Saturday, February 5, 2011

Model medieval hero

Sir William Marshall (Guillaume le Maréchal) is the plumb line for authors wanting to create medieval heroes, particularly of the chivalrous kind. Even among his contemporaries, he was considered the flower of chivalry, the ideal to which knights should strive, and described as “the greatest knight that ever lived” by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But even if you like darker heroes, William could serve as an inspiration there because some of the deeds credited to him would require quite a bit of arrogance, stubbornness and anger.

Most of what we know about him comes from L’histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, commissioned shortly after his death by William’s eldest son and based on his squire’s memories. William was born in relative obscurity (before him, the hereditary title of Marshal designated the head of household security for the king). He served four kings, (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John and Henry III) became a regent of England and one of the most powerful men in Europe and was referred to as simply “the Marshal.”

Key points about William:
  • Was born around 1144. A younger son of a minor noble, he would inherit no land, title or money.
  • Was given has hostage to King Stephen during the siege of Newbury Castle and almost hanged by the king when John Marshall (William’s father) broke the treaty. Allegedly, he told the king to go ahead and kill the boy because “I have the hammers and the anvils to forge still an even finer son.”
  • Fostered by cousin William of Tancerville, chamberlain to the Duke of Normandy. Although many social historians like to talk about the emotional distance between parents and children because of high death rate and/or political necessity, in his autobiography, William talks about crying when he says goodbye to his mother and siblings. Of note is he doesn’t mention his father.
  • Knighted in 1164 at approximately 20 years old.
  • Fought his way, almost alone, through the French army during a battle at Drincourt (now Neufchatel-en-Bray), sealing his reputation.
  • Spent two or three years on the tournament circuit, winning every contest and gaining a reputation for chivalry.
  • Was taken prisoner in 1167. Eleanor of Aquitaine pays his ransom and King Henry II acknowledges him as a gallant knight.
  • Becomes a knight-errant after vicious rumors about him and Henry, the young King’s wife are spread. He demands the right to prove his innocence, including by combat, but neither the king nor young Henry will contest him. In the end, young Henry sends his wife to her brother (king of France) and takes William back into his household.
  • Crusades in the Holy Land in place of the young Henry, who died before he could fulfill his obligation.
  • Unhorsed Richard the Lionhearted (possibly the only the man to do so). Richard eventually pardoned the unrepentant William.
  • Married the Earl of Pembroke’s daughter, Isabel, gaining wealth, land, titles and love. 
  • Was accused of treason by King John. William literally throws down the gauntlet (his armored glove), which John ignores. William then challenges every knight in the room to pick it up and let him prove his loyalty; none do.
  • Ruled as regent of England until King John’s son (Henry III) reaches his majority.
  • Died May 14, 1219. Reports say the King of France openly wept upon hearing the news.

A common theme in William’s life is the need to belong, to have a home, to belong. He was about 5 when his father gave him as a hostage and said, “Do as you will.” King Stephen should’ve (according to the terms of the agreement) have hanged the boy. However, if we use William’s life we can use William’s life as the plumb line for almost any hero that we’re going to use in a medieval-set book to develop a more accurate, yet just as conflicted and complex hero. Right there we have our wounded hero. 

Keena Kincaid writes historical romances in which passion, magic and treachery collide to create unforgettable stories. For more information about her books:


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I enjoyed your post on William Marshal - what a man he was. I've written several novels about him and his family during the past few years.
He was born later than 1144. His older brother John was born around then after their father's remarriage. William's date is either 1146 or 1147 - according to Professor Crouch and the chronology. The actual infamous quote (which I cover in my novel about William's father John - now there's a wounded hero too) actually puts anvils first. 'les enclumes, e les marteals.' It's also a terrific literary pun used by the writer because anvils and hammers were the symbols of a marshal, as well as referencing male procreative tackle.
William of Tancarville was an obscure relative and no one has yet sorted out the tangle, but he probably wasn't a cousin. William was knighted around 1167 circa the time of the fight against the French at Drincourt where he was a junior knight and part of a larger force owned by Guillaume de Tancarville. He was taken prisoner
in 1168. Although he took part in tourneys in 1167, his career as a tourney knight did not really take off until post 1168 when he became the Young's King's Marshal and had access to better connections and wealth. His tourney glory days date from circa 1170-1181 when he raised his banner at Lagny sur Marne.
I have become something of a Marshal nerd! I totally agree that he is a model medieval hero, but he also kept it real, and that makes him all the more admirable.

AnneMarie Brear said...

I too have a crush on William Marshall, through Elizabeth Chadwick's books!
The Greatest Knight, by Elizabeth, is about William, and like all her books is a keeper for me.
They are medieval mainstream novels that bring people alive for me.
Good post!

Stephanie Burkhart said...

What a fascinating personality. I love to read more about him.


Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Elizabeth,
Medieval dates are always so tangled, aren't they? I was never sympathetic when my friends studying US history complained about being unable to find a tiny detail.

I've always thought his father was extremely interesting, too, and of course, the big question there is whether how much of a gamble he really took since Stephen wasn't known for his ruthlessness. It does make a great story for his biography, though.

I've read about every possible relation connection for William of Tancarville. I picked the one that seemed most common, but it's been a while since I've read David Couch's biography on William. I'll have to reread it.

Thanks for commenting.

Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Anne. I never crushed on William (The Beaumont Twins were the ones that always intrigued me.) but I find him fascinating to have risen as high as he did and be absolutely fearless (so it seems) to take on kings in defense of his honor.

Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Steph, thanks for stopping by. If you're interested in biographies, David Crouch wrote "William Marshal: Knight, War and Chivalry" and Georges Duby wrote "William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry." Both are solid books that are accessible to the general reader.

Cerise DeLand said...

Wonderful succinct list of William's accomplishments.
Thank you.
I am like so many others here in that my most recent "appreciation" of William comes from reading Elizabeth Chadwick. (To whom, BTW, I understand I am related...loosely, of course. Chadwick, not Marshall!)

J.T. Webster said...

Thanks for an interesting post. I read about King Stephen and the boy who was almost hung in Sharon Penman's 'When Christ and His Servants Slept'. It's stayed with me for years.
You've whet my appetite to read more about this chivalrous man.