Sunday, September 07, 2008


I thought I'd blog about Mahelt Marshal today - such as is known. She does not have the fame or resonance in history that falls to her illustrious father but that does not make her any less fascinating.
Like most women of the medieval period, even aristocratic ones, she is little mentioned in the narrative historical record. However there are a few charters and documents that give pointers to her personality and her life - scattered bones that when collected together and assembled, offer a glimpse of her personality and illuminate the path even 800 years after she stood on the wall walk at Framlingham, or played on the banks of the Wye at Chepstow.
We don't have a birth date for her, but it is highly likely that she was the third child and first daughter of William Marshal and Isabelle de Clare. Their first two children were boys; we know that. William Junior was born about 9 months after his parents' marriage in the late spring of 1190. His brother Richard followed some time in 1191. Given recovery dates and gestation periods I postulate that the earliest Mahelt could have been born is summer 1192, although I think it probably later than this. In THE GREATEST KNIGHT I've given a date of 1194, but I've revised this now and think she was most likely born some time in 1193.
Two more brothers followed - Gilbert and Walter, and it wasn't until around 1200 that the next girl, Isabelle came along. Mahelt had around 7 years, if not more of being the only girl in her family and in that sense having her dad to herself. Was there a special relationship between William Marshal and his firstborn daughter? I think there was. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal says of Mahelt that she had the gifts of 'wisdom, generosity, beauty, nobility of heart, graciousness, and I can tell you in truth, all the good qualities which a noble lady should possess.' These are fairly formal and usual for such descriptions and I take them with a pinch of salt. However, the section also adds 'Her worthy father, who loved her dearly, married her off, during his lifetime to the best and most handsome party he knew, to sir Hugh Bigot.' This is interesting because following on from this, the other daughters and their qualities are mentioned, but there is no more of the 'loved dearly' business. Mahelt is the only daughter who receives this accolade. the Histoire says of Mahelt when her father was dying: 'My lady Mahelt la Bigote was so full of grief she almost went out of her mind, so great was her love for him. Often she appealed to God, asking HIM why HE was taking away from her what her heart loved most.' And then later, his daughters are called for to sing to him and the Marshal says: 'Matilda, you be the first to sing.' She had no wish to do so for her life at the time was a bitter cup, but she had no wish to disobey her father's command. She started to sing since she wished to please her father, and she sang exceedingly well, giving a verse of a song in a sweet, clear voice.' The other daughters are not mentioned save for the youngest, Joane. Indeed, re-reading the text with a closer eye, it appears that only Mahelt and Joane (a little girl at this stage) were sent for to sing for him. I suspect these would be the daughters he knew best of the five, both having belonged to times in his life when he had the opportunity to be more at home and watch their formative years.
For me, the novelist, it is probably safe to assume that Mahelt and her father shared a special father-daughter bond.
Of course one couldn't let such bonds get in the way of politics and when William went to Ireland in 1207, he had to decide what to do for the best with Mahelt who was now of marriagable age. See above paragraph. Also in the Histoire it is mentioned in another place that William approached Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk and 'asked him graciously, being the wise man he was, to arrange a handsome marriage between his own daughter and his son Hugh. The boy was worthy, mild-mannered, and noble hearted and the young lady was a very young thing and both noble and beautiful. The marriage was a most suitable one and pleased both families involved. Again note the bog-standard accolades, but that doesn't matter. It leaves this novelist with a bit of leeway! It's an interesting snippet too that William approached Roger Bigod, not the the other way around.
At this stage Hugh would have been about 25 years old. Reading between the lines, it was indeed a shrewd and good match. The Bigods were in favour with the King and had a royal kinship tie in that Ida, Countess of Norfolk was the mother of William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury - King John's bastard half brother. So Hugh Bigod was half-brother to the King's half-brother. Longespee was also kin to the Marshal family through marriage as his wife, Ela, was William Marshal's cousin once removed. The Earl of Norfolk was rich and powerful and East Anglia where he dominated, was almost a kingdom on its own, rather like the Marshal's grip on Pembrokeshire or Leinster.
Framlingham Castle
Nothing is known of Mahelt's life at Framlingham after her marriage and this is where the Akashic Records come in for fleshing out the details. But from conventional history we know she bore a son, Roger, in 1209, two years after her marriage, and then another son, Hugh, in 1212 and a daughter Isabelle in 1215. There was a third son, Ralph and possibly a fourth one, William. We can glean from this that her first child was born when she was about 16 and obviously conceived at a younger age. Her second when she was 19, her third when she 22. The three year gaps are interesting. Did she breastfeed? Did they practice abstinence? Was Hugh away a lot? More food for the novelist's thought.
During the Magna Carta crisis of 1215 and the Civil war beyond, leading up to the death of King John and then the minority of Henry III where the regent was actually Mahelt's father, I wonder how Mahelt managed to balance her life. Her new family, the Bigods, were opposed to King John, as was her brother, William. What must she have felt about having family members on both side of the divide? In 1216, Framlingham was besieged by King John and the castle swiftly capitulated. It is known that one of Mahelt and Hugh's sons was taken hostage - presumably Roger the eldest. Where was Mahelt when this happened? We don't know. Her father in law was in London - or headed that way, but certainly not at home. We don't know where Hugh was either. Having seen her brothers taken hostage by King John, knowing what happened to Maude de Braose (starved to death in a dungeon with her son while John's hostage), I wonder what her response was. Perhaps the awareness that her father was one of the backbones of King John's regime might have been a comfort in that King John was hardly going to do away with the grandson of a man he needed.
In some ways working through the research is like putting lots of small tiles side by side, which will eventually make a bigger picture on history's wall - luck permitting!
Outside the scope of my novel about Mahelt TO DEFY A KING, but affecting Mahelt's life in maturity, was the death of her husband Hugh Bigod at only 43 years of age. It was sudden. One minute he was very much alive and attending a council at Westminster. A week later he was dead, leaving Mahelt a widow at the age of 32 with four or possibly five children, the eldest of whom was an adolescent of 16 years old. Mahelt moved swiftly - or those around her did and within three months of her widowhood, she married William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. He was the Bigod's neighbour with lands in Norfolk and Yorkshire and castles at Castle Acre and Conisburgh. He was considerably older than her - by my reckoning he was at least 60 years old. Mahelt bore him a son and a daughter - John and Isabelle. I find it very interesting that in all of her charters at this time, she calls herself 'Matildis la Bigot' never 'Matildis de Warenne.' or only as an afterthought. For example: A charter dated between 1241 and 1245, following the death of her second husband has the salutation '....ego Matilda Bigot comitissa Norf' et Warenn.' The 'Warenn'' is an official title like the 'Norf' The Bigot is her personal name.
The latter does actually change in 1246 when she was granted the Marshal's rod by King Henry III. All of her brothers and sisters were dead and thus the hereditory Marshalship of England came into her hands. And NOW she does change her name. She becomes in her charters 'Matill marescalla Angliae, comitissa Norfolciae et Warennae.' I sense a militant gleam in her eyes somehow, and a taking up of tradition that encompassed her ancestors, including her beloved father. She would be a Bigod, she would be a Marshal, but she would not be a de Warenne. The latter statement is my reading. Someone else might see it differently of course, and there is the detail that her heart was buried at Lewes Priory, not Thetford where Hugh lies. Her body went to Tintern to be with her mother Isabelle and her brother Walter. Was it her wish to have her heart buried at Lewes? Did the children of her second marriage want to keep a part of her close?
I do believe that Mahelt Marshal was a strong woman who survived and learned wisdom through much adversity. I don't think she always had it easy. I think she was greatly loved but not necessarily lucky in love. She died in 1148 and was buried at Tintern where here bier was borne by four of her sons.
Although the name of Marshal died out of the history books with the childless demise of William's five sons, his eldest daughter Mahelt was a matriarch whose children went on to forge weighty links across the history of the thirteenth century and beyond. It is down Mahelt's line that the Stuart Kings of Scotland claimed part of their descent.

My task, my responsibility and my pleasure is to assemble the bones of this great woman and show her as she just might have been.

TO DEFY A KING: Winner of the RNA Award for historical fiction 2011.


Taminator said...

I love this quick summation of Mahelt. I think that even without the Akashic record, you can garner that Mahelt was very much her own woman. I didn't realize she outlived all her siblings. Did she continue to meet with them on a regular basis after her marriage?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Tammy,
Good question. She wouldn't have seen some of them for years on end. Her family decamped to Ireland for five years and at that point the two youngest Marshals, Ancel and Joanna were as yet unborn, so she wouldn't have even met them until at least 1212/1213. Her two older brothers were hostages at that time. Richard, the younger of the two was bound for a life and career in Normandy. I suspect she would not have seen much of him until later in life when he returned to England as Earl of Pembroke - and that swiftly ended in tears before bedtime when he was murdered by the agents of Henry III, leaving her very little time to know him. I like to think she would have touched base with her siblings. Kinship ties were an important part of medieval politics. There's a charter of hers dated to around the time just after Hugh's death which is witnessed by her brother William, her youngest sister's husband and her cousin John Marshal.
It seems that Mahelt's sons kept in touch with their Bigod relatives, particularly their FitzRanulf cousins (Mary Bigod's sons) and they are found hunting with them in Yorkshire as grown men. If I were a historian I'd probably be able to trawl various charters and archives to come up with more information, but that's about as much as I can say at the moment.

Anne Gilbert said...

I think it may be possible for you,even without being a historian(jeez, you practically are one now!), to "trawl charters" for more of the kind of information you seem to want, about Mahelt Marshal and her various relatives.  I did a bit of that with geneology for one (very real) character in the the Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece I'm writing.  It was difficult, but I got enough bits and pieces of information that I could use to more or less construct this character.  It might be worth the time and effort you put into it, to do that.  Anyway, I found this particular blog entry to be very good, and I linked it to my latest blog entry(along with something else relevant to my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece.

Finally, I just wanted you to know I look forward to your eventual publication of this work on Mahelt Marshal. She sounds like a really interesting person.
Anne G

Daphne said...

She sounds like a fascinating woman. I'm already looking forward to the book!

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I enjoyed reading this latest post. How much, when re-creating Mahelt, will you go by the description from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal that says Mahelt "had the gifts of 'wisdom, generosity, beauty, nobility of heart, graciousness ...' "

I know you mentioned you take those descriptions with a "pinch of salt" and I can understand why. Will these characteristics indeed factor into the novel when recreating Mahelt, or is it best to leave those types of details out entirely (for example: her appearance)? Since we cannot know for sure what Mahelt looked like, is it in the author's best interest to exclude those details, or do you believe it's acceptable for the author to take some liberties with these types of areas?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Steven,

Obviously I will take into account what the Histoire says, but since the descriptions are indeed standards of the time, I will strongly balance them by what else I know. I haven't mentioned it much in this post as I was mostly concentrating on conventional sources, but for Mahelt's appearance, characteristics and the life she led, I will be fleshing out such details using the psychic resource of the Akashic Records which have never yet let me down. I believe I absolutely know what she looked like and how she behaved. However, such a resource is not available to everyone, nor does everyone believe in its veracity. The historical record will only take a novelist so far and once you've garnered as much as you can possibly known, then it's time to use the imagination. I guess it's like skiing. Use the sticks and the skiis (historical fact) to propel, control and guide you, but use your imagination to select your route.

Carla said...

Fascinating material, and a lot of space for the novelist to work in! How unconventional was it for a woman of the time to sign herself with a name other than her current husband's? Would most women have signed themselves Warenne, or was it more or less a matter of personal choice by the time of a second marriage?

Anonymous said...

I suppose it is a bit like skiing, which in my case is not always pretty (just learned to snowboard this past winter in Colorado).

In regards to her name, I noticed Matilda was also used. Would Maltida be a sort of nickname for Mahelt, so to speak?

Also, what more do you know of William Longespee besides what you mentioned in the post? Have you researched him much? I did a brief biographical sketch on him in one of my recent posts, but have not delved into his history too deeply:

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Your question is why I mentioned I'd know more if I had the abilities of a historian - and the time come to that - to go delving about in old charters. I don't know the answer at the moment to the bigger picture. It just caught my attention in this case that she was Mahelt Marshal. Then she married and became Mahelt la Bigot. In her second marriage she remained Mahelt La Bigot and then as a widow second time around, she becomes Mahelt Marescalla. It's an interesting question.

Hi Steven,

Mahelt is one of many medieval spellings for Matilda. Maheut is another version. In the Histoire, she is called Mahelt, which I liked because it was slightly different. In the Latin charters I have seen she is called Matildis, Matill, and Matilda.

As for Longespee. I have his birth date down slightly later than in your blog, but said birth date is a matter for conjecture (and argument!) so take your pick. My new novel The Time of Singing involves Longespee as a major secondary character - starting from babyhood and going into young manhood, and the work in progress, about Mahelt Marshal has a strong sub-plot about the relationship between him and his Bigod half-siblings. I have done very extensive work on him via the Akashic Records, and read up the usual stuff via conventional resources - much the same as your own. I recently visited his tomb in Salisbury Cathedral - it's a beautiful effigy - very delicately wrought and it does have some of his character in the way the figure is posed.

Anonymous said...

You are a tease! :) I can't wait to read the book. I remember Mahelt from The Scarlet Lion.

In fact, I'd like to read all the novels you write about all the other characters in all your other books. That should keep you (and me) busy for awhile. ;-)

Tess said...

Absolutely fascinating! I'm still at least a book behind, but wow, I can hardly wait for this one now. I LOVE reading about strong women from times past and Mahelt sounds very interesting. LOVE the bit about her being the Marshal!

Re: the gaps between her children - it's possible she was miscarrying between them. Just a thought.

Passages to the Past said...

Hi EC - I just wanted to tell you that I nominated you for an award because I really like your blog. Here is a link to my blog:

Anonymous said...

I love your books and have really enjoyed reading each one - you have a great way of bringing the characters alive. Once I pick one up, I find I cannot put it down. I am and English teacher and am interested in writing a book myself - I have some ideas, but I am interested in where you find your ideas. I really want to write about a strong, lesser-known woman from history, but I am not sure where exactly to start looking - what can you advise?