It’s a strange state of affairs to go a whole month of the new year without finishing a book. January was consumed with craziness–moving to our new house and spending two weeks at the hospital–and now here it is February before I have anything to review. Slowly but surely, I have been working my way through The Greatest Knight: The Unsung Story of the Queen’s Champion, by Elizabeth Chadwick., the slowness due to my own circumstances, not to anything dull about the book. Thankfully the library was patient with me, and I am finally ready to do a write up.
The Greatest Knight was my first Elizabeth Chadwick experience, and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book shimmered with historical detail, and although in a few places the descriptions seemed contrived, over all Chadwick created a very believable medieval world. I especially liked the fact that she didn’t pump her characters’ dialogue full of modern sentiments. but instead, let them deal with concerns appropriate to the time period.
The story follows the life of William Marshal, a knight who pledges himself to Eleanor of Aquitaine early in his career. He ends up serving in the household of her son Henry and then later becomes a peer of the realm during Richard’s reign. His life is a varied series of adventures as he strives to do the right thing but also to stay in the king’s favor. Throughout the book, the foil to William Marshal is John Marshal, his elder brother who has always been jealous of his success. Chadwick uses their arguments to flesh out controversies between more prominent historical figures: Henry, the Young King, and his father Henry II; Eleanor and her husband; Richard and Prince John.
In the last third of the book, William finally finds love and enters into marriage with Isabelle de Clare, a young heiress twenty years his junior. During this section, to give us the requisite political background, Chadwick again and again resorts to William and his wife having intimate discussions about the state of the realm–a narrative device that was slightly overused.
At the end of the book, Chadwick uses the voice of Richard, newly returned from imprisonment in Austria, to give a summation of William Marshal’s character: “I do value loyalty, but I value your integrity more. There’s a difference of shade. It was integrity that kept you by my father and sent your lance through my stallion’s chest…and it is what brings you here today. You will do what is right and just.” Chadwick shows with this speech that the key quality she thinks William Marshal exemplifies is integrity. This is what she has tried to bring out in her tale, that The Greatest Knight is not just the best lance on the tournament field, he is also the one who will do what is right no matter what.
In the Author’s Note at the close of the book, Chadwick reveals what is and what isn’t historical about the book. “I have filled in one or two gaps in William’s life with my own imagination, but have tried to stay true to the spirit of his character. For example, it is not known whether William had a mistress, made casual arrangements with women, or was celibate before his marriage. However, the historical evidence suggests that he liked and respected women and that women liked him.” Filling in the “gap” here, Chadwick creates the character of Clara, a slightly higher class prostitute whom William adopts as his mistress for some time. She also portrays him as having several one night stands with “camp followers” when he is out with the army. All this is, of course, prior to his fairy tale marriage to Isabelle de Clare.
This non-historical interpolation of sexual incontinence is, in my mind, an odd choice for a historical novelist to make. It indicates that Chadwick thinks that chastity is a completely separate issue from integrity. For her, she has not tarnished William’s character in the least by creating these extra-marital liaisons. She has just fleshed out the historical “suggestion” that “he liked and respected women.” Having a different definition of the word integrity, I felt that William’s character soured a little as the result of these sexual encounters.
Was the real William Marshal the greatest knight in history? Perhaps. If so, the William Marshal of Chadwick’s book is a good start at portraying him, but just like the movie version of a great book, this book version of a great life doesn’t quite do justice to the real thing.