|Cartmel Priory Exterior|
More than two years ago, a man called Peter Douglas wrote to me, saying that he had enjoyed my novels about the Marshal family. He was a choristor at Cartmel Priory, which had been founded by William Marshal in the late 1180's on his return from the Holy Land and his marriage to Isabelle de Clare. Peter told me that each year around the anniversary of William's death, the priory invites a speaker to come to Cartmel and give a 'Founder's Day Lecture' about something connected with the Priory, and he wondered if I would be willing to give the lecture in 2011. Previous speakers had included academics among them professor David Crouch, medieval expert and William Marshal's biographer.
After a bit of a gulp (being a humble novelist without a university education) I said yes - it was two years away after all. But tempus fugit and all that, and suddenly the event was right on my doorstep. It was too far from home to drive in a day, so my other half and I decided we'd stay the week in Cumbria self catering with our three dogs. We found a lovely farm out in middle of nowhere about 15 miles from Cartmel with spectacular views over the fells.
Accommodation sorted, I had to decide how to pitch my speech for the talk. Being as it was called 'The Founders Day lecture', I decided that I would speak about William Marshal the whole man - not just his great achievements, but the small ones that also made up the fabric of his being, and I would use as my basis, his 13th century biography, The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal as my guide. It was written in praise and eulogy of the Marshal, and contained many warm and human details. I also knew that it wasn't a widely circulated work and that most of my audience would not have had access to it, so much of my material would be fresh and new to them even if I knew it well.
The village and Priory of Cartmel are situated in the middle of the Furness and Cartmel peninsula, which pokes out into Morecambe Bay. It's at the southern edge of the Lake District, with popular lakes Windermere and Coniston being the nearest and to the north. As well as the priory founded by William Marshal, Cartmel has a small National Hunt racecourse. I rather like the fact that Cartmel is also famous for being the home of sticky toffee pudding. William Marshal was known to enjoy his food, and I think he would have strongly approved of this! I think he might also be interested in Grasmere gingerbread and Kendal Mint cake, especially as for a time he was Lord of Kendal!
The talk at the Priory went very well indeed. I was warmly welcomed by the vicar, Father Robert Bailey, who told me that he had originally come to Cartmel from Bradenstoke in Wiltshire, not actually realising at the time he took the job, that Bradenstoke was where the first Augustinian monks came from to colonise Cartmel. There was a large and interested audience, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to them about the life of William Marshal. I have added my lecture spiel below the photos at the end of this blog, and it will be going onto my website as a permanent fixture as soon as I can set it up.
Following the talk, there was tea, sandwiches and cakes - a lovely spread, and I went off to do some book signing in the bookshop complete with loaded plate. The bookshop also has some really beautiful and unusual cards, gifts and souvenirs. (Although the William Marshal chocolate orange bar slightly made me boggle!). Cartmel Priory’s bookshop was the first venue in the country to begin selling my new novel LADY OF THE ENGLISH. Certainly the weekend I gave the talk it wasn't available anywhere else, and we sold plenty of copies!
Later in the week I returned as a tourist to take more photos, and once more was afforded a lovely welcome and given a look at the bell tower and a view from the roof. I so love moments like these!
Giving a talk at Cartmel Priory was something rather special. I know as an author I have to go on the road and that I have to do the book promotion thing. These days it's all part of the job. But at the same time, it's more than promotion. I'm not cynical about it, and I don't want my readers to feel that either. It's a two way thing. I really do enjoy getting out and about, meeting people… And living the history!
Re getting out and about, you'll see at the side of the blog that I've listed dates and appearances, forthcoming this summer.
Photographs of Cartmel and Cumbria: click to enlarge
|Giving the Founder's Day Lecture at Cartmel|
|Tea and cake afterwards|
|More shots of the attendees|
|Peter Douglas at the book signing|
|Book signing - a copy of Lady of the English!|
|Cartmel Priory Exterior|
|Cartmel Priory interior|
|Cartmel Priory Marshal banner|
|14thC Misericord that may represent the Macrobii, a legendary race from India|
|14thC Misericord in the Choir. Mermaid representing the lusts of the flesh!|
|Original arches behind the choir screen|
|Bishop's Chair, on loan from Chatsworth House|
|Commemorative shrine to local martyrs|
|Banner of the Virgin Mary|
|A Scarlet Lion!|
|Up on the roof|
|The author in civvies beside a commemorative plaque|
|Where we stayed|
|One of the locals|
|Rain. You get LOTS of this in Cumbria!|
|Walking on the edge of a Saltmarsh on the far side of Morecambe Bay|
|Elterwater to Skelwith Bridge - lovely walk|
|View near the cottage|
|Jack (black and tan) and Taz, 2 of my dogs at Wastwater|
William Marshal Founders Day Lecture notes: Cartmel Priory, May 15th 2011
|Glittery sea under cloud at St Bees Head, North West Coast.|
Good afternoon everyone. I feel very honoured to have been asked to give this lecture about William Marshal at Cartmel, his own foundation.
I write historical fiction for a living and began my published career in 1990 with a novel called the wild Hunt which was a romantic story set in the Welsh Marches in the 11th century. Gradually as my career progressed I moved along the path towards writing biographical fiction. My first foray into biographical fiction was a novel called Lords of the White Castle which told the story of mediaeval outlaw Fulke FitzWarin, who led a fascinating life in the late 12th and early 13th century and is thought by some historians to be the originator of the Robin Hood legends. While researching Fulke and sundry other characters, the name of William Marshal kept cropping up. Indeed you can't write historical fiction set in the 12th and 13th century without coming across him. So the idea began to simmer that perhaps I could write a novel about William. He'd had led a very full life, and it seemed like a natural progression.
I freely admit that when I first thought about writing William’s story, my main reason was that he'd led a rags to riches detailed life that would transfer very well to the medium of the historical adventure novel. Actually, the novels nearly didn't get written. When I approached my agent with the idea, historical fiction was just beginning to come out of the doldrums that it had hit in the 90s, but it was all women's fiction led by Philippa Gregory with The other Boleyn Girl, and the perception was that I should really be writing about women. However, my agent was a good friend of someone who sang in the choir at the Temple Church. One evening she went to hear him sing, and went to look at the tombs of the knights displayed there, of which William Marshal's was one, together with 2 of his sons, William and Gilbert. When she realised I wanted to write about this man, her interest was piqued and she championed my cause with my publisher. The result was a two book contract to write about William Marshal's life. Ideally I would have liked three books but the publishers weren’t prepared to stretch out their necks that far. Nevertheless, I had a contract and a brief.
I settled down to the research and it was at this point that I began to realise that this was more than just another temporary project to write the next historical novel, and that I was researching someone really special, an icon in his own era - someone remembered with deep affection and respect by his family, and who is still as a role model in our time.
When William died, his eldest son commissioned a poet to write his father's life story in a series of rhyming couplets 19,215 lines long. It was designed as a commemorative piece to be read out on the anniversary of his death each year, and while it would take far too long these days for me to read the piece to you here and now, I thought it appropriate to share portions of it with you that tell us something about the personality of William the man, his life and times.
William rose from modest beginnings to greatness, and was a man of great political skill and acumen, but with that went compassion and a deep understanding of people. But running alongside all his magnificent qualities and the heroic enormity of the man, was an ordinary life filled with everyday joys and sorrows and a delight in the small things - an awareness that they mattered just as much as the greater horizons.
His chronicler (all we know of him is that he came from France and was called John )says:
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.
And he adds.
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. To which I can only say Amen.
We don't know William Marshal's date of birth only that it was probably in 1146 or 1147, and that he was born somewhere in Wiltshire or Berkshire. He may have been born at Marlborough, or Luggershawl, at Winterbourne or Tidworth. He was the second son of his father's second marriage. His father John Marshal, had put his first wife aside in order to take a second wife and seal peace between himself and his neighbour Patrick of Salisbury, with whom he was at war at the time. William’s mother Sybilla, was Patrick’s sister.
When William was about five years old, King Stephen came to besiege John Marshal at Newbury Castle and demanded surrender. William’s father said that in order to do that, he would have to do ask permission of his overlord, the Empress Matilda for whom he was fighting against the King. Stephen agreed to let him do this, but said that he would have hostages of him to make sure he kept his word.
Little William was turned over to the King as surety for that word of honour. When the appointed day arrived for John Marshall to surrender Newbury Castle, he refused. Instead of sending word to the Empress, he stuffed the castle to the rafters with men, equipment and supplies. Stephen was furious but probably not surprised, and he sent word to John that William’s life was forfeit and he would be hanged. John retorted with that now infamous reply. ‘He said that he did not care about the child, since he still had the and anvils and hammers to produce even finer sons
William was manhandled to the gallows, but on his way saw the Earl of Arundel holding a very fine javelin and asked to play with it. The King apparently was so struck by William’s charm that he couldn't bring himself to have him hanged. However, William's ordeal wasn't over. He was also threatened with being squashed on a large round shield that was pushed under castle walls, and being flung from a catapult. Seeing the catapult William said: ‘Gracious me! What a swing!It will be a good idea for me to have a swing on it.’He went right up to the sling,but the King said: ‘take him away! Take him away!Anyone who could ever allow
him to die in such agony would certainly have a very cruel heart;he comes out with such engaging childish remarks.
Saved from various sticky ends, William continued to exert his charm on his royal jailer.
The King settled down to the siege. One day he was sitting in his tent, strewn with grasses and flowers of a variety of colours. William looked at the flowers, examining them from top to bottom. Happily and cheerfully he went about gathering the knights growing on the plantain, with its broad pointed leaves. When he gathered enough to make a good handful, he said the King: ‘My dear Lord ,would you like to play knights?’
‘Yes.’ He said ‘my little friend.’
The child immediately placed some on the King's lap, then he asked: ’who has the first go?’
‘You, my dear little friend,’ replied the King.
So he then took one of the knights and the King placed his own against it. But it turned out that in the contest the King's knight lost its head which made William overjoyed.’
You can see from this amusing incident, what a little charmer William the child was, and it has the ring of truth.
Williams survived to return home and grow up. A few years down the line…William had grown into a tall boy. His body was so well fashioned
that, even if he had been created by the sculptor’s chisel, his limbs would not have been so handsome. Etc etc.
This is a work wholly in praise of William Marshal and the chronicler puts in all the stock in trade descriptions of the ideal mediaeval man. However there are a couple of personal moments. We are told that
his hair was brown and his face was swarthy. So basically Brown hair and an outdoor complexion. The Chronicler is hasty to add ‘but his features were so much like those of a true noble that he could have been Emperor of Rome!
The writer also comments that William had a large crotch, 'Si out large la fourcheure' but this just meant in medieval terms that he had a good deep seat in the saddle, rather than being a comment on more private aspects of his anatomy!
In his teens William was sent to train with a family relative William de Tancarville, Chamberlain of Normandy. ‘as is fitting for a nobleman setting off abroad to win an honourable reputation.’
Once in Normandy William got stuck into his training, and there are some lines here that remind me how nothing changes in human nature. As the mother of two sons and having endured their teens I can so identify with some of the habits of a rapidly growing adolescent youth.
People thought is a great pity that he stayed up so little at night and yet slept so late ,that he ate and drank too much, and those scoundrels would laugh at him behind his back, asking of one another ‘this greedy gorger William in God's name, what good is he doing here?’ And they asked William de Tancarville his Lord ‘just how are you being served by this troublesome fellow, this devil of a glutton, who's always sleeping when he's not eating? The man is a fool who feeds him.’… The Chamberlain was much displeased with such words but he smiled and kept quiet, and then replied with a few well chosen words: ‘You will see, he'll set the world alight yet… You have no idea of the quality of the man I'm keeping.’ Indeed so.
William became a knight at around the age of 21.
At Drincourt, William the Marshal was dubbed a knight, and he willingly accepted the honour accorded to him by God which he had been so long waiting for. The Chamberlain girded on his sword with which he was to deal many a blow. And God bestowed on him such grace that he never went anywhere to perform feats of arms without his exploits being covered in glory.
From the start he was eager to join in the fray and prove his worth. When the town of Drincourt was attacked by the French not long after his knighting, the Chamberlain and his knights rode out to defend it and William wanted to be in the forefront.
The Marshal came up so far as to be able to ride alongside the Chamberlain who spoke as follows: 'William get back; don't be so hotheaded, let these knights pass.’ William withdrew a few paces, downcast and ashamed, his face the picture of gloom; he wished he had never been born, since he thought he was indeed a knight. He let three men pass in front of him and he quickly spurred on his horse and he was right in front of those crossing the bridge. Whatever happened, if there was to be a skirmish or battle, if knights were going to be locked in combat, he would make sure he was up there at the front.
He lost his horse in that battle and had to sell one of his cloaks to buy a new one. The Histoire observes that It is well-known that poverty has brought dishonour on many a nobleman and been the ruin of them; such was the case with the Marshal, for he had nothing to give and no source of wealth. He had to sell one of his cloaks,(to buy a horse) which he had when he was made a knight for the sum of 22 shillings in cash in Angevin currency.
So William had to deal with the harsh realities of life. It was all too easy to become penniless knight if you did not have the full support of a patron, or if you did not shift for yourself. I think what happened in his early years had a bearing on how good he actually was with money in his later years as a great magnate and Regent of England. He knew how to spend it, but he was no spend thrift and he knew how to make it as well and how to make do.
Anyway his bacon was saved because the Chamberlain wanted to attend a tournament with all his household and he provided horses for the young men. William was last in the queue when it came to dishing out the animals and so found himself with a reject beast that no one else wanted.
‘The horse was brought out, a horse fine and valuable, had it not been for one flaw that was a terrible drawback: the horse was so wild that it could not be tamed. The Marshal mounted it. Not once did he use his elbows; instead he pricked it with his spurs and the horse, flying faster than a hawk, bounded forwards. At the point where it should have been reined in, it turned out that it pulled incredibly hard: never had it had a master been able to make it pull less, even if he had had 15 reins to restrain it. The Marshal gave the matter thought and came up with a brilliant scheme: he let out the bridle at least three fingers’ length from the bit and so released the lock of the bit that it went down into its mouth so it had far less to bite on than was usual. For no amount of gold or other riches could he have reined him in any other way. He considered that he had been very clever. The horse was so improved by this new bridle that he could have been ridden around in half an acre of land as if he were the tamest on earth,’
So William showed that he understood horses and that he was a master of adapting to adversity. As the saying goes today. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. It appears to be one of Williams guiding principles. Do the best with what you have and turn it to your advantage by thinking outside the box.
William went on to gain experience in the tournaments and did very well for himself. However, his time with the Chamberlain was over. De Tancarville had enough knights to fulfil his quota and William was basically made redundant. He returned to England and joined the service of his uncle, Patrick Earl of Salisbury who was preparing to go to Poitou as its governor. Once more employed, William headed to the South of France, where, while in his uncle's entourage he came into contact with Eleanor of Aquitaine, and went on to save her from ambush when she was attacked by members of the rebel de Lusignan family. William’s uncle was killed in front of his eyes by being speared through the back. Eleanor managed to escape but William was wounded in the thigh, captured after putting up a tremendous fight and taken for ransom. At the time of the attack Eleanor's escort had not been wearing their armour. Later in life William always stayed close to his armour, and would put it on long before a battle situation arose, and I think it was something that was impressed on him that day in Poitou when they were attacked. This is a line from later in the Histoire, illustrating this:
The King said: ‘Go on, take that Armour off, Marshal. Why are you armed?’
The Marshal replied: ‘If it's so please you, sire, so much will I say, that I am very happy to be armed and my arms don't cramp my style in the slightest. I shall not remove my armour for the rest of this day until I have discovered what burden we shall have to shoulder. An unarmed man cannot last out in a crisis or a grave situation and we don't know what their intentions will be.’
In gratitude to William, Eleanor paid his ransom and arranged things for him as behoved her, given the quality of the young man: horses, arms, money, she readily gave him. William became the tutor in chivalry to her eldest son, Henry. His father Henry II, had had him crowned King in his own lifetime to assure the succession of the throne and William’s star continued to rise as he became established as one of young Henry's household Knights.
The King took great pleasure in advancing his son, and he sought outstanding companions for him, the most proven men to be found throughout the realm. At that time the Marshal was summoned, a man most brave and true; he was endowed with all the fine qualities, to the extent that there was nothing lacking in him. The King put him in the company of his son; he promised to do the Marshal much good in return for his care and instruction. The King ‘ asked and commanded William to take care of Henry, for he trusted no man as much as him. The Marshal replied: ‘Know this for sure, I shall do all within my power.’
The Histoire tells us that during this time ‘He led such a very fine life that many were jealous of him. He spent his life in tournaments and war and travel through all the lands where knight should think of winning renown in France and in the low countries, through Hainaut and Flanders, came his high reputation for great exploits.
William remained in the Young King's household as a career knight for more than a decade and in that time moved from young whippersnapper into full manhood. Young Henry although charming and handsome, was not always an easy master to serve. He wanted the power and the money, but did not particularly want to have to work for it at the mundane task of government, and quarrelled with his father on the matter quite seriously on occasion. One such time, he went to seek succour from the French, and asked William, who was ever loyal despite whatever personal misgivings he had might have been harbouring, – to knight him.
Before the assembled counts and barons, and before other men such high rank, he girded the sword on the King of England and yet he had not one strip of land to his name or anything else, just his chivalry.
Matters were patched up for a while between father and son and William and his young charge took to the life of the tourney with a vengeance. Sometimes William went off jousting of his own accord, and on one such occasion which is often mentioned in the biographies he managed to get his head stuck inside his helmet because of all the blows he'd received in the fight. The tournament officials had adjudged him the ‘man of the match’ and came to find him to present him with the prize which happened to be a large pike on a platter as in the fish!
They came to the forge, where they saw him with his head on the anvil. It was no laughing matter, far from it, for the smith with his hammers, wrenches and pincers, was going about the task of tearing off his helmet and cutting through the metal strips, which were quite staved in, smashed and battered. The helmet was so tight around his neck that it was freed with great difficulty. Once the helmet was prized of – and it was pulled off with great difficulty – the knights who had come to forge greeted him graciously. I am sure that back in the day William was delighted to receive the honour of being champion of the tourney, but my imagination furnishes me with a picture of a red-faced William gasping for fresh air and rather sore around the ears, being faced with a crowd of people bearing a large fish on a plate (that’s been doing the rounds for some hours) and I have to laugh!
William certainly seemed to enjoy his life on the tourney field and to have been ideally suited to it. The Histoire is so joyous when describing this part of his story, and really gives a feel for the sites sounds and smells of the tourney round. I think it was Prof Crouch who compared it to something of a large Gymkhana! We know that one year between Lent and Whitsuntide William and a companion took 103 knights prisoner. When a knight was captured in the tourney, he had to pay a ransom to his captor as a forfeit. It was basically a contact sport for prize-money – it would make great television today!
Allied to his prowess William had a mischievous sense of humour and this is one of the reasons why I like him so much. This is an example of incident from his tourney days. The men are hanging around, waiting for the tourney to begin and some ladies arrive.
The knights rose up from the ranks to meet them, as was fit and proper. They were convinced that they had become better men as a result of the lady's arrival, and so they had, for all those there felt a doubling of strength in mind and body, and their boldness and courage. One of them said: ‘come on, let us dance while we are waiting, we will be less bored.’ So they took one another by the hand. One man asked: ‘who will be kind enough to sing for us?’ The Marshal who had a good voice but who in no way boasted about it, then began to sing a song in a pure sweet tone. He gave much pleasure to those present and they willingly joined in his song. And when he had finished his song, which gave them much pleasure and delight, a youngster, recently made a herald at arms, began to sing a new song. I do not know who was the subject of it, but the refrain contained the words: ‘Marshall, come on, give me a trusty steed!’ When the Marshal heard it, he stayed there not a minute longer, but left the dance without saying a word to anyone. A squire brought him his horse, and he beckoned to the young herald. The herald saw the gesture and ran after him as fast as he could. At this point the jousters rode up, those who were in the front rank of the initial contests. The Marshal, a man who had no wish to bandy words, rode straight at one of them. He had such faith in his prowess and in his firm and sturdy lance, that he knocked him off his horse without further ado. Then he had the young herald mount the horse, and he, without uttering a word, galloped back into the dance, and said to all: ‘Look what a fine horse! The Marshal gave it to me.’ Many were greatly surprised by this, as they were under the impression that the Marshall was still at the dance, and they spoke much of it.
While William was in service to the young King, some jealous enemies at court accused him of having an affair with the young King's wife Marguerite, daughter of the king of France. William Staunchly denied this, but nevertheless he was banished from court. Given William’s life compass which was always one of honour, duty and truth, I personally don't think he would have done this. The discovery of such a liaison, would not just have brought shame upon the Marshal, it would have cost him his life. It was treason. As it was just the accusation almost cost him his career and he was ousted from court He took the opportunity to go to Cologne and visits the shrine of the three Kings.. He was offered employment by various magnates throughout Europe, but declined. As far as he was concerned, he only had one Lord, the young King. As it happened young Henry and his father fell out again for various detailed political reasons and William was recalled to serve his master.
This was not a particularly happy time in William’s life. He was now well into his 30s, and perhaps approaching a crossroads. The behaviour that was appropriate to a younger man, now no longer sat so easily on his shoulders. His young Lord, had taken to robbing churches and shrines to gain money for his war, including the shrine of our lady of Rocamadour, and although it does not say so in the Histoire, I gain the impression that William was very unhappy with such a state of affairs. Indeed when he founded the Priory here at Cartmel,, he had a curse written into the foundation charter that was to fall upon anyone who did anything to the detriment of the priory. Although many priories and abbeys have this type of clause written into their foundation charters, I do wonder if William was thinking of Rocamadour when he had this one written.
Shortly after the young King had robbed the shrine, he fell ill dysentery and it became obvious that he was going to die. William was with him on his deathbed and the young King had a particular request to make of him.
And when it came to the reading of his will, he said this: ‘Marshal, you have ever been loyal to me, a staunch supporter in good faith. I leave you my cross so that on my behalf you can take it to the Holy Sepulchre and with it pay my debts to God.’ The Marshal replied: ‘sire, I give you my most grateful thanks! Since that is your provision in your will and you have chosen me for this task, I shall certainly do it gladly, for that man is no loyal friend who is found wanting in help in a great moment of need.’
I think this visit to the holy land was the moment at the crossroads he had been travelling towards. I think he went there in some sort of spiritual crisis and whatever happened, he returned a man who had grown in all areas of his life. The Histoire tells us very little about his time out there, although there are some pertinent points made and one very important one that comes later in his life.
So he went away and stayed two years. In Palestine he showed himself to be so generous, he performed so many feats of bravery and valour, so many fine deeds that no man before had performed so many, even if he had lived there for seven years.
When he left that land, he went to seek leave of King Guy, all the men in the King's household, and of the Templars and Hospitalers, who loved the Marshal very dearly because of his many fine qualities and were very displeased about his returning home. We also know from later on in the tale that he obtained his own burial shrouds while abroad, and showed them to no one, and that while in the holy land he vowed his body to the Templars at his death.
Once home, he took up service with Henry II again, who was pleased to see him and gave him lands here in Cumbria, along with the wardship of Heloise, heir of William of Lancaster, Lord of Kendal, who hd died in 1184 while William was in the holy land.
The lady of Lancaster, a lady of great elegance, together with her land, he gave to the Marshal, and the Marshal did her high honour and kept her from dishonour for a long time, as his dear friend, but he never married her.
William could indeed have married her and made his life in this area as a baron, certainly with the same standing as his father, but he preferred not to. However he did spend some time in Cumbria on his return from the holy land, perhaps to recuperate from all the travelling, and to settle himself spiritually. It was while here that he made plans to found a Priory on the land that King Henry had given him, although building did not start until after his marriage to Isabelle de Clare.
In 1186, William left Cumbria to go to Henry II who had summoned him to Normandy, promising him an even greater heiress and Heloise of Kendal.
The King promised the Marshal in return for his service, the hand of the maiden of Striguil, a worthy, beautiful girl.
Isabelle de Clare, was heiress to lands in Normandy, in Berkshire, the Welsh borders, Wales and Leinster in Ireland. She was just about of marriageable age, a blond beauty and immensely wealthy. Not that it was certain William was going to claim his prize, because Henry was on the back foot. He was fighting both the King of France and his son Richard the Lionheart who was in rebellion against him. It was a vicious, bitter campaign, that saw the burning of Le Mans, Henry's birthplace. Henry himself, sick and distraught, fled the town as Richard entered through the gates. Riding rearguard, William sought to defend his ailing Lord, and showed what he was made of, when it turned out that those pursuing were led by none other than Richard the Lionheart
Like the prudent and wise man he was, he took up his shield and his lands, and spurred straight on to meet the advancing count Richard. When the count saw him coming, he shouted out at the top of his voice: ‘God’s legs, Marshall! Do not kill me, that would be a wicked thing to do, since you find me here completely unarmed.’ The Marshal replied: ‘Indeed I won't. Let the devil kill you! I shall not be the one to do it.’ This said, he struck the Count’s horse a blow with his lance, and the horse died instantly; it's never took another step forward. It died, and the count fell to the ground. It was a fine blow, which came at an opportune moment for those riding ahead.’
Henry was very unwell, and died soon after. His body was borne to the Abbey of Fontevraud by his household Knights, and while they were holding vigil there, Richard came to view his father's body, and talk the men were with him. The last time he had seen William, had been at the other end of a lance, and the Histoire gives us this conversation between them at the church.
‘Marshall, fair Sir, the other day you intended to kill me, and you would have, without a doubt, if I hadn't deflected your lance with my arm. That would have been a bad day.’
He replied to the count ‘My Lord, it was never my intention to kill you, never did I put my effort into that: I am still strong enough to direct a lance when armed and even more so on that occasion, when I was unarmed; if I had wanted, I could have driven it straight through your body, just as I did with that horse of yours.. And I do not consider it a wicked thing for me to have killed it, nor am I sorry for doing so.’
Richard did not bear William a grudge for this. To the contrary he valued his steadfastness and loyalty and to that end, granted him permission to take Isabelle de Clare to wife. William went immediately to London. Isabelle was being kept in the Tower of London because she was such a great prize. William knew that although Richard was King, the situation when a new king took the throne was always volatile and he made haste to marry Isabelle straightaway. It was a political match. As far as we know they had never met before. He was in his early 40s; she was 18 at the oldest. What they thought on first seeing each other is not recorded, but they seem to have made a very strong and affectionate marriage that lasted for 30 years. William set the tone of their marriage from the beginning. It was celebrated in London at the house of his good friend Richard FitzReinier, who offered to provide what was necessary: William said that
‘now that he had her in his possession he had no wish to lose her, so he said that he would go to her lands and marry her there. Hearing this, Richard FitzReinier, his host, who loved him very dearly said ‘Upon my soul my Lord! You will not you shall not marry her anywhere else but here, and in this house your wedding will be so well arranged that you will lack nothing of what a worthy man needs for his use.’ The Marshal replied: ‘I have made no provision for such a thing.’
‘But I have, and very well too,’ said his host, ‘and nothing will be wanting. Thanks to God I have so much of my own that there will be no need of anything of yours.’ That said, there was no further delay: she was married under favourable style, that worthy, beautiful lady of good breeding, that courtly lady of high birth… Once that fine, splendid wedding ceremony had taken place, in a manner that was fitting, I know that the Marshall took the lady to stay with Sir Engelram D’Abernon at Stoke, a peaceful spot, well appointed and a delight to the eye.
Knowing that he was going to be very busy in the future, William nevertheless took the time out to have a honeymoon in a secluded spot and get to know his wife. At this point in his life, he also took a moment to think of his proposed foundation at Cartmel, and sent a colony of Augustinian monks from the mother house at Bradenstoke Priory, to be the founder colony at Cartmel. The first prior of Cartmel was called Daniel and had charge from around 1194 until 1204.
William and Isabelle were blessed with children almost straightaway. Their first son William was born probably in April 1190 possibly at Longeville in Normandy. Richard, their second child arrived about 18 months later, and this set the pattern. William and Isabelle would have 10 children- five boys and five girls because William believed in balance after all. William and Richard came first, then the first daughter Mahelt or Matilda, then Gilbert, Walter, Isabelle, Sybilla and Eve, followed by Ancel and Joanna. By the time Joanna was born William was around 64 and Isabelle into her 40s. None of the boys were to have children, but all the girls had sons and daughters whose descendants are scattered round the world today, some of them properly here listening today.
Williams spent the reign of King Richard bringing up his growing family, serving Richard in a military capacity, and also assisting to rule the country during Richard’s absence on Crusade. He spent most of his time in Normandy, with short occasional returns to England. When Richard died from an arrow wound sustained at a siege in the Limousin, William was in Rouen and one of the first to receive the news. In fact he was on his way to bed but but ‘he put his boots back on’ and went to consult with Hubert Walter the Archbishop of Canterbury about what to do. The men had a long discussion about whether they should back John to be King, or offer the throne to his teenage nephew Prince Arthur. In the end William Marshal persuaded the Archbishop that they should sign up for John because the son is indisputably closer in the line of inheritance than the nephew is, and it is right that that should be made clear.’ The Archbishop agreed but with caveats. He said ‘You will never come to regret anything you did as much as what you're doing now.’ To which William replied ‘thanks for the warning! Nonetheless my advice is that it should be so.’
In hindsight but perhaps William did wish that he hadn’t argued for John, but be that as it may, John was offered the crown, and for his aid in the matter, William was awarded the Earldom of Pembroke and custody of the Castle.
John's reign proved to be a tricky one. John had inherited political difficulties from Richard, not all of Richard’s doing, but the result of general political pull and push throughout Europe, but it has to be said that John's personality did nothing to mitigate circumstances. The King's pride and arrogance increased; they so blurred his vision that he could not see reason indeed, I know for a fact that as a result he lost the affection of the barons of the land before he crossed to England. He did not have an easy character. His biographer WL Warren says of him that he had the mind of a great King and inclinations of petty tyrant, and as a form of shorthand that statement says it all. He was suspicious of everyone including William. That suspicion of William was exacerbated during the fight for Normandy which John was eventually to lose. Seeing the French overrunning the Norman lands, knowing that his own lands were under threat, William made a pact with the King of France, saying he would do him homage for his Norman estates. John not surprisingly took exception to this. William claimed that John gave him permission to give his oath to the French king for the Norman castles, but one suspects at that point in his life William was sailing close to the wind. John decided to take one of William sons hostage as security for William’s good behaviour. The eldest son who was most dear to the Marshall. The latter surrendered him readily to the King, being as he was a man who would have nothing to do with evil-doing or ever thought of such. The saying goes that a man who bandages his finger when it is whole will find it so again when he chooses to take the bandage off.
William further blotted his copybook by seeking permission to go to Ireland and sort out his land there. John had interests in Ireland and didn't want William meddling. However, he allowed William to go, but demanded William second son Richard as a hostage too. Isabelle was very loath to let their second boy go into John's custody, but William was willing to hand him over because he knew that was the only way he was going to get to Ireland without being adjudged a rebel. So he handed over Richard too. At the same time he arranged a marriage for his eldest daughter Mahelt with Hugh Bigod, eldest son of Roger Bigod earl of Norfolk. This kept Mahelt safe in England under the protection of a powerful family, owners of almost half of East Anglia. The marriage was a most suitable one and pleased both families involved,’ The Histoire tells us.
William duly sailed to Ireland with his family all but his hostage sons and his newly married daughter. Once there he set about organising his lands, and founding a town on the River Barrow that today is known as New Ross. The family were to stay there for the next five years. William’s last two children, Ancel and Joanna were to be born in Leinster. King John was enraged to learn that William had gone to Ireland. He had been hoping that the demand for the second son would keep William in England. He summoned William back to England along with the Justiciar of Ireland, one Meilier Fitzhenry who was William’s sworn enemy. Indeed Meilier had left instructions that the moment he and William departed Ireland, his men were to start making war on William’s interests there. The Histoire says of a meeting held between William and his men before he departed for the English court: they greatly feared the King’s sending for him was a trick and that he was acting more with a view to harming him than for his good. This view was expressed in the presence of the Countess, who had every fear as regards the King's word. The Marshal knew very well and was very aware that the King had not sent for him for his good and he had no doubt once he had left the land there would be strife and war. William made contingency plans, but when his men suggested that he himself should take hostages against the behaviour of men of whom he was uncertain, William refused very strongly. He said: enough of that! I would not wish just now even for the price of 100 marks in silver that they came to know for certain that you had said such a thing, for it would be recorded to our eternal shame. Instead I shall send for them to come to me and I shall tell them to uphold the peace and integrity of my land. This then perhaps is a leftover from William himself being taken hostage as a child, and what he felt inside about having to give his sons away to John. He might have had to give his boys as hostages because he had no other choice in order to save the rest of his family, but he would not take other men’s sons.
William had a difficult time in England, because King John proceeded to give him the cold shoulder and treat him with suspicion and contempt. He told him a concocted cock and bull story about William’s best men having been defeated and killed in battle in Ireland and Isabelle (who was heavily pregnant at this time) being left alone and without help. William was very surprised at the news because the weather was bad and no ships were sailing between England and Ireland to bring such details to the court. However he said: ‘I can tell you in truth that the death of those nights is a loss. There is nobody here, be here full wise, who does not know, in a word, that they were your own worthy men, and for that reason this business is an even sorrier affair.’
This put John in his place, and later the news arrived that William's men had actually prevailed over the aggressors, although the town of New Ross had been burned to the ground. John's anger with William lowered to a simmer and he allowed him to return to Ireland, where William set about putting things to right and dealing with the opposition.
It was not all over in a day, and John had not finished with William or with Ireland. The King came there himself to deal with rebels, and take a grip on the country. William played the game cannily and did all that the King asked. Around him he saw other barons being destroyed by the king's anger, most notably and spectacularly, William de Braose. There is not time here to go into the whole de Braose situation, but he too had been asked for hostages. In his case, his wife had refused to give up their sons, saying she would not hand them over to a King who would murder his own nephew. This was a reference to Prince Arthur who have mysteriously vanished while in John's custody in Rouen. No one knew what had happened to him – supposedly, although it is likely that de Braose did, and so might William who was de Braose’s ally. It's something we will never know.
William did manage through diplomacy and sound political decisions to weather the King's displeasure. John went home, and William settled down with his family in Ireland. However that wasn't the end of matters. In 1212, John summoned William back to England because the political situation was dire. The Pope had excommunicated John over a long-running dispute concerning who should be Archbishop of Canterbury. In some ways it was reminiscent of the Becket crisis of his father's reign, in that the King wanted one thing and the church wanted the other. The barons had taken John's excommunication is a general sign to rise up in discontent - and they had a lot discontented about, including the marrying of heiresses to John's favourites, the bad behaviour of his mercenaries, the fact that he was selling justice for money to name just a few. William was put in a predicament because once he swore his loyalty, he kept it, but he too had fallen victim to Royal caprice and tyranny. When summoned he came, The Histoire says: He was sorely grieved by the outrages committed by both sides, once he had been informed of them: he had no wish for them, nor did he agree to them. The Histoire also says when the King ran out of resources, very few of the men stayed with him who were there for his money; they went on their way with their booty in hand. However, the Marshal at least, a man of loyal and noble heart, stayed with him in hard and difficult circumstances; he never left him, he never changed that steadfast heart of his, serving him in good faith as his Lord and King… What ever the King had done to him, he never abandoned him for anyone. That absolute loyalty and honour was one of the the underpinning values of William Marshal's character.
Williams eldest son had joined the rebels. What William thought of this, we don't know. Unless it was a deliberate political move, it must have caused some ructions in the family. The Histoire is silent on the matter. What we do know is that the barons involved in working out the details of Magna Carta, and designated as sureties to see that its terms were carried out, included William Marshall senior and junior and their relatives by marriage William Earl of Salisbury, and Roger and Hugh Bigod, to whom William Marshal's daughter Mahelt was married. William was honour bound to take John’s part in these negotiations, but through family ties he had a foot in each camp.
John died in October 1216, leaving the country in turmoil. There was Civil War, the French had invaded and had control of London, were threatening Dover, and had taken several other important towns. John's eldest son was only nine years old; war had brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, and there were deep divisions between people who had once been friends and allies. The barons who had stayed loyal to John, including William brought the nine-year-old Henry to Gloucester Abbey. The high-ranking men there carried him between them to the Abbey, where the gift of succession was passed on through the anointing and the coronation.’
Then the matter of who was going to rule the country had to be discussed. There were only two men in the running; William Marshal, and Rannulf Earl of Chester. The latter was known to be a bit prickly, and not everyone was willing to follow him even though he had the ability to lead. In the end the vote went William who was by now around 70 years old. Having been given the job of running the country, William retired to his chamber and the enormity hit him. He called his closest advisers, and then leant against one of the walls. It will not take long to list the members of the council: the three who were with him the previous night, were now with him at these talks. He said to them ‘give me your help and advice, for by the faith I owe you, I have embarked upon the open sea, where no man, where ever he sails or where ever he sounds the depths, can find bottom for sure, and from which it is a miracle if he reaches port and a safe haven. But may God if it please him, sustain me! I have been entrusted with this task, which is already close to coming to grief, as you know and sense. And the child has no wealth, which is very damaging and a source of grief to me, and I myself am an old man.’ Then his heart became full to overflowing and his eyes began to fill with tears. Tears streamed down his face, and those present there, who loved him and were entirely devoted to him, began to weep out of pity for him. And he, after looking up, said: ‘Have you no more to say than this?’
As it was his former Squire and now fellow baron and companion Jean D’Earley comforted him, and did the equivalent of giving him a stiff drink and encouragement. And William shook himself , squared his shoulders, and went to get on with the task of governing England and setting thngs to rights. By various hand to mouth methods, including breaking up the King’s treasure what was left of it, he managed to keep control of the troops and maintain the economic functioning of the country. He got people talking to each other, opened up avenues of debate and issued pardons and truces. He would fight if he had to, but diplomacy came first.
The French army had split up, and one division had gone up to Lincoln to try and take the Castle from its doughty Castellan, a lady called Nicola De la Haye. William seized the moment, and swept his army up to Lincoln to take on the divided French. By this time William’s son William Jr had returned to the fold, as had the Earl of Salisbury. It seems that with John's death, the matter of rebellion was finished for them. William wanted the enemy to think that his army was larger than it was and to be intimidated, so one of the things he did was to have all the noncombatants in the baggage train brandish spears and shields on high, so that as they approached they looked to be massive numbers. The French troops chose to stay behind Lincoln’s walls and not come out, so William had his trebuchets batter down a sealed up doorway in the town walls, and brought his army into Lincoln itself. His life has come full circle. As a young knight he had fought his first battle in the streets of Drincourt. Now an old man, his final big engagement was to be in the streets of Lincoln. He was so eager to enter the fray that he forgot to put his helmet on, and had to go back for it. Once it was on his head the histoire says ‘he appeared more handsome than all the rest. As swiftly as if he were a bird, sparrowhawk or an eagle,he pricked the horse with his spurs.’ Once again the cry of ‘God is with the Marshal!’ was heard on the battlefield.
The French were utterly defeated at the Battle of Lincoln. William’s own cousin the Count of Perche was leading them and was killed when a sword pierced his brain through the eye- slit of his helm.
The final clinching victory was a sea battle in which William took no part save to watch from the shore at Sandwich, as the French supply ships, that would have bolstered the remaining half of the French army at Dover, were either seized or destroyed by English ships. Francis Drake’s glorious moment, was actually pre-empted by the Battle of Sandwich. Many vessels full of riches were captured, and great lords taken for ransom. William used some of the booty to build a hospital dedicated to St Bartholomew.
Prince Louis who was leading the French troops and who at one time had hoped to become King of England, now sued for peace. Negotiations were opened, and he agreed to leave England, although he had to be paid to go away. Some barons protested at this, but William viewed it as a necessary sweetener to diplomacy, and with the French gone, putting the country to rights would go much more smoothly.
William continued with the task of Regency for another couple of years, and although there were still choppy seas to be negotiated, at least the ship was no longer in danger of sinking. However the effort involved had taken its toll on him. Two years from the feast of St Michael, when Louis left the land, it was no longer than the following Candlemas when the Marshal began to be plagued by an illness and pain which resulted in his death.’
He had physicians come to tend him in London, but there was nothing they could do and he decided to go home to his favourite manor at Caversham near Reading to die. His view was that he could more easily put up with his affliction on his own ground if, in the nature of things, death was to be his lot, he preferred to die at home than elsewhere. So he was put in a boat and rode upriver to Caversham. Once there he set about making his will and putting his estate in order. He made plans to hand over the country to some of the other people he had been working with, and he sent for the young King Henry, now 11 years old. When the boy was brought before him, he said ‘I can tell you in truth that I have served you faithfully and to the best of my ability in safeguarding your land, when it was a difficult task to do so, and I would serve you, if I could, if it please God that I had the capacity to do so, but there is no man can plainly see that it does not please him that I should be in this world any longer.’ He also spoke to the boy, warning him against behaving like his father King John. Sire, I beg the Lord our God that, if I ever did anything to please him,that in the end he grant you to grow up to be a worthy man. And if it were the case that you followed in the footsteps of some wicked ancestor, and that your wish was to be like him, then I pray to God the son of Mary, that he does not give you long to live in that you die before it comes to that.’ So despite having served John and his son in full loyalty and to the end of his tether, Williams feelings on the matter come through strongly here.
The matter of the country sorted, William turned to his own concerns. He sent his good friend and companion Jean D’Earley on a mission. Bring me the two lengths of silk cloth which I gave Stephen to look after; Jean D’Earley went and fetched the cloths and brought them back to William’s bedside. Here are your lengths of silk, my Lord, which I was instructed to bring to you.’ When he heard this, he took them, and he said to Henry Fitzgerald ‘Henry, look at this fine cloth here!
‘Indeed my Lord, but I can tell you that I find them a little faded, unless my eyesight is blurred.’
The Earl replied ‘Unfold them, so that we might be in a better position to judge.’ And, once the lengths of cloth had been unfolded, they looked very fine and valuable, choice cloth good workmanship. He called for his son and his knights to come before him, and once they had all appeared he said :‘ my Lords, just look here! I’ve had these lengths of cloth for 30 years; I had them brought back with me when I returned from the holy land, to be used for the purpose which they will now serve; my intention has always been that they will be draped over my body when I am laid in the earth;; that was the destination I had in mind for them.’
‘My Lord,’ said his son ’there is one thing we are wondering about which is a closed book to us we cannot tell nt what place you wish to be laid to rest.’
‘My dear son.’ He said’I shall tell you, without a word of a lie: when I was away in the holy land, I gave my body to be buried by the Templars at the time of my death, in whatever place I happened to die. That is my wish, that is where I shall be laid to rest.’
And that is what happened, and why William’s body is in the Temple Church in London not here at Cartmel or in the main house at Bradenstoke.
William continued to give detailed orders about what he wanted to happen after he had died. His illness was such that he had time to organise his funeral and make his farewells. As well as having kept his burial shrouds for 30 years, he had been keeping another more recent secret. He had had a Templar cloak made in secret and stored in his wardrobe and now he had it brought out for all to see, because he intended now to take the vows of a Templer knight. He had that cloak made for him a year before, keeping it in his possession without anyone else knowing of its existence. The Earl, who was generous, gentle and kind towards his wife the countess, said to her\; ‘Fair Lady kiss me now, for you will never be able to do it again.’ She stepped forward and kissed him, and both of them wept. The good folk present there are also wept out of affection and compassion.’
Even amidst the moments of terrible grief and preparing to leave the world, there were still moments of joy and comfort. One day towards the very end of his illness William declared to Jean D’Earley that he had a sudden desire to sing, but that he would feel foolish doing so. Henry Fitzgerald who was also with him suggested that he send his daughters to sing to comfort him and William agreed. The girls arrived, and William perked up a bit.
‘Matilda, you be the first to sing,’ he said. 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 the song in a sweet clear voice.’Joanna you sing as best you can!’ She sang one verse from a rotruenge, but timidly. ‘Don’t be bashful when you sing,’ said the Earl, ‘for if you are, you will not perform well and the words will not come across in the right way.’ So the Marshall taught her how to sing the words. Once the song was finished, he said to them ‘My daughters go in the name of Christ, who guards and protects all who believe in him; I pray to him to grant you his protection.’ As was fitting they took their leave:
Another incident involved the supernatural. William was being attended by Jean D’Earley and said to him. ‘Can you see what I can see?’
‘My Lord, I don't know what we're looking at.’
‘Upon my soul, there are two men in white here, one of them here by me on my right and the other on my left; I never saw more handsome anywhere.’
‘My Lord, the company of Angels has come to you, and if it please God, will come again to be by your side. God has sent his company to you to lead you along the right pass.’
The Earl then said:’blessed be the Lord our God, who has given and imparted his grace to me here.’
I believe that indeed the company of Angels had come to him rather than it being caused by the flickers of the dying mind.
William died at Caversham on a May morning with the windows open and his grieving family around his bed - this very week 792 years ago, and as evidenced here in this gathering he is still remembered and honoured at Cartmel, the priory he founded on his return from Jerusalem.
The Histoire finishes: here ends the story of the Earl's life, and may God grant that his soul rest in eternal glory in the company of his angels! Amen
But the story doesn't end there, because William’ memory, like Cartmel itself, has lived on down the centuries. His name has become a byword for honour and chivalry, for loyalty in the face of all odds, for decency, compassion and balance. He was a great man in his time, and he remains a great one even now, perhaps even more so because the global population is so much bigger today, and in reading about him, people all over the world can reach out and be inspired by his values. In writing my own novels about his life, I have learned so much, and I hope I have done him justice. William Marshal. The Greatest Knight. The finest man. May his story live on for many more centuries to come.