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 him written in the early Fourteenth Century, and rediscovered in the Nineteenth. This has been of great use in learning more of the Twelfth Century, but it does present the problems of a biased document (having been commissioned by his son). Asbridge has studied other records from the time, and used them to check some of the biography’s claims, which generally stand up to scrutiny. (There are a few things where the records show that something couldn’t have happened as described; but it’s generally a case of being off by a year or two, which is pretty good considering the author seemed to be going off of other people’s reminiscences.)

Ashbridge’s biography also serves as an introduction to the Twelfth Century as a whole. There are two layers of subchapters in the book (subchapters and sub-subchapters), and while some of them serve other purposes, many of the sub-subchapters are taking time out to take a look at an aspect of the time. He gives a description of how the system of household knights worked at the time, describes the general form of early tournaments (which was vastly different from the more familiar late- or really post-Medieval version). This points up that the book is meant for a fairly general audience, and some of these asides will be familiar to people who only have a moderate appreciation of the Middle Ages. But it makes for a much more well-rounded book than just a focused examination of Marshal himself, and is structured in such a way that it does not detract from the main focus.

However, the general-audience target of the book means that the only footnotes are basically long parenthetical asides or clarifications. There are no detailed notes of where information came from, and many cases of unsupported assertions interleaved with others that are taken apart and examined in some detail. For all of that, Marshal himself only dimly comes across as a person, as Asbridge seems to have trouble coming to any solid conclusions as to what he was like. Part of this seems to be an inability to believe that Marshal could really have been motivated by a deep-seated loyalty to a person, or perhaps, the crown of England itself (which is something that would likely have evolved over time). This shows up early, when he doesn’t even consider such a concept as an explanation as to why his father was apparently willing to blithely toss his younger son away when he was held as a hostage.

Keeping in mind the real audience though, this is a well-constructed book, and does a good job with many of secondary characters as well, for instance giving a more nuanced view of King John than he habitually gets.