January 17, 2009

William Marshall: Knighthood, War and Chivalry 1147-1219

William Marshall, knight, Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England (1216-19) was a formidable figure within his own times: he was also a unique figure, being the only lay non-royal Englishman to have had a biography written about him in the early Middle Ages. Professor David Crouch has written a biography about Marshall which has several points of interest. Professor Crouch obviously knows the sources surrounding Marshall- he edited the most important of those sources- Marshall's biography for its publication in 2002, but he also is the first biographer to make extensive use of Marshall's charters which give us a reliable idea of who were his followers and knights. Marshall deserves a biography and deserves a biographer like this, one whose knowledge of Marshall's milieu is uncontestable.

Marshall was the son of a West Country nobleman who held an office at court (that of Marshall)- John Marshall was involved in the wars between Stephen and Matilda (the young William was held as hostage and at one point, King Stephen threatened to fire the live boy from a catapult over the walls of his father's castle, John Marshall replied that he had a hammer and anvil to make more sons!) When John Marshall died however it was his oldest son, John Marshall (II) who gained his lands. William was left to fend for himself. Crouch demonstrates here the way that Marshall did eventually gain lands- he followed a path that others too in different ways followed across the Middle Ages. Firstly he became a knight in the following of an important lord- Henry the Young King and later other members of the royal family. Then thanks to his connections at court he acquired the right to manage an estate of a dead lord for the King- in his case the Earldom of Pembroke where he was awarded the right and where Pembroke had left only a daughter- Marshall married the daughter to himself and hence acquired the lands and later the title.

Marshall's succession to his title and estates demonstrates how important political favour was in medieval England- primogeniture had not yet become a stable method of inheritance and Kings had power over the lands of those who died with minors as their heirs. Marshall exploited the second situation- not merely to acquire the hand of Isabelle and her lands- but also in forging political alliances. Crouch offers evidence that John of Earley, one of Marshall's wards, was married to a member of Marshall's family. This though brings us to a second key point which is that the power of an early medieval English magnate depended upon his access to and success with the King. In general Marshall was a plantagenet loyalist- only twice in his life (once with Henry II when the young King and his brothers fell out with their father) and secondly with John in 1206-7 did Marshall fall out with the reigning King. The consequences were dramatic- in 1206-7 notable knights in Marshall's retinue deserted him and the Earl lost royal offices and castles across the West Country and Welsh Marches.

Marshall's power depended upon his courtliness. Crouch is aware of this and towards the end of his study presents us with three thematic chapters- dwelling on Marshall's retinue of knights, courtliness and chivalry. The first chapter shows us the way that Marshall created and sustained a group of knights. Crouch argues that this represents one of the first intrusions into British history of that complicated concept, bastard feudalism. William's following depended not so much upon complicated tenurial structures within the Marches and the south west- indeed very few of his tenants were found amidst his following- but upon his own abilities to patronise. Hence he appointed his men as sensachels or sherrifs in his country and fitted them with weapons and horses- they were bound to him for the receipt of offices not of lands. There are many learned descriptions of the evolution of English feudalism- from the conqueror's men who dominated through tenurial relationships to the more complicated situations in the wars of the Roses- but Crouch definitely shows that Marshall's lordship represents a milestone along that route.

Lordship in the Middle Ages was bound up with ideas about ethics. One might represent those ideas in two parts- chivalry and courtliness. To succeed as a secular nobleman one had to have both attributes- one had to be judged as a preudehomme and also seen as a courtly and sensible counciller. The first attribute was not that of some Arthurian knight: rather a preudehomme was a man who could stand up for himself, was manly, able on the battlefield and in the tournament and would not take a slight without complaining. A courtier though was a different kind of human being- a man who could survive in the hostile, backbiting atmosphere of the court, who was suave and thoughtful. Those two attributes seem in some sense to conflict- and a medieval lord like Marshall had to observe the thin line between losing his status as an admirable knight and losing his head if he responded too eagerly to his lord the King. Marshall did manage it- but it is worth noting the dilemma and Crouch illustrates it well for us in his last chapters.

Crouch's book therefore is an interesting and thoughtful medieval biography. It lacks somewhat in that it is limited by the evidence for Marshall's life- particularly his early life is not covered well and Crouch presumes that is because the biographer had no access to men who had lived during that period. Lots therefore has to be assumed. Marshall's interior world again is something we can infer things about, but we cannot know like we can with a modern subject whose letters are available to us. Crouch though tells his story with verve and skill- his writing makes a great deal of use of modern analogy (perhaps for my liking too much!) but it is readable. The points he makes are interesting- and Marshall's life is intrinsically fascinating and well worth finding out about.


James Hamilton said...

Doesn't this illustrate just what a golden age medieval history is passing through? Reading your post takes me back to Gerald Harriss's study in Magdalen College and him giving me reading lists (including page nos.) from memory, and his frustration (in 1988-9) that few elements in the list were post-1970. And then his students, those that lived (so many died before their 40th birthday) got going, and now the period is absolutely alive. It must be something to be an undergraduate now.

Gracchi said...

James I agree with you about the good quality of a lot of medieval history written today- we have an amazing proffusion of good historians writing in all kinds of field.