Every now and then, throughout the age of chivalry, men emerged, who adhered so exceptionally to the code of chivalry that they were viewed by their contemporaries viewed as veritable "incarnations of chivalry." Such a man was William Marshal.
In the late 12th and early 13th century, he rose from being the younger son of a rebellious English baron to Regent of England for Henry III. At the age of seven, he was condemned to hang by his own father, who had turned him over to his liege lord, King Stephen, as a hostage for his own good behavior -- and then brazenly broke his word. He had other sons, William's father told the man he betrayed, and the means to make new ones, he added. Fortunately for William -- and historians -- King Stephen was more civilized than his father and refused to kill the innocent child. But William learned a lesson: the rest of his life he would be unwaveringly loyal to not only his liege but to honor itself.
William served Eleanor of Acquitaine and four Plantagenet kings. He knighted the heir to the English throne, and dared defy Richard the Lionheart to his face. He crusaded with the Templars, courted a princess, and eventually married one of the greatest heiress of England. His life was the stuff of legends, yet it is history, and for that reason it is good material for historians and novelists alike.
Below are reviews of two very different books, one non-fiction and one fiction, which take the life of William Marshal as their theme.
William Marshal: Flower of Chivalry by George Duby
Georges Duby uses the 13th century biography of William Marshal, commissioned by his eldest son immediately after his death and written within the lifetime of many of his companions, as a device to present an analysis of chivalry and knighthood in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
In this book that opens with the last months of Marshal's life and describes how he prepares for death, Duby, a leading French historian and professor of medieval history, provides the reader with a wealth of information in very compact form. The book is particularly valuable for descriptions of melees, the rough-and-tumble pseudo-battles fought over rough terrain by hundreds of knights, which preceded the tame tournaments of later centuries. Likewise, Duby provides useful insight into life of “bachelor” knights of the period – the large, unruly pack of younger sons, who had no land, no income, and no wives. He shows how they had to live by their wits, their skills and by forming associations with other knights, relatives and sponsors.
However, the figure of Marshal himself is all too often lost in Duby’s commentary. Although his source is a rare authentic record written in the vernacular, which when quoted is vibrant and evocative, Duby quotes it far too seldom. It is thus Duby’s voice, not Marshal's or his biographer's, that dominates this work.
Duby is teaching his reader about the 12th/13th century, using Marshal’s life as “Exhibit A.” This is Duby’s version of events, his interpretation of 12th century society, and to scholars familiar with the material, his arguments may not always sound convincing. More important to me, however, was simply that William Marshal, the supposed subject, comes too short in this book.
To be sure, enough of William Marshal’s personality is revealed to be tantalizing, but the book left me unsatisfied. I felt particularly cheated by the way Duby rushes over Marshal’s most exceptional achievements (that of retaining the favor of three successive, bitterly hostile and very different kings: Henry II, Richard I and John). Duby may be right that these events are “so well recorded in history” they need no explanation, but the book is sold as a biography of Marshal, and readers have a right expect that his entire life will be described. Duby's book left me feeling I would have enjoyed the original medieval “song” (at least in translation) more – and interested in finding a full-length biography of Marshal.
Champion by Christian Balling
This in contrast was a fun read. I enjoyed it, and I liked the characters. As a historian, I appreciated the fact that not only were no known historical facts altered, but the characters acted appropriately for their age and society. This was not a fantasy or costume-romance.
The weakness of the book is that it focuses on only a short, albeit critical, phase in William Marshal's long life. This book describes a mature William Marshal at a pivotal moment in his life, the moment when he earns a barony from not one, but two, kings. Readers picking up a book on William Marshal, however, likely expect more. Many will, like me, be interested in the whole man, his development over time, what made him tick, how he managed to survive and come out ahead in such turbulent times, his relationships with the different kings he served. Because the book does not even attempt to address these issues, it will -- despite its virtues -- disappoint some readers.