When I read the books about William Marshal, especially “The Greatest Knight” by Elizabeth Chadwick, I imagined William’s father as a cruel person, without much feeling to his son. Probably the author was of the same opinion while writing these novels, but she might have changed her mind later when looking into the story of John FitzGilbert. The book “A Place beyond courage” is devoted to him entirely. The book depicts his “best years” – no childhood and no death, just adulthood.
John FitzGilbert is known now as William Marshal’s father and the man who said the famous phrase “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!“. The phrase intended for King Stephen who held his son William as a hostage. William was threatened death if his father did not yield. And John indeed did not! However, King Stephen was a medieval gentleman who tried to be soft to women and children. Therefore, William almost grew up at King Stephen’s court and made the name “Marshal” famous becoming the best knight, crusader, politician, land owner, the head of the large and wealthy household, the father of many sons, and finally the regent over all the England.
From the start of the book, we see John FitzGilbert as a smart, ambitious, strong, but cautious person who knows how to deal with people (and women!) He is also a sensuous lover and a handsome man. As a marshal, he also took care of finances. Unfortunately, soon after the death of the king Henry, the country splits in the endless struggle of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. John FitzGilbert, first at the King’s side, soon discovers he has too many enemies at the court. He has to face the unsavoury choice – to back the Empress Matilda who is not supported by many due to her sex, but whose son Henry seems promising as a future King. John’s life turns to war since he often has to attack or more often, to defend what he gained and kept for the future King Henry II. His handsome face grew disfigured by the terrible fire at Wherwell Abbey when he covered the Empress’ retreat; he lost an eye there.
Still the book is not all war and politics – much attention is given to the women. While still young, John marries Aline Pipard as she is a heiress and needs protection and a good husband. However, this marriage proves unsuccessful as Aline lacks strength of both body and soul. She would prefer to be a nun, or have a tender husband who keeps peace around her. And fortunately when the his fate is crossed with one of Patrick of Salisbury, he is offered the hand of Patrick’s sister, Sybilla. Sybilla is another kind of woman than Aline. She is courageous, sensuous, practical, and she is the right match for John. However even their feelings are tested when William, their beloved son, is taken as a hostage.
I liked this book a lot due to the following reasons:
– King Stephen and the Empress Matilda are not so famous as Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons, but the period of their wars is no less interesting.
– The story shows various characters, John himself being not so perfect as his son William.
– I wondered what the man could feel when he said his famous “hammer and anvils” speech knowing his son’s life was at risk, what was the family’s reaction, etc. This is very interesting in the view of psychology.
Finally, this book is written in Elizabeth Chadwick’s good style and is in no way boring. Great book to read and explore the medieval history as well as the fates of people!