I've been asked by a reader on Facebook if I'll post more pieces from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal. So I've decided that as well as Akashic Friday, (exclusive to Facebook) I'll have a Marshal Thursday where I'll do just that on Facebook and my blog. So as not to get confused, I'll start at the beginning and work my way through, leaving out the parts where the author rambles on forever. The original text is written in Old French, but an English translation is now available, although hard to come by! Enquiries to the Anglo Norman Text Society, which you can Google should you wish.
The Histoire was a work in praise of William Marshal and the Marshal family, so sometimes needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Sometimes the history is inaccurate and the author uses the literary conceits of the period to gloss over what he doesn't know. However the basic narrative is true to life and gives a fascinating glimpse into the world of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. It's also very useful for anyone wanting to step into the the mindset of the period. This is a world that comes to life under the pen of an early 13thC writer who was commissioned by the Marshal family to craft the Histoire. It celebrates and commemorates the life of William Marshal and his family and uses what at the time were eye witness reports and personal memories. What you are seeing are people of their time and through their own eyes:
Without further ado apart from a little aside from the Histoire author, here is the chronological story of William Marshal in weekly parts, although you won't actually meet him quite yet. First there was his father...
"A writer with a worthy subject in mind should so arrange matters that, from the fine start he gives his story it is brought to a fitting conclusion... My tale is of the worthiest man who ever lived in our times. May God, by his grace, give me the ability to handle it in such a way that all who come to hear it and listen to it attentively shall find their joy and delight in it."
In the reign of King Stephen, who ruled over England with difficulty, and Normandy weakly until he was foolish enough to lose it, there was a brave and trustworthy Knight called John the Marshal; he was so enterprising, his affairs on such a scale, that he surrounded himself with many worthy men. And yet he was no Earl, no baron with fabulous wealth, yet his generosity so increased that all were amazed by it. Even those who had no love for him, who were very jealous of him, often could not help speak well of him.
He was seneschal of England, but in his day there was great strife between the Empress and the King, and disorder reigned until in the end - and this is our opinion- King Stephen had the worst of it, for, indeed, the worthy Marshal tied his lot iwith the rightful heir, I mean of course the Empress Matilda. (EC Here referred to as Maheut). There was many a combat and trial for him, many a trial and tribulation he suffered on her behalf, many a hardship too, before things were settled. 300 knights in his retinue the noble knight had, all wearing livery supplied by him, in his pay, with their horseshoes, nails, livery, their fine appearance paid for by him, and the expensive gifts; he was well able to do this, he knew how to attract and hold onto valiant knights...
This courtly, wise and worthy man, married a lady of high birth, beautiful, noble with a cheerful disposition, and well educated to boot. (EC authorial license here re John's first wife. When wives of heroes appear in the sources these are typical tropes). They enjoyed a very happy life together for a long time - as I understand - and in the end he had two sons by the lady: nowhere between here and the shrine of St James at Compostela could you find such handsome boys as these. (EC there follows an omitted paragraph about how wonderful they were). the one was called Gilbert the other Walter the Marshal; they're great handsomeness was equally shared. They prospered so much as they grew up together that they became knights. The start they made in life was good - if only it had been longer!- But Death envies the life of the worthy and could not tolerate or endure that they should have a long life... One of them took ill, or so I am told, in Salisbury. Physicians were of no use at all, nothing could save him from death. The other brother was playing chess when he saw a young lad approaching him; he asked him without further ado: 'Have you news of my brother?'
With heavy heart and an expression on his face that was gloomier than anything could be, he replied 'If God is willing he will get well.'
'Oh!' the brother said. 'Then my brother is dead! He was my delight, he was my comfort, the only joy in life I had; nevermore shall happiness be mine.' These words spoken, he gave way to his grief; he neither ate nor drank after that but died out of grief for his brother. Their father and mother were grief stricken. Quite rightly as nature dictates: what you love you grieve over. But I would like to tell you this, and mark my words, that no grief should be the subject of too much grieving and no joy calls too much rejoicing. (EC the above scenario is again a literary trope. By the time Gilbert and Walter Marshall died their parents had long been separated, and while the cause of their deaths is unknown, expiring dramatically from grief is a little suspect).
Meanwhile, the Civil War continued to rage in England. 'No peace, truce, or agreement was kept, and the law of the land was disregarded... At this time so I have heard say, Earl Patrick of Salisbury made frequent war on the Marshal, causing him much harm and damage. The Marshal in his turn often inflicted great damage on him, for that is the way with such business: someone has to lose someone else has to win. In the conflict many a lance was shattered, many a shield smashed in pieces, many a hauberk drenched with blood; many a soul was made part from its body, many a prized and valiant knight was wounded, killed or taken prisoner; many a lady was left a hapless widow, many a maiden was orphaned, who eventually went and sold their bodies, failing to find husbands. (EC interesting comment).
The Empress besieged Winchester. With her was the Marshal, who remained ever loyal to her, and many of the other barons in serried ranks around the town that they expected to take. But the defence inside the walls consisted of doughty knights and brave soldiers who, to show their prowess, sallied forth daily to engage with those outside. The King lost no time at all in assembling a big army to go and relieve Winchester and rescue his loyal subjects. (EC historically wrong here as the relief army was led by Stephen's Queen and the mercenary captain William D'Ypres). When the Empress heard that the King was coming in his glory with such a mighty force to overcome her, either to kill her or take her prisoner, and she was told, in a word, that she had not in her Army one 10th the number of his troops, things did not look good for her. Nor had she any prominent enough adviser to give her council, except, of course, the Marshal, who had her set off forthwith straight for Ludgershall.
That day was a very difficult one, for the King and his entire army were behind them in hot pursuit, and those riding with the lady often had to turn and face to fight them; I can tell you that in these engagements many a saddle was seen slipping to the ground, many a knight knocked to the ground and captured. Those who were with the Empress could no longer stand and resist; they fled as best they could spurring on without drawing rain until they came below the town of Wherwell.
But a great hindrance to them was the Empress, because she was riding as women do, sidesaddle. This did not seem wise or appropriate to the Marshal, so he said to her: 'My lady, so help me Christ, you cannot get a move on riding sidesaddle (en seant) . You must put your legs apart and sit over the saddle bows.' Whether she liked it or not, this she did, since their enemies, hot on their heels and closing in, were inflicting much damage on them. The Marshal did not know what to say or do about her situation; he could see no means of rescue, no source of help. Brian of Wallingford he entrusted with the task of riding off in charge of the lady, and said that, on peril of his losing his soul, they should not stop anywhere, what ever need might arise and whether the way was good or bad, until they reached Ludgershall. Brian lost no time at all in doing as he was ordered. (EC A bit of artistic licence here I think, since Brian FitzCount was strictly speaking John's overlord and boss. However John was probably the better soldier).
The Marshall made his stand by the ford and offered what resistance he could. The whole army fell on him in such a mighty charge that he could no longer withstand it; so he rushed off into a church, a single knight in his company. When the King's men saw that they had run into the church, they said 'Come on, come on, bring the fire! There will be no escape there for that traitor!'
When the fire had got a hold in the church, he took refuge in the staircase of the tower. The Knight with him said 'My lord, we'll meet a cruel end in the fire here. That would be a great misfortune. Let us surrender, that would be wise.'
The Marshal made his savage replied:'never another word on those lines, I forbid it. If you utter just one word like that again, I'll kill you with my own hands.'
And because of the intense heat all around the lead melted and came off the tower and fell on the Marshal's face with horrible consequences: he lost one eye, which threw him into great dismay, but thank God he did not die there. The King's men immediately assumed that he had burnt to death and set off back to Winchester, but his life had not been extinguished. Once the fire had died down somewhat, he left the building as best he could, but he had suffered serious injury. The two of them made an effort to walk, each making the best effort he could muster. They made their way throughout the night until they came to Marlborough. When those inside the Castle saw them, they were overjoyed and did great honour to them.
More next Thursday!