Tuesday, October 24, 2017

All the Knowledge of the World! By Elizabeth Chadwick.

While preparing a couple of longer blog posts on my main period of the Middle Ages,  I am taking a short walk into the early 21st century.

A few years ago I happened to pick up an old leather-bound dictionary at a jumble sale. Mainly it was because I had a new dictionary in my study but with two sons at secondary school, another one downstairs for family use would come in useful.  It was at a busy moment in my life and with a very cursory glance, I shelved it with the downstairs reference books behind the everyday dining table which also houses an assortment of cookery books, wildlife works, local history, map books,  and a few to be read fiction titles.  And there it stayed, safe but not perused.
Yesterday, during a sleepover visit by my three year old grandson, we were eating our evening meal and began talking about the books behind us.  Out of an impulse I pulled out the dictionary and opened it, and was amazed and delighted by the contents of its thousand plus pages.  I really hadn't realised what a treasure it was and still is.  It also brought home to me the fact that back in the day people had to rely on books for knowledge.  Every house would have an encyclopedia or set of such somewhere, and until the Internet age, people made their living selling such tomes. I can remember my grandmother having a couple of such books, and my father in law had picked up a whole set when working as a junior in a second hand book shop and had self-educated himself from them.
This particular book purports to be a dictionary, but it is clearly a lot more all purpose than that.

Click on the images to enlarge

Published in 1928, the same year that my father was born, it's not just a dictionary of words and their meanings, but a veritable cornucopia of general knowledge information with numerous little black and white sketches to illustrate the words.  There are pages of black and white plates.  Look up 'sheep' for example and you'll get all the popular breeds of the time presented on the page opposite.

Beyond the 'A-Z' there is a supplement containing all sorts of value-added information. "Scientific words - Words of Recent Introduction, including War Words.  - Extensions of meanings of some of the words already in the body of the dictionary."

Having moved in 30 pages from "Abreaction - getting rid of a past disagreeable experience by living it through again in speech or action in the course of treatement"   to "Zygote - the production of fusion of two gametes."  the dictionary then moves on to "Addenda" and gives the peruser "A Key to Noted Names in Fiction, Mythology etc.  "A Guide to Literary Allusions."  Beginning with "Abdiel.  A seraph in Milton's Paradise Lost who withstood the revolt of Satan, 'faithfully found among the faithless, faithful only be'  to "Zuleika.  An oriental female name said by the Mohammedans to have been that of Potiphar's wife.  The heroine of Byron's  Bride of Abydos is so named."

This is followed by a "List of English and American Writers which includes among numerous others,  Jane Austen, Robert Burns, John Dryden, Sir Walter Scott and Mrs Henry Wood. 
We're then onto pronouncing vocabulary of Greek, Latin, scriptural and other ancient names, which then leads us on in a few pages to "Foreign Words and Phrases."  'Coup de plume' for example - a 'literary attack'  or 'semel abba, semper abbas.'  ' 'once an abbot always an abbot.'
On we go to "Foreign Words which Frequently Form Parts of Geographical Names, with Examples of their use.'  For example: "Chow - Chinese.  Island, second-class city, Hang Chow."
Then onto "Abbreviations and Contractions Commonly used in Writing and Printing,"  followed by "Forms of Address."  For example: "uchess: Address: Her Grace the Duchess of - " Begin: 'Madam' Refer to as 'Your Grace."

After this we come to Principal Moneys of the World and their Equivalents in English Currency.  From Abyssinia's Maria Theresa dollar to Zanzibar's  British Indian rupee.

Then Principal Weights and Measures of the World. Who would have known that in British weights and measures, 56lbs is equal to one firkin of butter! 

Next up is Synonyms and Antonyms,  followed by mechanical movements  illustrated just so you know your spur gearing from your friction gearing.

Then it's onto Great Events of History including the Babylonian Revival of 606-538BC, The (Roman) Empire in Decline,  The Rise of the Papacy, The Mohammedan Advance,  The Age of Charlemagne, The Hohenstaufen Emperrors,  The Hundred Years War etc etc.  Recent events are also covered, including the opening of the Cairo to Karachi air route in 1927 and the Duke of York opening the Federal Parliament buildings in Canberra, Australia.

Very recent in people's minds, a Diary of the 'Great War' then follows.

We're not finished yet as there now comes "A Concise Gazeteer of the World"  Comprising lists of the countries, their populations, areas, religions, industries.  The principal rivers and mountains are listed.  Towns and cities and their populations.  The railway routes, steamship time tables and also "A reliable and thoroughly up to date Atlas of the World, comprising 16 full page coloured maps.

All the general you need to get by in a single book of a thousand pages.  I am so glad that I have taken this treasure from my shelf and opened it.  I can foresee many moments of pleasurable and entertaining delving.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

THE WINTER CROWN and a bit of news.

I am hoping to get back to proper blogging soon.  There have just been so many things going on and so many deadlines to make that I have let it lapse for a short while.  It's going to have a bit of a revamp soon too I hope.

For now I can announce that THE WINTER CROWN has just been published in paperback in the UK and has a gorgeous cover that I love.  It's the second in my trilogy about Alienor of Aquitaine and covers the marriage  between Henry and Alienor from 1154 as far as 1174.

I titled the novel THE WINTER CROWN for a few reasons.
1. It's in keeping with the seasonal theme of the trilogy.
2. Henry and Alienor were crowned in December 1154, so it's fitting
3. There's the emotional resonance of Winter in the relationship
4. Old Sarum reminds me a bit of a crown on its hilltop setting and it has resonances for Alienor.

You can see a few quotes from reviews on the blog sidebar.

You can click on its page on my website to see some of the other editions of the cover from round the world.THE WINTER CROWN

The other piece of news to tell you is that last week, after successful negotiations, I have agreed a new two book contract with  my publisher LittleBrown at their Sphere imprint. TEMPLAR SILKS is going to be my next novel and will cover the 'lost years' of William Marshal when he took an oath to travel to Jerusalem and lay the cloak of his deceased lord, Henry the Young King,  on Christ's tomb at the Holy Sepulchre.  He returned bearing two lengths of silk that he put away in a chest for the next 30 years and about which he told no one save the man keeping them safe.  This book is the story of those silks and their ultimate purpose.
I wrote a blog post about here, for THE HISTORY GIRLS.  Click to read. A NEW ADVENTURE

I'm very much looking forward to writing the novel.  I'll put up the first couple of chapter on my excerpts blog soon!

Elizabeth xx

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


 THE WINTER CROWN, the second book in my trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine  is now available in the UNITED STATES in all formats and has been selling very well.

Here's the copy for the back of the book.
"Eleanor of Aquitaine has more than fulfilled her duty as Queen of England - she has given her husband Henry II, heirs to the throne and has proven herself as a mother and ruler. But Eleanor needs more than to be a bearer of children and a deputy; she needs her own true authority. As her children grow older, and her relationship with Henry suffers from scandal and infidelity, Eleanor realises the power she seeks won't be given willingly. She must take it for herself.  But even a queen must suffer the consequences of treason...

In this dynamic second novel of her Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, Elizabeth Chadwick brings to life a passionate royal marriage where love and hatred are two sides of the same coin and in the battle for control the winner takes all...

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


From Elizabeth Chadwick:
I was asked to write the introduction to the above rather marvellous reference book and was truly delighted to do so.  As I say in the introduction, if I'd had this around during my long apprenticeship in finding out what I needed to know to write my novels, my path would have been considerably less burdened!  It really is worth having on your bookshelf.
I  asked the two authors involved - Gillian Polack a friend of many years, and Katrin Kania, a new friend, if they would write a couple of guest posts for my blog.  I lef the subject matter up to them and I'm delighted to put Katia's up first. Some words to the wise with reference to medieval textiles and clothing.
  Gillian's post will follow next week.
It’s said that clothes make the man – so logically, historical clothes would make the historical man. When we’re trying to reconstruct historical clothing, however, it’s not as easy as going to the shop, getting a pattern, and sitting down to do some cutting and sewing…

The problems already start with the pattern. Our modern clothing industry is geared towards mass production of cheap items, conforming to current fads and to current ideals of fit. A few years ago, for instance, low-waisted trousers became fashionable, and I’ve had even more trouble finding proper trousers for myself since. They are also cut to fit the average body, and while averages and sizing patterns will change from country to country, or at least from subcontinent to subcontinent, if you are not very average in your body shape – you might be out of luck to find something that fits and flatters.

Take this whole mass production aspect away, and you are left with a much more personalised industry: individual tailors who make things for individual customers, ensuring that the garment they make actually does fit. (Of course, if you cannot afford new clothes, you might have to wear ill-fitting hand-me-downs, but that is another story.) This results in a clothing industry that may show individual tailor’s hands, even if the general fashion trends change in a similar way in large areas. Fashion plates or other means of spreading the news of what’s hot and what’s not, such as a travelling VIP of any kind, dressed nicely, make sure of that.

Variability was thus much, much higher than we are used to today. You can buy the exact same jeans of a certain brand, with the exact same name, number, sizing and fit in London, in Berlin, in New York and even in the small semi-rural little town where I grew up. We are used to this conformity just like medieval or early modern people would have been used to getting their cloth to a tailor and getting things made from it, and the almost-lack of identical items that goes with this.

Since there’s no mass-produced historical clothing items these days, why am I going on and on about this? Living History people and costumers work on a similar basis today when making historical dress, that’s true – but our whole basic set of assumptions and expectations is formed by our modern industrial experience of buying clothing, so it is something to keep in mind.

However, I can name you a few more other, and more important problems. The first of them, and often the foremost? Materials. There has been a huge development in both the fibre materials available (man-made fibres are almost everywhere these days) and spinning and weaving machines, resulting in fabrics that are very, very different to these used in the Middle Ages and still considerably different from fabrics available until, let’s say, those produced in the 20th century and later, when new, different and faster constructions of looms, such as shuttle-less looms, come to the fore – with changed fabric characteristics. Spinning machines make a different thread from hand-spinners, especially historical hand-spinners, too. Fibre preparation has also changed over time, with newer methods more suitable to industrial production taking over from older methods.
Gripper Loom built 1980 - Katrin Kania
So even if you find fabric in the correct colours and the correct weave, even if it should be wool and the label says “wool”, it will most probably still be a different fabric. (Have you made a pained sound right now? I’m sorry. Also, welcome to my world.) This is especially a problem if you are trying to do reconstructions for instances where visitors are able to touch the garments – getting it really right can often prove to be impossible given budget and time restrictions, and getting it only half-right will perpetuate wrong assumptions about historical fabrics.

Colours can be a problem, too – in both directions, too little and too much. There are instances when visitors might not believe that a bright pink was actually dyed with natural dyestuff, using a late medieval recipe; those are the people that were indoctrinated with the “everything in the Middle Ages was drab and brown” belief. On the other hand, those who happily accepted the love of colour that the Middle Ages had are sometimes tempted to use fabric dyed with modern chemical dyes, which can come close to the huge range of shades possible with plant and insect dyes – but sometimes really doesn’t.

And finally, the further we go back in history, the less information we do have. What did a well-off peasant wear in 1250? What did a poor one wear? How affordable and how available were used clothes for those that could not or would not afford new ones? Good quality clothing, well-fitted to the wearer, was an important means to show one’s wealth and status, so there would have been a temptation to overspend for some people – but how widespread was that temptation? We do know that showing one’s status was important in the medieval society, but how important was status and showing it off to that individual person? There would have been differences from person to person.

There would also have been local differences in clothing, local fads and trends, local preferences. We can still see this today when we travel: even in our globalised, unified society, there are different trends in how to dress in London and Paris and Copenhagen and Munich at the same point in time. There’s also the influence of key people in individual circles, who might start a mini-fad for a certain type of shoes or a certain type of bag, restricted to a clique or similar group. (I still remember being made fun of in school because my trousers were shorter than fashionable… and then entering that first lecture in Archaeology, just to find out that everybody there cared about trouser length just as much as I did. Which is to say: not at all.)

Many of these things are problems not easily solved, if they can be solved at all. With enough money and enough time, it is of course possible to exactly reproduce an existing piece of fabric, and there are specialists offering exactly this service. (Usually they are employed by museums for reconstruction or conservation purposes, where an exact reproduction matters.) When it comes to source material, however, we cannot just go back in time and make sure enough information will survive the years until our present, though that would be a wonderful thing. We’re stuck with what we have: a few real garments, many more scraps of fabric too small to guess what they originally were, pictures and images of people wearing clothes, wills and inventories and similar lists, and literary texts with descriptions of clothing.

None of these sources is perfect. For the Middle Ages, there’s way too few surviving clothes to give anything like a good picture; there’s always the question of what underlying symbols and artistic conventions have influenced a painting or drawing of clothes, just like a writer describing someone’s clothes may have taken artistic license in ways we cannot reconstruct. Wills and lists are more reliable in some ways, but are usually not including descriptions that would help us to really define or identify the listed pieces. We can use all of these sources together, though, to try and reconstruct an image of historical garments.

And even though all this may have sounded like I’m trying to rain on every costume enthusiast’s parade - I’m all for taking up that needle and thread and going for that set of clothes. I know, from my own experience, that sometimes you have to go and do things to actually understand how something works, and why. I’ve been sewing garment reconstructions for more than a decade now, and helping other people cut and tailor their garments is part of my day job. I know full well how often and how many compromises have to be made, and that the one hundred percent authenticity is not attainable. But I’m also a firm believer in knowing about your compromises, and knowing about the backgrounds and crafts details, and making those choices of pattern and technique and material with as much information on the original versions as is possible.

After all, if we dress up in reconstructed historical garments, we are teaching people things about historical dress. We’re challenging, or reinforcing, their previous concepts and ideas about it just by standing there and being looked at. Our decisions when making garments matter – we will always have to speculate, and compromise, and guesstimate when making a set of clothes based on sources. Having detailed information about historical materials, however, can help us pick the best compromise possible.

Dr Katrin Kania is a freelance textile archaeologist and teacher as well as a published academic who writes in both German and English. She specialises in reconstructing historical garments and offering tools, materials and instructions for historical textile techniques. Find her website at www.pallia.net and her blog at http://togs-from-bogs.blogspot.co.uk/

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015


I thought I would write a roundup of the most prominent reference works concerned with William Marshal for those who might want to read about him for themselves. I have used some of these for research while writing my novels about William Marshal (THE GREATEST KNIGHT and THE SCARLET LION,  detailing his life story from young manhood to grave).  Some works have been published since I wrote THE GREATEST KNIGHT (one even has the same title and UK font!), so I thought I'd do a roundup with my opinion. A couple have full reviews.

Before I go on to the secondary source material, I need to mention that the top primary source  resource for the study of William Marshal is THE HISTOIRE DE GUILLAUME LE MARESCHAL, a rhyming 20,000 line poem about William's life published by the Anglo Norman Text Society in two volumes with a companion glossary volume. It's edited by A.J. Holden with English translations by S. Gregory and historical notes by David Crouch. You can find out more about it by enquiries to the Anglo Norman Text Society. http://www.anglo-norman-texts.net/

Onto the reference works.

William Marshal Knighthood War and Chivalry 1147-1219  by David Crouch.
David Crouch's work on William Marshal: is now, in second edition, 13 years old, but it still sets the gold standard.  There are one or two slips of the pen (such as the comment that William's wife could have been no older than twenty when he married her - when in fact she could have been no older than 17) and occasional moments where opinion becomes a bit more personal than fact and are not fully supported (that the Marshal could not read for example, where the only evidence is that he employed clerks - but then so did everyone else. And calling him a 'complete illiterate not even able to read French let alone Latin, sounds like putting in the boot without any clear evidence). However, by and large, this one wears its scholarship with full credentials and excellent analysis.  I understand from professor Crouch that there is going to be a third edition of this work either later this year or in the New Year with amendments, corrections and new material.  A lot of new information about the Marshal has come to light via Professor Crouch's study of previously unexplored letters and charters of the Marshals and these are going to add a lot more nuance to what is already known.  If you only buy one book about the Marshal, make it this.
NB  The Marshal letters and charters were supposed to have been made available as a  publication from the Camden Society in July 2015, but it now looks as if it may be November.


William Marshal. Knight-Errant, Baron and Regent of England by Sidney Painter
This one was first published in 1933 but it has stood the test of time reasonably well and can be read beside the Crouch to give an excellent overview of the period.  This is my second go-to book.  It's not  as nuanced as the Crouch, and the research is older, but it still holds its own and has a strong feel for the Marshal.  Good scholarship.

The Knight Who Saved England by Richard Brooks
This is a workmanlike biography of the Marshal that's on its best ground in a military capacity. Indeed, I think Brooks understands the Marshal the military man the best of any of the biographers. He really gets a feel for the logistics and his man in that capacity.  The book is particularly strong on the battle of Lincoln in 1217 and is worth buying just for that.  You can read my full review here.

William Marshal Earl of Pembroke by Catherine A. Armstrong.
This work is mostly a print copy of the articles Catherine Armstrong has written for the Castles Wales website. Here's the link to the site, and then you can fine tune from there by using the search box. Castles Wales  It's very obviously self published and the production values are not high end. It's a bit here and there in content and the Marshal is viewed with a rose-tinted focus at times. However, it is still well written and knowledgeable. There are details one can pick up from this one that are not in any other work and the bibliography is staggering and well worth the perusal. It's definitely one to add to the shelf. 


George Duby's Flower of Chivalry was the first book I read on the Marshal when I began researching my novels. I read it once and then put it back on my shelf. Duby is flawed. He has some very strange notions about the treatment of women at that time and twists the facts so much to suit his argument that he warps the whole frame out of true.  He is also guilty of making William Marshal a bit of a bonehead, which he certainly wasn't.  He doesn't give him enough credit on the fronts beyond the military and simplifies his character.  I would say there are better works out there.  Professor Crouch himself warns against some of Duby's excesses.  Although he is fair in his appraisal of Duby and says some positive things.  His concluding remark is telling. 'Duby's Marshal is a warning of how selective historical writing can distort the evidence in a most unacceptable way.'


The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge.  I read this recently and here's my review. If there's to be a paperback of this work, I sincerely hope  it will be revised

I confess that before I read Thomas Asbridge’s THE GREATEST KNIGHT”, I was already curious about this new biography of William Marshal. The lives of John FitzGilbert the Marshal and his son William are a lifelong study subject for me outside my novel writing career.  Since this work shares the title of my 2004 novel THE GREATEST KNIGHT about the life of William Marshal and even has the same font and cloudy background on the cover, my interest was naturally piqued even more.

William Marshal, circa 1146-1219 has been called the Greatest Knight who ever lived and we know about him through a rhyming biographical poem of over 20,000 lines commissioned by his family and written by a poet simply known as John.

Despite the often highly positive spin the biography puts on the Marshal’s life, much of the “Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal” still rings true in its basics and the reader receives a strong flavour of the vigour of the Marshal’s character.  It’s a vivid glimpse into the world of the 12th and 13th century aristocracy – their cares and concerns, their pleasures and politics. It’s the first secular biography of an Englishman and a work of incalculable value, not least because of its survival, which is a story in itself.
That survival is the starting point of Thomas Asbridge’s work - how it was rediscovered at auction by historian Paul Meyer in the 19th century and how he lost the bid, but doggedly followed the manuscript’s trail, found it again, and translated it into the modern French of his own era along with a commentary.   It’s a fascinating story that draws the reader in and is one of the book’s most positive and interesting aspects.

Thomas Asbridge tells his tale in a strong, linear style that is entertaining and very readable which gives it wide appeal. You don’t have to be an academic to enjoy the writing.   He mostly relies on the “Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal”  as his source material and puts his own interpretations on the story, sometimes with results that might raise the eyebrows of those who know William Marshal well, but probably won’t be noticed by those who don’t.  I have to say that general readers may be misled at times about the Marshal’s character because the interpretation, and indeed some of the stated 'facts' do not always stand up to scrutiny.

Asbridge never seems to quite grasp the nuances. For example,  John FitzGilbert, William’s father is portrayed as a brutal weathercock.  But he was no more brutal than any other baron at the time, and it could be argued much less of a weathercock than a good number of his compatriots. Once he swore for the Empress he stuck to his word even though it meant the loss of an eye at Wherwell, and the potential loss of his son at Newbury, when John was the last man standing between King Stephen and the castle at Wallingford. The reader isn’t told this.  Asbridge tells us instead that King Stephen was ‘determined to punish John’s presumption’ and so in the fading days of his power, came to seize John’s castle at Newbury. But it was more than just royal displeasure and vindictiveness that brought Stephen to Newbury. The point of the Newbury incident is that Stephen needed to get to Wallingford before the future Henry II returned from Normandy, but he knew if he marched directly to Wallingford from his current base at Reading that  John FitzGilbert would come from Newbury, attack  him from behind and he’d end up sandwiched between the defending garrison at Wallingford and the Marshal forces in the rear.  So in order to have a good chance of success at Wallingford, he had to take out John Marshal first.  John Marshal knew there was no one else; he was the last man standing between Stephen and the destruction of  Wallingford.  That puts the whole situation in a very different light. 

There’s the moment when John attacks his rival neighbour, Patrick of Salisbury. Asbridge tells us that this shows John’s capacity for ‘ruthless brutality’ – to attack a troop of more lightly armed men.  What he doesn’t tell the reader is that these lightly armed men were actually on their way to slaughter John and were carrying their heavy armour with them ready to put on just before they attacked him. But John got wind of their intent and hit them first.  Again, the reader is only told half the story and thus the nuances are changed.

When it comes to William  Marshal himself, I began to wonder how much notice Thomas Asbridge had actually paid to the Histoire although it seemed to be his main source of information.   For example, he tells us that “The Marshal himself seems to have shown only limited interest in the likes of dancing (and) music.”  In direct contradiction of this the Histoire tells us that William’s singing voice had a ‘pure, sweet tone’ and that he willingly sang for his comrades at a dance at a tourney and that it gave them ‘much pleasure and delight.’ (Lines 3471-3483)  Many years later on his deathbed, William said one day that he felt like singing, as he had not in three years. This suggests that he had enjoyed song for most of his life. He also specifically called his daughters to sing for him and instructed them how to do so to the best of their ability and then joined in with them.’  (lines 18532-18580).  This is a man with only days to live.  It’s very, very obvious that he loved music, understood its technicalities, and it would have been one of the few joys left to him.  I am astounded that Asbridge has been so dismissive of these aspects in his work.

Asbridge alters one scene in the Histoire itself by not reading the text in primary source and by misunderstanding the English translation, hence the matter of the pike.  At a tourney at Pleurs, William Marshal got his head stuck inside his helmet and went to the smithy to have it prised off.  In the meantime he had been judged ‘man of the match’ which means he had won the main tourney prize, of a fish – a large pike. The Histoire tells us this in the original Old French word for the creature “luz”  It’s in prime condition and more than two and a half feet long.  Pikes and swans were common tourney prizes at this time, as were other animals.  One particular tourney even had a bear as the prize.   Asbridge tells his readers that William has won a two and a half foot long spear!   Common sense would surely tell one that a spear of two and a half feet in length isn’t actually a spear (you'd need to be looking around 12 feet) and not a useful thing to win, especially not for the champion of the show!

Asbridge dresses William in an odd way too. He tells us he would have worn a shirt with detachable sleeves, a ‘fact’ that appears to be picked up almost verbatim from the Danziger and Gillingham  book “1215”.  Asbridge says that William would have worn “a shirt, often with detachable sleeves.”  Danziger and Gillingham’s line (p22) says “a shirt with long sleeves that were often detachable.”  Now then, neither Danziger nor Gillingham are clothing historians but I happen to know a few,  and I challenge anyone to find any time in the 12th or 13th century when shirts with detachable sleeves were worn; tunics perhaps, later on under Renaissance influence, but never, never shirts.

The description of the Young King, eldest son of Henry II is almost identical to the one on Wikipedia and the problem here is that the reader can’t know if this information is reliable because Asbridge doesn’t give proper sources or footnotes. There is no bibliography section, rather the books consulted are mentioned in the end notes which are far from reader friendly.   They are arranged in a chapter by chapter format, but are quotes from pages without reference numbers, leaving the reader utterly baffled and having to hunt through the entire chapter for the lines in question.

I was somewhat surprised at some of the dates Asbridge uses. Eleanor of Aquitaine receives the older research birthdate of 1122 instead of the now more usually accepted 1124.   King John’s birth year is cited as 1167 when it looks more likely to be  1166. (See “Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady,” edited by John Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler, the chapter by Andrew Lewis on revising the birth date of King John. This also gives the revised birth date of 1124 for Eleanor of Aquitaine. Gerald of Wales also indicates the birth date of 1166 for John). William Longespee’s birth date is erroneously given as 1167 when we now know it was somewhere between 1175-80, shortly before his mother, Ida de Tosney married Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk.

The reader is told that Eleanor of Aquitaine was at the coronation of her son the Young King in 1170.  However she was in Normandy at the time, trying to prevent various agents of Thomas Becket making the crossing and preventing the coronation. (William FitzStephen Life of Becket).

Asbridge has William setting off for the Holy Land in September 1183 and suggests that he just possibly may have arrived there in that same month in time to fight Saladin – which is patently impossible even given a jet propelled horse!

Asbridge suggests in one of the many ‘may have’ moments occupying the narrative that Richard the Lionheart was determined to  build a glorious reputation for himself in liberating Jerusalem and didn’t want William along on crusade with him in case the Marshal stole his limelight – he was jealous of him!  That begs the question then,  why did he promote William and his affinity to such prominent positions in his government? Why not just dump William if he was worried about the threat to his own glory?   Asbridge also speculates as to whether William would be considered a coward for staying at home, but since someone had to rule the country and since William had already made the pilgrimage, it’s an argument that skates on very thin ice – in my opinion.

Asbridge accuses the Marshal of ‘grumping, wheedling and whining’ to Henry II  for promotion and makes him sound like a child having a whinge in a supermarket. While the Marshal might have been pro-active in seeking promotion, and we know he complained to Henry II, “grumping, wheedling and whining” certainly does not convey the resonances of the period and the way in which the reciprocation of patronage played out.   Would Henry II, famous for his impatience, have listened to and sought the advice of a man who grumped, wheedled and whined? Absolutely not. 

Positives?  The aforementioned story of the discovery and rescue of the manuscript is well written and fascinating.  Dr. Asbridge also gives a fine reassessment of the Young King which is long overdue and puts him in his full political context.  Rather than a foolish, spendthrift ‘Hooray Henry,’  this eldest surviving son of Henry II comes over as a politically astute young man frustrated by his father’s  controlling, micro-managing policies. That aspect of the biography is excellent and recommended as food for thought. It’s a great balancer to the more usual negative assessments of the Young King.

Ultimately, Asbridge’s Greatest  Knight is an uneven work that doesn’t really get under the surface of the Marshal’s personality and there are some rather bizarre interpretations of the motivations behind some  historical events completely lacking credible evidence to back them up.

If it is taken too seriously or seeps into the public mindset, it has the potential to set back the progress made by more scholarly works of our understanding of the Marshal. If you do read this one, make sure you also read David Crouch on the Marshal to get a fully rounded picture. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

THE MARSHALS AND KING JOHN: A paper from this year's Mortimer Society Conference.

I was asked by the organisers of the Mortimer Society Conference if I would give a paper loosely on the subject of matters or personalities concerned with Magna Carta for their annual day of lectures at Hereford Academy.
Slightly daunted to be in the august company of lecturers and academics who know the period inside out at degree level, I nevertheless decided nothing ventured nothing gained and agreed to do so.  The result was this - a piece on the relationship between the Marshal and King John.  Other than a few photos to break up the narrative, this is the article verbatim.

I  am so glad I agreed to lecture at Hereford.  I met some old friends and readers, and said hello again to the lovely indie bookseller from Ludlow.  The lecturers were absolutely charming and not at all 'ivory' tower and were as interested in what I had to say, as I was  in their work.  So, all in all a great exchange, and enjoyable at all levels!

                              THE MARSHALS AND KING JOHN.
William Marshal as imagined by the artistic talent
of Diana Popovic Dicso.

I am going to begin with a quote from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal.

"Sire, I beg the Lord our God that, if I ever did anything to please him, that in the end he grant you to grow up to be a worthy man. And if it were the case that you followed in the footsteps of some wicked ancestor, and that your wish was to be like him, then I pray to God, the son of Mary, that he does not give you long to live and that you die before it comes to that."

These are the words spoken to the 11 year old King Henry III by William Marshal on his deathbed. The moment is reported in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, a 20,000 line poem commissioned by the Marshal family, specifically it is thought by the Marshal’s eldest son William II, to commemorate his father’s great life and to glorify the family. It was completed around 1226.  That “certain wicked ancestor” was the young king’s father, King John, who had died two and a half years earlier leaving the country in almost bankrupt turmoil and rife with civil war.

The Marshal Histoire was intended to be read aloud on the anniversary of William’s death, to his family, and to those who shared their affinity, which rather demonstrates that in the mid-1220s and for a while afterwards, the reputation of King John was set at nought even while his son Henry III was entering manhood.  

Despite William Marshal’s  damning deathbed remarks in 1219,  he had served King John and indeed John’s brothers and father in a military capacity through thick and thin for more than 50 years. In some ways they were the reason for his being. No Henry II, no Richard and John, and there would have been no William Marshal Lord of Chepstow, Earl of Pembroke, ruler of Leinster, Lord of Bienfait, Longueville and Orbec in Normandy – among other ownerships.  All of these and various posts and fiscal rewards were payment for loyal and intelligent service, both on the battlefield and off it and all were dependent on the favour and patronage of the Angevin kings.
My main thrust today is William Marshal’s relationship with  King John.  The Histoire may be damning in those parting comments of the Marshal to the boy king,  and yet the Marshal had stood by John when everyone else was deserting him.
 Perhaps we’ll never truly know the reason why even though we can make educated guesses, and it’s those guesses I want to look at now.
William wasn’t the only Marshal to have dealings with John. His brother also named John, served  as a royal Marshal under Richard I and John when he was count of Mortain. William’s own sons William and Richard were for a time hostages of King John and had an adolescent knowledge of him outside of their father’s household.
So let’s take a look at the relationships, what we do know, and what we can extrapolate without wandering too far from the beaten track

William Marshall was about 20 years old when King John was born in December 1166 at Oxford. Possibly  that birth date is 1167 although the evidence leans more toward the earlier date and we have professor Andrew Lewis’ detective work to thank for finding that out.  But anyway, there was a 20 year gap. When John was in the care of his wet nurse Agatha, William was coming to young knighthood in Normandy under the tutelage of his distant kinsman William de Tancarville, who was the hereditary Chamberlain.

By the time the infant John crossed the channel with his family William had entered the service of his uncle Patrick  Earl of Salisbury who was serving as the governor of Poitou. Did William meet the very young John? We don’t know. John seems to have spent his early years at the Abbey of Fontevraud. This was probably to keep him out of harm’s way and acted as a sort of safe kindergarten while his parents were busy with the problems of major government. All the same he would have been with one parent or another at the great feasts of the year, and William may well have encountered him then but as no more than a royal toddler.

 As John’s childhood progressed, William would certainly have encountered him at various gatherings and would probably have exchanged occasional words with him. William himself came from a large family and he seems to have been at home with people of all generations.  I am sorry to use a lot of ‘may have’s’ ‘probablies’ and ‘it is likely’ but that’s because we can't say for certain.  However, on a possibility scale of one to ten, it’s closer to a ten than a one.

William entered Queen Eleanor’s household in 1168 after saving her from ambush at the cost of his own wounding and capture by the Lusignan family who were in rebellion. Patrick Earl of Salisbury was killed in the attack.  Eleanor took a shine to William, paid his ransom and rewarded him with money, horses and weapons from her own purse. He became her man and entered her household.  In 1170 he was promoted to the role of tutor in chivalry and marshal of the household of her eldest son Henry, known as the young King because his father had had him crowned in his own lifetime. His star was hitched to that young man’s wagon. Henry the Young King seems to have been fond toward his youngest brother. There was an 11 year age gap between them and by the time John was four his older brother was already a king in name.  When Henry II had a bout of illness in 1170 and thought he was dying he left instructions in his will that Henry the Young King should be John’s Guardian.
Basically William would have watched John growing up on the sidelines with occasional moments of contact between child and man. Whether he had any sympathy for a younger son who would have to make his own way in the world, we don’t know but his main responsibility at this time was to the Young King.

The brotherly love between John and young Henry was strained when their father stated his intention of endowing John with three castles that belonged to the Young King.  It was one of the reasons that led to a rebellion of the older sons against their father,  rebellion that swiftly  spread to become a general civil war and resulted in the imprisonment of Eleanor of Aquitaine who was accused of fomenting an uprising with her three older sons.  John, too young to be involved, remained out of it all on the sidelines. Although Henry II prevailed and  reconciliations were made, the crack were still deep and ugly.  John seems to have remained in favour with his father, sometimes being found in his company and sometimes under the tutelage of Ranulf de Glanville, one of Henry’s able courtiers and lawyers.  Throughout this time William Marshal would have continued to be an observer towards his lord’s attitude to his youngest brother and would have encountered John on occasion at gatherings.

The young King rebelled against his father again in 1183, and this time died during the conflict.  Following his death, William Marshal went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and when he returned took up employment with Henry II. During the period between 1186 and Henry II’s death in 1189, William would have had further time to get to know John as the king’s youngest son developed into young manhood.  William was with Henry II at the bitter end when the King died. Richard was now in rebellion against him and had actively hounded him. At one point William had had to face down the hotly pursuing Richard by killing his horse under him and stopping him in his tracks.  But at least Richard’s  intentions were clearly signalled.

When Henry II died, he was alone. His naked corpse had been robbed by his servants while his household was elsewhere.  John by this time had seen the writing on the wall and had deserted the sinking ship.  His father is supposed to have asked for a list of those who had betrayed him, and on seeing John’s at the top of it, had turned his face to the wall and died.

William’s views on John’s desertion we don’t know, but he had already prevented Richard from persecuting the dying king by killing his horse under him.  This act proved  to Richard’s mind the Marshal’s unswerving loyalty to his liege lord and he was willing to forgive and reward William hugely for that loyalty, and advance his position in the new reign by giving him lands, power and the fabulously wealthy young heiress Isabelle de Clare into the bargain.

Richard, however, was preparing to go on crusade and left William Marshal as one of several justiciars to help run things in Richard’s absence.  John, although married to an English heiress,  Isabelle of Gloucester and having extensive lands in England was banned from the country by Richard for 3 years.  John objected and his mother stepped in to plead his case.  The ban was quashed and John had his leeway.  William Marshal was Richard’s man and remained so, but his family had a foot in each camp as his older brother was of John’s faction.  This might have been just the way it turned out, or it might have been wily statecraft.  William Longchamp bishop of Ely certainly seemed to think it was the latter and that William Marshal was cultivating John just in case he became the next king.  Perhaps he was, but his core loyalty was to Richard.
Without going into too much convoluted political detail,  Richard had left the government of England partially in the hands of his chancellor, William Longchamp bishop of Ely.  Longchamp wanted the whole and set about throwing his weight around.  The barons protested that he was behaving like a king indeed rather than a representative of such, and overstepping the mark. On the Marshal front, he’d also managed to oust John Marshal, William’s brother from office and replace him with his own brother.  In the middle of this John left Normandy and came to help out/stick his oar in depending which way you look at it.  With Richard gone, there was a hole to be filled.

William and the other justiciars had to try and maintain a balance of power.  While there was little sympathy for Longchamp, they also recognised that John, even though a possible future king, was a threat if he too became more powerful.  Longchamp ended up being banished from the country and replaced by Walter of Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen. John too was put in his place. But then came the news that Richard had been captured while returning from crusade, and a massive ransom for his return was being demanded by the Emperor of Germany.

John tried to persuade everyone that Richard was dead and that he wasn’t coming back. His mother, meanwhile, convinced that Richard was very much alive, was scrambling to raise the enormous ransom demanded of 150,000 marks.  For a time John played along but in secret was negotiating a deal with Philippe of France to try and keep Richard imprisoned.  The men offered  Emperor Heinrich various monetary bribes that they couldn’t possibly fulfil in order to keep Richard incarcerated.  When that didn’t work and Richard started out for home, John decamped to France and tried to make further deals with King Philippe that basically resulted in him selling out Normandy from under Richard’s feet.

Having fled, John left his supporters to hold for him in England in the few strongholds they controlled.  William himself had been involved in besieging Windsor for a time, and Nottingham was still in John’s hands.  There was Marlborough too, in Wiltshire, and the baron holding out against the justiciar Hubert Walter was William Marshal’s own older brother John.  William was now faced with a stark dilemma.  Go to his brother’s aid and put himself fully in John’s camp, or stay loyal to Richard and turn his back on his brother.  His loyalty to Richard prevailed, as one would expect of the Marshal’s general behaviour which usually pointed true on the compass despite a few wobbles and he chose Richard.

John Marshal died at Marlborough. We don’t know how, but the castle was surrendered to the royalist forces and William, hastening to meet Richard at Northampton, received the news that his brother was dead, defending a castle for a lord who had fled the country and gone into hiding.   What did the Marshal think about this? What did he feel?  Anger at John, At his brother for getting himself in that situation? Again we don’t know at this stage. He was a pragmatic courtier who kept his cards close to his chest.
By 1194 John had betrayed his father on his deathbed, betrayed his brother the absent crusader, and betrayed his men by abandoning them to their fate.

Clearly William’s brother’s defence of Marlborough in support of John had had an effect on William’s own standing because when William came before Richard he had to have men speak for his own loyalty, and some were dubious.  William Longchamp, bishop of Ely accused William in front of the King of ‘Planting Vines’ i.e. putting out feelers of support for John should Richard not survive.  Of being a dissembler and cosying up behind Richard’s back.  Since William had just come post haste from his brother’s funeral cortege, it must have been a difficult moment.  He had to walk a very careful path between who he served and who he might have to serve.

 William, however, weathered Richard’s return and continued in the King’s high favour.  He accompanied him to Normandy where Richard was reconciled with John.  Richard’s way round the problem of his rebellious brother was to call John a child who had been badly advised.  John was by this time heading for 30 and hardly a child, so it may have galled him to have this attitude taken toward him, but at the same time it got him off the hook.

Between 1194 and 1199 William’s relationship with John was a working one as Richard strove to restore the damage done while he was on crusade. John served him to all intents and purposes faithfully and well during this time – indeed was an asset. He and William Marshall worked together and were at the siege of Milly where they captured the castle - this is the one where William supposedly ran up a siege ladder and then, tired after his exertions on the battlements and a fight with the constable whom he defeated, duly sat on him to keep him down while William recovered.  This is reported in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal as being an event where Richard was present, but in actual fact John was the other military commander there. The Histoire, however, seldom has anything good to say about John, and avoids mention of him in a positive military role.  The fact stands though, that William and John worked well together during the years between 1194 and 1199, and would have built up a working relationship and even rapport.

In 1199 Richard died while besieging the castle of Chalus in the Limousin. He was struck in the area of the collarbone by a crossbow bolt which festered and he died soon after of blood poisoning or gangrene. While still lucid, he sent word to William Marshal and Hubert Walter Archbishop of Canterbury who were in Rouen telling them to secure the Treasury there. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal tells us that William and Hubert Walter had a discussion about who should inherit the throne – Arthur of Brittany who was Richard’s teenage nephew, or John who was 33 years old, a man and an accomplished warrior. Hubert Walter thought that Arthur had the better right to the Crown but William Marshall argued for John. In the event William Marshal won out and John was chosen. However, Hubert Walter remarked that William was never going to regret any decision in his life as much as he did this one. William’s choice was fairly obvious. He had no affinity with Arthur who had a different set of influences and was welded to the French crown. William, however had known John all his life and worked with him recently.  Heknew what he was dealing with, whereas Arthur was a teenage unknown quantity. Perhaps the “vines” that William had planted were about to bear fruit. And if he supported John, then John would owe him big time.

William’s support of John went so far as going to England and making promises on John’s behalf to the barons, that their grievances would be heard and assuring them that John was the man of the moment.
William’s reward for this support - and clearly his word was seen as honourable and worth trusting, was the earldom of Pembroke which had been taken from his wife’s family in the reign of Henry II. Other grants and privileges came his way too. The death of a king and the transition to a new one was a fraught time but William weathered it well and did handsomely out of it.  Do we take it that William was making the best of the situation by garnering what reward he could?  How did he feel in later years that the promises he made on John’s behalf had all fallen through?

His own honeymoon with John at the outset of the reign was not to last. Not to go into a long discussion on the wherefores and the whys because we don’t have time, but John lost Anjou, Maine and Normandy to the French. Whereas his brother Richard had won the battle for the hearts and minds of his people, John did not have the same propensity nor the same leadership qualities and military nous.

He did have a stroke of luck when he captured his nephew Arthur who was besieging his grandmother, John’s mother,  Eleanor of Aquitaine at the castle of Mirebeau, 20 miles from Poitiers,  but afterwards John ruined the advantage by treating those he captured with such shocking cruelty that men were horrified at his behaviour.  “The King kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner and such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed his cruelty.’ . This was further compounded when Arthur disappeared in Rouen in April 1203 and was never seen again. Rumours were soon rife that John had murdered him with his own hands while in a drunken rage. Whether he did or not is still debated but what is certain is that Arthur vanished. Stories of the death come from a source close to John – the annals of Margam Abbey whose patron was William de Braose. De Braose had been in a position to know what happened to Arthur, and there is evidence to suggest that it might be a reason why John persecuted him - among others.

Did William Marshal know of the death of Arthur? Some historians think that Arthur was murdered by committee - Stephen Church and Marc Morris have recently put that suggestion forward. Did John take counsel with his barons before doing the deed? I’m not sure about that I think John was totally capable of murdering his nephew without taking anyone’s advice, but it’s one of those grey areas where there’s only opinion.

I do believe that policy concerning Arthur was discussed, but who knows how deep it went?  I think there is a lot more than meets the eye but which we don’t know from a distance of 800 years.  I believe William Marshal must have suspected what had happened. If the king doesn’t know what goes on in his dungeons, then who does?  If Arthur disappeared, then John knew the circumstances. I think that Arthur was a large elephant in the room for John’s close advisers.

Perhaps William felt a certain responsibility because he was the one who had foisted John on everyone rather than plumping for Arthur. Had he backed Arthur, the landscape would have been very different at this juncture.  Perhaps he thought that it was a good thing that Arthur was dead in one way, but at the same time it created enormous pitfalls.

John went on to lose Normandy. William, was in the act of building up a patrimony for his sons and to this end when John’s grip on Normandy went down the pan, William did a deal with Philip of France to try and keep his estate intact but it meant swearing allegiance to Philippe for his lands on the Norman side of the Channel. John took a dim view of this and the relationship between him and the Marshal became strained. John saw William’s action as a desertion of duty and moreover double-dealing. William saw it as a prudent act to preserve his land, but even so he was sailing close to the wind. When John planned an invasion of France in 1206, William refused to go. In the event so did most of John’s nobility but John knew who the ringleader was. The Marshal said to the other barons at the height of the quarrel at Portsmouth, ‘My lords look at me, for, by the faith I owe you, I am for you all this day an exemplar and model. Be on your alert against the King: what he thinks to do with me he will do to each and every one of you, or even more if he gets the upper hand over you.’  That John did not move against William was largely down to the fact that William had a mass of support behind him, and at this stage John didn’t feel strong enough to test men’s loyalty.

Not long after this, William requested permission to go to Ireland. This can be looked at in several ways. He could have been going to escape from John who was in persecution mode after the quarrel at Portsmouth. Or it could just be that William was going to sort out Isabel’s Irish lands. These were going to provide for her in the event of William’s death,  but only if William got a grip now. They needed attending to and developing economically while being made militarily secure, and they also needed rescuing from John’s grasp because John had granted away much of the land to his own vassals and there were boundaries to be recalibrated. It could also be seen through the lens of some of William’s natural allies being involved in Ireland, men viewed by John as overly powerful or having a hold on him.  There was William de Braose with whom John was already in dispute, and the de Lacy clan. John probably feared rebellion in Ireland from the Irish faction and having lost France he needed to stamp on challenges to his authority elsewhere,  and especially on de Braose.

He demanded a hostage of William Marshal - his oldest son before he would let William cross to Ireland in 1206. William handed over the youth and continued preparations to leave. John, not wanting William to sail at all, demanded his second son too. He thought it might prevent William from leaving but William handed the lad over.  The Histoire makes the comment that if one bandages a finger that isn’t injured, it will still be the same when the bandage is removed.

William’s handing over of his children probably saved his skin. When a son was demanded of De Braose’s wife she replied that she would not hand any child of hers over to the man who had murdered his own nephew. That sealed her death sentence and John went after her with a vengeance. She and her eldest son were eventually to starve to death in the dungeon of Corfe Castle, or some say Windsor.

William Marshal’s own wife Isabelle de Clare was not happy at handing over their sons, but William’s will prevailed. He was playing a great game of politics with his eye on the bigger picture. He had been hostage himself at a younger age than his sons. He knew what was at stake, and like his own father before him, he took a gamble - and it paid off. What did the sons themselves think? We don’t know, but perhaps it is telling that the older boy, William Junior, rebelled against King John in 1215. Some historians see this action as being the family cunningly hedging its bets and having a foot in each camp - which indeed could well be the case. On the other hand, it might  be that the young Marshal’s experience as John’s hostage had been uncomfortable.

There is a cordial letter from King John to William Marshal about the second son Richard. Cordial on the surface that is. In it John tells William that Richard has grown out of his clothes and it’s a great shame that William hasn’t been providing for him, and that the King will see to his needs. Suggesting that the father has forgotten or is neglecting his own son and he the King is setting that to rights.  There are also some darker undercurrents that bear further investigating.
The King could see that Richard was young and in delicate health and that it would be too much for him to experience so early the trial of undergoing hardship.’  Just what does that mean?  It calls to mind traditional initiations that still go on as an undercurrent today in tribal situations – and in that I include modern Europe too where you’re not accepted into a gang until you’ve proven yourself, or the rumours of initiation ceremonies at certain old money public schools.  I think it’s an area that would bear further investigation.

John told William he intended taking Richard with him to Poitiers on the battle campaign in 1214.  William didn’t want him to go, but said if John insisted then so be it.  The Histoire says that Richard then took ill and nearly died. ‘That would have been very cold comfort indeed, and regarded as a crime.’  From the hints in the Histoire, one gets the impression that John played games with the Marshal boys being both benefactor and tormentor, but never showing which hand was behind his back until he struck.

Indeed John had a habit of taunting William. During the difficult Irish situation, William was summoned to court in England, while John’s henchmen Meilyr FitzHenry the Irish Justicar attacked William’s lands in Ireland. While William was stuck at court, receiving the cold shoulder from the King and his cronies, John came to him one day and told him that he had heard there been a terrible battle in Ireland and William’s men had either been captured or killed and the heavily pregnant Countess Isabel was being besieged. How John could know any of this was baffling because the Irish sea was so stormy that no ships could make the passage to bring the news.
William reacted stoically to this baiting, and the Histoire does not report his thoughts, only shows us how manfully he bore the taunting without reaction.  He must have had nerves of steel. When the truce became known that in fact King John’s men had gone down before the Marshal faction, William made light of the matter and forebore to gloat and thus the danger passed. I think this shows us that William had a powerful sense of self-preservation and knew his man very well and how to avoid becoming his victim. There were times when he had sailed very close to the wind in terms of loyalty, and had been in real danger, but he managed to weather it and King John himself, while coming to the line with William, had not stepped over it to take him down, even if he imagined vindictive scenarios for him.

William return to Ireland and John followed him, intent on stamping his authority on the country  and having a new constitution written for it that would limit the power of his Irish barons. It would bring the Marshals the de Braose’s and Lacy’s to heel.  The de Braose family was set on a course of destruction that nothing could alter. Again William weathered this tricky moment by submitting to John, and the King stayed his side of the line by accepting that submission, although he made sure to billet himself and his troops on William for a time, this whacking up William’s expenses!

William was left after that to his own devices in Ireland for several years. It wasn’t exactly retirement, but it was a retreat from the fray. Like entering one of the refuges at a tourney. His sons, however, were still hostages and one has to wonder how they were being brought up away from the Marshal enclave and what their opinion of King John was.  And William himself. Did he want his boys being raised away from his influences among men he did not trust?  Learning ways he might consider not to be good for them?  Certainly their mother was concerned. She didn’t want them to go and left to her own devices might have refused to hand them over with disastrous consequences.

By 1212 With interdicts and rebellions happening on the mainland, John requested William’s help, and offered to return his sons to their family – they’d been away around 5 years. William agreed and moved back to England to serve John in both a military and diplomatic capacity and was received back into the fold.   Why this volte face by the King?  Perhaps he realised how few allies he had in his pocket.  William could have refused the summons.  Or he could have accepted, taken his sons and run, and then declared for the rebels, but he didn’t.  He chose to stand by John and act as a military commander and adviser.  It could be that, presented with a sow’s ear he was willing to take the challenge of making it into a silk purse. Someone had to trouble shoot and repair this terrible fix they were in.

John had quarrelled with the church, so much so that he was under threat of excommunication and Philip of France was preparing to invade the country.  John, however, suddenly did a complete about turn, accepted the Pope’s ruling and offered to make England a vassal of Rome. In one fell swoop he cut Philip’s legs out from under him and Philip now found himself threatened by the pope and warned not to invade England.  How much of this was the Marshal’s advice?  We don’t know, but it’s interesting that it came about after the Marshal returned to the country and was taken into John’s confidence.
Not that the crisis was over and a large rebellious faction of barons were protesting about the harshness of John’s rule – the unfair taxes, the abuses of rights; the ridiculous fines.   What had been a half mark fine in the days of Henry II and Richard now sometimes amounted to hundreds of marks.  John would impose multi thousand pound fines on barons to keep them in their place, and if they couldn’t pay, he’d use it as an excuse to take over their castles.  He employed mercenaries to do his bidding.  He demanded money with menaces basically and receiving justice depended on how much you could pay to get it.  This was the birth of the notion of Magna Carta, to bring the king under the law and stop these abuses.

I’m no expert on the document and I leave that to more knowledgeable historians, but what place did William Marshal have in all this?  Was he one of its architects as is often said?  My own opinion is that he wasn’t – or not in a front line sense.  The Magna Carta was a list of rules made by a committee of a select number of barons in opposition to the king. Among them, William certainly had family members. His own son, William Junior. By design or because they were indeed on opposite sides we don’t know.  William’s son in law Hugh Bigod was among the rebels, as was the young man’s father, Roger, Earl of Norfolk.  Both of these men were well versed in the law. 

King John was clearly against the Magna Carta – anything that limited his powers was not going to be flavour of the month, but with the French threatening and his barons in rebellion, he had little choice but to negotiate.  This I think is where William comes in. John had used him before as a diplomat when it came to negotiating with the King of France and the way William had woven his way through the tricky mid years of the 1200’s was a testament to his cool head and diplomatic abilities.  He also had strong Templar connections and the Templars were a kind of neutral party – like the United Nations today, where both sides could meet to discuss their differences.  I believe that while William had little say in drafting the clauses of Magna Carta, he did have input in negotiating the terms and at least bringing King John to the table at Runnymede.  Without William driving the diplomacy, there might not have been a Magna Carta at all.   In other words both sides were willing to trust him.  He had been through the fire with King John, and the King’s relationship with him was now cordial – as far as the King was concerned. Everyone knew about his trouble with the King, and that while acting on John’s behalf, he was also one of them.  Ever the diplomat, William maintained a neutral fa├žade.

William’s son, however, in the rebel camp, had made his own feelings more known.  We can take the view that it was family policy that this should be,  however it’s telling that once the King was dead, the younger Marshal was one of the first to return to the fold.

William continued to stick by King John as the French landed and the battle for England became a civil war. He never wavered. It wasn’t out of love for John, whom he made clear on his death bed that he detested, but possibly it was for the monarchy as a whole – for who had the right.  Perhaps even out of loyalty to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the liege lady who had given him his first boost up the ladder and is one of the few women mentioned in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal. This was her last remaining son for better or worse.
When John was dying, he named WM one of the executors of his will and the Histoire puts its hero in the forefront and has John asking William to take care of the country for him. The wording is clearly propaganda bigging up its hero, but there is a germ of truth there too.  William was one of the stalwarts and one of the few people capable of repairing the hole in the fabric. 
Although in his 70’s William took on the job of regent to the young Henry III and reissued Magna Carta, removing or moderating the clauses that were proving to be sticking points, and gradually drawing everyone back into the fold and dealing with the French both by battle at Lincoln and Sandwich in 1217 and by diplomacy in making a peace treaty with Prince Louis of France. 

William’s role as caretaker of the realm and of the young Henry III came to an end when he fell ill in either late 1218 or early 1219 and was borne home to his manor of Caversham to slowly die as winter turned to spring and spring looked toward summer.  In fact yesterday (14th May)  was the anniversary of his death. Here too the Young King Henry III was brought to William’s sickbed and the words uttered about the ‘wicked ancestor.’

To sum up the relationship between William Marshal and King John, I would say that it was one of reciprocity that at times faltered because of ambition and suspicion, but was weathered by the diplomacy of the Marshal.  The latter had no love or even liking for his liege lord, but he had a wider loyalty to the monarchy, a pattern perhaps set in his own childhood by his father’s sacrifices at Wherwell and Newbury, and then his own early service to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Young King. It was a default in the Marshal that wasn’t to translate to his sons and their relationship with Henry III.   

Were I to compare the Marshal with a modern day political leader, I’d have to say Nelson Mandela. What strikes me is their ability to cut through the personal dislikes and past injuries to see the big picture and do their best for national stability.  

Re-enactment photographs courtesy of Rosemary Watson.