The Greatest Knight
I’m a great fan of Elizabeth Chadwick’s early medieval romances, especially The Wild Hunt, and I liked William Marshal a lot when I came across him in Roberta Gellis’s Roselynde Chronicles. (So I do get most of my fascination with history from reading romances. Sue me.) I was delighted to find out that a favorite author had written a historical novel about such a fascinating historical personage. To be precise, Elizabeth Chadwick has written two novels about William, The Greatest Knight describing his career until Richard Lionheart has returned from the crusades, and The Scarlet Lion (as yet only published in the UK), the rest of William’s life. Another volume depicts the lives of William’s father (A Place Beyond Courage), one about William’s daughter is announced for 2010 (To Defy a King).
The Greatest Knight starts off with a dream William Marshal has when he is twenty and has just been knighted. As a young boy of five, he served as a hostage to King Stephen, but his father broke his oath, so Stephen would have been well within his rights to hang little William. However, the King spared the boy and talked to him about honor, a conversation that affects him profoundly.
A younger son, William needs to depend on his sword to make his way in the world, and he is very fortunate that his maternal uncle, the Earl of Salisbury, takes him in and enables him to find a place at the court of Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. An excellent jouster, William is a model to the royal princes and becomes Prince Henry’s tutor and marshal, later travelling the tournament circuit with him. As Henry struggles with his father, William remains loyal to him, a strength of dedication that is even recognized by Henry II. It is only after many years of service that William’s steadfastness is rewarded by when he receives the hand of one of the great heiresses of the day in marriage. The first years of this union are described, as are the tumultous years during Richard Lionheart’s crusade and subsequent captivity.
William is impossible to dislike. He is good-looking, kind, an excellent fighter and jouster, a true and loyal but not uncritical subject. Because a chronicle of his life was written shortly after his death, a great deal of information is known about him, and Elizabeth Chadwick tries to incorporate all the important events that William was witness to or that otherwise influenced his life. Given that this novel covers 27 years, that is a lot, and so many times we only get a summary of a climatic event, or a group of characters discusses it, only to move on to the next event. I want to hand it to Elizabeth Chadwick that given the enormous amount of information that she wanted to include in the novel, she really strives hard to lend some variety to its rendering, but for my taste, several times the novel edged too close to a biographical account, where I expect less liveliness and character development.
That said, William does develop, and it shows most clearly in his attitude towards his royal masters and the stormy relationship with his brother John. Once William’s bride appears, the novel is further enriched by their very heart-warming attachment.
In spite of slight caveats, I found The Greatest Knight a rewarding read, and plan to read The Scarlet Lion soon. I am even more curious, however, about Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels focused on less well-documented personalities, as I believe with more freedom in the depiction and fewer historic events to get in the way, so to speak, her writing may be even more enjoyable.