The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones

Written by Thomas Asbridge
Review by Tracey Warr

Thomas Asbridge’s highly readable book on the life of the medieval knight, William Marshal, is effectively aimed at both lay and academic readers. It is a clear, thoroughly researched, detailed account of the pragmatics and ethos of knighthood. Asbridge shows Marshal as a great warrior, honourable and loyal, but also a political animal, as he needed to be to thrive in the threatening world of the five Angevin kings he served: Henry II, three of his sons: Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart and John Softsword, and John’s son Henry III. Marshal rose from a landless younger son, dependent on his prowess at tournaments, to being Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England. “The trace scent of self-service seems undeniable”, comments Asbridge, as he reveals sharp practices at tournaments, and the betrayals and ambitions of this world. Written in an occasionally overly racy style: knights have “the right stuff”, nations win “the arms race”, Wales and Ireland are “the medieval Wild West”, the book nevertheless does an admirable job of enabling the reader to touch the fabric of Marshal’s world.