While everyone one pondered who should be the young king’s protector, they found out that John had already thought all about that, and covered it in his will. There was to be a committee of 13 Ordainers, who would be responsible for defending the realm and kicking the Capetian backside out of England, subduing the Barons and bring peace and prosperity. Nothing major then – you have to wonder what they’d do with the rest of their time! Still you know, if you don’t ask you don’t get. Notably, when going through the last confession, John did not mention anything about Arthur. So you know, either he didn’t do it, or he did but continued to believe it was fully justified and looked forward to telling Peter so at the pearly gates.
Let us note that when John died in Newark, Marshal was a long way away, which for anyone with ambitions for the next reign is unfortunate. As it happens, though, Marshal had 3 of his household in the room as John breathed his last, so he would have heard quite quickly; and fortunately, John was to be buried at Worcester, little more than spitting distance from where Marshal was, at Gloucester.
Now please note that John did not, repeat not, gratefully press regency of the realm into Marshal’s hands – yes he was one of the 13, but there was nothing to suggest Marshal as pre-eminent. There are then two broad interpretations of Marshal’s attitude to the minority of the new king, the 9 year old Nipper Henry III.
The histoire paints a picture of a man reluctant to take on more responsibility, but strongly loyal to the new nipper. Historian Thomas Ashridge also emphasises the kudos due to Marshal for his loyalty; because when you looked at the situation square on, surely the Angevin faction was a goner, on their last legs, with an under age king and a huge number of barons arrayed against them. A lesser man might have sloped off at this point, and booked a meeting with Prince Louis.
The other point of view is that while Marshal surely demonstrates his loyalty and steadfastness in 1216, he also demonstrates his ambition – and rather than reluctance, actually outmanoeuvres any potential rivals, and executes a coup to exclude his most powerful rival, Ranulph of Chester who was also a long way away when John died in’t north.
Here’s what happens then. Once the king was dead, his innards were removed and buried by Abbot Adam, and then the funeral procession took the embalmed body to Worcester – where Marshal had ridden to meet them. Marshal immediately assumed a position of leadership, taking it on himself to dig out some funeral silks for the king’s tomb. The funeral took place on 25th/26th October, and then the assembled lords – still not including Ranulph of Chester who was yet to arrive – moved down the Severn to Gloucester. Again, Marshal assumed a bossing around role, ordering Henry III to be brought from Devises to Gloucester. As observers of medieval minorities will recognise, possession of the person of the king is critical. Henry arrived, and Marshal knighted him – acquiring another leadership badge by so doing of course. Henry was then crowned – post haste, despite the fact that Ranulph had not yet arrived.
So now we get the all-important decision. According the histoire, the lords met in council – this is probably around 28th October. Now Marshal had a lot of supporters present; and according to the histoire the Council said to Marshal
We have decided – rightly in our view – to ask you to take the Guardianship of the king in hand.
But that Marshal was reluctant :
I cannot. I’ve no longer the strength and vigour to fulfil such a task. I’m old now – I can’t accept the office. It needs to be given to someone else. Come what may, wait until the Earl of Chester’s here. Then we’ll be in a better position to decide
But despite the clarity of this answer, later on Marshal gathered his 4 closest companions around him, and asked them what they thought he should do. His nephew John Marshal and Ralph Musard had no doubts – go for it boss, you’ll be brill. John of Early was a bit more circumspect, pointing out that ‘your body’s strength is waning’, which is rude, but that’s what old friends are for I suppose – to be rude. Certainly seems to be the opinion of my old friends anyway. Once again Marshal decided to wait for Chester.
Council reconvened and Chester now arrived. According to the Histoire Chester was happy the coronation had happened, though his followers thought the absence of Chester an insult, and although Marshal offered to make way for Chester as Guardian it was Marshal that was confirmed at Council, as Chester engaged in competitive self deprecation, which is of course the English way, and insisted Marshal do it.
Finally, after being bribed with the offer of total absolution of all his sins if he did it, which is a neat trick, Marshal declared
In the lord’s name …if it saves me from my sins, this office suits me well! Much as it pains me, I’ll accept it!
Now, the alternative view of what has transpired here is that Marshal is rather hamming it up, and the histoire is helping – presenting the image of a chivalric, perfect gentil knight, the reluctant hero. I may be pushing it a bit far, but it feels like there’s a parallel with Thomas More a few centuries later – the pretended reluctance to take power, when in reality all More’s inclinations and humanist learning trained him to counsel his Prince. David Crouch points out that John’s will is essentially overturned – there’s no mention in the will of a Guardian, least of all specifying Marshal. That Marshal made all haste to make darn sure that by the time Ranulph of Chester arrived, the only man that could really challenge him, when the real dealing was done, Marshal had taken the money and was counting his winnings. He met the funeral cortege as soon as possible and assumed a position of leadership; he seized the person of the young king. Knighted him to again establish his leadership, and had him crowned before Chester arrived. By the time Chester got there, the Guardianship was stitched up like a kipper, and all Ranulph could do was nod agreeably. For evidence that Chester was far from pleased, you might note that Chester’s agents took up the case in the court of England’s overlord, the Pope, and tried to have Marshal removed on the basis that he was far too aged to do anything except to patronised by the young, which is the role of the old, of course.
So what do you think? For my part, the ‘I don’t want power oh go on then, twist my arm’ is as unconvincing in Marshal as it will be in More. But William does deserve his reputation for loyalty, steadfastness and courage in taking on a job that looked nigh on impossible. Either way, the histoire puts very Marshal-esque words onto our hero’s lips when his Guardianship was confirmed:
‘If everyone abandons the boy but me, do you know what I shall do? I will carry him on my back, and if I can hold him up, I will hop from island to island, from country to country, even if I have to beg for my bread.’
Presumably not being keen to reach the bread begging stage, Marshal moved quickly to Bristol, to set about with this tall order. Quite quickly it became clear that the accession of Henry III had a made a difference to the strategic situation; as Matthew Paris wrote in his chronicles, many were well disposed towards the new king; it felt like a chance for a fresh start, and that
It was not right to put the evil of the father upon the son
Specifically, the histoire starts talking about Marshal’s son William the Younger and the Earl of Sailsbury as being part of the royal faction rather than the baronial – with no explanation. Furthermore, the Pope was intervening again with the French side, and put King Philip under pressure to withdraw; it was a pressure Philip resisted, but when Louis returned to France over the winter of 1216-1217 he received little help from his Dad.
The most significant action though was an inspired one, and can be directly attributed to Marshal. In Henry III’s name, but guaranteed with the trusty Marshal’s seal, Magna Carta was re-issued. It had a few tweaks but nothing very major, and it was re-issued without Baronial prompting. In this lies another measure of our hero’s greatness. Tactically, it demonstrated to the Barons that they were dealing with a man very different to John, and encouraged the feeling that here was a chance for a fresh start. Strategically, MC was the foundation upon which the legitimacy of the new reign was based – Henry himself would take this to heart and he re-issued the charter under his own name in 1225 when he attained his majority.
But in the more long term, Marshal’s action in tying the legitimacy of the monarchy to Magna Carta re-established the style of monarchy in England – that under Stephen, Henry II and Richard had recognised the absolute requirement to consult with their great men, and rule in partnership with the nobility. Significantly, Louis made no response, he did not issue his own Charter of Rights. Thus the English and French monarchies began the divergence in approach that would last until the walls of the Bastile were overwhelmed; the Capetians did not bargain or partner with their people.
When Louis returned, he found that Marshal had made some progress in the cinque ports; and more worrying, that a number of nobles had rejoined the royal faction; but Louis was still well in the driving seat, supported by the northern barons, the king of Scotland, southern lords such as the Earl of Winchester, and of course his own army. Clearly Marshal needed some significant win or military victory before his cause would really get anywhere. And events precipitated a showdown.
Into the story comes a small town in Leicestershire, about which I was immoderately excited, because Montsorrel, for so ‘tis called, is very close to where the author of this humble podcast was brought up – it is in my ‘hood as it were. Rather different than it used to be because a fair proportion of the ‘Mont’ bit of its name has been clawed away in search of its local granite, but still. Sorrel. Anyway, Louis got caught up in a bit of local history. Once upon a time, Montsorrel had been part of Ranulph of Chester’s honour, but the previous Earls of Winchester had half-inched it, the tinker. So Ranulph decided to combine business with pleasure, and under the cover of fighting for the royalist cause he besieged the castle at Mountsorrel. Meanwhile the Earl of Winchester, not keen on losing a place with such a glorious future in the granite production world, persuaded Louis that there was this key strategic castle he simply must attack since it’s capture would really turn things around…it was called Mountsorrel.
Well, Louis was suitably gulled, and gathered his army and sent half of it north under the leadership of the Count of Perche. Then Louis himself besieged the mighty castle of Dover which, to be fair, was of rather more strategic importance than ‘Sorrel, whatever my local loyalties. When Perche arrived at Mountsorrel, they found Ranulph had already given the siege up as a bad job. So Perche moved on to a bigger prize – the last royalist stronghold in the north, long but fruitlessly besieged by the northern barons – the castle of Lincoln, held by its castellan Nicola de la Hay. On the way they indulged in a little light pillaging, murder and destruction, as you do, until they came to Lincoln and joined the siege.
Marshal decided that now was the time to roll the dice, and attack while Louis’ army was divided; and Lincoln was an important prize, and must not fall. Marshal’s army was not the host commanded by the Barons and by Perche – it numbered but 406 knights and 316 crossbowmen. But the time had come, destiny is all. Marshal marched to Lincoln.
Listen now sirs! Glory and honour are at hand! Right here and now you can win the country’s freedom, truly; so damn any man who fails this day to challenge those who seize our land and property. …and if we die in this mission, then God who sees and knows the good, will set us in his paradise…
This and more was Marshal’s speech before the battle of Lincoln. Which took place on 20th May 1217. Marshal and his little army rose bright and early at dawn, and marched the 10 miles from their camp towards Perche’s 600 knights and thousand footmen. The French were inside the town with their engines, though outside the castle still held my Lady de la Hay. They saw Marshal coming. Before the war war came the jaw jaw – Marshal sent an embassy to see if the French could be persuaded to run away. They couldn’t, but rather sneakily under cover of the embassy a plan was hatched with the castle; Faulkes de Breaute would sneak into the castle through a postern gate with crossbowmen so they could pepper the French and distract them. Meanwhile Marshal and his knights would enter the town from a secret gate.
Marshal was probably around 70 now – but there he was in the melee when the time came, pushing into Lincoln and hammering away at the French. Meanwhile, de Breaute’s crossbowmen were on the castle wars. Despite the numbers game, the fury of the royalist attack and the vicious hail of crossbow bolts from the castle walls put the French on the defensive and they were forced back. And then, disaster – the Count of Perche was accidentally killed, which Marshal deeply regretted, it just wasn’t cricket to kill the nobles, that’s what the peasants were for. But the French panicked at the loss of their commander. They were pushed down the hill towards the southern gate – until they lost it completely, and broke, turning into a rabble and legging it with all their might. Marshal had won a magnificent victory, restored the prestige of the royalist faction. 46 Barons were captured and 300 knights, while the fleeing footsoldiers were pursued for 25 miles and picked off by the local peasantry.
The Battle of Lincoln, with it’s yield of prestige and rebels captured was a transformation for the royalists – but would it be enough to take on the French, Scots, and remaining rebel lords?
Find out next week members all, for the very last episode of Marshal’s story.