on August 8, 2006
If you're a medieval buff - and especially if you've read up on early Plantagenet history - you know William Marshal. But if you haven't, you should know what you've missed. And there's no better way to start learning than with this book.
I'm a Plantagenet enthusiast, and a tremendous Marshal fan. Since THE GREATEST KNIGHT has yet to be released here, I splurged several months ago on transatlantic shipping and bought it from the UK. I'm so very, very glad I did. Elizabeth Chadwick, an author I've long admired for her way with a medieval tale, has gone herself one better. She has taken the known facts of Marshal's life, done a little reading between the lines of recorded history, and rendered a portrait of the man that shimmers with life.
William Marshal led a charmed life to some extent. His first appearance in the historical record is when he is about 5 years old. His father has given him as a hostage to King Stephen, as a sort of human insurance policy against the elder Marshal's disobeying the king. But when William's father defies the king anyway, Stephen hasn't the heart to hang the boy. A few years later, William finds himself in the right place at the right time to save the queen of England from being taken prisoner by enemies. He's injured and taken prisoner himself in the process, however, and when Queen Eleanor ransoms him, it's not without expectations of repayment: She wants the gallant young knight to enter service with her family - arguably the most powerful people in western Europe.
Thus begins a long and profitable - but also perilous - association. The Queen, her sons, and even her estranged husband, King Henry, value William highly as a fighter, an adviser, and an instructor in the chivalrous arts. Such a talented and fortunate man is bound to attract jealousy, though. William's loyalties are put to one complex test after another, and, though his honor remains unblemished, his enemies would have the royals believe otherwise. More than once, William's future looks bleak. But he is never defeated; his intellect, courage and diplomacy make this one story in which the nice guy finishes first.
There's a bit less romance in this book than in Elizabeth Chadwick's other works. But since William didn't marry until he was in his 40s, that is as it should be. Chadwick speculates that William had a mistress in the years prior to his marriage, and, in a footnote to the documented history, she finds a highly likely candidate for the role. But the great love of William's life was Isabelle, countess of Pembroke, whom he married when she was 18 and he was middle aged. We don't know much about the real Isabelle, but the Isabelle of this book is exactly as I would imagine her: beautiful, smart, confident and loyal. Judging by the number of children the couple had, I'd say Chadwick couldn't be too far off the mark in depicting them as very much in love.
As I neared the end of the book, I realized with some disappointment that it was going to end many years before Marshal's death. But that was unavoidable; the man survived to what would be a ripe old age even now, and he did twice as much living as most of us would in the same time span. This book does leave off in a logical and satisfactory point in the story, and the afterword promises a sequel, which I'm eagerly awaiting.
I read THE GREATEST KNIGHT very quickly. I became a little obsessive-compulsive over it, making time to read even when I had other things to do, racing through it breathlessly despite not really wanting to reach the end. When I did finish, I was truly sorry I'd read it so fast. I wish I could give it 6 stars, because I'm now questioning every other 5-star review I've ever written.
Elizabeth Chadwick has done it again! With The Greatest Knight, she has solidified her position as one of the best historical fiction authors writing today. I was eagerly awaiting this novel, and I'm delighted to say I was not disappointed in any way.
This is the story of William Marshal, an humble knight in the 12th century, who through his integrity and loyalty, rose to become one of the most trusted men of his time. Set against the backdrop of the turbulent relationships between Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and their sons, Marshal's story takes us on a brilliant ride of jousting tourneys, court intrigue, and yes, even romance. The fact that this novel is based on Chadwick's impeccable research makes it all the more stunning and entirely believable. The motivations for the characters are real and unembellished; Marshal is seen as a flesh-and-blood man who must make difficult choices in trying to follow his conscience. Chadwick fills in the blanks of his life with details that make his story come alive. His romance with Isabelle, an heiress twenty years his junior, is sweet and compelling; it's a match with many contemporary overtones even though it's completely true. Chadwick makes us understand William's conflicts and his triumphs. While there is a romance, this is truly historical fiction and it is absolutely wonderful---a story you can lose yourself in and emerge from with a sigh of regret at leaving this world behind. Part two is highly anticipated!
Highly, highly recommended!
Elizabeth Chadwick's 'The Greatest Knight' chronicles the life of William Marshall, the Medieval soldier and statesman who was described as "the greatest knight that ever lived".
Chadwick takes us from Marshall's boyhood through his service to three kings; King Henry II, Henry the Young King and King Richard. Marshall is loyal and true to those he pledges his fealty even in the face of near certain peril.
I found the history interesting but Chadwick failed to bring these characters to life for me. I admired William Marshall but I felt like he was somewhat flat and one dimensional, he was always good and true and nearly perfect. I enjoyed the characterization of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her faithful friendship with Marshall. Chadwick portrays Marshall best engaged in relationships with the women in his life. The beginning of this story seems rather dull until he meets his wife (which isn't until page 328). But she too seemed just a little too perfect to be real.
I thought Marshall's brother John was the more interesting character. He had flaws, shortcomings and regrets, which made him much more realistic. I also thought their relationship was interesting and could have been examined more closely and threaded throughout the story to give it greater tension.
THE GREATEST KNIGHT is without question Elizabeth Chadwick's finest novel. What is most noticeable about Chadwick's latest is the subtle escalation of her writing talents which are only enhanced by her usual flair for meticulous research and that escalation can be felt in the story's atmosphere and dialogue.
Marshal was a common man who rose beyond his station, a man who defines the word, 'knight'. Teeming alongside the landscape of the spirited Eleanor & Henry II and their delicously diverse but in no way one dimensional sons, the historical William Marshal was a complex, captivating individual and he loses none of these qualities in the capable Chadwick's hands.
The action is fully-fleshed out, the relationship and persona of his wife Isobel de Clare brings a sensation of genuineness and sincerity. I thoroughly enjoyed the blossoming of this relationship, from strangers, to friendship, to lovers.
Yet, scandals, intrigue, deceit, and a masterful game of chess where people's lives are at stake are marvelously handled with precision, care and the perfectly chosen words.
I eagerly look forward to the next installment in Marshal's adventures.
This is the first in a two volume series, focusing on William Marshal, a self-made man serving Kings Henry II, Richard I, and John. And, to make matters complete, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Elizabeth Chadwick, the author, does a masterful job of depicting the era and the details of that time (although I am not an expert, there is a sense of reality to the novel that impresses me).
Marshal tells the tale of this real historical figure in an historical fiction. Marshal was a self-made man, learning his craft, becoming a knight, coming to earn his keep by winning tourneys (jousting) and extracting ransoms from those whom he triumphed over. A man of honor, who kept his word and was faithful to his vows of loyalty.
He serves Henry II, his son, "The Young King," Richard I and John. And it was not always easy working with these kings (John's place in his life is more richly depicted in the second volume--but even in this work, the difficulties of their relationship is well described).
His romance with an heiress from Ireland, Isabelle, is charming. Their growing affection for one another is poignant, as is his willingness to see her as his partner--not as "just" a woman.
All in all, a very nice piece of historical fiction.
on June 4, 2011
Unfortunately, from its first chapters, I struggled to finish this book, and it didn't leave me with any urge to read its sequel. The author (whose books I've never read before) has a smooth, well-researched, well-ordered style of writing, but it all was somehow *too* smooth. From the very opening it was as if Ms. Chadwick was simply reciting the dry factualities of the time period and put no emotion into the times and the people she was describing and creating.
The characters, most particularly and unfortunately her hero, William Marshal, seemed so cool and distant. William invites respect, but no affection. He's an icon, not a human. His uncompromising integrity, while admirable, is just not interesting. I wish the author had allowed him to doubt more, to struggle with temptation (even George Washington had Sally Fairfax). As it is, William's only faults were a love of good food and bathing. Worse, when William finally marries, his young wife instantly becomes like him, a female William Marshal: ordered, balanced, perfect judgment, studious/courteous, and embalmed.
Also (and I thought I would never say this about any author who writes about the Plantagenet kings) Ms. Chadwick managed to make the mercurial, touchy, many-faceted historical characters of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons, UNinteresting. Even "big scenes" that should be emotional and moving to the reader (not least because these persons meant so much to William, and through William, the reader should care too), such as: Henry the Young King's death, or Henry II's death, are so drained of emotion, they read just as if Ms. Chadwick was re-working the pages of Plantagenet history books she consulted.
Still I kept plugging away at the book, a chapter a night, hoping that it would "take off" and come to life. It never did. The writing carried me along, it was (just) good enough to do that, but it never "involved" me. Once I got over my irritation (because all this dryness and distance WAS irritating), it was almost soothing to read THE GREATEST KNIGHT, because I was able to get several good nights' sleep. But I don't buy historical novels in order to sleep - I want to be involved in the story, I want to care about the main character(s) and I certainly want to be entertained. For me, THE GREATEST KNIGHT did none of these things.
"The Greatest Knight" is an enjoyable historical fiction that covers the first part of William Marshal's life (1167-1194 AD). The sequel, describing the rest of his life, is titled "The Scarlet Lion."
The author clearly knows her subject matter and stayed true to it. Her skilled use of historical detail helped bring the world alive in my imagination without slowing the pace.
However, the author had so many years to cover that she often skipped over months, even years, of William Marshal's life between chapters (though what happened during that time was always briefly told). Whole wars were skipped over or were covered with only one or two scenes.
The characters were interesting and had some depth to them. Due to the fast pace of the first two-thirds of the novel, though, any troubles William Marshal faced were overcome before I really had a chance to worry about what would happen. However, the last third of the book settles down to cover a relatively short period of time in detail, and I loved this section. Even knowing some of what was going to happen, the tension built nicely, and I couldn't put the novel down.
There was a minor amount of swearing. There were several sex scenes (both between married and unmarried couples). It's clear what's going on in these scenes, but only one scene was explicit--though I'd call it discreetly explicit with some heat. Overall, I'd recommend this novel to historical fiction readers.
Review by Debbie from Genre Reviews
This was a wonderful story and much different from Chadwick's previous books, but is to be somewhat expected as Marshal's early life was one of duty to his lord(s) and not leaving much room for romance.
A fascinating look at a true, honorable and loyal man, who in the end was well rewarded for his loyalty by marriage to a wealthy heiress who became his life's soul mate. Much of the book is involved with the treachery and intrigue of the Plantagenet court and their lives -- you won't see as much heart stopping page turning excitement as you might have found some of the author's previous works, but still excellent reading just the same. It was also wonderful getting a closer look at those Plantagenets, Henry II, young Henry, Eleanor, Richard I and the always evil Prince John. It's going to be even harder now to wait for Sharon Kay Penman's third novel in her own trilogy of this family, The Devil's Brood.
If you enjoy this book, do check out the sequel, The Scarlet Lion and the newly released prequel, A Place Beyond Courage (special order from the UK, not available in the US). As always with Chadwick's books, the way she brings the medieval period to life in such a graceful and effortless way, be it the sights, sounds, smells, food, clothes and battles is just awesome. As quoted on some of her book jackets, the next best thing to time travel. Five stars.
on May 26, 2013
I am sure medieval times were much more interesting than this book would lead one to believe. However, the author does seem to enjoy describing food, clothing, and the names of all the animals in the book with great relish. This is the first (and sadly, the last) book I have read from this author. Perfectly fine beach reading, but not very good historical fiction. Try anything by Dorothy Dunnett instead.
on June 2, 2010
I bought this book with great anticipation. I love this period and really wanted to read more about William Marshal but I guess coming off of reading "Through the dark mist" by Marsha Canham, (one of the best books I've ever read) it's not surprising that this was a bit anti-climatical. I suppose because this chronicles his life almost like a documentary without much of a story line and hardly any suspense. It just lumbered along without any real hook. Also, I like to emerge myself in the story and Ms. Chadwick seemed to struggle at times to get the language right. She would use words that weren't from that time period such as breakfast and abbreviations like won't and didn't and catch phrases such as "cut of your nose to spite your face". William Marshall was the greatest knight, yet you don't get a sense as to how that came about. Ms. Chadwick didn't dwell on his prowess on the field. No great battle scenes or anything. Nothing to keep you turning the pages... To me, he just seemed like a boring person.