Saturday, February 6, 2010
Based on fact, this is the story of William Marshal, the greatest knight of the Middle Ages, unsurpassed in the tourneys, adeptly manoeuvring through the colourful, dangerous world of Angevin politics to become one of the most powerful magnates of the realm and eventually regent of England. From minor beginnings and a narrow escape from death in childhood, William Marshal steadily rises through the ranks to become tutor in arms to the son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. A champion on the tourney field, William must face the danger and petty jealousy targeting a royal favourite. Dogged by scandal, banished from court, his services are nevertheless sought throughout Europe and when William's honour is vindicated, he returns to court and wins greater acclaim and power than before. A crusader and the only knight ever to unhorse the legendary Richard Coeur de Lion, William's courage and steadfastness are rewarded by the hand in marriage of Anglo-Irish heiress Isobel de Clare, 19 years old, the grandaughter of kings and his equal in every way.
I know this will sound shallow, but one of the things that drew me to this book in the first place was the cover! Isn't it gorgeous - it calls to me. I think it's perfect for a book based on the early life of William Marshal, a knight in the courts of Henry II and his sons during the Middle Ages. William truly was all that a noble and great knight should be. The book begins with William at age 5, narrowly escaping hanging by (then) King Stephen who couldn't bear to hang a young boy because of his father's misdeeds. (I never forgot this as depicted in Penman's When Christ and His Saints Slept) Stephen allows William to live and tells him to never forget the favor he granted him. As William grows up and becomes a knight, he doesn't forget and he always remained true to the Angevin kings and queens he defended.
Because of this, Marshal is depicted as almost too good to be true. He was honorable and loyal to a fault. Not only was he a great warrior, he was gentlemanly - a courtier. With a flair for rich tunics and armour at Court (when he could afford it), he still showed a great amount of modesty and humility for someone who had as many wins as he did in the tourney circuit (not unlike a popular sports figure nowadays). Intelligent, though illiterate, which was not unusual back in the day, he was astute as well. He had a way with horses as well as young virginal brides and cranky royals. He must have had the patience of a saint when tutoring in the ways of battle two of what were probably considered to be the most spoiled brats of the Middle Ages - Princes Henry and Richard, the two elder sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. It's amazing Marshal's hair didn't turn completely white by the time he was forty! Saintly seems to be the running theme throughout the book, for he had his trials and tribulations when it came to Court. Many were jealous of him and plotted to see him banished - as he was at one point. But by all accounts, he truly did deserve to be called the greatest knight of the Middle Ages. Not only was he a good man, but he managed to survive the fickle court and backstabbings of Henry II and his sons and came out as respected and known for his integrity.
By defending King Henry II when his two sons decided to war against their father, he faced down Richard the Lionhearted (skewering his horse rather than Richard himself) and wound up winning Richard's respect after Henry II died, a dreadful part of history btw, terrible how Henry was left to die alone and stripped bare of his clothes and belongings by looters! His just desserts for not going to his son Henry, when Henry was dying? These Angevins were a tough lot, brother against brother, father against son, all unrelenting and stubborn as rocks. Never an apology amongst them for their misdeeds. The closest to an apology William ever got was his reward for his loyalty to the late King Henry II by his son, Richard. Richard granted permission for William to marry a pretty, young heiress who became his partner and confidante and gave him children to carry on his name, Isobel de Clare.
But, in addition to the above, William went through all sorts of other tests that proved his loyalty and honor. He traveled to Jerusalem to pay his respects to the Holy Sepulchre after the young Prince Henry died. Henry fell ill after stealing the Sword of Roland and looting the shrine of Saint Amadour to pay for his war against his father. He died painfully, suffering terribly. No one could do anything to save him. William was so racked with guilt for allowing the looting to take place and not stopping it, he was afraid for his own soul as well as the dead prince whom he served. He felt as if he had failed with young Henry and should have taught him better, but Henry had been a hopeless case, only repenting at the very end before he died. Still, William believed he must atone for the sin and traveled all the way to the Holy Sepulchre fulfilling Henry's last dying wish.
There are countless instances of William's valor and noble ways, too many to discuss. I found the book enjoyable to listen to, Christopher Scott the narrator did a great job, and I was surprised at how fast the book went for me. I was caught up in this medieval time period with the descriptions and imagery. The book really centers on William, not a lot of romance until he marries Isobel towards the later part of the story. Their love for each other is understated yet understood. It's a good and satisfying marriage, though he is twenty years her senior. She is a strong woman, beautiful, capable and honorable as well. A natural life partner for William.
As much as I liked it, it did seem a bit dry, just a lot of facts strung together to show the reader what a great knight he was, rather than say a great love story or one particular event in his life that is the book's climax. There didn't really seem to be a climatic moment in the book, unless you think of it as his showdown with Richard, defending Henry II and skewering his horse. Or maybe it's when he finally marries Isobel - you decide!
If you enjoy historical fiction and the middle ages, particularly the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (I love her and find her a fascinating historical figure) then you'll like this book. Not overly romantic, but William does come across as a swoonworthy type of man, I would have loved to have met him. Was he as noble and handsome as Chadwick portrays him? Who knows, but it's nice to think he looks like the cover!