Before he got a chance to prove himself though, William would have heard, in 1165, of the death of his father John; it’s odd that the Histoire makes no mention of such an event, but maybe it’s because William was unable to leave Tancarville to go home. William would have heard that his half brother Walter had inherited, but it would not be long when in 1166 William also heard that Walter had died, and his older brother John was now head of the family, which left William as heir.
It came at a difficult time in William’s life; this was to be a decision point in his career. William was about 20 years old in 1166. There is no formally set time in a young man’s life when he needed to be knighted, nothing like the legal age thing where you go to bed one night and wake up the next fully enfranchised and able to bring the country to its knees all of a sudden. But 21 had some significance, and might be seen as something of a watershed, the time when really William could not expect Tancarville to be putting him up any more. Now what William probably wanted when he graduated as it were, was to be accepted as one of Tancarville’s household warriors, accepted into his mesnie privee, the inner cabinet as it were. The trouble was that the pool in which he wanted to swim was not a big pool; we don’t know how many men Tancarville had in his mesnie privee, but even barons and earls might have only between 6 and 12; it could be that Tancarville had a few more, since we have a reference to him leaving the hall to fight with 28 men, if so, a large contingent. But it seems that William was not getting good vibes from Tancarville. Despite the nice words, the muttered insult seems to have been having an impact
‘what use is he to you, this devilish, gluttonous, hopeless burden who’s asleep when he’s not stuffing himself? It’s crazy to keep feeding him!’
Was what they’d said. It’s, you, know, not the most positive feedback I think it’s fair to say. However, in 1166, fortunately for all the men of war looking for an opportunity, war was in the air. The Counts of Ponthieu, Flanders and Boulogne had allied together and cast their hungry eyes at the luscious pastures of Normandy, and the luscious pastures of Normandy needed defending. Tancarville moved with his mesnie to Neufchatel along with the Count of Eu and William de Mandeville to gather their strength. And given that war was in the air, now it was that Tancarville decided that this would be the perfect time to make William a knight. And that kind of makes sense, and would be a common occasion to pick – knighting esquires on the eve of battle so that they face the following day in their full glory.
We are in the relatively early days of the knighting ceremony, a process which would become more and more elaborate. Still, for the high and mighty it could still be a grand affair. Geoffrey count of Anjou, Henry II’s father had been knighted in 1128, and the boat had been well and truly pushed out for him. He’d started with a bath, a sign of spiritual cleansing rather than an opportunity to get away from the family, put your feet up and get stuck into a good book. Then he’d been decked out with grade A finery, including a pair of silk shoes decorated with lion cubs. He’d emerged to be gifted a magnificent horse, then the ceremony, then days of feasting and military games. A real hooley. William didn’t have anything as grand as that – though we know that he bought himself a specially fine cloak for the occasion.
It’s difficult to know how far back went the origin of the knighting ceremony; the ASC mentions the knighting of Henry I in 1086, and used the word ‘dubbade’, a word from the French ’adouber’, ‘to arm’, a reference to the handing over of arms to the new knight. I assume that it’s from this word that will eventually come the phrase to be dubbed a knight. Other sources also reference the candidate placing his sword on an altar; the church did its level best to get involved in the whole thing, as the church does, though the flavour remained largely secular. Which seems fair, given that whacking people around the head with blunt weapons is ideally a largely secular activity. But I guess it is in line with the entirely laudable aim the church had of trying to restrict and reduce violence; a similar concept lay behind the ‘God’s peace’ launched by the church at this time – which had a predictably limited shelf life. The word knight itself is an Old English word, ‘cniht’ for servant; in the early days it competed with ‘rider’; the two words get across the salient features of a knight’s activities – the concept of loyal and honourable service – as opposed to digging out a cart load of horse manure which was not counted as an honourable service – and the central importance of the horse that gave them such military advantage and cost so much to buy and maintain.
The essence of knighting was girding the new knight with a belt and sword; as evidence, during one legal dispute the status of one of those involved was questioned for example, with the words
They are not of the knightly order nor girded with the sword.
A disgraced knight would be ‘deprived of his belt’. This has the same idea of conferring status as does the elevation ceremony of an Earl, where the earl has a belt put around him by his lord, hence the phrase a belted Earl. Which you may or may not have ever heard of. There’s an account of Hereward the Wake, probably written in the early 12th century, which includes many of the elements of the knighting ceremony:
[the knight] must…offer a naked sword on the altar during high mass. After the gospel the monk singing the mass touches him with the sword on his naked neck, giving him a blessing. The young warrior receives the sword from him and is thus duly made a knight.
This is interesting; the same text refers to the ‘English fashion’ of knighting, which is a theme of William’s life as it happens – an emerging and growing gap between French and Anglo Norman identity. In this circumstance, the English ceremony seems to be considerably more Godly that the French – the French felt that a knighting by a monk was an inferior sort of ceremony. The dubbing is closest to the ceremony that you will see today. The dubbing itself seems to have derived from something much more simple, the earliest being a blow on the shoulder. It’s not clear why this was part of the ceremony – maybe a stern reminder of the violent nature of the knight’s duty, or maybe the last time they will be allowed to take a blow without retaliating, who knows.
Either way, William’s transition from squire to knight at Neufchatel was simple and was watched benignly by the Count of Eu and the Constable of Normandy.
The Chamberlain girded his sword…and God bestowed such grace upon him that in all his deeds he never failed to shine.
All good; though now William would also realise that given he had been offered no role in Tancarville’s mesnie, this was also the medieval equivalent of a P45, a termination of employment. Huh, what to do?
Well, as it happens the Counts of Flanders, Boulogne and Ponthieu had not been idle; in fact they’d been burning their way through the Norman border lands that belonged to the count of Eu. And now, the evil counts had also arrived at the town Neufchatel and were planned to start burning it too. So, suddenly they were spotted, the alarm went up, and Tancarville and his men rushed to arm themselves and defend the town. Well William was there like a rat up a drain. At last the dancing and singing and hunting and farting could stop and the fish could find his water. So excited was the lad that he broke a cardinal rule; as they charged from the castle, sparks flying from the hooves of their excited mounts, William had but one thought, having a hack at the enemy – and he rode impulsively as fast as he could, thus passing in front of his betters. Honestly, that is just not cricket. ‘Back!’ William was ordered, suddenly all hot and red faced under his helmet; as you read the histoire you can visualise an aging Marshal telling his household the story of his youthful days, to be faithfully transmitted years later to the poet, eager for stories just like this.
Tancarville and his men saw the enemy on their right in the town and charged at them with lances levelled and then came the hacking;
So loud was the clashing din of their blows that it would have drowned God’s thunder
And William was in the thick of it. The ferocity of their charge drove the enemy back through the gates. Hurrah! Cry Harry…oops hang on – a new force had arrived and was attacking as well, yikes, and outnumbered now it was Tancarville’s turn to be driven back, back to the bridge, disaster! Well, Marshal was having none this!
Tancarville! He howled spurred his horse forward and attacked, getting himself rather isolated from his pack it has to be said. Interestingly enough the histoire now says
Watching from the windows of the upper chambers were knights and ladies and crowds of townsfolk, all distraught, besides themselves to see the Marshal stranded, without support. With one voice they cried
‘knights of Normandy! Shame on you, not going to the Marshal’s aid!
I must admit I never thought of the spectator angle to all these battles and so on, foolish of me. Anyway, inspired the tide turned yet again, until another group of enemy reinforcements tipped up, hell’s teeth, and back it went again. Marshal found himself a sheep pen from where he could launch secret attacks, but was discovered – no! – and surrounded by Flemish solders who tried to drag him from his horse with an iron hook, which sounds hideous, William held on for grim death, and managed to tear himself free – but his Destrier was covered with blood, and would later die from its wounds poor thing.
At this point, the townsfolk stopped being Gongoozlers and took up arms themselves, men and women both waving all manner of weapons, and eventually the attackers gave it all up as a bad job and rode through the gates and away. So ended William’s very first day of fighting in earnest, and he had played an absolute blinder, proving himself a noble and true knight in every respect! Hurrah cry Harry and all that sort of stuff.
Or had he? Ladies and Gentlemen, or had he. Well now.
Elated with the success of the day, Tancarville and his chumps the Count of Eu and William de Mandeville threw a party – as you would, I mean silly not to, I am sure you will agree. The party had swelled to 80 knights, and
‘they ate and drank their fill of whatever they wished…and you should have seen the gifts brought by the burgers…as they honoured the Chamberlain for saving the town
So you can imagine there were buns flying to put the Drone’s Club to shame, wild stories about derring do blown up higher than Didcot Power Station, and none higher than Marshal’s name. But then we have this little exchange. Mandeville shouts out teasingly to Marshal, who was no doubt knocking it back with the best of them
‘Marshal, grant me a favour by way of friendship; it’ll be well repaid in the future’
‘Gladly’, said the Marshal ‘what’s your wish?’
‘A crupper, or at least a spare Halter’
‘God bless me I’ve never had a spare in my life’
‘What? Marshal…you must have had forty today or even sixty – I saw it with my own eyes! And you really mean to refuse me?’
Behind the laughter and bonhomie was a cutting message – Marshall might be brave and a fighter, but he was no knight yet – he’d been hideously naïve, he’d paid no attention to the business of taking hostages and getting a decent return on his triumphs. It was not a lesson he would forget.
So when the fumes of alcohol had cleared and euphoria with it, William found himself with a hangover and a real financial problem – his horse, the most expensive item he’d ever had, was dead, and he had no way to replace it. Just to make matters worse some interfering idiot had done the unthinkable and made peace – who would do that to a young knight? So now he had no way of putting things right, and anyway he couldn’t do anything without a horse.
Normally the lord would have helped – but Tancarville was sending him P45 signals again. He would do nothing to help, and as the hoistoire says ‘showing him little regard and leaving him humiliated’ – the significance of Tancarville’s actions would not just have hurt William, but the message would have been obvious to everyone. William did what he could – he sold the special cloak he’d bought for his knighting and bought a Rouncey, and a pretty rubbish one at that.
William was on his uppers. The prospect of the life of a hearth son beckoned.