Well actually, the victory at Lincoln was not, in fact, to win the war. It was very close, but there was no cigar. It had however, put Marshal into the position where it was his to lose, rather than his to win.
Louis heard the news by 25th May. He immediately lifted the siege of Dover, and took himself to London, and sent a message to Marshal to negotiate. But although discussions took place, it is probable that Louis had no intention of agreeing terms yet – he had one more card to play. The King of Spades.
Essentially he’d sent to his Dad for aid. Dad was gloomy about the prospects once he’d heard that Marshal was in charge, saying
Then we can win nothing in England, and that’s that. With that worthy knight’s acuity the land’s defence is assured.’
Whether or not he actually said that, and he jolly well ought to have done, he and Louis’s wife set about raising a further army for their lad. By August, a fleet stuffed with soldiers was ready to sail from Calais, captained by the notorious and much hated pirate Eustace the Monk, who from the tiny Channel Island of Sark raided and killed for his profit.
Marshal marched immediately for the coast, and raised a fleet as was traditional, from the merchant men of the Cinque Ports; generally speaking the English ships were smaller and there were less of them; but Eustace had the problem that his ships were stuffed with horses and men for Louis’ army. Marshal was gently reminded that his tooth was overlong to learn a new format of battle, on the seas, and he was too valuable figure now to be risked, a judgement he accepted with good grace. I’ve often made the same point, that I am too valuable to be risked on washing up after supper, but my views are consistently and unfairly ignored, but I digress. So Marshal and the young king stood on the cliffs near Sandwich and watched and cheered.
Instead it was Hubert de Burgh who took command of the fleet. Hubert was a talented man and is a good example of the very wide range of roles royal servants took on back then; Hubert is really known for his administration skills, and his role as Justiciar. Taking up the role of fleet admiral was an unexpected career move, whereas Eustace of course had bags of experience. Oh Oh.
However, Hubert pursued his new job with some panache, swiftly engaging the French fleet. Loaded to the gunwales and riding low in the water, the French struggled; when Hubert ordered lime to be thrown on the wind so that it blinded French soldiers and sailors things got worse, and the long and short is that Sandwich was an overwhelming victory for the English. It also brought an end to the piratical career of Eustace the Monk – he was captured, and without delay had his head removed, and even pirates need heads to function.
It was also the end of the line for Louis – there was no new army for him – and the English rebels were deserting his course in droves and floods – 60 more had deserted since coming south. So, would Marshal go in for the kill?
Well Marshal has had a bit of a beating from medieval chroniclers like Matthew Paris at what happened next. He did not march on London and try to put Louis to the sword or kick his backside back to France. Instead he negotiated. The more cynical commentators noted that Marshal still held lands in Normandy from Louis’ Dad which looked like a good reason to go easy on his son. But honestly there were good reasons why negotiating was a good idea. Making war on Louis in London might well turn into war on Londoners too – collateral damage as it were. If Louis was captured it would be quite frankly an embarrassment to know what to do with him. Plus, here was one way of ending the pain with one person in one act – rather than having to deal separately in possibly different ways with rebel barons, Scots and Welsh. Marshal’s approach kind of made sense – cauterise the wound with a minimum of pain, end this with as little extra cause for resentment as possible.
The deal was pretty much the same as that stitched up in June. The Welsh would need to hand back all their gains. The Scots would need to go home and give up their gains too, and of course the rebels go home. Louis himself simply had to leave – with a bung it has to be said, of 10,000 marks for his expenses. His expenses in invading England and fostering civil war. I must admit I can understand Matthew Paris’ boiling blood at that. Still, by September 1217, Louis was gone.
Now then gentle listeners, we approach the end of our story. But not quite yet
– Marshal still had some time to fill as Guardian of the realm. Now we’ll have a chat at the end of this about the William that has emerged from this shedcast series, but I think I would advance that administration was not necessarily William’s strongest point – I mean no criticism by that, but he lacked the genius of a Hubert de Burgh, for whom structures, processes, governance were meat and drink. But from peace in September 1217 to April 1219 and the end of his public career, actually Marshal made a pretty good fist of things – in what he did and in what he did not do.
What he did not do is continue the tyranny and lack of consultation of John. Marshal had little of John’s sense of entitlement and arrogance, and was able to use his charm and prestige to create the thing England most desperately needed – peace and stability. Nor did he fill up his boots and those of his mesnie privee to a degree that would upset the rebels or indeed supporters. That’s not to say that he was a saint – he took Gloucester back, and Marlborough castle for example – but he was circumspect and proportionate, and there was nobody who felt he acted outside his rights. He was also conscious that the royal estate had taken a beating and therefore he could not reward his mesnie with grants of royal land; he did what he could with wardships and other non permanent grants. And look, he did the odd smidge of government stuff, re-establishing the Exchequer and doing his level best to get sheriffs to report into it. Deeper reconstruction would wait for Hubert de Burgh.
While engaged in the business of ruling the country, Marshal spent most of his time at Westminster, but also visited Chepstow, where Isabel spent most of her time. But he also spent much time across the river from a city now occasionally known as the golden city, namely Reading. I do mean occasionally by the way. Across from Reading was Marshal’s estate at Caversham, to which you could make it a day from London in a boat if you tried hard enough. There was Marshal’s estate house, and an abbey there.
In January 1219, Marshal fell badly ill, with stomach cramps and a loss of appetite. For a couple of months he was able to keep going, riding to the Tower of London on 7th March for example; but within a couple of weeks of that he’d decided he was too ill for the London commute now, and needed to go to a place where social distancing was easier. And so he went home – to Caversham, at a gentle 3 day pace. He had no intention yet of giving up working – the king came with him and stayed in Reading Abbey across the river. And for the next 3 weeks orders and letters poured forth from Marshal’s pen as he addressed matters of state; but despite this, the lad wasn’t getting any better. So finally in Easter week, the 7th April, Marshal accepted defeat and decided he must settle the future of an England without William Marshal. And so he convened a council at Caversham with the Council and the king. For a couple of days they debated back and forth who should replace Marshal as Guardian, and pretty soon the buns started flying around the room. The earl of Winchester made a bid, only to be slapped down by Marshal as a treacherous toe rag. Eventually the conclusion was reached that the role should be passed across to the Papal Legate. And the Council broke up.
Most of these people Marshal would never see again, and he took his final leave of them. One such was the young king, and in saying goodbye, Marshal’s courtly mask slipped just a little as he gave his blessing to Young Henry
Sire, I pray to almighty God that if I have ever done anything pleasing in his sight he may grant that you grow to be truly worthy; but should you be otherwise inclined and emulate some wicked forebear, I pray God the son of Mary will see you live not long but die before that happens
This appears to be a reasonably grim leave taking…and we know he’s talking about Henry’s Dad with the wicked forbear thing, don’t we?
Marshal has but another month to live, and the histoire covers it in some depth, during which personal stuff appears I should mention. The first is Marshal as a family man; many of his children come home be with him, there is a blizzard of hugging and kissing, the family sing together and the children to their Dad, there is weeping enough to water a substantial garden – the stiff upper lip has 600 years yet to become a thing. As an example, here’s Marshal to the Countess just before he joins the order of Templars:
Kiss me now my dear love – you will never do so again
She drew close and kissed him; he wept and so did she; the whole household grieved piteously at the sight…his daughters were there lamenting bitterly over him. Everyone was downcast and in tears.
And before you write to me complaining why it is that blokes don’t feel able to cry, let me re-assure you they’ve already had a good weep. Marshal’s will is also described; and he makes sure to give something to all his children. This interesting; he gives the lion’s share to the eldest, but there’s no sign of the strict application of primogeniture. I remember doing an episode on social aspects of the later middle ages or maybe early modern times, and made the point that while parents at all levels tried to keep the estate, or farm together, parents in times past were not heartless, and loved their kiddy winks every bit as much as we do – and made sure to provide for them when they died.
So I mention Marshal joining the order of templars and taking the vow. Clearly this is something that came from his time in the Holy Land. Like many nobles, joining a religious order was a difficult concept earlier in life, but later in life became much more attractive. Marshal had clearly carried a conviction that he would end his life as a Templar. His almoner Geoffrey was a templar, and in a simple ceremony they were joined by the Master of the templars no less and William took his vows. He also revealed a set of silk cloths in which his corpse should be wound – which he’d kept for close to 30 years from the Holy Land for just this occasion. And in discussion with his family, William let them know that he would be buried in the Templar church in London – where we think his tomb survives.
More generally, as joining the Templars suggests, Marshal was without doubt a pious man; God and religion appears throughout the histoire. Marshal makes grants to 27 orders through his life and endows 3 institutions. However, while there appears in the histoire no doubts, William was quite clearly conventionally pious – he did what was expected of him, but not much more. Actually many of his grants were simple confirmations of what his ancestors had promised, and for such a wealthy magnate his grants were no more than sufficient.
There’s also a tinge of anti clericalism; in the sense that he distrusted the more excessive and zealous demands of the clergy. His household clerk Philip suggested the robes William had kept for his household knights be sold:
Being so handsome, fresh and new those furs could fetch a lot of money – to use as atonement for your sins
Quiet you wretch said the earl You’ve always had a miserable heart!
In another conversation Marshal snaps
The clergy are too hard on us, they shave us too close!
In summary the words, as for so many of the lay nobility, are conventionally pious; we should not confuse anti clericalism with lack of faith, but also remember that most viewed the church was a modicum of pragmatism.
I must stop warbling, it’s time to bid the Marshal goodbye. He died on 15th May 2019 with the countess, his eldest son, John of Early and other household knights around him. A service was carried out at Reading Abbey, before the funeral procession carried his body down the River Thames to London. You might think of it as a sort of state funeral, though not Elizabeth I or Winston level; but the histoire promised that a ‘great host of knights’ came to the Templar church, for a service conducted by the Master of the templars and the ABC. The ABC did his duty and leavened the bread of eulogy with the yeast of caution
Behold … when each of us comes to his end… he is nothing more than earth. ‘You see before you the finest knight in the world in our time, and what is there to say now, by God? …And now let us say our paternoster, praying that God may receive this Christian in his heavenly kingdom…believing as we do, that he was truly good
The histoire has a final anecdote to impart. We are in France, and King Philip is speaking to William des Barres, a figure with many claims to be the French equivalent in reputation as the Marshal. Des Barres informs the king of his death and adds
In our time there has been no finer knight…So help me God…I’ve never seen a greater knight in all my life.
You’ve said a lot and said it well! The Marshal I swear was the most loyal knight I ever met
Well that’s that then, Marshal is in his grave. I should add then that that Isabel did not long outlive him, dying the next year in 1220 at Chepstow and is buried at Tintern Abbey.
I have a few thoughts, not many, about what I have learned. When I went into this, I had an image of Marshal as the bluff, loyal, slightly disingenuous knight, possibly a bit dim, who put doing the right thing always ahead of doing the thing right. A powerful man physically and one who knew the right path, and a great military leader.
I find the need to slightly modify my view, though only moderately, in some ways with a little realism, in others to add further strings to his bow. The physical prowess thing shines out all the way through, a man of his time and class, born for war, a warrior who saw little to regret in it. However, he is surely no Napoleon; he has his military failures, as in Normandy in 1203, and at Chateau Gaillard. A competent general, but rarely exceptional. In terms of his famed loyalty, well yes, I think that reputation largely survives intact but the bluff, disingenuous thing demands modification. He’s a clever, subtle, tricky courtier who knows how to play the game – he’s no martyr to an excessive sense of chivalry. And there are times when quite frankly he is convinced of his own rectitude to the level of downright stubbornness. John gets a bad press from the poet but without doubt Marshal was wrong to take liege homage with the king of France, and walked too close to the edge with John at times. He has, to every degree, the acquisitive nature of the medieval magnate – though without tipping over into excess and greed. In that respect he pushes hard at times but within acceptable boundaries for his time.
The family man element comes over very strongly and is an attractive part of his character, and although there is not a hint of great philosophical interest or depth, we know what he believes in and so does he. He is in all respects a conventional medieval magnate – family, land, God, service and loyalty – who follows that path with courage, extraordinary success and great honesty. So that it can be that at his death that the man who has been his enemy can say that they knew no finer knight.
That really is it, it’s all over. I feel just a little tearful, and must weep in fine medieval style. I hope you have enjoyed the story of our William, I know I have. If you are listening to this in real time, we will be moving on to Margaret Beaufort in September, the great survivor and matriarch of the Tudor dynasty. Thank you so much for listening, and I hope to see you there.