Tuesday 30 April 2019

April Competition

To win a copy of Jake Lynch's Blood on the Stone (see yesterday's guest post) just answer the following question in Comments:

“What howlers, anachronisms such as the ones Jake avoided, have you found in a published book?”
Then email your answer to me at maryhoffman@maryhoffman.co.uk so I can get in touch with you in you win.

Closing date 7th May

We are sorry our competitions are open only to UK Followers

Monday 29 April 2019

Blood on the Stone by Jake Lynch

Our guest for March is one of our rare "History Boys," Jake Lynch.

Photo credit: The University of Sydney
This is what Jake says of himself:

Jake Lynch is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, and the author of seven books and over 50 refereed articles and book chapters. Over 20 years, he has pioneered both research and practice in the field of Peace Journalism, for which he was recognised with the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, awarded by the Schengen Peace Foundation. He has held Fellowships at the Universities of Johannesburg, Bristol and Cardiff, where he read English Literature and got a Diploma in Journalism Studies. His PhD was from City University, London. Before taking up an academic post, Jake enjoyed a successful career in journalism, with spells as a Political Correspondent for Sky News at Westminster and the Sydney correspondent for the Independent newspaper, culminating in a role as a presenter (anchor) for BBC World Television News. Jake divides his time between Australia and Oxford, where he performs in amateur dramatic productions and runs a local book group. He is married with a teenaged son.

Website: www.jakelynch.co.uk 

Welcome, Jake! 

From fact to fiction

From Boar’s Hill, the poet Matthew Arnold gazed down on Oxford – a prospect that inspired his poem, Thyrsis, with its famous image of “that sweet city with her dreaming spires.” The land was acquired in the first ever purchase by the Oxford Preservation Trust, to ensure the view could never be built out. The final components of Arnold’s skyline were the Georgian Radcliffe Camera, built to house a collection of scientific books, and Tom Tower, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and erected on the St Aldate’s side of Christ Church College, beginning in 1681.

Its transfer from blueprint to physical shape was, therefore, in the planning stage when King Charles II brought the English Parliament to Oxford, earlier in that same year. By then, however, the city’s masons were running short of the limestone whose distinctive pallor imparts the “fugitive and gracious light” celebrated in Arnold’s verse. Headington quarry was all but worked out. Intrigues over building material were a notorious source of local disputes. And they take an imaginative turn to enter the plot of Blood on the Stone, my fiction debut: an historical mystery thriller just published by Unbound Books.

The hero is Luke Sandys, Chief Officer of the Oxford Bailiffs, and the nearest equivalent in the period to a modern-day detective. At the behest of Bishop John Fell, the Dean of Christ Church who commissioned Wren’s Gothic masterpiece, Luke and his deputy, Robshaw, agree to escort a gang of workmen to the ruins of Osney Abbey. From there, Fell hopes to recycle stone from the old walls and cloisters. Their visit is interrupted by Robshaw’s encounter with a ghost. So he believes, anyway – but, as he is suffering a bout of marsh fever at the time, Luke is sceptical.

To choose Oxford as the setting for a novel is to enjoy opportunities for lyrical description – and for on-foot research in areas of the city that have scarcely changed in many centuries. Looking down from horseback on the way across Osney Meadow, Luke notices the snake’s heads, Oxford’s signature flowers, “turning their gorgeously purpled gaze demurely downwards.” The blooms can still be seen today, at this time of year (the picture is from the Thames at Iffley).
In another passage, I try my hand at emulating the many writers who have adapted Arnold’s image and made it their own. From the opening of Chapter One: “It had been one of those Oxford mornings when mist seems to percolate from domes and spires, as if they had been dreamed into existence overnight, and were about to fade away.” I snapped the Bodleian library, with the Sheldonian theatre behind it, in conditions of typical honey-tinged haze.
The Oxford novelist also takes on significant pressures of reader expectation. Never mind Victorian poets – there are plenty more recent literary giants on whose shoulders one is aware of standing. The best-known tradition is, of course, high fantasy – with the outstanding Philip Pullman picking up where the ‘Inklings’, Tolkien and CS Lewis, left off. Then, undergraduate days have inspired such classics as Gaudy Night and Brideshead Revisited. Following Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels is a rich array of gritty, modern-day detective stories. Oddly, though, for a place so steeped in its own sense of history, there are relatively few historical novels: Iain Pears’ clever An Instance of the Fingerpost being an exception that proves the rule.

At any rate, the deep reservoir of local knowledge among the city’s inhabitants underscores the duty to accuracy. There would be no shortage of readers to correct the erring writer! One may take the occasional liberty with the historical record, but only insofar as the ‘feel’ is right. “The past is not dead ground”, Hilary Mantel observed, in a BBC Reith Lecture some years ago; “and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise… the past changes every time we retell it.” The political tensions building as MPs gathered in Oxford in 1681 were real enough, even though my murder victim, William Harbord MP – leader of an extremist group agitating for a ‘crackdown’ on Catholics – quit the city, in real life, with body and soul still together.

John Radcliffe, whose bequest funded the Camera, only actually qualified as a doctor a year after the events of Blood on the Stone, but to have him treating patients, and for that to play a part in the plot, was irresistible – especially given his enduring renown in Oxford, where the local hospital is also named after him. And I don’t actually know whether stone from Osney Abbey ended up in Tom Tower, but it must have gone somewhere: the ruins shrank from the still-substantial structure of the seventeenth century, depicted on the book’s cover, to the single surviving wall of today.

I only just pulled back from the brink of committing some potentially embarrassing mistakes to print. These included anachronistic words. Seeking a metaphor to convey the dangerous qualities, at the time, of non-conformist religious ideas, I described a book on Luke’s office shelf as “theological cordite” – only to realise, just in time, that cordite was not invented until the nineteenth century. There were a few like that. And my blessed editor at Unbound spotted that I was sending the King to watch a performance, at the Sheldonian Theatre, of Christopher Marlowe’s bloodthirsty Tamburlaine the Great: a production so incendiary that it would never pass the censor. In actuality, the court was treated to a bowdlerised version, Tamerlane the Great, by the justly-forgotten Charles Saunders, instead.

In Blood on the Stone, Luke and Robshaw must solve Harbord’s murder before it can be used to ratchet up the sectarian fury of the mob. They must rely on evidence, logical deduction and due process. For those to be set against the bombast of powerful interests, fomenting and exploiting divisions for political gain, is a pattern of many historical detective novels – and, perhaps, one that is of enduring importance in other contexts, in our own time as well.

Sunday 28 April 2019

Beaches and Bombers - by Ruth Downie

North Devon's 'Pages of the Sea' event, Saunton Sands, 2018
Pages of the Sea was a chain of gatherings on beaches across the UK to commemorate the end of the First World War. This summer we’ll see more events on Saunton Sands: this time to honour the soldiers who trained there for the D-Day landings seventy-five years ago.

All this is distant history for my generation, but to my grandparents the First World War was a living memory. The Second World War was a formative part of my parents’ childhood, and it affected them in ways that were impossible to predict.

In 1939 my father was 12 years old, and living in Ilfracombe, a small town just along the coast from the beach in the photo. Sifting through typescript of his unedited memoirs, I came across his account of the chaotic early days of the war, and the unexpected effect they had on his family’s fortunes:
"The day war was declared… all our plans were thwarted, for the air raid siren sounded shortly afterwards, and remembering Stanley Baldwin’s dictum that 'The bomber will always get through' we made our way down to what was then regarded as the safest place in the house - the coal cellar under the stairs. Remember this was early September; we obviously had not bought in the winter coal supply.

"Father was a Sergeant in the local Special Constabulary and so donned his uniform replete with steel helmet, and went off on duty. Mother prayed with us for his safety, and with gas masks at the ready, we awaited a visit from the mighty Luftwaffe.

"Now, of course, it all seems ridiculous. It transpired that the sirens had sounded everywhere (we were all going to get bombed at the same time!). Ridiculous now, but assuredly not then. The whole nation was on tenterhooks, and the authorities were too. It later turned out that a lone aircraft was detected coming into Croydon airport (or ‘aerodrome’ as they were known then) bringing some French military people to London for a conference. Nerves were taut, and off went the sirens. As for us, in obedience to orders, thereafter we kept a stirrup pump and buckets of sand and water in the hall to deal with incendiary bombs. Thus ended our first experience of the war.
'The little town of Ilfracombe changed almost overnight.'
"The little town of Ilfracombe changed almost overnight. Evacuees poured into town by rail - not only children. Thousands of adults left London and other big cities determined to avoid air raids, and the indiscriminate use of gas. Some had obviously made arrangements with relatives, but most simply packed a few belongings, got on the train, and started knocking on doors when they arrived. My parents took in a lady called Miss T— and a Mr and Mrs B—, also from the capital. They turned out to be a Jewish couple hailing originally I think from Russia.

"The holiday season had not yet ended. The town was already full with visitors. Many expected them to return home immediately war was declared, but very few did. They probably thought that this could be their last holiday for some time, and determined to make the most of it.

"In addition to those who were were evacuated here (many of the children came, not as individuals, but with their school), there also descended on the town an influx of troops. Among the first to arrive was a cavalry unit, equipped now with tanks, yet still, strangely being issued with riding breeches. The tanks, or rather their drivers, found Ilfracombe’s narrow streets difficult to cope with. I remember one turning down into our road from the High Street, and taking a lump out of the kerb in the process.

You'll have to imagine the narrow streets in this blurry pic from 1949.
"The breeches were ghastly. Shapeless, baggy and not at all smart. At this point we will leave the tanks and follow the breeches, for reasons which will become apparent.

"Now that we were at war, my father thought it might be an appropriate time to renew links with his old Regiment. The reason for this was that he could see no future for the business he had started. Stock would be difficult to acquire. The ‘season’ wherein most of the business was done was at the least, uncertain. A return to the Army seemed a much more certain means of employment.
A more certain means of employment? 1916, my grandfather seated in the centre.
 "Accordingly, he wrote to the relevant authorities offering his services if required. He was then aged 44. He was asked to wait a while to see how the situation developed, and this is where the breeches come in.
"As I remarked, the aforesaid breeches were unsightly. Answer? Go to a tailor and ask him to ‘wing’ them. This process made them flare out in the right place (the thigh) and become tighter fitting around the seat and lower leg. The soldiers were delighted with the result; the news spread throughout the unit.

"The town was filling up rapidly with Service personnel, every one of whom wore a uniform, and very few of the uniforms fitted. Almost all needed something sewn on (different Regiments had ‘flashes’ of various colours) and many needed repairing or pressing.

"Thus it was that W.B. Hancock, Tailors and Outfitters, never looked back."
Extract from the unpublished memoirs of Bill Hancock, 1927-2014.
In later years Dad developed a passion for history and one of the periods that especially interested him was the Second World War. His memoirs bring alive not only the experiences of one family, but also the wider context of the upheaval going on around them at the time. 

Pages of the Sea, 2018

At its best, isn’t that what historical fiction does, too? 

Saturday 27 April 2019

May Day by Janie Hampton

'Bringing in branches at Maytime', from 
A Book of Hours by Jean Poyer, 1500

The first of May has been important in our family ever since my grandmother Rachel Gurney was born on that day in 1886. Two years later, her sister Richenda was also born on 1 May. Both survived into their 80s and enjoyed many shared birthday parties.
For over 30 years I have lived in Oxford, where May Morning has been celebrated since mediaeval times with garlands of greenery, dancing and music.
The new growth of Spring has been celebrated in Europe since ancient times: the Romans celebrated Floralia, the Celts observed Beltane, and Germanic peoples had Walpurgisnacht. The early Christian church incorporated the lively pagan traditions involved in  bringing in the May, but by 1250, the Chancellor of Oxford University felt the need to  forbid ‘alike in churches, all dancing in masks or with disorderly noises, and all processions of men wearing wreaths and garlands made of leaves of trees or flowers or what not.’ However Spring is Spring and not easily repressed, so by 1550 in Thame, the churchwardens had again bought fifteen yards of green and yellow fabric and bells to make coats for their Morris dancers. In Abingdon in 1566, the churchwardens‘paid for setting up Robin Hood’s bower, eighteen pence.’ ‘Church ales’, or festivals, were often used as  fund-raising events. The church financed the amusements and sold the ale. Profits then paid for the maintenance of the parish church, and  alms to the poor.
Philip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses (1583) describes how hundreds of people of all ages ran into the woods on May Eve and made merry all night. At dawn they returned with branches of trees, pulled by twenty or forty yoke of oxen, each with a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns. ‘Their chiefest jewel they bring home from thence is their Maypole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up with handkerchiefs and flags streaming on the top they straw the ground about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer houses, bowers and arbours hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it, as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their Idols.’

File:St. George's Kermis with the Dance around the Maypole by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.jpg
St. George's Kermis with the Dance around the Maypole', 
Pieter Breughel the Younger, 16th century. 
Note the drinking bower on the right  
In 1598 there was a May Day clash between Town and Gown in Oxford when youths, including the mayor's son William Furness, fought the University authorities. Nineteen years later, a group of  young men were found guilty of insulting the Mayor by dressing up on May Day.  William Stevenson an apprentice, Frost the cobbler, Peter Short the cutler, Tilcock the painter and Pigeon the chimney sweep were held in the stocks for two hours the next market day, with paper notices pinned to their hats describing their offences.
King James I was entertained by ‘Suites for morrice dancers all lyke with garters of bells’ on his first Royal Progress to Oxford in 1605. He described Maypoles and Morris dancing as ‘harmless recreation’ in his 1618 Book of Sports.
17th-century woodblock from the ballad sheet 'The May Day Country Mirth'
During Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate , May revels were shut down everywhere. In Oxford, Anthony Wood reported on May Day in 1648 . ‘ This day the Visitors, Mayor, and the chief officer of the well-affected of the University and City, spent in zealous persecuting of the young people that followed May-Games, by breaking of Garlands, taking away fiddles from Musicians, dispersing Morrice-Dancers, and by not suffering a green bough to be worn in a hat or stuck up at any door, esteeming it a superstition or rather an heathenish custom.’
With the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, May Games returned, to widespread public  rejoicing, and Wood reported, ‘the people of Oxon were so violent for Maypoles in opposition to the Puritans that there was numbered 12 Maypoles besides 3 or 4 morrises.’
However, to  Thomas Hall, Flora was a heathen goddess. He wrote in 1660, Funebria florae, the downfall of May-games, that Flora was ‘the whore of the city of Rome, in the county of Babylon’. She attracted a pack of ‘ignorants, atheists, papists, drunkards, swearers, swash-bucklers, maid-marions, morris dancers, maskers, mummers, may-pole stealers, health-drinkers, gamesters, lewd men and light women’.
By the late 17th Century, singing from church towers was widespread in Europe, and Oxford diarist Anthony Wood, recorded in 1695: ‘the choral ministers of this House do, according to an ancient custom, salute Flora every year on the first of May, at four in the morning, with vocal music of several parts. Which having been sometimes well performed, hath given great content to the neighbourhood and auditors underneath’. They then processed to St Bartholomew’s Hospital on Cowley Road, with ‘lords and ladies, garlands, fifes, flutes and drums to salute the great goddess Flora and to attribute her all praise with dancing and music.’ This was only abandoned after too many  clashes between Magdalen men and ‘the rabble of the town’.
Hornblowers accompany the May garland, from Hone's Table Book of 1827. 
During the 18th century, boys in Oxford blew horns early on May morning. In 1724, Thomas Hearne writes: ‘The custom of blowing them prevails at Oxford, to remind people of the pleasantness of that part of the Year, which ought to create Mirth and Gayety.’ ‘Whit-Horns’ were made from strips of willow bark wound into a funnel and fixed with hawthorn or blackthorn spines. The reed was made of bark and the mouthpiece pinched to create a primitive oboe. From about 1800, Oxford town boys blew their horns at the foot of Magdalen Tower to drown out the choristers.
May Day outside the parish church Great Tew, Oxfordshire, 1911.
The Victorians forgot about the pagan origins of May Day celebrations as they embraced the myth of Merrie Olde England. Three Victorian men helped popularise May Day: Alfred Tennyson with his poem The May Queen; William Holman Hunt with his painting May Morning on Magdalen Tower; and John Ruskin who taught trainer teachers May Day dances at Whitelands College in Chelsea.
By the early 20th Century when my granny Rachel married a vicar, choosing the May Queen was an important part of the parochial calendar. Once seen as a pagan goddess in human form, she was now chosen not for her beauty, but for her regular attendance at Sunday School!
Grand-daughters and great nieces celebrate Rachel and Richenda's
80th and 78th  birthdays, May 1 1968.  The author is on the far left. 
The people of Oxford still celebrate May Morning, starting at 6 a.m. with Magdalen College choir singing the 17th Century Hymnus Eucharisticus from the Great Tower. Church bells then peal out over the city for 20 minutes, and the carousing begins. In Broad Street the Whirly Band  play 'Rough Music'; Sol Samba perform on Magdalen Bridge; and Oxford's community street band Horns of Plenty in Queen’s Lane. Pubs and cafés are open from dawn.
An alternative May Day was started in 1972 by the sculptor Michael Black (1928-2019). His daughter Chess recalls, ‘Michael built a 30 ft high scaffold replica of Magdalen Tower. A full-size plaster ox was decorated with flowers and filled with beer. The Headington Morris men danced outside the Anchor Pub near Aristotle Bridge.Then the dancers came to a slap-up breakfast at Michael's house, cooked by us daughters! Much more drinking and singing followed.’ This year, there will be a wake for Michael in the form of more dancing, drinking and singing at dawn.

www.maymorning.co.uk   www.dailyinfo.co.uk/mayday


Friday 26 April 2019

A French Corner of Paradise, Carol Drinkwater

We are less than three weeks away from the publication of THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF. These days are always a little nerve-racking, because I am agitating about the book's future success. Will it live up to expectations in the eyes of the publisher etc. It is a time of interviews, preparing for readings, book-signings and writing short articles for magazines, newspapers. It was for one of these requests - the Irish Times - that I returned this week to the southern location of THE HOUSE ONTHE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, to where the house itself is set.

This time last year I had more or less completed the first draft of the novel but I was still not entirely happy with its location, which I had placed closer to where we live, in some unnamed destination along the Riviera between Nice and Italy. I am one of those writers who use location almost as another character. If the geographical context of the story does not feel right, I am not happy. And so it was with this novel, something was not quite falling into place, until my husband took me on a jaunt to Cassis, to the area known here as Les Calanques. The Creeks. I had visited here before but not since several years and certainly not with a novel in gestation.

It was love at first sight, you might say. I knew almost instantly that I had found the setting for my story and even more so when I began to learn about the neighbourhood. This region is a National Heritage site. For many months of the year it is fairly deserted. The tourists visit in their droves during the summer months. The landscape is very dramatic, even more so when a storm blows in. It boasts the highest maritime cliff in Europe.

Beneath the water's surface are underground caves, cave paintings, dramatic shifts in the level of the sea bed, and it can be very dangerous.

I had all I needed and I set to wok to relocate the location of 'my house on the cliff'. Moving house and characters west along the French Mediterranean coast.

I returned to the 'scene of the crime' one might say this week to remind myself of details for the article I am writing. Michel and I took long walks in the pouring rain and howling winds. Yes, I thought, when the storms come in off the sea this place appears very threatening and when the sun shines it is enticing. It is a paradise where one could hide away from real life, where one could disappear. 

We walked a promontory, to the tip of the presqu'ile, along le sentier Petit Prince all the way to the cap. It was a blowy morning with waves and salt spray crashing hard against the cliffs's edges. Off this coast in July 1944 is where the aviator and much-loved author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry went missing in his plane. He had set off from Corsica to recce the Mediterranean coastline of occupied France. He and his plane went out of contact, never to be found again. He was deemed killed in action. His mysterious disappearance was the cause of much international speculation. It remained an unsolved mystery until 2000 when a scuba diver off the coast of Marseille - close to where we were standing looking out to sea this week - discovered the wreckage of a plane that was later raised and identified as Saint-Exupéry's. The evidence suggests that his plane was shot down but the actual cause of his death remains an unsolved mystery. I hadn't known this story last year when I wrote my novel. A novel in which a man, a charismatic figure, goes missing off this coast close to Cassis.

This week we also discovered the remains of the Sobray Quarry in the Calanque  de Port-Miou, active from 1900 to 1981.
In 2012, this whole area was granted National Park status so any trade that involves the digging up of this protected coastline is forbidden. Still, the scars and traces remain in the rocks and have become a part of its heritage, its history. I wonder might there be a story for me here? Another novel?

If you are a scuba diver Les Calanques will offer you a marine paradise. This mountainous mass of the Marseille Calanques is some twenty metres long. It boasts the highest sea cliffs in Europe. In the past, shepherds grazed their flocks here. Sheepfolds and limestone ovens are to to be found here too, though we didn't come across any.

The flora and fauna here are exceptional and mostly protected.  The Calanques, creeks, play host to a unique ecosystem which is arid and limestone. Plants grow and thrive in almost no soil, jutting out directly from the chinks and cracks of limestone surfaces. The rocks are huge and impressive. Pine trees, sarsaparilla, ferns, junipers scent the air. You might be lucky and spot overhead a Bonelli's eagle. These magnificent creatures are endangered and protected now. Rare too is the eagle owl. The Sabline de Provence grass can only be found here. It exists nowhere else. 

Returning this week, I became excited all over again by the sheer physical beauty of this area, and the natural riches it offers. If you don't know this part of France, I highly recommend it. If you cannot visit, I hope my novel THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF will transport you right here, to this tiny corner of paradise.

Thursday 25 April 2019

Thomas Chatterton by Miranda Miller

    This painting by the pre- raphaelite Henry Wallis created a sensation when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, nearly ninety years after Chatterton’s death, accompanied by the following quotation from Marlowe:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight
And burned is Apollo's laurel bough.

   Who was the young man who aroused such powerful feelings? .Chatterton was born in Bristol, the son of a musician, poet, and dabbler in the occult who died just before Thomas was born. He grew up in poverty with his sister and mother, who ran a girls' school and took in sewing. The boy was sent to Colston’s, a Bristol charity school where the curriculum was limited to reading, writing, arithmetic and the catechism.

   Thomas was precocious and was close to his uncle, the sexton at the church of St Mary Redcliffe. Thomas became obsessed with the knights and civic dignitaries on the tombs and the chests full of parchment documents going back to the fifteenth century. He learned to read from the illuminated capitals of an old musical folio and a very old Bible. He wasn’t interested in playing with other children and was even thought to be educationally backward. He only wanted to read and write and by the age of 11 he had become a contributor to the Bristol Journal.

   He used to lock himself in the attic of his mother’s house with old books, parchments and drawing materials; there he lived in his fantasy world with 15th-century heroes and heroines. When he showed one of his fake manuscripts to the usher at his boarding school he claimed it was the work of a 15th-century monk and poet, Thomas Rowley, whose patron had been the great Bristol merchant Canyngs, five times mayor of Bristol, the man who rebuilt St Mary Redcliffe.

   He copied his verses in pseudo-medieval English onto the old parchment he found in his uncle’s church. There are parallels here with Macpherson’s invention of the poet Ossian (see my blog for the History Girls in February 2016). But when Macpherson died in 1796 he was buried in Westminster Abbey near the grave of his harshest critic, Samuel Johnson, despite the controversy surrounding the Ossian poems; Chatterton had a crueller fate.

   When he was sixteen he left his first job, working in a scrivener's office. Unable to earn a living as a poet in Bristol he moved to London, dreaming of becoming rich and famous there. In an attic room at 39 Brooke Street he lived on the verge of starvation. In his lonely attic he wrote political letters, eclogues, lyrics, operas and satires, both in prose and verse. He longed to be able to send money to his struggling mother and sister in Bristol. When his landlady invited him to dinner he assured her that he wasn’t hungry. The editors of the various journals he contributed to paid him at the rate of a shilling an article - and their payment was often late.

Chatterton's Holiday Afternoon engraved by William Ridgway,

   While walking in St Pancras churchyard with a friend Thomas absent mindedly fell into an open grave. His friend helped him up, joking that he was happy in assisting at the resurrection of genius. Chatterton replied, "My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now."

   Three days later he committed suicide; he drank arsenic after tearing up some of his manuscripts. He was seventeen.

   Well, what could be sadder or more romantic? His short tragic life inspired many other poets: Keats and Shelley identified with him as a misunderstood genius unappreciated in his own lifetime. Keats wrote a sonnet, To Chatterton, and also dedicated Endymion “to the memory of Thomas Chatterton." Coleridge felt a “kindred doom;” Wordsworth (see below) also admired him. and Hazlitt wrote in one of his essays, “He was an instance that a complete genius and a complete rogue can be formed before a man is of age.” Samuel Johnson, who wasn’t easily impressed, wrote of him, “This is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things.”

   Not everyone was so enthusiastic. After Chatterton’s’s death Horace Walpole wrote to a friend, “I cannot find in Chatterton's works anything so extraordinary as the age at which they were written. They have a facility, vigour, and knowledge, which were prodigious in a boy of sixteen, but which would not have been so in a boy of twenty. He did not show extraordinary powers of genius, but extraordinary precocity. Nor do I believe he would have written better, had he lived. He knew this himself, or he would have lived. Great geniuses, like great kings, have too much to think of to kill themselves.”

   The fame that  eluded him when he was alive spread all over Europe. Alfred de Vigny’s three-act play, Chatterton, was  performed in Paris;  Oscar Wilde admired him and lectured on him;  Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a sonnet about him:

With Shakspeare's manhood at a boy's wild heart,—

Through Hamlet's doubt to Shakspeare near allied,

And kin to Milton through his Satan's pride,—

At Death's sole door he stooped, and craved a dart;

And to the dear new bower of England's art,—

Even to that shrine Time else had deified,

The unuttered heart that soared against his side,—

Drove the fell point, and smote life's seals apart.

Thy nested home-loves, noble Chatterton;

The angel-trodden stair thy soul could trace

Up Redcliffe's spire; and in the world's armed space

Thy gallant sword-play:—these to many an one

Are sweet for ever; as thy grave unknown

And love-dream of thine unrecorded face.

   More recently, Peter Ackroyd’s 1987 novel, Chatterton, retells his story imaginatively and explores the psychological implications of forgery. In his version, Chatterton's death was accidental.  There’s a collection of "Chattertoniana" in the British Library and a Thomas Chatterton Society. In Redcliffe Churchyard there’s a monument with this inscription: “To the memory of Thomas Chatterton. Reader! judge not. If thou art a Christian, believe that he shall be judged by a Superior Power. To that Power only is he now answerable.” (This was his own epitaph).

Wednesday 24 April 2019


The face of William Marshal's tomb effigy
Temple Church, London. 
Next month, May 14th marks the 800th anniversary of the death of the great William Marshal, one of the most iconic figures of the Middle Ages.  There are numerous events being held around the country this year to celebrate his life and I have been and shall be attending several of them.

When I came to write about William Marshal, I freely admit that my main interest in him was that he'd led an amazing rags to riches life that was a gift for an author of historical fiction passionate about the Middle Ages. It was only when with a two-book contract under my belt, I settled down to the in depth research that I realised this was more than just a temporary project and that I was researching someone realy rather extraordinary, and a source of study for the rest of my life.

William Marshal rose from modest beginnings to the heights of power as Regent of England. He was a man of great political skill and acumen, and ruthless in the way that anyone has to be ruthless to get to the top, but running alongside that hard, pragmatic streak was compassion and a deep understanding of people.  Beyond and behind the heroism, the great deeds,  the handling of power,  the illustriousness, was a life filled too with ordinary joys and sorrows, laughter, anger, delight in the small things, and an awareness that they mattered just as much as the greater horizons.

When William died, his eldest son commissioned a poet to write his father's life story in a series of rhyming couplets totally 19,215 lines.  It was designed as a commemorative piece to be read aloud on the anniversary of William's death and within and between its lines it gives us a strong idea of the personality of William the man, his life and times.

We don't know William Marshal's date of birth, only that it was probably 1146 and perhaps 1147 and that it was somewhere in Wiltshire or Berkshire at one of his father's estates or castles.  He may have been born at Marlborough where his father was holding the castle for the Empress Matilda, or perhaps Ludgershall, Hamstead Marshal, or even Salisbury.  He was the second son of his father's second marriage.  His father, John FitzGilbert the Marshal had set aside his first wife in order to marry William's mother in the interests of sealing a peace treaty with her brother, his neighbour, Patrick of Salisbury.

When William was about five years old, King Stephen came to besiege the Marshal's castle at Newbury and demanded surrender. William’s father John, said that in order to do that, he would have to ask permission of his overlord, the Empress Matilda for whom he was fighting against the King. Stephen agreed to let him do this, but demanded hostages  to ensure he kept his word.

Little William was turned over to the king as surety for his father's honour. When the appointed day arrived for John Marshal to surrender Newbury Castle, he refused. Instead of sending word to the Empress in the time given to him, he had stuffed the castle to the rafters with men, equipment and supplies. Stephen was angry but probably not surprised, and he sent word to John Marshal that if such was the case, then William’s life was forfeit and he would be hanged.
John gave that now infamous reply.

He said that he did not care
about the child, since he still had
the anvils and hammers
to produce even finer sons

William was duly manhandled to the gallows, but on his way saw the Earl of Arundel holding a very fine javelin and asked to play with it. The King apparently was so struck by William’s charm that he couldn't bring himself to have him hanged. Although William's ordeal wasn't over. He was also threatened with being squashed on a large round shield that was pushed under the castle walls, and being flung from a catapult. Seeing the catapult William said:

‘Gracious me! What a swing!
It will be a good idea for me to have a swing on it.’
He went right up to the sling,
but the King said: ‘take him away! Take him away!
Anyone who could ever allow
him to die in such agony
would certainly have a very cruel heart;
he comes out with such engaging childish remarks.

It is debatable how much of this actually took place in the manner stated as the Histoire is the only source and it may well have been exaggerated as artistic license. A Histoire is both a history and a story - rather like a historical novel. So it's probably best to sit on the fence and enjoy the tale for what it is rather than taking it as the literal truth.

William continued to exert his charm on his royal jailer, at one point playing a game with the king in his tent.

One day he was sitting in his tent,strewn with grasses and flowers in a variety of colours.William looked at the flowers, examining them from top to bottom.Happily and cheerfully he went about gathering the knights growing on the plantain,with its broad pointed leaves.
When he gathered enough to make a good handful,he said the King: ‘My dear Lord,would you like to play knights?’‘Yes.’ He said ‘my little friend.’The child immediately placed some on the King's lap, then he asked:’Who has the first go?’ ‘You, my dear little friend,’ replied the King. So he then took one of the knights,and the King placed his own against it.But it turned out that in the contest the King's knight lost its head which made William overjoyed.’

William survived to return home and grow up. A few years down the line the Histoire tells us that:

William had grown into a tall boy.
His body was so well fashioned
that, even if he had been created by the sculptors chisel,
his limbs would not have been so handsome. Etc etc. The chronicler puts in all the usual stock in trade descriptions of the ideal medieval man. However there are a couple of personal moments here. We are told that he had brown hair and an outdoor swarthy complexion.

In his teens William was sent to train with a family relative William de Tancarville, Chamberlain of Normandy and  ‘as is fitting for a nobleman setting off abroad to win an honourable reputation.’

Once in Normandy William started his training, but at times was a typical teenager. As the mother of two sons I can so identify with some of the habits of a rapidly growing adolescent youth.

People thought is a great pity that he stayed up so little at night and yet slept so late,that he ate and drank too much,and those scoundrels would laugh at him behind his back,asking of one another‘this greedy gorger William,in God's name, what good is he doing here?’ And they asked William de Tancarville his Lord ‘just how are you being served by this troublesome fellow, this devil of a glutton, who's always sleeping when he's not eating? The man is a fool who feeds him.’… The Chamberlain was much displeased with such words but he smiled and kept quiet, and then replied with a few well chosen words: ‘You will see, he'll set the world alight yet… You have no idea of the quality of the man I'm keeping.’

William became a knight at around the age of 21 and was girded by William de Tancarville with a sword and presented with a fine, expensive cloak.   From the start he was very eager to join in the fray and prove his worth. And when the town of Drincourt was attacked by the French and the Chamberlain and his knights came out to defend, William was determined to be at the forefront and had to be told not to be such a hothead. He did as he was told for a while, but then pushed forward again.

 Whatever happened, if there was to be a skirmish or battle,if knights were going to be locked in combat, he would make sure he was up there at the front.

He lost his horse in that battle and had to sell his fine knighting cloak for 22 shillings to buy a new one, although it only bought him a common soldier's mount.  The Histoire observes that It is well-known that poverty has brought dishonour on many a nobleman and been the ruin of them.
So William had to deal with the harsh realities of life. It was all too easy to fall into poverty  if you did not have the support of a patron, or if you did not shift for yourself. I think what happened in his early years had a bearing on how shrewd and clever he was with money in his later years as a great magnate and Regent of England. He knew how to spend it, but he was no spend thrift and he knew how to make it too.

His bacon was saved as a youngster when the Chamberlain wanted to attend a tournament with all his household and provided horses for the young men. William was last in the queue when it came to dishing out the animals and so found himself with a rum beast that no one else wanted.

The horse was brought out, a horse fine and valuable, had it not been for one flaw that was a terrible drawback: the horse was so wild that it could not be tamed. The Marshal mounted it. Not once did he use his elbows; instead he pricked it with his spurs and the horse, flying faster than a hawk, bounded forwards. At the point where it should have been reined in, it turned out that it pulled incredibly hard: never had it had a master able to make it pull less, even if he had had 15 reins to restrain it. The Marshal gave the matter thought and came up with a brilliant scheme: he let out the bridle at least three fingers’ length from the bit and so released the lock of the bit that it went down into its mouth so it had far less to bite on than was usual. For no amount of gold or other riches could he have reined him in any other way. He considered that he had been very clever. The horse was so improved by this new bridle that he could have been ridden around in half an acre of land as if he were the tamest on earth.'

William's horse Blancart, rendered as a herbacious arrangement at Cartmel Priory

William clearly understood horses and was a master of adapting to adversity. He did the best with what he had and sought to turn it to his advantage.

William went on to gain experience in the tournaments and did very well for himself. However, his time with the Chamberlain was over. De Tancarville had enough knights to fulfil his quota and William was basically made redundant. He returned to England and joined the service of his uncle, Patrick Earl of Salisbury who was preparing to go to Poitou as its governor. Once more employed, William headed to the South of France, where, while in his uncle's entourage he came into contact with Eleanor of Aquitaine, and saved her from ambush when she was attacked by members of the rebel de Lusignan family. His uncle was killed in this skirmish in front of William's eyes by being speared through the back. Eleanor managed to escape but William was wounded in the thigh, captured after putting up a tremendous fight and taken for ransom. At the time of the attack Eleanor's escort had not been wearing their armour. Later in life William always stayed close to his armour, and would put it on long before a battle situation arose, and I think it was something that was impressed on him that day in Poitou when they were attacked. This is from later in his life as an example:

The King said: ‘Go on, take that Armour off, Marshal. Why are you armed?’
The Marshal replied: ‘If it's so please you, sire, so much will I say, that I am very happy to be armed and my arms don't cramp my style in the slightest. I shall not remove my armour for the rest of this day until I have discovered what burden we shall have to shoulder. An unarmed man cannot last out in a crisis or a grave situation and we don't know what their intentions will be.’

In gratitude to William, Eleanor paid his ransom and gave him horses, arms and money and took him into her service. Two years later he became the tutor in chivalry to her eldest son, Henry. His father Henry II, had him crowned King in his own lifetime to assure the succession of the throne and William’s star continued to rise as he became established as young Henry's Marshal and one of his senior household Knights.

William remained in the Young King's household as a career knight for more than a decade and in that time entered full manhood. Young Henry although charming and handsome, was not always an easy master to serve. His father refused to relinquish any real power to him or keep him occupied in a a satisfying manner that suited his status. Frustrated, the young man  sought succour from his father in law Louis VII and the French, and asked William, to knight him.

Before the assembled counts and barons, and before other men such high rank, he girded the sword on the King of England and yet he had not one strip of land to his name or anything else, just his chivalry.

Matters were patched up for a while between father and son and William and his young charge took the life of the tourney with a vengeance. Sometimes William went off jousting of his own accord, and on one such occasion which is often mentioned in the biographies he managed to get his head stuck inside his helmet because of all the blows he'd received in the fight. The people of the tournament had adjudged him the man of the match and came to find him to presented with the prize which happened to be a large pike on a platter as in the fish!

They came to the forge, where they saw him with his head on the anvil. It was no laughing matter, far from it, for the smith with his hammers, wrenches and pincers, was going about the task of tearing off his helmet and cutting through the metal strips, which were quite staved in, smashed and battered. The helmet was so tight around his neck that it was freed with great difficulty. Once the helmet was prized of – and it was pulled off with great difficulty – the knights who had come to forge greeted him graciously.

 I am sure that back in the day William was delighted to receive the honour of being champion of the tourney, but my imagination furnishes me with a picture of a red-faced William gasping for fresh air and rather sore around the ears, being faced with a crowd of people bearing a large fish on a plate and it makes me smile.

William certainly seems to have enjoyed his life on the tourney field and to have been ideally suited to it. The Histoire is so joyous at this point and really gives a feel for the sites sounds and smells of the tourney round. Professor Crouch remarked that the tourneys must have had the ambiance of a large Gymkhana! We know the one year between Lent and Whitsuntide William and a companion took 103 knights prisoner. And when one took a knight prisoner on the tourney ground one was entitled to a ransom payment for having done so. It's basically a contact sport for prize-money.

While William was in service to the young King, jealous enemies at court accused him of having an affair with the young King's wife Marguerite. William staunchly denied this, but nevertheless he was banished from court. I don't think for a minute he did have an affair with the young King's wife. The result of the discovery of such a liaison, would not only have brought shame upon the Marshal, but would have cost him his life for it was treason. Given William’s morality compass which was generally one of honour, duty and truth, I personally don't think he would have done this. As it was just the accusation almost cost him his career and he was ousted from court. He took the opportunity to go to Cologne and visits the shrine of the three Kings there, who were particularly responsible for hearing the prayers of he falsely accused. He was offered employment by various magnates throughout Europe, but declined. He only had one Lord, the young King. As it happened young Henry and his father fell out again for various detailed political reasons and William was recalled to serve his master.

This was not a particularly happy time in Williams life. He was now well into his 30s, and perhaps approaching a crossroads. The behaviour appropriate to a younger man, now no longer sat so lightly on his shoulders. His young Lord, had taken to robbing churches and shrines to gain money for his war, including the shrine of our lady of Rocamadour, and although it does not say so in the Histoire, I gain the impression that William was very unhappy with such a state of affairs. Indeed when he founded the Priory at Cartmel, he had a curse written into the foundation charter that was to fall upon anyone who did anything to the detriment of the priory. Although many priories and abbeys have this type of clause written into their foundation charters, I do wonder if William was thinking of Rocamadour when he had this one put in.
Shortly after the young King had robbed the shrine, the dysentry from which he had been suffering, took a turn for the worse and it became obvious that he was going to die. William was with him on his deathbed and the young King had a particular request to make of him.

When it came to the reading of his will, he said this: ‘Marshal, you have ever been loyal to me, a staunch supporter in good faith. I leave you my cross so that on my behalf you can take it to the holy sepulchre and with it pay my debts to God.’ The Marshal replied: ‘sire, I give you my most grateful thanks! Since that is your provision in your will and you have chosen me for this task, I shall certainly do it, for that man is no loyal friend who is found wanting in help in a great moment of need.’

I think this visit to the Holy Land was the moment at the crossroads he had been travelling towards. I think he went there in some sort of spiritual crisis and whatever happened, he came home not exactly a different man, but one who had grown in all areas of his life. The Histoire tells us very little about his time there. Indeed, only circa 20 lines in the 19,000 line poem mention William Marshal's time in Outremer, although there is one very important occurrence that emerges much later in his life. Basically he obtained his own burial shrouds while abroad, and showed them to no one. He also vowed his body to the Templars at his death and made that vow during his pilgrimage.
I have written an article on my own blog about what William may have done in the Holy Land.  You can read it here. What Happens in the Holy Land stay in the Holy Land

William spent from the summer of 1183 to the spring of 1186 on pilgrimage to and from Outremer.
Once home, he took up service with Henry II again, who was pleased to see him and gave him lands  in Cumbria, and the wardship of Heloise, heir of William of Lancaster, Lord of Kendal.

The lady of Lancaster, he gave to the Marshall, and the Marshall did her high honour and kept her from dishonour for a long time, as his dear friend, but he never married her.

William Marshal's famous scarlet lion blazon

William could indeed have married her and made his life in this area as a baron, certainly with the same standing as his father, but he preferred not to. However he did come to spend time in Cumbriaon his return from the holy land, perhaps to recuperate from all the travelling, and to settle himself spiritually.
He seems to have enjoyed travel in different places, and Cumbria was certainly a new experience for him. It was while here that he began his plans to found a Priory on the land that King Henry had given him, although building did not start until after his marriage to Isabelle de Clare.

In 1188, William left Cumbria to go to Henry II who had need of him in Normandy, and it's here that he was promised an even greater heiress and Heloise of Kendal.
The King promised the Marshal in return for his service, the hand of the maiden of Striguil, a worthy, beautiful girl. 
Isabelle de Clare, was heiress to lands in Normandy, in Berkshire, the Welsh borders, Wales and Leinster in Ireland. She was just about of marriageable age and immensely wealthy. Not that it was certain William was going to claim his prize, because Henry was on the back foot. He was fighting both the King of France and his son Richard the Lionheart who was in rebellion against him. It was a vicious, bitter campaign, that saw the burning of Le Mans, Henry's birthplace. Henry himself, sick and distraught, fled the town as Richard entered through the gates. Riding rearguard, William sought to defend his ailing Lord, and showed what he was made of, when it turned out that those pursuing were led by none other than Richard the Lionheart

Like the prudent and wise man he was, he took up his shield and his lance, and spurred straight on to meet the advancing count Richard. When the count saw him coming, he shouted out at the top of his voice: ‘God’s legs, Marshal! Do not kill me, that would be a wicked thing to do, since you find me here completely unarmed.’ The Marshal replied: ‘Indeed I won't. Let the devil kill you! I shall not be the one to do it.’ This said, he struck the count's horse a blow with his lance, and the horse died instantly; it's never took another step forward. It died, and the count fell to the ground. It was a fine below, which came at an opportune moment for those riding ahead.

Henry was seriously ill, and died soon after. His body was born to the Abbey of Fontevraud by his household Knights, and while they were hold vigil there, Richard came to view his father's body, and talk to the men who were with him. The last time he had seen William, had been at the other end of a lance, and the Histoire gives us this conversation between them at the church.

‘Marshal, fair Sir, the other day you intended to kill me, and you would have, without a doubt, if I hadn't deflected your lance with my arm. That would have been a bad day.’
He replied to the count ‘My Lord, it was never my intention to kill you, never did I put my effort into that: I am still strong enough to direct my lance when armed and even more so on that occasion, when I was unarmed; if I had wanted, I could have driven it straight through your body, just as I did with that horse of yours. And I do not consider it a wicked thing for me to have killed it, nor am I sorry for doing so.’

Richard did not bear William a grudge for this. To the contrary he valued his steadfastness and loyalty and to that end, granted him permission to take Isabelle de Clare to wife. William went immediately to London. Isabelle was being kept in the Tower of London because she was such a great prize. William knew that although Richard was King, the situation wass volatile and he made haste to marry her straightaway. It was a political match. As far as we know they had never met. He was in his early forties she was eighteen at the oldest. What they thought on first seeing each other is not recorded, but they seem to have made a strong and affectionate marriage that lasted for 30 years. William set the tone of their marriage from the beginning. It was celebrated in London at the house of his good friend Richard FitzReinier, who provided what was necessary: Being a merchant too, FitzReiner probably had an eye to future profit with a man who had just become extremely rich in right of his wife!

Following the marriage, William and Isabelle took a month off to get to know each other.

 Once that fine, splendid wedding ceremony had taken place, in a manner that was fitting, I know that the Marshal took the lady to stay with Sir Engelram D’Abernon at Stoke, a peaceful spot, well appointed and a delight to the eye.

At this point in his life, William also took a moment to think of his proposed foundation at Cartmel, and sent a colony of Augustinian monks from the mother house at Bradenstoke Priory, to be the founder colony at Cartmel. The first prior of Cartmel was called Daniel and had charge from around 1194 until 1204.

Cartmel Priory 
William and Isabelle were blessed with children almost straightaway. Their first son William was born probably in April 1190 possibly at Longeville in Normandy. Richard, their second child arrived probably about 18 months later, and this set the pattern. William and Isabelle would have 10 children- five boys and five girls because William believed in balance after all. William and Richard came first, then their daughter Mahelt or Matilda, then Gilbert, then Walter, then Isabelle, Sybilla and Eve, followed by Ancel and Joanna. (there is some debate about the timing and order of the middle children). By the time Joanna was born William was around 64 and Isabelle into her 40s. None of the boys were to have legitimate children, but all the girls had sons and daughters whose descendants are scattered round the world.
Chepstow Castle, One of William Marshal's Welsh Border fortresses. Below the doors commissioned by William Marshal in the 1190s at Chepstow.

Williams spent the reign of King Richard bringing up his growing family, serving Richard in a military capacity, and also helps to rule the country during Richard’s absence on Crusade. He spent most of his time in Normandy, with short occasional returns to England. When, in 1199, Richard died from an arrow wound sustained at a siege in the Limousin, William was in Rouen and one of the first to receive the news. In fact he was on his way to bed but but ‘he put his boots back on’ and went to consult with Hubert Walter the Archbishop of Canterbury about what to do. The men had a long discussion about whether they should back John to be King, or offer the throne to his teenage nephew Prince Arthur. In the end William Marshal persuaded the Archbishop that they should sign up for John. The Archbishop agreed but with caveats. He supposedly said 'You will never come to regret anything you did as much as what you're doing now.’ ’
In hindsight perhaps William did wish that he hadn’t argued for John, but be that as it may, John was offered the crown, and for his aid in the matter, William was awarded the Earldom of Pembroke and custody of the Castle.

Pembroke Castle

John's reign proved to be a tricky one. John had inherited political difficulties from Richard, not particularly of Richard's doing, but the result of general political pull and push throughout Europe, and it has to be said that John's personality did nothing to mitigate circumstances. The Histoire says "The King's pride and arrogance increased; they so blurred his vision that he could not see reason indeed, I know for a fact that as a result he lost the affection of the barons of the land before he crossed to England." 
John did not have an easy character. His biographer WL Warren says of him that he had the mind of a great King and inclinations of petty tyrant, and as a form of shorthand that statement says it all. He was suspicious of everyone including William. Another suspicion was exacerbated during the fight for Normandy. Seeing the French overrunning Normandy, knowing that his own lands were under threat, William made a pact with the King of France and did him homage for the Norman lands. John not surprisingly took exception to this. William claimed that John had given him permission to give his oath to the French king for his Norman castles. One suspects at that point in his life William was sailing close to the wind. John decided to take one of William sons hostage as security for William’s good behaviour. William gave his eldest son willingly saying that "a man who bandages his finger when it is whole will find it so again when he chooses to take the bandage off."
William dug himself into a deeper hole by seeking permission to go to Ireland and sort out his land there. John had interests in Ireland and didn't want William meddling. However, he told William he could go, but then asked for his second son as a hostage too. Isabelle was very reluctant to give another boy into John's custody, but William was prepared to hand him over because that was the only way he was going to get to Ireland without being adjudged a rebel. So William handed over Richard too. At the same time he arranged a marriage for his eldest daughter Matilda with Hugh Bigod, eldest son of Roger Bigod Earl of Norfolk. This kept Matilda safe in England under the protection of a powerful family, lords of almost half of East Anglia. The marriage was a most suitable one and pleased both families involved,’ The Histoire tells us.

William duly sailed to Ireland with his family all but his hostage sons and his newly married daughter. Once there he set about organising his lands, and founding the town of New Ross on the River Barrow. The family stayed there for the next five years and William’s last two children were to be born in Leinster. King John had been hoping that the demand for the second son would keep William in England. He summoned William back to court to answer to him, along with the Justiciar of Ireland, Meilier Fitzhenry who was William's enemy. Indeed Meilier had instructions that the moment he and William sailed from Ireland, his men were to start making war on William's interests there. The Histoire says of a meeting held before William departed:

'They greatly feared the King’s sending for him was a trick and that he was acting more with a view to harming him than for his good. This view was expressed in the presence of the Countess, who had every fear as regards the King's word. The Marshal knew very well and was very aware that the King had not sent for him for his good and he had no doubt once he had left the land there would be strife and war.'

William made contingency plans, but when his men suggested that he himself should take hostages against the behaviour of men whom he was uncertain, William refused and very strongly and said that their oaths would be sufficient. This is perhaps is a leftover from William himself being taken hostage, and what he felt inside about having to give his sons to John.

William duly sailed to England where King John proceeded to give him the cold shoulder and treat him with suspicion and contempt. He told him a concocted lie about William’s best men having been defeated and killed in battle and Isabelle (who was pregnant at this time) being left alone and without help. William was very surprised at the news because at the time the weather was bad and no ships were sailing between England and Ireland to bring such details to the court. However he said: ‘I can tell you in truth that the death of those knights is a loss. There is nobody here, be here full wise, who does not know, in a word, that they were your own worthy men, and for that reason this business is an even sorrier affair.’
This put John in his place, and later the news arrived that William's men had actually prevailed over the aggressors, although the town of New Ross had been burned to the ground.

John's anger with William lowered to a simmer and he allowed him to return to Ireland, where William set about putting things to right and dealing with men who had risen against him. It was not all over in a day, and John had not finished with William or with Ireland. The King came there himself to deal with rebels, and take a grip on the country and show his authority. William played the game cannily and did all that the King asked. Around him he saw other barons falling because of the King's displeasure, most spectacularly, William de Braose. He too had been asked for hostages. In his case, his wife had refused to give up her sons, saying she would not give them into the presence of a King who had murdered his own nephew. This was a reference to Prince Arthur who have mysteriously vanished while in John's custody Rouen. Few knew what had happened to him – although de Braose may well have been one of them, and so might William who was de Braose’s friend. It's something we will never know.  De Braose ended his life in impoverished exile and his wife and heir were starved to death in one of John's dungeons, a fate that William adroitly managed to avoid for himself and his own family.

door column at the Temple Church

William did manage through diplomacy and sound political decisions to weather the King's displeasure, and settled down with his family in Ireland. However, John summoned him back to England because the political situation was dire. The Pope had excommunicated John over a long-running dispute concerning who should be Archbishop of Canterbury. In some ways it was reminiscent of the Becket crisis of his father's reign, in that the King wanted one thing and the church wanted the other. The barons had taken John's excommunication is a general sign to rise up against him - they had a lot to be discontented about, including the marrying of heiresses to John's favourites, the bad behaviour of his mercenaries, the fact that he was selling justice for a fee to name just a few. William was put in a predicament because once he swore his loyalty, he kept it, but he too had fallen victim to royal caprice and tyranny. When summoned he came, but the Histoire shows us the balance of the man.
He was sorely grieved by the outrages committed by both sides, once he had been informed of them: he had no wish for them, nor did he agree to them. The Histoire also says when the King ran out of resources, very few of the men stayed with him who were there for his money; they went on their way with their booty in hand. However, the Marshal at least, a man of loyal and noble heart, stayed with him in hard and difficult circumstances; he never left him, he never changed that steadfast heart of his, serving him in good faith as his Lord and King… What ever the King had done to him, he never abandoned him for anyone. That absolute loyalty and honour was one of the the underpinning characteristics of William Marshal's personality.

Williams eldest son had joined the rebels. What William thought of this, we don't know. Unless it was a deliberate political move, it must have caused some ructions in the family. The Histoire is silent on the matter. What we do know is that the barons involved in working out the details of Magna Carta, and designated as sureties to see that its terms were carried out, included William Marshal senior and junior, their relatives by marriage William Earl of Salisbury, and Roger and Hugh Bigod, the latter of whom was married toWilliam Marshal's daughter Matilda. William was honour bound to take John’s part in these negotiations, but through family ties he had a foot in each camp.

John died in October 1216, leaving a country in turmoil. There was Civil War, the French had invaded and had control of London, were threatening Dover, and had taken several other important towns. John's eldest son was only nine years old, war had brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, and there were deep divisions between people would want to be friends and allies. The barons who had stayed loyal to John, including William brought his son the nine-year-old Henry to Gloucester Abbey. The high-ranking men there carried him between them to the Abbey, where the gift of succession was passed on through the anointing and the coronation.’

The matter of who was going to rule the country had to be discussed. There were only two men in the running; William Marshal, and Ranulf Earl of Chester. The latter was known to be a bit prickly, and not everyone was willing to follow him even though he had the ability to lead. In the end the vote went William who was by now around 70 years old. Having been voted into the job of Regent, William retired to his chamber and the enormity hit him.

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

As it was his former Squire and now fellow baron and companion Jean D’Earley comforted him, and did the equivalent of giving him a stiff drink and encouragement. And William shook himself , squared his shoulders, and went to get on with the task of governing England and putting things right. By various hand to mouth methods, including breaking up the Kings treasure what was left of it, he managed to keep control the troops and maintain the economic functioning of the country. He got people talking to each other even though many barons did not change sides quite yet, but he had opened up avenues of debate and issue pardons and truces. He would fight if he had to, but diplomacy came first.

Fortune then played into his hands. The French army had split up, and one division had gone up to Lincoln to try and take the Castle from its doughty castellan,  Nicola De la Haye. William seized the moment, and swept his army up to Lincoln to take on the French. By this time William's son William  the Younger had returned to the fold, as had the Earl of Salisbury. It seems that with John's death, the matter of rebellion was finished for them. William wanted the enemy to think that his army was larger than it was and be intimidated, so one of the things he did was to have all the noncombatants in the baggage train brandish spears and shields on high, so that as they approached they looked to be massive numbers. The French troops chose to stay behind Lincoln's walls and not come out and fight, so William had his trebuchets batter down a sealed up doorway in the town walls, and brought his army into Lincoln itself. His life has come full circle. As a young knight he had fought his first battle in the streets of Drincourt. Now an old man, his final big engagement was to be in the streets of Lincoln. He was so eager to enter the fray that he forgot to put his helmet on, and had to go back for it. Once it was on his head the Histoire says ‘He appeared more handsome than all the rest. As swiftly as if he were a bird, a sparrowhawk or an eagle,he pricked the horse with his spurs.’ Once again the cry of ‘God is with the Marshal!’ was heard on the battlefield.

Temple Church

The French were utterly defeated at the Battle of Lincoln. William’s own cousin the Count of Perche was leading them and was killed when a sword pierced his brain through the eye- slit of his helm.

The final victory was a sea battle in which William took no part save to watch from the shore at Sandwich, as the French supplies, that would have bolstered the other half of the French army at Dover, were either seized or destroyed by English ships at the Battle of Sandwich. Many ships full of riches were captured, and great lords taken for ransom. William used some of the booty to build a hospital dedicated to St Bartholomew.

Prince Louis who was leading the French troops and who at one time had hoped to be King of England, now sued for peace. Negotiations were opened, and he agreed to leave England, although he had to be paid to go away. Some barons protested at this, but William deemed it a necessary sweetener to diplomacy, and with the French gone, putting the country to rights would go much more smoothly.

William continued with the task of being Regent for another couple of years, and although there were still choppy seas to be negotiated, at least the ship was no longer in danger of sinking. However the effort involved had taken its toll on William. 'Two years from the feast of St Michael, when Louis left the land, and it was no longer than the following Candlemas when the Marshal began to be plagued by an illness and pain which resulted in his death.’

He had physicians come to tend him in London, but there was nothing they could do and he decided to go home to his favourite manner at Caversham near Reading to die. His view was that he could more easily put up with his affliction on his own ground if, in the nature of things, death was to be his lot, he preferred to die at home than elsewhere. So he was put in a boat and rowed upriver to Caversham. Once there he set about making his will and putting his estate in order. He made plans to hand over the country to some of the other people he had been working with, and he sent for the young King Henry, now 11 years old.

When the boy was brought before him, he said ‘I can tell you in truth that I have served you faithfully and to the best of my ability in safeguarding your land, when it was a difficult task to do so, and I would serve you, if I could, if it please God that I had the capacity to do so, but there is no man can plainly see that it does not please him that I should be in this world any longer.’
He also spoke to the boy, warning him against behaving like his father King John. Sire, I beg the Lord our God that, if I ever did anything to please him, but 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.’ Despite having served John and his son in full loyalty and to the end of his tether, Williams feelings on the matter come through strongly here.

The matter of the country sorted, Williams turned to his own concerns. He sent his good friend and companion Jean D’Earley on a mission to bring him two lengths of silk cloth that he had stored away in one of his Welsh castles. Jean duly fetched the cloths and brought them back to William’s bedside.
William took them and showed to another of his knights.
'He said to Henry Fitzgerald ‘Henry, look at this fine cloth here!
‘Indeed my Lord, but I can tell you that I find them a little faded, unless my eyesight is blurred.’
The Earl replied ‘Unfold them, so that we might be in a better position to judge.’ And, once the lengths of cloth had been unfolded, they looked very fine and valuable, choice cloths good workmanship. He called for his son and his knights to come before him, and once they had all appeared he said :‘ My Lords! I had these lengths of cloth for 30 years; I had them brought back with me when I returned from the holy land, to be used for the purpose which they will now serve; my intention has always been that they will be draped over my body when I am laid in the earth; that was the destination I had in mind for them.’
‘My Lord,’ said his son’there is one thing we are wondering about which is a closed book to us we cannot tell it what place you wish to be laid to rest.’
‘My dear son.’ He said’I shall tell you, with out a word of a lie: when I was away in the holy land, I gave my body to be buried by the Templars at the time of my death, in whatever place I happened to die. That is my wish, that is where I shall be laid to rest.’

William continued to give detailed orders about what he wanted to happen after he had died. His illness was such that he had time to organise this and make his farewells. As well as having kept his burial shrouds for 30 years, he had been planning more recently for the matter of the end of his life. He had had a Templar cloak made in secret a year before and stored in his wardrobe and now he had it brought out for all to see, because he intended now to take the vows of a Templer knight.

'The Earl, who was generous, gentle and kind towards his wife the countess, said to her; ‘Fair Lady kiss me now, for you will never be able to do it again.’ She stepped forward and kissed him, and both of them wept. The good folk present there also wept out of affection and compassion.’

Even amidst the moments of terrible grief and preparing to leave the world, there were still moments of joy and comfort. One day towards the very end of his illness William declared to Jean D’Earley that he had a sudden desire to sing, but that he would feel foolish doing so. Henry Fitzgerald who was also with him suggested that he send his daughters to sing to comfort him and William agreed. The girls arrived, and William perked up a bit.

Matilda, you be the first to sing,’ he said. She had no wish to do so, for her life at the time was a bitter cup, but she had no wish to disobey her father's command. She started to sing, since she wished to please her father, and she sang exceedingly well, giving a verse of the song in a sweet clear voice.
’Joanna you sing as best you can!’ She sang one verse from a rotrouenge, but timidly.
‘Don’t be bashful when you sing,’ said the Earl, ‘for if you are, you will not perform well and the words will not come across in the right way.’ So the Marshall taught her how to sing the words. Once the song was finished, he said to them ‘My daughters go in the name of Christ, for God protects all who believe in him; I pray to him to grant you his protection.’ As was fitting they took their leave:

Another incident involved the supernatural. William was being attended by Jean D’Earley and said to him. ‘Can you see what I can see?’
‘My Lord, I don't know what we're looking at.’
‘Upon my soul, there are two men in white here, one of them here by me on my right and the other on my left; I never saw more handsome anywhere.’
‘My Lord, the company of Angels has come to you, and if it please God, will come again to be by your side. God has sent his company to you to lead you along the right path.’
The Earl then said:’blessed be the Lord our God, who has given and imparted his grace to me here.’

William died at Caversham on a May morning 800 years ago, with the windows open and his grieving family around his bed.  As per his wishes, he was buried in the Temple Church.
The Histoire says: 'Here ends the story of the Earl's life, and may God grant that his soul rest in eternal glory in the company of his angels! Amen

Elizabeth Chadwick laying a tribute on the Marshal's effigy in 2004. 

But the story doesn't end there, and in a way it was another sort beginning, because William’s memory has lived on down the centuries. His name has become a byword for honour and chivalry, for loyalty, for decency and compassion. He was a great man in his time, and he remains a great one even now, perhaps even more so because there are so many more people in the world than there were in his day, and in reading about him, they can reach out and be inspired by his values. Some may say it's a romanticised view, but I would say that it's shining the light to bring out the best facets in a complex jewel.
 In writing my own novels about his life, I hope I have done him justice. William Marshal. The Greatest Knight, and the finest man.