Sunday, August 17, 2008


Just under a fortnight ago, I embarked on a research trip to Wiltshire and Berkshire with my friend and colleague, Akashic Consultant Alison King. We had been invited by a reader, Sue, to visit her at Hamstead Marshall and see for ourselves where John Marshal and his son the great William Marshal had once made their home. (they both lived at many other places too, but Hamstead was one of the original manors belonging to the family and held as part of the living of the royal marshal). Minus driving time, we had 2 days to cover as much ground as we could, bearing in mind limitations of physical stamina. Arriving in Wiltshire on the Tuesday afternoon, we headed first for Old Sarum and then Salisbury. Old Sarum is the original Salisbury. Standing on top of a hill, it was originally an Iron Age hill fort and was later occupied by the Romans and the Saxons. The Normans built a timber castle here circa 1070. Bishop Roger of Salisbury, 1107 to 1139, mentioned in A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE built a palace here circa 1130 onwards. A man of great fiscal acumen and influence, he was not above creating a show of power and luxury for himself. He was accused of fiddling funds from the treasury (he was the chancellor at the time) and quite likely did so. Salisbury Cathedral at this stage was right alongside the castle/palace to the right and on top of the hill as you face the earthworks from the car park. So the good bishop didn't have far to go from domicile to place of work. All that remains of the cathedral now is a ground plan. You can see it in the right background on the photo below which was taken looking over the ruined walls of the palace. The photo below that is a picture of how the cathedral might have looked in its heyday when a contemporary writer commented that it looked as if it had been carved from a single block of stone.

Following Bishop Roger's downfall, Old Sarum became a
royal residence and home to the
Earls of Salisbury, including Patrick, brother of John Marshal's second wife Sybilla. Patrick in later life was governor of Poitou and gave William Marshal his first serious employment as a household knight. Old Sarum Palace was also the place where Eleanor of Aquitaine was held prisoner for sixteen years following her failed rebellion against her husband Henry II in 1173.
From Old Sarum we headed to the newer cathedral and town of of Salisbury. Plans for the latter began in the reign of Richard I. There were increasing tensions between the clergy and the men of the garrison. The Church also felt that their cathedral wasn't grand enough and there wasn't enough space to rebuilt on the scale of such as Winchester and Canterbury. It's also likely that there wasn't enough water to go round. Finally in 1217, after another argument between the clergy and the soldiers of the garrison, the plans came to fruition and building began on a new site by the river Avon, and New Sarum - modern day Salisbury was born. The new cathedral was founded in 1220. William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury- an important secondary character in THE TIME OF SINGING, and his wife Ela, laid the foundation stone. Longespee was the first person to be buried in Salisbury Cathedral and his tomb lies there to this day. The base of the tomb is timber, not stone and one of the finest examples in Europe. When Longespee's tomb was opened in the 18th century, a mummified rat was found inside his skull. The creature tested positive for arsenic poisoning. It's very interesting to speculate whether Longespee was poisoned. There were various rumours that Hubert de Burgh had had a hand in Longespee's death. Personally I don't know. The historical detail is vague and Alison has picked up no strong sense of foul play. She did say that Longespee is at peace and his spirit long moved on, which I am pleased about. Salisbury Cathedral itself is a beautiful, dignified, gracious and tranquil place, whatever your beliefs.

By the time we had paid our respects at Longespee's tomb, it was evening and time to head back to the Bed and Breakfast accommodation which was set right on the edge of Savernake forest. We were in a lovely, compact self-catering lodge with the option of a full English breakfast available at the farmhouse just 30 seconds walk away. When I say compact, I mean that no room was wasted, but there was ample space for our needs and we didn't feel at all cramped. I can wholeheartedly recommend Browns Farm at Marlborough. It's clean, very well equipped, excellent accommodation at a very reasonable price, and the breakfasts are delicious! You can bring a pet if you want, too! Url here:

Wednesday I didn't take any photographs as we weren't on public territory but visiting someone's private home at personal invitation and it wouldn't have been right. I will say that the day at Hamstead Marshall exceeded all expectations from all perspectives and it was something I will remember forever. Later, nearer the paperback publication of A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE, I will write a post about the discovery of the probable location of John Marshal's adulterine castle at Newbury. It's not a site I knew about at the time of writing the novel, but personally I am absolutely certain of its whereabouts now. It is most definitely a story for another day, but not too far in the future. By the time we returned from our foray onto Marshal territory, having experienced some profoundly moving moments and emotions, we were exhausted. I must thank Sue for her hospitality and generosity which made the day all the more special and without her it wouldn't have been possible.
On our last day which was also the day we headed home, we visited the village of Rockley which used to belong to John Marshal and which he gave to the Knights Templar. On the way to the village we had to stop for a group of sleek, elegant race horses just coming off the gallops on the Marlborough Downs. There were some fabulous views of rippling, undulating wheat fields, arable land and grazing pasture. This was the land over which John Marshal had mastery, and to have ridden out and drawn rein on the high land to look across this rolling countryside must have been glorious. There's a very pretty church at Rockely and a manor house, although the latter is private. It's a very horsey place, which the Marshals would have approved of I'm sure, one of their jobs being royal horse masters. Indeed, Rockley at one time had a white horse on one of its hillsides - sadly now ploughed up and lost. Here's an url to information about it and other white horses in Wiltshire.
In the Marshal's day, Rockley was a centre for sheep farming and dairying.

After a wander around the village, we headed back to Marlborough for morning coffee, and then set off back home to Nottingham via a visit to the stone circles at Avebury. John Marshal once had custody of the castle at Marlborough, but lost it early in the reign of King Henry II. It was regained by his son, also called John, who was William Marshal's older brother. John defended it for Prince John in the rebellion of 1194 and in all likelihood died while resisting the forces of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Today what remains of the castle stands in the grounds of a private college. Avebury is a fascinating place. Less well known and iconic than Stonehenge, it has its own sense of power. Alison said it was like 'being washed from the inside.' Here's an url to a website about Avebury (otherwise this blog post is going to turn into a novel in itself if I try to explain it all!) We ate our lunch sitting on the grass among the stones, surrounded by sheep and other people, and even a plump tortoiseshell cat from the houses beyond the boundary, but even so there was a lovely feeling of wholeness about it all, rather than distraction. Being as Avebury would have been in John Marshal's back yard so to speak when he was lord of Marlborough, I had asked Alison some time ago to tune into him and find out what he thought about the stones. The piece below was recorded about 3 years ago, long before we came here:
'He thinks they are fine, strong stones. I can see him standing beside a tall, wide one and it makes him feel strong to be near it. He looks out on the view that the stone has and it's as if he understands why the stone stands there to see that view. He looks at the horizon and sees echoes there of the pattern of the stone and the interconnection of things like the lacings of lines. He says to himself that the stone is a very ancient , very honorable thing and it strengthens our land. The connection is so strong that he can almost taste the stone. It's almost as if he has licked the stone he has such a strong taste of it. Indeed, you can take moisture from the stone if it's misty or raining. And Avebury itself? He pronounces it 'Aavbury' like 'aardvark'. He likes to stand in the middle of that. He has the same feeling he got from the single stone. He can feel the inerlacing quality. Consciously he and society see the stones as venerable and otherwise don't take it much further than that. They just are what they are from time immemorial.

I like that. 'They just are what they are from time immemorial.'

do love this part of England. I always feel at home here, and I'm sure I'll keep returning...or perhaps being drawn back. Who knows?


Taminator said...

Quite a fascinating recounting of your trip! I particularly love the picture of the stones and can "see" John standing beside it.

Carla said...

Sounds like you packed a lot into a short time!

I wonder if the rat had been poisoned in comparatively recent times and had crawled into the tomb as a convenient place to die.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Tammy, it is quite a vivid picture isn't it? I can 'see' John too - but then I don't need much excuse!

Carla, we did pack a lot into a short time. It still wasn't enough and we had to miss out Ludgershall where John Marshal had a castle.
Re the rat. It was discovered when his tomb was opened in the the 18thC and was mummified then, and as far as I know the tomb was well sealed prior to that. It remains a mystery... I bet a historical crime novelist could make a fantastic story out of the detail!

Carla said...

The rat is starting to intrigue me now :-) If the tomb was sealed at burial and stayed sealed, is the idea that the rat was buried alive with Longespee and ate his brain (or other part of the body) before dying of arsenic poisoning? Gross.

More prosaically, you say the tomb had a timber base. If it had a timber base from the beginning, it wouldn't have been all that hard for a rat (or several generations of rats) to have gnawed their way in somewhere unobtrusive. They only need a half-inch hole.

Tess said...

As always, thanks for the travelogue and the lovely pics :) Glad you had such a wonderful time. Those holiday cottages look especially nice - maybe one day we'll get to visit them in person.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I don't know. I suppose the rat might have done so - I didn't examine the base that closely! Interesting though isn't it?. Just how did a mummified arsenic laden rat get to be discovered inside William of Salisbury's skull when the tomb was opened?

Marg said...

Complete OT comment but I hope that you will like it!

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Look forward to seeing you there!