(p. C7) On Saturday, May 20, 1217, two armies gathered outside Lincoln, a walled cathedral town in the northeast Midlands of England. One was a party of barons loyal to the French prince Louis the Lion, who had come to batter down the walls of the town’s large stone castle. The second party was there to relieve the siege. It was led by an energetic 70-year-old: William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, the most famous knight of his time and one of the most storied men in Christendom. Marshal was the official guardian of the 9-year-old English king Henry III, whom Louis was aiming to replace. Lincoln was one of the most important strategic military bases in England, controlling the major roads between London, York and the southwest. The fate of a kingdom really did rest in William Marshal’s hands.
According to a 19,000-line verse biography, written in old French during the 1220s and commissioned by Marshal’s son, the aged hero prepared his men for a battle with a barnstorming speech. “Those men have seized and taken by force / our lands and our possessions,” he cried. “Shame upon the man who does not strive, this very day, to put up a challenge / . . . if we beat them, it is no lie to say / that we will have won eternal glory / . . . I can tell you that they will come to a sticky end / as they descend into Hell.” Then Marshal was astride his horse and at the front of the charge. He was so excited that he nearly rode off to fight without his helmet on.
. . .
Marshal was one of the few loyal men left at the end of John’s reign, and in June 1215 he helped broker Magna Carta, the document that (temporarily) mollified the king’s opponents by granting them a long list of legal rights and privileges. John died the next year, and the now-elderly Marshal was appointed as guardian to Henry III. He reissued Magna Carta as a political manifesto, rather than a peace treaty, which helped to begin the charter’s long and legendary afterlife. He won the battle of Lincoln, and then he died. His corpse was wrapped in silk that he had brought home from a journey to the Holy Land.
For the full review, see:
DAN JONES. “The Servant of Five Kings; One of the few men who remained loyal to King John, William Marshal helped broker Magna Carta.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Jan. 10, 2015): C7.
(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs added; ellipses internal to paragraph, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 9, 2015.)
The book under review, is:
Asbridge, Thomas. The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones. New York: Ecco, 2014.