Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Marshal Trilogy by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Greatest Knight ~ The Scarlet Lion ~ A Place Beyond Courage.

William Marshal pulled off a really neat trick – a vanishing act, no less.

He was one of the most powerful and  influential figures of his age.  He was so well-known, in fact, that he even had a slanderous folk song written about him – Queen Eleanor’s Confession.

And yet, with time, his memory faded from public consciousness so completely that today comparatively few people  – apart from Mediaeval historians – have ever even heard of him.

Actually, that should probably read “Mediaeval historians and fans of Elizabeth Chadwick”, because the author has taken the real life William Marshal and woven a series of beautifully crafted novels around him and his family.  Whether this was foolhardy or brave, I’m not sure. I only know that it worked.

When you write about characters who are entirely of your own invention, no-one can start jumping up and down shouting “But that’s not right!” because they’re in possession of some obscure detail unearthed from a mouldy corner of a forgotten library.  They’re your characters and you can make hay with them.  They can do or say absolutely anything you want them to – no matter how outrageous.

When you write about real people you have a responsibility towards them.  They cannot defend themselves, and it really doesn’t matter that they died some 800 years ago – they deserve the same respect as if they had died yesterday.

Incorporating real people into works of fiction is not, of course, remotely unusual.  An entire industry has grown up around Richard III  – and there can scarcely be a British monarch who hasn’t popped up in a  novel somewhere, up to and including our own dear Queen.  What IS unusual is to see it done quite this well.

Elizabeth Chadwick combines a finely-honed storyteller’s skill with a sure grasp of history to produce a three novels that tell the extraordinary story of the the man who rose through ability, integrity and a well-developed instinct for self-preservation to become 1st Earl of Pembroke and  Regent of All England.  He served five monarchs … from Henry the Young King through to the child king Henry III, remaining fit and active – mentally and physically – into his early 70s … an almost unheard of life span for the late 12th/early 13th Century.

In her hands, William Marshal comes vibrantly to life, along with his equally arresting wife Isabelle de Clare – no mere cipher this girl … but a feisty lady with a mind (and a mouth) of her own.

I read the books in the order in which they were written – The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion first and then A Place Beyond Courage, which is in effect the prequel to the first two.  It tells the story of William’s shrewd and hard-headed father John and latterly of William as a small boy, held to ransom by King Stephen when John elected to side with the Empress Matilda.

Of the three novels – all of which stand alone and don’t actually need to be read together – I personally found A Place Beyond Courage marginally the less involving.  I suspect that this was simply a result of my having become so immersed in the world of the adult William and his family that I found it hard to retrace my steps;  because it’s certainly just as well written as its predecessors, the period is just as well portrayed and the characters are no less well-drawn.  To anyone coming fresh to these three books, I think I’d  recommend reading them in the correct historical order – although of course, you could then run the risk of getting too engrossed in John …

Elizabeth Chadwick serves the Marshals well.  She brings a complicated and tumultuous period of history vividly to life, never letting the romantic elements overwhelm the historical ones.  Many ‘historical romances’ just use an historical background as a vehicle for what is actually a bog-standard love story in long frocks.  William and Isabelle’s real-life love story becomes an integral and  important  part of history – which is of course exactly what it was.

A Place Beyond Courage.  Sphere. ISBN: 978-0751539011.  544pp.
The Greatest Knight.  Sphere.
ISBN: 978-0751536607.  560pp.
The Scarlet Lion.
Sphere. ISBN: 978-0751536591.  592pp.

(You will find Moira’s interview with Elizabeth HERE)

20 comments on “The Marshal Trilogy by Elizabeth Chadwick

  1. Trilby
    October 8, 2008

    I’d thought that William the Marshall (aka William Marshal!) was still quite well-known – at least, to anyone who studied the Magna Carta at school…

    The books do look very romance-y, though – would you say they fall more on historical soap end of histfic?

  2. Elizabeth chadwick
    October 8, 2008

    I give talks to groups about the Marshals where I ask people who have heard of him to raise their hands. In a room of forty people I’ll usually get about three hands going up and more often than not those hands are raised by people who have read the novels.
    We are in a society now where Magna Carta isn’t studied at school, or not at the level where the name of the Marshal would emerge. Of late he has come back into awareness via the Temple Church, a television documentary and computer games, but I would say it’s still a very patchy awareness and often misrepresented.
    As to looking romancey – the covers are deceptive and geared to maximise sales. (which more than quadrupled when the covers were changed from bog standard paintings to this style). Yes, there is romance in there, but not to the exclusion of the history which I have researched in depth (I am about to be contacted for advice by someone doing a thesis on the Marshals. A student who has already written a thesis on Isabelle de Clare tells me I have got her right). The Scarlet Lion was nominated one of the ten landmark historical novels of the last decade by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society.
    Bernard Cornwell’s core readership are men but with a strong outer circle of women readers (self included). My core readership are women but with a strong outer circle of male readers – so the romance certainly isn’t ‘frilly’ (smile).

  3. Linda
    October 8, 2008

    Elizabeth Chadwick is a favorite author. Except for one hard-to-acquire novel, I’ve read everything she’s written (currently over half-way through the newest one, just published this month). Since all of her novels are so well-written, and so enjoyable to read, it is indeed hard to pick a favorite ….. But, the Marshall trilogy are indeed my favorites.

    Enjoyed your review, Moira, and look forward to Friday’s interview.

  4. Moira
    October 8, 2008

    Alas, Trilby … I think you’ll find that poor old William is pretty much unknown to the proverbial Man on the Clapham Omnibus. Although he is part of my (and obviously your!) mental luggage … I don’t believe that who he was and what he achieved is common knowledge any longer. I did a quick vox pop amongst my friends and colleagues, none of whom I would exactly class as intellectual slouches, and only ONE of them had even vaguely heard of him.

    I could be misjudging the situation … I’ll be interested to hear what other people have to say.

    The covers – although glorious things in their way – are a little misleading. The books aren’t quite as romance-y as the covers make them seem. There’s good, solid historical meat in them … but I think I’d have to say that they certainly have some soapy elements, too, but are none the worse for it.

    The main character in ‘Greatest Knight’ and ‘Scarlet Lion’ is undoubtedly Marshal himself … and Elizabeth’s knowledge of his life and times is impressive.

  5. Moira
    October 8, 2008

    Ah … Elizabeth … we crossed. I’m glad we’re both saying the same thing, basically!

  6. Trilby
    October 8, 2008

    Thanks for that, Moira – and Elizabeth!

  7. Trilby
    October 8, 2008

    Should say, I had the benefit of being reminded of Wm Marshal at uni quite recently – might not have seemed quite so obvious had I not 🙂

  8. Elizabeth chadwick
    October 8, 2008

    Yes, we’re singing from the same hymn sheet Moira!
    I think the soap comment is interesting – not getting defensive here at all, just pondering the matter. Soap is drama, surely and part of the lifeblood of a novel, and even with historical content, soap is bound to feature. The life stories of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine must be one of the great soap operas of English history!

  9. Moira
    October 8, 2008

    Heavens yes! Put them in modern dress and they’d be right at home in ‘Neighbours’ … or even better – ‘Sons and Daughters’. Anyone else remember ‘Sons and Daughters’? :mrgreen:

  10. Trilby
    October 8, 2008

    LOL – yes, indeed, Moira!

    Apologies, Elizabeth – I’d reached for “soap” as shorthand for heaving bosoms and fanciful intrigue (inasmuch as, say, the Beeb’s “Tudors” series is rather soapy – witness the use of music composed during the reign of Charles II employed for dramatic effect!) but I do understand that covers can be misleading. Moira’s review certainly didn’t give this impression.

  11. Elizabeth chadwick
    October 8, 2008

    No need for apologies Trilby!
    There are bosoms (but not too much heaving 🙂 The Marshal, among his other duties was in charge of regulating the royal prostitutes). There is often intrigue – most of it based on historical fact, but occasionally helped along by informed imagination. Who did kill Prince Arthur?
    With the covers, I really wanted a man centre stage for A Place Beyond Courage – as on the cover of The Greatest Knight, since John Marshal is the centre piece of the story, but all he gets is a face corner and half a hand. I do like the cover for it though as a whole and I think it will sell.
    I saw a drama about Anne Boleyn a while ago – not the current series of The Tudors where Anne was doing the heaving bosom thing so hard that she looked as if someone was standing behind her with bicycle pump.
    Passing through the sitting room the other day when my son’s girl friend was watching The Tudors, I happened to see it for the first time. ‘Why hasn’t Henry got red hair?’ I asked. ‘Why isn’t he fat?’ – well fatter than the actor playing him anyway. Girlfriend looked up at me. ‘This is the non-fat non-ginger version,’ she said. Fine 🙂

  12. joanne
    October 8, 2008

    I couldn’t say for sure since I live north of the border, but William and Isabel seems a bit more wellknown in New Ross in Ireland, which he founded.
    I’m currently coveting these tapestries…
    and plan to visit next year when they’re open to the public.

  13. Trilby
    October 8, 2008

    “Anne was doing the heaving bosom thing so hard that she looked as if someone was standing behind her with bicycle pump.”


    Ah, but wasn’t Henry really quite good looking and sportif – a real renaissance man – in his youth? Although I’ll admit to wondering why hair and make-up couldn’t have gone with a ginger look for Jonathan Rhys-whatshisname…

  14. Elizabeth chadwick
    October 8, 2008

    Joanne, those tapestries are wonderful aren’t they!
    I’m not sure that Isabelle de Clare was held in the Tower of London from the age of four, I’d put her age as older than that. I also put down to artistic license the notion of Isabelle de Clare galloping about with a bare head (shocking!) and William on ship board wearing his armour – especially in a storm! But yes, the overall effect is gorgeous and I certainly covet them myself! I really like all the extra representation of events told in the borders. It’s also interesting to see the shield Isabelle is bearing in the riding picture. Her father was a de Clare, so from that line, her shield should be a red background with gold chevrons rather than lozenges. I had read somewhere that the shield she is bearing was the one borne by the earlier Marshal family before William raised his green and gold banner at Lagny Sur Marne in 1181, but I also suspect it may be the badge of Isabelle’s Irish family. I’m curious now I’ve seen it in an Irish context.

  15. Elizabeth chadwick
    October 8, 2008

    Ah, but wasn’t Henry really quite good looking and sportif – a real renaissance man – in his youth? Although I’ll admit to wondering why hair and make-up couldn’t have gone with a ginger look for Jonathan Rhys-whatshisname…

    Yes, he was supposed to be, but he was into the Boleyn marriage then and should have started to look a bit floppy round the six-pack. 😛
    Here’s Keith Michelle in the role doing the young Henry

  16. Elizabeth chadwick
    October 8, 2008

    Just been looking at the tapestry again. The marriage information is wrong. Isabelle and William were married in London and then went to Stoke D’Abernon AFTER the marriage. It’s there in the primary source The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal for all to read in English translation. I do wish official people would get their facts right. They were married in London (no one knows where; it is assumed St Paul’s by historians, and they spent their wedding day at the home of important London merchant and official Richard FitzReinier.

    ‘Once that fine, splending wedding ceremony had taken place in a manner that was fitting, I know that the Marshal took the lady to stay with Sir Engelram d’Abernon at Stoke….’

    Hmm, perhaps I should write to them…

  17. joanne
    October 8, 2008

    I’m sure they’d appreciate your input – no sense in putting out material that’s incorrect.

  18. Jackie
    October 8, 2008

    As a longtime Chadwick fan, I’ve been looking forward to this week’s pieces on the author & her books. This trilogy is hard to find in the US, so I’ll have to special order them from the library, as I’ve read all of her other novels. I like the mix of history & relationships, she makes the people really come alive, as if they are current personalities, rather than from hundreds of years ago. I also like how Ms. Chadwick ranges over the time period instead of keeping to a narrow time focus as so many historical authors do. There’s more to the Middle Ages than the Tudors!
    These covers are very similar to what is done on recent Phillipa Gregory novels. While they are nice, I prefer the lovely paintings on earlier Chadwick novels, such as “The Winter Mantle”.

  19. Pingback: The Leibster Award | Medieval Bex

  20. Kathy Sterndahl
    December 10, 2018

    I first heard of William Marshal when I discovered last year that he is my 23rd great-grandfather. Soon after that, I found a used copy of Georges Duby’s William Marshal, the Flower of Chivalry in a charity shop in Mexico, where I live. Now I’ve discovered these books and am excited to immerse myself in his life with this series.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s



Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.


  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • %d bloggers like this: