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.

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