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A (very successful) man of his time
on 5 April 2015
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.