An imprisoned and starving mother gnawing on her son’s cheek, a ruler killing his nephew by crushing his skull with a rock, prostitutes sent to sate a monarch in pursuit of a baron’s wife, a papal legate afraid of losing his genitals, and soldiers decapitated after being lulled into safety by a feast with the king—move over Game of Thrones, the Angevin Empire has you beat for gory intrigue.
William Marshal, quite possibly the greatest knight to ever grace the annals of English history, was a landless younger son of a minor noble who would become the right-hand man to five Angevin kings, negotiate the Magna Carta, and, at his height, act as regent to the throne under the title of “Guardian of the Realm.”
The swashbuckling story of this medieval parvenu is the subject of a riveting new biography by Thomas Asbridge: The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones.
William Marshal was born in 1147, and his life was tumultuous from the beginning. At the age of five, he was handed over to King Stephen as a hostage in the civil war against Stephen’s cousin, Empress Matilda, to ensure Marshal’s father’s loyalty.
However, Marshal’s father, John, was in the game of playing all sides against each other, and when Stephen threatened to kill his son, either by hanging, throwing the boy into John’s castle from a catapult, or using him as a shield during an assault, John’s response was that “he did not care about the child, since he still had the anvils and the hammers to forge even finer ones.” In the end, Stephen did not kill young William, which the knight would claim was due to his charm.
Marshal’s life coincided, Asbridge argues, with the height of the knight trope in medieval Europe. As a result, he was provided a path, albeit a dangerous one, to success even though he would be largely shut out of inheriting anything from his father. In 1160, he traveled to Normandy to train as a knight in the house of William of Tancarville, and in 1166 he was knighted and took part in his first tournament. These tournaments, far messier, deadlier, and less fan-friendly affairs than that of the modern imagination, were where Marshal made his name, as well as a small fortune, after he left Tancarville’s service.
Marshal’s meteoric rise began upon his return to England. He was retained by his powerful uncle, the Earl of Salisbury, and joined him on a quest by King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine to reassert Angevin rule in Aquitaine. The earl was killed in battle and Marshal captured, but he would later be ransomed by the queen herself. A few years later, he was made tutor-in-arms and essentially the lead knight in the new king’s retinue. “Young Henry” had been crowned by his father, Henry II, while the latter was still king, in order to make clear the line of succession.
The result of this seemingly sound strategic move was disastrous for the Angevins, but a boon for Marshal’s career. Father and son would fight, Asbridge contends, largely due to the former’s inability to give his son any autonomy or relinquish any power. Starting in 1173, the Young King brought the first of two rebellions against his father, which ended with his untimely and gruesome death in 1183 from dysentery. During this time, Marshal remained loyal, in spite of the danger of opposing Henry II, and despite the fact that he had once fallen out of Young Henry’s favor due to rumors of an affair his consort, Margaret of France.
After the death of Young Henry, Marshal’s loyalty was repaid when he returned from two years in the Holy Land and was placed in Henry II’s service. Under Henry II, Marshal continued to ascend, as the king rewarded his service with land, a wife, and a title.
However, Henry II’s second son, Richard the Lionheart, would also challenge his father’s power and team up with the Capetian ruler Philip Augustus. Despite Marshal’s loyalty, Henry lost in the battle against his rebellious son, and after conceding, died a terrible death, after which his body was looted by servants. During the final battle at Le Mans in 1189, however, Marshall, armed with shield and lance, faced down Richard armed with just a sword, and chose to lance the future king’s horse. By allowing him to live, Marshal avoided the shame of killing an unarmed heir-apparent.
Richard, upon coronation, also turned to Marshal, naming him as one of his co-justiciars, perhaps in recognition of his twice-demonstrated loyalty to the throne. Marshal’s job was to oversee Richard’s kingdom while he was away on the Crusades, and keep Richard’s younger brother John in check. John, of course, challenged his brother and allied himself with the family’s archenemy, Philip Augustus. With Marshal at his side, Richard crushed Philip and his armies. Sadly, at Châlus in 1199, just as he seemed to be sewing up his campaign, Richard would be laid low by an arrow loosed by the castle’s lone defender, Peter Basilius.
Marshal had now survived three kings, and ended up supporting the wily John over Richard’s nephew Arthur of Brittany. William appears to have organized acquiescence by English lords for John, and was duly awarded when he was made Earl of Pembroke.
John’s reign, however, would be a time of tremendous turbulence for Marshal. John was a fickle overlord. After he surrendered Normandy to the Capetians, Marshal made the decision to pledge fealty to Philip Augustus in France, and John in England, which angered John. The king set about punishing Marshal, opposing his attempts to establish his family in their lands in Ireland and Wales.
Despite this acrimony, when the barons rebelled against John, he turned to Marshal to lead his side, and to negotiate with the barons over the Magna Carta. John would not live to see the baron’s quelled, dying instead of dysentery in 1216 after reportedly stuffing himself with peaches and cider. Upon his death, his nine-year-old son was left with what remained of his royalist supporters. At the age of 69, Marshal again remained loyal to the Angevins, and as Guardian of the Realm, would lead the fight by the king against the rebels and the Capetian prince Louis. Upon England’s victory, Marshal released a new version of the Magna Carta in Henry III’s name. Before dying in 1219, Marshal would begin the task of rebuilding England after decades of war.
The book is largely based on a long-lost manuscript detailing Marshal’s life, and has a fascinating backstory of its own. Marshal’s son, William, had a biography written of his legendary father—but for a variety of reasons, the manuscript was lost to history until 1861.
Asbridge’s account is far from the first to detail what that document held regarding Marshal. But he has taken what were traditionally held to be shortcomings when it came to the document—its unreliable bias and the gaps in details about Marshal’s life—and turned them into strengths with his knack for storytelling. Asbridge is honest, persistently so, about the skepticism that should be applied to the manuscript’s claims, particularly those of the aggrandizing variety.
However, he also takes those gaps, and that bias, and rounds out Marshal’s story by placing it in the context of the thoroughly documented travails of the Angevin rulers. Marshal appears in many of the sources regarding these rulers, and therefore, it seems, much can be verified. Marshal’s life story is also inarguably a magnificent yarn, and Asbridge has astutely used it to tell the juicy and complicated tale of the ups and downs of the Angevin empire. Marshal was an astounding figure—his rags-to-riches journey, his prolific fighting career (even at 70 he essentially knocked an armored guy out with one blow), and his place at the table of history—all make for an irresistible tale. Asbridge takes the reader through an eye-opening account of the world of tournaments, of the structure of a lord’s household, and the complicated, often symbiotically parasitic relationship between lord and knight, as well as the evolution of the Magna Carta.
In the end, his account is an entertaining reminder that sometimes, the truth really is better than fiction.