Speculation on what William Marshal did during his time in Outremer.

William Marshal’s heraldic device. Matthew Paris 13th century.

Recently I was commissioned to write a novel about the great William Marshal and what he did during his time pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 1183 and 1186.

It is a subject I had been wanting to write about for a while.  We know very little about the Marshal’s deeds during his time on pilgrimage beyond the fact that he obtained his own silk burial shrouds, brought them home with him, but told no one about them for thirty years until he was on his death bed.  He also let slip that during his time in Outremer (the name given by Europeans to the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and connected lands) he had given his body to be buried by the Templars wheresoever he should die, although clearly, he did not take full Templar vows at that time.

What little we do know comes from a biographical document written soon after the Marshal died and commissioned by his eldest son, also called William. Titled the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, it details William Marshal’s life from cradle to grave.  It’s just under 20,000 lines long and out of all those lines only thirty are concerned with his doings in the Holy Land and the information does not fully accord with known history. The writer of William’s biography, a French scholar called John, says he that he knows very little of what happened.

‘I was not there, I did not witness (his deeds), nor can I find anyone who can tell me them…Of his journey and the places where he stayed, I say nothing, for there is nobody who can tell me about such.’

The dearth of information has led to all manner of speculation and theories from scholars, from ordinary interested armchair historians, and from novelists such as myself about what William actually did do on his pilgrimage – often referred to erroneously as his crusade.

What set William off on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land was the death of his lord, Henry the Young King (however, it should be noted that William had already before 1183 gone on pilgrimage to the recently completed shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne, so perhaps he had a taste for such journeys. Certainly the tourneys and service to the Angevin kings would have made him accustomed to a wandering lifestyle and we don’t know if he visited shrines and pilgrim centres with his family as a child).

Henry The Young King was the son and heir of King Henry II of England and so titled because his father had had him crowned in 1170 when he was fifteen, in order to make certain of the succession. Around the time of his coronation, William, then a young household knight in his 20’s and in the service of Eleanor of Aquitaine, was appointed the young man’s tutor in chivalry and marshal of his household. Over the next 13 years, the Young King was to rebel twice against his father.  The first rebellion in 1173-4 failed and his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was imprisoned for her part in it, for the rest of Henry II’s life.  Reconciled to his father, at least for a while, young Henry embarked on a playboy lifestyle on the tourney circuits of northern France, with William Marshal as his team manager.  After a rocky start, the new ‘England team’ learned their business and became the stars of the sport.  However, problems were brewing. William was temporarily banished from the Young King’s household after being accused of dishonourable dealings with the Young King’s wife and being too forward with his own prowess.  The charges were most likely trumped up because William was later – after his visit to Cologne – welcomed back into the Young King’s household.  Henry Junior was at war with his father again and needed the Marshal’s military expertise.

French Virgin and Child 1190s Church of St Martin, Jouy-en-Josas

Without his father to bankroll him, Young Henry soon ran out of money and had to resort to robbing shrines in order to pay his mercenaries. William Marshal was with him and responsible also for paying these hired soldiers and would have colluded with the Young King’s efforts to accumulate the necessary sums.  Shortly before he died, the Young King robbed the shrine of Our Lady at Rocamadour in the Limousin.  Prior to that, he had also robbed the shrine of St Martial according to chronicler Bernard of Itier. Seizing 52 marks of gold, 103 marks of silver, and the church treasury. One assumes that very similar happened at the Shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour and may have been a reason (see later in the article) for William Marshal’s particular devotion to the Virgin Mary.

In June 1183, soon after his visit to Rocamadour, the Young King, suffering from dysentery, became grievously ill at his lodging in Martel in the Limousin.  It swiftly became clear that he was dying.  His father was sent for but refused to come because he feared treachery, and instead of hastening to his son’s bedside, he sent a ring in token of his concern instead.

As his condition worsened, Henry entreated William Marshal to take his cloak and pilgrim’s cross to Jerusalem and lay them at the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre in atonement for his worldly sins.  William agreed to do so, perhaps feeling that his own soul was in mortal peril for what he had done.

Shortly after that, the Young king died, stretched out on a bed of ashes on his chamber floor, the rope of a penitent around his neck.  William was left with no lord, a burden of guilt, and a sacred mission to take his master’s cloak all the way to the Holy Land and ‘pay his debts to God.’ It was a sacred trust that he took on.  Failure to do so might well imperil his lord’s mortal soul.

We know from the Histoire that King Henry gave William a hundred pounds in exchange for his two best horses.  We also know that other, unspecified people donated money and gifts and that before William set out he went to visit his family in England to bid his farewells, including his sister Matilda.  Presumably he also bid farewell to his other siblings but the Histoire makes no mention of those moments.We do not know if he visited his young lord’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, imprisoned in either Old Sarum or Winchester Castle – although it’s likely that he did. He had been her household knight for at least two years before being engaged to care for her eldest son.

We don’t know when William set out for the Holy Land, although the Histoire does tell us that he ‘had no wish to delay.’  Since his young lord died in June and was finally interred in Rouen in July, William could have set out any time after the end of July.  The Histoire tells us that he spent two years in the Holy Land without returning.  We know from primary sources that he was in Normandy and had rejoined the royal court by February 1186.  If we take it literally that he spent two years in the Holy land on its soil, and then add on time for his journeys, it would accord with him arriving there in the autumn of 1183 and departing in the autumn of 1185.  However, if we take it that he spent two years away in total and we know for definite he was home by February 1186, that means he would not have departed until February 1184.  But that doesn’t accord with the Histoire saying that he wanted to leave for Outremer as soon as possible – a gap of 7 months would not fit that  criteria. Therefore, the first assumption bears a lot more weight.

How did he travel?  There seems to be a notion among historians (Thomas Asbridge for example) that the Marshal travelled to the Holy Land by ship – the quicker to get there and get stuck-in fighting the Saracens (seems to be the sub-text here).  However, we don’t know whether he did or not.  The pilgrim route to Jerusalem could and did involve sea travel. The latter was becoming increasingly popular as the 12th century advanced and became the 13th,  although in 1180 it was still only one of many options.  The land route had been taken by individuals and small groups for centuries. Various crusades had taken the land routes too and that included the second one involving Eleanor of Aquitaine.  As the Young King’s mother, she may have had a say in discussing the route with the Marshal and she may well have talked of her adventurous travels with her romantically minded, chivalry-steeped eldest son and left a lasting impression.

Byzantine reliquary cross circa 1190 V&A

One of the ways to gain credits in heaven was to embark on a pilgrimage as a road of hardship and to gain remission from one’s sins by praying at various holy places along the way.  And the holy places themselves were in competition with each other and vied to offer the best indulgences and remissions they could so as to attract the pilgrims.  Jacques de Vitry said in the early 13th century that there was ‘nothing more efficacious and satisfying than the labour of the pilgrimage.’  If William could pick up remissions for his sins and pray for his young lord’s salvation along the way, then it would be of great benefit in Heaven and help to balance the scales.  Also, if he took the land route it may well have taken him via Sicily or Apulia where King Henry’s daughter Joanna was queen.  She had had a close bond with the Young King her brother, and may well have desired news of William’s pilgrimage, and of her family.   William’s uncle, Stephen of Perche, although now deceased, had been for a short while Archbishop of Palermo.

The conclusion has to be that we don’t know the route the Marshal took.  Unless he set off very soon after the Young King’s burial, the sea routes to the Holy Land would have been closed for the autumn and winter, but that’s not to say that some enterprising and courageous ship master might have been willing to take him, or he might just have caught the last sailings.  However, the likelihood of land versus sea at this stage in the 12th century and given the Marshal’s circumstances is a level playing field.  We don’t know.

It’s unlikely that the Marshal travelled alone to the Middle East. By 1183 he had his own small affinity of followers who would probably have accompanied him, and perhaps some of the Young King’s entourage under the same brief as himself – seeking atonement for themselves and their young lord. Perhaps William was accompanied by his brother Ancel who is mentioned as being at the tourney of Lagny sur Marne in William’s entourage in 1179, and then later, in 1189, witnessing a charter of their cousin Rotrou Count of Perche, who was later to go himself on the 3rd crusade with Richard the Lionheart.  Perhaps too, William’s squire Eustace de Bertrimont was among the party.  We know he was with William before his pilgrimage, and he witnessed a charter to the chapel of St Mary at Caversham in 1214, so it’s probable he accompanied his master to the Holy Land.

In the late Autumn of 1183, the political situation in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was difficult.  The King of Jerusalem was Baldwin IV.  He was only 22 years old and suffering from terminal leprosy.  His will was strong and his charisma and intelligence were holding the country together – just, but it was ready to fall apart.  His grandfather, King Fulke, former Count of Anjou, had left his life in Europe to take up the throne of Jerusalem. Fulke was also the grandfather of  Henry II, which made Henry and the dying Baldwin first cousins. It is highly likely that William, a royal marshal to the Angevin family in Europe, would bring with him introductions, letters and greetings and would have presented himself to King Baldwin while at the same time fulfilling his spiritual duty of laying the Young King’s cloak at the Sepulchre.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem

If William arrived in the Holy Land in the late Autumn or early winter of 1183, as the timings seem to suggest, then he would have found the court of Jerusalem gearing up to fight off the great Muslim leader Saladin who was besieging the castle of Kerak in modern day Jordan – a strategic fortress a short distance from the Dead Sea.  King Baldwin’s half-sister was there, being married to one Humphrey of Toron and half the nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was also present to witness the marriage.  If Saladin seized Kerak not only would he obtain command of a strategic fortress, he would also take prisoner important members of the royal court and it would be a disaster. King Baldwin, despite his poor health, hastily mustered the army and rode out to Kerak’s relief.  It is just feasible that William arrived in Jerusalem in time to be among the knights of that relief force.  King Baldwin’s rescue force caused Saladin to pull back and retreat, and they were probably well out of the way by the time Baldwin turned up.

The following year the same thing was to happen again and this time we are told that the acting Grand Master of the Templars, Gerard de Ridefort, recruited visiting knights to come to Kerak’s aid.  King Baldwin, very sick by now, also rode out with the army.  William Marshal was still in the Holy Land at this stage and it now becomes highly likely that he was among the troops at the second rescue of Kerak.  Again, there was little or no fighting.  Saladin burned his siege machines and pulled back, but once again Kerak was relieved and the objective was successful.

Prior to the second assault on Kerak, the royal court was busy between Christmas 1183 and the middle of 1184 with preparations for a mission to Europe by Heraclius Patriarch of Jerusalem and the grand masters of the Knights Templars and the Hospitallers. Their intention was to muster aid for the Holy Land and attempt to persuade one of the European rulers to come and assume the rule of the King of Jerusalem so that the ailing King Baldwin could step down.

Baldwin’s heir was his nephew, also named Baldwin – his sister’s son and a small boy.  Sybilla, the child’s mother was married to one Guy de Lusignan – more about him in a moment – and this particular relationship was proving to be problematical.

William would have been in the Holy Land right at the time that the mission to Europe was being prepared.  He would recently have come from the court of King Henry II, very possibly with letters for King Baldwin.  He was also well acquainted with the French court of Philippe Augustus and personally knew the rulers and their families and situations.  His assistance and knowledge would have been invaluable to the men preparing their mission.  We cannot say that he did help out in any way, but it’s a possibility that makes a great deal of sense.

Returning to the matter of Guy de Lusignan, one chronicler tells us that Guy was banned from the court of Henry II because he was the person responsible for the murder of Patrick Earl of Salisbury.  Patrick of Salisbury was William Marshal’s maternal uncle.  In 1168 he was Henry’s representative in Aquitaine where Duchess Eleanor, Henry’s queen was currently in residence.  William was serving in Patrick’s entourage as one of his junior household knights.  While escorting Eleanor from one destination to another, her party was ambushed and set upon by the Lusignan family who were in dispute with Eleanor. Patrick was killed -speared in the back and William was wounded and taken prisoner, although his hard fight during the ambush enabled Eleanor to escape.  Eleanor later paid William’s ransom and took him into her household where he was soon promoted to became tutor in chivalry and marshal to her eldest son Henry the Young King.

Kerak Castle today

Guy de Lusignan was implicated in Patrick’s death, although it is uncertain whether he was the actual member of the family responsible for the blow.  He would have been in his late teens around the time of the ambush and he had several older brothers, including Aimery, who was also to head for the Holy Land and become King Baldwin’s constable.  Whether he struck the blow or not, it remains a fact that to William, the Lusignan clan were persona no grata and it must have been galling and difficult to encounter them again in the Holy Land and find Guy in particular associated by marriage with the royal house of Jerusalem.

Guy had arrived in the Holy Land as a young adventurer and his good looks had caught the eye of King Baldwin’s recently widowed sister Sybilla.  She had fallen for him and the couple had married – much to the dismay of many of the established nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Sybilla’s little son by her first husband was next in line to the throne and nobody wanted the outsider stepfather taking over the reins.  De Lusignan may have been good looking and suave with the ladies, but when given the chance to be regent, he was unable to bring the other nobles on side and made some questionable decisions and judgement calls that led to the regency being removed from his hands.  Indeed, he fell out with his brother in law the king, who tried to have the marriage to Sybilla annulled (without success).  The removal of the regency from Guy and the attempted annulment happened while William was in the Holy Land and he would have been a witness to this.

The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal hints that William and Guy were on good terms when William departed for home from the Holy Land, but perhaps that statement should be taken with a pinch of salt.  The Histoire says that Guy was the king when William bade him farewell but this cannot have been true since Guy did not become king of Jerusalem until the Autumn of 1186 by which time William had been home for more than 6 months.

When William was on his deathbed in the early months of 1219, he asked his trusted friend John D’Early to go to Netherwent and bring back two pieces of silk that he had obtained in the Holy Land.  William tells us that he always intended these pieces to be draped over his body when he was laid in the earth.  He had not told anyone about these silks obtained 30 years ago, and they had been put away in one of his Welsh castles, very likely Chepstow, and were then sent for when he knew he was dying.  He also tells us on his deathbed that he gave his body to be buried by the Templars wherever he should die, and this too happened during his time in the Holy Land.  This suggests that William made some sort of arrangement or pact with the Templars in Outremer.  Perhaps the pieces of silk were connected with that arrangement.  Certainly the proximity of the information in the Histoire is suggestive. William seems to have made a will in the Holy Land and to have believed he might well die much sooner than the old age he actually achieved. He said: ‘when I was away in the Holy Land, I gave my body to be buried  by the Templars at the time of my death, in whatever place I happened to die.’ It is also noteworthy that in the closing days of his life, he says that he had sworn to take Templar vows ‘some time ago’, and now would fulfil that obligation.  It is often said that he ‘bought’ the silks, but the word in the Histoire is that he had them ‘brought back’ ‘mes les fis aporter quant je reparai d’outre mer.’  It doesn’t say he bought them. Having talked to a historical scholar, I have discovered that the phraseology may refer to an exchange, which further makes me wonder if there is a connection between those silk shrouds and William’s vow to serve the Templars.

Knights could undertake temporary service with the Templars and not be subject to the full vows, even while living under Templar rules.  William may well have sworn service to the order for part or all of his time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  And as mentioned above, he may well have helped the Grand Master (Arnold of Torroja) to prepare for the mission to Europe, and served new Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort at the ride to relieve Kerak in the autumn of 1184. It may be too, when he returned to England that he served the Templars in a secular capacity as an associate for most of his life.

Coffin wrapped in a silk cloth. The Morgan Bible mid 13thc

It’s poignant but fitting that William Marshal took his young lord’s cloak to Jerusalem, and returned with his own burial shrouds.

What does seem important to the Marshal on his return was his devotion to the Virgin Mary.  One can read this two ways.  The Marian cult was particularly strong in England so perhaps he was predisposed to be devoted to the Virgin just as a matter of trend.  But perhaps robbing her shrine at Rocamadour left his conscience particularly tender and keen to atone.  For whatever reason, wherever you find a church associated with William Marshal, it almost always involves the Virgin Mary.  So his chapel at Caversham was dedicated to her and was endowed with a wonderful statue of her, that we know existed but that was lost around the time of the Reformation.  His foundation at Cartmel is dedicated to the Virgin and St Michael (a warrior saint). Then there’s Tintern de Voto in Ireland, dedicated to Mary, and St Mary’s in New Ross. The church at Hampstead Marshal is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as is the church at Speen on the outskirts of Newbury, although the latter has been there longer than the Marshals. The Templar order itself were devotees of her cult.

There are several theories emerging from academic circles and popular history concerning the reasons behind why there is so little mention of the Marshal’s deeds in the Holy Land.

Professor David Crouch has recently put forward the theory that William made a friend of Guy de Lusignan in Jerusalem, or at least patched up their differences.  The Histoire tells us that that they parted on good terms.  The notion goes that perhaps nothing was said because the Salisbury family were still angry with the Lusignan clan and would be seriously annoyed to know that one of their cadet branch had been making friendly overtures.

My own take is that the Histoire often avoids mention of matters that are best left unsaid in the context of the story.  There are times when the Marshal has a good rapport with King John in history and is well rewarded, but that is glossed over and missed out. The same with some of the Marshal’s more dubious exploits.  So there is nothing to stop the Histoire author telling exciting tales of battle and adventure minus the Guy de Lusignan involvement if this was the case.

Professor Crouch is also of the opinion that ‘The Marshal had a spiritual life, (although the Histoire does not rhapsodise about it) and that ‘what he saw and did in Palestine satisfied a longing deeper than the thirst for wealth and fame…he did not need to talk about it. This idea, to me, has the ring of solid truth.

Thomas Asbridge thinks there is little mention because there was nothing for the Marshal to do and he kept quite because of an embarrassing lack of deeds.  Although Asbridge rather strangely and out of left field suggests that William Marshal and Guy de Lusignan might have joined forces and gone raiding royal-protected nomad camps together!  Since this deed of de Lusignans incurred the extreme wrath of King Baldwin and would have been enough to have William, of lesser rank than de Lusignan, clapped in irons or executed, I doubt that such is the case.

My thought is that the Marshal probably saw action at least at the second siege of Kerak, if not the first.  Certainly there were mop up operations after the second siege and sporadic skirmishes as Saladin moved back to Damascus, burning Nablus on his way.   If one studies the history of those years closely, there was constant small-scale skirmish warfare and if the Marshal’s chronicler had wanted to, I am sure he could have written in some deeds just as he must have done for the Marshal’s early and tourney life where the state of play doesn’t always agree with known fact.

Another notion suggested, non-academically this time, was that the Marshal was ashamed of leaving the Holy Land early because of the dire straits in which the King of Jerusalem found itself.  He’d abandoned it in its hour of need and that wasn’t the act of a champion.  He was always puffing himself up, so why didn’t he do so with reference to the Holy Land? Could it be he was ashamed of quitting?

I would say that we don’t know how much the Marshal promoted himself in his own time since the only primary source for any of this is the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal which was commissioned by his son to promote the Marshal family reputation and to remember the father. It was written after William’s death with a political agenda driven by the next generation.
The crusades would not have been of huge interest to that driving agenda at the time because the concern was all with the Marshal holdings in England, Ireland and Normandy and maintaining their position there. It was enough to say that their father had performed great deeds in Outremer –  deeds of which he may well not have spoken. That part of his life could well have been a time of religious crisis as Professor Crouch has said.  My view is that those who commissioned the Histoire were not that bothered with their father’s time in the Holy Land because it wasn’t relevant to their current power struggles beyond saying ‘He was successful and performed great deeds and was lauded by the military, the secular and the church’. That I think is a strong reason for lack of mention.  As to the hour of need: When William left the Holy Land in Autumn 1185, there was a truce in place between Christian and Muslim because of a devastating drought.  Both sides also had their own personal political problems and were not inclined to take to the field. The mission was back from Europe, and although no king was forthcoming, additional funds had been raised, interest perked up, and reinforcements were on their way.  All reasons why William might recall the oath he had made to return to Henry II’s household, and turn for home without feeling too shabby about it all.

Once William returned from the Holy Land, he was home for good and entered the service of Henry II and then Richard the Lionheart.  Thomas Asbridge puts forward the theory that the Marshal didn’t go on crusade with Richard because Richard was scared that William (who had once unhorsed him) would steal his limelight.  I find this theory very odd since Richard had promoted William to a position that would give him the authority to help govern England while he was away and had Richard, been insecure about the Marshal’s prowess, he need not have promoted him at all.  He could just have kept him a landless knight.

It’s obvious that Richard set William up as part of the government machinery during his absence.  He chose those he left behind with firm intent. (didn’t always go right in the case of Longchamp, but then Richard replaced him under advice from the rest of the board, including William Marshal and Eleanor of Aquitaine). Since William had already done his stint in the Holy Land on behalf of Richard’s brother, he had got that out of the way and was there as a solid rock back home. Richard might very well have been influenced in this matter by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine who was chairman of the board and had a long standing and excellent relationship with William. He had saved her from ambush at cost to himself and she had paid his ransom and taken him into her household. He was with her as her knight for 2 years before being promoted to the Young King’s household and they seem to have had a lifelong friendship and understanding. I think it very likely that she put him on her own list of ‘men I want for my cabinet.’ And Richard always took her advice seriously.

William did fund a loan to one of his friends and former knight of the Young King Ralph FitzGodfrey, giving him sufficient funds to travel on the 3rd crusade with Richard I.

We can never know what William Marshal did in the Holy Land.  The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal is not forthcoming and what it does tell us is flawed, although tantalising nevertheless.  Other sources help us out in places, but only from a distance and only with circumstantial evidence.

As the title of this blog suggests, What happened in the Holy Land stayed in the Holy Land, but that doesn’t prevent us from making some educated guesses.

Effigy of William Marshal Temple Church


Select bibliography.

History of William Marshal volumes 1 and II edited by A.J. Holden with English translation by S. Gregory and historical notes by D. Crouch. Published by the Anglo Norman Text Society 2004.

A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea By William Archbishop of Tyre Columbia University Press 1943

Pilgrimage to Rome in the Middle Ages by Debra J. Birch – Boydell & Brewer 1998

William Marshal 3rd Edition by David Crouch – Routledge 2016

The Acts and Letters of the Marshal Family Edited by David Crouch. Camden 5th series Volume 47 Royal Historical Society

The Greatest Knight – Thomas Asbridge – Simon & Schuster 2015















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