Why John FitzGilbert Marshal’s speech at Newbury should not be taken at face value By Elizabeth Chadwick

Some time around 1152 there was a bitter siege fought over a castle on the Wiltshire/Berkshire border.  William Marshal, about five years old, was a hostage to the men besieging his father’s castle andthe surety for his father’s agreement to yield the keep if help did not arrive within a specified time. When that was the case, William’s father, John FitzGilbert is supposed to have told the royalist forces to hang his small son because he had the ‘anvils and hammers’ to get better sons than him.  William survived his ordeal and went on to become a man touted as the greatest knight who ever lived, and Regent of England, living an extraordinary life along the way, among which his almost-hanging was only a single incident.  There is often a great deal of misunderstanding about the entire ‘anvils and hammers’ episode, and a tendency view the incident through the lens of modern mindset and at a superficial level.  So I thought I would write a blog article about that famous and infamous ‘Anvils and Hammers’ remark made by John FitzGilbert Marshal –  so often cited as a shocking example of how not to be a father!

There are the facts, and then the underlying facts, and one can’t get a true reading of the first without an awareness of the second.

So lets have a look at the facts.
In the mid 12th century there was civil war in England.  King Henry I had died and his only legitimate child was a woman, Matilda, who had recently returned from widowhood in Germany.  Henry had promised her the throne when he died.  Indeed, he had made his barons swear to uphold her – twice.  During the period between her return from Germany and his death, he married her to the 15 year old Geoffrey, son of the count of Anjou.  The count himself was about to head off to Jerusalem to become its king. What the 26 year old Matilda, an Empress, thought about marrying such a youth is not documented, although the couple separated shortly after their marriage for a while before getting back to together. Eighteen months later, Matilda produced her first son, the future Henry II, closely followed by Geoffrey and William.
Had Henry I lived, all would have been well in the world of the English medieval monarchy.  Little Henry would have grown to manhood under his grandfather’s tutelage and eventually have inherited the crown.  Unfortunately for all concerned, his grandfather died when Henry was only two and a half.  Matilda was in Anjou, pregnant with her third son, and in her absence, her cousin Stephen, who had also been in Henry’s pocket so to speak as one of the candidates for the crown, siezed his chance and claimed England and Normandy.  Most of the barons backed this move; they had no desire to be ruled by a woman, and even those who might have stood loyal to Matilda could do nothing because she was in Anjou expecting a baby.

helmetJohn FitzGilbert was the royal marshal at the time of Henry I’s death, and he was one of the majority of barons who swore for Stephen.  John would have been around the age of 30 at this time.  His task and dignity at court marked him out as a baron of middle rank.  He was married to a local Wiltshire heiress Aline Pipard whose wardship he had purchased, and he had two sons by her, Walter and Gilbert.  Stephen favoured John, granting him privileges and the royal town and castle of Marlborough and at Ludgershall to beef up his standing.
In 1139 the Empress came to England, landing at Arundel, and made her bid to take the crown that she claimed Stephen had usurped. For whatever reason, Stephen suspected John Marshal of duplicity and besieged him at Marlborough.
A digression into speculation here: My personal opinion is that John had fallen foul of the factions at court who thought he had been receiving too many favours, and felt that he should be put in his place. He had no strong affinities at Stephen’s court and a man isolated was a man who could be picked off and brought down. I think John jumped before he was pushed.

Back to the facts:  Whatever his reason, John swore for the Empress and adhered to her cause for the rest of the war.  His brother William joined her entourage as her chancellor.

 R Teste at Wherwell

The river Teste at Wherwell today

Unfortunately for John, the Empress’s attempt to regain the throne was not plain sailing. To cut a long story short she lost her advantage and while besieging the Bishop of Winchester at his palace of Wolvesely, she was almost captured. John was a few miles out of Winchester, dealing with a supply problem, when he heard that the troops of William D’Ypres, a Flemish mercenary in the pay of Stephen’s queen, were coming down the Andover road straight for him. If D’Ypres managed to break through, John knew Winchester would be encircled and the Empress seized.  He could either run and save his own skin, or stand hard and give the others a chance to escape. He chose to stand at Wherwell where there was a ford over the river Teste.

When D’Ypres arrived, fresh from sacking Andover, John engaged his troops and fought for as long as he could, but with D’Ypres’ numbers too great to withstand, John was eventually forced to retreat into the nunnery where he barricaded himself in. D’Ypres knew he couldn’t leave a man like John Marshal to create mayhem in his rear, so he ordered the nunnery to be burned along with the men inside it. There was destruction and chaos. Some of the troops fled the burning church only to meet their end on the edges of the mercenary’s swords. John barricaded himself in the tower with another knight and refused to come out. When his companion feared for their lives and wanted to surrender, John told him  he would kill him with his own hands if he mentioned that word again. They stayed put, but John paid the price when molten lead from the church roof landed on his face and burned out his eye. Once D’Ypres’ force had moved on, John staggered from the church with his companion, and the two of them made their way to safety – a twenty five  mile walk to Marlborough and John reeling from a terrible facial injury. Nevertheless, they made it and once recovered, John set out to recoup and regroup.

John’s most powerful neighbour in the region was Walter of Salisbury, hereditary sheriff of Salisbury (now known as Old Sarum). When Walter died, his son William replaced him, but died not long after the battle of Wilton in 1143. The second son, Patrick became lord of Salisbury and he supported Stephen. Looking to curtail his forceful neighbour in the Kennet valley, Patrick took up arms against John. John ably defended himself, although he had fewer resources than Patrick, and even if often on the back foot, it was never defeat. Eventually Robert Earl of Gloucester stepped between the men. He offered Patrick an earldom if he would come over to the Empress and he suggested that John divorce his wife and marry Patrick’s sister to make peace between them. The men agreed and sometime between 1144 and 1145, John Marshal annulled his marriage to Aline and took Sybilla FitzWalter to wife.

John and Sybilla swiftly began a second family. It’s perhaps telling that he only had two sons by his first wife in the course of fifteen years, but six (and perhaps seven) offspring with Sybilla over the same period. The first was born within a year of the marriage and christened John for his father. The second, (the fourth over all) destined for fame and legend was William, born in either 1146 or 1147.

The fighting continued and the Empress’s position grew more desperate as her adherents either gave up or died. She lost her stalwart supporter Miles of Gloucester when he was accidentally shot by one of his own men whilst out hunting. Her half-brother Robert of Gloucester died, and another mainstay Brian FitzCount retired to a monastery. The Empress herself departed England in 1148 and did not return, but her son Henry was waiting in the wings and growing up fast.


The Marlborough Downs close to John FitzGilbert’s manor of Rockley. Even in the 12thc the area was one of sheep husbandry and this scene would have been a familiar sight to John as he rode by.

For John FitzGilbert Marshal the period covered by the late 1140’s up to 1153 was a continuing dark time when he was involved in a war of slow grinding attrition. His lands were burned and ravaged by Eustace, the son of King Stephen and the best that John could manage was to grit his teeth and endure. He was known as a man of great cunning, a builder of castles ‘designed with wondrous skill’ and a man well able to attract men to his banner.  ‘He built castles designed with wondrous skill, in the places that best suited him; the lands and possessions of the churches he brought under his own lordship, driving out the owners whatever order they might belong to.’ 

At some point in the early 1150’s John built a castle at Newbury. The whereabouts of this place is now unknown and there has been much speculation as to where it was, including the manor at Hampstead Marshal which contains earthworks.  As far as I’m concerned, the answer is staring everyone in the face. It’s at Speen 1.4 miles from the centre of Newbury, standing on a high ridge overlooking the River Lambourn to the north and the Kennet to the south.  The Roman Road – Ermine street coming from Cirencester to Speen would have been close, and from the ridge viewpoint one can see for miles and miles. Interestingly the site used to be occupied by a house belonging to the Bishop of Salisbury. (see above quote in italics for why I find it particularly interesting).

Be that as it may, John fortified a position in the Newbury area and held it for the Empress. In the summer of 1152 King Stephen besieged it on his way to try and take Wallingford. The first assault battered John’s troops badly but they didn’t give in. Stephen didn’t want to sit down to besiege it. I suspect he knew how hard John Marshal could stand and that he would sell the castle very dearly indeed. John in his turn, knew he was in a dire situation and couldn’t hold out for much longer. He didn’t have the men and supplies necessary.  He asked Stephen for time to gain honourable permission from the Empress to surrender the castle. Stephen agreed, but told John that he must provide hostages and pledges for his good word. John agreed to do so and handed over as one of them, his small son William, who would have been around five or six years old.

With the time he had been given, John set about stuffing his keep to the rafters with men and supplies.

Stephen duly arrived on the appointed day to demand the surrender of the castle and John refused him and told him he would fight. When threatened with the execution of little William by hanging, John uttered those by now infamous words. Il dist ken e li chaleit de l’enfant, quer encore aveit les enclumes e les marteals dunt forgereit de plus beals. ‘He said that he did not care about the child, since he still had the anvils and hammers to produce even finer ones.’  (Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal)   That statement, taken in modern context is utterly shocking to readers. What a callous father. What a vile parent. Who could say that about their own child!  Horrific!

william child

photo courtesy of Rosemary Watson

Stephen could not bring himself to hang the boy, although for a time William became the plaything victim of the royal camp as he was also threatened with being flung from a catapult and squashed whilst strapped to a hurdle intended to attack the castle gate. This is often not mentioned in the various secondary source narratives concerning the incident. From what I have garnered elsewhere, young squires and captive sons were frequently subjected to such torments – rather like the traditional ‘punishment details’ for youths at public school.

Stephen took William into his household and John Marshal’s son seems to have settled well in his new life. He was happy and confident enough despite his ordeal to want to play a game with King Stephen, involving jousting with plaintain leaves. A servant was sent to keep an eye on William, ‘because his family had great fears that he would come to harm’ (Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal) but was caught in the act and chased away.

John’s castle at Newbury eventually fell to Stephen, but John had managed to buy that extra time for Wallingford. Stephen moved up to invest the latter and Henry came from Normandy to oppose him. Eventually a treaty was agreed whereby Stephen would keep the throne in his lifetime and Henry would inherit it on his death. Althought there were a few more skirmishes, the long civil war was in essence over and little William returned to the bosom of his family where he was to remain until being sent away in his teens for military training with the great Norman magnate William de Tancarville Chamberlain of Normandy, who was a distant relative of William’s mother.

Those are the facts.  Now to dig deeper.
1.That ‘anvils and hammers’ speech is only reported in a single source – The Histoire de Guillame le Mareschal.  The work is a poem of 20,000 lines detailing William Marshal’s life story from cradle to grave -including some scene setting before the cradle.  It was intended as a work for the immediate family, to be read out on William’s anniversary, or sung to music in the hall on appropriate occasions.  It’s a pro Marshal work with members of the Marshal family all cast in a highly positive light. So there are no gasps of shock issuing from that direction concerning John Marshal’s behaviour.  Rather, it’s a celebration of his ‘hammers and anvils’ in the face of terrible odds. This was a man who had his balls and intended keeping them!

2. Since this is the only source of the story, there is no proof that it was ever actually said. The ‘hammers and anvils’ are symbols of the office of Marshal.  It was another word for a blacksmith.  If one  looks at charters and town ordinances you will find a plethora of Marshals involved in the blacksmith trade – so it’s a pun on the Marshal name, and one that would have raised a rich chuckle as it was read out. Indeed, if you know your Marshals, the Histoire is a joy to read because it’s so full of secret Marshally puns!

3. This child that John supposedly did not care about?  William is protrayed in the Histoire as a confident, chirpy, happy little chap, eager to play games with adults. (just as my granddaughter might ask me to play snakes and ladders with her or snap with playing cards).  Confident enough to ask a grown man (the Earl of Arundel) if he could play with his decorated lance. No neglected, unvalued child is going to have that breeziness and confidence around armed men of rank and standing.  William is actively engaging with these men.  He’s full of himself and he likes their weapons

4. John Marshal had very little choice. If he’d yielded to King Stephen would have pushed through to Wallingford several weeks earlier than he did, and if Wallingford had fallen, then the entire Angevin cause would probably have toppled. Each day that John could withstand Stephen was an extra day gained for the Angevin cause. He was buying time. John Marshal hadn’t backed down at Wherwell, where his stand had allowed the Empress to escape. He hadn’t backed down before the superior strength of Patrick of Salisbury, and he wasn’t going to back down now, even if it meant gambling with his son’s life.

It’s not just two sides to every story, but a case of multiple facets and complexity. First find the facts, and then dig for the facts behind the facts.  Quite often the shell is not the same as the kernel, even though both are related.

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