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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 Chevaliers -- albeit at William's time Krak did not yet have its outermost wall.

Marshall most probably reached the Holy Land, traveling 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. However, there is evidence that he was already back in England by February 1186, which would mean he could have spent only 18 months in the Holy Land, departing in or around October 1185. Although Marshal was not long in the Holy Land, he was there at a significant junction in the history of the kingdom -- and this may have impacted both the duration of his stay and his peculiar silence about it later.

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.  Because his co-monarch and nephew Baldwin V was sickly, he had his vassals swear that if he 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, Guy de Lusignan, from the succession.  

Marshal would have had every reason to applaud this action by the dying king because he knew Guy de Lusignan all too well.  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: he was pierced from behind by a lance when unarmored. 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.

Meanwhile, 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. 

Significantly, on Marshal’s arrival in the Holy Land, the Grand Master of the Templars was a certain Arnold de Toroga. He had been part of the delegation sent to plead with Henry II to come to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, he died during this mission and was replaced by a man who was an ardent supporter of Guy de Lusignan. Indeed, Rideford threw the entire force of the Templars behind a coup d’etat by Lusignan in the summer of 1186. It seems possible, therefore, that Marshal’s decision not to take his final vows and stay with the Templars in their hour of need in 1185 may have had to do with his unwillingness to serve Gerard de Ridefort and be an instrument of his pro-Lusignan policies. 

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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