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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

William Marshal as an Example of Twelfth-Century Chivalry

At this point in the course I devote an entire lecture to knighthood.

The twelfth century saw not only a strong self- awareness among the knightly class, but a self-awareness that became a part of in European literature. The growth of literacy has  preserved the dreams of and about twelfth century knights as an inspiration for later romantics.

Both the ideals of chivalry and the facts behind the ideals have a lot of historic interest.

Begin with a basic fact:  the aristocracy of the twelfth century was not a comfortable upper class.

It was a turbulent group; the individuals and families who made up the aristocracy were anything but settled.  Their business and constant occupation was war. It is only by contrast with their counterparts in the tenth or eleventh century, that the knights and lords of the twelfth century look more peaceful.

Yet the individual rulers and their dynasties were far from secure. All aristocrats or would-be aristocrats fought to maintain their position if they had something, or to gain one if they did not. A powerful monarch like the English king might be able to limit private wars and feuds between his own followers; but he still depended on their fighting ability to rule.

Even in their most benign moments, knights threw themselves with enthusiasm into deadly games. Hunting was practically an everyday occupation. The prey was usually deer, but often it was wild oxen or boar, either of which could easily disembowel a person. Hard riding after prey and stray arrows claimed many victims.

Another "peacetime" occupation was the tourney. The tournaments of the twelfth century were not jousts, or formalized single combats. Rather, they were mock wars, in which two or more groups of mounted warriors fought each other for loot and glory. Tournaments differed from real
battles in only two respects. First, there was usually a safe area near the tourney site.  Second, the chief goal of the warriors was not to kill or injure their opponents, but to capture their equipment and ransom their persons.

Tournaments offered twelfth-century knights an opportunity to practice their warlike skills and to win or lose fame and treasure when no real wars were taking place.   It was a very dangerous amusement, and it was thus most popular among the so-called "youths," young knights who had no yet settled down to raise families and run their own households.

The warlike manners and occupations of the twelfth-century knight meant that able-bodied men were constantly at risk of their lives. A noble family could easily die off or be killed off in the course of a generation.

Example:   The twelfth-century French castellan, Henri de Bourbourg, had no less than twelve sons, all by one wife. Seven were found positions in the church; of the other five,  two were killed in their youthful wanderings, another was blinded in a tournament, and the last two proved unable to have children. A daughter inherited everything, and took the Bourbourg estates into her husband's lineage.

Questions of property added to the turbulence and unpredictability of upper-class life.. Living a noble lifestyle was an expensive business. The only secure form of wealth in the twelfth century was lordship over land and men: in other words, the possession of estates, castles, rights of justice, the right to labor services from peasants and tolls from merchants and townsmen. It was possible for simple knights to live off the generosity of some patron, or to become mercenaries, but every knight dreamed of independence, of owning enough property to be at least a minor lord, and of passing his property on to his sons. Every male aristocrat wanted to end his life as an independent lord, as a patriarch of a wealthy clan, and as the ancestor of a noble lineage.

But not everybody could achieve this dream.  In the twelfth century it was difficult even for the younger sons of established families to acquire the necessary piece of the family heritage.  The nobility had realized that if they continued to split their family estates between all the heirs, as had been the custom in earlier times, entire clans would soon be too poor to maintain their aristocratic status. To insure that this would not happen, primogeniture was slowly becoming the rule in England and northern France.

By the rules of primogeniture, the first-born son inherited the great bulk of his father's possessions, thus keeping the family power base intact. Other heirs got little or nothing. Younger sons were usually not even allowed to marry.  Such marriages might  produce children who would dispute the privileged position of the eldest son's descendants. By denying the younger sons the right to marry and the possibility of legitimate children, the continuation of the lineage was made more secure.

The nervousness of the sons of Henry II over the division of his lands reflects the general insecurity of noble heirs.  Like lesser aristocrats everywhere, they feared a disgraceful slide down the social scale. In many lesser families, the younger sons faced a harder future. These young warriors were sent out to make their own way in the world, condemned to suffer the curse of perpetual youth.

As I've mentioned already, youth was a distinct phase of life in the twelfth century: the youth was a young aristocrat who was not yet the head of his own household. The life of the youth was in many ways an attractive one, made up of war and tourney. The carefree young knight could find in one or the other the opportunity to prove his worth as a warrior and to win fame and treasure. When the fighting was over, the tourney site or the war camp were the settings for spectacular self-indulgence.

Ecclesiastical writers thought tournaments were hardly less sinful than unjust wars. Robert Manning, a thirteenth century monk, said that tourneys gave knights an excuse for all seven deadly sins:

Pride, in one's strength
Envy, of others
Wrath, in the combat
Sloth, in placing pleasure for devotion
Covetousness, of the opponents' horse and equipment
Gluttony at the feast
and Lechery afterwards.
In other words, they offered everything a red-blooded young knight could wish for.

The adventurous life of youth attracted many first-born sons whose fathers were still alive. Bored and frustrated with waiting for their inheritance, they would leave or be sent from home to amuse themselves on the tourney circuit. Often an heir would take a company of young knights with him--usually the sons of his father's vassals, who would become accustomed to his leadership. Eventually the heir, having sown his wild oats, would return home to marry and raise a family--if he wasn't killed in the process.

An example of such an adventuring heir is the young king Henry, eldest son of Henry II.

For the younger son, there was to be no marriage, no family life, no noble descendants unless he could win wealth with his sword or find a young heiress or eligible widow whose wealth would allow him from youth to established manhood. The existence of this class of rowdy, irresponsible knights-on-the-make were the cannon fodder of their day, easily available to any warlike lord. They were an essential ingredient of the crusading movement. They exacerbated the violent aspects of aristocratic life, since there was no peaceful activity that they could turn to without losing status.

The youths also had a significant cultural influence. The romantic figure of the knight on quest, which originated in the 12th century, is the idealized young knight. It is no coincidence that the quest often ended in a marriage to a beautiful heiress.

We can get some of the flavor of chivalric life by looking at the career of William Marshal, perhaps the most successful "young knight" of the entire twelfth century.

William Marshal was born about 1146, the fourth son and the product of his father's second marriage; thus, although his father was Marshal of England and his uncle an earl, William had no inheritance. Fortunately for him, he was spectacularly successful on the tourney field, and was able to use the reputation he earned there to win a place in the courts of four English kings, one of whom gave him the hand of the richest heiress in the country. William ended his life as Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England, ruling on behalf of the young Henry III.

William Marshal's life was recorded for posterity soon after his death in 1219, in an anonymous poem called The History of William the Marshal.

It reads in places like a romance, but the anecdotes it contain the stories remembered by his family and friends. What makes the poem particularly interesting is that these stories were assembled to demonstrate that William Marshal surpassed all the knights of his time in prowess, honor, and loyalty. Thus the history describes not only an exceptional man, but the ideal of chivalry as seen by some knights of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

As a fourth son, he was not in line to inherit land, but his father did what he could for him. John arranged for William to be sent to his uncle in Normandy, an influential man who held the post of Chamberlain of Tankerville. There William was to receive further training in chivalry. At first William was anything but a promising student. He became known in the Chamberlain's household mainly for loafing about, eating and drinking.

In 1167, however, a war broke out between the kings of France and England. This was to be William's big chance; he was made a knight, then rode off with his uncle to his first battle. This took place on a bridge outside the Norman town of Drincourt. William was so anxious for honor that he pushed in front of more experienced fighters to get into the fray. Once he got there he did well, felling and unhorsing many enemy knights.

In this first battle William suffered a great misfortune: his one and only warhorse was killed under him. William was so intent on fighting that he neglected to find a replacement. His folly was pointed out to him at the victory feast that evening. William de Mandeville, an ally of the chamberlain, jokingly asked young William for a gift--a saddle or a bridle from one of the horses he had captured.

"But I don't have any such thing," replied William. "

Nonsense," said Mandeville, "you must have forty at least."

Then everyone laughed, because despite his great success in battle, William had not paused to capture either horses or prisoners for ransom, and so he was poorer after the battle than he had been before.

William did not make the same mistake again. Peace soon broke out, and a great tourney was announced. The young Marshal attended on a mount he had begged from his uncle and in the course of the day captured several knights and their chargers. After this he never looked back.

William Marshal spent sixteen years tourneying, with occasional interruptions for war. The History dwells at length on this period of his life, and tells us much about the tourneys of the time.

For instance, although tournaments involved much fighting, and people were often killed in them, the poet presents them primarily as equestrian sport. William's favorite tactic was to ride up to an opponent, seize his bridle, and despite his resistance, drag the other knight away from his friends and out of the lists, where William forced him to take an oath of submission and swear to pay ransom. Sometimes the victim would escape ransom by slipping off his horse and running away on foot. Then, however, William would still have the warhorse, a most valuable prize.

William could fight as well, a fact that he demonstrated on many fields. In one of his earliest tournaments, five knights attacked him at once; they struck him several hard blows, and tried to pull him off his horse. William escaped, but found that his helmet had been pulled around backwards on his head. He had to break the helmet's lacings and take it off before he could put it right. Just as he had accomplished this awkward task, he heard two experienced knights say, "Any army led by that young man will be hard to conquer." Thus encouraged, the young Marshal charged back into the fray.

William gained much profit from his tourney success. One of the first things he got was a patron. King Henry II, hearing of his chivalry, chose him to be the tutor of his eldest son, Henry the young king.

William and the young king spent most of their time on the tourney circuit. The two of them trained up a group of penniless knights to follow them. William and Henry developed a ruse which gave them a distinct advantage over the other participants: they would hold back until after the first clash, then charge in with their fresh troops. This seems vaguely unfair to us, but it won the English knights much acclaim and, of course, many horses and ransoms.

Little or none of the prize money stuck to William's fingers, however. The poet repeatedly praises his hero for his generosity, and with reason: when William quit the tourney circuit, soon after the death of the young king in 1187, he was not only penniless, but saddled with a 100 mark debt contracted by his patron. This prodigality was not considered a failing--indeed it was almost expected from a nobleman.

Longer lasting than his monetary gains was the honor, or respect, that William earned. But if the poet is any guide, twelfth-century ideas of honor could be quite a bit different from ours.

There is a story of a tournament where William had been separated from his fellows, and, riding alone, came upon sixty English knights besieging fifteen French warriors holed up in a farm house. When the Frenchmen saw William they called out that they were willing to surrender to him because, in their words, "You are more worthy than those who are bent on capturing us." The Marshal immediately accepted their submission, which outraged the besiegers. When they protested, William replied that he had accepted the French surrender, and that if the English wanted to resist by force, they would have to pay the consequences. In the end he faced down all sixty of them, and they dispersed.

This seems very high-handed.  But the incident is used to demonstrate William's honor--his ability to inspire respect. The French knights were glad to surrender to him rather than those who so greatly outnumbered them; the English knights could not quite bring themselves to defy him. A final measure of his honor is that William released the fifteen French knights without any ransom at all--and they swore never to forget that good deed.

It was William Marshal's honor, his reputation as a skilled commander and a wise counselor that made his fortune. William did not remain masterless for long after the death of the young king.  Henry II quickly took him into his household, and established him on a fief. William was landless no longer. This marks a new stage in William's life. He had ceased to be a youth--and high time too, because he was now over forty.

Once he had received his fief and entered seriously into Plantagenet family politics, we never hear of William entering a tourney again. The virtues expected of a man in his position were quite different, as King Richard Lionheart pointed out to him on one occasion in 1197.

Richard's army, of which William was a part, was assaulting a castle and things were going badly. Only one man had got to the top of the wall, and he was in imminent danger of being tossed off. William saw his plight, leaped into the moat, climbed the other side, ran up a ladder, and went to his rescue. Indeed, he fought so fiercely, that the enemy fled and abandoned the wall to him, which gave the English an opportunity to capture it. When Richard saw him after, his first words were, "Sir Marshal, it is not fitting that a man of your rank and prowess to risk yourself in such feats. Leave them to young knights who must win renown." William Marshal at fifty-three was still capable of great deeds, but they were no longer appropriate.

The virtue appropriate to a great baron was loyalty, and indeed the poet shows us William's loyalty on many occasions. William was one of the few nobles who did not desert Henry II as his life came to a miserable end. William was a stalwart supporter of Richard's rights when that king was on crusade. William was loyal to King John throughout the latter's struggle with his barons over Magna Carta. Finally it was William Marshal whom the dying John chose as regent for and protector of his the nine-year- old Henry III.

But there are spots on this record, too. When the young king was still alive, William supported him in his revolts against his father, Henry II. A more serious matter is his policy after the French took Normandy away from John. William got from John permission to swear fealty to the French king for his Norman estates; thus his lands were not confiscated as were most English fiefs in Normandy. But when later John launched an expedition against France, William refused to help in any way, because he was now the French king's vassal, too. This was the beginning of a long feud between John and the Marshal.

In later times some Englishmen, looking back on William's years as regent, found much to criticize. William, rather than destroying the French army that had been supporting the barons against John, negotiated an agreement that allowed them to withdraw. Some said this was because he did not want to endanger Prince Louis, the heir to the French throne and the leader of the army. Matthew Paris, in reporting this incident a generation later, said "William Marshal was ever after branded as a traitor."

I am inclined to side with the poet. William Marshal's claim to loyalty was not his patriotism, or his attachment to the English crown, but his personal fidelity to his immediate lord. He never broke his pledged word or was disloyal to his lord, even when King John, who distrusted him after the disagreement over Normandy, spent years trying to ruin William and the whole Marshal family.

At least, this is the version put forward by his friends.

Yet there is evidence that this type of loyalty was understood and valued by other knights. When Richard Lionheart came to the throne, he quickly made William a trusted courtier and an earl to boot; this despite the fact that they had recently been on the opposite sides in a civil war. Even the suspicious John could think of no better person to entrust his young son to.

The paradoxical opinions about William's loyalty have a simple resolution. William was loyal, but he also looked out for his own rights--and few of his ambitious, acquisitive peers would have faulted him for that.

It is worth pointing out what the History does not mention.

There is no courtly love in the poem; there is one anecdote that shows William entertaining some ladies with his singing before a tourney, but there is not a trace of self-denying, idealistic or romantic love in his makeup. The respect he shows for his wife has a lot to do with the immense size of her inheritance, and her consequent political importance.

Likewise there is nothing particularly interesting about William's religious sentiments. William was a crusader at one point in his life, but, curiously, the poem says very little about it. Otherwise his religion consists of generous gifts to the church, and an association with the Knights Templar, in whose London church he was buried.

The audience of the History of William the Marshal was not interested in either love or religion, past a certain minimal point. They were far more concerned with William Marshal as an example of prowess, honor, and loyalty. The interest shown in these matters is quite sincere.

More important than the literal truth of the work is the impression the life of William Marshal made on his friends. They knew that knights, like other people, were imperfect creatures; everyone was afflicted with original sin. But William Marshal had made them believe that it was possible for a knight to live a long, successful life in accordance with the chivalric virtues -- their chivalric virtues, not necessarily ours.

William Marshal is important to us, as students of chivalry, because he was the man they would have liked to have been.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.