The Knight Who Saved England: William Marshal And The French Invasion, 1217, by Richard Brooks
One of the more interesting aspects of English history is the myth that the English Channel has formed a strong barrier against foreign invasion. This is definitely not the case. If we look at the history of Anglo-Saxon England, for example, England was repeatedly invaded by the Norse. In two occasions, most famously in 1066 and less famously in 1016, defeat of the reigning English monarch led to the conquest of England and its rule by foreigners who held it as part of a larger continental empire. This does not even begin to discuss the various successful invasions of England that have sprung from the continent, as in 1471, 1485 and 1689. The case of 1217 is like those latter three cases in that the foreign invasion involved was the result of division within England leading to the invitation of a foreign invasion, in this case by the Dauphin Louis VII of France. Yet the defeat of this foreign invasion which nearly destroyed the Angevin empire and almost toppled the Plantagenet dynasty and replaced it with French rule is little known or remembered in England today, except by those of us who are particularly fond of the bravery and motivating skill and tactical brilliance of one obscure William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, and reluctant but highly competent royal servant.
This book is a sizable one at about 300 pages with a few lengthy chapters full of excellent source criticism and a sizable amount of context. This book begins with a list of illustrations, preface, introduction, chronologies, and maps. After this the book proper begins with a look at the struggle over the Angevin inheritance that occurred within the Plantagenet family as well as between them and the French rulers who were continually interested in taking over Angevin territory within France (and eventually beyond) as well as the childhood of William Marshal in the contentious times of the Anarchy (1). After that comes a look at the rise of Marshal as a result of his skill as a knight in tournaments (2). This is followed by a discussion of his loyal service to Henry II as well as Richard Lionheart (3), where he was able to secure his own interests as well as the approval of the crown under difficult circumstances where he showed himself loyal and shrewd. After that the author discusses the conflict between King John and the French Dauphin (4), where King John repeatedly fell short. This is followed by a look at William’s conduct during the war against the Barons that was before and during and after the granting of the Magna Carta (5). Finally, after 200 pages of lead-up, the author talks about Marshal’s successful leadership in the Battle of Lincoln (6) as well as the naval Battle of Sandwich (7) that led to the treaty of Kingston that got the French out of England. At this point the author discusses the repercussions of Marshal’s victory for England and his own family (8), and there is a glossary, select bibliography, and index to close the book.
As is common in a book of this kind, the author spends a lot more time setting up the context of the Battle of Lincoln and the decisive naval Battle of Sandwich that gave William Marshal a lasting claim to be among the most patriotic heroes of English military history, an elderly man who had served five monarchs and who, in the final years of his life, rose up once again to defend his nation from enemies foreign and domestic to preserve England for the young and not really appreciative Henry III. While this might be tedious in lesser hands or about less interesting subjects, William Marshal is a compelling enough subject that the reader is likely not to mind reading about the course of Marshal’s long and productive life or the author’s interest in sources, not least the lengthy epic poem about Marshal’s life commissioned by his son, because those areas are interesting enough in their own right to be well worth reading even if the reader is curious to know how it is that an elderly knight from a somewhat poor and disreputable background as the younger son of a near-bandit became a savior of England while being old enough to collect retirement benefits (if such a thing existed in Plantagenet England). And that is a story well worth telling and reading.