Tuesday, February 10, 2015

William Marshal: an introduction (of sorts)

Judging by recent publications, there has been a resurgence in interest about William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (c. 1146 – 1219). Marshal will be the focus of several posts, so I wanted to have something masquerading as an introduction before I cover books and a TV program about him. My planned posts will be on the following books and program:

Who was William Marshal? I’ll (unabashedly) appropriate a couple of paragraphs from the HarperCollins link about the book by Thomas Asbridge:

As a five-year-old boy, Marshal was sentenced to execution and led to the gallows, but this landless younger son survived his brush with death and went on to train as a knight. Against all odds, Marshal rose through the ranks—serving at the right hand of five English monarchs—to become a celebrated tournament champion, a baron and politician and, ultimately, a regent of the realm.

William Marshal befriended the great figures of his day, from Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine to the infamous King John, and helped to negotiate the terms of Magna Carta—the first "bill of rights." By the age of seventy, the once-forsaken child had been transformed into the most powerful man in England, yet he was forced to fight in the front line of one final battle, striving to save the kingdom from a French invasion in 1217.

The five ‘monarchs’ Marshal served (in different capacities) were Henry II, Henry The Younger, Richard I (the Lionheart), John, and Henry III. So much about Marshal’s life has come down to us because of the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, written in 1226 by a scribe named John at the behest of Marshal’s eldest son. The poem was intended to be read on family occasions to commemorate the older William. Given the poem's history and intent, it's clear the poem would be biased. A paper by David Crouch on the Histoire uses the term ‘propaganda’ in the title for the Historie.

It is estimated that there were twenty copies of the Histoire but only one has survived, and that one is probably a copy of an original drafts. I found the story of the survival and discovery of the Histoire to be captivating. Here is a chronological summary adapted from the Preface in Asbridge’s The Greatest Knight:

  • 1219: William Marshall dies
  • 1226: John, an Anglo-French scribe working in England, is contracted by the Marshal family to compose a poem based on William Marshal’s life.
  • Soon after 1226: John presents the family with Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, a 19,214 (or 19,215) line poem extolling the life of William Marshal. From The Greatest Knight:
    The History was a celebration of William Marshal’s astounding achievements. As such, it offers an unashamedly biased account, presenting its hero as the perfect knight. In its pages William almost became the living embodiment of the mythical Arthurian knight, Lancelot—one of the central heroes of the popular literature written in Marshal’s own day. Many of the History’s claims can be corroborated in other sources, but there were times when the biographer omitted uncomfortable details related to Marshal’s rise to prominence, from his involvement in rebellions against the crown to his dealings with King John, England’s infamous monarch. (xix)
  • 1861: Paul Meyer, a French scholar sees a copy of the History at an auction at Sotheby in London. In describing his hasty examination of Lot 51, an unassuming work in worn brown leather that dated from the 16th century listed as a “Norman-French chronicle on English Affairs (in Verse),” Meyer noted, “Contains an original chronicle, which seems to report the conflict that broke out in England during the reign of Stephen, nephew of Henry I.” (xv) Sir Thomas Phillipps bought the lot.
  • 1863-65: Phillips moved his entire library from his Middle Hill estate in Worcesterhire to a his mansion in Cheltenham
  • 1872: Sir Thomas Phillips dies
  • 1880: After repeated requests, the Phillipps’ family allows Meyer access to Sir Thomas’ collection
  • 1881: Meyer finds Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal in the Phillipps’ collection and is finally able to read it. While at least four other copies appear to have been made, the original and those copies seem to have been lost over the years.
  • 1891-1901: Meyer produces a full printed edition of the book in three volumes.

I think a little more on the source document would be helpful (at the risk of some repetition), so from the Foreword of the first volume of the Anglo-Norman Text Society’s translation (page v):

It is based largely on the personal recollections of the Marshal’s entourage, and notably of John of Earley, his squire from 1188 and subsequently his devoted companion and executor of his will, but it also draws on written records. As such, it is an invaluable primary source for the period in question and provides much material not recorded elsewhere. However, its accuracy regarding specific events is subject to caution, and its assertions cannot be accepted uncritically, as has hitherto usually been the case. It can be demonstrated that the poet not infrequently adapts his record of events in order to present the hero’s action in the most favorable light, or that he resorts to invention when his source fails to provide the details he requires. The purpose of the poem is not only to recount the hero’s exploits, but also to celebrate them, and the narrative is further bound by the conventions of contemporary literary fiction; the laudatory purpose takes precedence over the pursuit of what we now term historical accuracy.

The work was commissioned by the Marshal’s eldest son and successor, William Marshal II, shortly after his father’s death in 1219. It was composed by a poet who calls himself “Johans” (line 19195) and who has sometimes been erroneously identified with the John of Earley mentioned above.
There will be several posts on Marshal over the next couple of weeks.

Selected Links:
Wikipedia entry

Novelist Elizabeth Chadwick’s notes for her Cartmel Priory Founder's Day Lecture in 2011

William Marshal—Events in Life and Historical Context by Richard Abels at Medieval English Genealogy

Catherine Armstrong has several essays on William Marshal and his family, with helpful bibliographies

Update: An article by Thomas Asbridge in History Today: William Marshal—The Greatest Knight or a Failed Crusader?

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