Sunday, August 31, 2014
The Greatest Knight: The Unsung Story of the Queen’s Champion by Elizabeth Chadwick
William Marshal was undoubtedly one of the most intriguing – and engaging – characters of the Plantagenet era in English history. The true story of a man who rose of landless knight to regent of England has long deserved a good historical novel – or more. The story cried out for a novel so loudly, in fact, that I was often tempted to attempt it myself, and felt a little sad that Ms. Chadwick beat me to it.
That said, Ms. Chadwick has done an excellent job. Her narrative sticks very close to the known historical facts about Marshal and relies heavily on the panegyric poem commissioned by his eldest son after his death as a memorial. The history is meticulously accurate – as one expects from Chadwick. Furthermore, because Chadwick has written a number of books set in this period of history, she understands and effectively describes customs, clothes, food and lifestyle as well as the historical events.
Chadwick’s Marshal, like the historical figure he portrays, is likable from the start, but given the material she was working with this is hardly remarkable. More impressive was her handling of Henry the Young King and Henry II, both of whom are very vivid characters, who despite their faults win our sympathy. The description of Henry the Young King’s death is one of the best in the novel. Likewise, Chadwick’s handling of the Young King’s wife and her relationship with Marshal is sensitive and believable.
If the book has a weakness, it was in the handling of what Chadwick herself calls a “spiritual crisis” following the Young King’s death. Marshal undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in place of his dead lord, and spent two years there returning, by many counts, a changed man. Apparently because there is no historical record of what Marshal did in the Holy Land, Chadwick more-or-less skips over this episode in his life and does not explore it psychologically before or after, preferring to remain silent as Marshal’s 13th century biographer did.
Altogether the book is well worth reading, and I look forward to reading Chadwick’s continuation of Marshal’s life (The Greatest Knight ends in the middle of Marshal’s life) in The Scarlet Lion.
Friday, August 22, 2014
William Marshal has gone down in English history as one of the most famous non-royal heroes of the Middle Ages. He was famed even in his lifetime as one of the greatest knights of a knightly age and a “flower of chivalry.”
Marshal loved and excelled at tournaments, depicted here in a 13th century German manuscript.
His story is better than fiction. If his biography were not so well documented, it would be easy to dismiss the stories about him as pure invention. But William Marshal really existed, and he really rose from being a landless knight to regent of England by his merits. Even his wife, through whom he became a magnate of the realm, was won by his prowess and loyalty, for he was granted the rich heiress by the dying Henry II as a reward for his decades of service to the Plantagenets, and the grant was confirmed by Richard I to secure Marshal’s loyalty in the future. But in addition to being a paragon of chivalry, Marshal was typical of his generation in that he was also a faithful son of the Holy Catholic Church. On his deathbed he renounced the world and took vows as a monk, a Templar monk, and was buried in the Temple in London.
Tomb of a Knight in the Temple of London, sometimes identified as William Marshal
He also went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Because Marshal was such a famous knight and powerful figure at the time of his death, we are lucky to have a long eulogy in the form of a poem or song that was commissioned by his eldest son and intended to record his life for posterity. The poem is nineteen thousand nine hundred and fourteen verses long, and it is a remarkable document in itself, both lively and evocative. Perhaps even more astonishing, the poem identifies sources and distinguishes between hear-say and verifiable fact, points out when sources are contradictory, and recounts many events at first hand, stating explicitly “this I have seen” in many places. The latter suggests that the author was an intimate of William Marshal, or at least a trusted member of his household. This document, otherwise so rich in detail, however, tells us almost nothing about Marshal’s stay in the Holy Land.
What we do know is that William Marshal was bequeathed the crusader cross – the vow to go to Jerusalem and pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – by his liege Henry the Young King. Henry had taken crusader vows sometime in 1182 or 1183 – which did not stop him from sacking churches and monasteries to pay his mercenaries. William Marshal appears to have been a witness – if not a participant – in the sack of Rocamadour, at which the Young King stole the sword of Roland and much other treasure. Returning from this disgraceful act, the Young King fell abruptly ill. In a high fever and fearing for his soul at last, he sent messengers to his father begging for forgiveness, and turned over his mantle with the crusader cross over to William Marshal. He begged Marshal to fulfil his vow in his stead, then lay on a bed of ashes with a noose around his neck and died. It was June 11, 1183.
Medieval depiction of a Crusader
According to Marshal’s biographer, William spent “two years” in Syria, serving the King of Jerusalem, doing great deeds of arms and winning the respect of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. However, he was back in Europe by 1187, months before the devastating Battle of Hattin, and he brought with him two white, silk shrouds for his own burial. He also returned having vowed to join the Knights Templar before his own death.
Those are the only known facts we have about William Marshal in the Holy Land, but even these facts are intriguing. Marshall most probably reached the Holy Land, travelling by either land or sea, in the spring of 1184. If he spent two years there he departed at the latest in the autumn of 1186.
The Crusader Kingdoms were defended by a network of castles such as this: Krak de Chevalliers
Those two years were years of dramatic change in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the one hand, the Muslims, which had long been bitterly divided between the Sunnis loyal to the Caliph of Baghdad and the Shiites of the Fatimid Caliphate, had been united under the strong and charismatic leadership of the Kurdish leader Salah ad-Din. Saladin, as he is known in western writings, had called for jihad, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was more threatened than it had been since the early years of its existence. At the same time, the Kingdom was weakened from within because the king, Baldwin IV, was suffering from leprosy and slowly dying. His heir was a young boy, the son of his sister Sibylla, by her first husband.
Not long after William Marshal arrived in Jerusalem a delegation headed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Grand Masters of the Templars and Hospitallers was dispatched by King Baldwin to the West. The delegation carried with it the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the keys to the Tower of Dave: effectively the symbolic keys to the kingdom. The three men sought first the aid of Philip II of France and then Henry II of England, begging the later to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, turn his Western Kingdom over to his adult and capable heir, and take up the cause of Christendom by defending the Holy Land. If he would not do that, the delegation pleaded, then he should send one of his sons in his stead. One has to wonder if this was pure coincidence of timing, or if William Marshal, who knew the Plantagenets so well had not recommended – or at least encouraged – the appeal.
Meanwhile, Baldwin IV, in anticipation of his death, made his vassals vow an oath with regard to the succession. If his nephew did not live to manhood and sire heirs of his own, they were to send to the Kings of France and England and to the Pope, who were then to jointly name a successor. Baldwin IV expressly excluded his sister Sybilla and her second husband from the succession.
In the summer 1185, in the midst of Marshal’s stay in the Holy Land, Baldwin IV died. His nephew was crowned Baldwin V, and the High Court of Jerusalem chose Raymond of Tripoli, an able and experienced man, as his regent. Tripoli immediately secured a new truce with Salah ad-Din.
Baldwin V, however, was sickly, and in August 1185, with Marshal still in the Holy Land, he died. The regent and the High Court of Jerusalem met in Tiberius to deal with the interregnum, but the dead king’s mother and her husband staged a coup. Sibylla had herself crowned Queen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and placed the second crown on her husband’s head as her consort. Her second husband was a certain Guy de Lusignan, the younger son of a Poitivin baron and possibly an accomplice in the murder of Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, William Marshal’s uncle.
The murder of Patrick of Salisbury had been a highly significant episode in William Marshal’s young life. As a landless knight in his uncle’s entourage, he had been escorting Queen Eleanor through her own territories, when they were attacked by the Lusignan brothers, then in rebellion against her. Accounts vary on which of the Lusignans was present (there were four brothers: Hugh, Geoffrey, Aimery and Guy), but there is no disagreement on how the Earl of Salisbury was killed. Namely, he was pierced from behind by a lance when both unarmored and not defending himself. This was clearly an “unchivalrous” blow, a despicable act, that outraged the young William Marshal. William himself severely wounded in the encounter, taken captive, and ill-treated by the Lusignans.
Given this history, it is hard to imagine that William Marshal was partial to Guy de Lusignan, whether he had been personally responsible for the Earl of Salisbury’s murder or not. (Indeed, it may have been his opposition to Guy de Lusignan that inspired him to suggest the above mission to Henry II – assuming he had anything to do with it.) Furthermore, Sibylla and Guy’s coup preempted the rights of Henry II, Marshal’s liege, who should have been involved in naming the next King of Jerusalem. Marshal must have been appalled by their behavior, and it would probably have reinforced his dislike for the Lusignans. Since Marshal appears to have left the Holy Land not long after Lusignan’s usurpation of the throne, it is probably fair to postulate that it was Lusignan’s rise to power that induced Marshal to quit
The Holy Land.
This hypothesis is supported by the fact that William appears to have spent his years in the Holy Land as one of the many secular knights who temporarily served with the Templars. These knights did not take the final vows of poverty and chastity, but for the period of the voluntary service, submitted themselves to the discipline and Rule of the Knights Templar. Indeed, in William’s case we know that he vowed to join the Temple – as he eventually did. The timing, however, is significant. The Grand Master of the Templars, who had been sent to plead with Henry II to come to the Holy Land had died during his mission and been replaced by a man who supported Guy de Lusignan. So Marshal’s decision not to take his final vows and stay with the Templars in their hour of need, may have had to do with his unwillingness to serve Guy de Lusignan, leaving it to his deathbed to finally join the Templars.
An illustration from Matthew Paris’ “Greater Chronicle” depicting Knights Templar.
We will never know, but Marshal’s very silence to his household and family about this episode in his life suggests that he left the Holy Land with a bitter taste in his mouth – or opinions he felt he should best keep to himself.
Biographies of William Marshal available today include:
· William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron and Regent of England, by Sidney Painter, 1933.
· William Marshal, Flower of Chivalry, George Duby, 1985.
· William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, by David Crouch, 2002.
· William Marshal Earl of Pembroke, by Catherine Armstrong, 2007
Recommended works of historical fiction featuring William Marshal:
· Christian Balling’s Champion is delightful, but it only covers a tiny slice of Marshal’s life.
· Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion are well-researched and well-written tributes to William Marshal.
Friday, August 8, 2014
“I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn, but the troops were dazzled.”
Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 1967 film “A Lion in Winter” starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn.
As with most good historical fiction, there is more than a grain of truth to this fictional line from The Lion in Winter. Not only did Eleanor of Aquitaine take part in the Second Crusade, her role soon became controversial and her participation precipitated a marriage crisis. Here is a summary of what happened.
In 1144, the crusader county of Edessa was overrun by the atabeg of Mosul, Zengi. The news shocked Western Europe and Pope Eugenius III called for a new crusade. St. Bernard of Clairvaux enthusiastically took up the call, and at the pope’s bidding preached the crusade far and wide, including on Easter Sunday in Vezelay, Burgundy. Here King Louis VII of France knelt before the abbot and took the cross to the thunderous cheers of his vassals and subjects. When he finished, his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, knelt beside him and likewise took the cross.
Eleanor did so as the Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitou – not as Queen of France. The importance of her gesture was to muster support among the barons and lords who owed her, but not Louis of France, homage. However, Eleanor’s example inspired many other noblewomen to take the cross as well.
When King Louis’ crusaders set forth on their crusade, the estimated 100,000 French included an unnamed number of ladies – or “amazons” as some liked to call them – determined to take part in the crusade themselves. Far from being Eleanor’s “maids,” most of these women were the wives of noble crusaders, wealthy enough to afford horses and armor, since according to a Greek chronicler writing some fifty years after the event, they rode astride and wore armor. They were also accompanied by servants and a great deal of baggage.
Depiction of Eleanor of Aquitaine in a German 12th century Manuscript
The first stages of this crusade went remarkably well, with the army making good progress. Although accounts differ on the extent to which Louis was able to prevent pillaging and abuse of the civilian population along the route, it is clear that the French intention was to pay for provisions and leave the Christian populations in peace. Unfortunately, they were preceded by German crusaders under the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III that behaved so badly the French found all the cities closed to them, and the price for goods exorbitant.
Nevertheless, they reached Constantinople in comparatively good order, and while the common soldiers encamped outside the walls, the nobles, including Eleanor and her ladies, were introduced to the luxuries and splendors of the fabled Queen of Cities. They were lodged in palaces the like of which they had never seen before, feted and entertained.
The news that the Byzantine Emperor had just concluded a 12 year truce with the Turks, however, cast serious doubts upon his reliability. The mistrust of the Greeks only increased when the Byzantine Emperor tried to make Louis swear to turn over any territories his army conquered to the Emperor. Louis thought he had come to fight the Turks and restore Christian rule – not expand the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Nevertheless, Louis rejected calls by some of his advisors to capture Constantinople and depose the Greek emperor. Instead he set out for Jerusalem determined to fulfill his crusading vow – and consult with the King of Jerusalem about further action.
The French crusaders advanced along the southern, coastal route at a leisurely pace until at the end of October they encountered deserters from the German crusade, who reported that the Turks had all but annihilated the Germans and now lay in wait for the French. A few days later, the French caught up with what was left of the Germans, including Emperor Conrad, who was suffering from a head wound. Together Louis and Conrad’s crusaders followed the Mediterranean coast, finally reaching Ephesus in time for Christmas. Here, however, Conrad decided he was too ill to continue, so he and his nobles took ship back for Constantinople, while what was left of the foot soldiers continued with Louis’s army.
No sooner had the German Emperor departed, than adversity struck the French. Torrential rains lasting four days washed away tents, supplies, and many men and horses. After this catastrophe, Louis elected to strike out inland across the mountains, despite the absence of guides, in an attempt to reach Antioch as soon as possible. This route, however, was not only through rugged terrain and along bad roads, but took the French where they were constantly harassed by Turkish raiders. By now, at the latest, the “gayness and the gilt” of Eleanor and her lady-crusaders (or amazons) were “all besmirched with rainy marching in the painful field.”
Disaster, however, did not overtake them until mid-January, when two Poitevin nobles in command of the van took fatal independent action. They had been ordered to set up camp for the main army at a specific place, and Eleanor was sent with them. (Throughout the crusade, King Louis maintained separation from Eleanor in order not to be tempted to break his vow of chastity during the duration of the crusade.) When the main army reached the designated camp, however, they found it empty. The vanguard of Poitevins with the Queen had decided to move to a more attractive-looking spot down in the valley. The exhausted troops at the rear, including the King with Eleanor’s baggage train, could not possibly catch up and as darkness fell a large gap had been opened between the Christian forces. The Turks quickly exploited the situation. They attacked the main force, killing Louis’ horse under him and some 7,000 crusaders before darkness fell, putting an end to the slaughter. Many in the army blamed Eleanor, because it was her vassals who had left the main French army in the lurch.
After this disaster, the French returned to the coast, now determined to continue the crusade by ship. They were without supplies, however, and soon reduced to eating their horses before what was left of Louis’ force finally reached Antalia on January 20, 1148. Here they discovered it was impossible to find sufficient ships for the whole force at prices King Louis was willing to pay. Plague broke out in the crusader camp, decimating a force already on the brink of starvation. At this junction, King Louis VII (not to be confused with his namesake and future saint, Louis IX) abandoned his troops and took ship with his wife and nobles for Antioch. Abandoned by their king, some 3000 French crusaders are said to have converted to Islam in exchange for their lives and food.
Louis and Eleanor, meanwhile, arrived in Antioch. Antioch was a magnificent, walled city, which had been one of the richest in the Roman Empire. At this time it was inhabited by a mixed population of Greek and Armenian Christians ruled by a Latin Christian elite, headed by Raymond of Poitiers, the younger brother of Eleanor’s father, William Duke of Aquitaine. The language of the court at Antioch was Eleanor’s own langue d’oc, and the customs were likewise those of the Languedoc. Within a very short time, Eleanor and her uncle developed such rapport that the king became jealous and then suspicious. The clerical chroniclers are united in condemning Eleanor of forgetting her “royal dignity” – and her marriage vows.
The situation was aggravated by the fact that Raymond of Antioch thought the crusaders had come to restore Christian control over the county of Edessa – and so secure his eastern flank, but Louis thought he had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and insisted on continuing to the Holy City, rather than following the Prince of Antioch’s military advice. At this junction, with Louis already jealous of Eleanor’s close relationship (sexual or not) with Prince Raymond, she announced that she – and all her vassals – would remain in Antioch, whether he went to Jerusalem or not. Since her vassals made up the bulk of what was left of the French forces, this was an effective veto. Louis threated to use force to make her come with him as was his right as her husband. Eleanor retorted their marriage was invalid because they were related within the prohibited degrees and demanded an annulment. Louis responded by having her arrested in the middle of the night and carried away from Antioch by force.
Although Eleanor then spent several months in Jerusalem while her husband’s crusade came to its final humiliating disaster outside Damascus, nothing is recorded of her activities. Her influence on Louis and her role in the crusade was over. Furthermore, despite an attempt to patch up the marriage, after their return to France, the birth of a second daughter there made a divorce a dynastic priority, paving the way for Eleanor to marry Henry of Anjou, the future King Henry II of England.
(Truly, fiction does not get better than facts like these!)
There are many biographies of Eleanor, I personally relied on Alison Weir’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, (London, Pimlico, 1999), and Amy Kelly’s Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, (Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1950). There are innumerous novels about Eleanor. I have not read them all and the ones I did read, failed to do her justice, so I’ll refrain from a recommendation.
Eleanor’s Tomb at the Abbey of Fontevrault