WESSEX

The Marshal

the momentous events around the turn of the twelfth century, the name of William Marshal keeps cropping up. He was certainly the most remarkable man of his time (and for several centuries before or since).

He was a Wiltshire man, probably born in Marlborough - just a few miles East of our path across England. He was the fourth son of a minor family, starting life with no money and few prospects.

As a boy, he had been held as hostage by King Stephen for the good conduct of his father. His father promptly broke his agreement with Stephen and defied the King to carry out his threat to kill the boy ("I still have the hammer and anvils to make more and better sons"). Stephen had the lad dangled out of a window, but his father wouldn't give way. Stephen relented, and William lived, wondering what kind of funny game was being played.

In his youth, William went to Normandy, where he was schooled in the art of arms and courtly behaviour.

It was fighting which brought him the foundations of his later wealth, for this was the era of tournaments - great sporting events where knights jousted and duelled for prizes. William Marshal proved to be the best tournament knight of his time - the Michael Jordan, or Muhammed Ali of the twelfth century. He became rich on tournament prizes.

A Twelfth century tournament wasn't the jolly affair displayed by modern re-enactment societies. It had all the attributes of war. Mostly, it was a mass, armed brawl between several "teams" of knights (a mêlée) and infantry, using blunted weapons. "Enemies" were captured and ransomed, horses and weapons grabbed. There might be some regret when someone died - but no surprise.

It was a high-stakes, no-holds-barred, gamble - an ideal way for a likely lad to make his way in life (or to end it).

This was also a time when great men gathered bands of knights around them - and they wanted the best. It wasn't long before William joined the retinue of the "Young King" Henry (actually, he was Prince Henry, unloving son of King Henry II - a man who seemed a little wanting in the parenting skills). Then, when Daddy and Junior fell out about the family business, and Daddy won, William transferred into the "Old" King's court.

It was in King Henry II's service that he stopped Prince Richard (second son) chasing down and killing his father (see what I mean about the parenting skills?). Henry was in full flight from his son, but Richard's forces were too far behind to make a decisive move against him. Richard tossed his armour aside, and made a dash for the King, with only a few companions. William had guessed that Richard would be following, and waited in ambush for him.

When Richard saw William, he called out that he was unarmed, and that it would be dishonourable to kill him. William cursed him and killed his horse instead - stopping him short of his goal.

Despite this (or, perhaps, because of it), Richard put great trust in William when he took the throne, granting him land and titles, and entrusting to him the safety of his kingdom while he went off to the Crusades.

We get an insight into the man from 1197, when he was 50 years old. In an assault on the French castle of Milly-sur-Theráin, he clambered up a scaling ladder and took possession of a section of the wall while he urged his comrades to join him. While he was waiting, he felled the Constable of the castle with a single blow, and then sat on the unfortunate man, for a breather.
When Richard died, William's relations with his brother John were sometimes troubled - but John knew he could still trust Marshal's loyalty (by this time, he was known, simply as "The Marshal").

John's trust was well placed; he would not have survived half his reign without the Marshal. We remember John's Magna Carta, but forget that John repudiated that document within weeks of signing it. It was the fact that William Marshal re-issued it as Regent, after John's death, which ensured that this document would become an established foundation for English justice.

After John's death, the Marshal fought one of his most brilliant battles in raising the siege of Lincoln (1217), ridding England of the danger of French incursion and English rebellion. This, at the age of seventy.

Not even the Marshal's greatest fans would insist he was particularly clever - although he was certainly a canny general. For one thing, he was virtually illiterate.

The foundation of his wealth and position may have been the strength of his arm, but the virtue which brought him to the heights of power was that of loyalty - to whomsoever he was serving at the time. That he managed to accrete great wealth and lands along the way was not to his discredit. On the contrary, any great man was expected to accumulate and protect his possessions, and to use them to advance his supporters.

By the end (1219), this landless boy held lands from Normandy to Ireland - with the largest chunk stretching from Pembrokeshire to his childhood home in Wiltshire.

It is rather a pity that hardly any Englishmen have ever heard of him.

Henry Waits Henry Waits Caen Hill Caen Hill
© David Craig Send me a message