Sphere | 2018 (1 March) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is April 1219 and William Marshal, England’s greatest knight, is nearing the end of his long and eventful life. As he lies in his home, surrounded by his family, William sends one of his knights to his property in Wales to retrieve the silks that he brought home from pilgrimage to Jerusalem many years before. William always intended to be buried in them. And so now his thoughts drift to that adventure, to his pilgrimage which was conducted as a promise to, and in the name of, William’s master – Henry, the Young King and eldest son and heir of Henry II, who died with a stain on his soul. Only William could wipe it clean.
In 1183 William Marshal was in his prime, celebrated for his military prowess and lauded for his chivalric values – a true and great knight indeed. But he was still a landless knight, dependent on the patronage of others, especially the family of Henry II and the imprisoned queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. When the Young King makes William swear an oath to undertake the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on his behalf, to lie his cloak before Christ’s tomb, there is nothing to stop William from leaving England behind. And what an adventure it was.
Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight is one of my all time favourite novels – it is the perfect tale of a medieval knight and none were greater than William Marshal. And nobody in my opinion brings the medieval world to life in full colour like Elizabeth Chadwick. I was so pleased to hear that she was returning to William’s story. This time, though, the focus is on the three years that William spent on pilgrimage. And, apart from the fact that he went, very little is known about this period of his life, which gives Elizabeth Chadwick free rein to use her imagination drawing on her enormous insight and knowledge of the medieval period. The result is a gloriously exciting depiction of some of medieval Europe’s dangerspots, where peril lay around almost every corner and in every town, and most particularly in Constantinople and Jerusalem. The chapters set in Constantinople are such a traumatic highlight of the novel!
The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was extraordinary, alive with the most astonishing and disturbing personalities, all a gift to fiction, especially the Leper King Baldwin, Guy de Lusignan, the Patriarch and his mistress, the beautiful and charismatic Paschia de Rivieri. It’s wonderful watching William Marshal interacting with all of these people, a witness to the danger of the times, the threat of Saladin, the deception and the plotting. Marshal throws himself into the heart of it all, as you’d expect, and has experiences to last a lifetime. Much of this is speculation, but the result is a grand romance of chivalry, intrigue, violence and passion.
The relationship that I probably enjoyed the most here is that between William and his younger brother Ancel. Little is known about Ancel but Elizabeth Chadwick brings him to such life. I loved these sections. Despite their military prowess, both brothers are shown to be sensitive and refined, the model of knightly values, and so it’s extremely easy to fall in love with them. But we know how this novel must end – it’s set on William’s deathbed after all – and so there are also scenes of great tenderness between William and his wife, children and grandchildren. Expect emotion.
Elizabeth Chadwick has such a gift in the way she surrounds her reader in the past. All the little details of daily life in the Middle Ages are made solid. This is more of a romance than the other William Marshal novels. Much of it is set in an exotic, strange land so far from home and this adds an air of something that touches on fantasy. But, in my favourite sections, it is grounded with these extraordinary historical figures – the story of the Leper King is incredible and extremely distressing. His court’s political intrigue is so fascinating, made even more dangerous because we know Saladin is just waiting for his moment to seize the Holy City. It’s a great setting for William Marshal, who begins as an observer but is soon at the centre of affairs. There’s a strong sense that this is William’s last fling before he returns to England, marriage and ennoblement. He’s determined to make the most of it as he’s let off the historical leash by an author who understands inside out this best of men and the age in which he lived.