Asbridge is no stranger to writing popular history and his skill is evident from page xiii. He begins his tale with a Da Vinci Code-style story of a young scholar finding a manuscript at a Sotheby’s auction that piqued his curiosity and seemed to have been unopened for the previous two and a half centuries. Chapter One begins in a similar vein with the line, “In 1152 King Stephen of England decided to execute a five-year-old boy.” Talk about drama.
Asbridge uses drama to spice what becomes a wonderful walk through the historical method–but a walk done so skillfully that most readers will not even recognize where he is leading them. The manuscript found at Sotheby’s the History of William Marshal, is the backbone of Asbridge’s tale of this fascinating figure, but he contextualizes Marshal’s story with that of the Angevin dynasty, the family of Henry II, King Richard the Lionheart, and the infamous King John I, teaching an engaging lesson about the English monarchy and the fate of western Europe while setting the stage for his protagonist. Asbridge confronts the bias and gaps of the History and refers repeated to other sources that confirm, contest, or complete the History. This, gentle readers, is what historians do and Asbridge sets it before us matter of factly as he spins out Marshal’s dramatic rise to power. He further models the historian’s approach when he disassembles the traditional interpretation of the role of the 1215 Magna Carta in establishing universal human rights in the west while ostensibly writing a chapter on Marshal’s role in its composition.
Marshal begins as the younger son of a middling noble who is forced to make his own way in the world, which he does largely through the tournament circuit followed by astute political service to the Angevin dynasty. Asbridge flips back and forth between the master narrative of England and the Angevins (and the High Middle Ages generally) and the fate of Marshal. Where the sources are silent, Asbridge is honest and then uses logic to infer Marshal into the larger story. He punctuates each chapter with vivid vignettes, which, thankfully, his subjects readily provided.
If I had any concerns about Asbridge’s account, they were his rosy view of King Richard and his bleak view of King John, which seemed to fit too easily into the broader cultural images of these complex kings. Asbridge’s tale is that of a remarkable knight, but too often he could make key points to non-historian readers about women, but he chooses to remain frustratingly silent. For instance, marriage politics are crucial to Marshal and the nobles around him, but Asbridge gives no time to comment on the roles of women in those decisions or their fates after the wedding day.
Asbridge says in his epilogue that he wants to bring attention to the often neglected William Marshal and the key battle in which he played the hero’s role (Lincoln 1217), but his tale seems as focused on explaining the values and motivations of a medieval knight–the interplay of self interest, piety, chivalry, and emotional restraint demonstrated so successfully by Marshal. and that Asbridge says was destined to fall by the wayside as the thirteenth century progressed.
The Greatest Knight comes with the requisite maps and family trees, but, as always, I wished those had been integrated into the text at key points and augmented with infographics to help keep the narrative and the secondary characters straight.