The Siege of a Winchester is a great story, and one that the histoire absolutely loved of course, because they were able to put John Marshal right in the middle of it – and in this case, there is some independent corroboration for the story, so we can swash the buckle with some historical confidence as well as dramatic glee, so that’s good then. Here’s the set up. Stephen had made an absolute hash of the first battle of Lincoln in 1141, captured by his enemy Empress Matilda. Next up was Stephen’s brother Henry of Blois. Matilda swept down on Winchester like the proverbial wolf and Henry fled. Hurrah for Matilda! But, in London there was another Matilda – Matilda of Boulogne, Queen of England, wife to Stephen. Seeing an opportunity and gathering an army suddenly Matilda appeared at Winchester and the Empress Matlida was trapped. Hurrah for Matilda!
Enter John Marshal, with a dash and a swagger. Look ‘Tilda says john Marshal, let’s take a leaf from the Animals here. We’ve got to get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do. 22 miles down the road is my castle at Ludgershall. If we make a break out we can get there, and thence north to Marlborough and freedom. Let’s do it.
Out from Winchester they rode, enemy snapping at their heels. But Matilda or so the story goes, was slowing them down by riding side saddle. The histoire picks up the story
By Christ lady you can’t spur when you’re seated so! You’ll have to part your legs and swing over the saddle
And so she did, whether she liked it or not, for the enemy were hard on their heels
On they rode, but the situation was desperate. So Marshall decided to make a stand, he turned and defended the ford at a place called Wherwell, while Matilda rode on. Throwing up some earthworks, Marshall fought to buy some time, but the forces against him were too strong and they were swept aside. In the rout, Marshall fled to the church with another knight, and barred the door. But the Queen’s men had seen him. The Histoire again
‘fire! Bring Fire! The traitor won’t escape!’
As the church caught fire the Marshal set off up the tower stairs. The other knight said
Good sir we are going to be burnt alive – a dismal, sinful and shameful death! We’d better surrender!
The Marshal responded fiercely: I forbid you to say so! Another word like that and I will kill you myself.
Fine stuff, I am imagining Errol Flynn. Marshal resolutely stayed inside, until the fire began to melt the lead on the roof and molten lead dripped down, onto one of Marshall’s eyes, creating a hideous scar and blinding him in one eye. But by now the enemy had moved on, desperate to capture Matilda, and convinced the traitor was indeed dead, and Marshall was able to drag himself out of the church and into the fresh air. Through the night struggled the knight until they came to Marlborough and safety.
With this, the Civil war reached a sort of impasse; neither side could rub the other out, Matilda was as incapable of keeping the loyalty of her subjects as was Stephen though for different reasons. For a few years Marshal profited from the chaos, ruling his corner of England; records from Abingdon Abbey show a constant pressure from Marshal for control of their lands. In fact, the real battle was not with Stephen but with the locals – in the form of the Earls of Salisbury. At some point Patrick of Salisbury enters the story, as he will do later with Marshal’s son. The Histoire describes a series of running battles between John Marshal and Patrick, first Marshall springing an ambush, killing many of Salisbury’s men and carrying off the booty. In the mid 1140’s Marshal was in the prime of his power. But as the histoire related
Fortune, never resting, endlessly turning her wheel first up and then down, has brought many an unsuspecting man suddenly tumbling from the heights
It’s a confused story, but one possibility is that Patrick of Salisbury switched back to Stephen’s side during the mid 1140s and the result for Marshal was bitter humiliation. With Stephen’s help, Patrick launched a series of attacks which brought Marshall to defeat. The struggle was an example of the power struggles going on in many parts of the country, war by proxy, changing fortunes, like a game of snakes and ladders sometimes climbing up the ladder, sometimes sliding down. And around 1145 therefore, Marshal found himself nestled just by the snake’s backside, at a low point in Marshal fortunes.
What happens next is a good illustration of the ways in which the medieval world worked. Because Marshal was not destroyed – instead an agreement was stitched together. It was probably the earl of Gloucester who stayed Salisbury’s hand, and brought the Marshal and Salisbury heads sharply together and in the silence following the crack, dictated a solution.
Peace was achieved through traditional medieval route – marriage. Gloucester dictated that Marshal would marry Patrick of Salisbury’s sister Sybil, bringing the families’ fortunes together. There was a significant problem to this – John Marshal was already married to Adelina, and had been for some years with two children to show for it. But no matter – the traditional escape formula was found in the degrees of relationship between Adelina and Marshal, and Gloucester had an alternative for Adelina as well as Marshal – once divorced, Adelina would then marry his uncle Stephen Gayt. It is doubtful any of the parties had much choice. To cover Marshal’s blushes there would be a dowry from Salisbury – but it turned out to be a manor in Mildenhall whose ownership was claimed by a local Abbey so it was in fact more trouble than it was worth. The point was that the Marshalls had survived. The other point was that the marriage of Sybil and John would produce 4 sons – John, William, Henry and Ansel – and 2 daughters one of whom was called Maud and the other who is lost to history. You will spot in there at last the name of our hero.
John Marshal was a hard, ambitious man typical of his class, whose pride and future lay in his reputation and family. The platform constructed for him with the Salisbury’s allowed him simply to start again, nothing daunted. The civil war entered an odd phase; almost as though although nothing was resolved nobody could really be bothered anymore. Matilda’s son Henry II had entered the lists, as a potentially more acceptable alternative to the cantankerous Empress; and there’s a rather remarkable incident in 1147 when he invaded England, failed to get anywhere, and Stephen rather courteously paid for his passage back to the continent. Stephen is as attractive a character as ever caused a blood soaked civil war. Meanwhile the kind of local peace agreements brokered by Gloucester were repeated elsewhere – and Gloucester’s own death removed one of the causes of war. However, the ever vigilant Marshal spotted a chance for another money making wheeze, on his tried and tested formula. The main London west road lay within reach of his lands, with all its busy trading traffic, and where there’s a merchant there’s a taxing opportunity. Marshall probably built a small castle at Newbury so that he could easily prevent travellers passing without making a an entirely voluntary contribution towards the local charities. Thus were the family coffers filled.
Marshal was clearly caught by surprise when King Stephen appeared before the walls of Newbury demanding his submission and an end to this entirely illegal piece of private enterprise, or piracy as it might be called. We know that, because Stephen caught the garrison short of supplies. Nonetheless the doughty Constable shut the gates and refused to yield until he’d consulted with his boss the Marshal. Eventually an agreement was reached – Stephen would give marshal an extra day before he surrendered, but only if he held one of his sons as hostage for good behaviour.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, William enters our story at last, round of applause. There’s some debate about whether he was born late 1146 or early 1147, but by the time of this little drama he was probably 6 years old. Because it was William who was delivered to King Stephen as surety for the good behaviour of his father.
John Marshal was a hard man. And he cheated, and in all probability never had the slightest thought that he would abide by the agreement to abandon Newbury. He simply used the extra day his son had bought for him to stock the castle it up with supplies and men. And shut the gates just a little tighter, as you do.
Well I never did, Stephen was not a naturally grumpy man but he was unsurprisingly miffed. At which point one of his advisers nodded significantly at the little William. And so we get a bit of theatre. Out in front of the stockade at Newbury while Marshal Senior watched, a gallows was built to receive Marshal junior. Marshal Senior was unimpressed. He sent a message back to Stephen – that he had the hammers and anvils to forge better sons. Marshal was a hard man. Historians generally coolly take the view here that Marshal knew his man, knew that Stephen was not the enormous crocodile, and was not a man to eat a little child. Which is you know, all well and good from 850 odd years away but it still seems a little risky to me, jus’ sayin’. But anyway, bluff calling was the order of the day.
Stephen roared for the Earl of Arundel, and Arundel put a mighty escort together to make sure there was no last minute ambush. William was shoved into line, and Arundel took up a mighty spear to make sure there was no funny business and off for the gallows they set.
Let me have a go with that spear sir
Here you are listening to the words of William marshal, aged 6. William was starting off in the way he meant to go on. Fair enough I’m supposed to hanged but hang it all that’s a drop dead spear, I bet that could do some real damage and its jolly shiny. Well this was too much for Stephen. Far too cute. The escort was called back, there would be no hanging today.
It was, however, not too much for the evil Wormtongues of the world. The Histoire resolutely paints Stephen in the best possible light, and its interesting that nowhere is there any suggestion that any of the players would really see the death of a small child as a matter for easy acceptance; this is an exceptional event of exceptional evil, and the histoire’s language is clear on the point. But the wormtongues had their way, although you have to think this is just desperate theatre from Stephen to try and convince the hard hearted Dad. This time William was to be catapulted into the castle. Brought forward, William mistook the purpose of the siege engine, and was delighted with such a fab see saw when he was loaded up. Epic fail number two. Never mind, one more go. An attack on the gate was agreed on. What they’d do is build a shelter. Fill it with men who would attack the gate, defended by the wicker roof. It’s a good plan, but there was a pretty straightforward response – the defenders would drop a massive millstone down on top of the shelter, crushing it and the men inside. So – wizard wheeze – young William was to the strapped to the top of it. The Constable merely laughed
Then by my life he’ll die! We’ve a present for him that will crush him as flat as a pancake…he’s going to die as that’s that
So saying, a huge millstone was brought out and hung above the gate in readiness. Well, I have to say if I was William even at the age of 6 I might be feeling a little hurt at this point; But also if I was Stephen I must admit I would have thought this particular ploy would have been worth trying, since his Dad would actively have had to order the death of his own son. But not Stephen. He gave up again, and resorted to playing knights with his new little friend. This involved swinging large headed flowers at each other and the one to lose its flower first was the loser. It’s a simple game, but it sounds effective and I commend it to you, though not with Grandads’ prize Dahlias if you don’t mind.
The histoire was never able to quite admit that in the end Stephen took Newbury, and Stephen moved on to the greater prize of Wallingford. It was here that peace was finally agreed; Stephen would remain king until he died, and then Henry II would succeed him. William was returned to his father, maybe with a sad wave from his new pal the king. The Anarchy was over, and a new chapter was about to begin, and much would depend on the attitude and character of the new king.