Many thanks for inviting me to be a guest on your blog – I’m really pleased to be here to talk about William Marshal, the star of my novel The Greatest Knight.
Forget all your imaginary heroes, William Marshal was one fabulous man who really existed. The title says it all. He truly was the greatest knight of the Middle Ages. I had long wanted to write about this penniless knight who saved the life of the Queen of England at great cost to himself, who was the only man ever to knock Richard the Lionheart off his horse, and who married one of the most sought after heiresses in England.
While I was thinking about writing his stunning story, I had a very lucky break. Back in the thirteenth century, William Marshal’s eldest son commissioned a poet to write his father’s life in verse to be recited to the family on feast days. The poet composed the work while many of the people who had known William were still alive. These included his squire and best friend, Jean D’Earley who was with William when he unhorsed Richard the Lionheart, and when William came to the Tower of London and took Isabelle de Clare to be his bride. That poem, written in old French, was lost for hundreds of years. Then, in the late 19th Century it was discovered amongst a pile of old manuscripts by a French historian. He translated it from the ancient Norman French into modern French, but it was only as I began writing The Greatest Knight that William’s wonderful life story was finally translated into English, and I was able to use it as one of the main sources for my research.
The poem tells us many things about William. He was known as ‘Gaste Viande’ when he was a youth, which basically means ‘Greedy Guts’ because like a lot of teenage boys, he loved his food! He is described as being brown-haired with a tanned complexion. He was ‘tall…well fashioned; he had fine feet and hands and handsomely formed.’ The poem says too that in his youth he was an ‘upright young man,’ who was courageous, could hold his own in battle, but was equally at home at court. He had a fine, strong singing voice, and a great sense of fun. You could have a laugh with William! He was never boastful and always respectful of women.
Eleanor of Aquitaine valued him greatly and after he saved her life she rewarded him with‘horses, arms, money and fine clothes.’ None of this went to his head though. He wasn’t boastful and he kept his feet firmly on the ground. Even later in his career when he was a wealthy man, he remained modest. Rather than have a great seal made to put on his documents, he kept the small, old one that had served him since his early knighthood. He was also intensely loyal. If he said he would do something for you, he kept his word. A vow was a vow – unto death should it come to it. That’s my kind of guy.
I thought I’d leave you with a small excerpt from the novel, just a taster of the kind of man who became England’s greatest knight.
Here, William has arrived at the Tower of London to claim Heloise of Kendal, an heiress who has been entrusted to him. Ranulf de Glanville, who is in charge of the heiresses at the tower, is not impressed.
…..De Glanville’s nod was grudging. ‘I’ll have her summoned.’ He beckoned to an attendant. ‘I assume you intend to wed the girl?’
William made a non-commital sound, thinking that everyone was suddenly very concerned about his marital status. ‘I have heard that you have another heiress lodged in your keeping,’ he said thoughtfully.
‘I have several heiresses. They come and go as the King sees fit to grant them to wardens and husbands,’ de Glanville said coldly. ‘And I doubt he will see fit to grant you more than he has already given.’
William answered the rebuff with a smile. He had heard that the daughter of Richard Strongbow was lodged in the Tower and everyone knew that she was one of the greatest marriage prizes in the Kingdom. A man who gained her property would not be just a simple baron, but a magnate. He had been wondering for several days if Queen Eleanor was ambitious for him and also how ambitious he was for himself. He had glimpsed Strongbow’s daughter fleetingly on the day he had set out for Jerusalem – a thin girl in the stages of turning into a woman, with wide, blue eyes and ropes of rain-jewelled fair hair.
The attendant returned, escorting two young women; a willowy blonde and a buxom younger girl with a freckled complexion and bright brown eyes. Ranulf de Glanville’s own complexion darkened until it almost matched the madder-red of his woollen tunic.
‘As I understood,’ he said curtly, ‘I sent for the lady Heloise alone.’
The attendant stared like an owl caught in daylight and began to stutter an apology. Overriding him, the plump girl took a swift pace forward and said, ‘I asked Isabelle to accompany me. Have I done wrong?’
The justiciar compressed his lips. ‘Had I wanted both of you, I would have sent for both of you.’ He gestured to the discomforted attendant. ‘Escort Lady Isabelle back to her chamber.’
William rose and bowed to the girls. ‘They may both remain as far as I am concerned,’ he said easily. ‘A flower gladdens the eye, but two flowers doubly so.’
‘This is not the court of the Young King,’ de Glanville snapped. ‘Your speeches are inappropriate…my lord, as is Lady Isabelle’s presence.’
‘But surely the lady is your guest not your prisoner.’ William perused Isabelle de Clare more closely. The slender waif of three years since, was developing into a beauty. She returned his regard calmly from eyes flecked with different tones of blue like a summer sea. Her complexion was pale but pink warmth had seeped into her cheeks……
© Elizabeth Chadwick
About the Author
Elizabeth Chadwick lives near Nottingham with her husband and two sons. She is the author of 17 historical novels, including Lords of the White Castle, Shadows and Strongholds, A Place Beyond Courage, The Scarlet Lion, the Winter Mantle, and the Falcons of Montebard, four of which have been shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Awards. Much of her research is carried out as a member of Regia Anglorum, an early medieval re-enactment society with the emphasis on accurately re-creating the past. She won a Betty Trask Award for The Wild Hunt, her first novel.
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