The Greatest Knight

Written by Elizabeth Chadwick
Review by Ann Chamberlin

The life of William Marshal is remarkably well documented for a less-than-royal contemporary of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard Lionheart and John Lackland. Chadwick undertakes the earlier half of Marshal’s long and eventful career in this first of two thick novels. A younger son his father did not think worth keeping his troth over, William must earn his own way from that point on by tournament feats, by hiring out his sword and by swearing allegiance even when the object of his loyalty hardly deserves it. Plantagenet internecine wars, a penitentiary trip to the Holy Land, the well-known disappearance of Richard Lionheart, chivalric love for Eleanor of Aquitaine and the hero’s final attainment of enough status to marry a much younger heiress comprise the historical high points of the story.

Portrayal of the marriage and the practicalities that make it work for both husband and wife I thought particularly well drawn and realistic for this medieval period (if not for our own). Questions for discussion at the end of the book will be of interest to book groups. A desire to hit all the historically attested events despite imposing length no doubt led to the scenes I felt received frustratingly short shrift. Publicity material suggests The Greatest Knight will do for the Plantagenet period what the “Tudor industry” does for the Tudors; any character of that later time period, it seems, can make a bestseller. Well, there’s so much more scandal to work with later. There would have been here, too, if somebody else had been chosen as protagonist. This is the biggest hurdle Marshal has to leap. Chivalric knight he may have been, but good behavior doesn’t always keep the pages turning. Still, this solid effort will do workhorse duty for those who like to learn accurate history of the period through fiction.