When I read The Champion a couple of months ago and asked for recommendations of other Elizabeth Chadwick books, The Greatest Knight was mentioned, so I decided to make it the next Chadwick book I read. The Greatest Knight is historical fiction based on the life of William Marshal, one of the most important knights of the medieval period. Marshal has been largely forgotten today (I didn’t know anything about him at all before reading this book), but his story is one that deserves to be told.
William Marshal lived during the 12th and early 13th centuries and was described by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, as “the greatest knight that ever lived”. Starting out as an inexperienced young knight, William comes to the attention of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and soon rises to a position of power and influence. As a friend of Eleanor’s, advisor to her husband Henry II and tutor to their son, Henry the Young King, William has an important part to play in the Plantagenet court. Keeping everybody happy in this time of shifting loyalties isn’t easy and he often finds himself in a very precarious position with some difficult decisions to make.
Elizabeth Chadwick’s version of William is a very engaging and likeable character. He’s brave, intelligent, loyal and chivalrous and despite living through dangerous and turbulent times, he manages to keep his honour and integrity intact. There were times when he seemed almost too perfect, though fortunately not quite to the extent where he became unrealistic. Assuming that the fictional Marshal is not too different to the real one, then he really did deserve the title of ‘the greatest knight’.
While The Champion took fictional characters and set them against a medieval backdrop, this book deals mainly with real historical figures and real historical events. Perhaps because of this, there’s less romance in this book and more history. William does have a mistress and then eventually a wife, but these relationships form just part of his story and many other aspects of his life and career are given equal attention. And a large amount of the book is devoted to the treachery, betrayal and political intrigues of the Plantagenets: Eleanor, her husband King Henry II, and their children – Henry, the Young King; Richard I (The Lionheart); Geoffrey and King John.
Chadwick’s note at the back of the book explains where she has tried to stick to the known facts and where she has had to use her own judgment and imagination to fill in the gaps. As always when I discuss historical fiction novels, I want to point out that I am not a serious historian and not an expert on this (or any other) period of history – therefore I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy. I read these books purely for enjoyment and in the hope of learning something new and The Greatest Knight fulfilled both of those criteria: it was very enjoyable and it was great to learn about a historical figure I previously knew nothing about and who lived through some of the most fascinating times in English history.
This book ends in the middle of Marshal’s life because, as the author explains, there was just far too much to fit into one novel, even after being selective and not attempting to cover every single event that happened to him. I’m looking forward to seeing how his story continues in the sequel, The Scarlet Lion.