on 11 January 2005
I would recommend this book to anyone who has already read Sidney Painter's 1937 biography. Dr Crouch updates Painter with modern research and addresses new questions that have arisen since it was written. The appendices are particularly useful.
I would not recommend this book to someone who had not done any other reading on the twelfth century, because Dr Crouch assumes background knowledge of the history of the period and his book is not as detailed as Dr Painter's.
I also find some of his variations from Painter bemusing, but it is difficult to judge who is right because there is no edition of their source, the 'Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschel' available to the lay reader, in translation or otherwise.
Hopefully Dr Crouch and his colleagues will remedy this soon. It is only 140 years overdue.
on 21 February 2012
You could read this book as an intro to Medieval war tactics or Knightly habits or even Medieval kingship, but read it for the man. William Marshall should be known by every English speaking child because without him, we'd probably be speaking French (and yes he was a Norman by descent), but still he ensured that France's attempts to invade England failed and then he sat on the throne as Regent for Henry III without trying to claim power (when he could have). In his day he was famous throughout Europe as an exemplary knight and a man of personal honor. This book not only introduces you to Marshall, but you get a glimpse of the real King John who I found absolutely fascinating. Marshall miraculously survived his day job as a Knight to die an old man after serving four English Kings. After Marshall's death, his wife and children commissioned a poet to write the story of his life which is why we know so much about him. In my opinion, there aren't many men in history who lived lives intertwined with the most powerful men of their days who could be labelled heroes, William Marshall is one of them.
on 6 September 2000
David Crouch's biography of William Marshal, an icon in his own time, a courtier and knight who served five kings--Henry II, Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart, John, and Henry III--as well as a queen, Eleanor of Aquitane, coming to represent the ideal of the corteis (courtly) to his peers and the embodiment of chevalerie for those who have since studied the period, does much to ground the legend and question earlier interpretations that often accepted the contemporary accounts of Marshal's life at face value. Earlier biographers, such as Painter and the French doyen of medieval history, Georges Duby, based much of their understanding of Marshal's life upon the posthumous "Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal," a still extant epic poem commissioned by Marshal's sons and followers to celebrate his life and many accomplishments. Surprisingly, previous writers have chosen to base their biographies, especially Duby, almost entirely upon what is obviously, regardless of any factual accounting, a suspect source, in doing so ignoring other contemporary documents that go a long way to tempering the portrait of Marshal, not only in the "Historie" but in the subsequent biographies from which they were based.
Instead of the chivalric hero of battlefield and tournament cast in the mold of Chretien de Troyes, or the often fortunate simpleton of Duby that rose to the heights of medieval society through the sheer prowess of his arms, in Crouch we find a poor, relatively minor-born knight who through valor and shrewd financial self-interest uses both the battle and tournament field to promote his own fortunes, aided at times by pure good luck, which he is quick to turn to his own advantage. Upon entry to the courts of the powerful we discover a man who was deft in manipulating the intrigues of his betters for his own benefit, quick to ally himself with those who could help him, adept at playing one party off against another, and, when his politics stumbled, able to ultimately survive and reverse his misfortunes where other men fell. Charismatic, he both received and demanded loyalty from the mesnie and supporters that surrounded him. Generous to his followers, he could be equally stern and unforgiving to those that opposed him, in many ways reflecting the values of the aristocratic society of which he was a part. At the end, he survived both rebellions and the displeasure of the kings whom he served, becoming one of England's most powerful magnates and regent for Henry III, in effect ruling England in the boy king's stead.
The author uses his biography to examine the role of the mesnie in 12th century medieval society, as well as the function of the tournament, both as a social phenomenon and an avenue for advancement, both financial and social. He investigates the evolving notion of chivalry, both as an ideal and its actual practice. And he makes a cursory foray into the influence of religion, especially as it pertained to the noble's household, with its dependence upon an administration of clerical clerks. As much an insight into medieval military and noble society as a biography, the author has leavened his account with some wonderful anecdotes, such as Richard I's remonstrance with Marshal against killing him in battle, and Henry II's pique with his son over the latter's crossbowmen firing at him during a period of The Young King's insurrection. The various interactions and shifting allegiances between King Henry II and his often recalcitrant sons is illuminating in itself. Though Marshal was often out of the king's favor, Henry II nonetheless twice requested that Marshal serve his son, even though the son was at war with his father, and Marshal's military skills and allegiance would be turned against him! Quite a different mindset than what we're accustomed to today.
At present, this must be considered the definitive biography of a medieval icon who not only influenced his own times, but the imaginations of subsequent generations. I suspect that many who read this account will be left wishing for more. Both the Painter and Duby biographies have their value, though the former has long been out of print and will require some effort to find. Read their accounts, then use this book to place their flaws in perspective. Also, Crouch indicates that the original "Historie" will soon be available in translation.
An exceptional book, and very highly recommended. My only complaint is that the price asked by the publisher is preposterous.
I am not an academic, but I work in the field of Medieval history in my job and I know the period well. I have read all three biographies of William Marshal i.e. the Crouch, the Painter and the Duby. I have also read the Anglo Norman Text Society's translation of the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal and through other sources I can probably say I know the Marshal very well indeed. Professor Crouch has done a sterling job in bringing the Marshal to life and he wears his scholarship with an authoritative but light hand that non academic readers will find accessible, but which does not stint on integrity. It's a 'proper' biography (unlike some of Alison Weir's offerings for example). If I digress in some of my opinions of the Marshal with professor Crouch, then it's just a case of personal interpretation and agreeing to differ. I would say he is too cynical. He would probably call me over-romantic!
I wouldn't put this book above the Painter, but would say read them side by side for an excellent, balanced overview. Well deserving of 5 stars.
Oh, and take the Duby with a large pinch of salt. If you only read one of the 3 Marshal biogs, then Crouch is the one.
William Marshall is a look at medieval knighthood and the man who his contemporaries considered the shining example of it. It works as both a biography of the man and an analysis of the nature of chivalry in the 12th and 13th Centuries. It takes a much more reasoned approach than that of George Duby's work William Marshall: The Flower of Chivalry. In this book William's character comes across clearly, as both a successful knight and a skilled courtier. Chivalry isn't quite how it's thought of today and this book shows how the knight was expected to function then. So for an excellent look at England (and Normandy) in the 12th and 13th Centuries check out this (all too brief ) book.
First published a quarter of a century ago, this relatively short book - some 216 pages of text but with numerous footnotes, a couple of useful appendices and some excellent maps – is a fine and first class piece of scholarship. It has stood the test of time to such an extent that more recent books on the same topic are heavily “inspired” from it, to put it mildly.
Unlike many of these books, and most recently Thomas Asbridge’s book on William Marshal, David Crouch’s volume is a real biography rather than “a life and times” of whatever “great man” happens to be the subject. The meaning here is that it is more tightly focused upon its subject instead on containing numerous digressions and extra pages that add context. In other terms, David Crouch’s book is a piece of scholarship, although written in a clear and simple way, rather than a book targeted at the so-called “general public”.
It is also a seminal book on which many of the more recent publications draw upon, if only because of the author’s major research work in gathering all the charters where William Marshal appear and using these as evidence to supplement and check the contents of the written (and biased) biography of this extraordinarily successful knight. In addition to this, analysing these documents allows David Crouch to reconstitute how and when William Marshall accumulated his landed estates and, perhaps even more importantly, who were his supporters, the knights of his “mesnie” and his friends.
One of the most fascinating features that comes across from this book is not that William Marshall was some kind of “super-hero” and paragon, contrary perhaps to what his (carefully built) reputation makes him out to be but that he was essentially a man of his time. Although much more successful than other knights who were younger sons (“les Jeunes”), he essentially shared their condition, their needs to attach themselves to a powerful patron who could provide for them and give them opportunities to achieve what they were all essentially looking for: land of their own and therefore material security and recognition from their peers.
Obtaining fame and fortune could be achieved through being successful in tournaments with these developing in the twelve century, as is very well shown by the author. The more durable fame and acquiring land was achieved through serving in war as one of the household knights of a powerful master who could grant such land and benefits through marrying the knight off to a rich heiress. William Marshal achieved both kinds of fame. He ultimately had his own household knights and became one of the most powerful magnates of the Kingdom of England.
Another excellent feature of this book is the author’s analysis of his conduct and of what it really meant to be a knight and to conform to what was expecting from one at the time. Here again, the author is very careful to distinguish between the expectations of the time and what we were expect to be part of “chivalric” behaviours. He is also careful when analysing the main written source which is the basis of this book: the biography written about William Marshal shortly after his death, probably commandeered by one of his sons, and based on the reminiscences of his own faithful household knights. William Marshal’s behaviour was, at times, somewhat “borderline”, and bordering on treason.
Some aspects of his career, and, in particular, the major role he played in putting King John on the throne but also, after the loss of Normandy, his attempt to keep his Norman lands by also swearing allegiance to the French King, tend to be (deliberately) underplayed. Some of his attitudes, and in particular the fact that he never lost sight of his own material interests, are also minimised in the written biography but are skilfully reconstituted by the author, showing to what extent he was a man of his times rather than the semi-legendary paragon of knightly virtues that he was made out to be.
Another fascinating theme of this book are the changes in warfare and therefore in the role of a household knight and companion to Kings. This, which the author calls the beginning of “bastard feudalism”, shows that armies were no longer exclusively made up of feudal levies owing limited military service with each magnate bringing his contingent and adding it to the King’s own force. Rather, as the 12th century developed, the hard core of such armies were the household knights and various contingents of professional, i.e. mercenary, troops mostly raised from Flanders, Brabant, Gascony or Poitou, in the case of the Angevin Kings. Also very valuable is that the role of a household knight such as William Marshal was no longer exclusively military. He was also an advisor and a courtier and it is perhaps because he excelled in this role, as much as because of his military prowess that William Marshal was so successful and was remembered as a paragon of knightly virtues.
A further valuable item is the author’s analysis of William Marshal’s role in the last months of King John’s very troubled reign, the regency he exercised, and the role he played in the elaboration of Magna Carta. Interestingly, in the latter case, David Crouch demonstrates that his role was rather limited. It was that of a facilitator and negotiator on behalf of his King. This was despite having been ill-treated by King John and his lands and vassals in Ireland were even attacked on the orders of the King, he does not ever seem to have joined the rebels.
This brings me to what was certainly the most interesting and fascinating component of this very rich book. Through the multiple and dramatic events in which he took part, and thanks to the careful and considered analysis of David Crouch, the character and personality of the man tends to appear. He was far from perfect. Despite his reputation of loyalty which, in some cases at least, seems to have been richly deserved, there were other instances where his choices and decisions happen to suit her personal interests. Above all, he seems and is shown throughout this book as being a man of his times, although one that was more successful that most of his peers, both in accumulating land and in accumulating fame and reputation, and it is in showing this that David Crouch has been so successful.
on 17 November 2009
This book is well worth any price you are willing to pay. Obviously, this is not a translation of the original biography written about William Marshall, but rather a well-researched précis of it. The original was written shortly after William Marshall died and, probably because of that, it could be regarded as being completely correct. However, parts of it may well not have been - bearing in mind the original was commissioned by Marshall's sons and would have been sympathetically written. This book questions the original in parts, and gives a more truthful account of what probably occurred - using knowledge the author has gained through extensive research of other documents temp to the time. Consequently, this book is full of unique information which can be trusted - and not only concerning the knight himself. You will find information here about many individuals from the noble families of the era. You will find details of many events occurring throughout William Marshall's comparatively long lifespan (for the violent times in which he lived. Having read and re-read this book, I now intend to keep it alongside me throughout my research into my own family, as a trusted reference. This is the area in which I find the book invaluable.
on 8 November 2014
Excellent source of historical references, new documentary research and a critical assessment of a major medieval figure. Good balanced account to weigh against popular historical novels.
on 1 February 2015
Very good book for anyone interested in this subject. Well researched, very knowledgeable author and well written. I would highly recommend this book. Well worth the price.
on 18 January 2015
Well written giving an excellent insight to the period and the sub title.Liked the referencing to sources.Liked the portrait of William warts and all.