On 14 May, 1219, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, soldier, statesman and regent of England, died at his home in Caversham. To mark the 800th anniversary of his death, historian and novelist Elizabeth Chadwick looks at how this remarkable man’s fame grew, then disappeared until relatively recently.
I came to write about the great medieval warrior, magnate and statesman William Marshal in 2004 purely because I was looking for a new hero for my next contract and I needed a larger than life personality whose story would persuade my publishers to keep me in employment for the next couple of years.
The medieval period, specifically the 11th to the 13th centuries, is my stamping ground and it’s impossible to write within this timeline and not come across William Marshal, his deeds and his influence. From childhood to old age, he served six kings faithfully and one queen – the iconic Eleanor of Aquitaine. His life and career spanned that of hostage, soldier, tourney knight, adventurer, pilgrim, earl, magnate and elder statesman; not forgetting husband and father of ten.
He was billed as ‘the Greatest Knight’ (the title of my first novel about him) in the Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, a biographical poem of just under 20,000 lines completed within seven years of his death. This is the reason we know so much about his life compared to many of his contemporaries, some of whom may have been just as illustrious – but no one wrote down their stories.
With an initial two book contract under my belt, I set out to research and write William Marshal’s journey as historical fiction for a modern audience. In 2004 when I began writing, William Marshal was still very much unknown outside the academic and re-enactment communities. I like to think that my novels have widened awareness but, my input aside, it’s fascinating how the story of William Marshal, well known and celebrated 800 years ago, was then lost for centuries and only resurfaced by chance in the 1860s.
The written tale of William Marshal’s life was commissioned by his eldest son, also called William, and composed by a secular French cleric named John, who completed the word around 1226. An Histoire was both a history and a story – a bit like a work of biographical historical fiction today with an underlying true fabric enriched with embellishments.
This Histoire was intended to commemorate the life of the patron’s illustrious ancestor and would have been used as a family history and entertainment, performed on the anniversary of the Marshal’s death. It was also a political document, reminding the current regime of the power and influence wielded by the Marshal family.
We do not know how many copies of the Histoire were made – no more than a handful in a time when everything had to be laboriously handwritten. All but one were lost to the dust and vagaries of time. The Marshal’s legitimate male line died out within a generation, for none of his sons had sons. His daughters bore numerous offspring, but their families took other names.
Before they died, the Marshal men had fallen out of favour with the Crown, and the chance circumstances that had given William Marshal his chance in the firmament now faded to a different dawn. There was no one left to sing the song on the founder’s anniversary. The copies vanished and a silence of centuries settled over the story.
The manuscript of the Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal resurfaced at auction at Sotheby’s in 1861, when young French historian Paul Meyer noticed it while browsing and realised that it was an important work, although he had no idea of the full content at the outset and thought it a medieval French romance. Meyer could not afford to buy it and it was sold to Sir Thomas Phillips, a dedicated book collector who had no interest in sharing his acquisition with anyone. Meyer had to wait another 20 years until Phillips was dead – and then gain permission from his estate to search among the collection until he found the Histoire he’d spotted years before.
Reading the work, Meyer he realised that this was in fact the biography of a flesh and blood man who had survived being hanged as boy hostage of 5 years old and had risen from the rank of household knight and, through his own talent, prowess, intelligence and loyal service to the Angevin kings, had ended his life as Regent of England and master of vast lands in Ireland, Wales, England and Normandy.
Meyer spent 20 years producing a three-volume translation into modern French but this wonderful and unique work still sailed under the radar except in academia and rarefied circles. Sidney Painter produced a biography in 1934. David Crouch’s seminal work on the Marshal first appeared in 1984 and is now in its third edition as Dr Crouch has mined and translated more material from various archives to shed light on the story of this remarkable man. The Histoire itself has been translated into English by the Anglo Norman Text Society in two detailed volumes, and more recently Nigel Bryant has provided an all-purpose prose translation minus the Old French text.
My take on William Marshal’s story, The Greatest Knight, has become a world-wide best-selling novel – thanks in part to the wonderful source material of the Histoire. I think it would entertain, amuse and gratify William Marshal that his story, originally known to gatherings of a few hundred people gathered round a fire, is now known worldwide, across continents and languages and beyond the glorious entertainment factor has become a source of study, pleasure, sustenance, and inspiration to so many people. To some, like me, he has changed our lives.
In the year of his 800th anniversary, I salute William Marshal, the Greatest Knight, the finest man.
Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of several novels about William Marshal and his family, including The Greatest Knight and its sequel, The Scarlet Lion. Her most recent work, Templar Silks, looks at what William might have done during his missing three years on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
William Marshal’s tomb in the Temple Church in London: via Wikimedia
Tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England at Fontevraud Abbey: via Wikimedia
William Marshal at a joust unhorsing Baldwin Guisnes, from the Historia Major of Matthew Paris, Corpus Christi College Library: via Wikimedia
Kneeling knight from the Westminster Psalter: via Wikimedia