Philip D'Aubigny is a son of two worlds, the product of a very unusual time in history, and the witness of the end of an era.
Philip is a young nobleman of Norman-English extraction, training for knighthood, the aide and apprentice of his father, an important noble. He is inured to wearing armour, an excellent swordsman, and knows something of the affairs of state. Like any other young squire, he lives in a castle where the retainers have known him and trained him since his childhood.
But Philip's home is unique. Instead of the green hills of Wales, his father's castle stands in a valley of Palestine. Philip's fair skin has been beaten to bronze by the harsh sun of that country, and he is accustomed to the strange luxuries of the East.
For nearly a hundred years, the Crusader kingdom of Outremer—carved from Muslim-held territory in 1099—has kept its tenuous grip on the Holy Land, ruled by kings from Jerusalem. But now as Philip D'Aubigny grows to manhood, mutters of war come from the east; the knights of Outremer dwindle away, and charismatic but incompetent King Guy of Lusignan appears ready to be swayed by any counsel. Then the great Saracen general Saladin attacks Outremer and besieges Tiberias, and the chivalry of Outremer muster to their final battle at Hattin.
This account of the Second and Third Crusades for young people is a well-written, exciting, and relatively even-handed account of the fall of Outremer in 1187. Welch clearly intends to present accurate history through the eyes of an original character, and he does so with great skill.
It is a little difficult to review this book, because I came to it with a lot of baggage. In the Middle East there are many who have not forgotten the name of Salah ad-Din. Nor have I forgotten the names of Charles Martel, Digenes Akrites, or Baldwin the Leper. What an endeavour was Outremer! What a mission: to liberate the Holy Land from the tyrants who had trampled it for nearly five hundred years, to plant a kingdom and a community there, and to cling there for generations. The fall of Outremer, like the fall of the Byzantine provinces to Abu-Bakr in the 600s, was the extinguishing of a lamp and a legend.
With this view, I thought that this book—though a serviceable and enjoyable adventure story—could have made more of the events. Like many current historians—though not as offensively as most—Welch depicts the Christians as relatively barbaric next to the Saracens. For example, at one point, an old crusader scoffs at the Saracen idea of cleaning wounds—his advice is to just wrap it up and let the blood and pus fight it out. As a matter of fact, the importance of cleaning and airing a serious wound was well known to medieval European physicians.
I got the feeling that Welch did not truly understand the grand significance of the history he described. There were also snippets of the history I wish he'd spent more time on. The story of Baldwin IV's victory at the battle of Montgisard, for example, is the most incredible story you'll ever hear about a mild-mannered sixteen-year-old leper king leading his knights into battle to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And the story of Balian of Ibelin's defence of Jerusalem after Hattin is another story worth hearing, only known to Western audiences these days through the false and twisted 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven.
The stories of Outremer are the stories of one of the greatest adventures of Christendom, and should be familiar to all of us. Knight Crusader is a wonderful place to start learning some of these stories.
Ronald Welch went on to write a whole series of books set around Philip's descendants, the Carey family, who inherit their ancestor's skill with a sword, and who fight For the King in the English Civil War, act as a spy and Captain of Dragoons during Marlborough's campaigns, Escape from France during the Revolution, and even wind up as a Tank Commander during World War I. The series is great historical adventure but, sadly, out of print and as scarce as hen's teeth. The publisher has, I hear, absolutely refused either to republish the books or to sell the rights. Keep an eye out for these at second-hand booksales.