Thursday 24 April 2014

The knight who saved England, William Marshal and the French Invasion, 1217 by Richard Brooks

Published by Osprey in 2014 retailing at £12.99
Richard Brooks is a free lance military historian with a reputation for writing analytical military history based on fresh research of original sources. One of his previous books, The Battlefields of Britain and Ireland, is considered the definitive work on the subject. His biography on Fred Jane (founder of Jane’s Fighting Ships and the Fred Jane Naval Wargame) is recognised as outstanding. Therefore, I was very interested when I heard about his new book by Osprey.

This book covers one of the lesser known heroes of the medieval world, William Marshal. He was a right hand man for three kings and the regent for a 4th. He was loyal to kings, respected by practically all, a fearsome knight at tournaments and a formidable general. His achievement in preserving England as a separate country is important today.
Based in part on The History of William Marshal, the first biography of a non-royal layman in medieval times, the work weaves a complex and detailed tale about the life and time of William Marshal. It covers the tournaments, the intrigue and politics, populated by accounts of the sieges and battles.

There are a number of factors that (to me) make Brooks’s style so interesting. One is his ability to bring together discussion of competing historical sources. Some historians simply state this is what happened, but Brooks outlines if there are different views before giving a reasoned decision which account he deems most likely. Another aspect is the narrative is interspersed with detailed analytical work on the technical aspects of early medieval warfare. Brook’s wider military knowledge is used to place this in a more general context, such as the analysis of the rate of march set against that achieved by armies from other periods of military history. Basically, in times of need, medieval armies could move very rapidly.
I have taken a close academic interest in the critical battle of Marshal’s career, The Battle of Lincoln (1217). This was a very important battle for England in the medieval era and 36 pages are devoted to a detailed investigation of this urban battle. Brooks has done some detailed battlefield walking and this is reflected in his excellent account. A criticism of the book is perhaps the map of Lincoln should have been included in with the chapter about the battle, rather than at the front of the book. I read half the chapter before I remember to check for the map in the front. Perhaps there should have been a note at the start of the chapter reminding the reader of the location of the map. However, this is just a minor point in a very enjoyable book.

 For those interested in medieval history, I whole heartedly recommend this particular book.