|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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.