The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'The Greatest Knight'

A penniless young knight with few prospects, William Marshal is plucked from obscurity when he saves the life of Henry II's formidable queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In gratitude, she appoints him tutor to the heir to the throne. However, being a royal favourite brings its share of conflict and envy as well as fame and reward. William's influence over the volatile, fickle Prince Henry and his young wife is resented by less favoured courtiers who set about engineering his downfall.

Following on from my Friday post, thought I’d review this novel about William Marshal.  It’s by Elizabeth Chadwick, one of my favourite historical novelists.  The first book of hers that I read, 'Lady of the English' , is still my favourite, and is about Matilda, Henry I’s daughter, and an Empress by marriage.  ‘The Greatest Knight’ is one I’d been planning on getting for quite a while, as it’s to do with William Marshal.  Considering he’s known as ‘the greatest knight’, there aren’t many books, factual or otherwise, about him.

I was lucky enough to be given this book as a gift.  When I eventually got around to reading it, I devoured it fairly quickly, in the space of a couple of weeks, if I remember correctly.  I wanted to start it, because it’s a Chadwick novel, and if it's anything like her previous ones, I knew I’d be in for a treat; but I also didn’t want to start it, because then I would have read it … what do you do?

Like I said in my Friday post, William’s story is known, but only the bare bones of it.  There doesn’t seem to be the wealth of information available that you would expect, considering he loyally served five kings, and achieved so much in his long life.  But Chadwick has taken what is known and fleshed it out into a believable depiction of the man.

The novel starts with William dreaming of when he was the 5-year-old hostage of King Stephen.  In the ‘real’ world, he’s already in the service of his cousin, William de Tancarville, as a squire.  For me, where Chadwick really hits her stride is when William, having proved himself in tournaments, joins the household of his uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury, who serves King Henry II.  William finds his popularity and mannerisms bring him to the attention of Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.  And this is before he helps save her from being captured by the de Lusignan family.  After that, his life is closely watched by the formidable woman.  I must admit, of all the characters in the novel, my favourite is, without a doubt, Eleanor.  As with Matilda in ‘Lady of the English’, I find Chadwick imbues these women with strength while still allowing them to be women and retain their femininity.

The novel covers William’s service to Henry, the Young King, a service that gradually changes his perception.  Having faced persecution and betrayal by the time of the young Henry’s death, William seems to have grown jaded with the fast-paced tournament life, and is happy to be given ‘quieter’ tasks.  His steadfast loyalty to his king has already set him apart from his contemporaries; Henry II rewards this loyalty by making William one of the most powerful men in Europe by marrying him to his ward, Isabelle de Clare.

Chadwick handles the couple’s initial meeting with grace, showing, not only Isabelle’s nervousness at having to marry a man twice her age, but also William’s apprehension at having to take a wife, and one so young.  But their growing admiration and respect for one another is well handled, and, although there are no records to show what their marriage was really like, it would appear that it was a good one. 

Although I enjoyed reading about William and Isabelle, I must admit, once they got married, and settled into being comfortable with one another, the story took a downturn for me.  We were no longer shown the incidents that William had to deal with after his marriage – the narrative became more ‘tell, don’t show’.  There would be a build up to, for example, a castle siege … but instead of being immersed in the details of the siege, all we’d get is William returning home after the siege/event, and telling Isabelle all about it.  And where, before marriage, he would reach his own conclusions about matters, and good conclusions they were too, after marriage, he seemed unable to work things out without her input.

Chadwick is superb at weaving into the narrative the details and flavour of the time period she sets her novels in – you cannot fault her historical research.  Her descriptions, from food (you can almost taste it), to surroundings (you can imagine yourself there), to clothing (you can imagine the colours and textures) are effortlessly done …

They leaned back to allow Emma to place the roasted goose on the trestle.  A succulent aroma oozed from the crisp golden pores.  Amber droplets trembled down its flanks and pooled on the salver.  The scent of sage and onion frumenty rose in heavenly waves.  There was a jug of verjuice and raisin sauce to offset the richness of the meat and good white bread in quantity to soak up the juices.

A woman wearing a wine-coloured cloak detached herself from the crowd and began picking her way delicately across the churned ground towards him.  An embroidered blue gown flashed through the opening of the cloak as she walked and her veil was edged with tiny gold beads … The woman reached William and looked up.  Beneath arched dark brows, her eyes were the colour of woodland honey, neither brown nor gold.  Her nose was thin, her cheekbones sharp, her mouth wide.  Not a beautiful face in the aesthetic sense, but so filled with charisma … she gave him a smile that contained the brimming mischief of a girl and the allure of an experienced woman.

… Kendal in high summer, the sky deep blue with feathers of cloud and the curlews calling over moor and pasture.  A place of empty spaces, richer in sheep than in people … It was a landscape of lowering hills, lakes and meres, fields divided by dry stone walls that had stood time out of mind.  A beautiful, wind-cleaned world … Here there was the same sense of majesty, a brooding quality and the hint of a desolate harshness that was only a rainstorm away.

William gripped his shield close to his body, levelled his lance and gave the chestnut its head.  He fixed his gaze on the crimson device of a knight on a black stallion and held his line as his destrier bore him towards the moment of impact.  He noticed how his opponent carried his lance too high and that the red shield was tilted a fraction inwards.  Steadying his arm, he kept his eyes open until the last moment.  His lance punched into the knight’s shield, pierced it and even though the shaft snapped off in William’s hand, the blow was sufficient to send the other man reeling.  Using the stump as a club, William knocked the knight from the saddle.  As the black destrier bolted, reins trailing, William drew his sword.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but the last third of it, basically from when William gets married, I found to be a bit rushed, even though the novel itself is almost 550 pages.  Personally, I’d have enjoyed it much more if the story had focussed more on the ‘fighting’ side of William’s life; instead more attention than I thought was necessary was given to ‘romance’.  Not that I have anything against romance, but, considering the era in which William Marshal lived, it seemed a waste not to concentrate on the tournaments, the battles, the courtly tussles between the king, his sons, and his queen, with William caught in the middle.  For me, the story-telling in the last part of the book suffered with the ‘telling, not showing’ approach, and having the reader in the role of ‘eavesdropper’ as William related events to Isabelle.

Having said all that, I still plan on reading ‘The Scarlet Lion’, which continues and concludes the story.  And after that, I am very much looking forward to reading the trilogy that tells the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, starting with ‘The Summer Queen’.