You can’t write novels about the Middle Ages without coming across references to the Marshal family. I read a comment saying that the family burst like magnificent fireworks over the skies of 12th and early 13th century England and were as swiftly gone. It’s a very apt description. The most famous scion of the family is the great William Marshal and his story reads like the script of an epic movie.
William grew up in a world made uncertain by the civil war between royal cousins Stephen and Matilda. However, his father had a strong grip on his lands in the Kennet Valley and for those formative years in the nursery, William would have had a stable family life surrounded by siblings and with his parents in close proximity. John Marshal was no absentee father.
The big change happened when William was five or six years old. John Marshal had fortified his castle at Newbury. No one now knows where this castle stood, although I have a strong personal suspicion that it is at Speen on the outskirts of the modern town. Wherever its precise location, this castle stood in King Stephen’s path. His army drew up before its walls and laid siege. However, the defenders fought valiantly and it was obviously going to be a tough nut to crack – although crack it did eventually. A truce was arranged and John Marshal asked if he could seek permission from his lady, the Empress Matilda, to surrender, because that was the honourable thing to do (seek permission). Stephen agreed, but he didn’t trust John and said that he would have hostages from him, including a son of his house. He took William – which is interesting. My own feeling is that he didn’t take one of the older boys because they were not of the blood of Patrick Earl of Salisbury but smaller fry to Stephen’s mind.
As soon as John had handed over the hostages, he set about stuffing the keep to the rafters with men and supplies because he had no intention of surrendering. The moment he did so, the road to Wallingford became open and John Marshal was not the kind of man to back down. A few years previously he had lost an eye in heavy fighting defending an escape route for the Empress. When Stephen returned at the appointed time to demand the castle, John defied him and refused to hand it over. A furious Stephen sent word to John that he would hang his son. John made the infamous reply that he did not care about his little boy because had the ‘anvils and hammers’ to produce even finer sons. Personally I believe there was far more to this speech than meets the eye, but that’s for discussion in my forthcoming notes on John Marshal.
William was duly taken off to the gallows, but King Stephen couldn’t bring himself to hang the child. William was full of charm and perky questions. He wanted to play games with Stephen’s barons and with Stephen himself. There’s an epic poem about William’s life called The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal. It’s from this we know about the Anvils and hammers speech and the entire hostage situation. There is a delightful scene in the poem where William and the King play ‘Knights’ with some plantain leaves.
Stephen’s tent was ‘Strewn with grass and flowers of a variety of colours. William looked at the flowers, examining them from top to bottom. Happily and cheerfully he went about gathering the ‘knights’ growing on the plaintain with its broad, pointed leaves. When he had gathered enough to make a good handful, he said to the King: My dear lord, would you like to play ‘knights?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘my little friend.’
The child immediately placed some on the King’s lap. Then he asked: ‘Who has the first go?’
‘You my dear little friend,’ replied the King. So then he took one of the knights and put his own against it. But it turned out that in the contest, the King’s knight lost its head, which made William overjoyed.’ Stephen seems to have become attached to Willliam and took him into his own household and there the boy remained for around two years, serving as a page.
The war ended with agreement between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda’s son, Henry, that Henry should inherit the throne when Stephen died. This happened in 1154 and William’s boyhood now continued on a level course – presumably at home – until he reached his mid teens. At this stage he was sent away to be trained in the household of Guillaume de Tancarville, chamberlain of Normandy, to whom he was distantly related. William remained here in training, learning the knightly arts and was eventually knighted around the age of 21. We are told that he was tall, well made, had a good seat in the saddle and was brown-haired with an olive complexion. We are also told that he had a reputation for a big appetite and being a slugabed. His nick-name was apparently ‘Gaste-viande’ or ‘Greedy guts.’ I can’t help thinking of adolescent youths I have known not so far from home with prodigious appetites and a capacity for slumber until midday if allowed. Nothing changes!
As the situation in Normandy calmed down, Guillaume de Tancarville found himself with an embarrassment of knights on his hand and William was basically made redundant. He shipped himself home and went to see his family, including his older full brother John (his two older half brothers having died) and his sisters. By the time he returned home his father was dead. We don’t know his mother’s death date. John Marshal junior doesn’t seem to have wanted young William at home – perhaps he was jealous of this young gun with his charmed life, home from the wars, trailing flash war horses and glory behind him. Perhaps William cramped his style. Whatever the reason, William didn’t stay long but sought employment with his uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury who was preparing to go to Poitou and was on the lookout for likely knights. William being kin and with proven battle experience went straight onto the shipping manifesto.
While in Poitou, the young William came into frequent contact with the Queen of England, the famous and infamous Eleanor of Aquitaine. She had several of her children with her, including her eldest sons Henry and Richard. The latter was her designated heir and later to become the great Coeur de Lion.
One day in 1168, while escorting the Queen between castles in the company of his Uncle Patrick, they were attacked by members of the de Lusignan family who were in rebellion against Eleanor and the Angevin faction. Patrick, who was not wearing his mail, was ridden down and killed. Eleanor made a bid for freedom and William stood in the path of her attackers and gave her time to escape. Although he fought like a lion, he was eventually wounded in the thigh, overpowered and taken for ransom. He had a hard time of it and had to bandage his wounds with his own leg bindings. At one particular castle, a woman took pity on his plight and brought him fresh bandages hidden in a loaf of bread.
He hadn’t been abandoned by his own side though, and Queen Eleanor paid his ransom and took him into her household. William was soon appointed as a companion to her eldest son, Henry who, at 15 was crowned as official successor of King of England. This was done in his own father’s lifetime so that there would be no quibble about who inherited the throne. William quickly settled into the Young King’s household, becoming his tutor in chivalry.
As usual with the Angevin kings, there was inter-family strife and it wasn’t long before the Young King was kicking over the traces and deciding he would like more than just a title. He wanted the power to go with it and rebelled against his father. William stood by his young lord, and even knighted him as the conflict kicked off. As with most of the Young King’s ambitious designs, it came to a sticky end. His father was victorious and the rebellion fizzled out, having caused physical damage to land and property and emotional damage all round. The Young King was made to stay at his father’s side for a while to learn governance but found the whole thing tedious and sought permission to go to France and join the round of the tourney circuits. His father wasn’t best pleased but let him go.
Now came William’s heyday as he set out on the path to becoming the greatest tourney champion of his time. Under his tutelage and his command, the Young King’s ‘team’ became invincible on the European tourney circuit. Tourneying and jousting in the 12th century wasn’t what we imagine from seeing the Hollywood version – a show-piece pageant of one on one in an enclosed arena, but took place over several acres, often involving entire villages. It was big, joyous, brawling and reached its height in the 1170’s and 1180’s. By the 1220’s shortly after William’s death, his biographer said that ‘Errantry and tourneying have given way to formal contests.’
At first the ‘England’ team was soundly trounced because they were the new kids on the block and had to learn strategy and to work cohesively, but William was a good general as well as an extremely gifted individual fighter and he soon had his company knocked into shape so that they became invincible on the tourney field. William’s biographer details several fascinating incidents from this period of William’s life. There’s the well known one about William getting his head stuck inside his helm after a particularly vigorous tourney at Pleurs and having to put his head down on an anvil while a blacksmith worked the helmet off. ‘the smith with his hammers, wrenches and pincers, was going about the task of tearing off his helmet and cutting through the metal strips, which were quite staved in, smashed and battered.’ Another incident tells of knights all dancing together while waiting for the tourney to begin. A young herald who was singing an accompaniment, uttered the refrain ‘Marshal give me a horse!’ William promptly left the gathering, mounted his own horse, galloped off to where some knights were practising, and having tumbled one of the hapless men off his mount, brought the beast back and gave it to the herald. Another incident shows William at a post-tournament feast. He arrived there on a particularly large and handsome horse which he gave to a lad outside to look after. Unfortunately someone stole the horse and William had to run after the thief on foot. There followed a nocturnal chase through the streets and down side alleys. William finally caught his man, gave him a thrashing and recovered his horse. When the other party-goers wanted to string the man up, William dissuaded them, saying that the thrashing was enough punishment (since the man has lost the sight of an eye).
William success was a two-edged sword though. The other knights in the Young King’s retinue became jealous of his popularity and decided to put a fly in the ointment. The Young King himself was also peeved at William’s glory because he felt it put him in the shade, which was not the name of the game. William’s jealous rivals suggested to their young lord that William was having an affair with his wife, Marguerite, daughter of the King of France. William was denied the right to defend himself and banished in disgrace from the Angevin court. Did William have an affair with his lord’s wife? We don’t know. On the one hand there was the accusation and the banishment. Marguerite herself was sent back to Paris. On the other, William was known to have some very jealous rivals and would he have been mad enough to ruin his career by committing a treasonable offence? Whatever the story behind his banishment, William made use of his time by going on pilgrimage to the shrine of the Three Magi at Cologne. Other men offered him position in their retinues but he declined them.
The Young King rebelled against his father once more – the inter-family quarrelling about lands and power was as continuous as dusk following dawn, and suddenly William’s military skills were desperately needed. He was summoned to return by the Young King, and did so, although he arrived via visits to the English and French court and bearing letters confirming the established sovereigns’ trust in his good character. William served the Young King throughout the strife, even helping young Henry to rob shrines when the money to pay the mercenaries ran out, the most scandalous being the robbing of the shrine of Our Lady at Rocamadour. But if money was running out, so was luck and time. The Young King contracted dysentery and died in Martel in June of 1183. At the last he was repentant of his sins and begged William to take his mantle to Jerusalem and lay it at the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre in expiation. William agreed – he had sins of his own to atone for – and set out almost immediately, pausing only to see his lord buried and to have a meeting with King Henry II.
William spent two years in the Holy Land. Nothing is known about his time there, other than that he vowed his body to the Templars (although he didn’t take Templar vows as such) and he bought his own burial shrouds of fine silk. These he kept with him for more than thirty years and told no one about them, not even his closest companions or his family.
On his return around 1186, he took up service again with Henry II, who was glad to have him back and gave him lands in the north of England and the care of at least two wards to give him responsibility and income. One was Jean D’Earley, an adolescent youth in need of fostering until he came of age. William made him his squire. Jean, even after he came into his inheritance, remained with William and became one of his staunchest supporters and friends. Another was Heloise of Kendal, an heiress with lands around Lake Windermere. Henry II may well have expected William to marry the lady, settle down in the north and keep an eye to the Scots border for him. William did indeed spend some time in those parts and began the process of founding a priory there on his own lands at Cartmel. But he didn’t take Heloise to wife, and we know from a letter Henry II wrote to William, that William had his eye on a greater prize than the lady Heloise, with whom he remained ‘just good friends.’ Henry promised William the heiress Denise de Berri, if William would come and fight for him.
William duly emerged from his northern retreat and rejoined Henry on the front line, but his interest was not on Denise, but on another heiress, Isabelle de Clare, who had vast lands in Normandy, on the Welsh borders and in Southern Ireland. Her mother was an Irish Princess and her father was Richard Strongbow, a great Norman baron, adventurer and warrior. Henry promised William he could have Isabelle, but it went no further than a promise.
The usual family wars meant that Henry found himself fighting his son Richard, and Richard, with the help of King Philip of France had gained the upper hand. A sick, worn out, angry and dejected Henry had to flee from le Mans as his son moved in to take the city. Richard was keen to capture his father and dashed after him. William stayed back to cover Henry’s retreat and when Richard was in danger of catching up and pushing through, William charged him and killed his horse. ‘When the count saw him coming, he shouted out at the top of his voice: ‘God’s legs Marshal! Do not kill me, that would be a wicked thing to do, since you find me here completely unarmed.’ The Marshal replied ‘Indeed I won’t. Let the Devil kill you! I shall not be the one to do it.’ This said, he struck the count’s horse a blow with his lance, and the horse died instantly.’ When Richard later protested that the Marshal had tried to kill him, William replied that he was not so much in his dotage that he didn’t know where to stick a lance!
Henry died not long after this and Richard, recognising the value of the loyalty that William had shown, promoted him to the ranks of the magnates by giving him Isabelle de Clare. His father might have promised, but Richard actually gave.
There were more than 20 years between William and Isabelle. He was 41, she was about 17, but their match seems to have been compatible and love does seem to have grown from it, from what we can glean from meagre mentions in William’s biographical poem, the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal. William married Isabelle in London, possibly at St Paul’s Cathedral in the summer of 1189 and then straightaway took her on honeymoon to a place called Stoke D’Abernon where one of his friends had a manor house. Here they stayed for several weeks getting to know each other and setting up their household, before returning to London to greet King Richard in the September.
The following year, William brought Isabelle with him to Normandy where in April she gave birth to the first of their ten children – a son named William for his father. A second son, Richard, followed in approximately 1191, then a daughter Mahelt (or Matilda), then two more sons, Gilbert and Walter. During this time, William was busy in the field serving Richard. When Richard went on crusade, William remained in England as one of several co-justiciars, responsible for keep the peace, and it was perhaps partly for this reason that Richard had raised him on high. At the same time he also raised William’s cleric brother Henry to the bishopric of Exeter. Unfortunately, William’s older brother John, had cast his lot with Richard’s brother, John Count of Mortain, Prince John, and died in 1194 – probably killed at the siege of Marlborough castle.
Although a great magnate, who could play the magnificent lord, William was comfortable within his own skin. He knew the things that mattered. Although as a mighty lord of the realm he could have chosen to use a huge fancy seal on his documents, he continued to use the small equestrian one that had served him as a penniless young knight. Perhaps to remind him where he came from – who knows. John’s reign was a complex and troubled one. Due to matters of personality and politics, John lost Normandy to the French. This gave William a serious dilemma. In order to retain his Norman lands, he had to swear allegiance to Philip of France. But this compromised him because he was then unable to fight for John, should John invade Normandy and try to regain his lands. John was angry with William for swearing to Philip and to cut a long involved story short, he took William’s two oldest sons as hostages for William’s good behaviour. Thus, history repeated itself. William himself had been a hostage. Now William Junior and young Richard Marshal were being kept at the King’s pleasure. William handed over his sons with seeming insouciance, saying that he was loyal to John and that a finger that wasn’t cut, could be bandaged, and would still be whole once the bandage was removed. He decamped to Ireland with Isabelle and the rest of his family – except for Mahelt, whom he married off just before they sailed, to Hugh Bigod, heir to the Earldom of Norfolk. She would have been been at the oldest not quite fifteen, but it is likely that she was actually thirteen or fourteen.
Once in Ireland, William set about sorting out his wife’s inheritance of Leinster. It was her dowry and what she would live on when he died. Since there was a twenty year age gap, it behoved him to see her well provided for. He had begun founding a port on the River Barrow that was to become New Ross and was to bring increased income into Leinster. The Justiciar of Ireland, a lord called Meillyr FitzHenry, was King John’s man and William’s enemy. Like John, he saw William’s arrival in Ireland as worrying. Meillyr had been encroaching on Leinster lands and had been doing much as he liked, but all this was in jeopardy now that the absentee landlord had shown up.
William had a real struggle on his hands with Ireland. Many of the barons did not have affinity or kinship ties with him and they were insular. They didn’t want some Johnny come lately tourney champion muscling in on their territory. The King tried to bring William down. He ordered him and Meillyr back to England, to the court, to settle their differences. William suspected something was going down and he left his best men behind to guard Isabelle, who was by now pregnant with their ninth child. He was wise to do so. Within a week of his leaving for England, Meillyr’s men, under instruction from their master, descended on New Ross and burned it down. They also set about a programme of plundering William’s lands. Fortunately, Jean D’Earley and the knights William had prudently left behind, were able to see off Meillyr’s men.
This was not what John and Meillyr wanted. The latter was sent back to Ireland from the English court with orders that William’s best men were to join their master in England. They declined to do so. William asked John’s permission to return to Ireland as Meillyr had done, but he was refused with malicious glee.
As winter descended, sea crossings to Ireland became very rough, so no news was forthcoming. John taunted William, inventing stories about how he had heard that William’s men had been defeated and killed and how the Countess was now a prisoner. William had to bear all this, unable to retaliate, not knowing if it were true, but he kept his cool and used the lessons of implacable calm learned from his father. He didn’t kick over the traces and he didn’t reply to the provocation. When news finally did come from Ireland, it was good news. Meillyr had gone down to defeat and William’s family and his knights were all safe. William never put a step wrong. He didn’t crow about his victory, merely sought quiet permission to go back to Ireland. John yielded and William went.
The barons wanted a written guarantee that John would observe their rights and govern in a proper manner. This is vastly simplifying the case, but is part of the essential drive. John was brought to sign that most famous of all documents – The Magna Carta. William is thought to have been behind some of the points involved. Whether he was or not, he was certainly involved in the negotiations between the two sides. John made moves to have the charter annulled because he said he had signed it under duress. Many of the barons continued in rebellion because they said John wouldn’t abide by the terms of the charter and true civil war broke out. William remained loyal to King John but his son, William Junior, chose the other side, as did his daughter’s marriage family the Bigods. The French King’s ambitious son, Louis, made a play for the English throne and the rebel barons offered it to him. They had managed to seize London and were in a bullish mood. Louis invaded to a strong welcome and set about making Southern England his own.
William continued stoically and steadily to support John as the country lurched deeper into civil war. Louis wasn’t having it all his own way and was finding it impossible to take Dover Castle. But then, following a few days of severe illness related to a stomach problem, John died at Newark, leaving his nine year old son, Henry, as heir to the disputed throne. Something had to be done and fast. The young boy was hastily crowned at Gloucester Abbey, using a crown belonging to his mother and various bits of regalia cobbled from here and there (his father’s treasure having gone AWOL, either while crossing the treacherous sands of the Wellstream Estuary, or having been looted while John lay dying at Newark.
Someone had to take the reins on behalf of the young Henry III and William was voted into the job. The only other real candidate was the Earl of Chester and although he was the younger man (William was by now around seventy to Chester’s mid forties). Chester had a sharper personality and often rubbed people up the wrong way, whereas most barons could work with William.
William thus set about reclaiming the country for the young king. He had breaches to close, an economy that had to begin functioning again, and he had to get rid of the French. He re-issued Magna Carta and offered amnesties to all who were willing to come and talk. He paid the army in what was left of the royal treasure at Corfe, and when he heard that Louis of France had split his forces and sent half of them up to Lincoln, he saw his chance and went for it. Under his command, the royal army came to Lincoln and here was fought the most decisive battle on English soil between Hastings and the Battle of Britain. If William’s army had lost on that day, a French king would have sat on the English throne. As it was, the French were severely trounced and the royalists were victorious. Louis was brought to sue for peace, although he still wasn’t entirely convinced and the royal army had to gird itself for battle again – this time at sea. Louis’ wife had sent him reinforcements, but an English fleet put out from Sandwich and destroyed the French supply ships. Defeated and with no more aces up his sleeve, Louis sued for peace and departed from England, leaving the country to the process of healing and repair.
William remained at the helm of government for another couple of years, but at the end of 1218 he fell ill in London and it soon became clear that this was going to be his last illness. Knowing this, he faced up to it with the same steadfastness, courage and dignity he had brought to every aspect of his life, and he had himself rowed upriver to his favourite manner of Caversham. Here, surrounded by his family, he spent the late winter and spring of 1219, making arrangements for the governing of the country, gradually cutting his ties with the world. His daughters arrived from their various marital households. There is a very moving scene in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal where William asks for them to come to his chamber and sing for him, which they do, even though they are heartbroken.
Part of William’s preparation to die involved taking Templar vows. He must have known his death was on the cards – perhaps he’d started feeling unwell earlier than he let on to his family. A year before his death, he had Templar robes made, and kept them at the back of his wardrobe. ‘without anyone else knowing of its existence.’ Now, as death approached, he had them brought out and announced his intention of dying as a Templar. He also sent Jean D’Early to fetch the burial shrouds from a chest in Wales where they had been laid for safekeeping. After thirty years they once more saw the light of day and William told those gathered around him how he had brought them from the Holy Land. He was concerned that they weren’t ruined during the funeral journey and ordered his men to buy coarse grey burel cloth in which to cover them in case of rain.
He duly took the Templar oath, which meant that he could no longer accept the embrace of a woman. No longer could Isabelle comfort him with her touch. In the Histoire, there is an immensely moving parting scene between Isabelle and William where he tells her to kiss him one final time because she will never be able to do so again. ‘The earl, who was generous, gentle and kind towards his wife, the countess, said to her: ‘Fair lady, kiss me now, for you will never be able to do it again.’ She stepped forward and kissed him, and both of them wept.’
His body was borne in procession to Reading, to Staines, to the Temple Church in London and there interred with other knights of the order. His effigy is still there for those who wish to visit and pay their respects, although William’s bones no longer lie beneath it. The graves were disturbed by Henry III’s building work a few decades after William’s burial, and there have been other upheavals since, including bomb damage in World War II. Incendiaries almost put paid to the Temple Church, but it survived, and so did William’s effigy – battered but unbroken. Two of his sons keep him company – Gilbert and Walter, and they do not lack for visitors. Some tourists, are drawn to the church because of The Da Vinci Code, not knowing the true greatness at their feet, but others are aware of their history, and come for William. Eight hundred years later, The Greatest Knight still lives and keeps vigil.
Sources used to write this article
- History of William Marshal Vol 1 edited by A.J. Holden with English translation by S. Gregory and historical notes by D. Crouch. Published by the Anglo Norman Text Society 2002 ISBN 0905474422
- History of William Marshal Vol 2 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 ISBN 0905474457
- William Marshal, Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219/ by David Crouch Longman 2002 ISBN 0 582 77222 2
- William Marshal: Knight errant, Baron and Regent of England by Sidney Painter/The John Hopkins Press 1933