William Marshal had more experience of the ups and downs of Angevin politics than most. He had known five English kings by 1214. As he spent his life in royal company, it is fitting that his deeds, like theirs, should be recorded for posterity, a rare distinction in an age unmindful of laymen.

The History’s 19,214 lines of rhyming couplets were lost for six centuries, until the single known copy, written on twenty-seven parchment sheets, surfaced at Sotheby’s in 1861. First published in the original Middle French in the 1890s, the poem took another century to appear in English. A pioneering example of French literature, it was probably written at Chepstow in South Wales. Its author acknowledges two sponsors: William Marshal the Younger and John of Earley. William’s successor had filial and personal reasons to refurbish his father’s memory, which was under assault in Henry III’s faction-ridden court. While the heir bore the financial costs, the moral impetus behind the work came from the old Marshal’s devoted squire, John of Earley. John also provided much of the raw material, blending eyewitness testimony from 1187 onwards with recollections of William’s reminiscences.

Episodic and chronologically confused at first, the History assumes increasing authority from the late 1180s when John of Earley entered the Marshal’s service. Isolated anecdotes make way for coherent political and military narrative, sometimes confirming existing sources, sometimes providing new insights. This extended portrait of the whole life and career of a layman was unusual for the thirteenth century. It paints a colourful and realistic picture of the period, from the perspective of the dominant knightly class, packed with insights into medieval warfare, undistorted by the chivalric stereotypes of later authors. It deserves to be better known.

The author of this remarkable work, another John, was no monkish chronicler. A layman, he wrote in the aristocracy’s own language, preferring earthy proverbs to clerical homily. Modern historians disagree over his age, some accepting his claims to have witnessed events in the 1180s. His frequent protestations of truthfulness may be a rhetorical device: Geoffrey of Villehardouin, Marshal of Champagne, made similar claims for his self-justifying account of the Fourth Crusade of 1205. John’s attempts to reconcile contradictory accounts of the battle of Lincoln, however, suggest an underlying honesty. His inaccuracies are predictable and forgivable: an understandable discretion when writing of sensitive matters, and narrative distortions that reflect William’s flickering memory of days long past.


Like most medieval people, William had little idea of his age. Outside royal circles, births were rarely recorded. The end of life, with its passage to a better world, was more important. William claimed that he was over eighty in 1216, placing his birth in the 1130s. The Marshal family’s documented role in the disturbances of Stephen’s reign suggests that William exaggerated his longevity for political effect.



William’s grandfather Gilbert Gifford was Marshal at the court of Henry I. A mid-ranking official responsible for maintaining order and supervising the stables, he bequeathed his function to William’s father, John fitz Gilbert, who served Stephen in that role until at least 1136. Soon afterwards the title transferred from the office to the man, for in 1141 we find him referred to as Johannes agnomine Marescallus, Marshal by name. By then John was no longer in Stephen’s service, and the Marshal family never performed the everyday physical duties of that office again. John may have broken with the king following Stephen’s capture at Lincoln, or before. As early as 1137 he fortified Ludgershall and Marlborough, a royal castle dominating the Kennet Valley in Wiltshire. Stephen was besieging Marlborough when the opening convulsions of the Angevin revolt drew him away.

John’s ambiguous loyalties bear out William of Malmesbury’s description of him as ‘a man of surprising subtlety’. Gesta Stephani, another West Country source, saw him as ‘artful and ready for great acts of treachery’. The History presented him as valiant and faithful, neither earl nor baron, but astonishing everyone with the largesse that attracted a mesnie or warband of 300 knights. Gesta Stephani reveals the economic basis of that generosity, associating John with freebooters like Geoffrey of Mandeville, who was denied Christian burial and hung from a tree in a lead shroud:

John … who commanded Marlborough Castle, ceaselessly disturbed the peace of the kingdom; built castles with amazing skill in places agreeable to himself, brought under his own control the lands of the Church, having chased out the tenants … And when he was struck with the sword of the Church’s power [i.e. excommunicated], he was not cowed, but more and more obdurate.

The demise of Robert fitz Hubert illustrates John Marshal’s methods. A renegade Angevin with a penchant for smearing his victims’ bodies with honey and exposing them to wasps, Robert seized Devizes Castle by a night assault using rope ladders. Seeking to infiltrate Marlborough Castle under cover of peace negotiations, he was himself betrayed. John’s men slammed the gates behind him, and chased his confederates back to Devizes. Robert was fettered, starved, tortured, and finally returned to Robert of Gloucester, who hanged him outside Devizes to the chroniclers’ applause.

John Marshal had joined the Angevin camp by August 1141, appearing second in a list of Matilda’s supporters at the siege of Winchester. The siege’s end and the panic-stricken dispersio Wintoniensis, or Rout of Winchester, form one of the most dramatic episodes of his career. Superior numbers of royalists hemmed in the Angevins, themselves besieging the bishop’s castle at Wolvesey. Short of food, the Angevins broke out westwards. John was trapped at Wherwell Abbey, where the Andover road crosses the River Test. His men were dragged off in chains, while armed bands rampaged through the sacred precincts, and nuns fled screaming through the flames. John stood fast in the tower, while molten lead dripped off the burning roof, threatening his last companion with instant death if he tried to surrender. Scorched and blinded in one eye, John finally escaped, walking the 11 miles home.

The History presents this dramatic episode as a rearguard action, in which John Marshal covered Matilda’s escape. It also claims that he advised her to sit astride her horse, instead of sideways as ladies usually did, in order to outpace her royalist pursuers. Two of the three contemporary sources, however, put the storming of Wherwell Abbey before Matilda’s withdrawal. Several hundred Angevin knights had fortified the convent, to protect their communications westwards, when overwhelming numbers of royalists stormed it, early on 14 September. This cut Winchester off from the northwest, and precipitated the Angevin retreat later the same day. The chronicler John of Worcester is sometimes quoted in support of the History’s account. However, he specified Stolibricgeor Stockbridge, the next crossing downstream from Wherwell, as the place where the Angevin rearguard under Robert of Gloucester, not John Marshal, came to grief. Local tradition places the fighting just east of Stockbridge at Le Strete, a paved ford of Roman origin. Today, this is a roundabout, where the Winchester road crosses the Andover–Romsey road.

Covered by Robert’s last stand, Matilda escaped, riding astride like a man, escorted by her lifelong friend Brian fitz Count. Once past Stockbridge, she could head north over the downs for Ludgershall, giving Wherwell a wide berth. In this crisis Matilda seems more likely to have entrusted her safety to faithful supporters like Robert and Brian than to the weathercock Marshal. No contemporary account says who advised Matilda on equitation. John Marshal does seem an appropriate commander at Wherwell, on his own route home. John of Worcester mentioned an unspecified John there, while William is unlikely to have invented his father’s disfigurement. The History appears to have conflated the most dramatic elements of a story that was a very distant memory by the 1220s, giving John Marshal the lead role. What actually happened mattered less than what William and his contemporaries believed. Such ancestral devotion to the Angevin cause constituted a compelling claim upon the dynasty’s gratitude.

William’s birth occurred some years after the Rout of Winchester. Wiltshire had become the civil war’s front line, as John Marshal fought Stephen’s sheriff for local supremacy. Stephen’s defeat at Wilton in 1143, however, portended a strategic shift. The sheriff changed sides, becoming the Angevin Earl of Salisbury. The Middle Ages were a very physical age, so peace was made flesh by John Marshal marrying the new earl’s sister, Sybil. John was already married with two sons, but the Church’s generous definition of consanguinity made it easy to dispose of a wife who had served her political turn. Allowing for such manoeuvres and the birth of an elder brother, William was probably born at Marlborough in 1147. His Christian name was the most popular of the day. Over 100 Williams attended the Young King’s court at Christmas 1171. It was also a compliment to his mother’s kin, being her uncle’s name. William was attached from birth to a lineage more powerful than his own.

Younger sons were minor pieces on the feudal chessboard. Like pawns they might be risked to protect more important pieces. The earliest lines of the History derived from William’s memories rather than hearsay concern such an occasion. Pushing eastwards down the Kennet, John Marshal built one of his unofficial castles at Newbury. It cut the road between royalist castles at Winchester and Oxford, and threatened Stephen’s strategic heartland in the Thames Valley. Our only contemporary informant is Henry of Huntingdon. He says that Stephen besieged Newbury in 1152, took it, and moved on to Wallingford. The History’s fuller account sheds light on the conduct of sieges, the character of Stephen, and the precarious existence of younger sons.

Sieges followed a set pattern: summons, defiance, and ritual show of resistance, followed by a pause while the garrison appealed to their lord for help. John Marshal played for time, claiming he also had to consult his superiors. Knowing his man, Stephen demanded a hostage and was given the five-year-old William. John promptly broke the truce by provisioning the castle. William, as the History put it, was en aventure. When Stephen threatened the child with hanging, John feigned indifference, saying he still had the anvils and hammers to make more and better sons.

Taking hostages was a common medieval way of reinforcing contracts. Stephen’s exchange for Robert of Gloucester after the Rout of Winchester was guaranteed by an elaborate rotation of high-status hostages. Matters did not always end so happily, however. King John hanged twenty-eight Welsh hostages in 1212, including a seven-year-old. The chivalric King William the Lion of Scotland castrated the son of Earl Harald of Maddadson when the latter invaded Caithness. Fortunately for William, Wiltshire was not Wales or Scotland, and Stephen, as John Marshal may have calculated, was not King John.

A deadly charade followed, featuring a gallows, a stone-thrower, and a siege gallery to which William was attached as a human shield. Each time, William’s naïve chatter saved him from being catapulted into the castle, or crushed by a millstone dropped off the wall. Finally, he became a household pet, playing around Stephen’s flower-strewn tent. He claimed to have beaten the king at jackstraws, a jousting game played with the spear-like heads of the plantain, plantago lanceolata, a suitable exploit for a future tournament champion. Newbury also marks the first appearance of the backbiting flatterers that the History styled losengiers, whose jealousy plagued William’s career. The poet knew better than to accuse Stephen of threatening his subject’s life. It was the king’s courtiers who loaded William into the stone-thrower, and the king who rescued him.

The image of a hard-pressed king playing jackstraws is a reminder of how medieval households swarmed with young people, from wellborn squires to unwashed turn-spits. William would soon join the throng. Only eldest sons expected a significant inheritance. Younger sons of good family left home to pursue one of two permissible métiers, or occupations: chivalry or the Church. Late in the 1150s, William rode off with a single companion to become a knight, his belongings rolled up in his cloak. In those unaffected times even the sons of a king might have done the same.

William’s destination was the Seine Valley, where his distant cousin and namesake was hereditary Chamberlain of Normandy, and a well-known maker of knights. His castle’s overgrown remains still stand at the northern end of the great Tancarville bridge, 10 miles (16km) east of Le Havre, including a twelfth-century square tower that William might recognise. It was usual for great English families, remarked Gervase of Tilbury, to send their sons to France, ‘to be trained in arms, and have the barbarity of their native tongue removed’. William would have spoken English at home. He would speak French in future, like a gentleman. Some knightly skills are self-evident: handling the shield, swordplay, gripping the lance, and sitting straight in the saddle. Brutal mock combats instilled the toughness that carried John Marshal home from Wherwell. Henry II’s sons all learnt to be thrown to the ground, to see their blood flowing, and feel their teeth cracking under an opponent’s blow. A twelfth-century educational theorist thought aspirant knights should learn riding, swimming, shooting the bow, boxing, bird baiting, and versifying. He omitted serving at table, an essential skill for maintaining the bonds of conviviality that bound feudal society together. Even a king’s son might carve his lord’s meat, as the Young King did during Philip Augustus’s coronation feast.

The History glosses over William’s time at Tancarville. Perhaps he was homesick like Ordericus Vitalis, the early twelfth-century chronicler sent away from his English provincial home at much the same age as William. There were those who resented William’s presence, losengiers who complained that he ate, drank, and slept too much. They called him gaste-viande, greedy-guts, but the chamberlain defended his young cousin with the obscure prediction that he would yet pull the bean out of the stew, rather like Little Jack Horner pulling the plum out of his Christmas pie. One thing William did not do was learn to read. When he received letters he employed a clerk to read them properly. Perhaps John Marshal, the hard man of Wiltshire politics, shared the proverbial view that anyone at school till twelve before learning to ride a horse was only fit for priesthood.

William’s tournament successes suggest that he profited by the chamberlain’s instruction. His physique was well adapted to his métier. An eyewitness, probably John of Earley, thought that ‘there might be no better made body in the whole world’. This is conventional praise, along with the height and broad hips essential for any cavalryman. We are on firmer ground with William’s unfashionable brown colouring and well-attested strength. During one tournament, he dashed out from lunch, his mouth full of fresh herring, to carry off an injured knight in full armour, to pay the bill. After eight years at Tancarville, aged nearly twenty, William was ready for knighthood.


Knighthood was a high point in the existence of every young man of good family, marking the start of adult life. The History tells us that in William’s case the chamberlain simply belted on his sword, although it becomes apparent that William received all the standard knightly accoutrements: warhorse or destrier, cloak, and hauberk. The whole outfit cost the approximate annual output of a village. The ceremony descended from Germanic traditions of equipping every freeborn youth with the arms of manhood. In the twelfth century’s more stratified society, it bestowed access to the new class of mounted warriors. Known as chevaliers in French, they have left us the word chivalry. This was both an activity and a set of values. At one level it was the practice of mounted warfare. The Angevin knights at Winchester rode out daily por faire chevalerie – to do chivalry.

Chivalry was also the ethical framework governing that activity. It evolved from the need of knightly households to reduce the physical risks of continual warfare, and mitigate the social consequences of individual acts of violence. The success of such efforts to moderate conflict was limited, given the nature of medieval society. Unarmed knights remained fair game. Attacks from behind were not unknown. Common combatants, sergeants and routiers, were outside the system. Uneven in its application, chivalry represented the first secular steps towards today’s laws of war. Its moral basis, a fusion of Christian and martial values, was represented by three essential qualities: prowess or skill at arms, loyalty to one’s lord, and largesse or generosity to equals and inferiors. The Historypresents William as their living embodiment. It places less emphasis on a fourth element, the service of one’s lady, but both William and his father gained much through the service of women, and profited greatly by their marriages.

The occasion of William’s knighting is controversial. The location was Drincourt, a market town in northern Normandy. Now called Neufchâtel-en-Bray, Drincourt occupies a central point on the River Béthune which flows north-west to Dieppe. King John attacked it in 1201, as did the Young King in 1173. Alexander of Parma besieged it in 1592 during the French Wars of Religion. The Luftwaffe destroyed it in 1940 with incendiary bombs. The History describes a cruel war also, castles garrisoned from Mortagne in the west to Arques near Dieppe.

The History’s first editor, Paul Meyer, identified the conflict in which William was engaged at the time of his knighting with the Young King’s Revolt of 1173, when Drincourt was indeed besieged. This wrecks the poem’s chronology, and jumbles up the sides. The History’s account of a fluid mounted action is impossible to reconcile with a static siege. A more satisfactory date is 1166, when the Counts of Flanders, Boulogne, and Ponthieu revolted against Henry II, as the text reports. This also fits the History’s sequence of events, which places Drincourt before William’s first tournament later that year, and puts him safely on the Angevin side. The date’s uncertainty is a reminder of William’s obscurity. Nobody remembered the undistinguished ceremony, rushed through on the eve of battle, perhaps for a whole troop of Tancarville graduates.

Neither Drincourt nor Lincoln fit the stereotype of a medieval pitched battle fought in the open, as both occurred in built-up areas. Medieval Drincourt was built east of the River Béthune. Since diverted westwards to prevent flooding, the twelfth-century Béthune then flowed along the foot of the steep incline up which runs the main street, the Grande Rue Saint-Jacques, past the church. Henry I’s castle, which gave Drincourt its modern name, lay at the far northern corner of the medieval town. Long demolished, the probable site of William’s knighting is marked only by a ring of trees and a deep ditch on the north side. A suburb known as St Vincent lay north-west of the main town on the Eu road, now the D1314, beyond a ditch crossed by the History’s ‘master bridge’. The fighting seems to have revolved about the latter, the counts’ raiding party having broken into the suburb, the defending Normans trying to expel it.

The forces quoted display the usual medieval contradiction between small precise numbers, like the chamberlain’s twenty-eight knights, and the 2,000 that the History attributes to the enemy. Eighty knights dined at the chamberlain’s expense after the battle, a reasonable figure if supplemented by two or three sergeants each. Despite Drincourt lying 16 miles (25km) from the border, the Normans were surprised, and rushed about shouting, ‘To arms, to arms’, hastily pulling on their armour. The Constable of Normandy, who should have taken command, rode off vilainement – like a cowardly peasant – leaving the chamberlain to save the town.

Neufchâtel’s repeated destruction complicates attempts to reconstruct the battle. Sidney Painter, William’s American biographer, places the chamberlain south-west of the Béthune, outside the town, an odd place to defend it against an attack from the north, one that would have required the defenders to charge up the steep main street. It seems more likely that the chamberlain’s party formed up within the castle, and rode out along the Rue du Vieux Château to turn right across the master bridge. As they went, the chamberlain rebuked William for pushing into the front rank among the more experienced knights.

The enemy were already inside the town. Seizing shields and gripping lances, the opposing squadrons put their horses to a gallop, and crashed together, shattering lances and smashing shields into fragments. Such was the noise of sword blows on helmets, a thunderclap might not have been heard. The defenders gained the advantage, and chased the raiders across the back bridge that carried the Eu road across the outer ditch into the countryside. Here fresh troops in good order reinforced the attackers, driving the tired and disorganised Normans back to the master bridge. Four times the battle swayed to and fro, before the townspeople joined in with axes and clubs to clear the street.

The History makes much of William’s prowess, describing him laying out swathes of the enemy, giving and receiving great blows, and rallying the shaken Normans, cheered on by an admiring chorus of townspeople. Near the end of the battle, thirteen Flemish sergeants set upon him while he was drawing breath in a sheep-fold, snagging him with an iron hook kept for pulling down burning houses. William broke away by clinging to his horse’s peitral or breast strap, but they ripped off thirteen links of mail, and left an enduring scar on his shoulder. More seriously, his precious destrier was killed. Everyone, even the French, agreed that the honours of the day were William’s, but he had failed in the knight’s duty to profit from his prowess. Teased by an older knight while celebrating the town’s delivery, he did not even have an old horse collar to show for the day’s fighting. Unable to replace his destrier, he sold his cloak to buy a broken down rouncey, a better animal for a robber than a knight.

Marooned at Tancarville, William was rescued by a tournament at Sainte-Jamme-sur-Sarthe, near Le Mans. The chamberlain needed forty knights, and he grudgingly gave William a new destrier: an unmanageable brute, but swift as a hawk. Called ‘Blancart’, its name lingered in William’s memory for half a century. He had learned his lesson from Drincourt, and captured three knights, their ransoms buying him all the horses he wanted. He attended another event on his own, winning the prize. Still in Tancarville colours, a mark of quality, William embarked on his first tour, from the lower Rhine, through Flanders and Normandy, down to Anjou. He was not always successful. Years later he refused to return a horse to a knight who had treated him similarly when an unknown. But William was learning the business, not just the physical arts of jousting, but the bargaining and horse trading that went with it. At length, rich enough to appear before his family in style, he bid his mentor farewell, and sailed for England.

William appears not to have seen his family since he left home, and his trip was undertaken for practical reasons. His father and half-brothers had died, leaving the Marshal patrimony to his elder brother John. There is no sign that William expected anything from him. Instead he sought out his maternal uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury. This was a shrewd career move. Representing a more prestigious lineage, Earl Patrick had greater influence at court, where the elder John Marshal had lost favour after spreading seditious prophecies. A sister’s son was a useful addition to any household, closely related but without inconvenient patrimonial claims. A knight of proven valour, William was a welcome recruit to the mesnie Earl Patrick was about to lead overseas.

There was always trouble in Poitou – ‘wolf skin’ or peil de loup, as the History called it – as local lords resisted the centralising activities of their Angevin overlords. While Henry II hunted Poitevin dissidents, Earl Patrick guarded Queen Eleanor at Lusignan. Shortly after Easter 1168, the queen was ambushed while out riding. She was hurried away to safety, but Earl Patrick, still unarmed, received a lance thrust from behind while mounting his destrier. The History presents this as typical Poitevin treachery. It even uses the expression ‘assassin’, from the Middle Eastern sect of that name, rather like invoking Al-Quaida today. Unarmed knights were fair game, however. Twenty years later William himself charged Richard Coeur de Lion in his pourpoint or padded linen jacket, and claimed that he would have been within his rights to kill him.

Enraged by his uncle’s underhand killing, William charged into the melee, bringing one Poitevin down before the others killed his horse. Backed against a hedge, he stood at bay like a wild boar, defying them to come on, until somebody climbed through the hedge and speared him from behind, thrusting up beneath the hauberk. William was lucky to escape death, the lance passing through both thighs, projecting 3 feet (nearly 1m) beyond. Blood gushed out when the weapon was withdrawn, leaving a trail on the ground. John, Lord of Joinville, a veteran of St Louis’s Crusade in 1249, describes blood pouring from a similar wound, as if from the bung-hole of a barrel. Fearing Henry II’s vengeance, William’s captors dragged him from one obscure refuge to another, while he bandaged his wounds with his legging ties. Surprisingly, he recovered, to be ransomed by the queen.

This violent episode was the decisive moment of William’s career. Terribly injured in the queen’s defence, in an echo of John Marshal’s stand at Wherwell, William had forged a bond with the house of Anjou that survived fifty years and more than one contretemps. His instinctive gallantry earned him the gratitude of Europe’s most powerful woman, whose name the History reminds us meant ‘pure and gold’. She gave William almost everything a young knight might want: horses, arms, money, fine clothes, and promotion. Following the Young King’s coronation, William was chosen as the fifteen-year-old prince’s tutor-in-arms, responsible for his security and military education. This was astonishing progress for a twenty-three-year-old bachelier of obscure origin. Together the two travelled much and spent much, William acting as what the eighteenth century would call the Young King’s bear-leader. The Young King’s charters confirm William’s pre-eminent position, listing him first among the lay witnesses, preceding other household knights.

The History maintains a prudent silence over William’s involvement in the Young King’s Revolt, except for one episode. Pursued by Henry II’s forces, the Young King’s household decided to knight the prince immediately. Naturally the Young King chose his tutor to perform the ceremony as the best knight present. Unfortunately a reliable eyewitness recorded Henry II knighting his son before his coronation in 1170. As with Wherwell Abbey and the jackstraws, the incident’s literal truth matters less than its affirmation of lifelong royal favour. We must assume that William participated in both the sieges of Drincourt and Rouen, his name appearing in government lists of rebels at the close of hostilities. Forgiven if not chastened, the Young King returned to England for a year of hunting, never to William’s taste, and the insipid variety of jousting known as plaids. Life began again in April 1176, as the Young King and his tutor sailed from Portchester to rejoin the international tournament circuit.

The twelfth-century tournament craze was at its height. Competitive jousting had developed in France in the late eleventh century, as knights learned to grip a lance tightly underarm, and charge full tilt at an opponent to knock them clean out of the saddle. It was at once a pastime and a vocational exercise. Known in England as conflicti Gallicani – French fights – tournaments were also called nundinae or fairs from the swarms of hangers-on. The Church condemned them as a distraction from fighting the infidel and an incitement to the more pleasurable sins. Governments feared them as a threat to public order. Neither ecclesiastical nor administrative disapproval affected the sport’s popularity. Its sponsors were great feudatories like the Counts of Champagne or Flanders. Enriched by the twelfth-century expansion of trade and industry, they found tournaments an effective way of asserting their power and prestige, as the parallel recovery of royal power menaced their political independence. The Young King’s addiction to the pursuit was a continuation of rebellion by other means. The History describes sixteen tournaments in which William took part:



Location (Department)



Ste Jamme/Valennes (Sarthe)

Takes three knights


St Brice/Bouere (Mayenne)

Wins prize: a Lombard horse


Ressons/Gournai (Oise)*

Copies Flemish tactics


Unlocated (‘Normandie’)*

‘Sire et mestre’ of own lord


Anet/Sorel (Eure-et-Loir)*

Team tactics defeat French


Pleurs (Marne)

Wins prize


Eu (Seine-Maritime)*

Takes ten knights and twelve horses

1178/79 (exact date unknown)

Joigny (Yonne)



Maintenon/Nogent (Eure-et-Loir)*



Anet/Sorel (Eure-et-Loir)

Leads Young King’s mesnie


Épernon (Eure-et-Loir)



Lagny-sur-Marne (Seine-et-Marne)*

Flies own banneret


Épernon (Eure-et-Loir)



Ressons/Gournai (Oise)*

Defends estranged lord


Ressons/Gournai (Oise)



St Pierre-sur-Dives (Calvados)


* Tournaments at which the Young King was present

Tournaments had a specific geographical range, like rugby or bull-fighting. The baker’s dozen of locations in the History occupy a rough quadrilateral from Eu on the Channel, south-east towards Troyes, then west past Le Mans, before turning north towards the Channel near Caen. Events avoided royal strongholds, sponsors preferring the debatable locations chosen for real battles. The central cluster of tournament venues listed above all lay in Eure-et-Loir, on the Angevin-Capetian border. Participants came from further afield: ‘Avalterre to Montjoux’ says the History – the Lower Rhine to the St Bernard Pass. William’s first victim was a Scotsman. Individual mesnies formed local teams, grouped into national sides: Anglo-Norman, Flemish, or French, never Spanish or Italian. At the height of the season, there might be a tournament every other week. Sponsors avoided wet weather, bad for horses and equipment, but respites were shorter than in real wars: Advent to Epiphany, Easter, Whit, and All Saints. Twelfth-century tournaments were not the regulated individual jousts of the later Middle Ages. More a free-for-all scrimmage, they were conducted in the hope of gain, a form of gambling, in which knights wagered their bodies and equipment against their strength and skill at arms.

There were no lists in the sense of a fenced-off fighting area. Fighting ranged across a loosely defined area of open countryside, taking in barns, old mottes, vineyards, and even villages. There were a few conventions: commençailles beforehand when young knights showed off; truces between bouts; recets or safe refuges surrounded by a palisade; release of prisoners and settling up accounts at the end; a prize awarded by the sponsors. Otherwise, tournaments resembled real battles, with sharp swords and realistic tactics, but no lethal intent. That would have been counter-productive. Horses were not targeted for the same reason. Tournaments were not without fatalities, however. The knight credited with inventing them died in one. William’s third son, Gilbert, was killed when his destrier’s reins broke. The brave were to be found amongst the horses’ hooves, for cowards would not hazard their lives in the press (History).

William survived his eighteen-year tournament career unscathed, though perhaps a little dazed. It was standard practice to beat a knight around the head until he was sufficiently disoriented to be dragged away. William was found after the Pleurs tournament with his head on an anvil, having his helmet knocked back into shape, so he could take it off. The History describes sixteen tournaments in which William took part, and implies many others. He reckoned at the end of his life that he had taken over 500 knights, with their horses and equipment. His top recorded score for one event was at Eu, where he captured ten knights and twelve horses, one of them twice. Captures came so easily that he made a joke of them. Before Joigny, he responded to a minstrel singing ‘Marshal give me a good horse’, a popular song of the day, by joining the commençailles to get one. Occasionally the History claims that William fought for honour, or gave his winnings to Crusaders. Usually he operated on commercial lines. He formed a partnership orcompagnonnage with another of the Young King’s household, a Flemish knight called Roger of Gaugi or Jouy, and took 103 knights between Whitsun 1177 and the following Lent. The Young King’s clerk of the kitchen, Wigain, kept a list, which John thetrovèreconsulted half a century later.

Besides consolidating his reputation, William was responsible for managing Team Angevin. The Young King was very much the underdog when he landed at Barfleur in April 1176. Henry II had banned tournaments in England, which, as William de Tancarville had warned William, was a fine country for vavassours but not for knights errant. The Young King had a choice mesnie, anxious to do well, but little luck. French knights laughed when the English appeared, having already divided the spoils. Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders and doyen of the tournament scene, welcomed the Young King in great style, but showed him no favours on the field. The inexperienced English lacked discipline, and quickly lost formation. They suffered many defeats at the hands of Philip’s knights, losing many prisoners. William’s initial role in these débâcles was to save the Young King, laying about him with the great sword blows that became his trademark. Over time he observed Philip’s tactics, and persuaded the Young King to imitate them. Following William’s directions the English learned to stick together, keep a reserve, and counter-attack, driving their disordered opponents before them, Flemish banners trailing in the mud, riderless horses galloping about. Success was self-reinforcing, as the spoils bought more and better players, assisted by the Young King’s extravagance. By 1180 he was paying his knights 20 shillings a day (Angevin), seven and a half times the wages Henry II paid his stipendiary knights. No wonder the one was always insolvent, or that the other resented his son’s extravagance.

William’s highest point as player-manager was the great tournament at Lagny-sur-Marne, held soon after Philip Augustus’s coronation in November 1179. The field was covered in combatants, allegedly 3,000 of them, the horses unable to charge for broken lances. The Young King attended with over 200 knights, their names inscribed in the History. Other magnates included nineteen counts and the Duke of Burgundy. William flew his own banner, commanding a troop of fifteen knights. As usual, attackers mobbed the Young King, eager to seize so prestigious a prize. Again William rescued him, though Henry lost his helmet. The History had styled William Sire et mestre de son seignor – lord and master of his lord – but Lagny was the end of the glory days. William’s ascendancy had excited the losengiers, Norman members of the royal household who resented the English parvenu.

William’s enemies attacked him on two fronts, accusing him of diverting celebrity and spoils due to the Young King to himself. Darker rumours alleged that he had seduced Henry’s twenty-five-year-old wife Queen Margaret, the daughter of Louis VII. Twelfth-century domestic arrangements favoured adultery, combining temptation and opportunity. Unmarried bacheliers vied for the favour of their lord’s wife as a way of gaining his love. Accommodation was ill-lit and insecure; couples married for politics not affection. Discovery, however, incurred dreadful penalties. Philip of Alsace, William’s chivalric exemplar, murdered his wife’s alleged seducer, hanging him upside down in a sewer. There is no evidence that William ever succumbed to his passions. Indeed, his amicable relations with Margaret’s half-brother, Philip Augustus, suggest otherwise.

Rumour was enough. Deprived of the Young King’s friendship, William left court, returning late in 1182 for a last outing as manager and bodyguard at Ressons/Gournai, just before Advent stopped jousting for the year. Like an Arthurian hero, William arrived at the last minute fully armed, made great inroads upon the enemy, then rode away without speaking. The tournament reflected the impasse in William’s private life, and ended in stalemate, the sides separating by common accord. William made one attempt to clear his name, challenging his traducers to trial by combat at Henry II’s Christmas court 1182. William would make similar appeals at later crises in his career. As on subsequent occasions, nobody was fool enough to take him on, even when he offered to cut off a finger. William’s biographers sometimes treat his challenges as a joke, but they were not. His father and grandfather had each justified their claim to the Marshal’s office by offering to fight for it. Duels often produced fatal outcomes, or worse. Accused of treason after fleeing a Welsh ambush, Henry II’s standard bearer Henry of Essex was beaten in the ensuing duel, left for dead, and compelled to live out his days as a monk on an island in the Thames.

Denied justice, William withdrew, jostled and abused by his enemies. For the first time in his career he had nowhere to go. Cast adrift at mid-winter, his situation was desolate but not desperate. After retail therapy at the Lagny horse fair, he made for the first tournament of the New Year at Ressons/Gournai. Invited to lead the Count of St Pol’s thirty-strong mesnie, he obliged his new patron with the loan of a fine destrier, and had a splendid time. The great patrons of the sport besieged him with extravagant offers. None of them were kings, however, and he must have nursed hopes of rehabilitation. William made his successes known at court, and went on a pilgrimage. Cologne had recently acquired the relics of the Three Kings, also victims of royal disfavour, and the Rhineland was near enough to keep in touch. The trip would bring spiritual merit, and provide a cooling-off period.

If that was William’s calculation, it paid off. Besieged in Limoges by his father in March 1183, the Young King needed all his supporters. Even Geoffrey of Lusignan, one of the Poitevin lords involved in the murder of William’s uncle Patrick in 1168, urged William’s recall, offering to fight anyone who disagreed. Reputation and favour restored, William reached the prince’s side just in time to see him die. Once more his future was in doubt. He conveyed the remains back to Henry II, but the Old King owed William nothing, seeing him as an associate of his spendthrift son, and protégé of his disaffected wife. William rejoined the tournament circuit, though not for long. One of the Young King’s final pranks had been to take the Cross, an obligation he bequeathed to William. It provided an opportunity for a strategic withdrawal to gain time, a technique William would adopt in later crises.

A passage in arms to the Holy Land was the supreme spiritual moment of every knightly career, combining hopes of salvation with glittering material prospects. More than one Western adventurer had gained a crown overseas since Godfrey of Bouillon became King of Jerusalem in 1099. We cannot tell what ambitions William entertained when he left for Palestine in the autumn of 1183. Recent events may have focussed his mind on the more spiritual aspects of his journey. Pilgrims usually placed more emphasis on the expiatory than the military aspects of their journey. Fighting was incidental to seeing the Holy Places. Safer than a full-scale Crusade with its battles, plagues, and sieges, individual pilgrimages remained hazardous. Pirates and water spouts, scorpions, crocodiles, and dysentery threatened every traveller. An English visitor to Jerusalem in 1102 remembered corpses floating in Jaffa harbour and strewing the road to Jerusalem. William visited his married sisters before leaving, a rare enough attention to suggest the seriousness of his adventure. He also initiated a détente with Henry II, leaving two fine horses with him against a £25 advance for expenses.

We may assume that William travelled by sea in one of the regular pilgrim fleets, probably via Marseilles as Richard I did seven years later. As a man of consequence, he could avoid the horrors of sleeping with several hundred others a few feet above the bilges, of which a fifteenth-century pilgrim sang:

A man were as good as to be dede
As smell thereof the stynk.

The History says that William stayed away two years, doing more fine deeds than others did in seven. This is unlikely. The Crusader states of Outremer afforded little opportunity for prowess in the 1180s. The King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, was dying of leprosy, and hopelessly at odds with his Poitevin brother-in-law Guy, brother of Geoffrey of Lusignan, and still more deeply implicated in Earl Patrick’s murder. Saladin was still consolidating his dominance of the Muslim world. In 1185 he accepted 60,000 golden bezants, £6,000 sterling, for a truce. William probably had leisure to view the sights: the Temple and Mount of Olives, the room of the Last Supper, Calvary, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The sombre itinerary, following the Young King’s untimely death, clearly turned William’s mind towards his own mortality. He surprised everyone on his deathbed by producing the silken pall he had bought years earlier in Palestine. He also formed a lifelong attachment to the Templars, the knightly religious order that patrolled the roads to Jerusalem. William’s unaccustomed silence about his pilgrimage not only obeyed the Templar Rule that forbade boasting; it deprived John the trovère of his best source. The scenes of Christ’s Life and Passion were too serious a matter for after-dinner reminiscences.


William’s return to Europe in the spring of 1186 opened a more sober chapter in his life: no more tournaments. The king whose malveillance he once feared now welcomed him into his household. William would, with one interruption, be party to royal counsels for over thirty years. Henry also provided the means for William to support his new position: an estate at Cartmel north of Morecambe Bay and custody of Heloise of Lancaster, a royal ward whose father had died without male heirs. Marriage to her would give William similar baronial status to his brother. The lady was under-age, however, her inheritance a single knight’s fee. William treated her honourably, as some might not have done, but he did not marry her either.

William’s return from Outremer before the coronation of his enemy Guy of Lusignan as King of Jerusalem, ensured that he missed the battle of Hattin, where hundreds of his Templar acquaintances perished. He himself did rather well out of the opening stages of the great Angevin-Capetian war that began in the summer of 1188. William was in his element at Gisors in August, stage-managing a mock chivalric response to Philip Augustus’s insincere proposal of a duel between champions to settle Capetian-Angevin differences. When Philip Augustus withdrew in a huff, his men cut down the elm tree that traditionally sheltered Franco-Norman conferences: there would be no more parleys. William’s advice to Henry II was less whimsical. Henry should disband his troops, then secretly reunite them at a pre-set rendezvous. Crossing the border unopposed, they ravaged the Seine Valley as far as Mantes, destroying an orchard Philip Augustus had planted: fair exchange for Henry’s elm.

A similar lightning raid followed against Montmirail, 30 miles (45km) east of Le Mans. William reverted to knight errantry, charging over the castle’s unwalled bridge to attack another knight surrounded by ten foot sergeants. Only his horse’s sure-footedness saved William from falling into the 60-foot (18m) deep ditch below, when their spears drove him back. The action marks John of Earley’s first appearance, aged fifteen or sixteen, handing William his spear, and treating his destrier’s wounds. As the war and Henry II’s health went downhill, William’s importance increased. When Richard left his father to join Philip Augustus, William was among those sent to bring him back. He failed, as did his first diplomatic mission to the French court in the winter of 1188–89. Over the next twenty-five years, William never once shifted Philip Augustus from his chosen path. As other followers fell away, Henry promised William a far richer heiress, Isabel of Clare, Countess of Pembroke and Striguil.

Henry’s defeat at Le Mans on 12 June was the decisive engagement of the war. After the futile meeting at Ferté-Bernard, his enemies ranged east and north of Le Mans, mopping up Angevin castles. On the 10th, they were 10 miles (15km) away at Montfort, simulating a lunge towards Tours. William patrolled south down the Le Mans–Tours road next morning. Meeting enemy scouts, he displayed a new tactical maturity, and avoided contact. Hidden by mist, William went close enough to make sure he had found the French army, resisted pressure to return early or waste horseflesh in needless skirmishing, and rode back to report.

Le Mans lies at the confluence of the Rivers Sarthe and Huisne, which flow south and west respectively, joining south-west of the city. They form significant obstacles, passable only at fords and bridges. The city’s artificial defences included recently cleared ditches, walls, and a castle. Henry had Welsh infantry and 700 mounted troops, but was unwilling to fight. He broke down the Huisne bridge, south of the city, and obstructed known fords with stakes. At least two fords, the Gués de Mauny and Bernisson, existed in the 1870s, either side of the bridge. Preparations were made to fire the suburbs between the city walls and the river. Apparently frustrated, the enemy stopped a bow-shot south of the Huisne, and pitched camp.

Henry rode down to the Pontlieue bridgehead next morning to observe the enemy. Not expecting a battle, he went unarmed, insisting that his household did likewise. William refused, saying that his armour was no trouble, and was left behind in some disfavour. To everyone’s surprise, French knights were sounding an unknown ford with their lances, preparatory to crossing. Henry’s unarmed escort launched a sacrificial charge to cover his escape, soon fulfilling William’s prophecy that they would regret removing their armour.

Roger of Howden describes a panic-stricken retreat into the city, which the attackers promptly followed up. The History, however, suggests that William and his fifty-strong mesnie disputed the south gate for some time. There was no time for the customary exchange of insults as fighting ranged up and down the suburban street between moat and bridge, where railway tracks now cross the N138. William took four prisoners, although three escaped, leaving John of Earley with just the bridles as evidence. Whether the attackers chased William’s men back through the gate or found another entry is unclear. Broken lance fragments lamed his horse, while one of his men ended up in the ditch. Howden’s reference to attackers crossing an anonymous stone bridge have been applied to the Pont Perrin, west of the city, begging the question of how they crossed the combined streams below Le Mans to get there. Besides, such a turning movement would have prevented Henry’s subsequent escape, his castles to the north-east having already fallen into enemy hands.

Still unarmed and violently angry, Henry insisted on firing the suburbs, too late to stop the enemy advance. As flames spread into the city, he fled north to Fresnay-sur-Sarthe. Howden says the French pursued him for 3 miles (4.5km), stopping at a steep banked ford, perhaps at Maule. The History attributes Henry’s escape to William, another echo of John Marshal’s stand at Wherwell. Stripped to his pourpoint for speed, William was skirmishing with some other knights, when Count Richard appeared similarly equipped. As William ran him down, fresh lance in hand, Richard protested he was unarmed: ‘Nay, let the Devil kill you’, replied the Marshal, ‘for I will not!’, and thrust his lance into Richard’s horse, allowing Henry and many others to escape. Not since the Roman soldier slew Christ, declared the History, had a single lance blow achieved such a wholesale deliverance.

Henry II limped away to Chinon via Fresnay and Ste-Suzanne, while William went north to rally fugitives, but the king had lost all hope. He recalled William to stand by him at Ballan-Miré, and witness his terrible end. It was the Marshal who rallied the demoralised household, organised a vigil, and summoned Chinon’s seneschal to distribute alms to the poor. Alas, there was no money. Henry’s death, like that of his son, showed how Fortune could ruin even so rich and honoured a king. A dead man, commented thetrovère, has no friends. Once more William’s last-ditch loyalty had placed his career and perhaps his life in jeopardy.

Richard I terrified his contemporaries. News of his return from Germany in 1194 caused a rebel in far-away Cornwall to die of fright. His accession gave William a major problem. He had lost Heloise, without gaining possession of Isabel. Less than a month before he had almost killed the new king. The History plays up the drama: the anxiety of the Old King’s mesnie awaiting Richard at Fontevraud where they had taken Henry for burial; William’s quiet confidence; the Count’s impassive viewing of the corpse. When Richard taxed William with attempting to kill him, the latter took this as a slur upon his prowess. Instead of apologising, he insisted that he could easily have killed Richard, had he wanted. Plain speaking paid off. Reminded about Isabel, the new king confirmed his predecessor’s promises. A man who bet everything on loyalty deserved reward.

William’s haste to secure his prize was in proportion to her value. Deviating only to pay his respects to Queen Eleanor, his oldest royal patron, he proceeded directly to deliver the maid of Striguil from the Tower of London. England’s second richest heiress, Isabel was daughter of Richard fitz Gilbert of Clare, lord of Nethergwent, titular Earl of Pembroke and Striguil, nicknamed Strongbow. Leader of the Anglo-Norman freebooters in Ireland, he married the daughter of Dermot MacMurrough, last Irish King of Leinster. Strongbow’s early death left Isabel to inherit his titles and lands, on both sides of the Irish Sea. Granddaughter of kings, she was a potent symbol of William’s success. Like his father, William married upwards. Confiding Isabel to his Irish vassals’ safekeeping in 1207, he acknowledged that he owned nothing, except through her. Her infrequent appearances in the History reveal her as a strong character and counsellor in times of crisis. Together, they had ten children: ‘from a good tree comes good fruit’.

The couple’s twenty-five-year age gap was common in the Middle Ages. Women were the physical embodiment of property rights, to be snapped up by the older men who dominated feudal society. Isabel’s inheritance spanned the Anglo-Norman world. Its core was the baronial honour of Striguil in South Wales, its name a contraction of the Welsh Ystrad Gwy, meaning the Wye Valley. It included Chepstow Castle and sixty-five and a half knights’ fees. Her Irish lands extended over five and a half counties of Leinster in south-east Ireland. Centred on Kilkenny, they represented another 100 knights’ fees. In Normandy, Isabel possessed castles near Lisieux and at Longueville, near Dieppe, country William knew well. Not all Isabel’s inheritance was at William’s disposal. His Irish mother-inlaw occupied Striguil’s choicest manors, and Richard’s brother John had encroached on Leinster. Nevertheless, William’s new wealth far surpassed his Cartmel estate and the money fief the Count of Flanders had given him in 1183. Duly grateful, he dedicated an Augustinian priory at Cartmel to the memory of his first lord, the Young King, using his own lands to do so.

Richard I’s coronation in September 1189 demonstrated William’s favoured position, the Marshal appearing third among the laity, carrying the sceptre. His surviving brothers also profited from his success: John, who carried the royal spurs as hereditary Marshal, became Sheriff of Yorkshire; Henry became Dean of York, rising to Bishop of Exeter in 1193. William himself was among the magnates appointed as justiciars to monitor William Longchamps, Richard’s chancellor, entrusted with governing England during the king’s absence on Crusade. Sidney Painter doubted William’s qualifications for this quasi-judicial role, but knights were adept in feudal custom and frequently acted as judges. The justiciarship was another step in William’s rise from adventurer to elder statesman, an ascent that might have ended abruptly had he followed Richard to Palestine. Many of William’s early associates perished there, including William of Tancarville and Philip of Alsace. James of Avesnes, William’s travelling companion to Cologne, met a hero’s death at Arsuf.

William’s marriage made him a great figure in the Marches, but Welsh affairs feature little in the History. It says nothing of Rhys ap Gruffydd’s revolt after Henry II’s death, which must have affected William’s vassals in South Wales. Welsh annals describe castles taken by treachery and even a battle at Llanwhaden in Pembrokeshire. William’s part in the relief of Swansea in 1192, following a ten-week siege, is only revealed by administrative evidence. Perhaps frontier warfare against a barbaric enemy who took heads not prisoners lacked the cachet of more sporting conflicts. Perhaps William was distracted by the three-cornered struggle between the justiciars, Prince John, and William Longchamps.

Gerald of Wales described the chancellor as a many-headed monster. Bishop of Ely and papal legate, Longchamps monopolised secular and ecclesiastical power. Son of a Norman official, he loathed the Marshals as Englishmen, competitors, and supporters of Henry II. He exploited the massacre of York’s Jews in 1190 to confiscate John Marshal’s shrievalty, besieged William’s shrieval castle at Gloucester, and denounced the latter’s disloyalty to Richard in Palestine. The Marshal won the round, however, collaborating with Walter of Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen, to overthrow the chancellor in October 1192. Forced to flee England dressed as a woman, Longchamps named William fourth amongst the subsequent excommunications.

William’s relationship with Prince John was more ambiguous. The History treats John with unfaltering hostility. William, however, adopted a more pragmatic attitude. Longchamps notoriously accused him of ‘planting vines’, hedging his bets against John’s succession. Nevertheless, William backed the other justiciars when John revolted in 1193. Perhaps it helped that Queen Eleanor was on their side. William led 500 mercenary sergeants from the Marches to besiege John’s men in Windsor, leaving as many more to hold Bristol and Gloucester. Invited to swear an oath, in the medieval fashion, to see the siege through, he suggested a more flexible approach. Some of the justiciars’ men should besiege Windsor, while others pursued John’s raiding parties to prevent their pillaging the countryside, undermining the besiegers’ economic base. William’s actions show a well-developed appreciation of warfare’s financial foundations. The measures he adopted to pay his troops in the 1190s provide a foretaste of the regency’s fiscal inventiveness: foreclosure of royal debts, loans from Jews and monasteries, and advances from his own pocket.

John Marshal had a less happy war, dying at Marlborough in March 1194, after a short siege conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The coincidence suggests that the elder Marshal died in rebellion against Richard’s justiciars while asserting the family’s claim to the castle. Such a perspective lends a touch of irony to the History’s protestation that William never suffered such sorrow as when he heard of his brother’s death. It was an implausible reaction to the death of a brother he hardly knew, by which he stood to profit. News of Richard’s simultaneous return from captivity sharpened William’s emotional turmoil. Reconciling fraternal and royal duty, William sent his knights to escort John Marshal to the family mausoleum at Bradenstoke Abbey. He himself rejoined the king at a speed sometimes interpreted as evidence of a guilty conscience. Thanked by Richard for defending his interests during his absence, William sailed from Portsmouth on 24 April to help recover Richard’s overseas lands. Defying Longchamps’s malice and Count John’s treachery, William had navigated the political shoals of the justiciarship, suggesting luck if not skill. Thanks to his brother’s death, he was also head of the family, inheriting John Marshal’s lands and ceremonial office.

William witnessed Richard’s ecstatic welcome to Normandy, its inhabitants greeting their duke with dancing, bell-ringing, and processions. Prince John abandoned his French ally, to be welcomed back as a child led astray by others. Turning south to the Loir (sic), Richard drew Philip Augustus after him. On 3 July, Angevin and Capetian forces encamped 10 miles (15km) apart at Vendôme and Frétéval on the borders of Maine and the Orléannais. Richard was desperate to bring Philip to battle, hoping, as Roger of Howden put it, that ‘he might deliver him over to death or take him alive’. Philip was less enthusiastic. Under cover of a bold exchange of challenges he prepared for flight, without, as the History notes, telling his troops.

Next day was a fine panic. Many French were killed or taken, with their tents, silken draperies, riding and pack horses, fine wine, and viands. The capture of Philip’s archives, which still hampers French administrative historians, also showed Richard which of his magnates had sworn to support the King of France. Philip escaped with his usual luck, turning aside to hear Mass while a Flemish mercenary directed Richard the wrong way. William displayed his customary professionalism. Placed in command of the reserve, he kept his men in hand despite every temptation, remaining out until the scattered looters returned. That evening, when everyone was bragging in the hostelry, the king announced that the Marshal had contributed more to the day’s success than anyone: ‘Whoever has a good rearguard, has no fear of his enemies.’

Following this unmedieval exhibition of disciplined restraint, the History leaps three years to present two contrasting episodes: John and Mercadier’s raid in the Beauvaisis in 1197 and an obscure campaign in Flanders. While Richard’s favourite routier captain captured the Bishop of Beauvais and slaughtered his followers, William assaulted the castle of Milli-sur-Thérain, 6 miles (9km) north-west of Beauvais, his last recorded feat of arms before Lincoln. As the attackers escaladed the walls, the defenders fought back with forks and flails, tipping a ladder-load of knights and sergeants into the ditch, with much snapping of arms and legs. The attackers recoiled, leaving a Flemish knight stuck up another ladder on a fork. Unable to restrain himself, William leapt into the ditch fully armed, and climbed the ladder to clear the parapet with great sword strokes right and left. Climbing over, he flattened the castle’s commander with a blow to the head, cutting through helmet and mail coif to the flesh. Feeling he had done enough, William sat down on the prostrate constable, while gleeful Angevins poured in to sack the castle.

The other episode illustrates another side of William’s military talents. Despatched to inflame the Count of Flanders against Philip Augustus, he features as tactical sage rather than storm-trooper. The count besieging an unknown town, perhaps Arras, Philip Augustus came up to relieve the garrison. The Flemish lords suggested leaving their infantry in a wagon laager while the knights skirmished outside, but William would have none of it. He thought wagons and infantry should maintain the siege while the knights massed in ordered squadrons, ready for battle. Professor Duby interprets this as chivalric obsession with offensive action. More likely, William remembered Frétéval. He knew Philip Augustus would never risk a battle. Sure enough, the latter withdrew, ‘like a wise man’.

William missed Richard’s last victory at Gisors, when Philip Augustus drank of the River Epte. The History’s account appears to derive from a third John Marshal, William’s nephew, an illegitimate son of William’s brother John. Bastards were a useful by-product of delaying knightly marriages. Excluded from inheritance, they depended utterly upon their legitimate kinsmen. Except for one short period, the youngest John Marshal would be a loyal member of the Marshal affinity. The History confirms Howden’s official narrative, adding that Philip escaped by giving the royal arms to another knight, who was then captured. Richard’s own account lists the man named among the prisoners, confirmation of the History’s reliability. William was now more than a knight or magnate. He was a prud’homme, a reliable source of good counsel, regardless of its acceptability or royal mood. After Richard threatened to emasculate a papal legate for suggesting he might release the Bishop of Beauvais, it was William who braved the king’s fury to persuade him to resume negotiations. The Angevin sun, however, was about to set. A new reign would provide less scope for honest advice, or acts of prowess.


News of Richard’s fatal wound found William hearing a legal case at Vaudreuil. Ordered to Rouen to secure its castle and treasury, he received confirmation of the king’s death three days later, at bedtime. Pulling on his leggings, the Marshal went to consult the Archbishop of Canterbury staying nearby. The latter proposed Arthur as successor, advocating the direct patrilinear succession that would prevail later. William preferred the Norman tradition. He argued that John was closer, having a claim from both his father and brother. Baffled by the worst blunder of its hero’s life, the History makes the archbishop prophesy that William would never repent so much of anything he might do. In the short term, however, William did very well from his attitude, being formally invested Earl of Pembroke in May 1199.

Renewed hostilities with France in 1202 found William defending his wife’s Longueville inheritance in north-east Normandy. Philip Augustus besieged Arques Castle, in the Béthune Valley like Drincourt. Henry of Navarre fought the Spanish Army of the Netherlands there in 1592, hence the modern name of Arques-la-Bataille. The Marshal was more circumspect. Observing the siege with two other Williams, the Earls of Salisbury and Warenne, the Marshal encouraged the French to withdraw by promptly forwarding news of Arthur’s capture at Mirebeau. After Philip’s departure, William returned to Rouen, announcing that he had come to defend the city. In exchange the anxious citizens regaled him and his companions with their choicest vintages. Opportunities for such agreeable episodes dwindled following Arthur’s disappearance. Luckily William was not at Rouen again until late in August 1203, clearing him of complicity in John’s most fatal crime. As a prud’homme should, William warned the friendless king that his own actions had undermined his position, leaving John speechless with rage, as if transfixed by a lance.

The official French chronicler hints at a more active role for William in the ensuing débâcle. William the Breton’s epic poem about Philip Augustus describes an amphibious attempt to raise the siege of Château Gaillard, led by the Marshal. The Breton’s earlier prose account mentions an anonymous night operation by a few routiers, while English sources deny that any such effort was made. Norman accounting records contain no entries for the necessary flotilla, despite showing expenditure on cross-Channel transportation. The History’s silence in the face of failure is unsurprising but inconclusive. It is more informative about John’s final departure from Normandy: the baggage sent on ahead, the early morning start announced only to John’s closest confidants, the long stages, and precautions against treachery. On 5 December 1203, William accompanied John on board ship at Barfleur, leaving behind the scenes of his youthful exploits and mature successes: ‘And many well knew, there was no going back.’

William undertook diplomatic missions to Philip Augustus throughout the ensuing cold war. Politically fruitless, these proved personally embarrassing, as William struggled to preserve his wife’s continental inheritance. In April 1204, Philip Augustus made clear his intention of forcing Anglo-Norman landholders to do homage to him, or lose their Norman lands. William and his fellow envoy Robert Earl of Leicester paid 500 marks each for a year’s respite. Robert avoided further difficulties by dying. Before William returned next year, he obtained John’s leave, so he claimed, to do homage rather than forfeit Isabel’s patrimony. William now owed allegiance to two lords. It was a common feudal dilemma, but times were changing. John and Philip disliked ambiguity, and meant to make their magnates choose one lord or the other.

The issue became critical a month later at Portsmouth, when William refused to follow John to Poitou to fight Philip Augustus. Accused of treachery, William denied wrong-doing, and offered to prove his innocence in arms. He doubled John’s fury by warning the magnates gathered on the seashore that what the king meant to do to him, he would do to them if he got the chance. When one of John’s household knights proposed the guilty verdict that William’s peers refused, he was speedily silenced. Baldwin of Béthune was the Marshal’s oldest companion-in-arms. He had shared his exploits in the Young King’s time, and stood beside William when he lost royal favour. Now he defended him against King John’s catspaw, a landless knight, devoid of consequence. Neither of them, he said, were fit to judge so fine a knight as the Marshal. Whatever William’s failings, his connections and reputation remained a bastion against John’s malice.

The dispute formed part of a wider policy breakdown. While the History presents William at odds with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ralph of Coggeshall describes them both arguing against the expedition, on good strategic grounds. There was no secure overseas base; the French were too strong now that they controlled Normandy; the Poitevins were incorrigible traitors; the Flemish, Philip’s allies, would attack England in the absence of its defenders; John had no heir. Following emotional scenes and mutual threats, John gave way. The Archbishop, who was blamed for the fiasco, died soon after, leaving William to face John’s displeasure alone.

Medieval kings had various ways of expressing annoyance. Henry II had billeted men and horses upon the recalcitrant Becket, and inspired the first John Marshal to engage the archbishop in vexatious litigation. The Young King had sent William to Coventry. King John took William’s eldest son hostage. We may imagine how he felt about that, given his own experience at Newbury. We do know that when advised to take hostages from his own vassals, William refused. In 1206, he asked leave to withdraw to his Irish estates. Ireland was the edge of the known world, remote from the English political scene. Henry II went there in 1171 to escape the fallout from Becket’s murder. Royal control was limited to Dublin, Wexford, and Waterford, while descendants of Strongbow’s companions contested the hinterland with the native Irish. Already conscious of their separate Anglo-Irish identity, the former were a hard-boiled frontier aristocracy, addicted to Celtic harpists and headhunting, contemptuous of effete intruders like William. The native Irish lived a nomadic pastoral life that made them easy to dispossess but hard to subdue. Lacking armour they pursued hit and run tactics, taking refuge in bogs and thickets. The History ignores them. Compared with England, Ireland was poor, violent, and isolated.

John tried to prevent William’s departure, apparently demanding his second son Richard as a supplementary hostage. The countess demurred, but William agreed. Having permission to leave, he would go, for good or ill. Even the History admits that not everyone in Leinster was pleased to see him. Meilyr fitz Henry, Justiciar of Ireland and one of the original invaders, was particularly hostile. He persuaded John to recall them both, precipitating William’s most dangerous hour, caught between a suspicious king and a hostile Anglo-Irish nobility. William relied in this emergency upon his household knights, especially John of Earley, whom King John disparaged as rogneux or mangy. Towards Michaelmas 1207 (29 September), William summoned his vassals to Kilkenny, and presented them with his countess, once more with child. Taking her hand, he reminded them how her father had enfeoffed them when he conquered the land, and made them swear to guard her faithfully. No sooner had William sailed for England than Meilyr’s men fired his grain-filled barns, and sacked the Marshal’s ‘new town’, probably New Ross (Co. Wexford), killing twenty of his men.

William must have found the ensuing winter endless. The king frowned on him, and plotted with Meilyr and other unloveable associates, while easterly gales cut off all news from Ireland. John pretended at one point that William’s men had been defeated with heavy loss and his countess besieged. William played his strongest suit, the dignified restraint with which he had confronted his enemies at Tancarville and Count Richard at Fontevraud. He could also trust his men. When Meilyr made the westbound passage with letters recalling William’s knights, he found Ireland other than he expected. Several of the justiciar’s men were already in the earl’s dungeon, while William’s colluded in ignoring John’s summons. Instead, they allied with Hugh de Lacy, Earl of Ulster, and pillaged Meilyr’s lands. The justiciar was captured and forced to surrender his son as a hostage. None of this was known in England until the first eastbound ships early in 1208. John had to admit that his schemes had miscarried, while William feigned ignorance of the proxy war’s outcome. Outward peace was restored, William returning to his victorious countess in the summer. He forgave his disloyal vassals against her wishes, but not Meilyr, whose lands, castles, and offspring remained at the Marshal’s disposal.

The Braose affair shattered this détente. When the fugitive Braose family washed up on the Wicklow coast in the winter of 1209–10 following their ill-fated rebellion, William took them in, a gesture of Marcher solidarity that provoked the first royal expedition to Ireland for twenty-five years. With 800 knights and 1,000 foot, it was the largest army ever seen west of St George’s Channel. Landing at Waterford in late June, John punished William by quartering his army on Kilkenny. Then he marched north to crush the de Lacys and take Carrickfergus Castle, whence Matilda Braose took ship for Galloway. Returning to Dublin in August, John accused William of harbouring the king’s enemies. Once more, William denied any disloyalty, and offered to justify himself in arms. As before, none of his peers moved to help the king. In frustration, John demanded yet more hostages, this time from William’s household and tenants, including John of Earley.

The king’s chastisement of his Irish barons went too far in the face of an unruly native population. While English sources praised John’s successes in Ireland, the Gaelic Annals of Loch Cé report otherwise. The Irish King of Connacht took his wife’s advice and refused to give hostages. John’s new justiciar, the Bishop of Norwich, raided deep into County Mayo, and North-West Ireland exploded. Anglo-Norman castles at Clones and Belleek were destroyed with much slaughter. One Cormac O’Melachlin twice defeated the bishop in the field, captured his treasure, and killed a ‘multitude of foreigners’ in County Offaly. The History says nothing of William’s part in all this, its best informant, John of Earley, being locked up in Nottingham Castle.

When Cormac closed his career by burning Ballyboy Castle in 1214, William was back in England. Real traitors had sought to sell John to the Welsh in 1212, and William rallied the Irish magnates in the king’s support. Castles and hostages were returned, the younger William entrusted to John of Earley. Next year, as French shipping massed in the Seine estuary, the Marshal was recalled. He hurried to the king’s side, as every prud’homme should, ‘for he always loved loyalty’. On 15 August William joined John outside Dover with 500 knights, the whole Irish establishment. Too late to witness the ending of the Interdict, he shared in the decision to send his old comrade William of Salisbury to destroy the French fleet at Dam. When John sailed for Poitou the next year, there were no quibbles about homage. The Marshal stayed behind to co-ordinate home defence.

William had regained royal confidence after eight years in the political and geographical wilderness. He never lost it again. It is hard to judge how close the Marshals came to suffering the fate of the Braose family. One of William’s knights died in custody, while John of Earley, a particular object of John’s hostility, suffered great hardship at Nottingham. The saving factor seems to have been William’s instinctive discretion. Unlike William of Braose, he had learned to be a courtier before he became a Marcher.

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