Today, my blog has been elevated from blogosphere to stratosphere by the literary contribution of one of my absolutely-favorite authors, Elizabeth Chadwick. She supplied several of the photos, too. Many of the names in the article are those of my ancestors—and probably yours, or you wouldn’t have found this article in a search!
John FitzGilbert Marshal is 32 generations removed from most of us. The Marshal clan married to the families of, and were “in-laws” of de Clare, Llewellyn Prince of Wales, John King of England, Quincy, Bigod, Tosny, Ferrers, de Braose, de Bohun, Salisbury, Gloucester, FitzWalter, Mortimer, de Lacy, Percy, Neville—to name a few. Take us back to the twelfth century, please, Elizabeth!
John FitzGilbert Marshal's iron anvil
|Guest author Elizabeth Chadwick|
Guest post by Elizabeth Chadwick
Many thanks to Christy for inviting me along to talk on her blog.
I want to tell you about a mediaeval nobleman called John Marshal. His fourth son, William, is justly famous among medievalists and those in the know, for being the greatest knight of the Middle Ages and with a reputation that still resonates today.
John Marshal’s reputation has considerably less burnish than his illustrious son’s and has suffered at the hands of modern novelists and due to a mindset among modern readers that frequently does not allow for the rules and realities of life in the difficult mid-12th century. To understand John Marshal, his deeds, dilemmas, and decisions, one needs to view him through the lens of that period, and only then does the living, breathing man emerge with energetic clarity.
Professor David Crouch, historian and senior authority on the Marshals in the academic community, says of John Marshal:
“John Marshal was a formidable model for his son: astute, politically powerful, and easy companion in the Royal Chambers, and a called warrior in the field… He was no coarse bandit and played the great game of politics with talent and perception… John Marshal was a definitive man of standing in his son's eyes.”
John FitzGilbert Marshal was probably born in the southwest of England, most likely Wiltshire or Berkshire around the year 1105. His father was a Marshal at the court of King Henry I and we know his name was Gilbert Giffard. The appellation is a fairly common Norman one, meaning ‘chubby cheeks.’ John's younger brother William, entered holy orders and had the living of the church of Cheddar in Somerset. He went on to become chancellor to the Empress Matilda. If there were other siblings they have not come down to us in history. We also don't know the name of John Marshal's mother, although some genealogy sites suggest that she was a de Venoix and perhaps called Heloise. Venoix is very close to Caen in the Calvados region of Normandy where many of William the Conqueror's followers came from. There was also a royal marshal called Robert de Venoix, so it can be speculated that the families by association of work, formed a closer bond through marriage. I must stress that John’s maternal parentage is open to debate and not hard fact.
Gilbert the Marshal had estates provided for him to live off what he performed his duties at court. These included Tidworth in Wiltshire and Nettlecome in Somerset. The family had estates in Devon and possessed seven and a half knights’ fees for scattered estates held for various landlords including the Dean of Glastonbury. Hamstead, now Hampstead Marshall in Berkshire, was also probably a holding. There is a 13th-century mention of the marshal’s right to Hamstead and the Grange at Speen for services of the Marshal’s Rod. Speen lies just outside Newbury on an area of strategically valuable high land overlooking the modern town.
The Marshal family were of minor nobility but ambitious to change that. There were middle-ranking royal civil servants on the make. The Marshal’s duties were numerous, and since John followed his father into the position, he must have learned the ropes from an early age. The word Marshal comes from Marescallus, meaning ‘Horse Slave,’ and at one time they had been stable hands under the control of the Constable's department. Although the office rose from these humble beginnings, the marshal’s work was much concerned with horses and transport and keeping order. The marshals had their own department at court and there were several of them although with a Master Marshal in charge of all. This was a somewhat fluid position when John was growing up and there was a certain amount of jockeying for position within the ranks.
The marshal’s duties included seeing that the stables were properly run and supplied and providing harness and mounts for those in need of them. The job also involved dealing with the kennels and the mews. It was the marshal’s task to provide carts for transport when the court was on the move. He had to find lodging for the household and keep order at the court. As a symbol of the latter office, he carried the Marshal’s Rod – a kind of ceremonial stick or mace and still in evidence today with the title of ‘Black Rod’ and said mace being held by the officer in charge of the ushers of the Houses of Parliament. In the 12th century, the Marshal had to ensure that the ‘verge’ was observed. A verge was a personal space between the king and any supplicant. Take a step too far and the Marshal’s rod would make sure you knew you had transgressed! The Marshal was in charge of the ushers who saw to it that only desirables got in to see the king. They were the club bouncers of their day so to speak. We know that two of John’s ushers were called Gilbert Bonhomme and Ralf. Another aspect of the job was dealing with the ‘ladies of the night’ who serviced the court. The Marshal had to keep the working girls in line and regulate their activities. There were fines for unruly behaviour, and one suspects that this was an area where backhanders and insider dealing frequently went on.
The Marshal also had to sit at the exchequer. It was his task to take responsibility for anyone who couldn’t pay their debts, and his department maintained the debtor’s prison. Being in there would cost a sheriff or a bailiff half a mark for every night they were in custody. On top of this he kept the tallies of all the wages owed to the King’s troops when in the field and saw that they were paid, for which he was entitled to a portion of that wage bill. Perks of the job included being entitled to every black and white horse taken on a battle campaign! Each time a noble’s son was knighted at court, the marshal was entitled to a payment of a palfrey or a saddle. The Master Marshal’s daily wage was two shillings and he was entitled to bread, wine and candles whilst working at court. There were also ‘backhander’ perks from barons higher up the food chain who thought that a bit of glad-handing in the form of grants of land was useful in order to keep the king’s marshal sweet.
When John was in his mid-twenties, he and his father had to fight for their right to be the Master Marshals of the court. Two of the other Marshals, Robert de Venoix and William de Hastings were claiming the post, but John and his father were successful in their petition, which probably took the form of a trial by combat. John’s father died around 1129 or 1130 and John inherited his position at court, although he had to pay 40 marks for the privilege. This included the office of ‘avener’ or provider of provender. To inherit his lands, he had to pay the death duty of £22 13s and 4d. Some time over the next few years, he married an heiress of modest worth with lands adjoining his own Wiltshire and Berkshire interests. She was called Aline Pipard and her main estate was at Clyffe Pypard in Wiltshire, not so far from John's own territories. It was a good solid match, although not a spectacular one.
|Ludgershall Castle, a holding of John Marshal's. Photo courtesy of E. Chadwick.|
Aline bore John two sons – Walter and Gilbert. In 1135 King Henry I died and the country was thrown into turmoil as two claimants jostled for the crown – Henry’s daughter Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen. Initially, John swore fealty to Stephen and was granted the castles of Ludgershall and the town and castle of Marlborough in Wiltshire in reward. Stephen’s generosity gave John a strong power base and made him formidable in the Kennet Valley and northeast Wiltshire.
In 1139, the Empress Matilda came to England and made her bid to take the crown from Stephen. For whatever reason, Stephen suspected John Marshal of duplicity and besieged him at Marlborough. My personal opinion is that John had fallen foul of the factions at court who thought he had been receiving too many favours, and felt that he should be put in his place. He had no strong affinities at Stephen’s court and a man isolated was a man who could be picked off and brought down. I think John jumped before he was pushed (off the mortal coil). Speculation aside, what is known is that John swore for the Empress and adhered to her cause for the rest of the Civil War. His brother William joined her entourage as her chancellor and remained with her until at least 1151. Unfortunately for John, the Empress’s attempt to regain the throne was not plain sailing and to cut a long story short, she lost her advantage and while besieging the Bishop of Winchester at his palace of Wolvesely, she was almost captured. John was a few miles out of Winchester, dealing with a supply problem, when he heard that the troops of William D’Ypres, a Flemish mercenary in the pay of Stephen’s queen, were coming down the Andover road straight for him. If D’Ypres managed to break through, John knew that Winchester would be encircled and the Empress captured. John made his stand at Wherwell where there was a ford over the river Teste beside a Benedictine nunnery that had been founded by an Anglo Saxon queen in the late 10th century.
|River Teste at Wherwell. Photo courtesy of E. Chadwick.|
John fought for as long as he could, but with D’Ypres’ numbers too great to withstand, he retreated into the nunnery and barricaded himself in. D’Ypres knew he couldn’t leave a man like John Marshal to create mayhem in his rear, so he ordered the nunnery to be burned along with the men inside it. There was mayhem and chaos. Some of the troops fled the burning church only to meet their end on the edges of the mercenary’s swords. John barricaded himself in the tower with another knight and refused to come out. When his companion feared for their lives and wanted to surrender, John told him that he would kill him with his own hands if he mentioned that word again. They stayed put, but John paid the price when molten lead from the church roof landed on his face and burned out his eye. Once D’Ypres’ force had moved on, John staggered from the church with his companion, and the two of them made their way to safety. This must have been something of a feat because that safety was 25 miles away at Marlborough; they were on foot, and John had suffered a terrible facial injury.
Nevertheless, they made it and once recovered, John set out to recoup and regroup. Modern novelists and readers studying this detail sometimes dismiss John’s actions as those of a lunatic adrenaline junkie, but I don't believe that is the case at all. Like a commander in World War II ordered to hold a particular bridge against the enemy in dire circumstances, he did so. He did his duty; he did what he had to do despite the terrible odds against him, and that to me is a man who knows what his word of honour is worth and what doing your duty really means.
|Model of Sarum/Salisbury in the 12th century.|
John’s most powerful neighbour in the region was Walter of Salisbury, hereditary sheriff of Salisbury (nowadays called Old Sarum). Walter himself came from a paternal Anglo Saxon line that had survived the Norman Conquest. When Walter died, his son William succeeded him, but died not long after the battle of Wilton in 1143. The second son, Patrick, became lord of Salisbury and he supported Stephen. Looking to curtail his forceful neighbour in the Kennet valley, Patrick took up arms against John. John ably defended himself, although he had fewer resources than Patrick, and even if often on the back foot, it was never defeat. Eventually Robert Earl of Gloucester, the Empress’s brother and chief general, stepped between the men. He offered Patrick an earldom if he would come over to the Empress and he suggested that John divorce his wife and marry Patrick’s sister to make peace between them. The men agreed and sometime between 1144 and 1145, John Marshal annulled his marriage to Aline and took Sybilla FitzWalter to wife. Aline was remarried to Gloucester’s uncle, a widower called Philip de Gay or de Gai. On the surface, John’s action may seem harsh, but again, that’s to judge him by the standards of our day, not the 12th century. By doing what he did, he turned a ‘you will lose’ situation into a ‘you might win’ one and stabilised life for himself and his dependents. Aline was not disparaged by her remarriage, and his sons retained their inheritance.
John and Sybilla swiftly began a second family. It is perhaps telling that he only had two sons by his first wife in the course of fifteen years and six (and perhaps seven) offspring with Sybilla over the same period. The first was born within a year of the marriage and christened John for his father. The second, destined for fame and legend was William, born in either 1146 or 1147. We know for certain there were two daughters, Sybilla and Marguerite, and two more sons, Ancel and Henry. Henry went on to become bishop of Exeter and was probably born after Henry II had gained the throne. Ancel became a household knight in the service of his cousin, Rotrou, Count of Perche. Around the time that John married Sybilla, Sybilla’s sister Hawise married Robert de Dreux, brother of Louis VII of France [first husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine], thus making a distant connection between the Marshals and French royalty.
In England, the fighting continued and the Empress’s position grew more desperate as her adherents either gave up or died. She lost her stalwart supporter Miles of Gloucester when he was accidentally shot by one of his own men whilst out hunting. Her half-brother Robert of Gloucester died, and her close friend and supporter Brian FitzCount retired to a monastery. The Empress herself departed England in 1148 and did not return, but her son Henry was waiting in the wings and growing up fast.
For John Marshal the period covered by the late 1140’s up to 1153 was a continuing dark time when he was involved in a war of slow grinding attrition. His lands were burned and ravaged by Eustace, the son of King Stephen and the best that John could manage was to grit his teeth and endure – which he did. He was known as a man of great cunning, a builder of castles ‘designed with wondrous skill’ and a man well able to attract men to his banner. Although a generous benefactor to the Church, he was still vilified by certain bishops and clergy. He was excommunicated for raiding church lands and forcing the church to answer in his secular court. He also made the church’s tenants build his castles for him, which did not go down well. (Gesta Stephani). John seems to have taken the excommunication stoically and to have treated it as a hazard of the job, so to speak. John’s relationship with the Church was not all bad-feeling and acrimony. He was, in fact, a generous patron. He donated his house and lands in Winchester on Jewry Street to Troarn Abbey in 1148. He gave lands at his manor of Rockley to the Templars and he was a benefactor of Bradenstoke Priory [Christy’s photos and description at link], where he was eventually to be buried.
|Marlborough Down near Rockley. Photo courtesy of E. Chadwick.|
At some point in the early 1150s John built a castle at Newbury. The whereabouts of this place is now unknown and there has been much speculation as to where it was. As far as I’m concerned, the answer is staring everyone in the face. It’s at Speen, on high ground overlooking various strategic roads. The bishop of Salisbury was known to have a house here, and as we gave already seen in the paragraph above: ‘He built castles designed with wondrous skill, in the places that best suited him; the lands and possessions of the churches he brought under his own lordship, driving out the owners whatever order they might belong to.’ Wherever the castle is, John fortified a position in the Newbury area and held it for the Empress. In the summer of 1152 King Stephen besieged it on his way to try and take Wallingford. With Brian FitzCount out of the reckoning, having taken the cowl, John Marshal was the Angevins’ last hope to protect Wallingford from Stephen’s advance.
The first assault battered John’s troops badly, but they didn’t give in. Stephen didn’t want to sit down to besiege it. I suspect he knew how hard John Marshal could stand and that he would sell the castle very dearly. John in his turn knew he was in a dire situation and couldn’t hold out for much longer. He didn’t have the men and supplies necessary. He asked Stephen for time to gain honourable permission from the Empress to surrender the castle. Stephen agreed, but told John that he must provide hostages and pledges for his good word. John agreed to do so and handed over as one of them, his small son William, who would have been around five or six years old.
|Norman helm belonging to E. Chadwick.|
With the time he had been given, John set about stuffing his keep to the rafters with men and supplies. Why did he do this when he could have yielded? I suspect it was because he was buying time for Wallingford and for Henry FitzEmpress. Each day that he stood, was a day gained for the Angevin cause. John Marshal hadn’t backed down at Wherwell, where his stand had allowed the Empress to escape. He hadn’t backed down before the superior strength of Patrick of Salisbury, and he wasn’t going to back down now, even if it meant gambling with his son’s life.
Stephen duly came on the appointed day to demand the surrender of the castle and John refused him and told him he would fight. When threatened with the execution of little William by hanging, John uttered those by now infamous words. ‘Il dist ken e li chaleit de l’enfant, quer encore aveit les enclumes e les marteals dunt forgereit de plus beals’ (He said that he did not care about the child, since he still had the anvils and hammers to produce even finer ones.)
Callous father? Cool brinkman gambling with his son’s life? A man caught between a rock and a hard place and doing what he must to safeguard others? It becomes a tough call, but I will say that there is far more going on under the surface than a cursory glance informs, and that it is vital for anyone studying this incident to read it through the lens of medieval mindset. It’s not what’s on top that matters here, but what’s underneath.
Stephen could not bring himself to hang the boy, although for a time William was the plaything and victim of the royal camp, as he was also threatened with being flung from a catapult and squashed whilst strapped to a hurdle intended to attack the castle gate. This is often not mentioned in the various secondary source narratives concerning the incident. From what I have garnered elsewhere, young squires and captive sons were frequently subjected to such torments – rather like the traditional ‘punishment details’ for youths at public school. Stephen took William into his household and John Marshal’s son seems to have settled well in his new life. He was happy and confident enough despite his ordeal to want to play a game with King Stephen, involving jousting with plaintain leaves. One wonders how such a chirpy, confident, secure little boy could have been born of such supposed parental indifference. A servant was sent to keep an eye on William, ‘because his family had great fears that he would come to harm’ (Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal) but was caught in the act and chased away.
|An anvil. One can see clearly what John Marshal MIGHT have been punning at!|
Another point to note is to wonder whether those words were ever actually said, or if it was the poet, writing the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, 80 years later, who used them as a dramatic motif. The anvils and hammers were symbols of a marshal and there were existing medieval stories involving tales of children being threatened with death unless the father cut off his own testicles. Not so John Marshal. He still had his intact! So the reference to ‘anvils and hammers’ may well be a motif for John’s cool, daring, virility and occupation, rather than proof that he actually ever said the words. We will never know. If he did, it was clever punning on various pertinent symbols that everyone understood in his day. [See photo.]
John’s castle at Newbury eventually fell to Stephen, but John had managed to buy that extra time for Wallingford. Stephen moved up to invest the latter and Henry came from Normandy to oppose him. Eventually a treaty was agreed whereby Stephen would keep the throne in his lifetime and Henry would inherit it on his death. Although there were a few more skirmishes, the long civil war was in essence over.
Stephen died in 1154 and Henry FitzEmpress, at the age of twenty-one, became King of England. Life slowly settled down. It is likely that John’s final son Henry was born at this time and named for the new power in the country. Henry set about restoring order. All adulterine castles were to be destroyed, and I suspect this is what happened to Newbury. Certainly there is no trace of it today. Henry also took several castles back into his own power, including Marlborough. John was allowed to keep the manors of Wexcombe and Cherhill that Stephen had granted him, but only for his lifetime; it was not to be a hereditary right. John continued to serve Henry as his master marshal, but the King had his own new men to promote and John was of the ‘old regime.’ Many of the gains made in the period of the war were lost, but John had still played his hand well, and while his fortunes diminished, he nevertheless had created a fine platform from which his offspring could leap to greatness.
|William Marshal's effigy at Temple Church, London. Photo courtesy of E. Chadwick.|
|Bradenstoke Priory "church" at place where altar and tombs |
would have been, looking west.
Photo by Christy K. Robinson.
William did so in spectacular fashion, going on to become Earl of Pembroke and regent of England. Henry Marshal, as aforementioned, was to become bishop of Exeter. More distant descendants of John Marshal include Robert the Bruce, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, George Washington and Winston Churchill. John died in 1165, around the age of 60, which is as much as we know about his demise, although it may be telling that he made a grant to Bradenstoke Priory of half of the township of Easton, in the presence of his wife, two of earl Patrick’s chaplains, his chamberlain Osbert and Ralph the Physician. Was the physician there because he just happened to be handy and a man of learning, or was he there because of medical difficulties? John was buried at Bradenstoke Priory, the foundation of his marital relatives the Earls of Salisbury. His tomb and Sybilla’s have been lost, but their bones rest somewhere beneath the grass and tumbled stones of the priory ruins.
I can say without a doubt and from personal experience that their spirits live on and John’s is a particularly vibrant one still!
THE CARTULARY OF BRADENSTOKE PRIORY Edited by Vera C.M. London. Wiltshire Record Society 1979
DIALOGUS DE SCACCARIO. The Course of the Exchequeur and CONSTITUTIO DOMUS REGIS. The Establishment of the King's Household. Edited and translated by the late Charles Johnson. Clarendon Press Oxford. POD ISBN 0198222688
WILLIAM MARSHAL. Court Career & Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147-1219 by David Crouch. Longman 1990 ISBN 0582037867
WILLIAM MARSHAL. Knight Errant, Baron and Regent of England By Sidney Painter. John Hopkins Press 1967
HISTORY OF WILLIAM MARSHAL VOL 1. Text and Translation (11. 1-10031) ed. by A.J. Holden with English translations by S.Gregory and D. Crouch. Anglo Norman Text Society ISBN 0905474422
HISTORY OF WILLIAM MARSHAL VOL II ed by A.J. Holden with English translation by S. Gregory and D. Crouch. Anglo Norman Text Society occasional publications series 5 2004. ISBN 0905474457
HISTORY OF WILLIAM MARSHAL VOL III ed by A.J. Holden. Historical notes by D. Crouch. Anglo Norman Text Society 2006 ISBN 0905474481
WILLIAM MARSHAL EARL OF PEMBROKE By Catherine A. Armstrong. Seneschal Press 2006 ISBN 978169530385
THE BIGOD EARLS OF NORFOLK IN THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY By Marc Morris. Boydell 2005. ISBN 1843831643
Thank you so much, Elizabeth. As I continue to research and write my own historical novel of the 17th century, I have you and Sharon Kay Penman to thank for setting such astronomically-high standards for research methods, literary skill, and really, creating the vast and hungry market for intelligently-written historical fiction. (It’s both daunting and enervating to make my bid to be your colleague!)
MORE on Elizabeth Chadwick and her historical novels, blogs, research methods, and links to Facebook and Twitter: http://www.elizabethchadwick.com/index.php
A Place Beyond Courage, a novel by Elizabeth Chadwick, tells the vibrant, heart-pounding story of John FitzGilbert Marshal.
The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion, also by Elizabeth Chadwick, are two stand-alone novels on the life of John Marshal’s son, William Marshal.
If you haven’t read her books, get thee to a bookstore now (online or bricks and mortar) and get started!
If you enjoy life sketches, anecdotes, and historical details like these, you can find them in the book Effigy Hunter, by Christy K Robinson. It's available in print from CreateSpace, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.
If you enjoy life sketches, anecdotes, and historical details like these, you can find them in the book Effigy Hunter, by Christy K Robinson. It's available in print from CreateSpace, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.