Sunday, January 07, 2007

A grave situation for William Marshal


Embarking on research for the untitled not quite work in progress I found myself obliged to print out all 1,500 pages of the translation of Matthew Paris' Chronica Majora. It's an interesting account of life in the 13thC during the reign of Henry III. Paris needs to be read with caution as he's not always accurate and certainly not impartial. He also tends to go off at sudden tangents. One minute the reader is involved in what the King wore or the state of the weather, the next there's a six page discourse on the prophet Mahommed. Sometimes his writing seems a bit like the old advertising logo for Windows. 'Where do you want to go today?' Thus the reader never quite knows what's coming from page to page.
Even so it's a fascinating read. While waiting for the pages to print I came across this piece.


'When the aforesaid brave and warlike William, surnamed the " Mareschal" (as though " Seneschal of Mars"), was indulging in slaughter and pillage in Ireland, and was acquiring a large territory, he presumptuously and by force took away from a certain holy bishop two manors which belonged to his church, and held possession of them as if they were his own by a just claim,
because they were acquired in war. The bishop in consequence, after frequent warnings, to which the earl replied
with insolence, still retaining possession of the said manors, and contumaciously persisting in his sin, fulminated sentence
of excommunication against him, and with good cause ; but this the earl despised, and, pleading as an excuse that it was in the time of war, he heaped injury on injury. It was owing to these proceedings of his, that one Master Gervase de
Melkeley, composing verses on him, and speaking as if in the person of the earl, said,—
Sum quern Saturnum sibi sensit Hybernia ; Solem Anglia; Mercurium Normannia; Gallia Martem. [In Ireland I am Saturn ; in England the Sun's rays surround me :In Normandy I'm Mercury, but France for ever Mars has found me.]
The said earl, then, held these manors under his jurisdiction all his life. After some years he died, and was buried
at the New Temple, in London, which circumstance coming to the knowledge of the aforesaid bishop (it was the bishop
of Femes, who had been a monk of the Cistercian order, an Irishman by birth, and a man of remarkable sanctity), he,
though not without much personal labour, went to the king, who was at the time staying at London, and, making a heavy
complaint of the above mentioned injury done to him, declared that he had excommunicated the said earl for the
same, not without good cause : he then begged of the king, by his royal authority and warrant, for the release of the
soul of the said Earl William, to restore his manors to him, that the deceased might obtain the benefit of absolution.
The king, touched with sorrow at hearing this, asked the bishop to go to the earl's tomb and absolve him, promising that
he would himself see that satisfaction was given him. The bishop therefore went to the tomb, and, in the presence of
the king and many other persons, as if a live person was addressing a living one in the tomb, said, " William, you who
are entombed here, bound with the bonds of excommunication, if the possessions which you wrongfully deprived my
church of be restored, with adequate satisfaction, by the agency of the king, or by your heir, or any one of your
relations, I absolve you ; if otherwise, I confirm the said sentence, that, being involved in your sins, you may remain
in hell a condemned man for ever." The king, on hearing this, became angry, and reproved the immoderate severity of
the bishop. To this the latter replied, " Do not be astonished, my lord, if I am excited ; for he despoiled my church
of its greatest advantage." The king then, privately, spoke to William, the earl's eldest son, and heir of all his property,
who was now invested with the earldom and also to some of his brothers, and begged of them, by restoring the aforesaid manors which had been unjustly taken away, to release the soul of their father.
To this William replied 'I do not believe, neither ought it to be believed that my father took them away wrongfully, for what is taken in time of war becomes a just possession. If that old and foolish bishop has pronounced the sentence unjustly, may it be hurled back on his own head; I do not choose to diminish the inheritance with which I am invested.  My father died seised of these manors, and I, with good right, entered into possession of what I found.'
In this decision all the brothers agreed, and the king, being at the time a young man, and under a guardian would not on any account give offence to such a powerful noble. When this afterwards became known to the bishop, he grieved more at the contumacy of the sons, than at the injury done him in the first place by the father.  He then went before the King and said: 'What I have said I have said, and what I have written I have written indelibly. The sentence is confirmed; a punishment has been inflicted on malefactors by the Lord and the malediction which is described in the psalm is imposed in a heavy degree on Earl William of whom I complain - 'In one generation his name shall be destroyed'  and his sons shall be without share in the benediction of the Lord, 'Increase and multiply!'  Some of them will die by a lamentable death and their inheritance will be scattered; and all this my lord king, you will see in your lifetime, ay in the prime of your life.'
After delivering this speech in the bitterness of his heart, as if inspired by a prophetic spirit, the bishop went away in sorrow. Thus was the noble Earl William Marshal who had placed his confidence in an arm of flesh, left entangled in the bonds of  the anathema.  As an evident proof of this circumstance, some years afterwards, after the death of all his sons, when the church of the New Temple was dedicated, in the year 1200, (obviously wrong date here!)  the body of the said Earl which had been sewn up in a bull's hide, was found entire, but rotten and loathsome to the sight. The last of the brothers but one, Earl Walter Marshal, followed in his steps, for although he had most faithfully promised a revenue of  sixty shillings to the House of St. Mary belonging to the monks of Hertford, and had given a written promise thereof, because his brother Earl Gilbert died there, and his bowels still remained buried there,  he forgot the pledge and promise which he had made for the redemption of his brother, and after causing much useless vexation to the prior of the said house, he proved himself a manifest deceiver and transgressor.

Lincoln Cathedral grotesque
Moral of the story:  Never get on the wrong side of the church when it comes to land and money!

Getting to grips with the Medieval mindset is one of the things I enjoy about writing historical fiction. I think it a tad suspicious re the bishop's curse and I suspect it was inserted after the demise of William's sons. But did the bishop come to England to remonstrate with William's sons about his lost manors and attempt to trade them in exchange for lifting the excommunication? Is that part true? One can imagine the theatre of threatening the entombed corpse of one of the greatest scions of chivalry before the King and court - or one can try to imagine. I think William II showed remarkable restraint!
It'll be interesting to see what other nuggets turn up during my read of the Chronica....

2 comments:

Jarod said...

Interesting post, Elizabeth. It is indeed fascinating to look into the medieval mindset. Good luck with the project!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Jarod,
Thanks for dropping by. I had a quick glance at your blog and it looks just up my street. I will bookmark it for further perusal and when I get around to updating my bloggy admin stuff, I'll add yours to my sidebar.
I must admit I am something of a Marshal nut. Plus the more I research, the more immersed and fascinated in and by the Middle Ages I become!