How to Be a Knight

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge
    Simon and Schuster, 444 pp, £20.00, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 7432 6862 2

Among many technical advances in archaeology in recent years, dendrochronology is one of the most satisfying. Now cloven and carved wood can speak to us and tell us its age. It needs the prompting of a computer, but informed by masses of e-data charting the sequences of variations in tree-rings, we can know when and even roughly where a tree was felled. Carpentry can often be far older than anyone imagined. At Chepstow Castle, a mighty Norman fortress designed to intimidate south Wales and western England, the great wooden door of the gatehouse – which is still in place – was until recently thought to be 15th century. Dendrochronology, however, has shown that it was installed around the year 1189. It was paid for, we now know, by William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke, who rose from relative obscurity to become regent for the young Henry III and one of the most powerful men in Europe. Marshal’s craftsmen used fast-grown trees for the door’s outer face and a powerful lattice of slow-grown timber for the reinforcement inside: no expense spared, no older wood reused, nothing but the best timber equipped with ironwork to match. The precise dating of the wood tells us that the gatehouse was an extremely advanced piece of military kit: experts used to think that the design of this great building implied a date half a century or so later.

William Marshal was a man for firsts. Another archaeological delight is to contemplate his grave-monument in London’s Temple Church, scarred in 1941 (with dark appropriateness) by a war whose technology was even more impersonally brutal than his own military prowess. There you may still look down on the face of one of the earliest military tomb effigies in Europe. If we are familiar with the medieval monuments which now jostle each other in churches, we tend to forget how startling and novel this figure of a recumbent knight would have seemed when it was erected to commemorate William’s magnificent funeral in 1219, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, just as if the deceased had been a reigning monarch. Marshal had indeed helped to shape the reigns of five kings, and in the culminating triumph of his career only two years before, the septuagenarian’s military expertise had stopped a rival French royal line seizing the throne of England. His wife does not lie beside him: it would have been indecorous to bury her here in this house of warrior-celibates, whose ranks William had formally joined as he lay dying at Caversham, saying goodbye to her and to his marriage with a tearful kiss. That separation in death was the story of her life, as for so many military wives: she has stayed at home in the Wye Valley, entombed at Marshal’s pious foundation of Tintern Abbey.

The most important of these firsts was a book, without which Thomas Asbridge would struggle to sustain his sprightly narrative: the History of William Marshal is the first life story known to have been written of a knight in medieval Europe, and the story of the manuscript is a little romance in itself which Asbridge clearly enjoys. Completely forgotten after being rebound in the 16th century until 1861, the 13th-century manuscript is the only exemplar of its text. It was glimpsed at an auction by a young French enthusiast for medieval history, but immediately snapped up by the selfish and filthy rich Sir Thomas Phillipps, and only reclaimed for proper scholarly analysis two decades later by the same persistent Frenchman, after the bibliophilic monster of the Cotswolds was safely dead (it is now in the library founded by a rather more public-spirited buccaneer of book collecting, John Pierpont Morgan). Paul Meyer’s career was a model of all that is best in academic rigour; he later helped analyse the documents which led to the acquittal of Alfred Dreyfus.

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[*] Ferdinand Mount wrote about Magna Carta in the LRB of 23 April.