At this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford over the weekend of 2nd-4th September, I was asked to be a panelist on a discussion titled ‘Heroes V Heroines – Mine’s Better than Yours!’ Which I guess was just a fun controversial title to sell it to the audience! :-)
I was on the panel with Joanna Hickson who was championing Jasper Tudor – in her mind’s eye he looks like Prince Harry! Angus Donald was championing Robin Hood via Wilikin of the Weald, the former fictitious and the latter a very real guerrilla fighter in early 13thc Kent. Suzannah Dunn championed Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth Fremantle was waving the flag for Arabella Stuart. Below is my talk advocating William Marshal as the hero par excellence, and I am happy to say that he won by a mile. I always expected him to – you don’t get many of his calibre down the centuries. We had just five minutes to convince the audience.
WILLIAM MARSHAL: MY HERO AND THE REASONS FOR MY CHOICE.
William Marshal began his career as a diplomat at the tender age of five years old when he was a hostage during a vicious civil war. His delightful charm convinced King Stephen, his father’s enemy not to hang him and they ended up playing games in the King’s flower-strewn tent.
William survived his ordeal and went on to become a great jousting champion in the tournaments on his white stallion Blancart. As a young knight he saved the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine during an ambush but was wounded and captured himself. In gratitude for his courage and sacrifice, Eleanor paid his ransom and took him into her household where he became the tutor in chivalry to her eldest son, Henry the Young King. He stuck by the young man through thick and thin, and when he died while rebelling against his father, William promised to take the Young King’s cloak to Jerusalem and fulfil the pilgrimage vow that his lord had been unable to complete. William made the arduous journey and spent 3 years in the Holy Land fulfilling that vow and returned to serve Henry II with that utter, steadfast loyalty and intelligence that he showed throughout his life. When the dying Henry was being hunted down by his son Richard the Lionheart in a hard chase, William turned his own horse and not only stood in Richard’s path, but brought Richard’s horse down to end the chase, even knowing it might mean the end for himself.
As it happened, Richard rewarded that loyalty by making William an earl and giving him the great heiress Isabelle de Clare in marriage. The first thing William did was take Isabelle away on honeymoon to get to know her for around 6 weeks. They went on to have 10 children – 5 boys and 5 girls. William was a man of balance in everything he did.
As a co-justiciar, William assisted Eleanor of Aquitaine to rule the Angevin Empire while Richard was on the 3rd crusade. He found himself having to walk a tightrope between the various factions and did so with astuteness and aplomb, always staying loyal to the crown but never shutting the door on negotiating with the opposition.
After Richard died he continued in this mode of operation. He had a really difficult time with King John who on more than one occasion accused him of treachery when their interests clashed, but William was savvy enough not to lose his cool and he was the man John called for when he found himself in dire straits with the church and the barons. William came to his aid and was at his side throughout the Magna Carta Crisis, and again a voice of reason. When John died, William was asked to take on the Regency. Basically there was no one else the barons would trust to take the job and all those many years of open-minded networking came to fruition. Not that William wanted the job entirely. He cried when he was elected – because of his age – he was 70, and because he felt that the situation they were in was hopeless.
Nevertheless, he wiped his eyes, took a stiff drink and got on with it. He got people talking, issued pardons, paid the troops from what he could scrape together, somehow held the economy together and he persuaded the invading French to leave English shores, first by the successful battles of Lincoln, where he led from the front, and then Sandwich, a sea battle where he observed and directed from the shore. And then by negotiation. William could and would fight if he had to, but was well versed in non combative diplomacy too.
The French dealt with, William and his advisers, issued a revised version of Magna Carta of which professor David Crouch says “It was William Marshal and his council who provided the final form of the text, and consigned it to the ages. William Marshal set the English monarchy and its peoples on a new and very distinctive course.’ It was the one taken into English statute law.
William died on a May morning in 1219 with his family in great grief around his bed. He had taken the vows of a Templar knight on his deathbed and was subsequently buried in the Temple Church in London where you can still visit his effigy. Even 20 years after his death, his tenants at Caversham were still remembering him as ‘Not just a good man, but the finest of them all.’
The bottom line is that The Marshal was an all round statesman and hero beyond the tourney field who, as the Nelson Mandela of his day, pulled it all together and not only saved the country but also reworked the Magna Carta as a document capable of posterity.