The book follows William Marshal from the time he is 5 years old through to around 48 years of age (there will be another book to cover from then until his death that the author is currently working on). This is a fictionalised version of his life, taking the events that we do know from history, and then weaving and fleshing out the story into very readable, very enjoyable look at life in the times of the Plantagenet period of English history.
William was the fourth born son of John Marshal (Marshal to King Stephen), and nephew to the Earl of Salisbury. When he was approximately 5 years old William was handed off as to King Stephen as a hostage against his father's promise (not an uncommon event at that time). When William's father did not keep his word, King Stephen had every right to hang William, but he did not. What King Stephen did do was give William what would appear to be his life mantra - A King Values Loyalty.
When he was around 20 years of age William was knighted and began to participate in the tourneys that were part of the life in Northern France. After suffering a setback in his first major tourney, William quickly learns how to fight and win, and build his store of wealth. The author has done a great job at portraying the colour, and the pageant associated with the tourneys, but it was not an easy life, especially for a young man who was born with such limited prospects, and who is living in his uncle's house by his good grace alone. As his success continues and reputation grows, William becomes probably the most successful knight on the tourney circuit. In the epilogue, Chadwick compares the adulation that William Marshal would have received due to his success at the tourneys to that accorded to modern footballers now:
Rather like the sporting heroes of today, the great tourney champions were much in demand and sponsors would pay vast sums of money to have them on their 'team'. The world of high earnings, transfer fees, hero worship and celebrity that, for example, we associate with modern-day football was a concept already embraced by the followers of the tourney circuit in the late twelfth-and early thirteenth century Europe. William Marshal was the David Beckham of his day!
Whilst out riding with the Queen one day, William saves her life when they are attacked by a group of rebels. He is taken captive and is not released until someone pays the price of his release. Once he is released, William is appointed as tutor to the sons of Queen Eleanor, thus beginning a life long service to the Plantagenet family.
His service was to Prince Henry, who was eventually crowned the Young King concurrently with his father King Henry II. This was one of several things that I learnt whilst reading this book. I had no idea that it was the French tradition to crown the heir to the throne, whilst the current King was still alive. Another thing I learned was that tourneys were not at that time held in England because King Henry didn't like them.
If you know anything about the Plantagenet family, you will know that they were practicallly the model of the ultimate dysfunctional family (throughout the events of this book Queen Eleanor is being held as her husbands captive!) and it is not long before Prince Henry was fighting his father, and eventually openly rebelling against him, making alliances with his father's enemies. Whilst William did his best to contain his charge without upsetting him too much, William's enemies saw ideal opportunities to undermine his position and his authority. For with success in the Royal courts comes ambitious jealousy and dangerous gossip to which William falls prey when he is accused of having an affair with the Young Queen Marguerite, Henry's bride and sister of the French king. William is banished from court and begins a period of wandering, mainly making pilgrimages to atone for the sins of the desecration of a chapel that occurred under the order of Henry earlier.
Eventually recalled to court, William once again acts as right hand man to the Young King, knowing that it could well count against him with the King because of the open rebellion between the two Kings, but then the young king Henry is taken ill and dies. William takes time out and journeys to Jerusalem to fulfill the dying wish of his master. There is little known of this time in his life, and this is one area in which Chadwick chooses not to elaborate, keeping this mystery for us as we read through her book. When William returns to court, Henry recognises the loyalty that William displayed to his son and appoints him to his court, again rising to a position of authority and influence. And then it seemed that the cycle began again, this time with the rebellion between King Henry and his now heir Richard (known to us these days as Richard the Lionheart), and then between King Richard and his brother Prince John who is attempting to undermind Richard through underhanded scheming and dealing as Richard is held hostage in Austria and Prince John attempts to gain the throne any way he could.
Rewarded with various lands and gifts, one of the greatest gifts that William was given was the marriage to Isabel de Clare, bringing both what certainly appeared to be a happy marriage, but also children, lands, and wealth. In order to win this great prize though, William had still had to figure out whether to accept what he was given (for he was originally given another young ward with a view to marriage) or asking for more! He was ably assisted in this regard by Queen Eleanor who was a great champion for his cause.
Not only did William have to tread carefully as he made his way through the Plantagenet court, he also had to deal with his own family, finding himself more often than not on the opposite side of a quarrel to his own brother, and trying to ensure that his family was advanced as much as possible.
There is a great deal to cover to give animation to the facts that are known of the life of this man, and so the author moves through from event to event. There are times when the time difference between two chapters can be several years. Whilst at times I found these jumps a bit distracting and had to go back and check the dates so that I had it straight in my mind, this is probably the only criticism I would give. The William Marshal we meet is highly successful despite the attempts of his enemies to cause his downfall - a man with a very strong sense of integrity, honour and loyalty, who often has to contemplate whether these values will be enough to help in to survive in the very fickle world of court affairs.
Overall this was a very enjoyable read, spending time in the courts of Plantagenet England, one of my favourite eras in English history. I look forward to the second book to be released and will read it as soon as I get hold of it this time, and will be reading more from her!