Shipway, George. The Knight.

Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

Born in India, educated at Sandhurst, Shipway was a career officer in the Indian Army, especially the cavalry. After World War II, he became a prep-school master and took up the writing of historical novels with a heavily military slant. His first, The Imperial Governor, set in Roman Britain, is still one of the best historicals I’ve ever read — and I read a lot of them. This is his second one, set during “The Anarchy” of early 12th-century England, and it’s also quite good.

It’s the beginning of 1136 and Humphrey Visdelou, second son of a very minor Norman baron in (I think) Wiltshire, is anxiously awaiting his twenty-first birthday, when he will be knighted. (Keep in mind that this really meant attaining the status of adult warrior, not merely being dubbed with a sword and called “Sir.”) His grandfather was at Hastings, his aged father (already in his fifties) spent his life fighting King Henry’s enemies, and Humphrey can’t wait for his turn. Of course, that’s really the only thing a young man of his rank can do. But then, while hunting with Anschetil, once his father’s sergeant and now his steward, Humphrey kills a man who attacks him. Fair enough, you would think, but the dead man is one of the household knights of his family’s worst enemy, and events quickly begin to snowball until the Visdelous are in great danger of being eradicated. Humphrey himself, the only survivor, suffers terribly before managing to regain his psychological balance as well as his health. He was saved from death, actually, by the timely intervention of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Constable of the Tower of London, and one of the most talented political schemers of the age. Humphrey develops a sort of fixation on Geoffrey and enters his service, and that changes his entire life.

All this is played out against the background of the chaos that followed the recent death of Henry I without a male heir. The king had forced his nobles to swear support for his daughter, Matilda (or Maude), the widow of Emperor Henry V and now the wife of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou (whom the Norman barons generally loathed). But the idea of a woman ruling the country was too much of a novelty and many of the great landowners instead favored Stephen of Blois, another grandson of the Conqueror, and they made him king. Matilda’s supporters weren’t buying it, though, and a generation of extremely bloody civil war ensued.

At the beginning, Humphrey has high ideals regarding the way a knight ought to behave, but it doesn’t take him long to discover that sheer survival means discarding those ideals. The young knight takes part in the Battle of the Standard, in 1138, up in Yorkshire, and the author does an excellent and thoroughly accurate job of showing the reader what warfare at that time and place was really like. (The best word is “harrowing.”)

The author also paints an accurate picture of the breakdown of England’s stable and relatively peaceful society, the collapse of the legal system, the resort to private wars among the aristocracy, and the ways in which the ordinary people suffered the most — as though their lives weren’t difficult enough already. Not only is his political and social history accurate, and dealt with in great and fascinating (and often gritty) detail, Shipway even personally lived on the fief the Visdelous once held. You will not only enjoy the book, you can be confident of what you learn from it.

Shipway’s eight historical novels don’t get nearly the attention they deserve but I’ll be tracking down the others.

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