William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry 
by Georges Duby, translated by Richard Howard.
Faber, 156 pp., £9.95, August 1986, 0 571 13745 8
Show More
Thomas Becket 
by Frank Barlow.
Weidenfeld, 334 pp., £14.95, July 1986, 0 297 78908 2
Show More
Show More

Most of us are familiar with Jacob Burckhardt’s thesis that the Italian Renaissance witnessed the ‘discovery of the individual’ while Medieval man’s self-consciousness simply took corporate form: ‘Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, a people, a party, a corporation, a family.’ This view is no longer held in its crude state, and sophisticated work by Colin Morris and other Medievalists has made a strong case for the 12th century, with its ‘Renaissance’, as the era of the discovery of individual self-consciousness. If a biography of a Medieval figure is to be attempted, the 12th century offers a fruitful terrain: the increase in written sources for this period makes the biographical approach (just) possible, while the birth of individual self-consciousness makes it appropriate.

Nevertheless, 12th-century individuality was not that of the atomised 20th century, and Burckhardt’s words still point to the remoteness of the Medieval period. In his fascinating new book, Professor Duby stresses that his subject, the knight-errant William Marshal, was never alone: ‘Who is ever alone at the beginning of the 13th century but the mad, the possessed – marginal figures who are hunted down? An orderly world requires that each man remain swathed in a fabric of solidarities, of friendships, in a corps.’ William was born in 1145, and, since he was his father’s fourth son and therefore could not expect to inherit, made a name and a living by his knightly prowess. He rose in the service of the Angevin kings and died in 1219 as Regent of England. His career spans the history of the Angevin Empire and can be used to cast light on its political history. Indeed it was so used by Sidney Painter in his fine William Marshal (1933). Professor Duby confines his attention to the main source for William’s life, a poem in Norman French of some twenty thousand lines commissioned by his son and written a few years after William’s death. The personal memoirs of William – for it is as such that he treats the text – are those, otherwise hardly accessible, of the knightly classes of the High Middle Ages. His book is the loving re-creation of a vanished world, that of Medieval chivalry in its prime. The success of this sort of tale depends heavily upon the skill of the teller and Duby is here in cracking form. His recently acquired King Charles’s head of the Three Orders of society is absent and the dread shadow of G. Dumézil falls only once across these pages. The tone is often immensely rhetorical in the current Parisian manner, but the charged emotional style is all part of Duby’s attempt to re-enter the lost domain of knighthood. It is dazzlingly successful.

The book opens with a highly-wrought description of its hero’s death. We are made to feel how different William’s world is from our own as we see William slip out of it. As Regent of England for the 12-year-old Henry III, William is a public figure, an officer of state and a great baron: his death is therefore a public event, and is slowly, achingly performed over two months; it is a ‘festivity’, a ‘sumptuous death’. In front of the great barons of the realm, William resigns his political power and appoints a successor, then renounces his lands and private possessions, making provision for his family. But as his body seems to move towards the private sphere of death, it continues to operate in the public sphere, though in another key. In a sort of spiritual palindrome, William’s rejection of the trappings of this world is followed by his donning the trappings of the next. He does not become a private man, but reveals his membership of the Order of the Templars, and on his death-bed is covered with their uniform of white cloak and red cross. Even death itself does not obliterate him from the world of men: his body is carried in a great cortège down river to London, there to become fit subject for an edifying sermon, and his burial is the occasion for a funeral feast for one hundred poor men. William’s body thus becomes the pivot around which Duby’s very artfully – almost musically – composed sequence of tableaux turns. This concentration on the death of the body is appropriate: the Marshal’s life had been the life of the active body, the strong body that had served him well in countless tournaments, and had made his fortune when it was united to the body of a rich woman in marriage.

This concrete apprehension of William’s world is a constant of the book, and means that the political framework of the 12th century is perceived very much in terms of personal relationships. William belongs to different ‘families’, and the high politics of the period are expressed in the often conflicting relationships between them. Thus when the young Henry rebelled against his father, Henry II, in 1173-4, William as head of the young king’s household probably sided with him. As Duby points out, Henry II here bore no grudges: domestic fidelity, the loyal maintenance of the bonds of the household, was crucial and William’s domestic place as tutor dictated, or at least excused, his shady political activity. Much work on the Medieval nobility has stressed the political importance of biological kinship links. But running parallel to those, and sometimes cutting across them, were the bonds of ‘artificial kinship’, formed, for example, in tutor-pupil relationships (William taught Henry the art of chivalry). For much of the Middle Ages this relationship between nutritor and nutritus – which meant, in William’s case, that he, a relatively low-born knight, was master of his own lord – was of key political importance, and Duby writes about this with sensitivity and insight. His depiction of jealousies and tensions within and between households as the political motors of the age perhaps focuses upon one aspect to the exclusion of others, but is immensely stimulating, especially for early Medievalists.

While Duby insists on the remoteness of the 12th-century world from our own, he does not deny that some elements of its insubstantial pageants are familiar to us. Money talked, even then, though it urged its possessors to spend and consume rather than to accumulate and invest. Such urgings were not always heeded, and Duby is good on the financial importance of tournaments and the unromantic motives behind William’s quest for a rich wife. (Those who have read his article on ‘Youth in Aristocratic Society’, The Chivalrous Society, 1977, will find this part of the new book familiar.) One wonders whether Duby is right to insist that the life of knights was so different from that of the church clerks whom they seemed to disdain. Professor Barlow’s sterling new biography of Thomas Becket shows us a man whose origins, like William’s, were not of the highest: his father ‘may have been in textiles’. Like William, Thomas owed his rise, not to inheritance, but to his being sent to the household of a distant and more powerful relative: that of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. As a clerk, though not yet a priest, and Chancellor to Henry II, he staggered spectators of his embassy to the French king with his magnificent largesse; he distributed gold, silver, furs and war-horses with the open-handed generosity expected of the greatest princes. As Barlow notes, many of Thomas’s posthumous miracles involved the cure of hunting hawks and their knightly masters.

If Thomas belonged to two worlds, he satisfied neither in his lifetime. This biography does not so much reveal a great conflict of principle between church and state as display the confusion and bafflement felt by Thomas’s contemporaries over his conduct. Medieval and modern writers have often been partisan, whether in claiming Thomas as a martyr or in berating him for hypocrisy and inflexibility. Professor Barlow’s strategy is to offer a cool narrative survey of Thomas’s life, to set out all possible evidence, and above all not to allow Thomas’s murder to cast a retrospective shadow of interpretation over his life. His death made Thomas a saint, his life made him a troublesome enigma to his contemporaries, and Professor Barlow offers no easy solution.

The result is an immensely sober biography, whose pace seems sometimes to mimic the repetitive, grinding tactics of Thomas in exile, but whose cumulative effect is quite gripping, pulling the reader into the great conflicts and issues of the 12th century. Indeed the leisurely unfolding of the story is strikingly effective in the chapter on Thomas’s death, creating a tension between the reader’s knowledge of Thomas’s end and the protagonist’s nervous foreboding but ultimate ignorance of his fate. Barlow is quite clear that as late as Christmas Eve 1170, only four days before his death, Thomas had no sense that his end was inevitable. Barlow gives back to these people their ignorance of the consequences of their actions: despite the protestations of many of them to the contrary, his witnesses could not see into the future. The result is that the career of Thomas Becket is presented with a freshness that one would not have thought possible.

The issues that separated Henry II and Thomas are not presented as an unbridgeable gulf of principle: they turned on misunderstanding, bad faith, personal hostility, and on the intransigence that slowly and bitterly infects participants in long-running disputes. The English bishops appear as neither heroes nor villains, but as men whose office placed them between the hammer and anvil of a governmental system at war with itself. We see the vulnerability of the political dissident in exile when Henry II succeeds in getting Thomas’s Cistercian hosts to realise the disadvantages of sheltering such an awkward guest.

The tone of the book is not always dark. Thomas’s activities as chancellor are described with verve, and Herbert Bosham, his ebullient spiritual adviser, as usual tends to steal every scene in which he appears. Yet the centre of the book is Thomas and he is not a particularly sympathetic figure. Charming on occasion, but a hard man as Chancellor, a litigious and unyielding churchman, Thomas was a driven figure: to live down his secular past he had to ‘out-bishop the other bishops’, and growing up in public is never easy. The pressures of his quarrel with Henry in 1163-4, and then of his exile, did not make him congenial, though they did ultimately lead to his sainthood.

Even that was not inevitable. Barlow describes how in the aftermath of the murder the monks of Canterbury, shocked and bewildered, did not know how to react to the archbishop’s death. It was far from obvious that Thomas was a martyr and saint. He had only recently returned from exile, he was a stranger to them, and they feared the king. No doubt there were some who felt that the haughty pontiff had got what he deserved. But just as death had invested William Marshal’s body with new significance, so it was with Thomas. As they dressed the body for burial, the monks discovered that Thomas had been wearing a monastic cowl beneath his other garments, and realised that he had been one of them. Their pleased surprise turned to shock and reverence when they found that he had also worn a penitential hair shirt ‘still alive with lice and worms’. As Barlow says, had they discovered ‘samite and silk, there might easily have been no martyr’. Thomas’s body, like William Marshal’s, was being turned into symbol; his troubled earthly life was swallowed up by his extraordinary posthumous career. Barlow’s final chapter details the creation of the saint with a clear-eyed awareness of the mixture of political and spiritual imperatives involved. His sympathy and scepticism, his willingness to accept that not all historical events yield up their secrets easily, reproduces the attitude of one of his principal witnesses, John of Salisbury. John knew Thomas, was exiled with him and was in Canterbury when the Archbishop was struck down. Thomas’s posthumous miracles took John by surprise: but he accepted them as undeniable proof of his former master’s sanctity. His awe and puzzlement is the note on which Barlow’s superb book closes.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences