Honestly, I was tempted to tell the story of Richard and Mercardier in front of the castle of Chalus one more time, just so that I could re-use the ‘shall I or shall u?’ gag which basically only Luke noticed last time. But I have resolved that we have told his story too frequently, most recently in the Eleanor of Aquitaine series of course and I am sure you all know it well. So, suffice to say that the story goes that the cook in the castle took a pot shot at Richard with a crossbow and Richard missed his dodge and went for the Albatross approach instead and took the bolt in the shoulder. It turned gangrenous and Richard lay dying.
Now, there was a decision to make – who to succeed? There were two choices of course; the 12 year old Arthur of Brittany, supported by the French king, and in the strict sense of primogeniture next in line, as the child of an elder brother- namely Geoffrey. Or, Given that primogeniture was not yet fully established as the one and only way to inheritance yet, there was Prince John, deeply unreliable and with a copybook so blotted it was completely unreadable but who was an adult of and who to be fair had managed to prove loyal for the last few years. Eleanor had persuaded Richard to finally plump for John, blood being thicker than water and all, but when the news of Richard’s death reached Rouen where William was with the ABC Hubert Walter both clearly felt this was not a done deal and a serious discussion took place. However, as far as William was concerned, the choice was clear – however many warts might adorn the body of the Count of Mortain, Prince John it must be. Hubert Walter gave in with these prescience words. Or given the date of the writing of the histoire well after the events, maybe these 20/20 hindsight words
I tell you truly, you’ll never have regretted anything you have done so much
Well you know, when the story is done maybe that’s true but for Marshal John’s villainy would bring opportunity as well as pain so maybe not, you, gentle listeners, shall decide when the dealings done.
Now, if you are reading the Histoire from here on in you will be wading through bile. At every opportunity there is dissing, ladies and gentlemen, there is diss’ing namely of John. The histoire is written in the 1220s, and although it will be many centuries before 1066 and All That closed the book on English History, even then it was agreed that King John was a Bad thing, capital B capital T. But the truth is that John transformed Marshal from one of the king’s leading captains to one of the 3 or 4 most powerful magnates in the country. It would not be an easy relationship – but when the accounting was done Marshal would end deeply in credit, and deeply in debt to his much despised and rejected king.
William’s importance was quickly recognised by John who sent him to England to secure the loyalty and allegiance of the Barons there; there was a bit of grumbling, afterall you couldn’t really call yourself Baron without a bit of a grumble. Basically the Barons would like to have had confirmation of their lands and privileges before committing to John, but Marshal used his personal capital and promised John would listen, so they went ahead and pledged their allegiance on his say so.
When the palm tree of patronage was thoroughly shaken by Marshal and the barons, Marshal’s head was covered with lumps from the coconuts that battered him. The most significant was confirmation of the title of Earl of Pembroke, which Richard had never quite conferred on him, and along with it the marcher lordship of Pembroke. It would take a few months for the transfer to happen since John was campaigning in said lordship against the Welsh, but before long the deed was done. So to add to the lands of Strigeuil and Leinster Marshal was a marcher lord almost without compare – maybe only a few other magnates and favourites such as Ranulph of Chester and William Briouze could complete both in wealth and power and the king’s favour. Other honours and offices would follow, and it’s worth remembering that William also held land in Normandy which would play a significant part in Marshal’s future relationship with the boss. Plus other members of the Marshal family, such as the bastard offshoot of William’s brother John Marshall shared in the hallo of Williams favour. By 1201, William Marshal and the Marshal family had never been higher in any king’s favour, and never been more powerful and influential.
There was no immediate reason why John was in any danger in 1200. I mean yes, Philip was ever full of bale, and a balefull French king was a bad thing but there was no trigger for war just at the moment, and after all Philip had spent the last few years having his arse kicked by John’s big bruvver. So with nothing pressing going on, in 1200 William took the opportunity to visit the inheritance Isabella had brought with their marriage, in Pembrokeshire and Leinster.
So far what have we seen of Marshal? We’ve seen a fighter, a loyal follower, a super successful courtier, and man able to command the respect of his peers. But if this was all, it’s unlikely William would have such a call on our imagination; at some point he will lead and rule, and this is an aspect we’ve not really seen of him. Now he was travelling to lands where he would be expected to stamp his authority, and prove his ability to govern.
Most of the problems he faced in Pembrokeshire tended to be of the traditional variety; fighting Welsh Princes trying to reclaim what they fiercely believed was their birthright. Leinster in Ireland was different, and it was there William visited in 1200. A visit which is unmentioned by the histoire, and we all know what that means do we not? It means that it was not a triumphant visit which shone glory on the house of Marshal.
One of the problems was that Marshal appears to have come close to losing control of his bodily functions during the crossing of the Irish Sea. The crossing to Ireland could be rough. It appears this one fell into the blind panic we are all going to die category. The immediate outcome was that when Marshal did make landfall, he immediately endowed a new monastery, and I think we can see him kneeling below decks promising the almighty that if he got him out of this one he’d make it worth his while.
But the more significant aspect maybe of the visit is that Isabella and William arrived into a tight knit society who for some time had had no resident lord, who no doubt felt
- That they’d been Managing just fine without a lord of Leinster thank you very much for asking
- They had all their relationships and hierarchies worked out and did not appreciate the patronage and authority William’s entourage no doubt acquired on arrival and
- Felt with some justification that Ireland’s situation was unique and no freshfaced, baby bottomed, namby pampy courtier from London was going to cut it – they’d seen his type before, seen them come, and seen them go.
So, they did not fall on Marshal’s neck. None the less Marshal and Isabella were pretty uncompromising, pretty firm. Now I say William and Isabella advisedly. William’s rights came not from his family but from Isabella’s, she was the one with the roots and the heritage that the locals would respect. More than that, she appears to have known full well how to make the most of that heritage. We sadly only get the odd glimpse through the darkened glass as the histoire focusses on the blokes. But reading between the lines a picture emerges. Primarily when Marshal left for England, he left Isabella in Ireland to manage their inheritance, along with the help of one of his leading men, Geoffrey FitzRobert It would be 3 years before they met again, and in the meantime communicated by letter. It surely demonstrates great confidence on Isabella’s part, in a situation fraught with potential danger and local hostility.
Anywho, William returned to court to sit at his master’s side in May 1201 because things were now going badly wrong.
It was the torturous world of Aquitanian politics which brough the Angevin Empire down. The trigger for disaster was a heiress called Isabell of Angouleme; probably about 15 at the time and heiress to the most attractive and strategically important county of the Angoumais. John was immediately up for this, this was a great match, and so a visit to Isabella’s Dad was duly made in 1200 and before you could say you may kiss the bride John and Isabella were husband and wife. The only sound you might have observed was the sound of a soft muddy sucking sound as Isabel of Gloucester pulled herself from the mud into which she’d been dropped from her loving husbands arms – Isabel of Gloucester, incidentally being John’s wife, now swiftly and comprehensively dumped. Now this was brutal but not necessarily bad politics – the Angoumais was strategically crucial, and by June 1202 John had his grubby mitts on her vast tracts of land. So, cool. But there was a problem.
The problem was that Isabella had already been promised to Hugh de Lusignan, and as we know the Lusignan are broadly speaking, not the kind of people happy to be left standing at the church. John probably tried to placate them, but John failed to placate them. And so the Lusignan pressed the red button – appealing to John’s overlord for justice. King Philip was said overlord of course, and Philip considered long and hard for a good 2 minutes 30 seconds before pronouncing against John and confiscating all his French lands, every square inch of them, and declaring once more for Arthur as his replacement. Here was the missing trigger. Oh dear It’s a well trodden path, and one Henry II and Richard I had managed to navigate successfully. How would John fare?
Now I know what you are going to say. You are going to say that John was a complete miserable military failure who lost France in a few months. And well you know, I am not going to argue with you except I will leaven the bread a little. There was no sign in 1202 that this was going pear shaped, in fact au contraire mon brave, au contraire. For many months despite Philip’s assault the situation remained stable – William Marshal was stationed mainly in the north of Normandy close to his lands, fighting off all comers. But then In July 1202 disaster did threaten the Angevin cause when Arthur had Eleanor captured at Mirebeau close to Chinon, and the citadel Chinon was close to falling. John executed a brilliant and daring march from Maine, surprised the besieging force, gave them a thorough beating and captured both Arthur and many of his nobles. It was a triumph. They thought it was all over. In Normandy Philip packed up his sieges and, shoulders slumped, went home for a good bit of whining about the unfairness of life, dragging his cloak behind him.
So you know, there’s my bit of bread leavening. Sadly, John managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by breaking the chivalric code. Warfare between Richard and Philip had been attritional – castle to castle, siege to siege. But that wasn’t really the way to win a war in the medieval world. You could try to force some major showdown – an Agincourt or some such but those came but rarely, although John would be on the receiving end of one as it happens. But the real way to win was to win hearts, not castles. Because if you won the heart, the castles would come with the heart’s owner, and come with them in a chunk. What John did wrong was to badly mishandle the aftermath of Mirebeau. Warfare wasn’t supposed to be brutal for the upper classes, just for the peasantry. Chivalry dictated that John would wine and dine all these lords he had captured, honour them, flatter them, and demand a stonking great ransom from them or favours in kind. It’s not clear in detail how he behaved with each, but the histoire gives a flavour
And the outcome the day was that king John was victorious and his bitterest foes were taken captive whether they liked it or not. Arthur was one of those captured – he’d been ill-advised to go there, and all his followers were rounded up and found themselves in harsh imprisonment.
[The] war would have been over and done if destiny had been kinder – and had it not been for his [Johns] unfailing pride which was always his downfall
The unfailing pride in question was the arrogant way John assumed he’d polished the war off, and celebrated by mistreating his captives. The treatment of these noble prisoners was of direct and immediate concern to the powerful men who controlled much of Greater Anjou and Normandy – William des Roches and William des Barres in particular. If their lord was prepared to treat people of such eminence so harshly how might they be treated if they fell out of favour, or how might they be treated in response if captured by Philip? How did it reflect on their honour to be associated with a lord capable of breaking the rules of chivalry so blatantly? For the moment, John’s great men swallowed their concerns and fought on, but it would not take much to push them over the edge of the cliff of rebellion.