliest military tomb effigies in Europe. If we are familiar with the medieval monuments which now jostle each other in churches, we tend to forget how startling and novel this figure of a recumbent knight would have seemed when it was erected to commemorate William’s magnificent funeral in 1219, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, just as if the deceased had been a reigning monarch. Marshal had indeed helped to shape the reigns of five kings, and in the culminating triumph of his career only two years before, the septuagenarian’s military expertise had stopped a rival French royal line seizing the throne of England. His wife does not lie beside him: it would have been indecorous to bury her here in this house of warrior-celibates, whose ranks William had formally joined as he lay dying at Caversham, saying goodbye to her and to his marriage with a tearful kiss. That separation in death was the story of her life, as for so many military wives: she has stayed at home in the Wye Valley, entombed at Marshal’s pious foundation of Tintern Abbey.

The most important of these firsts was a book, without which Thomas Asbridge would struggle to sustain his sprightly narrative: the History of William Marshal is the first life story known to have been written of a knight in medieval Europe, and the story of the manuscript is a little romance in itself which Asbridge clearly enjoys. Completely forgotten after being rebound in the 16th century until 1861, the 13th-century manuscript is the only exemplar of its text. It was glimpsed at an auction by a young French enthusiast for medieval history, but immediately snapped up by the selfish and filthy rich Sir Thomas Phillipps, and only reclaimed for proper scholarly analysis two decades later by the same persistent Frenchman, after the bibliophilic monster of the Cotswolds was safely dead (it is now in the library founded by a rather more public-spirited buccaneer of book collecting, John Pierpont Morgan). Paul Meyer’s career was a model of all that is best in academic rigour; he later helped analyse the documents which led to the acquittal of Alfred Dreyfus.

The History of William Marshal contains nearly twenty thousand lines of Norman-French verse, around which Meyer constructed three volumes of commentary, heroically shaping the task, which Asbridge has continued, of deconstructing an exercise in spin-doctoring, for the History sought to portray its admittedly extraordinary subject as a model of chivalry. The author, alas unknown, was writing in the decade after Marshal’s death, and was well supplied with first-hand sources; they included the reminiscences of William’s surviving companion-in-arms, the knight John of Earley, who probably knew Marshal better and certainly longer than the great man’s wife. The resulting History is not the sort of source to which one looks for objectivity, but that is part of its fascination, and Asbridge’s narrative very enjoyably allows us to accompany him on campaign as he interrogates its smug encomium.

The History emphasises one essential truth about William Marshal: he was a paragon of knighthood because his long career in the 12th and early 13th centuries spanned the period when it was being worked out what a knight actually was. This was the era in which a group of men making their living by fighting on horseback addressed the problem of how to move beyond the relatively simple business of knowing how to kill people as efficiently as possible with minimum risk to themselves (Asbridge, a veteran of Crusader history, is good at describing this; a basic requirement was the ability to carry around crushingly heavy amounts of metal). Knights additionally required a system of thought to describe who they were, what they wanted out of life, and how they should behave towards other people, in order to generate self-respect as well as respect from others. That respect included approval from the priestly caste of a religion which had started out a thousand years before by saying a great deal about love and forgiveness, and which early on had experienced some difficulty in accommodating professional killers in its ranks. By the 12th century, the partners in this lengthy ideological dance had come to an understanding. Christianity conceded more than the knights, since it was now in full support of the Crusades, which not infrequently included mass slaughter of those misguided enough not to have signed up to the Christian ideological package, or maybe not to the right version of it. Equally, knights had been forced to learn that there were ethical constraints on their conduct. There was the obvious military virtue of loyalty to companions or superiors; there were also the virtues of wisdom, generosity and even, on occasion, mercy towards the powerless (it goes without saying that respect for the Church earned a good many Brownie points). The word ‘nobility’ early acquired the double strands of meaning that it still possesses. Nobility might overlap with noble birth, but it could also have origins in character and military skill. That was an incentive for landless but brawny hopefuls, and the story of William Marshal embodied the reality of knightly achievement even before it was embellished.

Marshal was already a hero at the age of five, when his father offered him as a hostage in a high-risk manoeuvre against King Stephen which won John Marshal control of Newbury Castle during the messy civil war between Stephen and Queen Matilda (Stephen was charmed out of murderous fury when the doughty little boy play-fought him with flower stems). William was a younger son, and maybe classed therefore as expendable, though even at the time most parents would have considered hostage-offering as questionable. This cavalier attitude to his survival was certainly an effective reminder to William as he grew up that it would be wisest to rely on his own resources: now that the landed caste of Europe had adopted the custom of primogeniture to pass on their estates as a unit, he should not expect to inherit a comfortable estate. The teenager was packed off to a relative’s castle in Normandy. This was in the age when it looked as if England’s future was to be one component in a federation of territories dominated by Norman knights, stretching from Scotland, Ireland and Wales deep into France. Even these far-flung lands did not represent the bounds of Norman ambition: Normans were the descendants of Scandinavian warriors whose aspirations to rule faraway territories were bafflingly ambitious, taking them down the River Volga, to Sicily and the eastern Mediterranean. Tancarville Castle in Normandy was in the heartland of their consortium of conquests, and a good place to learn the trade or profession of knighthood.

At the heart of this knightly vocation was the ability to whack people efficiently and with terminal effect. Whacking was at its most developed in the mass whacking known as a tournament, in which hundreds of heavily armed and armoured men lunged at each other on horseback over several square miles. Excited horses ridden by excited people who know how to do it well and enjoy it are terrifying if you are standing in the way. Kings were nervous of the unpredictable political consequences of tournaments, and the Church was decidedly unhappy about the naked aggression involved, but ecclesiastical outrage had as little impact on the proliferation of tournaments as modern moral outrage has against arms-trading fairs. That is effectively what tournaments were: showcases for human killing-machines.

William, taller than most Europeans of his day, and undoubtedly charismatic, made his early career at tournaments. Those of us who have never seen the point of competitive sport might find our eyes glazing over at this point in Asbridge’s narrative, but the eventual results can’t fail to impress: after returning to England and loyally serving Henry II, William progressed from landless younger brother to a magnate of magnates, with estates and castles from Normandy to the interior of Ireland. Chepstow Castle, one of his greatest fortresses, was more or less at the centre of his transmarine conglomeration. Asbridge notes a significant detail which shows us that Marshal was proud of his achievement in making his own career, and made sure that others remembered too: he never altered the small simple seal which he had first used on documents as a young knight, even in his last years as England’s kingmaker.

Catapulted​ into high politics, Marshal inevitably became the companion and sometimes the nemesis of kings. His most interesting relationship was with a king who never was: Henry, Henry II’s eldest son, who if luck and aptitude had worked together, might have inherited the Angevin Empire, the largest political unit ever created by a Norman ruler. Though for many years de facto second monarch in this polity, the young Henry lacked the personality to make the difficult relationship with his father work, and even quarrelled bitterly with William, his friend and mentor. In an exercise in damage limitation (which ironically is now also the only source for the story), the History tells us that the quarrel arose out of accusations that William had bedded Henry’s wife, though the biographer strenuously asserts that the whole tale was a malicious fabrication. In the end, the young Henry died before his father, though Marshal bore witness to the continuing importance of their friendship by going on crusade to the Holy Land, fulfilling a vow Henry had himself never been able to honour – though the crusading venture also conveniently ticked a compulsory box on the curriculum vitae of any self-respecting knight. William may have sized up the possibilities of joining the carpetbaggers of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in acquiring a sun-kissed Mediterranean property empire, but ultimately and sensibly decided that returning to Chepstow was a better option.

The Angevin lands now suffered the misfortune of successive rule by young Henry’s younger brothers, Richard and John, which in the end left the English monarchy reduced to lordship in twin island dominions, thwarted at least for the moment in its ambitions to be a territorial power in mainland Europe. It is easy to moralise about the self-destructive and treacherous behaviour of all these royal siblings, but few average human beings confronted with the mentally disorienting prospect of ruling a newly created empire of such staggering extent would behave well. John seems most deserving of positive condemnation; Asbridge offers little comfort to those who have tried to rehabilitate his reputation, starting with 16th-century Protestants sympathetic to his abortive defiance of the papacy. At least for the purposes of this story, John can put on the credit side of the ledger his grant of an earldom to Marshal, a reward for his remarkable feat of having shown loyalty at the right moments not merely to King John, but to old King Henry, young King Henry and King Richard.

With John, loyalty could never be simple; the History is at its most evasive when dealing with the relations between the two men. William did not help matters by trying to hang on to his substantial Norman estates by swearing a concurrent oath of loyalty to the Capetian king of France, Philip Augustus. Small wonder that disgrace at John’s court followed, and William’s strategic withdrawal took a different direction, to South Wales and Ireland. Yet his determined avoidance of any further confrontation with the king, even when John followed him to Ireland with a formidable army, put him in a useful position as elder statesman when royal rule disintegrated under the impact of John’s humiliating defeat by French armies, culminating at the battle of Bouvines, and marking an end to hopes of rebuilding the Angevin Empire. Now Marshal was the chief royal negotiator with his angry fellow barons for an agreement designed to curb the king’s penchant for Angevin-style unilateral action: Magna Carta.* We still celebrate that feudal contract, but Asbridge conscientiously points out that the History took no interest in Marshal’s part in this historic event. When the biographer was writing in the 1220s, it was not in the interest of his patron, the younger William Marshal, to remember what then appeared to be a historical dead end.

Nevertheless, Marshal’s name heads the list of barons on copies of the first version of Magna Carta, from 1215, and he would be worth remembering for this reason alone, an honoured ageing figurehead for an attempt to control a rogue monarch that accidentally became enshrined in the history of English liberty. Yet the sensational tailpiece to William’s life story lifts him way above the scrum of Angevin politicians and warlords. King John was dead within little more than a year of his concessions at Runnymede, leaving a nine-year-old son, another Henry, as his heir. The sensible course would have been to abandon this boy, living symbol of a catastrophic reign, and accept the inevitability that the Capetian king of France would seize the English throne in the interests of his son, Prince Louis. William had after all an existing oath of loyalty to Philip Augustus squirreled away in his chest of charters, and much bloodshed might have been saved.

Yet at this moment, the knightly code that the earl himself had helped to shape seems to have stiffened the old man’s quixotic resolve to support the little boy. Asbridge does not shrink from returning us to the events of Marshal’s own childhood, when the five-year-old hostage had faced the possibility of choking in King Stephen’s noose outside Newbury Castle. Flashbacks aside, Marshal acted decisively, rallying more and more of the Anglo-Norman nobility to Prince Henry’s cause. In a battle fought in and around the city of Lincoln, the septuagenarian Earl of Pembroke personally led his armies in a shattering victory over the Capetian forces holed up there. Baronial followers of the Capetians reassessed the odds, and hastened to declare their loyalty to King Henry III. Lincoln was undeniably one of the most decisive battles in English history, though one has to remember that those involved would not have thought of nations, England against France, but of dynasties, Angevin versus Capetian. It was a suitably Arthurian culmination to an exceptional career which any knight could envy. All that remained was to die decorously and resignedly, and not long afterwards, Marshal did just that, in detail lovingly recorded by his History.

Genealogy became all in medieval England. When William Marshal was carving out his extraordinary career on the basis of very little more than accomplished whacking, the nobility of Europe had only recently discovered the satisfying tidiness of inheritance by primogeniture. For many centuries to come, they would be obsessed by the tyranny of surname which accompanies primogeniture: they would struggle and scheme and frequently behave very badly in order to preserve a landed estate, great wealth and possessions in a single identity of family name, passing smoothly and majestically down the generations. Great was their despair whenever it was clear that this was not going to happen. Some of the most splendid medieval monuments that we now admire are pitiable symptoms of such despair, a desperate longing to be remembered in the face of biological defeat: look at the gleaming metal carpet of monumental brasses at Cobham in Surrey, the eloquently sculpted effigies of the de la Beche knights at Aldworth in Berkshire, or the prodigally extravagant chantry college and castle of Ralph Lord Cromwell, looming over Lincolnshire fields at Tattershall. All these threnodies to primogeniture are products of the three centuries that followed William Marshal’s death, centuries when knighthood still shaped the fears and longings of England’s landed elite.

When Marshal died amid the rewards of worldly achievement and the medieval Church’s most splendid rituals of death, he must have felt secure from such a nightmare, for he left no fewer than ten legitimate children, including a reassuring five sons. Indeed an effigy of the eldest son, William, lies in battered glory beside his father in the Temple Church, beginning what might have been a great hereditary succession. The younger Earl William lasted long enough to commission the history of the great man, and he made a good enough fist of earldom in England, Wales and Ireland, but his two marriages (the second to King Henry III’s sister) were childless, and he did not enjoy an old age to rival his father. In quick succession his four brothers also died, two of them assisted by misadventure in knightly combat; not one had a son or direct heir. Less than three decades after the old war-horse’s funeral, the memory of William Marshal’s name was little more than a wooden door, a tomb and a little leather-bound book. His shade should be grateful to Thomas Asbridge for patiently reassembling all the fragments into something more. Sir Walter Scott, that master of popular history who gave us such useful verbal coinages as ‘freelance’ and ‘the Wars of the Roses’, would look down from the same flying-buttressed Valhalla and nod his approval.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 37 No. 12 · 18 June 2015

With respect to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s homage to William Marshal, it isn’t only ‘cloven and carved wood’ that will give up their age to dendrochronology, but any timber, hewn, sawn or even unconverted from the log (LRB, 21 May). The core sampler is no respecter of shape, though at least one ring of sapwood is needed to know the year of felling.

As for 12th-century craftsmen using fast-grown wood (presumably oak) for the outer face of the gatehouse door of Chepstow Castle and slow-grown wood for the reinforcing inside, if this was a deliberate choice and not merely the result of what was to hand, then the joiners knew from experience that the fast-grown wood was denser than the slow-grown, fine-grained stuff, and sensibly placed it on the outside to protect the door against attack. All oak grows fairly quickly in the spring, when the tree puts on a porous layer of springwood. Fast-growing specimens put on more summerwood than slow-growing trees, and summerwood is the dense, hard part of each year’s growth ring. The result is that, within limits, fast-grown wood from a deciduous species is denser and thus structurally stronger than slow-grown wood of the same species. A carver would prefer the slow-grown wood.

Kenneth Rower
Newbury, Vermont

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences