The Greatest Knight: The Unsung Story of the Queen’s Champion by Elizabeth Chadwick
William Marshal was undoubtedly one of the most intriguing – and engaging – characters of the Plantagenet era in English history. The true story of a man who rose of landless knight to regent of England has long deserved a good historical novel – or more. The story cried out for a novel so loudly, in fact, that I was often tempted to attempt it myself, and felt a little sad that Ms. Chadwick beat me to it.
That said, Ms. Chadwick has done an excellent job. Her narrative sticks very close to the known historical facts about Marshal and relies heavily on the panegyric poem commissioned by his eldest son after his death as a memorial. The history is meticulously accurate – as one expects from Chadwick. Furthermore, because Chadwick has written a number of books set in this period of history, she understands and effectively describes customs, clothes, food and lifestyle as well as the historical events.
Chadwick’s Marshal, like the historical figure he portrays, is likable from the start, but given the material she was working with this is hardly remarkable. More impressive was her handling of Henry the Young King and Henry II, both of whom are very vivid characters, who despite their faults win our sympathy. The description of Henry the Young King’s death is one of the best in the novel. Likewise, Chadwick’s handling of the Young King’s wife and her relationship with Marshal is sensitive and believable.
If the book has a weakness, it was in the handling of what Chadwick herself calls a “spiritual crisis” following the Young King’s death. Marshal undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in place of his dead lord, and spent two years there returning, by many counts, a changed man. Apparently because there is no historical record of what Marshal did in the Holy Land, Chadwick more-or-less skips over this episode in his life and does not explore it psychologically before or after, preferring to remain silent as Marshal’s 13th century biographer did.
Altogether the book is well worth reading, and I look forward to reading Chadwick’s continuation of Marshal’s life (The Greatest Knight ends in the middle of Marshal’s life) in The Scarlet Lion.