‘He’s faultless…I don’t know how or where he learned to fight like this, but he knows what he’s about’
So howled the hapless tourneyers at the tournament at Pleurs as William, alone and off the leash at last, charged into their midst. This despite the fact that many apparently managed to land blows on the lad’s helmet. I think we can take it as read that the poet of the histoire is guilty of double exaggeration – a tale largely told on people’s remembering of William rambling reminiscences as an old man, and a tale told on commission to make its subject look as noble and heroic as possible. Yet it’s unlikely to be completely fake news – just rather sexed up, glossed at bit, buffed, a keyline put round the letters. And it seems clear enough that in William we do indeed have the great tournament fighter of out memory; he seems to have had a talent to take blows that would have winded another man and yet keep going. A limitless energy and courage to charge into any situation along with the aggression to make most people think twice about taking him on. Plus, and almost suicidal love of a bust up. However, a bit more questionable is the image of his super honourable and courtly figure – or at least we need to unpick that just a bit, which we’ll do by looking at an incident, but before we do, lets first polish off the tournament at Pleurs.
At Pleurs, Marshal seems to have thoroughly enjoyed himself, and that same afternoon things were dying down with just a few stragglers left on the field when Count Theobald of Blois decided it was time to make a presentation to the best knight of the tournament – the presentation of a pike in my translation, which I’m assuming is not a toothy fish, nor did he have a small pike with him which would be a pikelet and therefore fit to be toasted and eaten with butter and jam – And that, my friends, is a very laboured and parochial gag which you may well not get, and if you do you will be disappointed, but you know, it’s part of shedlife. Anyway, so Theobald is looking to present this spear as a prize, and I hate to finger the good count as something of a toady, but of course he heads immediately to the most important and influential people in the tournament and we are supposed to assume I guess that these are automatically the best fighters. However a stream of such folk are far too modest and knightly to accept the prize, and given their rank they can probably smell a bit of buttering from 100 yards, and so the Duke of Burgundy, the Count of Flanders, the Count of Clermont and others, all decline the honour modestly. Which is certainly fishy if nothing else.
Well, this is embarrassing, nice prize and nobody wants it. Then the Count of Flanders suggested – hey, what about William. And so off they scurried to find William, but he was not on the field of battle, he was not in his lodgings. He was nowhere to be found. Eventually a bunch of knights searching round the town came to a blacksmith’s forge, and there they saw the rather remarkable sight of a big bloke kneeling down with his head on an anvil while the blacksmith tried with hammer and pincher and cutters to remove a helmet battered out of recognition. With growing laughter and a spot of mockery, the figure was finally recognised as the man they sought – Marshal had invited one too many blows and his helmet was battered out of all recognition. When the thing was finally prised off, the spear was presented to Marshal, who did not allow any sense of false modesty to get in the way, and gallantly accepted the prize. Marshal’s solo career was duly launched.
It was a career that would weave in and out of the team story – his boss the YK of course took priority, but if we consider the years of the great tournament circuit all the way up to 1183, a few character traits emerge about our William, which sometimes if not always conflict with our standard image of the great man. Let us tell the story of Matthew of Walincourt, and his encounters with our hero a story of which Marshal’s leading historian David Crouch makes something of a play.
Matthew of Walincourt was a Hennuyer. A what I hear you ask, a Hennuyer I say with confidence. This is in fact, let me introduce you, my second little-known-fab-name-fact. The first is my knowledge oft repeated seldom appreciated, that Magyar, Magyar, is actually pronounced Modyar. Yup, doesn’t look like it, but yup. Modyar. A Hennuyer is an inhabitant of Hainault, as in Phillipa of, county in the low countries, the home of Walter Manny, and in tournaments of the 1160s they were a rough lot, the Hennuyer. It appears that in his very first flush, when still wearing the arms of Tancarville, Marshal had met Matthew, and he had been undone by him – something the histoire oddly failed to mention at the time. Huh, Spooky, why would that be I wonder? Now Marshal had been an impoverished knight and had begged Matthew not to insist the taking of his horse in payment. Matthew had refused to be merciful. Some other knights had joined the argument on Marshal’s side but despite their pleas, Matthew still refused to give it up and demanded payment. It’s a sort of ‘in the letter’ type situation, a bit mean of him, but within his rights.
Now it’s 10 years later and it’s the tournament at Eu, and Matthew’s powers are fading a bit and William is at his peak, king of the hill. And would you believe it there he is Matthew of Walincourt riding out from the opposing knights looking for conquests. Marshal is a man who bears a grudge. He steers his horse towards Matthew, and wallop! with a great crash of metal, flesh and bone, Walincourt flies from his seat, William seizes his horse and takes it. Excellent. But later on what happens? His king asks him to give the horse back to Matthew, to be merciful. Matthew has gone behind his back to the boss. Marshal bites his lip, gulps a bit and well fine Ok, yessir! Well, spookily, next event, what should happen – wallop and with a great crash Walincourt is flying from his horse propelled by Marshall’s lance again. Ha! That’s that then, this time honour is even. Except it isn’t. that evening back comes Walincourt again, begging for favours from the YK! Well would you believe it – the cheek of it.
This time Marshal was having none of it. This time he reminded Walincourt of their first encounter, when it was Matthew who had been ungenerous.
Now I am repaying you in kind
Sir Matthew said ‘You weren’t as respected then as you are now – that’s why I wouldn’t return it’
‘Well then sir’ said Marshal, ‘if my standing was lesser then, yours is lesser now! So following your reasoning I shouldn’t give it back’
Well, make of that story what you will. David Crouch’s conclusion is of a rather vindictive side of Marshal. I have to say that it seems to demonstrate mildly, I suppose, that Marshal can carry a grudge, but honestly it rather sounded as though Matthew deserved all he got. It’s an interesting illustration of the brutality of hierarchy; the lower in the social scale were to be bullied to stay right where they were as far as the likes of Walincourt were concerned, and the lesser of status would have to play by a harder set of rules.
The tournament at Eu is an interesting one for many reasons for our view of William. It is here also that Marshal tied up with a colleague called Roger de Gaugy, and the pair of them decided to fight as a pair. The poet of the histoire is rather unimpressed with Roger, who was ‘fired with Greed’ in his view, and this is very much against the spirit of the tourney as far as the poet is concerned, which is all supposed to be about a search for honour and glory, nothing to do with the filthy lucre, and so not something of which our hero William would be guilty, good lord no. But the trouble with that is that the poet cannot stop himself from listing Marshal’s triumphs. At Eu Marshal took 10 knights. At Eu, Marshal did team up with greedy Roger, which presumably makes William every bit as greedy. Roger and William we are told, worked the tournaments together whenever they could. At every tournament, we are told
They won richer spoils than six or eight others put together
We are given the rather delightful image of the pair of them sitting with the kitchen clerk Wigan, making a tally, totting up the incomes and outcomes and how many knights have been totalled. The accounts as it were. In two months fighting, they appear to have bagged 103 knights, plus their horses and kit. What I am saying is that while it’s a bit of a toss up as to whether Marshal was displaying unusual vindictiveness towards Walincourt, but it is beyond doubt that Marshal was in this for the money every bit as much for the glory. This appears to be one of those accepted but not shouted about side streets of courtliness – it’s not something to shout about, nor something to be ashamed of as long as you don’t over do it sort of thing. Just so long as we don’t paint Marshal as some sort of self effacing shrinking violet or saintly figure of selfless nobility we are OK. Because while we are on it, he’s a glutton for a bit of praise too, I doubt the word ‘shucks’ or ‘no, no, please, it’s not me there’s no I in team’ crossed his lips in whatever language. Marshal is an aggressive, competitive, big fighting man who had grown up painfully aware of his position in the pecking order and short of cash, and was determined never to be in that position again.
It is worth noting while we are on it, that there were sharper practices out there of which Marshal does not stand accused. One of them is rather delightful, of identifying and picking on pidgeons, or rabbits depending on the idiom you’d care to select. I picked that phrase up from a book on poker I read once which related the saying that as you sit at the poker table, if you can’t identify the loser/pidgeon/rabbit then it’s probably you.
According to the English clerk, Alexander Neckham, a keen observer of the tournament obviously, this is how it all worked. You arranged a secret meeting with a member of the opposite team, and pointed out the losers in your own team. Accordingly, when the day of the event dawned, spookily the opposing team aimed straight at the poor scared rabbits on your own side and took them out as easy pickings. And then afterwards, shared the proceeds out with the snitch on the other side. Well I can tell you that is neither in the letter nor spirit of the law of courtliness, so don’t try this at home. Brutal. The medieval form of match fixing.
The histoire and therefore the majority of what we know about Marshal and his life is very male indeed; If Chaucer had written it, he would have called it A Bloke’s tale. Women appear very little in it, and even Marshal’s wife is very much a cardboard cut out of a figure. But somewhere between the rebellion of 1174 and the 1180’s Marshal very probably had an affair. There is very little known about her – except that she was an Englishwoman, who would be later married to a respectable landowner in Essex; and that she had a son called Gilbert. The likelihood is that the liaison was made in the long stay William made in England between 1174 and 1176, but it’s not for certain, and it could be later, on the tournament circuit. I mentioned that the prostitutes who made a living around the courts of the great and the frankly not so good were actually clever political operators, or so we are told by Peter of Blois. They knew who had influence, whose career was on the up, and whose on the way down. It is possible that actually the relationship occurred later during the tournament circuit, and that therefore the relationship was with one of these women who worked the court? After all, we know that around that time, Prince John himself was associated with a well known prostitute who became so well known, and so well connected that she styled herself Queen Clemencia. Either way, the implication of David Crouch’s research is that Marshal had an affair and an illegitimate son in his salad days. It helps us adjust the balance of the histoire, and makes you realise how narrow are the bases for our understanding of Marshal the man. Essentially it is simply making Marshal more a man of his time and in possession of the human frailties than the rather heroic, 1 dimensional figure he can sometimes appear. And knowledge of the affair and Marshal’s love of fame and success on the tournament circuit also helps us understand some of the background to possibly the most personally troubling event of his life.
It was the tournament at Lagny that formed the ante room of the hall of pain into which Marshal would be pushed. Not that you would have known it at the time, because in a way it was his greatest triumph. Lagny was the biggest tournament yet, 3,000 knights, a glittering and colourful gathering of the greatest knights of north western Europe. It’s now 1179, and Marshal has made himself one of the most famous knights of the circuit, and he is loving it, absolutely lapping it up. He has the status of a portant banniere, which means he carries his own banner, his own insignia and men that follow him directly. We know from later that he has adopted the figure of a lion on a field of split green and blue, consciously adopting the figure of the English monarchy. As Marshal charged with the Young King into the fray his own men might issue a warcry for their own leader – God for Marshal! would go the shout. He was being talked about in the same breath as Counts, Dukes and kings. In summary, the boy done good, and the boy was thoroughly proud of his status. And we all know what comes after pride do we not?