William the Marshal is one of the men responsible for the Magna Carta as we now know it. His seal is on the re-issuing of the charter in 1217 by Henry III, in his role as Regent for the king. His statue stands in the House of Lords behind the monarch’s throne defending the monarchy as he did in life. Earlier this year we watched a programme that was a biography of him, which rather surprisingly wasn’t part of the Magna Carta anniversary programmes that the BBC put on to coincide with 800 years (since the charter was first signed) as it was first aired in early 2014. The programme was presented by Thomas Ashbridge whose series on the Crusades we’d previously been less than impressed with (post). This programme was rather good, tho 🙂
After William the Marshal’s death his family commissioned a biography of him in verse form, which still survives. The text is in Norman French as one might expect for a member of the nobility of the time. Ashbridge opened the programme by showing us this book and telling us a little about it. Of course, as he said, it’s not all to be taken as literally true – it’s primary purpose is to demonstrate what an illustrious ancestor the family had. I assume Ashbridge used other sources to corroborate the information in the programme, but he didn’t say what those were.
William was born during the Anarchy, the civil war between the Empress Mathilda and Stephen de Blois. He was the second son of a minor noble and his father was on Mathilda’s side – or at least, not on Stephen’s. When William was 4 he was taken hostage by Stephen’s forces and Stephen attempted to win a seige of William’s father’s stronghold by threatening to kill the child. William’s father was not cowed by this threat, replying that he had the equipment to make more sons and leaving William to his fate. Clearly Stephen was bluffing, as William survived the encounter! You can’t help but think it must’ve been pretty traumatic, tho – it included William being paraded back & forth in front of the castle whilst his life was threatened.
In his adolescence he went across the channel to France to a relative of his mother’s to train as a knight. Ashbridge pointed out that during this time period the cross-channel connections for the nobility were still very strong and this would not be like going to a different country. Knights were a pretty new part of the culture and warfare of the time, and the stirrup was the new cutting edge technology of the day. It was a role that was really only available to the nobility, as you had to have an expensive horse. Ashbridge talked a bit about knights in general, and also showed some representations of them from this era. They were reminiscent of the Lewis Chessmen and of Norse berserker imagery – which isn’t entirely a surprise given the origins of the Normans. I think I hadn’t expected it to be quite noticeable in depictions of knights, because the mental image I have of “a knight” is from a later more courtly era.
The biography of William creates an image of a somewhat greedy and lazy teenager during these years (it’s not entirely a hagiography)! But once he was knighted (perhaps on the eve of battle, I can’t remember what Ashbridge said) he began to win a name for himself in tourneys. These are not the stylised and formal affairs of the later high medieval period, instead they are wide-ranging fairly brutal fights between groups of knights. The primary aim to was to capture some of the opposing side, who you could then ransom for a nice little cash bonus. William’s biography tries to claim he was only interested in honour and victory, but it does also mention his accountant who kept track of the ransoms he was paid. So clearly William was also interested in the money to be made, and made sufficient to employ someone to look after it for him!
William entered the court of Henry the Young King via Henry’s mother Eleanor of Acquitaine. (Henry the Young King was the eldest son of Henry II and Eleanor, and was crowned in his father’s lifetime.) William was part of his master’s entourage escorting Eleanor somewhere when they were ambushed. Most of the escort died but William and the other survivors managed to fight off the enemy forces for long enough for Eleanor to escape. He was captured, but once she was in safety she ransomed him and brought him to court. Once in the Young King’s court he rises to prominence as the best knight at court.
The politics of the court is a perilous game for William to negotiate, particularly with his status as the best knight. His biography states that at one point he is exiled due to a whispering campaign about himself and the Young King’s wife with hints that perhaps there was some degree of truth to it. This sounds very Lancelot & Guinevere, and may be a complete work of fantasy on the biographer’s part – after all by the time the text was written all the protagonists were safely dead so no offence could be given by a bit of nudge-nudge-wink-wink-the-queen-fancied-him. This was one point in particular where I wish Ashbridge had brought in other sources and talked about how plausible this was in terms of historical fact. He did talk to another historian who made the point that the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere love triangle story reflects a very real anxiety of a Prince of that era. Court society at the time had a combination of a meritocracy of sorts (the knights) and a hereditary monarchy – the King or Prince was unlikely to be both the son of the right man and the best knight in his court. And if prowess at knighthood is the definition of the perfect man, then why wouldn’t the King’s wife be attracted to the best knight?
The next phase of William’s life is in the Holy Land as a Crusader. This is just before the time of Saladin and Richard III. Obviously Richard III is not yet in the Holy Land – he is Henry the Young King’s younger brother and didn’t go on Crusade until around the time he became King after both Henry II and Henry the Young King’s deaths. However Saladin is one of the key players at this stage. Not much is known about William’s time as a Crusader, other than that it happened – however he seems to’ve done well at it, and increased his reputation.
William then returns to Henry the Young King’s court, where he remains until the Young King’s death in 1183. He then enters the service of the Young King’s father, Henry II. Again he rises to prominence as the best knight at court. Henry II gives him an heiress to marry, and grants him lands – William is now a baron, a member of the landed aristocracy with a household and a retinue of knights of his own. Not bad for the second son of a minor noble. William remains a loyal servant of Henry II’s until the very end – in the last rebellion of Richard I (Richard Coeur de Lion) against Henry II William fought on Henry’s side. The biography says that at one point he was fighting one-to-one against Richard, and had the opportunity to kill him but at the last moment turned his lance aside and killed Richard’s horse instead. When Henry II died during this rebellion (although not directly by violence) William remained loyal even after death – Henry’s other servants fled, taking what they could, but William remained to see to Henry’s proper burial.
It might’ve been thought that Richard I would exile or otherwise punish William as he had fought against Richard during the rebellion. However Richard saw William’s actions as the honourable actions of a knight – he had remained loyal to his lord, and even after death did not dishonour his memory. And so William entered Richard’s service, and was subsequently a member of King John’s court when he in turn inherited the throne.
When John died in 1215 William was an old man in his mid-70s, and had pretty much retired from the life of the court. At the time of John’s death the country was in a perilous state – civil war was raging and the French King’s son had invaded (with the support of much of the English nobility) and ruled over half the country. Despite William’s age it was to him that the new King, Henry III a boy of 9 years old, turned. When he flung himself on William’s mercy William pledged to serve him despite the risks of failure because that was what his honour demanded. If William and the new King had failed to prevail in the civil war then William wasn’t just risking death, he was also risking the ruin of his family and household. And even at the end of his life he lived up to his reputation – he rallied support to the new King, he turned around the civil war and drove out the French. He was Regent for Henry III until his death in 1219, and as I said at the beginning of this post his seal is on Henry III’s first re-issuance of the Magna Carta.
This was a really interesting programme – I didn’t know much about William the Marshal before, although I knew the name, so I learnt lot from it.