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The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  2,606 ratings  ·  410 reviews

A renowned scholar brings to life medieval England’s most celebrated knight, William Marshal—providing an unprecedented and intimate view of this age and the legendary warrior class that shaped it.

Caught on the wrong side of an English civil war and condemned by his father to the gallows at age five, William Marshal defied all odds to become one of England’s most

Kindle Edition, 481 pages
Published December 2nd 2014 by Ecco
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Jeffrey Keeten
”In 1152 King Stephen of England decided to execute a five-year-old boy. This child--William Marshal--had committed no crime. He was a hostage, given over to the crown as surety for his father’s word, a pawn in the great game of power and politics then being played out within a realm wracked by civil war. When William’s father promptly broke his pledge to the king, declaring that ‘he did not care about the child, since he still had the anvils and hammers to forge even finer ones,’ Stephen was ...more
``Laurie Henderson
I've been wanting to read this book and learn more about William Marshal for a long time now and author Thomas Asbridge didn't disappoint. This reads more like a work of historical fiction than history as there was never a dull moment in this fast paced book relating this unlikely tale of rags to riches.

I first ran across William Marshal back in the early 1980's when I read Thomas Costain's book:
The Conquering Family and The Magnificent Century.
Costain was clearly in awe of William Marshal and
Jun 09, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: I wouldn't recommend it unless you read others on the subject.
I confess that before I read Thomas Asbridge’s THE GREATEST KNIGHT” I was already curious about this new biography of William Marshal. The lives of John FitzGilbert the Marshal and his son William are a lifelong study subject for me outside my novel writing career. Since this work shared the title of my 2004 novel The Greatest Knight the life of William Marshal and even the same font and cloudy background as my UK cover, my interest was naturally piqued even more!
William Marshal, circa
A knight there was, and he a worthy man,
Who, from the moment that he first began
To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his liege-lord's war,
And therein had he ridden (none more far)
As well in Christendom as heathenesse,
And honoured everywhere for worthiness.

(The Canterbury Tales - Chaucer)

Relying on L'Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, the first and only biography known to describe the life of a medieval knight, written by John of
Nov 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
First off I won this in the First Reads here at Goodreads but this in no way effected this review.From a military and political stand point this was like having a front row seat to the reigns of five english kings.William Marshall served these kings with honor,dignity and bravery as this book shows throughout.Despite that I received an uncorrected copy with the occasional left out word or out of order sentence it was filled with detail on most every aspect of his long career.I especially enjoyed ...more
If you are a devotee of Medieval English history; more than likely you have a crush on William Marshal (if you are interested in men). This man is everything that the stereotype of a knight-in-shining-armor entails (even though shiny armor plates didn’t exist yet): loyalty, bravery, and chivalry. The question is whether William Marshal truly encompassed these traits or if that is an exaggerated portrayal in hindsight. Acclaimed author and medieval studies lecturer Thomas Asbridge highlights the ...more
Apr 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What was it like to be a knight in the age of chivalry? What was it like to be up close and personal to Henry II, his Queen Eleanor and their sons? Thomas Abridge brings it all to life in this engagingly written biography of William Marshall.

While born a noble, William Marshall was not a first son. His father supported King Stephen's cousin's claim to the throne and was willing to make William a hostage in the 14 year civil war. William survived execution orders and the general poor and
Rio (Lynne)
Having read Chadwick's books on William Marshal a few years ago, I enjoyed reading and revisiting this non-fiction book on his amazing life. Some who have read Chadwick made comments....that there is no way this happened and the author just had a love affair with William. Well, at first read I thought the same, so I investigated. Well, it's there written in a medieval biography that was almost lost to history. We are lucky that a French scholar came across this "rubbish aka hidden jewel" at an ...more
Jan 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Having seen William Marshal's effigy in the Temple Church in London last year, when I saw this book I had to get it.

Like most people, all I really knew about Marshall is how he appeared in historical fiction (I first came across him in Jean Plaidy's works).

And interesting rags to riches story in many ways. From minor nobility to being the most powerful man in England is a hell of a journey.

Interesting and absorbing read.

Highly recommended.
I received this book as part of GoodReads First Reads giveaway. And I read an Uncorrected Proof copy.

Edited: I originally quibbled about the lack of references but I only did not see them because I read an uncorrected proof so I have no qualms or reservations about this book. It's a straight up great book, very informative and extremely interesting.

Well that was fascinating. This book is a biography of the life of William Marshall along with a whole lot of other information to give context. It
A.L. Sowards
I really enjoyed this audiobook about William Marshal. When he was five, he was given over as a hostage for his father’s good behavior during the civil war between Matilda and Stephen. His father didn’t keep his word, and didn’t worry too much about losing a son—he could always make more, and William wasn’t the eldest anyway.

William survived (King Stephen wasn't heartless enough to hang a five-year-old) and went on to a long and distinguished career that included disappointment, success, and
Jan 15, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Confession time. One of my regrets in life is making the ridiculous decision at 15 not to continue with studies in history because I didn't like the teacher for the upcoming year. I blame my parents for not over-ruling me. (Smugly sidesteps all responsibility and crosses fingers that own children won't try something so silly.) Consequently, I have rather embarrassing gaps in my knowledge of British history. "The Greatest Knight" did an excellent job of filling in some rather crucial details ...more
Jan 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic biography of an amazing life.
Feb 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
It's an act of hubris to be able to pronounce the 'greatest' anything, much less the 'greatest' knight, a class of people that was fairly large and existed over centuries, but it is certainly fair to say that William Marshal is the best known knight, and actually a good contender for the title on his own merits.

Long-lived and successful, Marshal rose from obscurity as a second son to being the regent of England in all but name. Even so, he'd hardly be known at all today if not for a biography of
What a book! I am so thankful that the record of his life was found and studied by Paul Meyer. This is such a golden look into a time in English and European histories from 1066- 1219, that is really quite remarkable. It takes us through the life of William Marshal a boy given for ransom to King Stephen. It then goes on to explain the world William grew up in, as the world of knights grew from its infancy. This is a very detailed account of his life and times that could read horribly dry, but ...more
David Dinaburg
Mar 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Tragedy inspires ownership. It is not one of humankind’s prettier reactions. To stake a claim—this was what I was doing when JFK was shot, when the towers fell—seems natural; an attempt to subsume inexplicable circumstances within a comprehensible narrative. Yet, there’s something rankling about those on the periphery of a widely disruptive event claiming proximity or personal discomfiture; an inherent and seemingly inevitable competitive response replaces sympathy or commiseration, radiating ...more
Jul 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I recently finished the whole Angevin history series of historical fiction by Sharon Kay Penman. Anyone familiar with her work knows that the historical research she puts into her books is enormous and meticulous, and that the vast majority of her characters and events are factual, or based on facts. One minor character who is woven through all five books is named William Marshal, and he was very real. In fact, he has been called the paragon of chivalry, the epitome of the medieval warrior, and ...more
To the person that recommended to me this book, I wish to thank from the heart for my love of History. This was indeed a fabulous book on a Knight who is deemed today by many in academic circles to have been “The Greatest Knight.”

This accounting of Earl William Marshal is nothing short of brilliant. Persons who study, read, learn, and write of medieval History will of course be able to split hairs on the work offered by Mr. Asbridge. I am not one of those people mind you, but the thoroughness of
Mar 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fabulous research and source materials, photos, landscapes, period tombs for William Marshal's life.

The 12th Century was a time of great change. Very definitions and categories for and pursued by the noble or gentle classes! Those pursuits also for all kinds of power display and influence became pageant heavy.

Five kings, and he wasn't always on the "side" of any of them? Or was he?

Long-lived in a time when life (and in his specialty double that) was often elderly disability and/or becoming
Steven Poore
Nov 22, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Reading this, it's incredible to think that the details of Marshal's life and career were lost to history for so many centuries - his impact on England was as great as, if not greater than, Warwick the Kingmaker. Thomas Asbridge does necessarily have to guess at a fair amount of the details of Marshal's personality, plugging the gaps with social and political commentary, but he paints Marshal as a mostly sympathetic character. Marshal may have had one eye on the prize, gathering wealth to ...more
Nov 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I found most of this book interesting, and much of it was fascinating—especially the description of what a tournament would have been like in the 12th century. Instead of a formal Medieval Times-style joust, a tournament was full-armor team war games, a full-on melee, complete with battlefield tactics, deception, and cheating. The winners kidnapped the losers and their horses, and were paid literal ransoms as prizes. This was how William Marshal first made his name and his fortune.
Jo Walton
This is a very thorough earnest well researched book about William Marshall, with good explanations of complex situations, and I'm glad I've read it. But I have to admit, I'm also glad I've finished it, because it has a very plodding style.
William Marshall is a popular subject for biography. I know of at least four such titles- mostly with a different focus or perspective.
Richard Brooks 'The Knight Who Saved England' (2013), had an emphasis on battles and military history. David Crouch's 'Knighhood, War and Chivalry' is a more academic work.

Thomas Asbridge's offering is a timely and accesible work, revealing much about Marshall's 'life and times', as well as his famous role in the events surrounding the creation of the Magna
Johanna H.
If i can say one thing about William for sure than that he was loyal to the core.. If he pledged himself to the cause of a king he stayed true to him to the end. This book often looses itself in the politics of the time rather than centering on William itself which could be frustrating to some but is probably hard to avoid since William life was very eventful and he played a huge part in politics of that time. This biography rather than being about William alone includes that of 5 Kings as well ...more
This was such a good book! I confess, I have a fascination with early Medieval England. William Marshal (a 2nd son), who later became the Earl of Pembroke is a person/character that I have run into reading not only fictional books, but also in history books. I knew he was considered one of the greatest knights of his generation, but I didn't know the "who" or "why" of him: his background in other words. Thomas Asbridge does a remarkable job in not only unfurling Marshal's life, but also the ...more
Deborah Pickstone
A good read, though I was irritated of a slight sense of being patronised at times. Like, for instance, referring to 'Vikings' when we know the word is a verb not the name of a people. A simple explanation of this would have sufficed rather than ....writing simplistically is the only way I can think of to try to describe my gripe :)

The lack of proper referencing was a great irritant, also - I like to research questions that come up as I read - and the proof reader should be shot! It's OK that
This is a wonderful biography about a remarkable and basically forgotten man. William Marshall (1147 - 1219) served five different kings, raised himself from humble beginnings to being a top knight, fought in the Crusades, became guardian of young king Henry III and in reality the leader of England. He was also instrumental in writing the Magna Carta. Why is this man not better known.

The author uses a biography written around 1226 as a basis for this biography but presents a very balanced
Nancy Hammons
Nov 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Mr. Asbridge has opened the mists of time to allow me to view a glimpse of one of my ancestors. I have read many books about William Marshal and they all portrayed him as being faultless and I had a little trouble believing that. Mr. Asbridge’s book shows him to be a man that while he was loyal and true to his word he was also human, I liked that. I think that if I were asked who, in history, would I like to meet my answer would be William Marshal.
Marcus Wilson
Jan 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: general-history
One of the best history books I've read, wish more were this straightforward and entertaining. An enjoyable account of a figure who has been overlooked in the subsequent centuries. Some of this wouldn't be out of place in a plot line from Game of Thrones, if you like that series then check this out, this stuff really happened.
Jonny Parshall
Very few persons in history earn the privilege of living a life as remarkable as William Marshal's. It is a pity he is not as well known as others. Maybe his fortunes in death will accumulate slowly, in fashion mirroring those that accumulated by him during his lifetime 800 years ago.
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Goodreads Librari...: mislabeled as HC but is ebook edition 2 14 Dec 09, 2017 07:31AM  
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Thomas Asbridge is an internationally renowned expert on the history of the Middle Ages and author of the critically acclaimed books The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land and The First Crusade: A New History. His latest publication is The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones.

Thomas studied for a BA in Ancient and Medieval History at
“The 1216 Magna Carta was distinctive in two further regards. It was not a mere peace treaty, extracted under duress from an embattled monarch, but a freely given assurance of rights. Crucially, the document was also issued with the full and unequivocal support of the papal legate, Guala.” 1 likes
“Only the History of William Marshal described this encounter in close terms, though the broad details of its account were confirmed in other contemporary sources. One thing seems certain. This was to be no fair fight. So intent had Richard been upon hunting down his father, that he had begun his chase wearing only a doublet and light helm. This added speed to his pursuit, but left him dreadfully exposed to attack. Worse still, the Lionheart was armed with only a sword. Marshal, by contrast, had a shield and lance. The biographer described how: [William] spurred straight on to meet the advancing [Duke] Richard. When the [duke] saw him coming he shouted at the top of his voice: ‘God’s legs, Marshal! Don’t kill me. That would be a wicked thing to do, since you find me here completely unarmed.’ In that instant, Marshal could have slain Richard, skewering his body with the same lethal force that dispatched Patrick of Salisbury in 1168. Had there been more than a split second to ponder the choice, William might perhaps have reacted differently. As it was, instinct took over. Marshal simply could not bring himself to kill an un-armoured opponent, let alone the heir-apparent to the Angevin realm, King Henry II’s eldest surviving son. Instead, he was said to have shouted in reply: ‘Indeed I won’t. Let the Devil kill you! I shall not be the one to do it’, and at the last moment, lowering his lance fractionally, he drove it into Richard’s mount. With that ‘the horse died instantly; it never took another step forward’ and, as it fell, the Lionheart was thrown to the ground and his pursuit of the king brought to an end.” 1 likes
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