As a teenager and student of medieval and classical literature there was one figure above all others who caught my imagination and inspired a deep, still enduring fascination with British history – William Marshal. This model knight, jouster and dancer, crusader and warrior, servant and marshal to Henry II’s wife and sons and grandson, owned so many castles that it would have been difficult not to have grown up exploring his legacy as it survives in stone. Chief among his castles is Chepstow in the Wye Valley, and there are few finer. When you visit today, you can even lay your hands on one of the oldest surviving wooden doors in the land, added by William for the defence of the castle around 1190. His wife Isabelle was buried in one of my most favourite of all beautiful places, Tintern Abbey, while he is himself interred in what is arguably London’s most evocative church, Temple Church – circular, ancient, different.
For some reason, I have been reluctant to read novels about the Marshal. This might be because I have felt that he defies fiction. Fiction cannot compete with William’s real life adventures and trials. I have my own perceptions of this ultimate chivalrous figure, exalted so highly in his own day – how could I accept the interpretation of someone else? But, thanks to my 2013 reading policy, which encourages me to read at last those books stalled too long on the To Be Read Pile, mixing the older with the newer, I picked up The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick. First published in 2005, this novel was one of three I was thrilled to win from a competition on Elizabeth’s website last year, all beautifully signed and dedicated. I picked it up, I read it, I loved it. Straight away I picked up its successor The Scarlet Lion, following the second half of William’s life, I loved that just as much. For a glorious week, my nose was buried in Elizabeth Chadwick’s fabulous novels. It’s a long time since I have felt that immersed in medieval history.
The Greatest Knight introduces us to a young knight in the 1160s who has not had the most auspicious of starts to a life of chivalry. Held hostage as a mere child by Stephen during the Anarchy as surety for his father’s good behaviour, William’s fate was treated with rough hands. His father famously declared that he had the ‘anvils and hammers to make more and better sons’, leaving this younger son’s life in the hands of a suspicious and betrayed king. Luckily for William, Stephen was less able to hang a small child than other princes and kings of his day. With no land or wealth of his own, William is a sword for hire, working his way to knighthood through a combination of bravery and commonsense. There is no point winning a battle if you have captured no-one for ransom. If injured and captured oneself, and on the receiving end of a kindness, do not forget that courtesy. William learns the codes of chivalry the hard way but there is no better receptacle for them and as he grows in confidence, stature and wealth his reputation flourishes until Henry II (and Eleanor of Aquitaine) cannot do without him in the service of his son, Henry, The Young King.
The success of The Greatest Knight is due to many things. The late 12th century is alive. The castles and towns of Normandy and England are vividly realised. We are shown the glory and the prowess but we also witness the treachery, the dirt and the appalling horror of injury and death on the battlefield, even in the lists. The contrast between the rules of chivalry so personified by William and the absolute terror of battle or the ugliness of illness, the cruel neglect of dying kings, or the brutal disregard of a king for his imprisoned queen, or the treachery of son set against father, is riveting. This is pageturning fiction, even more so because the depth of Elizabeth Chadwick’s research makes it ring true.
Apart from the setting there are the characters. William himself is a masterpiece. When he’s on the page, your focus will not shift. But as well as the Marshal, the Young King is an immensely rich character. Richard, too, is growing, mostly off stage in this first novel, but Young Henry, as well as his queen Marguerite, the source of so much trouble for William, is complex and very knowable. It’s difficult to like these Plantagenet princes much of the time, let alone their father, but Young Henry is very difficult to forget.
The Greatest Knight spends time in battle and in tournament, focusing on William’s developing reputation and increasing power in the courts of Henry II and his son. It moves between Normandy and England and even gives us a glimpse of that distant crusading goal of Jerusalem. This is a young knight’s story as he grows to chivalric excellence and a position of power, largely the result of his peerless excellence and his fulfilment of the image of the greatest knight.
The Scarlet Lion forms the concluding half of the Marshal’s long story. There is a shift here, though, and that is largely due to the wonderful figure of Isabelle. Heiress to lands in Ireland and Wales, Isabelle is the prize that the middle-aged knight is awarded for his service and loyalty. She is such a young woman, a wealthy ward of kings and, as such, in an incredibly perilous position. But in one of those fantastic stories from history that you couldn’t make up, she finds her mate in the greatest knight, William Marshal. Together they rebuild their castles and lands and create a family of many sons and daughters. But what dangerous times these are. The Marshal endeavours to serve both Richard and John faithfully but his increasing personal wealth and stature means years of having to prove and reprove his service, to the extent of giving his sons as hostages to King John, just as he himself was given so dangerously to Stephen as a small boy.
Again, here is history brought to life – the family life of William and Isabelle juxtaposed with the warring, ugly world of King John. There are horrors here. Elizabeth Chadwick provides interpretations of some of the darkest and most infamous deeds of John’s reign. It’s difficult to read in places simply for the emotion it brings out. By this stage of the story we care so, so much for William and now for Isabelle and their children too.
The story of William Marshal is one of the most extraordinary and compelling tales from medieval history. At a time rich with larger than life men and women, not least Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, William was greater, even in the eyes of his extraordinary contemporaries. More than anyone, except perhaps Eleanor, the Marshal unites these decades of tumultuous history whilst retaining a character that we must warm to.
Elizabeth Chadwick has achieved no mean feat with The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. For me, the mark of a good work of historical fiction is that it fills the reader with curiosity for places, events and people in the past. As a result of reading these two novels I am desperate to revisit these much-loved places and now they’ll have an added meaning for me. And that’s got to be good!
Elizabeth has a wonderful website which is not only full of information about her books, it is also generously packed with her research. Do take a look. And I thank her for the use of that fabulous photo at the Temple Church!