The Knight of Knights

William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry

by Georges Duby, translated by Richard Howard
Pantheon, 155 pp., $15.95

It is a remarkable coincidence that the two most distinguished medieval historians of their generation in France and England respectively, Professor Georges Duby and Sir Richard Southern, have a particular gift in common, although their interests are very different. Both have a striking capacity for seizing on a single career, a single text, or a single event, and using it as a vehicle to convey, vividly and in brief compass, perceptions founded in profound and powerful learning. Professor Duby’s William Marshal is a small masterpiece in this genre.

Duby opens this biography, with typical originality, at the deathbed of William Marshal, called “the Marshal.” He died at his manor of Caversham, whither he had been carried by water from London, in March of the year 1219, when his body told him he could do no more. This is not only an original but a very effective opening, for it plunges us immediately into an unfamiliar world where things are done differently, and whose stock reactions and attitudes are strange to us.

William in 1219 was a very great man earl of Pembroke in his wife’s right, and up to the spring of 1219 he had been regent for the boy-king Henry III; so his death was a great event whose movements, as was to be expected in such a case, were publicly orchestrated. We are shown him making his dispositions on his bed and surrounded by his faithful men, putting his eldest son in seizin of his lands, setting his seal upon his will, receiving his final absolution, and calling for the silk cloths which he obtained in Palestine and which he would have spread on his body when it came to be buried in the Templars’ London church. We see the master of the Temple arrive to admit him to his order: this is when he bids farewell to his countess, whom afterward, as one bound by the order’s rule, he must not approach. We see him ordering his coffers to be opened and his goods distributed. Finally, we watch the stately progress of his body from Caversham to London, lying one night in Reading Abbey and another in the church of Staines, on its way to the Temple church, where it was buried near the tomb of Aimery, master of the Temple, “who had given up the ghost while awaiting the earl’s death.”

The last agonies of William Marshal lasted for nearly two months; Professor Duby is able to follow them in this strange and moving detail because their every movement was recorded in the verse biography that William’s heir commissioned of his father. For the historian this is a priceless text, virtually the only full-scale life story that has survived from this age of a great secular magnate who was less than a king or prince. Put together from what William’s friends, and above all his faithful knight John d’Erley, could recall of what William himself had told them of …

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