KNIGHT PROTECTOR—William Marshal

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With favourable winds, William crossed the Channel without difficulty and rode straight for the West Country. According to the History, he returned to England ‘because that was the country of his birth and because he wished to see his worthy kin’. But there is no evidence that William made any effort to visit the surviving members of his immediate family at this point, nor does he seem to have paid his respects to his late father, now interred at Bradenstoke Priory in Wiltshire.* Marshal had a different kind of family encounter in mind; one that had little to do with sentimentality or emotion, but was driven by the far more pragmatic pursuit of patronage. He made straight for Salisbury, seat of his powerful uncle, Earl Patrick – a man who had thrived in the aftermath of the civil war, enjoying advancement under the new king, and one who now retained the services of fifty to sixty knights.

William’s brief, bitter taste of life as an impoverished, lord-less warrior in 1166 had left its mark. He had no intention of risking such a fate again. His burgeoning martial reputation might have earned him a position in any number of military households across Normandy and England, but a more permanent post could only be cemented through a close family bond. Earl Patrick was no sibling and potential rival, like Marshal’s brother John. He was an established noble; a man of prospects, capable of acting as William’s mentor, of shaping and advancing his career. When Patrick duly offered him a position in the Salisbury mesnie, a flourishing future looked certain. Shortly thereafter, the wisdom of William’s decision to seek service with his uncle was amply borne out. In early 1168 Earl Patrick was called to campaign in south-western France, at the side of King Henry II himself. Marshal had already met one monarch, King Stephen, as a child hostage. Now he was to be drawn to the centre of the new Angevin dynasty.

THE ANGEVIN DYNASTY

In the first decade following his coronation in 1154, Henry II proved himself to be an astute, dynamic and unfailingly ambitious ruler. Royal authority in England was quickly re-established, as Henry and his diligent officials reconstructed systems of law, justice and governance. Control over the minting of coinage was reasserted, while the determined enforcement of crown rights and strict imposition of taxation soon restocked the royal treasury. Impressively, all of this was achieved while holding on to Normandy and Anjou, and expanding Angevin influence into Brittany, in the far north-western corner of France. Throughout this period, Henry was able to rely on the steadying hand of his mother, Empress Matilda, who lived in semi-retirement near Rouen until her death in September 1167. But Henry II’s power, the extent of his realm and the course of his reign were also defined by his marriage to another remarkable woman: Eleanor of Aquitaine.

In the words of one contemporary, Eleanor was ‘a woman without compare’ – strong-willed, sharp-minded and driven by a lust for life. Frustratingly, no chronicler gave any hint of her physical appearance, even though many described her husband Henry in detail. By birth she was heiress to the great duchy of Aquitaine, with lands stretching across western and south-western France, and dominion over the cities of Poitiers and Bordeaux. Eleanor’s colourful career began long before she met Henry. In 1137, at around the age of fifteen, she was wed to King Louis VII of France, head of the royal Capetian dynasty. This seemed an advantageous union, promising as it did to unite the small French kingdom centred around Paris with the lands of Aquitaine, but Eleanor appears to have felt little warmth for her rather unprepossessing husband – a man whom she later likened to a monk because of his desultory sexual appetite.

In the late 1140s, Eleanor and Louis travelled to the Holy Land during the disastrous Second Crusade, but in Syria the queen was accused of having an incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, ruler of the principality of Antioch. Eleanor brazened it out, refusing to be cowed, but the scandalous story spread across Europe. The gravest problem, however, was that the royal marriage failed to secure the Capetian line; two healthy daughters were born to the couple, but no male heir. Eventually, in 1152, the union was annulled on grounds of consanguinity, seemingly by mutual consent. Just eight weeks later – and much to Louis VII’s horror – Eleanor married the more vigorous Henry of Anjou and Normandy, a man twelve years her junior, and an arch-rival of the Capetians. When Henry became king of England two years later, a vast new Angevin realm was created, with lands stretching from the borders of Scotland in the north to the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south.

For the first fifteen years, Henry and Eleanor’s marriage flourished, as a veritable bumper crop of heirs was born. The couple’s first child, William, died at the age of just three, but seven more children followed, all of whom survived to adulthood. The boy who became the Angevins’ primary male heir was born on 28 February 1155 and christened Henry; three further sons – Richard, Geoffrey and John – and three daughters – Matilda, Eleanor and Joanne – came after. King Henry II was delighted. With this brood he could found an enduring dynasty and forge a web of diplomatic alliances through marriage, safeguarding Angevin interests.

Ruling such a huge and diverse empire presented formidable challenges. Chief among these was the enduring and embittered enmity of the Capetians, so recently inflamed by Henry’s marriage to Eleanor. King Louis VII was born of a long-established royal line, but in terms of territory, wealth and military might, he inherited a relatively feeble kingdom. Centuries earlier, under the Carolingians, Francia or France had been a unified realm, but it had long ago fractured into numerous dukedoms and counties. The French monarchy retained only a small territory known as the Ile-de-France, with the city of Paris at its heart, and though the king was the nominal overlord of all the surrounding provinces, in practice his power was eclipsed by many of his supposed vassals.

The most irritating of all of these, as far as the Capetians were concerned, were the upstart dukes of Normandy, whose territory bordered the Ile-de-France to the west. These belligerent Normans posed a constant threat, not least because they claimed rights to a series of strategically significant frontier fortresses, barely forty miles from Paris, in an area known as the Vexin. Over the preceding century the abiding sense of hostility between the two sides had only deepened as the Norman dukes added the kingdom of England to their lands, and then, under the Angevins, the regions of Anjou, Maine, and most recently, Aquitaine. By the 1160s, the Angevins were unquestionably the dominant power in France. But King Louis had ambitions to restore the glory of the French monarchy, and Henry II knew only too well that his rival would seek to challenge, diffuse and deflect the might of the Angevins at every turn. The festering animosity between these two dynasties would simmer over the decades to come. As this contest intensified, it would come to shape the histories of England and France, and William Marshal would one day find himself fighting in the frontline of this titanic conflict.

As overlord of the grand Angevin realm, Henry II had also to overcome the massive hurdle of scale. He sought to govern an expansive ‘empire’ that stretched almost 1,000 miles from end to end without recourse to the complex infrastructure that we now take for granted in the modern world – the systems that allow expeditious transport and immediate communication. Henry’s solution was to remain almost constantly on the move, travelling incessantly from one province to the next, and he quickly became renowned for his restless, and seemingly inexhaustible, energy. To contemporaries, Henry was a man who never sat ‘except to eat or ride a horse’, the equivalent of a ‘human chariot dragging all after him’. He set a relentless pace for his itinerant court, covering in one day what it took others four to travel, and leaving one chronicler to conclude that ‘he must fly rather than journey by horse or ship’.

The first phase of Henry II’s reign was extraordinarily successful. Only two lingering problems threatened in the late 1160s. The king had become estranged from his former confidant and chancellor, Thomas Becket, after the latter’s appointment in 1162 as archbishop of Canterbury, England’s supreme prelate. Henry had expected his old friend Thomas to be a loyal and malleable ally, but Becket became a staunch defender of the Church against the predatory crown, seemingly inspired by his elevation. After a venomous quarrel, Thomas Becket went into exile in France in 1164, gaining the support of King Louis VII. Despite the papacy’s attempts to effect a reconciliation, the dispute remained unresolved.

The other pressing issue demanding Henry II’s attention was the unruly duchy of Aquitaine. The king spent part of 1167 reaffirming Angevin rule in the region, but in early 1168 news of a fresh uprising reached his ears. Determined to tame this valuable corner of France, the king laid plans for a new campaign to the south. Queen Eleanor would join the expedition, while Patrick of Salisbury was to be Henry’s leading lieutenant. The earl duly crossed the Channel at the head of his military retinue with his newly appointed household knight and nephew, William Marshal, at his side.

IN THE WILD LAND OF AQUITAINE

The Aquitanian expedition took William Marshal far from home. Up to this point his life had been lived in southern England and Normandy, regions that, in the twelfth century, shared a strong affinity in terms of language, culture and landscape. Aquitaine was a different world. In its southern reaches they even spoke another tongue – not the French (or Langue d’Œuil) that William had grown up with, but Occitan (or Langue d’Oc). This huge province – the size of Normandy and Anjou combined – was one of the wealthiest areas of France: a land of rich soils, golden crops and fine wines.

Its people cherished culture and the arts, fostering new forms of music, poetry and song. Queen Eleanor’s own grandfather, Duke William IX, had been one of the first troubadours, or courtly singers, and it was not uncommon for local lords to be acclaimed both as warriors and composers. This was the world of mythic chivalry, from which the Carolingian heroes of old had supposedly marched to holy war against the Muslims of Spain. Local churches claimed to house the body of Roland himself and the very horn with which he had sought to summon aid against the Moors, while one of King Henry’s own favoured shrines – the cliff-top church of Rocamadour – displayed Roland’s legendary sword, Durendal.

Aquitaine’s ducal capital, Poitiers, was the most astounding city that William Marshal had ever seen. Perched upon a plateau, dominating the surrounding landscape, it was home to a formidable stone walled palace built on the orders of Queen Eleanor’s grandfather, and boasted two famous churches. One, dedicated to Poitiers’ fourth-century bishop St Hilary, was closely linked with the dukes of Aquitaine. The other, Notre-Dame la Grande, was a late eleventh-century masterpiece, decorated with some of the finest Romanesque sculpture in France. Not content with these architectural riches, Henry and Eleanor had decided to leave their own mark, commissioning a massive new cathedral dedicated to St Peter in 1162. The construction of this edifice had begun, so the city’s lower slopes were a building site, and the work would continue for decades to come.

Angevin authority held strong in this well-defended metropolis, but William was to discover that the Aquitanians were a proud, fiercely independent and quarrelsome people; little used to bending the knee to anyone, and certainly not happy to bow down before an outsider from the north like Henry II. Beyond Poitiers, in the neighbouring regions of Poitou, Angoulême and the Limousin, lawlessness was endemic. Here recalcitrant warlords expected to assert their own will and many had built small castles to dominate the untamed landscape. The Lusignans of Poitou were a case in point – a minor noble family with a small parcel of ancestral lands, centred on a stout fortress just fifteen miles south-west of Poitiers. They were hardly one of the great aristocratic houses of the south, but the new head of the dynasty, Geoffrey, was hungry for advancement. He was a fearsome warrior and had an equally ambitious and acquisitive brother, Guy, by his side. In early 1168 they began raiding the region around Poitiers, riding through the royal domains in a ‘violent manner’, pillaging as they went.

This was precisely the kind of disorder that Henry II was unwilling to tolerate. When he arrived, with Earl Patrick’s military household in tow, the king fell on the Lusignans like a hammer. William Marshal now received an object lesson in the gritty realities of medieval warfare. This would be no chivalric contest fought on an open battlefield. Instead, Henry’s aim was to inflict maximum damage on the Poitevin rebels, using overwhelming force and brutal tactics to devastate their resources, thus crippling their military capabilities.

A mainstay of this type of campaigning was the chevauchée or destructive horse raid, in which packs of mounted knights conducted vicious sorties into enemy territory, ravaging the landscape by torching crops and razing settlements. The primary victims of these ‘scorched-earth’ attacks were local peasants, farmers and townspeople, and it was they who suffered now as William and his fellow knights ranged across Poitou ‘destroying [the Lusignans’] towns and villages’. This was sadistic and remorseless work, but at times of war most twelfth-century nobles seem to have paid scant regard to the suffering endured by the ‘lower orders’ of society. No evidence survives to indicate how Marshal reacted to this first taste of open raiding – the History passed over this phase of the Aquitanian conflict in silence, and its details have only survived through a brief notice in a contemporary Norman account.

Savage as this type of warfare may seem to modern sensibilities, chevauchées were employed in the vast majority of military campaigns conducted in twelfth-century Europe. Veteran commanders like Henry II and Earl Patrick knew that they were the fastest and safest way to bring any enemy to his knees. As the History later observed, ‘when the poor can no longer reap the harvest from their fields, then they can no longer pay their rent and this in turn impoverishes their lord’. The technique certainly worked for them in 1168. The Lusignans’ ‘rebellion’ was crushed in less than a month, Geoffrey and Guy submitted, their castle was surrendered and Poitou returned to a semblance of order. But Henry also recognised that this type of sharp punitive enforcement could not provide a lasting solution, so he turned to his wife. She had given birth to their eighth child, the boy John, in 1167 and was ready to play a more active role in the governance of the realm. The hope was that, as a native of Aquitaine, Eleanor might be able to inspire a greater measure of loyalty and compliance within the province. She was installed in Poitiers, with Earl Patrick as her lieutenant, while the king left for the north to hold a peace conference with Louis of France.

TREACHERY ON THE ROAD

In early April 1168, William Marshal was guarding Eleanor of Aquitaine’s royal cortège alongside the rest of Patrick of Salisbury’s retinue, as the queen travelled through the forest-cloaked hills of Poitou. The purpose of her journey is unclear, but there seems to have been little sense of apprehension within the party on that spring day. Patrick and his men were not dressed in armour and only a small number of knights were present. In all probability, Eleanor had been touring the recently subdued Lusignan lands and was now returning to Poitiers.

Without any warning the small column was attacked, seemingly from the rear, by a large party of heavily armed Lusignan warriors led by the brothers Geoffrey and Guy. The History of William Marshal described this as a calculated ‘ambush’, and although some aspects of its account can be verified in other contemporary chronicles, the exact causes of the sudden confrontation remain unclear and would later be hotly contested. Perhaps enraged by Henry’s recent campaign, the Lusignans were probably hoping to capture some valuable hostages, thereby securing ransoms and gaining leverage in future negotiations. They may well have imagined that Queen Eleanor herself could be taken prisoner.

Earl Patrick recognised at once that his forces were heavily outnumbered and immediately ‘sent the Queen on to the castle’ – probably in Poitiers itself. Patrick, William Marshal and the remaining members of the Salisbury mesnie now had to hold the road so that Eleanor could reach safety. Within moments a vicious skirmish began as Patrick, still un-armoured and riding only his palfrey, cried out for his warhorse to be brought forward and ‘launched himself furiously into [the] midst’ of the Lusignan troops. In the heated confusion of this first contact, the earl seems to have been isolated from the majority of his knights, as many of the Salisbury warriors, William included, were holding back, trying to hurriedly don armour. Nonetheless, Patrick seems to have survived the first burst of fighting unscathed and, as his destrier arrived, he leapt down and prepared to mount his warhorse and re-enter the fray. He was halfway into the saddle, his back turned to the enemy, when disaster struck. A Lusignan knight drove forward and skewered the earl with a piercing lance strike; un-armoured, as he was, the point of the weapon drove straight through his body. The History described, in horrified tones, how as a result of this terrible blow from a ‘treacherous assassin’ Patrick ‘died on the spot’.

The world must have stopped for a fraction of a second, as the enormity of what had just happened dawned on both sides. It is exceptionally unlikely that the earl of Salisbury’s death was ever part of the Lusignans’ plans. Men of Patrick’s standing were simply too valuable to kill in such an offhand manner and, in any case, everyone knew that properly armoured knights were virtually immune to severe injury. In those first moments, Geoffrey and Guy may already have understood that this dark deed would have grave consequences – certainly they would later argue that the incident had been a terrible accident, not deliberate murder.

But for the remaining Salisbury knights – William Marshal in their midst – that was exactly what it looked like. A wave of shock and blinding rage washed over them. According to the History, William ‘almost went out of his mind with grief’, despairing that ‘he had not been able to reach the man who killed [Patrick] in time’ to halt his attack. By now Marshal was wearing a mail hauberk, but he ‘did not wait until he was fully armed’; instead, possessed by an almost berserk fury, he charged into the frantic mêlée, ‘bent on exacting violent revenge’. William fought first with his lance and then, after his horse was killed under him, with his sword, scything down enemies and their mounts. His biographer likened him to a ‘starving lion’ ripping into its prey. But the number of opponents ranged against him eventually proved overwhelming. With the other Salisbury troops either beaten into retreat or battered into submission, Marshal took his last stand, backed up against a hedge, like ‘a boar before a pack of wolves’, desperately trying to hold back a ring of foes at sword-point. It was only when a Lusignan knight circled round to attack from behind – shoving a lance through the hedgerow that ‘went clean through [William’s] thigh and out the other side’ – that he was felled.

When Marshal finally collapsed, the Lusignans warily closed in to take him prisoner. The lance was pulled from his thigh, and ‘once it was out, blood ran from his wounds down his leggings and breeches’, leaving ‘the whole ground beneath him . . . covered in blood’. As the physical pain of his injury hit home, a dreadful realisation must have settled over William. In this far-flung, unfamiliar corner of the Angevin realm he had lost everything; the lifeless body of his lord and uncle lay just yards away. The raw anguish of that loss can only have been deepened by the certain knowledge that, with his patron’s demise, his own future lay in ruins. All his hopes of security and success had come to nothing. Marshal was a largely unknown and severely wounded knight, and the prisoner of a desperate band of rogue Poitevins – men who could surely guess that they would now be labelled outlaws. As the Lusignans prepared to take flight they made no move to tend to William’s injury. Instead, his blood-soaked body was unceremoniously strapped to an ass and led off into the wilds of Aquitaine.

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One thought on “KNIGHT PROTECTOR—William Marshal

  1. Once William Marshal, as Earl of Pembroke, could afford it, he arranged to have a celebratory anniversary mass be done by the monks at the Priory of Sainte-Foy, Longueville, for his father John fitz Gilbert yearly on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene (July 22), the anniversary of his death. David Crouch, Marshal historian, said ‘it gives us a glimpse showing a real commitment to his father’s memory which seems more than dutiful’ *. The anniversary mass cost 58 shillings, which was a lot of money at that time and a big commitment on William’s part.

    *William Marshal – 3rd edition

    Acts and Letters of the Marshal Family, no. 66, pp. 135-7

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