Monday 24 October 2016

William Marshal and the immediate aftermath of The Death of King John By Elizabeth Chadwick

Newark Castle today
On the dark and stormy night of October 18th 1216, King John died at Newark Castle, a couple of months short of his 50th birthday.

His reign had been a troubled one for the country and seldom politically joyous. On his watch the vast swathes of land that had been ruled by his father and his brother Richard, and that  constituted the 'Angevin Empire' had mostly been lost to the French.  John had quarreled with the Church and his barons, alienating both so badly that at one point he was under threat of excommunication from the former and facing an overthrow by the latter. By the time he died John had managed to mend fences with the clergy and put himself and the realm under papal protection, but his situation with the barons was still extremely precarious and the previous year had seen John forced to put his seal to the Magna Carta, a charter of demands and curbs, which he regarded as flagrant infringement on many of his royal prerogatives, and which he rejected the moment he left the table. When he died, England was in a state of civil war. The rebellious barons had invited Louis, son of the French king Philippe, to come to their aid and become King of England.  John died in the middle of a war to hold onto his throne, bring his rebel barons to heel and oust Louis from the country.

His heir was his nine-year-old son Henry, and given the situation at the time of his father's death, there was no guarantee that the child would grow up to claim his inheritance. However, he did have some staunch supporters on his side including the great magnate William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke who was about 70 years old when John died.  William had risen from the moderate nobility to great heights by dint of his strong military abilities as both a fighter and a commander, his can-do, amiable but ambitious personality, and his ethos of absolute loyalty to whoever he served.  Consistently rewarded by his Angevin masters, William was liked and respected by the majority of the English barons whatever their faction, and had useful diplomatic ties at most of the courts in Europe, as well as the ear of the Templars, whose ranks he was to join on his deathbed.

William Marshal's tomb effigy at the Temple Church, London.
William Marshall had had his own difficulties with King John during the reign even to the point of having his two sons taken hostage by John who suspected William of plotting behind his back. William, however, had weathered the King's paranoia, caused in part by  some moments of questionable judgement from William himself. Nevertheless, the bonds held and during the crises that swamped John in the latter part of his reign, William came to his rescue and remained staunch. William possessed the advantage of having friends and connections on both sides of the divide. He had close relatives in the rebel camp - his son-in-law Hugh Bigod for example and his own son William. But he also had good working relationships with the barons still backing John as well as the important members of the clergy including Stephen Langton Archbishop of Canterbury.

William was not at King John's death bed in Newark; he was in Gloucester, keeping an eye on the Welsh Marches, but his nephew John Marshal was attending at the King's bedside and William was quickly apprised of the King's final illness by a swift messenger.  William immediately set out from Gloucester and rode to meet the King's body which was being borne the 100 or so miles from Newark to be buried at Worcester as per the instructions in John's will.
William is known to have sent to a royal storehouse to obtain palls to cover the bier and the tomb, thus helping to make the King's burial a regal and dignified occasion despite the difficulties of civil war.  Around this time he also sent a household knight of King John's called Thomas of Sandford, (his younger brother Hugh was one of the Marshal's inner core of knights)  to Devizes to fetch John's 9 year old heir, Henry, who was in the castle there with his mother, Isabelle of Angouleme.

tomb of King John, Worcester Cathedral
Once King John had been interred in Worcester Cathedral between the tombs of Saint Wulfstan and saint Oswald following 'a magnificent funeral service', the mourners, including William Marshal and the papal legate Gualo Bicchieri, returned to Gloucester some thirty miles away, there to decide what to do with a country at civil war and cast adrift.  William Marshal, together with other barons and churchmen had been appointed arbiters and administrator of John's will.

A meeting was held at Gloucester on October 27th, eleven days after the King's death. The Earl of Chester was summoned to it, since he had not been present at the funeral and was reckoned one of the most important men of the realm and a firm supporter of the former king. The barons who had remained loyal to John were also summoned to Gloucester.

William Marshal then set out straight away to join up with the party bringing John's son to Gloucester and met him not far from Malmesbury.  William greeted the young lad and according to William Marshal's biography, the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal (which should be read with caution but in its broad brush strokes is true), swore his oath of loyalty to the child, who placed himself in his care.

The young soon to be king was brought to Gloucester and a debate was held whether to hold back the coronation until the Earl of Chester arrived or perform it there and then.  The decision was taken to crown young Henry immediately because the sooner he was anointed, the less chance and validation the opposition would have for filling the empty throne with their own candidate the Dauphin Louis of France whom they had already unofficially appointed as their sovereign.

Gualo Bicchieri. papal legate crowns
 the 9 year old Henry III. Matthew Paris
The boy was duly prepared for his coronation and William Marshal dubbed him a knight, which was deemed an essential part of the ritual.  Young Henry was 'dressed in his child-size robes of state; he was a fine little knight.'  The barons there bore him into the abbey of St Peter where he was anointed and crowned by the Papal Legate.  Supposedly much of the royal regalia had been lost during the crossing of the Wellstream Estuary shortly before King John's death when the baggage train had foundered. How true this actually is, is open to conjecture, but whatever the reason, supposedly the boy had to be dressed from what his mother had to hand, including a golden coronet of her own rather than anything that had belonged to King John.
Following the coronation, the new King Henry III was borne from the abbey and taken to a room to be divested of his coronation robes which were 'very heavy' and somewhat lighter robes were found for him to wear.

As the men were sitting down to the coronation feast, serious news arrived that Goodrich Castle was under siege from the Welsh. William Marshal sent soldiers and crossbow men to deal with the matter, but it enhanced everyone's feelings of insecurity and it was decided that rather than wait for the Earl of Chester to arrive, a leader needed to be chosen to rule the country as Regent for the young King right now. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, which as aforementioned, puts its hero, William Marshal in a very positive light, says that everyone immediately turned to William and asked him to take responsibility. It may not have been as immediate as that and William may have been more eager for the job than the Histoire makes out but the fact remains that someone had to take a leadership role and William Marshal was the man best suited. 
The Histoire gives us a very moving and detailed account of that decision and its aftermath. William at first refused the job because he said he was too old. However, he retired to deliberate with his men about what he should do because he acknowledged that 'it is is a difficult task to carry out the role of Governor.' His men advised him to take the job. 'People say that a man who does not finish what he set out to achieve has reached only the point where his efforts are totally in vain, and that he has wasted his time. Do it, for God will assist you and much honour will accrue to you.'   However, one of his closest companions , John D'Earley, was concerned for the state of the Marshal's health because he was ageing, and the new young King  had very few resources to fight his enemies. He believed that the pain and trouble involved would take a heavy toll on his lord.

The Marshal decided to wait until the morning and ponder the details overnight. In the meantime the Earl of Chester arrived and the candidacy for the role of Regent was contested between these two men. Discussions between the nobles ensued and it became clear that William Marshall was the man that the majority desired to follow. Although the Earl of Chester was later to protest to the Pope about this ( a fact not mentioned in the Histoire for obvious reasons). The Pope turned down the Earl of Chester's protest, saying that 'power prefers no partner.'

Although William Marshal was elected Regent, the Histoire tells us that he was still a little concerned about what he had taken on - and had apparently only done so when granted remission for his sins.  Finally persuaded, he retired to a private chamber and there called his men together again and voiced his doubts. He said to them:

'Give me your help and advice, for, by the faith I owe you,I have embarked upon the open sea, where no man, wherever he sails or wherever he sounds the depths, can find a bottom or shore,and from which it is a miracle if he reaches port and a safe haven. But may God, if it please him, sustain me! I have been entrusted with this task, which is already close to coming to grief, as you know and sense. And the child has no wealth, which is very damaging and a source of grief to me, and I am myself an old man.' Then his heart became full to overflowing and his eyes began to fill with tears. Tears streamed down his face, and those present there, who loved him and were entirely devoted to him, began to weep out of pity for him. And he, after looking up, said 'Have you no more to say than this?'

His men rallied round after this and assured him  that whatever happened, great honour would come to him from the task he had taken on. William did the equivalent of bracing his shoulders, taking a stiff drink, and wiping his eyes, left the room to get on with the job of ruling England, reuniting its people,dealing with the French and repairing the economy so that at least it worked after a fashion. By re-issuing a revised version of Magna Carta which was to enter the statute books for posterity he also laid the groundwork for the nation to go forward.

Come the moment, come the man.  I quite often ask myself these days 'What would William Marshall do?'  or 'Where is William Marshal when you need him?'

Select Sources:
Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal vols II and III Edited by A.J. Holden with English translation by S. Gregory and historical notes by D.Crouch.  Quotes in Italics are from the Histoire in Translation.

William Marshal 3rd Edition by David Crouch

King John: Treachery and Tyranny And the Road to Magna Carta by Marc Morris

The Minority of Henry III by David Carpenter

Elizabeth Chadwick is currently writing a novel titled TEMPLAR SILKS about William Marshal's missing years on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 1183 and 1186.  Her latest novels pictured below cover the life story of Eleanor of Aquitaine.


Unknown said...

Reading Elizabeth's works concerning the lives of John Marshall and his son William is a journey of discovery well worth the taking. Elizabeth captures perfectly the historical significance of William Marshall's embodiment of the chivalrous knight who rose to the challenges of service to his God, king, family, and country. Elizabeth's love and devotion to her subject matter comes through loud and clear to her readers.

Unknown said...

Reading Elizabeth's works concerning the lives of John Marshall and his son William is a journey of discovery well worth the taking. Elizabeth captures perfectly the historical significance of William Marshall's embodiment of the chivalrous knight who rose to the challenges of service to his God, king, family, and country. Elizabeth's love and devotion to her subject matter comes through loud and clear to her readers.

James said...

Good piece! Sorry this is a little off topic but as this is a history blog you might find this video on why the Russian revolution happened of interest