Wednesday, August 1, 2018

William Marshal and the Holy Land: Part I

Yesterday I reviewed a novel by Elizabeth Chadwick that imagines what the famous English knight William Marshal encountered during his two years in the Holy Land on the eve of the Battle of Hattin. Today I summarize the historical record -- what we know about Marshal and his pilgrimage.
Marshal loved and excelled at tournaments, depicted here in a 13th century German manuscript.

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.”

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.  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, his eldest son commissioned a poem 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. Next week I will explore the the context of Marshal's pilgrimage.

William Marshal makes a "guest" appearance in award-winning Defender of Jerusalem.

 
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, The Scarlet Lion, and Templar Silks are well-researched and well-written tributes to William Marshal.

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