Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015


I thought I would write a roundup of the most prominent reference works concerned with William Marshal for those who might want to read about him for themselves. I have used some of these for research while writing my novels about William Marshal (THE GREATEST KNIGHT and THE SCARLET LION,  detailing his life story from young manhood to grave).  Some works have been published since I wrote THE GREATEST KNIGHT (one even has the same title and UK font!), so I thought I'd do a roundup with my opinion. A couple have full reviews.

Before I go on to the secondary source material, I need to mention that the top primary source  resource for the study of William Marshal is THE HISTOIRE DE GUILLAUME LE MARESCHAL, a rhyming 20,000 line poem about William's life published by the Anglo Norman Text Society in two volumes with a companion glossary volume. It's edited by A.J. Holden with English translations by S. Gregory and historical notes by David Crouch. You can find out more about it by enquiries to the Anglo Norman Text Society.

Onto the reference works.

William Marshal Knighthood War and Chivalry 1147-1219  by David Crouch.
David Crouch's work on William Marshal: is now, in second edition, 13 years old, but it still sets the gold standard.  There are one or two slips of the pen (such as the comment that William's wife could have been no older than twenty when he married her - when in fact she could have been no older than 17) and occasional moments where opinion becomes a bit more personal than fact and are not fully supported (that the Marshal could not read for example, where the only evidence is that he employed clerks - but then so did everyone else. And calling him a 'complete illiterate not even able to read French let alone Latin, sounds like putting in the boot without any clear evidence). However, by and large, this one wears its scholarship with full credentials and excellent analysis.  I understand from professor Crouch that there is going to be a third edition of this work either later this year or in the New Year with amendments, corrections and new material.  A lot of new information about the Marshal has come to light via Professor Crouch's study of previously unexplored letters and charters of the Marshals and these are going to add a lot more nuance to what is already known.  If you only buy one book about the Marshal, make it this.
NB  The Marshal letters and charters were supposed to have been made available as a  publication from the Camden Society in July 2015, but it now looks as if it may be November.


William Marshal. Knight-Errant, Baron and Regent of England by Sidney Painter
This one was first published in 1933 but it has stood the test of time reasonably well and can be read beside the Crouch to give an excellent overview of the period.  This is my second go-to book.  It's not  as nuanced as the Crouch, and the research is older, but it still holds its own and has a strong feel for the Marshal.  Good scholarship.

The Knight Who Saved England by Richard Brooks
This is a workmanlike biography of the Marshal that's on its best ground in a military capacity. Indeed, I think Brooks understands the Marshal the military man the best of any of the biographers. He really gets a feel for the logistics and his man in that capacity.  The book is particularly strong on the battle of Lincoln in 1217 and is worth buying just for that.  You can read my full review here.

William Marshal Earl of Pembroke by Catherine A. Armstrong.
This work is mostly a print copy of the articles Catherine Armstrong has written for the Castles Wales website. Here's the link to the site, and then you can fine tune from there by using the search box. Castles Wales  It's very obviously self published and the production values are not high end. It's a bit here and there in content and the Marshal is viewed with a rose-tinted focus at times. However, it is still well written and knowledgeable. There are details one can pick up from this one that are not in any other work and the bibliography is staggering and well worth the perusal. It's definitely one to add to the shelf. 


George Duby's Flower of Chivalry was the first book I read on the Marshal when I began researching my novels. I read it once and then put it back on my shelf. Duby is flawed. He has some very strange notions about the treatment of women at that time and twists the facts so much to suit his argument that he warps the whole frame out of true.  He is also guilty of making William Marshal a bit of a bonehead, which he certainly wasn't.  He doesn't give him enough credit on the fronts beyond the military and simplifies his character.  I would say there are better works out there.  Professor Crouch himself warns against some of Duby's excesses.  Although he is fair in his appraisal of Duby and says some positive things.  His concluding remark is telling. 'Duby's Marshal is a warning of how selective historical writing can distort the evidence in a most unacceptable way.'


The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge.  I read this recently and here's my review. If there's to be a paperback of this work, I sincerely hope  it will be revised

I confess that before I read Thomas Asbridge’s THE GREATEST KNIGHT”, I was already curious about this new biography of William Marshal. The lives of John FitzGilbert the Marshal and his son William are a lifelong study subject for me outside my novel writing career.  Since this work shares the title of my 2004 novel THE GREATEST KNIGHT about the life of William Marshal and even has the same font and cloudy background on the cover, my interest was naturally piqued even more.

William Marshal, circa 1146-1219 has been called the Greatest Knight who ever lived and we know about him through a rhyming biographical poem of over 20,000 lines commissioned by his family and written by a poet simply known as John.

Despite the often highly positive spin the biography puts on the Marshal’s life, much of the “Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal” still rings true in its basics and the reader receives a strong flavour of the vigour of the Marshal’s character.  It’s a vivid glimpse into the world of the 12th and 13th century aristocracy – their cares and concerns, their pleasures and politics. It’s the first secular biography of an Englishman and a work of incalculable value, not least because of its survival, which is a story in itself.
That survival is the starting point of Thomas Asbridge’s work - how it was rediscovered at auction by historian Paul Meyer in the 19th century and how he lost the bid, but doggedly followed the manuscript’s trail, found it again, and translated it into the modern French of his own era along with a commentary.   It’s a fascinating story that draws the reader in and is one of the book’s most positive and interesting aspects.

Thomas Asbridge tells his tale in a strong, linear style that is entertaining and very readable which gives it wide appeal. You don’t have to be an academic to enjoy the writing.   He mostly relies on the “Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal”  as his source material and puts his own interpretations on the story, sometimes with results that might raise the eyebrows of those who know William Marshal well, but probably won’t be noticed by those who don’t.  I have to say that general readers may be misled at times about the Marshal’s character because the interpretation, and indeed some of the stated 'facts' do not always stand up to scrutiny.

Asbridge never seems to quite grasp the nuances. For example,  John FitzGilbert, William’s father is portrayed as a brutal weathercock.  But he was no more brutal than any other baron at the time, and it could be argued much less of a weathercock than a good number of his compatriots. Once he swore for the Empress he stuck to his word even though it meant the loss of an eye at Wherwell, and the potential loss of his son at Newbury, when John was the last man standing between King Stephen and the castle at Wallingford. The reader isn’t told this.  Asbridge tells us instead that King Stephen was ‘determined to punish John’s presumption’ and so in the fading days of his power, came to seize John’s castle at Newbury. But it was more than just royal displeasure and vindictiveness that brought Stephen to Newbury. The point of the Newbury incident is that Stephen needed to get to Wallingford before the future Henry II returned from Normandy, but he knew if he marched directly to Wallingford from his current base at Reading that  John FitzGilbert would come from Newbury, attack  him from behind and he’d end up sandwiched between the defending garrison at Wallingford and the Marshal forces in the rear.  So in order to have a good chance of success at Wallingford, he had to take out John Marshal first.  John Marshal knew there was no one else; he was the last man standing between Stephen and the destruction of  Wallingford.  That puts the whole situation in a very different light. 

There’s the moment when John attacks his rival neighbour, Patrick of Salisbury. Asbridge tells us that this shows John’s capacity for ‘ruthless brutality’ – to attack a troop of more lightly armed men.  What he doesn’t tell the reader is that these lightly armed men were actually on their way to slaughter John and were carrying their heavy armour with them ready to put on just before they attacked him. But John got wind of their intent and hit them first.  Again, the reader is only told half the story and thus the nuances are changed.

When it comes to William  Marshal himself, I began to wonder how much notice Thomas Asbridge had actually paid to the Histoire although it seemed to be his main source of information.   For example, he tells us that “The Marshal himself seems to have shown only limited interest in the likes of dancing (and) music.”  In direct contradiction of this the Histoire tells us that William’s singing voice had a ‘pure, sweet tone’ and that he willingly sang for his comrades at a dance at a tourney and that it gave them ‘much pleasure and delight.’ (Lines 3471-3483)  Many years later on his deathbed, William said one day that he felt like singing, as he had not in three years. This suggests that he had enjoyed song for most of his life. He also specifically called his daughters to sing for him and instructed them how to do so to the best of their ability and then joined in with them.’  (lines 18532-18580).  This is a man with only days to live.  It’s very, very obvious that he loved music, understood its technicalities, and it would have been one of the few joys left to him.  I am astounded that Asbridge has been so dismissive of these aspects in his work.

Asbridge alters one scene in the Histoire itself by not reading the text in primary source and by misunderstanding the English translation, hence the matter of the pike.  At a tourney at Pleurs, William Marshal got his head stuck inside his helmet and went to the smithy to have it prised off.  In the meantime he had been judged ‘man of the match’ which means he had won the main tourney prize, of a fish – a large pike. The Histoire tells us this in the original Old French word for the creature “luz”  It’s in prime condition and more than two and a half feet long.  Pikes and swans were common tourney prizes at this time, as were other animals.  One particular tourney even had a bear as the prize.   Asbridge tells his readers that William has won a two and a half foot long spear!   Common sense would surely tell one that a spear of two and a half feet in length isn’t actually a spear (you'd need to be looking around 12 feet) and not a useful thing to win, especially not for the champion of the show!

Asbridge dresses William in an odd way too. He tells us he would have worn a shirt with detachable sleeves, a ‘fact’ that appears to be picked up almost verbatim from the Danziger and Gillingham  book “1215”.  Asbridge says that William would have worn “a shirt, often with detachable sleeves.”  Danziger and Gillingham’s line (p22) says “a shirt with long sleeves that were often detachable.”  Now then, neither Danziger nor Gillingham are clothing historians but I happen to know a few,  and I challenge anyone to find any time in the 12th or 13th century when shirts with detachable sleeves were worn; tunics perhaps, later on under Renaissance influence, but never, never shirts.

The description of the Young King, eldest son of Henry II is almost identical to the one on Wikipedia and the problem here is that the reader can’t know if this information is reliable because Asbridge doesn’t give proper sources or footnotes. There is no bibliography section, rather the books consulted are mentioned in the end notes which are far from reader friendly.   They are arranged in a chapter by chapter format, but are quotes from pages without reference numbers, leaving the reader utterly baffled and having to hunt through the entire chapter for the lines in question.

I was somewhat surprised at some of the dates Asbridge uses. Eleanor of Aquitaine receives the older research birthdate of 1122 instead of the now more usually accepted 1124.   King John’s birth year is cited as 1167 when it looks more likely to be  1166. (See “Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady,” edited by John Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler, the chapter by Andrew Lewis on revising the birth date of King John. This also gives the revised birth date of 1124 for Eleanor of Aquitaine. Gerald of Wales also indicates the birth date of 1166 for John). William Longespee’s birth date is erroneously given as 1167 when we now know it was somewhere between 1175-80, shortly before his mother, Ida de Tosney married Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk.

The reader is told that Eleanor of Aquitaine was at the coronation of her son the Young King in 1170.  However she was in Normandy at the time, trying to prevent various agents of Thomas Becket making the crossing and preventing the coronation. (William FitzStephen Life of Becket).

Asbridge has William setting off for the Holy Land in September 1183 and suggests that he just possibly may have arrived there in that same month in time to fight Saladin – which is patently impossible even given a jet propelled horse!

Asbridge suggests in one of the many ‘may have’ moments occupying the narrative that Richard the Lionheart was determined to  build a glorious reputation for himself in liberating Jerusalem and didn’t want William along on crusade with him in case the Marshal stole his limelight – he was jealous of him!  That begs the question then,  why did he promote William and his affinity to such prominent positions in his government? Why not just dump William if he was worried about the threat to his own glory?   Asbridge also speculates as to whether William would be considered a coward for staying at home, but since someone had to rule the country and since William had already made the pilgrimage, it’s an argument that skates on very thin ice – in my opinion.

Asbridge accuses the Marshal of ‘grumping, wheedling and whining’ to Henry II  for promotion and makes him sound like a child having a whinge in a supermarket. While the Marshal might have been pro-active in seeking promotion, and we know he complained to Henry II, “grumping, wheedling and whining” certainly does not convey the resonances of the period and the way in which the reciprocation of patronage played out.   Would Henry II, famous for his impatience, have listened to and sought the advice of a man who grumped, wheedled and whined? Absolutely not. 

Positives?  The aforementioned story of the discovery and rescue of the manuscript is well written and fascinating.  Dr. Asbridge also gives a fine reassessment of the Young King which is long overdue and puts him in his full political context.  Rather than a foolish, spendthrift ‘Hooray Henry,’  this eldest surviving son of Henry II comes over as a politically astute young man frustrated by his father’s  controlling, micro-managing policies. That aspect of the biography is excellent and recommended as food for thought. It’s a great balancer to the more usual negative assessments of the Young King.

Ultimately, Asbridge’s Greatest  Knight is an uneven work that doesn’t really get under the surface of the Marshal’s personality and there are some rather bizarre interpretations of the motivations behind some  historical events completely lacking credible evidence to back them up.

If it is taken too seriously or seeps into the public mindset, it has the potential to set back the progress made by more scholarly works of our understanding of the Marshal. If you do read this one, make sure you also read David Crouch on the Marshal to get a fully rounded picture.