Tuesday, May 26, 2015

THE MARSHALS AND KING JOHN: A paper from this year's Mortimer Society Conference.

I was asked by the organisers of the Mortimer Society Conference if I would give a paper loosely on the subject of matters or personalities concerned with Magna Carta for their annual day of lectures at Hereford Academy.
Slightly daunted to be in the august company of lecturers and academics who know the period inside out at degree level, I nevertheless decided nothing ventured nothing gained and agreed to do so.  The result was this - a piece on the relationship between the Marshal and King John.  Other than a few photos to break up the narrative, this is the article verbatim.

I  am so glad I agreed to lecture at Hereford.  I met some old friends and readers, and said hello again to the lovely indie bookseller from Ludlow.  The lecturers were absolutely charming and not at all 'ivory' tower and were as interested in what I had to say, as I was  in their work.  So, all in all a great exchange, and enjoyable at all levels!

                              THE MARSHALS AND KING JOHN.
William Marshal as imagined by the artistic talent
of Diana Popovic Dicso.

I am going to begin with a quote from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal.

"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 and that you die before it comes to that."

These are the words spoken to the 11 year old King Henry III by William Marshal on his deathbed. The moment is reported in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, a 20,000 line poem commissioned by the Marshal family, specifically it is thought by the Marshal’s eldest son William II, to commemorate his father’s great life and to glorify the family. It was completed around 1226.  That “certain wicked ancestor” was the young king’s father, King John, who had died two and a half years earlier leaving the country in almost bankrupt turmoil and rife with civil war.

The Marshal Histoire was intended to be read aloud on the anniversary of William’s death, to his family, and to those who shared their affinity, which rather demonstrates that in the mid-1220s and for a while afterwards, the reputation of King John was set at nought even while his son Henry III was entering manhood.  

Despite William Marshal’s  damning deathbed remarks in 1219,  he had served King John and indeed John’s brothers and father in a military capacity through thick and thin for more than 50 years. In some ways they were the reason for his being. No Henry II, no Richard and John, and there would have been no William Marshal Lord of Chepstow, Earl of Pembroke, ruler of Leinster, Lord of Bienfait, Longueville and Orbec in Normandy – among other ownerships.  All of these and various posts and fiscal rewards were payment for loyal and intelligent service, both on the battlefield and off it and all were dependent on the favour and patronage of the Angevin kings.
My main thrust today is William Marshal’s relationship with  King John.  The Histoire may be damning in those parting comments of the Marshal to the boy king,  and yet the Marshal had stood by John when everyone else was deserting him.
 Perhaps we’ll never truly know the reason why even though we can make educated guesses, and it’s those guesses I want to look at now.
William wasn’t the only Marshal to have dealings with John. His brother also named John, served  as a royal Marshal under Richard I and John when he was count of Mortain. William’s own sons William and Richard were for a time hostages of King John and had an adolescent knowledge of him outside of their father’s household.
So let’s take a look at the relationships, what we do know, and what we can extrapolate without wandering too far from the beaten track

William Marshall was about 20 years old when King John was born in December 1166 at Oxford. Possibly  that birth date is 1167 although the evidence leans more toward the earlier date and we have professor Andrew Lewis’ detective work to thank for finding that out.  But anyway, there was a 20 year gap. When John was in the care of his wet nurse Agatha, William was coming to young knighthood in Normandy under the tutelage of his distant kinsman William de Tancarville, who was the hereditary Chamberlain.

By the time the infant John crossed the channel with his family William had entered the service of his uncle Patrick  Earl of Salisbury who was serving as the governor of Poitou. Did William meet the very young John? We don’t know. John seems to have spent his early years at the Abbey of Fontevraud. This was probably to keep him out of harm’s way and acted as a sort of safe kindergarten while his parents were busy with the problems of major government. All the same he would have been with one parent or another at the great feasts of the year, and William may well have encountered him then but as no more than a royal toddler.

 As John’s childhood progressed, William would certainly have encountered him at various gatherings and would probably have exchanged occasional words with him. William himself came from a large family and he seems to have been at home with people of all generations.  I am sorry to use a lot of ‘may have’s’ ‘probablies’ and ‘it is likely’ but that’s because we can't say for certain.  However, on a possibility scale of one to ten, it’s closer to a ten than a one.

William entered Queen Eleanor’s household in 1168 after saving her from ambush at the cost of his own wounding and capture by the Lusignan family who were in rebellion. Patrick Earl of Salisbury was killed in the attack.  Eleanor took a shine to William, paid his ransom and rewarded him with money, horses and weapons from her own purse. He became her man and entered her household.  In 1170 he was promoted to the role of tutor in chivalry and marshal of the household of her eldest son Henry, known as the young King because his father had had him crowned in his own lifetime. His star was hitched to that young man’s wagon. Henry the Young King seems to have been fond toward his youngest brother. There was an 11 year age gap between them and by the time John was four his older brother was already a king in name.  When Henry II had a bout of illness in 1170 and thought he was dying he left instructions in his will that Henry the Young King should be John’s Guardian.
Basically William would have watched John growing up on the sidelines with occasional moments of contact between child and man. Whether he had any sympathy for a younger son who would have to make his own way in the world, we don’t know but his main responsibility at this time was to the Young King.

The brotherly love between John and young Henry was strained when their father stated his intention of endowing John with three castles that belonged to the Young King.  It was one of the reasons that led to a rebellion of the older sons against their father,  rebellion that swiftly  spread to become a general civil war and resulted in the imprisonment of Eleanor of Aquitaine who was accused of fomenting an uprising with her three older sons.  John, too young to be involved, remained out of it all on the sidelines. Although Henry II prevailed and  reconciliations were made, the crack were still deep and ugly.  John seems to have remained in favour with his father, sometimes being found in his company and sometimes under the tutelage of Ranulf de Glanville, one of Henry’s able courtiers and lawyers.  Throughout this time William Marshal would have continued to be an observer towards his lord’s attitude to his youngest brother and would have encountered John on occasion at gatherings.

The young King rebelled against his father again in 1183, and this time died during the conflict.  Following his death, William Marshal went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and when he returned took up employment with Henry II. During the period between 1186 and Henry II’s death in 1189, William would have had further time to get to know John as the king’s youngest son developed into young manhood.  William was with Henry II at the bitter end when the King died. Richard was now in rebellion against him and had actively hounded him. At one point William had had to face down the hotly pursuing Richard by killing his horse under him and stopping him in his tracks.  But at least Richard’s  intentions were clearly signalled.

When Henry II died, he was alone. His naked corpse had been robbed by his servants while his household was elsewhere.  John by this time had seen the writing on the wall and had deserted the sinking ship.  His father is supposed to have asked for a list of those who had betrayed him, and on seeing John’s at the top of it, had turned his face to the wall and died.

William’s views on John’s desertion we don’t know, but he had already prevented Richard from persecuting the dying king by killing his horse under him.  This act proved  to Richard’s mind the Marshal’s unswerving loyalty to his liege lord and he was willing to forgive and reward William hugely for that loyalty, and advance his position in the new reign by giving him lands, power and the fabulously wealthy young heiress Isabelle de Clare into the bargain.

Richard, however, was preparing to go on crusade and left William Marshal as one of several justiciars to help run things in Richard’s absence.  John, although married to an English heiress,  Isabelle of Gloucester and having extensive lands in England was banned from the country by Richard for 3 years.  John objected and his mother stepped in to plead his case.  The ban was quashed and John had his leeway.  William Marshal was Richard’s man and remained so, but his family had a foot in each camp as his older brother was of John’s faction.  This might have been just the way it turned out, or it might have been wily statecraft.  William Longchamp bishop of Ely certainly seemed to think it was the latter and that William Marshal was cultivating John just in case he became the next king.  Perhaps he was, but his core loyalty was to Richard.
Without going into too much convoluted political detail,  Richard had left the government of England partially in the hands of his chancellor, William Longchamp bishop of Ely.  Longchamp wanted the whole and set about throwing his weight around.  The barons protested that he was behaving like a king indeed rather than a representative of such, and overstepping the mark. On the Marshal front, he’d also managed to oust John Marshal, William’s brother from office and replace him with his own brother.  In the middle of this John left Normandy and came to help out/stick his oar in depending which way you look at it.  With Richard gone, there was a hole to be filled.

William and the other justiciars had to try and maintain a balance of power.  While there was little sympathy for Longchamp, they also recognised that John, even though a possible future king, was a threat if he too became more powerful.  Longchamp ended up being banished from the country and replaced by Walter of Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen. John too was put in his place. But then came the news that Richard had been captured while returning from crusade, and a massive ransom for his return was being demanded by the Emperor of Germany.

John tried to persuade everyone that Richard was dead and that he wasn’t coming back. His mother, meanwhile, convinced that Richard was very much alive, was scrambling to raise the enormous ransom demanded of 150,000 marks.  For a time John played along but in secret was negotiating a deal with Philippe of France to try and keep Richard imprisoned.  The men offered  Emperor Heinrich various monetary bribes that they couldn’t possibly fulfil in order to keep Richard incarcerated.  When that didn’t work and Richard started out for home, John decamped to France and tried to make further deals with King Philippe that basically resulted in him selling out Normandy from under Richard’s feet.

Having fled, John left his supporters to hold for him in England in the few strongholds they controlled.  William himself had been involved in besieging Windsor for a time, and Nottingham was still in John’s hands.  There was Marlborough too, in Wiltshire, and the baron holding out against the justiciar Hubert Walter was William Marshal’s own older brother John.  William was now faced with a stark dilemma.  Go to his brother’s aid and put himself fully in John’s camp, or stay loyal to Richard and turn his back on his brother.  His loyalty to Richard prevailed, as one would expect of the Marshal’s general behaviour which usually pointed true on the compass despite a few wobbles and he chose Richard.

John Marshal died at Marlborough. We don’t know how, but the castle was surrendered to the royalist forces and William, hastening to meet Richard at Northampton, received the news that his brother was dead, defending a castle for a lord who had fled the country and gone into hiding.   What did the Marshal think about this? What did he feel?  Anger at John, At his brother for getting himself in that situation? Again we don’t know at this stage. He was a pragmatic courtier who kept his cards close to his chest.
By 1194 John had betrayed his father on his deathbed, betrayed his brother the absent crusader, and betrayed his men by abandoning them to their fate.

Clearly William’s brother’s defence of Marlborough in support of John had had an effect on William’s own standing because when William came before Richard he had to have men speak for his own loyalty, and some were dubious.  William Longchamp, bishop of Ely accused William in front of the King of ‘Planting Vines’ i.e. putting out feelers of support for John should Richard not survive.  Of being a dissembler and cosying up behind Richard’s back.  Since William had just come post haste from his brother’s funeral cortege, it must have been a difficult moment.  He had to walk a very careful path between who he served and who he might have to serve.

 William, however, weathered Richard’s return and continued in the King’s high favour.  He accompanied him to Normandy where Richard was reconciled with John.  Richard’s way round the problem of his rebellious brother was to call John a child who had been badly advised.  John was by this time heading for 30 and hardly a child, so it may have galled him to have this attitude taken toward him, but at the same time it got him off the hook.

Between 1194 and 1199 William’s relationship with John was a working one as Richard strove to restore the damage done while he was on crusade. John served him to all intents and purposes faithfully and well during this time – indeed was an asset. He and William Marshall worked together and were at the siege of Milly where they captured the castle - this is the one where William supposedly ran up a siege ladder and then, tired after his exertions on the battlements and a fight with the constable whom he defeated, duly sat on him to keep him down while William recovered.  This is reported in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal as being an event where Richard was present, but in actual fact John was the other military commander there. The Histoire, however, seldom has anything good to say about John, and avoids mention of him in a positive military role.  The fact stands though, that William and John worked well together during the years between 1194 and 1199, and would have built up a working relationship and even rapport.

In 1199 Richard died while besieging the castle of Chalus in the Limousin. He was struck in the area of the collarbone by a crossbow bolt which festered and he died soon after of blood poisoning or gangrene. While still lucid, he sent word to William Marshal and Hubert Walter Archbishop of Canterbury who were in Rouen telling them to secure the Treasury there. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal tells us that William and Hubert Walter had a discussion about who should inherit the throne – Arthur of Brittany who was Richard’s teenage nephew, or John who was 33 years old, a man and an accomplished warrior. Hubert Walter thought that Arthur had the better right to the Crown but William Marshall argued for John. In the event William Marshal won out and John was chosen. However, Hubert Walter remarked that William was never going to regret any decision in his life as much as he did this one. William’s choice was fairly obvious. He had no affinity with Arthur who had a different set of influences and was welded to the French crown. William, however had known John all his life and worked with him recently.  Heknew what he was dealing with, whereas Arthur was a teenage unknown quantity. Perhaps the “vines” that William had planted were about to bear fruit. And if he supported John, then John would owe him big time.

William’s support of John went so far as going to England and making promises on John’s behalf to the barons, that their grievances would be heard and assuring them that John was the man of the moment.
William’s reward for this support - and clearly his word was seen as honourable and worth trusting, was the earldom of Pembroke which had been taken from his wife’s family in the reign of Henry II. Other grants and privileges came his way too. The death of a king and the transition to a new one was a fraught time but William weathered it well and did handsomely out of it.  Do we take it that William was making the best of the situation by garnering what reward he could?  How did he feel in later years that the promises he made on John’s behalf had all fallen through?

His own honeymoon with John at the outset of the reign was not to last. Not to go into a long discussion on the wherefores and the whys because we don’t have time, but John lost Anjou, Maine and Normandy to the French. Whereas his brother Richard had won the battle for the hearts and minds of his people, John did not have the same propensity nor the same leadership qualities and military nous.

He did have a stroke of luck when he captured his nephew Arthur who was besieging his grandmother, John’s mother,  Eleanor of Aquitaine at the castle of Mirebeau, 20 miles from Poitiers,  but afterwards John ruined the advantage by treating those he captured with such shocking cruelty that men were horrified at his behaviour.  “The King kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner and such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed his cruelty.’ . This was further compounded when Arthur disappeared in Rouen in April 1203 and was never seen again. Rumours were soon rife that John had murdered him with his own hands while in a drunken rage. Whether he did or not is still debated but what is certain is that Arthur vanished. Stories of the death come from a source close to John – the annals of Margam Abbey whose patron was William de Braose. De Braose had been in a position to know what happened to Arthur, and there is evidence to suggest that it might be a reason why John persecuted him - among others.

Did William Marshal know of the death of Arthur? Some historians think that Arthur was murdered by committee - Stephen Church and Marc Morris have recently put that suggestion forward. Did John take counsel with his barons before doing the deed? I’m not sure about that I think John was totally capable of murdering his nephew without taking anyone’s advice, but it’s one of those grey areas where there’s only opinion.

I do believe that policy concerning Arthur was discussed, but who knows how deep it went?  I think there is a lot more than meets the eye but which we don’t know from a distance of 800 years.  I believe William Marshal must have suspected what had happened. If the king doesn’t know what goes on in his dungeons, then who does?  If Arthur disappeared, then John knew the circumstances. I think that Arthur was a large elephant in the room for John’s close advisers.

Perhaps William felt a certain responsibility because he was the one who had foisted John on everyone rather than plumping for Arthur. Had he backed Arthur, the landscape would have been very different at this juncture.  Perhaps he thought that it was a good thing that Arthur was dead in one way, but at the same time it created enormous pitfalls.

John went on to lose Normandy. William, was in the act of building up a patrimony for his sons and to this end when John’s grip on Normandy went down the pan, William did a deal with Philip of France to try and keep his estate intact but it meant swearing allegiance to Philippe for his lands on the Norman side of the Channel. John took a dim view of this and the relationship between him and the Marshal became strained. John saw William’s action as a desertion of duty and moreover double-dealing. William saw it as a prudent act to preserve his land, but even so he was sailing close to the wind. When John planned an invasion of France in 1206, William refused to go. In the event so did most of John’s nobility but John knew who the ringleader was. The Marshal said to the other barons at the height of the quarrel at Portsmouth, ‘My lords look at me, for, by the faith I owe you, I am for you all this day an exemplar and model. Be on your alert against the King: what he thinks to do with me he will do to each and every one of you, or even more if he gets the upper hand over you.’  That John did not move against William was largely down to the fact that William had a mass of support behind him, and at this stage John didn’t feel strong enough to test men’s loyalty.

Not long after this, William requested permission to go to Ireland. This can be looked at in several ways. He could have been going to escape from John who was in persecution mode after the quarrel at Portsmouth. Or it could just be that William was going to sort out Isabel’s Irish lands. These were going to provide for her in the event of William’s death,  but only if William got a grip now. They needed attending to and developing economically while being made militarily secure, and they also needed rescuing from John’s grasp because John had granted away much of the land to his own vassals and there were boundaries to be recalibrated. It could also be seen through the lens of some of William’s natural allies being involved in Ireland, men viewed by John as overly powerful or having a hold on him.  There was William de Braose with whom John was already in dispute, and the de Lacy clan. John probably feared rebellion in Ireland from the Irish faction and having lost France he needed to stamp on challenges to his authority elsewhere,  and especially on de Braose.

He demanded a hostage of William Marshal - his oldest son before he would let William cross to Ireland in 1206. William handed over the youth and continued preparations to leave. John, not wanting William to sail at all, demanded his second son too. He thought it might prevent William from leaving but William handed the lad over.  The Histoire makes the comment that if one bandages a finger that isn’t injured, it will still be the same when the bandage is removed.

William’s handing over of his children probably saved his skin. When a son was demanded of De Braose’s wife she replied that she would not hand any child of hers over to the man who had murdered his own nephew. That sealed her death sentence and John went after her with a vengeance. She and her eldest son were eventually to starve to death in the dungeon of Corfe Castle, or some say Windsor.

William Marshal’s own wife Isabelle de Clare was not happy at handing over their sons, but William’s will prevailed. He was playing a great game of politics with his eye on the bigger picture. He had been hostage himself at a younger age than his sons. He knew what was at stake, and like his own father before him, he took a gamble - and it paid off. What did the sons themselves think? We don’t know, but perhaps it is telling that the older boy, William Junior, rebelled against King John in 1215. Some historians see this action as being the family cunningly hedging its bets and having a foot in each camp - which indeed could well be the case. On the other hand, it might  be that the young Marshal’s experience as John’s hostage had been uncomfortable.

There is a cordial letter from King John to William Marshal about the second son Richard. Cordial on the surface that is. In it John tells William that Richard has grown out of his clothes and it’s a great shame that William hasn’t been providing for him, and that the King will see to his needs. Suggesting that the father has forgotten or is neglecting his own son and he the King is setting that to rights.  There are also some darker undercurrents that bear further investigating.
The King could see that Richard was young and in delicate health and that it would be too much for him to experience so early the trial of undergoing hardship.’  Just what does that mean?  It calls to mind traditional initiations that still go on as an undercurrent today in tribal situations – and in that I include modern Europe too where you’re not accepted into a gang until you’ve proven yourself, or the rumours of initiation ceremonies at certain old money public schools.  I think it’s an area that would bear further investigation.

John told William he intended taking Richard with him to Poitiers on the battle campaign in 1214.  William didn’t want him to go, but said if John insisted then so be it.  The Histoire says that Richard then took ill and nearly died. ‘That would have been very cold comfort indeed, and regarded as a crime.’  From the hints in the Histoire, one gets the impression that John played games with the Marshal boys being both benefactor and tormentor, but never showing which hand was behind his back until he struck.

Indeed John had a habit of taunting William. During the difficult Irish situation, William was summoned to court in England, while John’s henchmen Meilyr FitzHenry the Irish Justicar attacked William’s lands in Ireland. While William was stuck at court, receiving the cold shoulder from the King and his cronies, John came to him one day and told him that he had heard there been a terrible battle in Ireland and William’s men had either been captured or killed and the heavily pregnant Countess Isabel was being besieged. How John could know any of this was baffling because the Irish sea was so stormy that no ships could make the passage to bring the news.
William reacted stoically to this baiting, and the Histoire does not report his thoughts, only shows us how manfully he bore the taunting without reaction.  He must have had nerves of steel. When the truce became known that in fact King John’s men had gone down before the Marshal faction, William made light of the matter and forebore to gloat and thus the danger passed. I think this shows us that William had a powerful sense of self-preservation and knew his man very well and how to avoid becoming his victim. There were times when he had sailed very close to the wind in terms of loyalty, and had been in real danger, but he managed to weather it and King John himself, while coming to the line with William, had not stepped over it to take him down, even if he imagined vindictive scenarios for him.

William return to Ireland and John followed him, intent on stamping his authority on the country  and having a new constitution written for it that would limit the power of his Irish barons. It would bring the Marshals the de Braose’s and Lacy’s to heel.  The de Braose family was set on a course of destruction that nothing could alter. Again William weathered this tricky moment by submitting to John, and the King stayed his side of the line by accepting that submission, although he made sure to billet himself and his troops on William for a time, this whacking up William’s expenses!

William was left after that to his own devices in Ireland for several years. It wasn’t exactly retirement, but it was a retreat from the fray. Like entering one of the refuges at a tourney. His sons, however, were still hostages and one has to wonder how they were being brought up away from the Marshal enclave and what their opinion of King John was.  And William himself. Did he want his boys being raised away from his influences among men he did not trust?  Learning ways he might consider not to be good for them?  Certainly their mother was concerned. She didn’t want them to go and left to her own devices might have refused to hand them over with disastrous consequences.

By 1212 With interdicts and rebellions happening on the mainland, John requested William’s help, and offered to return his sons to their family – they’d been away around 5 years. William agreed and moved back to England to serve John in both a military and diplomatic capacity and was received back into the fold.   Why this volte face by the King?  Perhaps he realised how few allies he had in his pocket.  William could have refused the summons.  Or he could have accepted, taken his sons and run, and then declared for the rebels, but he didn’t.  He chose to stand by John and act as a military commander and adviser.  It could be that, presented with a sow’s ear he was willing to take the challenge of making it into a silk purse. Someone had to trouble shoot and repair this terrible fix they were in.

John had quarrelled with the church, so much so that he was under threat of excommunication and Philip of France was preparing to invade the country.  John, however, suddenly did a complete about turn, accepted the Pope’s ruling and offered to make England a vassal of Rome. In one fell swoop he cut Philip’s legs out from under him and Philip now found himself threatened by the pope and warned not to invade England.  How much of this was the Marshal’s advice?  We don’t know, but it’s interesting that it came about after the Marshal returned to the country and was taken into John’s confidence.
Not that the crisis was over and a large rebellious faction of barons were protesting about the harshness of John’s rule – the unfair taxes, the abuses of rights; the ridiculous fines.   What had been a half mark fine in the days of Henry II and Richard now sometimes amounted to hundreds of marks.  John would impose multi thousand pound fines on barons to keep them in their place, and if they couldn’t pay, he’d use it as an excuse to take over their castles.  He employed mercenaries to do his bidding.  He demanded money with menaces basically and receiving justice depended on how much you could pay to get it.  This was the birth of the notion of Magna Carta, to bring the king under the law and stop these abuses.

I’m no expert on the document and I leave that to more knowledgeable historians, but what place did William Marshal have in all this?  Was he one of its architects as is often said?  My own opinion is that he wasn’t – or not in a front line sense.  The Magna Carta was a list of rules made by a committee of a select number of barons in opposition to the king. Among them, William certainly had family members. His own son, William Junior. By design or because they were indeed on opposite sides we don’t know.  William’s son in law Hugh Bigod was among the rebels, as was the young man’s father, Roger, Earl of Norfolk.  Both of these men were well versed in the law. 

King John was clearly against the Magna Carta – anything that limited his powers was not going to be flavour of the month, but with the French threatening and his barons in rebellion, he had little choice but to negotiate.  This I think is where William comes in. John had used him before as a diplomat when it came to negotiating with the King of France and the way William had woven his way through the tricky mid years of the 1200’s was a testament to his cool head and diplomatic abilities.  He also had strong Templar connections and the Templars were a kind of neutral party – like the United Nations today, where both sides could meet to discuss their differences.  I believe that while William had little say in drafting the clauses of Magna Carta, he did have input in negotiating the terms and at least bringing King John to the table at Runnymede.  Without William driving the diplomacy, there might not have been a Magna Carta at all.   In other words both sides were willing to trust him.  He had been through the fire with King John, and the King’s relationship with him was now cordial – as far as the King was concerned. Everyone knew about his trouble with the King, and that while acting on John’s behalf, he was also one of them.  Ever the diplomat, William maintained a neutral fa├žade.

William’s son, however, in the rebel camp, had made his own feelings more known.  We can take the view that it was family policy that this should be,  however it’s telling that once the King was dead, the younger Marshal was one of the first to return to the fold.

William continued to stick by King John as the French landed and the battle for England became a civil war. He never wavered. It wasn’t out of love for John, whom he made clear on his death bed that he detested, but possibly it was for the monarchy as a whole – for who had the right.  Perhaps even out of loyalty to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the liege lady who had given him his first boost up the ladder and is one of the few women mentioned in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal. This was her last remaining son for better or worse.
When John was dying, he named WM one of the executors of his will and the Histoire puts its hero in the forefront and has John asking William to take care of the country for him. The wording is clearly propaganda bigging up its hero, but there is a germ of truth there too.  William was one of the stalwarts and one of the few people capable of repairing the hole in the fabric. 
Although in his 70’s William took on the job of regent to the young Henry III and reissued Magna Carta, removing or moderating the clauses that were proving to be sticking points, and gradually drawing everyone back into the fold and dealing with the French both by battle at Lincoln and Sandwich in 1217 and by diplomacy in making a peace treaty with Prince Louis of France. 

William’s role as caretaker of the realm and of the young Henry III came to an end when he fell ill in either late 1218 or early 1219 and was borne home to his manor of Caversham to slowly die as winter turned to spring and spring looked toward summer.  In fact yesterday (14th May)  was the anniversary of his death. Here too the Young King Henry III was brought to William’s sickbed and the words uttered about the ‘wicked ancestor.’

To sum up the relationship between William Marshal and King John, I would say that it was one of reciprocity that at times faltered because of ambition and suspicion, but was weathered by the diplomacy of the Marshal.  The latter had no love or even liking for his liege lord, but he had a wider loyalty to the monarchy, a pattern perhaps set in his own childhood by his father’s sacrifices at Wherwell and Newbury, and then his own early service to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Young King. It was a default in the Marshal that wasn’t to translate to his sons and their relationship with Henry III.   

Were I to compare the Marshal with a modern day political leader, I’d have to say Nelson Mandela. What strikes me is their ability to cut through the personal dislikes and past injuries to see the big picture and do their best for national stability.  

Re-enactment photographs courtesy of Rosemary Watson.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A GOOD END: The last days of William Marshal.

The 14th of May marks the anniversary of the death of William Marshal, who departed this world at noon in the year 1219 at his manor of Caversham near Reading, surrounded by friends in the clergy and his grieving family.  It was a sad occasion as all such are, but for William, it was also what was known in the Medieval period as a 'good end.'  He had had time to make his will and dispose of his wealth as he saw fit. He had settled all of his affairs and made his peace with God, and prepared inasmuch as he could for the afterlife.  Unlike many of the men he had served, Henry the Young King, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and John, he was ending his life in a dignified and peaceful way having lived to a ripe age.

A biographical poem of just under 20,000 lines written in Anglo Norman shortly after his death gives us a moving and full account of the last months of his life.  And if William Marshal was an exemplar of how to live one's life in honour, then his death was a blueprint of how to exit the world.

William Marshal was in his seventy second year or thereabouts, when in the February of 1219 and Regent of England for the underage King Henry III,  he became unwell with illness and pain. For all of his life he had enjoyed robust health, so this was an unsettling portent for him. He may have had a few indicators before this as he validated less acts of government from the November of 1218 onwards.  Arriving on horseback at the tower of London he sent for various doctors to attend him, but they told him there was nothing they could do and he was going to die.  He took the news stoically and broke it to his son and his household - even trying to comfort them despite his pain.  His wife Isabelle was with him at the time and clearly distraught, but determined to give him every support.

William  decided that if he was going to die it would be at his favourite and beautiful manor at Caversham on the Thames near Reading, and not in the city of London 'which was unhealthy and only added to the great pain he was in. 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.'
click to enlarge to show the site of Caversham. Nothing of the manor remains
today but there is a stately home on the site now used by the BBC monitoring service.
William and Isabelle were rowed up the Thames to Caversham. Their journey was smooth and untroubled, and he settled in to the home where he was to die.  Once there, he asked those who were governing the country on behalf of the young king Henry III, to come to him so that he could officially hand over the reins. They all gathered at his bedside, including the young king and the papal legate.  William informed the 11 year old Henry III that he could no longer serve him because he was dying and others needed to take over.  There was some squabbling about who should have this role, but William was still strong enough to push through the quarrel and settle the matter to the obedience, if not entire satisfaction of all those present. Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester had to be put in his place,   It was also at this time that William warned the young Henry III that if he were to follow in the footsteps of a certain 'wicked ancestor'  then he wished him a speedy death.  Here, at his own dying, we get the truth about what William Marshal really felt about King John.

The matter attended to and the burden of government relinquished, William turned his thoughts to making his will, providing futures and guidance for his children, and then to spiritual matters. At first, he was going to leave his youngest son Ancel, still a child, to make his own way in the world as a knight errant when he grew up, but he was persuaded by his former squire and now close friend and adviser John of Earley to give Ancel land worth £140 to support himself. This may of course have been a literary device to show how William's men had an influence on him when it came to giving advice. William was also concerned about his youngest daughter Joanna because he had not yet arranged her marriage, but he settled some money and land on her too.

His immediate family affairs sorted, William asked John of Earley to go to Stephen D'Evereux in Netherwent, Wales, and bring him to him the lengths of silk cloth that he had been keeping in store there.  It was a long journey and   John rode hard, "travelling far greater distances each day than is usual' returning with the cloths as fast as he could.
When he presented the cloth, at first people thought it was a little faded, but when it was opened out it was discovered to be "very fine and valuable choice cloth of good workmanship.'  William had had these two pieces for 30 years. He had brought them back from the Holy Land with him and had always intended them to be used for the purpose of draping over his body when he was laid in the ground. They were to be his shroud. At this point he told everyone that he wished to be buried at the Temple church. He told those around him that "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.'  He also told them that if the weather was bad, they were to buy lengths of coarse grey cloth (known as burel) with which to cover the silk so that it would not become damaged or dirtied by damp weather. The grey cloth was then to be given in charity. His instructions caused those around him, including his son to "weep pitifully." Seeing the pain he was in, his eldest son gave instructions that his father was to have a constant guard around him. Someone was to be with him always. Relays of three knights would keep vigil at all times. As well as the knights there were other youths and gentlemen to help out - one supposes to take care of William's bodily functions. His son said that he would take the night watch together with John of Earley and Thomas Basset.

decorative door pillar at the Temple Church
Letters were sent to the Templars. William's will was witnessed and sent to executors including the bishops of Winchester and Salisbury. Aimery de Saint-Maur, master of the Templars in England arrived at Caversham to see William. William announced to his family that it had been some time since he had pledged himself to the Temple, and now he wished to become a monk in the order. He told Geoffrey his almoner to go to the wardrobe and bring a cloak from it. It was a Templar cloak that he had had made more than a year ago and had kept in his possession without telling anyone.
Taking Templar vows meant that he could no longer have any physical contact with women. 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.'  Isabelle was distraught, and both she and William wept as they kissed and said a final farewell to embraces of any kind.

Shortly after William had taken his Templar vows, Aimery de Saint Maur departed back to London, but died there soon after arriving. William was not told of his death in case it aggravated his condition, but the outcome was that he and Aimery would be laid side-by-side in the church, companions in death as they had been in life.

William's own condition deteriorated to the point where he could no longer eat or drink beyond a few mushrooms. His men even tried rubbing  white bread crumbs in his hand but that didn't work. To all intents and purposes William had stopped eating.  Even so it was to be another fortnight before he died. During this time of suffering he had a discussion with one of his men, Henry FitzGerold, The latter was concerned that the Marshal might not be granted a place in heaven because of all the tourney prizes and wealth he had won. The Marshal was having none of this and said that the church shaved people to closely. He had taken the ransoms of 500 knights and kept their arms, horses and all their equipment. He couldn't do anything about it now, and if that was the case then no man could find salvation.

At this time, William's daughters visited him.Everyone else was in the room, including the Marshal's son, William, who was sitting in front of his bed. William said that he wanted to tell them all a surprising thing. John of Earley said he would like to hear it, providing it was not going to wear the Marshal out. William then said that he had a great urge to sing, an urge he had not had in three years. When John said that he should do so and it would be good for him, William told him to be quiet because everyone would think he was a madman, and he refused to sing.  So John said it would be a good idea if William's daughters sang to him, (I like John. I can imagine him thinking of ways round the problem of getting a dying man perhaps slightly querulous with pain to do what he really wants but is holding back).   The daughters rose to the task magnificently, especially Matilda even though she was distraught at her father's condition.  When it came to little Joanna's turn she was shy, and now William, who had loved music all his life, found a spark. He told her not to be bashful when she sang because she would not perform well. "Don't be bashful when you sing, for if you are, you will not perform well and the words will not come across in the right way.' And then he taught her how to sing by doing so himself.  This to me says more than anything how much William loved music, how important it was to him, that he would sing on his deathbed even when in great pain. And he still cared enough to want it to be done right!

William continued to make plans for his funeral in his last days. He instructed his son to stay close to his corpse on the road so that he could distribute alms to the poor, and to give food and drink, clothes and shoes to a hundred of the poor in William's name.

William's friend the Abbot of Notely arrived to give succour to William and tell him that his brethren were praying for him, and William promised the Abbot's order money from his will.  William was still aware enough and lively enough to tell off one of his own clerks. William had had made some garments for his knights to give as gifts. John of Earley asked what he should do with the ones that were upstairs with their fur trimmings because no one had mentioned them. The clerk Philip suggested that they could be sold to deliver William of his sins. William told him to hold his tongue, that he'd had enough of his bad advice, and that his knights would have their robes at Whitsuntide. It was the last time he would ever be able to give them robes, even posthumously, and he wasn't having some upstart clerk tell him what to do. He immediately ordered John of Earley to distribute the robes and if there weren't enough to go around to obtain more from the warehouse in London.

While the family were trying to get William to eat something, he told them that he had had a vision. He had seen two men in white, one on his right, one on his left. The feeling was that these were two angels who had arrived to show William the right path.

On the Tuesday before Ascension Day, at midday, William Marshal died. His family had thought him sleeping, but when his son William came to speak to him, he found him in his last moments of life.  John of Earley did his best to revive him with rosewater, but it was plain that William was beyond that. The doors and windows were flung open and the household hastily assembled, everyone rushing to the room including Countess Isabelle.  A cross was placed in William's hands, and he died, surrounded by his family and household on a green spring morning. The first thought is that it is not a good time to die in the heart of a beautiful English spring, but perhaps, really, it is the perfect moment.

 William's body was prepared and mass was sung with him in his own personal chapel at Caversham.  Isabelle was so distraught that she could barely hold herself together during the singing of the mass.
William's body was then taken to rest in Reading Abbey, then to Staines. Along the way the funeral cortege was met by the Earl of Warrene and the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Gloucester and many others.
William was borne to the Temple church where a candlelit vigil was ordered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton.
Exterior of the Temple Church London

  "The Archbishop ordered the vigil to commence and. as was right, the vigil around the body was accompanied by a magnificent display of candles and a magnificent service, well sung and well read, and there were clerics singing psalms whose efforts were not wasted.'

The following day the funeral was held and Stephen Langton received great praise for his eloquence and the finesse of his words.  William was buried as he had wished in front of the cross beside his friend Aimery de Saint Maur.

  'When the body was on the point of being interred, the archbishop said 'See, my lords, how it is with this life: when each and every one of us comes to his end, there is no sense to be found in us, for we are then nothing but so much earth. Look there, see, the best knight to be found in all the world in our times. And in God's name what will you say then? All of us must come to this, it is an inescapable fact that each of us must die when his day comes. Just look at this exemplar here, ours as well as yours. Let each man say the Lord's Prayer, entreating God to receive this Christian soul into his realms in heaven, to sit in glory alongside his own, for we believe this man to have been a good man."

Today, almost 800 years since William Marshal's death the lines of the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal tell the incredibly moving story of William Marshal's final fight that ended not in defeat but in an embracing humility and acceptance. The subject matter is one man's dying, but I am never depressed when I read it. It may bring me to tears, but I am always exalted and uplifted and determined to live my life in better ways.

Hale William Marshal, but not farewell.