If you're a medieval buff - and especially if you've read up on early Plantagenet history - you know William Marshal. But if you haven't, you should know what you've missed. And there's no better way to start learning than with this book.
I'm an American, a Plantagenet enthusiast, and a tremendous Marshal fan. Since THE GREATEST KNIGHT has yet to be released here, I splurged on transatlantic shipping and bought it from the UK. I'm so very, very glad I did. Elizabeth Chadwick, an author I've long admired for her way with a medieval tale, has gone herself one better. She has taken the known facts of Marshal's life, done a little reading between the lines of recorded history, and rendered a portrait of the man that shimmers with life.
William Marshal led a charmed life to some extent. His first appearance in the historical record is when he is about 5 years old. His father has given him as a hostage to King Stephen, as a sort of human insurance policy against the elder Marshal's disobeying the king. But when William's father defies the king anyway, Stephen hasn't the heart to hang the boy. A few years later, William finds himself in the right place at the right time to save the queen of England from being taken prisoner by enemies. He's injured and taken prisoner himself in the process, however, and when Queen Eleanor ransoms him, it's not without expectations of repayment: She wants the gallant young knight to enter service with her family - arguably the most powerful people in western Europe.
Thus begins a long and profitable - but also perilous - association. The Queen, her sons, and even her estranged husband, King Henry, value William highly as a fighter, an adviser, and an instructor in the chivalrous arts. Such a talented and fortunate man is bound to attract jealousy, though. William's loyalties are put to one complex test after another, and, though his honor remains unblemished, his enemies would have the royals believe otherwise. More than once, William's future looks bleak. But he is never defeated; his intellect, courage and diplomacy make this one story in which the nice guy finishes first.
There's a bit less romance in this book than in Elizabeth Chadwick's other works. But since William didn't marry until he was in his 40s, that is as it should be. Chadwick speculates that William had a mistress in the years prior to his marriage, and, in a footnote to the documented history, she finds a highly likely candidate for the role. But the great love of William's life was Isabelle, countess of Pembroke, whom he married when she was 18 and he was middle aged. We don't know much about the real Isabelle, but the Isabelle of this book is exactly as I would imagine her: beautiful, smart, confident and loyal. Judging by the number of children the couple had, I'd say Chadwick couldn't be too far off the mark in depicting them as very much in love.
As I neared the end of the book, I realized with some disappointment that it was going to end many years before Marshal's death. But that was unavoidable; the man survived to what would be a ripe old age even now, and he did twice as much living as most of us would in the same time span. This book does leave off in a logical and satisfactory point in the story, and the afterword promises a sequel, which I'm eagerly awaiting.
I read THE GREATEST KNIGHT very quickly. I became a little obsessive-compulsive over it, making time to read even when I had other things to do, racing through it breathlessly despite not really wanting to reach the end. When I did finish, I was truly sorry I'd read it so fast. I wish I could give it 6 stars, because I'm now questioning every other 5-star review I've ever written.