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Thursday, 27 March 2014

Review: 'The Greatest Knight: William Marshal' (BBC 2), presented by Dr Thomas Asbridge

Dr Thomas Asbridge
Following hot on the heels of the first instalment of Robert Bartlett’s BBC series on the Plantagenets comes another BBC production, ‘The Greatest Knight: William Marshal’, a documentary presented by Thomas Asbridge. Marshall, Asbridge tells us at the outset, is a ‘forgotten hero of our history’. While this assertion is sure to have induced puzzlement among students of the Middle Ages, it may be interpreted as a sign that Asbridge’s efforts are targeted at a general audience.
Much of what was covered in last night’s documentary is well-trodden ground, in some cases quite literally so, given that several of the locations visited by Asbridge, including the tomb of Henry II at Fontevraud, the hall of the ducal palace in Poitiers, and the castle of Le Mans, all featured in the first episode of Bartlett’s Plantagenets series. The chronological scope of Asbridge’s documentary – from the middle of the twelfth century during the reign of King Stephen down to the Magna Carta crisis – is also the same as Bartlett’s first episode. More striking, however, is the proximity between Asbridge’s documentary and Saul David’s 2008 Timewatch special on William Marshal. The 2014 and 2008 productions share a title (‘The Greatest Knight’). Like David, Asbridge took a New York cab to the Morgan Library in order to consult the manuscript containing the History of William Marshall. Asbridge spoke to the same curator (one William Voelkle) featured in the Timewatch episode, and even highlighted a passage in the History to which David had drawn attention (that wherein the young Marshall is described as lazy and greedy). In terms of presenting style, Asbridge is more of a Bartlett than a David. Whereas David’s documentary featured ‘talking head’ interjections from prominent scholars including David Crouch and David Carpenter, Asbridge, like Bartlett, generally eschews that approach. The difference between the presenting styles of Asbridge and David are manifest in other ways. David sought to try and see the world through Marshal’s eyes by donning armour and taking part in a joust. Asbridge in contrast, limited himself to a careful twirl of one of the Wallace Collection’s oldest swords. To do so, he had to don blue surgical gloves, and contend with a curator hawkishly watching over him.

Given the familiarity of the subject matter of this documentary, then, did Asbridge succeed in putting his own stamp on proceedings? In one important respect, he did. He accomplished this by placing the History of William Marshall (‘a priceless window into the Medieval world’) at the very heart of his enquiry. When introducing the History near the outset, Asbridge pointed out that historians must interpret this text as a literary construction written to project a carefully tailored image of its subject. He acknowledges that the historical Marshall and the characterisation of him in the History are not necessarily one and the same. (The extent to which the latter can be disaggregated from the former is a matter that often vexes modern scholars). In conversation with the Morgan Library’s curator, Asbridge even adduces some of the salient details regarding the circumstances of the History’s provenance and reception. This is an approach which exhibits a high level of trust in the audience’s critical ability. It is not typical of a primetime documentary intended for airing on the BBC, and is all the more admirable for it.
The hour unfolded with Asbridge tracing the course of Marshal’s life, pointing out certain moments wherein he appears to have acted out of a desire to conform to the contemporary martial ethos which governed knightly behaviour – or, as Asbridge called it, chivalry. While academics might take issue over what ‘chivalry’ consisted of in the age of William Marhsall, and the extent to which it actually did have a bearing on the thoughtworld of the warriors of that period, it would have overcomplicated matters to have done so in this context. Asbridge’s interest focussed chiefly on Marshal’s role in the high politics of his age. The choice to open and close the documentary at Westminster was deliberate; for Asbridge, the ‘greatest revelation of William Marshal’s life’ were the attempts by men of his ilk to limit royal power, which played a part, his argument went, in the development of the system of governance under which we in Britain presently live. There is perhaps no audience better qualified than those who read this blog to discuss how that claim squares with Marshal’s vigorous attempts to shore up royal authority over the rebellious barons of England during the first years of Henry III’s minority after John’s death in 1216.


  1. Amongst the nine stone effigies of Knights in Temple Church London is that of William Marshall. He is depicted with his feet resting on a standing dog, his pillow is a water pitcher. When the original Templar returned from the Holy Land they brought back with them huge amounts of gold, silver and Temple artefacts recovered from under Temple Mount. All this treasure was concealed at various locations and marked by using the chess board as a map, each location symbolised by the effigy of a Knight on the appropriate square. Knights on black squares are depicted with crossed legs. The characteristics and placing of each Knight on the chess board describes the location of the treasure site. It would seem that there is yet more that William Marshall the 1st Earl of Pembroke could reveal.

  2. A treasure may exist but where would it have been hidden?