John Marshal: The biography
‘Qui de si mais voldreit oir
Del bon Mareschel, de Johan’
‘To you who would hear more
of the worthy John Marshal.’
(Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, lines 120-121)
The great William Marshal had an equally great father, but his reputation does not have the burnish of his son’s. Indeed, John’s reputation has somewhat suffered at the hands of modern mindset in my opinion and from misunderstood motives. John Marshal had his flaws, he was no ‘perfect, gentle, knight,’ but neither was he a callous, treacherous robber baron, indifferent to his small son’s life. Professor David Crouch, senior authority on the Marshals in the academic community says of him. ‘John Marshal was a formidable model for his son: astute, physically powerful, an easy companion in the royal chambers, and a cool warrior in the field…he was no coarse bandit and played the great game of politics with talent and perception…John Marshal was ‘a definitive man of standing in his son’s eyes.’
John Marshal was probably born in the South West of England (most likely Wiltshire or
Gilbert the Marshal had estates provided for him to live off whilst he performed his duties at court. These included Tidworth in Wiltshire and Nettlecome in
The Marshal family were of the minor nobility but ambitious. They were middle ranking royal civil servants on the make. A Marshal’s duties were numerous, and since John followed his father into the position, he must have grown up learning the ropes. The word ‘Marshal’ comes from ‘Marescallus’ meaning ‘Horse slave’ and at one time they had been stable hands under the control of the Constable’s department. Although the office rose from these humble beginnings, the marshal’s work was much concerned with horses and transport and keeping order. The Marshals had their own department at court and there were several of them, although with a ‘Master Marshal’ in charge of all. This was a somewhat fluid position when John was growing up and there was a certain amount of jockeying for position within the ranks.
The Marshal’s duties included seeing that the stables were properly run and supplied and providing harness and mounts for those in need of them. The job also involved dealing with the kennels and the mews. It was the marshal’s task to provide carts for transport when the court was on the move. He had to find lodging for the household and keep order at the court. As a symbol of the latter office, he carried the Marshal’s Rod. He had to ensure that the ‘verge’ was observed. A verge was a personal space between the king and any supplicant. Take a step too far and the Marshal’s rod would make sure you knew you had transgressed! The Marshal was in charge of the ushers who saw to it that only desireables got in to see the king. They were the club bouncers of their day so to speak – and I am sure sometimes not above taking bribes. Another aspect of the job was dealing with the 'ladies of the night' who serviced the court. The Marshal had to keep the working girls in line and regulate their activities. There were fines for unruly behaviour, and one suspects that this is another area where backhanders and insider dealing went on.
The Marshal also had to sit at the exchequer. It was his task to take responsibility for anyone who couldn’t pay their debts there, and his department maintained the debtor’s prison. Being in there would cost a sheriff or a bailiff half a mark for every night they were in custody. On top of this he kept the tallies of all the wages owed to the King’s troops when in the field and saw that they were paid, for which he was entitled to a portion of that wage bill. Perks of the job included being entitled to every black and white horse taken on a battle campaign.
Each time a noble’s son was knighted at court, the marshal was entitled to a payment of a palfrey or a saddle. His daily wage was two shillings a day and he was entitled to bread, wine and candles whilst working at court. There were also ‘backhander’ perks from barons higher up the food chain who thought that a bit of glad-handing in the form of grants of land was useful in order to keep the king’s marshal sweet.
When John was in his mid twenties, he and his father had to fight for their right to be the Master Marshals of the court. Two of the other Marshals, Robert de Venoix and William de Hastings were claiming the post but John and his father were successful in their petition, which probably the form of a trial by combat. (Sidney Painter. William Marshal. Knight errant, Regent and Baron of England).John’s father died around 1129 or 1130 and John inherited his position at court, although he had to pay forty marks for the privilege. This included the office of ‘avener’ or provider of provender. To inherit his lands, he had to pay the death duty of £22 13s and 4d. Some time over the next few years, he married an heiress of modest worth with lands adjoining his own Wiltshire and
She bore John two sons – Walter and Gilbert. In 1135 King Henry died and the country was thrown into turmoil as two claimants jostled for the crown – Henry’s daughter Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen. Initially, John swore fealty to Stephen and was granted the castles of Ludgershall and town and
Ruins of Ludgershall Castle
Sheep on the Marlborough Downs near
Rockley, a manor that John Marshal
gave to the Templars.
In 1139, the Empress came to
Unfortunately for John, the Empress’s attempt to regain the throne was not plain sailing and to cut a long story short, she lost her advantage and while besieging the Bishop of Winchester at his
The River Teste at Wherwell Today
He fought for as long as he could, but with D’Ypres’ numbers too great to withstand, he retreated into the nunnery and barricaded himself in. D’Ypres knew he couldn’t leave a man like John Marshal to create mayhem in his rear, so he ordered the nunnery to be burned along with the men inside it. There was chaos. Some of the troops fled the burning church only to meet their end on the edges of the mercenary’s swords. John barricaded himself in the tower with another knight and refused to come out. When his companion feared for their lives and wanted to surrender, John told him that he would kill him with his own hands if he mentioned that word again. They stayed put, but John paid the price when molten lead from the church roof landed on his face and burned out his eye. Once D’Ypres’ force had moved on, John staggered from the church with his companion, and the two of them made their way to safety. This must have been something of a feat because that safety was twenty five miles away at
Houses in Wherwell village today
John’s most powerful neighbour in the region was Walter of Salisbury, hereditary sheriff of
John and Sybilla swiftly began a second family. It’s perhaps telling that he only had two sons by his first wife in the course of fifteen years and six (and perhaps seven) offspring with Sybilla over the same period. The first was born within a year of the marriage and christened John for his father. The second, destined for fame and legend was William, born in either 1146 or 1147. We know for certain there were two daughters, Sybilla and Marguerite, and two more sons, Ancel and Henry. Henry went on to become bishop of
The fighting continued and the Empress’s position grew more desperate as her adherents either gave up or died. She lost her stalwart supporter Miles of Gloucester when he was accidentally shot by one of his own men whilst out hunting. Her half-brother Robert of Gloucester died, and her stalwart supporter Brian FitzCount retired to a monastery. The Empress herself departed
For John Marshal the period covered by the late 1140’s up to 1153 was a continuing dark time when he was involved in a war of slow grinding attrition. His lands were burned and ravaged by Eustace, the son of King Stephen and the best that John could manage was to grit his teeth and endure – which he did. He was known as a man of great cunning, a builder of castles ‘designed with wondrous skill’ and a man well able to attract men to his banner. Although a generous benefactor to the Church, he was still vilified by certain bishops and clergy. He was excommunicated for raiding church lands and forcing the church to answer in his secular court. He also made the church’s tenants build his castles for him, which did not go down well. ‘He built castles designed with wondrous skill, in the places that best suited him; the lands and possessions of the churches he brought under his own lordship, driving out the owners whatever order they might belong to.’ (Gesta Stephani). John seems to have taken the excommunication stoically and to have treated it as a hazard of the job so to speak.
John’s relationship with the Church was not all bad-feeling and acrimony. He was in fact a generous patron. He donated his house and lands in
3D map of Winchester. The tiny black arrow
on the left indicates the site of John
Marshal's house that he gave to Troarn
Abbey. Click to enlarge
Since that article was written, some archaeological dowsing work has taken place at the site and bears out the above details so far. Also it turns out that the Bishop of Salisbury had a residence on this site in the 12thC. This ties in with the Gesta Stephani’s comment above ‘He built castles designed with wondrous skill, in the places that best suited him; the lands and possessions of the churches he brought under his own lordship, driving out the owners whatever order they might belong to.’
There's also this article on my blog. http://livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com/2009/03/return-of-castles-in-ether.html
Be that as it may, John fortified a position in the Newbury area and held it for the Empress. In the summer of 1152 King Stephen besieged it on his way to try and take
With the time he had been given, John set about stuffing his keep to the rafters with men and supplies. Why did he do this when he could have yielded? I suspect it was because he was buying time for
Stephen duly came on the appointed day to demand the surrender of the castle and John refused him and told him he would fight. When threatened with the execution of little William by hanging, John uttered those by now infamous words. ‘Il dist ken e li chaleit de l’enfant, quer encore aveit les enclumes e les marteals dunt forgereit de plus beals.’ ‘He said that he did not care about the child, since he still had the anvils and hammers to produce even finer ones.’
Callous father? Cool brinkman gambling with his son’s life? A man caught between a rock and a hard place and doing what he must to safeguard others? I leave that for readers of A Place Beyond Courage to decide. I will say that there is far more going on under the surface than a cursory glance informs and that it is vital for anyone studying this incident to read it through the lens of medieval mindset. It’s not what’s on top that matters here, but what’s underneath. Stephen could not bring himself to hang the boy, although for a time William was the plaything victim of the royal camp as he was also threatened with being flung from a catapult and squashed whilst strapped to a hurdle intended to attack the castle gate. This is often not mentioned in the various secondary source narratives concerning the incident. From what I have garnered elsewhere, young squires and captive sons were frequently subjected to such torments – rather like the traditional ‘punishment details’ for youths at public school.
Stephen took William into his household and John Marshal’s son seems to have settled well in his new life. He was happy and confident enough despite his ordeal to want to play a game with King Stephen, involving jousting with plaintain leaves. One wonders how such a chirpy, confident, secure little boy could have been born of such supposed parental indifference. A servant was sent to keep an eye on William, ‘because his family had great fears that he would come to harm’ (Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal) but was caught in the act and chased away.
John’s castle at Newbury eventually fell to Stephen, but John had managed to buy that extra time for
Stephen died in 1154 and Henry FitzEmpress, at the age of twenty one, became King of England. Life slowly settled down. It is likely that John’s final son Henry was born at this time and named for the new power in the country. Henry set about restoring order. All adulterine castles were to be destroyed, and I suspect this is what happened to Newbury. Henry also took several castles back into his own power, including
John died in 1165, around the age of 60, which is as much as we know about his demise, although it may be telling that he made a grant to Bradenstoke Priory of half of the
John was buried at Bradenstoke Priory, the foundation of his marital relatives the Earls of Salisbury. His tomb and Sybilla’s have now been lost, but their bones still rest somewhere beneath the grass and tumbled stones of the ruins.
I can say without a doubt and from personal experience, that their spirits live on and John’s is a particularly vibrant one!
Great article! I look forward to ordering your book about John Marshal. (Tiny issue of jobless/no income since June.) I love seeing the interactivity of my ancestors who weren't yet related: Robert of Gloucester, Patrick of Salisbury, John Marshal, Henry II, etc. Yes, there were the obvious relations (Robert, Matilda, Henry), but I'm fascinated at the web of others who knew each other and fought or competed in life and death struggles, but their grandchildren or successive generations produced alliances (and DNA) that would someday result in you and me. Kind of makes us think about how we treat our fellows today and what might come about 800 years in the future!
Sorry. Me again. I reviewed Sybilla's genealogy, which I have back to Hrolf/Rollo/Robert Ragnaldsson, 1st Duke of Normandy. Her great-grandfather Walter, b. 1033 in Rosmar, Normandy, was the first of the William Marshal ancestors to be buried at Bradenstoke; I believe Sybilla and John were the last of the family line to be buried there. Sybilla's grandfather Edward seems to be the first Norman sheriff of Salisbury/Sarum. Bet he went over well with the indigenous Saxons...
As far as this lady on the "other" side of the Pond knows, I have no such illustrious relatives or ancestors, yet I am really happy that you posted this biographical sketch. I hope you don't mind too much if I post a "plug" for this and other things on your blog, via mine! :-)
I loved this wonderful article! Thank You ! Cannot wait for your book to come out! I'll be in line to buy it!
Great article! I never tire of reading about John Marshal. A Place Beyond Courage ranks as one of the very best novels I've ever read.
Thank you everyone for your comments so far. Linda, it is certainly true that John Marshal doesn't let you go once you've met him!
Anne, of course I don't mind if you post a plug - be my guest!
Christy. The Rosmar thing is interesting. I remember coming across an article saying that it's not true, although I'd have to delve for it now. Edward of Salisbury was actually English (Anglo Saxon). It is thought that his mother might have been an English lady called Wulfwen, but whether she was or not, Edward definitely served Edward the Confessor prior to the Norman Conquest. He married a Norman lady and retained his lands. How he managed to avoid the Godwinssons and Hastings when he was smack bang in Godwinsson territory, remains a question I'd like to answer. But a Norman he certainly wasn't. William Marshal has an ancient Anglo Saxon strain in his genetic chemistry!
I do hope you find employment soon, so you can get the book. If it's any comfort to you, you have lots of company, including my writing partner, who has been looking for only 2 months! Anyway, you both have stimulated my interest in the subject!
This is for Elizabeth Chadwick:
William Marshal was basically "Norman" if you go by his known background. As for the "Edward"(I'd have to read the John Marshal biography again to make sure who the "Edward" you referred to, actually was), you have to remember that naming practices in England changed rather gradually, even aftert 1066. So you could have people called "Edward", whose father might be a "Roger" or "Hugh" or something like that(maybe their mother might have been English, though), and you could have people whose parents were English, who gave their children names like Robert or Humphrey or Matilda, because that was getting "fashionable". And by the time of William Marshal's maturity, "mixed" families(at least of a certain class), were fairly common. Anyway, I would be surprised at nothing in his, or any other background of that time. And just to let EC know, I have a short post on my blog, referring to the John Marshal bio.
That is so interesting. I've wondered about the timing of their careers with the Norman invasion. And I've seen similar info on Walter and Edward (somewhere!?). Soooo, the indigenous Saxons/English might have considered him a brilliant appointment for Sarum's sheriff after all. (Pure conjecture on my part.)
And now, back to their grandson-in-law, John Marshal.
Anne, I have a very good grip both on naming practises in earl medieval England, and on William's genetic background. Although it was a couple of years back - which is why I'm slightly vague on where I saw the Rosmar article I mentioned to Christy, I can say with rock solid certainty that Edward of Salisbury was English, or Anglo Saxon if you will.
William Marshal thought of himself as being English (although within the parameters of being of Anglo Norman French speaking descent. He was born in England and proud of it) and refers to it in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal)as opposed to being Norman. By William's day there was a divide between being born in Normandy and being born in England.Boundaries and allegiances were beginning to change. Anyway, I digress.
Edward of Salisbury definitely held lands in Wiltshire from Edward The Confessor. That's a given fact and he wasn't a Norman settler even though Edward did import a handful of Normans to police the Welsh borders. Edward wasn't one of them. There is speculation by historians that Edward's mother was called Wulfgifu (just looked her name up in the Domesday Book) but that detail is a ponderable. Also ponderable is who Edward married to produce Walter of Salisbury. I only have a vague recollection, other than to know it was a woman of Norman extraction.
Edward of Salisbury was one of the very few higher ranking Saxon thegns who made it through the Norman Conquest with his hide intact. Even more of a rarity, he managed to keep it that way. Small wonder that William Marshal had such greatness within him!
I'm not really surprised by your informaiton on William Marshal, though I can't say I know a whole lot about him! And you are correct that there were some English who made it through the post-1066 period successfully enough(probably by keeping low profiles for a generation or so, and keeping at least some of their lands and income). So in a way, it isn't any surprise to me that there was an English "Edward" somewhere in the Marshal background. As for the rest of it, I'm just going by the naming practices I read about on what I think is reasonably good authority.
Thank you for a wonderfully informative post. We really have little idea today just what life was like for women and children in earlier times. Mus like slaves of the colonial times, they were used as bargaining chips and as you showed us, even an established marriage was up for negotiation.
What a remarkable man, and many thanks for the informative article!
Thanks for the fascinating article, EC. I have to admit that I was one of the people who applied a negative modern mind-set to my opinion of John Marshal until I read "A Place Beyond Courage"
IHe certainly must have been tough. Making his getaway at Wherwell after being burnt by molten lead and carrying such an agonising injury shows great courage. It seems a pity that he should have been so scarred if he looked like Daniel Van Zyl! I'm sure I read a novel somewhere which indicated that the poor nuns were toast (make that "collateral damage") in that stand at the nunnery of Wherwell - do you know if that is true? (Actually, I think it might have been George Shipway's "Knight in Anarchy", now I come to think of it.)
Thanks for continued comments everyone.
Annis, when I first set out to write about John Marshal, my main thought was that his story would make for fine drama. I wasn't sure how I was going to tackle him divorcing Aline, or the 'anvils and hammers' moment. But in the course of research I began to realise that a modern audience - and that includes senior historians had actually overlooked some fundamental points. The story of William's hostage moment is only written down in one source and that's the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal i.e. a history written for the Marshal family as a tribute and celebration, to be read aloud perhaps once a year on the anniversary of William's death. Part of its intention is to cast the Marshals in a very favourable light. It's not intended as a shame piece for any of them. to medieval eyes, John is shown in that poem as being cool under fire and a man if standing and high courage. The men who take William hostage are cast as the bad guys. So the Histoire is showing us an admiration piece, not a villification. Then there is William's response to the hostage situation. He marches straight up to the earl of Arundel and asks to look at his spear. That tells me this is a little boy very confident around grown men with weapons. He's sociable and funny and in all ways a normal, happy, five or six year old little boy. The psychology suggests that he was valued and had never had that value knocked. When you see too the man he became, and when you know that a child's most important developmental stage is in those first five years, when you know that John was around in his son's life for those five years, you begin to realise that an awful lot of assumption has been based on looking at those anvil and hammer words and not beyond them. I've seen it written too that John was treacherous and fickle. He changed sides once and after that stood firm. I don't call that stand at Wherwell the doings of treacherous, fickle man. If he'd been the latter, he'd have high-tailed it up the road long before D'Ypres got there.
The nuns at Wherwell - I think they were sent packing before the event, but it's a while since I've checked my sources. There's no mention of them being caught up in the Histoire. There was also the nunnery at Wilton. Not sure what happened to the nuns there, but that was Stephen's doing.
Great article. Really fascinating. I've always been interested in the medieval period and just wanted to say how much I love your novels. I'm currently reading 'The Greatest Knight' and am really enjoying it.
Thanks for your further comments, EC.One thing your readers really appreciate (me included :) is your ability to get inside the medieval mind-set. It's intriguing to imagine how people a thousand years into the future (assuming we haven't obliterated the planet by then) would interprete us from our writings and other clues they might have.
A couple of sources I checked indicated that the nuns at Wherwell were driven out before the nunnery was set alight. Perhaps the author of the book I read was using artisitic licence to emphasise the wickedness of William D'Ypres.
One thing that I did discover is that Wherwell has a fascinating history, dating back to at least the ninth century, and goings on in the Anglo-Saxon period make for a great read- see the Wherwell Parish History at the Wherwell Villiage website.
Annis and all:
One thing I have a lot of trouble with, partly because of my background as an anthropology major, is the idea that there is "a" single "mindset" for any time period! There are always many mindsets! This is just as true for medieval times as it is for "modern" ones, and the "mindsets" can change over time. If this was not the case, we'd still be thinking in "mdeieval" mindsets. In any case I don't think it really helps, when trying to conceptualize any given medieval period, to think in terms of "the" medieval mindset. That said, I think EC does a pretty good job of conceptualizing the variations in "mindsets" at the time, based on life experiences and circumstance, I suppose.
Anne, I know "mindsets" are one of your pet hobbyhorses.
I agree with you that not everyone thought the same - we don't know, so why should we then, but by and large there was a "general" overall field of thought. For e.g. with most of the population it was okay if a child was smacked or a wife beaten if she had done something outside the pale of society's tolerance. These days in the UK anyway, child smacking is frowned upon and wife beating, although it goes on, is again seen as morally a bad thing.That is what I mean by mindset - general rules by which society functioned, which were the norm. Of course there are bound to be variations, but there is a general truth.
I agree with you that (most) people in the Middle Ages pretty much thought differently about a lot of things, and that nowadays, things have changed. . . a great deal. So in this sense, I would agree that there's a difference in "mindeset", only my "anthropological" self would probably call it a "cultural" difference. Trouble is, within cultures, while there may generalized ways of behaving common to everyone in that culture, these "variations" can be important. Any working anthropologist will tell you that. And it seems to me that part of a writer's job might be to look into these possible "variations" -- or at least acknowledge that they exist, rather than looking at it from the point of view of a "mindset/culture" overall. In other words, accept that cultures vary, and cultures in the past varied from our own, but also understand that these variations exist. And possibly draw on them.
A bit late commenting here, thanks to the new website! A fantastically researched and interesting post though. John was definitely a man of his age and we really cannot judge his actions by our standards. That he and his family survived that turbulent time at all is, I think, great testimony to his abilities as a warrior and politician.
It was also interesting to read all about the Marshalsea as I had alot of trouble finding out much about it when I did a post on household positions - I was obviously reading the wrong books!
I'm sreJohn Marshal was definitely "a man of his age". This may be hard for some of us "moderns" to accept, but that is where I accept what EC calls "medieval mindset" and I call "cultural outlooks", is true enough. Lots of things change cultures over time, for better or worse. Nowadays, fortunately, in most circumstances, at least, a John Marshal wouldln't have to make such an apparently awful choice. And, fortunately for history, King Stephen apparently backed out of this awful bargain. Which a King Stephen probably wouldn't make, unless he was reborn among the wilder Talibans, or something like that.
Lady D - re books. It was very much a case of bitting and bobbing all over the place. The Constitio Domus Regis pointed towards some of the detail re the job. Then I found an article online by J.H. Round (I think) on the duties of the royal officers. Mark Morris' biography of the Bigod family explains more about the Marshal's job. I think it was his that mentioned the black and white horse thing - which is circumstantially borne out in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal where William and another man argue and pun over a pied horse.
The main research was put together piecemeal over several years - and still ongoing. :-)
Truly interesting. I am trying to trace my ancestry to the d'Earley (Erlegh) dynasty and would be grateful for any references (or an English translation of William Marshals biography). My ancestral village is Seend in Wiltshire and only a few miles from Beckington village (Somerset), which was one of the seats of the d'Erglghs family. Thank You. Michael Earle
Sorry to dig up such an old post but I just recently found your wonderful blog/work. I was wondering if you are providing an English translation directly from Le Historie with your posts about Marshal? It reads as you are and I was just looking for edification.
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