Wednesday, August 8, 2018

William Marshal in the Holy Land: Part II

Last week I summarized the known facts about the English medieval hero William Marshal and his two-year-long pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Today I pick up his story by looking at the context of Marshal's pilgrimage and what he found in the Holy Land.

The Crusader Kingdoms were defended by a network of castles such as this: Krak de Chevalliers -- albeit at William's time Krak did not yet have it's outermost wall.

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.

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 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 David: 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 was 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 had 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.

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.


1 comment:

  1. Too bad. Marshall might have been able to do much to stem the coming disaster had he taken a more active -- or public -- role against guy.


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