Well William was in a pretty pickle and make no mistake, bleeding all over the place and set to die. The histoire gives us a passage here that’s all about William’s strength, fortitude and knightliness; what you have to imagine is someone telling the poet about stories that the aged William had told of his youth, presumably boring the pants off his listeners in a room full of eye rolls. Did you tell you the one about the time he almost died from a leg wound? Lord, how many more times? Firstly he told of how he was saved from death. At the first house they came to there was a woman. Unlike William’s male captors, she seems to have had a heart, and so when she came to hand out some bread, she snuck help into his room by hollowing out a loaf and stuffed it with bandages. William bound himself up. Sure some kind saint took pity on him, and he managed to avoid infection, and though he was dragged around from hill to dale, Marshal was a strapping lad and survived.
Geoffrey Lusignan and his gang clearly feared that retribution stalked their heels because Marshal was hauled all over the shop never stopping from day to day, to make sure they weren’t caught. But in the middle of it all came a great opportunity to show off, which for a knightly lad like William, was of course meat and drink. They’d finally come to a place with other people, knights and pages, amusing themselves by playing games, including a bit of stone throwing, shot putting by the sound of things. William was healing but the wound was still bad, and as he watched one of the knights put all the others to shame with his throwing, the best by far, a man destined to be a champion wellie thrower in a future age when wellies were invented. There’s an air of miff around as the knight struts his stuff and glories in his victory, so one of them says ‘I I bet that big knight we captured could beat you’, and there’s a deal of egging, and despite desperately trying to resist the challenge eventually up steps William.
So Williams threw off his cloak and hitched up his sleeves. Then he launched the stone a good foot and a half further than the best
Now there are a couple of things I would like to reflect on in this little vignette. One is the ability of some of us to attach the greatest importance to the smallest victories – seriously it’s entirely possible William was still talking about this 50 years later. I am a rubbish snooker player, and yet once, in a game of doubles by purest fluke potted a long black to win against the run of play. The look on the faces of our opponents is one that I will carry with me to the grave, despite the towering insignificance of this event. Unnoticed by the cosmos on dark days of doubt I will glasp it to me. This is anecdote is to illustrate that our William was a mighty competitive young man, but mainly to tell you of my small victory. Secondly the tale is one of classic knightliness; the modest hero proving his worth in the midst of all the danger around him, Despite the fact that he tore his wound open and suffered greater agonies, no true knight could turn down the challenge.
Despite clearly beginning to get on with his hosts, it’s a bit of a low point to be honest. Let us step back and take a look. William is in the middle of nowhere. He’s a landless knight, with the ransom potential of a loo roll. Obviously Geoffrey had submitted his ransom request to try and rescue something from this mess, presumably in triplicate, but had probably done so more as a hopeful punt than a confident act of invoicing. When he finally tired of the dragging around William’s worthless carcass, who knows what he would do. After all, holding a reputation for releasing people for free is no way to fame and fortune in the hostage trade. William doesn’t strike me as a gloomy type given to introspection, but you’d think he’d have had his black dog moments.
It is a pivotal moment, the nadir, the darkest point in Helm’s deep before the dawn on the third day and the arrival of Eomer, when all seemed lost. And when all was lost came a message that transformed his life for ever, and I do not exaggerate – Eleanor of Aquitaine would pay his ransom.
Well blow me down, there was a stroke of luck. I mean, fair play Eleanor; here is a man she could have ignored with impunity, but presumably she felt an obligation for the service he had done for her in allowing her to escape.
The transformation is not just that William was a free man, He was now in the household of one of the most powerful and well connected people in all of Christendom, and someone who quite clearly recognised a debt.
…now he thought he was in gold, as Queen Eleanor provided him with everything befitting such a fine young knight; worthy, gracious lady that she was, she would brook no objection and insisted that he be supplied with horses, arms, money and fine clothes
Although William had reached a safe harbour, he would have, or at least he should have, carried with him a lasting antagonism towards Geoffrey of Lusignan, the man responsible for the murder of his uncle and lord, Patrick Earl of Salisbury. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to have been any specific retribution visited on the Lusignan for his death; the Lusignan always claimed that it had been an accident. Indeed, maybe they should have added a small charge to the bill for the replacement of the lance that the earl had wantonly ruined when he threw his back on it.
Although we know nothing of the 2 years he spent in Eleanor’s service, what follows suggests that the years only confirmed Eleanor’s good opinion of the Marshal. In June 1170 therefore, William and the rest of Eleanor’s close household received their marching orders; they were bound for the north, this happy breed of men, for a precious stone set in the silver sea, for a blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. There was a reason for their journey, and the reason would give Marshal the defining relationship of his life.
As you may or may not know, Eleanor and Henry had a lot of children, a surfeit of children even. I’m sure you do know this, and although you may have listened to the story of Eleanor there is simply no way out – for completeness, you need to know again. Of daughters we have three with Henry II – Matilda, Eleanor, Joan; forgive me, but daughters wise I’m going to have to move on – though if you listen to Eleanor’s story they are all there. Of sons we have 4. Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John in that order.
On 1169, King Henry and king Louis of France had met up for a full and frank exchange of views at a place called Montmirail. There would be a battle there in 1814 as it happens. Anyway, Henry appreciated that Louis was worried about all these Angevins all over the place, and he wanted to make sure they were cool, so he agreed that his eldest son Henry would be his heir, and Henry was betrothed to Marguerite, Louis daughter, so that was good. Richard would have Aquitaine and lay his hands in Louis’s directly for those lands, and Geoffrey would have Brittany. And never mind about John he was just a nipper, maybe he’d be a Pope or something. This was all agreed, and as a result, the Young Henry was to be crowned king in 1170. He wouldn’t actually BE king, obviously we already had one of those in the Henry pere, and 1 king is quite enough thank you very much, some people might even say 1 too many; but all the barons would do homage to the new Young King, everything would be nice and organised, in the open and with hospital corners, nice and clear. And some people think clarity is a good thing, unlike the English who know very well that in ambiguity and fudge lies safety.
Now Henry the YK as he would now be known would therefore need a household, one commensurate with his dignity. The composition of said household would be the older Henry’s decision, but it seems reasonably likely that it was Eleanor who came forward at this point and whispered in her husband’s ear that she knew a likely lad who would be a good candidate, brave and loyal, good at fitting in. William’s appointment to the YK’s household is super important, and not just because it meant he was walking along the corridors of power although you know, that’s nice; but because it tells us something about William’s skills and personality. He’s 24 years old now, simply being a big bluff fighty chap would not have been enough to be made a companion of the heir to the throne, however important big fighty chaps are. William has shown that he knew how to make his face fit, to laugh easily and compete with the pleasantries of court while not coming over as a slimey sycophant, to be able to fit it, and yet exude solidity and reliability.
Well King Henry agreed, and William was summoned to meet Henry senior and given the role. Obviously you don’t turn down such a commission, it’s not a job offer as such, he was called to serve, and so serve he did. He had a specific role – he was chosen to serve as the Young King’s tutor-in-arms, but in a way that’s not the critical thing; the critical point is how close he became to his new lord; after all there were other much better known and powerful men appointed to be at the YK’s side – names like William of St John, Hugh of Gundeville and Ranulf FitzStephen. But it became clear that William and the Young Henry formed a close bond, and it was a two way street, despite the odd up and down here and there. YH’s surviving charters show a permanent group of 8 constantly close to the YK; and of those 8 it is William’s name that appears most consistently at the top of the list, and there’s no rubbish about equality and chronological order here – it’s the favourite first. The YK valued William, they shared passions and an outlook on life. In return William loved his young lord and was a full and enthusiastic participant in his court. Many years later, in Richard’s reign, William will make his first religious foundation, and although there’s a full and suitably obsequious list of kings, it is Henry the YK who is specifically identified as his lord – even after YH’s death William felt an obligation and loyalty to his memory, and would travel to the Holy Land to fulfil his lord’s vow on his behalf. It is a defining relationship in William’s life.
So, after the YK’s coronation in June 1170, William became part of the YK’s entourage. The YK by this stage is about 15 years old, and he has been bethrothed to Marguerite, daughter of Louis king of France since the age of 5. Marguerite, incidentally will play an important part in William’s life. She was only 12 at this time though, and to her father’s fury was not included in the coronation ceremony, which will mean a re-run in a couple of years’ time to put that right.
We should however have a wee chat about Henry the YK, since he will be central to our hero’s life for the next 13 years, and indeed beyond. He has something of a hard press from modern historians, who have seen in him a demanding, spoiled brat like young man, a young man almost entirely without feck. The doyen of the reign of Henry II was a Historian called W L Warren, and he sharpened his pen and laid into the lad with some abandon
‘shallow, vain, careless, empty-headed, incompetent, improvident and irresponsible’
Ouch. And there are good reasons for this evaluation; there’s no sign that the YK inherited his Dad’s administrative and judicial talent, and his story seems simply one of wandering around France playing games and spending money, with the odd flounce of rebellion when everything got too boring. All of this against the background of a father who gets a lot of respect from historians. I feel a little sorry for Henry II in these stories of William and Eleanor by the way, since we consistently see his worst side rather than his talents, just for future reference.
It is also true to say that some contemporaries who would have agreed with Warren, though mainly those of the lemon sucking variety; Ralph of Diceto rather nastily remarked after his death in 1183 that Henry the YK was better dead. Which I think certainly drops into the uncharitable file. However, just to put the other side of the argument for a while, you must remember the context of the time; he had many of the characteristics that his contemporaries would have seen as the epitome of lordship. He was physically imposing, tall and blonde, which of course always looks better than us brunettes, he was elegant, chivalrous, accomplished, beautiful, generous. The courtier Walter Map described him as
‘lovable, eloquent, handsome, gallant, every way attractive, a little lower than the angels’… ‘beautiful above all others in both form and face’.
So who cares if he was a little chinless and rather useless? He was generous and open handed, he was a brilliant tournament knight, and so the glitter of his life was dazzling to many.
Obviously, that’s still not the most impressive picture either; charm is all very well, but a bit of steel was required to be an effective lord. But you might argue that look, what was the lad supposed to do? Since his father accorded him no real responsibility, wandering round as a shining example of knighthood and courtliness helped him build a following, and contribute to the glory and lustre of his house. It is possible Henry the YK was more calculating in this than people having given him credit for. And as for steel – he was indeed to make his father feel the edge of it.
Anyway, for the moment none of that would have been in William’s mind. All he knew was that he was part of the mesnie privee of one of the most influential people in Europe, in Christendom’s richest and most powerful dynasty. The career of the lad from Wiltshire had been comprehensively rescued.