Magazine article The Spectator

'The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones', by Thomas Asbridge - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones', by Thomas Asbridge - Review

Article excerpt

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones Thomas Asbridge

Simon & Schuster, pp.444, £20, ISBN: 9780743268622

In February 1861 a 21-year-old French medievalist called Paul Meyer walked into Sotheby's auction house near Covent Garden. He had been sent by the Bibliothèque Imperiale to bid on their behalf at the sale of the Savile collection of rare manuscripts, and though he did not have the funds to compete with the big players at the auction, he did at least manage to see, before it disappeared for the next 20 years into the insatiable collector's maw of Sir Thomas Phillipps, a rhymed verse chronicle of 19,000-odd lines in Norman French that was to become the great obsession of his life.

The rediscovery of the History of William Marshal , as the manuscript was eventually named -- Thomas Asbridge's guess is that it had not been read in 600 years -- makes an engaging and nicely told opening to a book that can never quite deliver on its promise. There is no doubt that Meyer's find offered a fresh and vivid insight into Anglo-Norman history of the late 12th and early 13th century; but whether you can hang a history of the rise and fall of the early Angevin empire on such a life or make good the hyperbole of this book's subtitle is another matter.

William Marshal's is a good story. He rose from relative obscurity by dint of courage, luck, ambition, knightly prowess, marriage and an odd mix of steadfastness and calculation to become one of the great magnates of England -- but whatever else he was he was not 'the power behind five English thrones'. In old age he played an important if equivocal role in the baronial revolt against John and the minority of Henry III, but for most of his life he was a bit-player on the Angevin stage, a survivor rather a shaper of history, a man whose best days were not on the battlefield or in the council chamber but on a travelling tournament circuit that Asbridge makes sound like some medieval cross between the Men's ATP World Tour and a particularly violent clash of Old Firm fans.

The real difficulty, though, with The Greatest Knight -- quite apart from any doubts about the reliability of a source manuscript that was commissioned as an act of filial piety -- is that for all the rich detail we do not know enough about a man like William Marshal to carry a book of this sort. …

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