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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Iain Soden

Ranulf de Blondeville: The First English Hero

Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2009. 160pp. $24.95. ISBN-10: 1848686935.

Iain Soden’s, Ranulf de Blondeville: The First English Hero, examines one of the central figures at the Angevin court at the turn of the thirteenth century. A consummate knight, crusader (he participated in the so-called Fifth Crusade), diplomat, and nobleman, Ranulf  (1170–1232) participated in some of the most important events of his time. Many of these events directly impacted his life: he lost significant lands and revenues following the crushing loss of Normandy to the French (1204), he was involved in the events surrounding the signing of the Magna Carta, he loyally served King John during the conflict with the barons, and he played an important role during the dark days of Henry III’s early reign. Ranulf served no less than four kings and rubbed shoulders in the highest echelons of Angevin society with such important personalities as William Marshal and Hubert de Burgh. His titles on both sides of the Channel underline his importance: he was at one time or another Duke of Brittany (de jure); Earl of Chester, Richmond, Lincoln, and Leicester; Viscount of Bayeux, Avranches, Vau-de-Vire, and St Sauveur-le-Vicomte; as well as Baron of St Sever. Despite such power and influence, Ranulf remains an unfamiliar figure to most modern readers, especially when compared to his more recognizable contemporary, the Earl Marshal.

The major strength of this work is Soden’s success in pulling Ranulf de Blondeville from the shadow of history and illuminating his life through engaging prose and splendid color photos. While this undertaking was undoubtedly facilitated by the simple fact that his subject led an exciting life in a time of powerful personalities and significant change, the author should be commended for presenting a richly detailed and accessible narrative of Ranulf’s life. In addition, Soden’s archaeological background adds an interesting insight to the narrative, particularly in his discussion of castles. Missing, however, is the penetrating historical analysis found in similar works, such as David Crouch’s superb study of William Marshal [1]. Indeed, the lack of analysis and contextualization causes the reader to learn a great deal more about the events of Ranulf’s life than the complex socio-political world in which he operated. Soden is also conspicuously less critical of Ranulf than the other historical individuals that appear in his study, as evidenced by his rather dramatic subtitle, “The First English Hero”. The result is an almost romantic image of the man, fashioned through misguided and often unsubstantiated analysis of the motives of the historical figures appearing therein. Particularly concerning in the discussion of motivations and mentalité is the absence of any treatment of chivalry, the predominant ideology influencing the knightly class of which Ranulf was a paragon. Less troublesome but still problematic is the deluge of historical figures and place-names which saturate the narrative, many of which are of only the most minor importance. As a consequence, even the specialist reader will be forced to deal with a measure of confusion.

Despite these limitations, Soden’s Ranulf de Blondeville is an engaging read that appeals to both a popular and scholarly audience. While both groups can take something away from this study, both will also have their respective gripes, whether stylistic or methodological. Dr. Soden should be commended for his research and engaging narrative, but those seeking deeper historical analysis will be left wanting.

Note

[1] David Crouch, William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219 (Longman, 2003)

Peter W. Sposato

University of Rochester <Peter.w.sposato@rochester.edu>

Page Added: January 2011