William Marshall – an extraordinary life

Sometimes a non-fiction book comes along that tells such an enthralling tale in such an enthralling manner that it comes across almost as a work of fiction.  A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to come across just such a book.  But  just such a book can make for a lengthy review, so I apologise in advance if I bang on longer than usual.

The book is entitled The Greatest Knight, and carries the wordy subtitle The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English Thrones (Simon & Schuster, 2015).  NYCC libraries hold two copies.  The  author is Thomas Asbridge, a fellow of Queen Mary University, London.  To my mind Asbridge is one of those gifted writers who can bring history alive.

William Marshal was born in 1147 and he lived long, to the age of 72, at a time when average male life expectancy was 31 years and when even well-nourished men were considered old in their forties.  Yet William nearly had no life at all, for at the age of 5 he came close to being hanged.  In those times it was customary for a person who had promised to do something important for another to hand over an item of value as surety, to be redeemed when the promise was fulfilled.  The item of value was often a person, and in this case young William’s father, John, had handed him over to no less a person than the King of England, Stephen.  Having pledged service to Stephen, John promptly broke his word.  Enraged, Stephen ordered the little boy’s hanging.  Then at the last moment he relented.  John Marshal said he was  unconcerned about the fate of William; the youngster was, after all, only a second son, and he (John) was easily capable of procreating more.

The Marshals were minor gentry from Wiltshire.  William’s mother, Sybil, was rather better bred than her husband.  While John was a doughty warrior whose military advice was valued by royalty, Sybil brought with her some sense of honour and kindness.  Young William inherited the best of both his parents. His upbringing took place largely in France.  By the twelfth century Kings of England ruled the western half of France, from the Channel down to the Pyrenees.  This huge land area was, with England, one political whole – the Angevin Empire.  Many English families had wider family in France, so at the age of thirteen William was sent for his upbringing to an uncle in Normandy – William of Tancarville.  This latter William brought William Marshal up exceedingly well: in Normandy he earned a knighthood, developed remarkable very considerable military skill, and acquired respect for bravery and for honourable conduct.  As he grew, William honed a talent for diplomacy that stood him in good stead for the rest of his life.

At the age of 21, William was captured fighting in France.  By then his reputation had travelled to the  court of King Henry II in England, and he was ransomed by the formidable Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife.  At that time, Henry was mulling over his own succession, always a tricky problem at times when might could easily overcome right.  In 1170, with the aim of securing an orderly transition, Henry took the unheard-of step of crowning his 15-year old son, also named Henry, as joint King.  The younger Henry was to rule jointly with his father, and William Marshal was appointed Young Henry’s tutor at arms.   The joint ruler arrangement quickly unravelled.   Old Henry held the reins too tight, and in 1173 Young Henry rebelled.  He thus dropped William Marshal into a difficult and dangerous position.  As Young Henry’s tutor, William owed him loyalty, but his sense of right and wrong could not countenance rebellion against his father. Judging correctly that Old Henry would be somewhat indulgent towards his son, William took steps to cool Young Henry’s hot head, and stuck with him.   Thus Marshal’s skill on the political tightrope came to Old Henry’s notice.

Although he was not formally exiled, Young Henry, with William Marshal at his side, spent the next three years on the French tournament circuit (tournaments were banned in England).  The tournament was no mere joust but a serious competition between armed men, run sometimes over very large tracts of land.  Skill at arms and mastery of a horse were the ingredients of success. Henry wasn’t bad, but William Marshal was spectacularly good.  Over three years he became the Lewis Hamilton of the tournament.  From his feats he earned a small fortune, not from prize money (there was none) but from capturing opponents and ransoming them – the accepted practice of the age.  A high-ranking captive could earn his captor a huge ransom; if the knight were only middle-ranking, his horse might be ransomed for more. 

Here I should break off to praise Thomas Asbridge’s memorable descriptions of tournaments and of the sometimes (though not always) chivalrous conduct of the participants.  Asbridge also offers new insights into the notion of chivalry itself: it was not the soft, chastely romantic stuff that many people (me included) are brought up to believe.  Asbridge skilfully interpolates this absorbing material with such ease as not to spoil his rollicking narrative.

In 1181 William fell out of favour with Young Henry after being accused of conducting an affair with Henry’s wife.  We don’t know whether he cuckolded Henry or not, but after a year Henry accepted that William was innocent and the two reunited.  The year after that, Young Henry tried another rebellion against his father, failed, then died of a fever in 1183 at the age of 28.  For William this was bad enough, but worse, in honour of a promise given to his dying master, William reluctantly set off to the Holy Land on the Second Crusade.  For him crusading  was a chore.  The evidence suggests that he did a bit of desultory fighting, then quickly came home again.  Jerusalem was a long way to go for little or no benefit.

Shortly after his return to England William was invited to re-join King Henry’s court.  By then he was 39, verging on middle age. In the final years of Henry II’s reign, William’s star rose and rose. You need to read Dr Asbridge’s book for the details, but suffice it to say that William acquired considerable wealth in return for his shrewd and unfailing support to Henry.  He drove a hard bargain too: William knew his worth and wasn’t above whingeing for it.

One of his better prizes was the wardship of a very wealthy orphaned lady, Isabel of Clare. Isabel was a ward of the crown, and in those times the crown would often pass the wardship to a nobleman of merit or political convenience.  It was not unusual for the guardian to marry his ward, and William did indeed marry Isabel in 1189.  She was then 20, less than half William’s age.  But she was by far his social superior, bringing with her extensive landholdings in Wales and Ireland and making William a baron to be reckoned with.  

That same year Henry II died and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, known to us as Richard I or the Lionheart. In our times Richard has been portrayed as a warrior king of good Christian virtue and kindness.  While his military prowess was unquestionable, his conduct in other respects was appalling.  In Aquitaine, that part of France which his father had earlier given him to govern, Richard was loathed for his brutality, greed and debauchery.  William Marshal, already well known to Richard,  occupied the same valued advisor position he had earned with Henry II, and when Richard decided to absent himself on the Third Crusade in 1190, William was appointed a justiciar of England – in effect a non-royal regent.  William had thus risen very high, and that same year rose even higher when Richard elevated William to the nobility as Earl of Pembroke.  After returning from four years in the Holy Land, Richard almost immediately set off (with William Marshal) to fight in France, where the Angevin lands had come under serious and sustained attack by the French.  The fighting went on for several years, and it finally cost Richard his life.  In 1199 he took a crossbow bolt in his shoulder, the wound turned gangrenous, and at the age of 42 he died. 

Richard, having no heirs, was succeeded by his brother, John.  John had already caused a great deal of grief.  He was even more greedy, brutal and debauched than Richard, and completely untrustworthy into the bargain.  In military matters he was incompetent and cowardly.  While Richard was away crusading John had misguidedly and treacherously surrendered most of the Angevin lands to the canny and untrustworthy French king, Philippe II. Nevertheless, on becoming king, John wanted William Marshal to hand, and William, notwithstanding his contempt for John as a character, accepted.  Six years later, however, they fell out and William retreated to his lands in Wales and Ireland. 

Again, I will now divert briefly to praise Thomas Asbridge’s treatment of these tumultuous times.  Complicated though they were, Asbridge’s well-aired prose cuts cleanly through the plots and sustains his reader’s unflagging interest.  This is history-telling at its best.

In England, John had alienated many who might otherwise have supported him – so much so that civil war was brewing.  William Marshal, seeing from afar the parlous state of king and country, proffered a hand of friendship to John, had it accepted, and returned to court, albeit with misgivings, in 1212.  In 1215 peace of a kind was secured between a grudging King John and his affronted barons through an agreement that history has come to know as Magna Carta.  But no sooner had the deal been done than John began reneging on it; it then had to be rewritten twice, in 1217 and 1225, before it could be regarded as one of the cornerstones of later English law.  John did not live to see the revisions: his dissolute life had weakened his health, and in 1216 he died of dysentery – an unpleasant end, richly deserved.

Even with King John’s death, there remained seething discontent among the barons – enough that it looked as though there would be an insurrection, aided and abetted by the French (of course) against the new king, John’s son, Henry III.  Henry was then nine years old. It is thought that John on his deathbed gave Henry into William Marshal’s care.  In effect William became de facto king in an astonishing ascent from his undistinguished origins.  On Henry’s accession William embarked on what proved to be his final act of service to the Angevin dynasty, leading troops on Henry’s behalf at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217.  His victory was decisive, and the boy king grew up to become one of England’s longest-serving monarchs.  One cannot help wondering if, in taking up Henry’s cause, William saw in him the same little boy, facing death, that he himself had been some seventy years before.

William died peacefully in 1219, aged 72.  Sadly, all that he had built up in his lifetime ran into the sand within a generation.  Isabel died a year after her husband, their sons produced no male heirs, and their daughters married husbands who had no aptitude for  managing vast estates.

In his seventy-odd years, William saw – one might say oversaw – a transformation in the role of knights and the landowning aristocracy from one of dependency sustained by the caprices of a king’s good will, to one of acting as a check on corrupt and overweening monarchy.  This was a first step, and a faltering one at that, towards constitutional rule that took centuries to come to fruition. Nevertheless, William Marshal’s role in kick-starting it is undeniable.  We owe him.  And we owe Thomas Asbridge too, for telling William’s tale in such erudite yet colourful and memorable terms.

Bob Young