Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Magna Carta Week: The Marshals and King John

The Marshals and King John
Lecture paper given by Elizabeth Chadwick at the 2015 Mortimer History Society Conference 
at Hereford Academy Saturday May 16th


I am going to begin with a quote from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal.

Sire, I beg the Lord our God that, if I ever did anything to please him, that in the end he grant you to grow up to be a worthy man. And if it were the case that you followed in the footsteps of some wicked ancestor, and that your wish was to be like him, then I pray to God, the son of Mary, that he does not give you long to live and that you die before it comes to that.

These are the words spoken to the 11-year-old King Henry III by William Marshal on his deathbed. The moment is reported in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, a 20,000 line poem commissioned by the Marshal family, specifically, it is thought, by the Marshal’s eldest son William II, to commemorate his father’s great life and to glorify the family. It was completed around 1226. That “certain wicked ancestor” was the young king’s father, King John, who had died two and a half years earlier, leaving the country in almost bankrupt turmoil and rife with civil war.

The Marshal Histoire was intended to be read aloud on the anniversary of William’s death, to his family, and to those who shared their affinity, which rather demonstrates that in the mid-1220s and for a while afterwards, the reputation of King John was set at nought even while his son Henry III was entering manhood. 

Photo ©2015 Rosemary Watson
Courtesy of the author
Despite William Marshal’s  damning deathbed remarks in 1219,  he had served King John and indeed John’s brothers and father in a military capacity through thick and thin for more than 50 years. In some ways they were the reason for his being. No Henry II, no Richard and John, and there would have been no William Marshal Lord of Chepstow, Earl of Pembroke, ruler of Leinster, Lord of Bienfait, Longueville and Orbec in Normandy. All of these and more, plus various posts and fiscal rewards were payment for loyal and intelligent service, both on the battlefield and off it and all were dependent on the favour and patronage of the Angevin kings.

My main thrust today is William Marshal’s relationship with King John. The Histoire may be damning in those parting comments of the Marshal to the boy king,  and yet the Marshal had stood by John when everyone else was deserting him.


William Marshall was about 20 years old when King John was born in December 1166 at Oxford [… W]hen John was in the care of his wet nurse Agatha, William was coming to young knighthood in Normandy under the tutelage of his distant kinsman William de Tancarville, who was the hereditary Chamberlain.

William entered Queen Eleanor’s household in 1168 after saving her from ambush at the cost of his own wounding and capture by the Lusignan family who were in rebellion. Patrick Earl of Salisbury was killed in the attack. Eleanor [, John's mother,] took a shine to William, paid his ransom and rewarded him with money, horses and weapons from her own purse. He became her man and entered her household. In 1170 he was promoted to the role of tutor in chivalry and marshal of the household of her eldest son Henry, known as the Young King because his father had had him crowned in his own lifetime. 


Basically William would have watched John growing up from the sidelines with occasional moments of contact between child and man. Whether he had any sympathy for a younger son who would have to make his own way in the world, we don’t know but his main responsibility at this time was the Young King.

The brotherly love between John and young Henry became strained when their father stated his intention of endowing John with three castles that belonged to the Young King. It was one of the reasons that led to a rebellion of the older sons against their father, rebellion that swiftly spread to become a general civil war and resulted in the imprisonment of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was accused of fomenting an uprising with her three older sons. John, too young to be involved, remained out of it on the sidelines. Although Henry II prevailed and  reconciliations were made, the cracks were still deep and ugly. John seems to have remained in favour with his father, sometimes being found in his company and sometimes under the tutelage of Ranulf de Glanville, one of Henry’s able courtiers and lawyers. Throughout this time William Marshal would have continued to be an observer towards his lord’s attitude to his youngest brother and would have encountered John on occasion at gatherings.
The Young King rebelled against his father again in 1183, and this time died during the conflict.  

William Marshall (Drawing)
by Diana Popovic Disco
©2015 Elizabeth Chadwick
Courtesy of the author
Following his death, William Marshal went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and when he returned took up employment with Henry II. During the period between 1186 and Henry II’s death in 1189, William would have had further time to get to know John as the king’s youngest son developed into young manhood. William was with Henry II at the bitter end when the king died. Richard was now in rebellion against him and had actively hounded him. At one point William had had to face down the hotly pursuing Richard by killing his horse under him and stopping him in his tracks. But at least Richard’s intentions were clearly signaled.

When Henry II died, he was alone. His naked corpse had been robbed by his servants while his household was elsewhere. John by this time had seen the writing on the wall and had deserted the sinking ship. His father is supposed to have asked for a list of those who had betrayed him, and on seeing John’s at the top of it, had turned his face to the wall and died.


Richard, however, was preparing to go on crusade and left William Marshal as one of several justiciars to help run things in Richard’s absence […] Without going into too much convoluted political detail,  Richard had left the government of England partially in the hands of his chancellor, William Longchamp, bishop of Ely […] William and the other justiciars had to try and maintain a balance of power […T]hen came the news that Richard had been captured while returning from crusade, and a massive ransom for his return was being demanded by the Emperor of Germany.

John tried to persuade everyone that Richard was dead and that he wasn’t coming back. His mother, meanwhile, convinced that Richard was very much alive, was scrambling to raise the enormous ransom demanded of 150,000 marks. For a time John played along but in secret was negotiating a deal with Philippe of France to try and keep Richard imprisoned. The men offered  Emperor Heinrich various monetary bribes that they couldn’t possibly fulfil in order to keep Richard incarcerated. 

When that didn’t work and Richard started out for home, John decamped to France and tried to make further deals with King Philippe that basically resulted in him selling out Normandy from under Richard’s feet.


William, however, weathered Richard’s return and continued in the king’s high favour. He accompanied him to Normandy where Richard was reconciled with John. Richard’s way round the problem of his rebellious brother was to call John a child who had been badly advised. John was by this time heading for 30 and hardly a child, so it may have galled him to have this attitude taken toward him, but at the same time it got him off the hook.

Between 1194 and 1199 William’s relationship with John was a working one as Richard strove to restore the damage done while he was on crusade. John served him to all intents and purposes faithfully and well during this time – indeed was an asset. He and William Marshall worked together and were at the Siege of Milly where they captured the castle - this is the one where William supposedly ran up a siege ladder and then, tired after his exertions on the battlements and a fight with the constable whom he defeated, sat on him to keep him down while William recovered. This is reported in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal as being an event where Richard was present, but in actual fact John was the other military commander there. The Histoire, however, seldom has anything good to say about John, and avoids mention of him in a positive military role. The fact stands though, despite the Histoire, that William and John worked well together during the years between 1194 and 1199, and would have built up a working relationship and even rapport.


Photo ©2015 Rosemary Watson
Courtesy of the author
In 1199 Richard died while besieging the Castle of Chalus in the Limousin. He was struck in the area of the collarbone by a crossbow bolt which festered and he died soon after of blood poisoning or gangrene. While still lucid, he sent word to William Marshal and Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, who were in Rouen telling them to secure the Treasury there. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal tells us that William and Hubert Walter had a discussion about who should inherit the throne – Arthur of Brittany who was Richard’s teenage nephew, or John who was 33 years old, a man and an accomplished warrior. Hubert Walter thought that Arthur had the better right to the Crown but William Marshall argued for John. In the event William Marshal won out and John was chosen. 


His own honeymoon with John at the outset of the reign was not to last […] John lost Anjou, Maine and Normandy to the French. Whereas his brother Richard had won the battle for the hearts and minds of his people, John did not have the same propensity nor the same leadership qualities and military nous.

He did have a stroke of luck when he captured his nephew Arthur who was besieging his grandmother, John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at the Castle of Mirebeau, 20 miles from Poitiers,  but afterwards John ruined the advantage by treating those he captured with such shocking cruelty that men were horrified at his behaviour. The king kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner and such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed his cruelty,  says the Histoire


William was in the act of building up a patrimony for his sons and to this end when John’s grip on Normandy went down the pan, William did a deal with Philippe of France to try and keep his estate intact but it meant swearing allegiance to Philippe for his lands on the Norman side of the channel. John took a dim view of this and the relationship between him and the Marshal became strained. John saw William’s action as a desertion of duty and moreover double-dealing. William saw it as a prudent act to preserve his land, but even so was sailing close to the wind. When John planned an invasion of France in 1206, William refused to go. In the event so did most of John’s nobility but John knew who the ringleader was. The Marshal said to the other barons at the height of the quarrel at Portsmouth, My lords look at me, for, by the faith I owe you, I am for you all this day an exemplar and model. Be on your alert against the king: what he thinks to do with me he will do to each and every one of you, or even more if he gets the upper hand over you. That John did not move against William was largely down to the fact that William had a mass of support behind him, and at this stage John didn’t feel strong enough to test men’s loyalty.

Not long after this, William requested permission to go to Ireland [… John] demanded a hostage of William Marshal - his oldest son before he would let William cross […] in 1206. William handed over the youth and continued preparations to leave. John, not wanting William to sail at all, demanded his second son, too […] William’s handing over of his children probably saved his skin. When a son was demanded of de Braose’s wife she replied that she would not hand any child of hers over to the man who had murdered his own nephew. That sealed her death sentence and John went after her with a vengeance. She and her eldest son were eventually to starve to death in the dungeon of Corfe Castle, or some say Windsor […] William Marshal’s own wife Isabel de Clare was not happy at handing over their sons, but William’s will prevailed.


William was left after that to his own devices in Ireland for several years. It wasn’t exactly retirement, but it was a retreat from the fray, like entering one of the refuges at a tourney. His sons, however, were still hostages and one has to wonder how they were being brought up away from the Marshal enclave and what their opinion of King John was. And William himself: did he want his boys being raised away from his influences among men he did not trust? Learning ways he might consider not to be good for them? Certainly their mother would have been concerned. She didn’t want them to go and left to her own devices might have refused to hand them over with disastrous consequences.

By 1212, with interdicts and rebellions happening on the mainland, John requested William’s help, and offered to return his sons to their family – they’d been away around five years. William agreed and moved back to England to serve John in both a military and diplomatic capacity and was received back into the fold. Why this volte face by the king? Perhaps he realised how few allies he had in his pocket.  William could have refused the summons. Or he could have accepted, taken his sons and run, and then declared for the rebels, but he didn’t. He chose to stand by John and act as a military commander and adviser. It could be that, presented with a sow’s ear he was willing to take the challenge of making it into a silk purse. Someone had to trouble shoot and repair this terrible fix they were in.


Now that the crisis was over a large rebellious faction of barons were protesting about the harshness of John’s rule – the unfair taxes, the abuses of rights, the ridiculous fines. What had been a half mark fine in the days of Henry II and Richard now sometimes amounted to hundreds of marks. John would impose multi-thousand pound fines on barons to keep them in their place, and if they couldn’t pay, he’d use it as an excuse to take over their castles. He employed mercenaries to do his bidding. He demanded money with menaces basically and receiving justice depended on how much you could pay to get it.  This was the birth of the notion of Magna Carta, to bring the king under the law and stop these abuses.

Magna Carta
King John was clearly against the Magna Carta – anything that limited his powers was not going to be flavour of the month, but with the French threatening and his barons in rebellion, he had little choice but to negotiate. This I think is where William comes in. John had used him before as a diplomat when it came to negotiating with the King of France and the way William had woven his way through the tricky mid years of the 1200’s was a testament to his cool head and diplomatic abilities. He also had strong Templar connections and the Templars were a kind of neutral party – like the United Nations today, where both sides could meet to discuss their differences. I believe that while William had no say in drafting the clauses of Magna Carta, he did have input in negotiating the terms and at least bringing King John to the table at Runnymede.  Without William driving the diplomacy, there might not have been a Magna Carta at all. In other words both sides were willing to trust him. He had been through the fire with King John, and the king’s relationship with him was now cordial – as far as the king was concerned. Everyone knew about his trouble with the king, and that while acting on John’s behalf, he was also one of them. Ever the diplomat, William maintained a neutral façade.


William continued to stick by King John as the French landed and the battle for England became a civil war. He never wavered. It wasn’t out of love for John, whom he made clear on his death bed that he detested, but possibly it was for the monarchy as a whole – for who had the right. Perhaps even out of loyalty to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the liege lady who had given him his first boost up the ladder and is one of the few women mentioned in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal. This was her last remaining son, for better or worse.

When John was dying, he named William Marshal one of the executors of his will and the Histoire puts its hero in the forefront and has John asking William to take care of the country for him. The wording is clearly propaganda bigging up its hero, but there is a germ of truth there, too. William was one of the stalwarts and one of the few people capable of repairing the hole in the fabric. 

Although in his 70’s William took on the job of regent to the young Henry III and reissued Magna Carta, removing or moderating the clauses that were proving to be sticking points, and gradually drawing everyone back into the fold and dealing with the French, both by battle at Lincoln and Sandwich in 1217, and by diplomacy in making a peace treaty with Prince Louis of France. 

William Marshal
Cast Court replica effigy
Victoria and Albert Museum
Photo ©2015 Elizabeth Chadwick

Courtesy of the author
William’s role as caretaker of the realm and of the young Henry III came to an end when he fell ill in either late 1218 or early 1219 and was borne home to his manor of Caversham to slowly die as winter turned to spring and spring looked toward summer. Here too, the Young King Henry III was brought from Reading to William’s sickbed and the words uttered about the wicked ancestor.

To sum up the relationship between William Marshal and King John, I would say that it was one of reciprocity that at times faltered because of ambition and suspicion, but was weathered by the diplomacy of the Marshal. The latter had no love or even liking for his liege lord, but he had a wider loyalty to the monarchy, a pattern perhaps set in his own childhood by his father’s sacrifices at Wherwell and Newbury, and then his own early service to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Young King. It was a default in the Marshal that wasn’t to translate to his sons and their relationship with Henry III.  

Were I to compare the Marshal with a modern-day political leader, I’d have to say Nelson Mandela. What strikes me is their ability to cut through the personal dislikes and past injuries to see the big picture and do their best for national stability.

To read in its entirety Elizabeth Chadwick's fascinating article about the relationship between King John and William Marshal, please follow the link to her blog, Living the History

Elizabeth Chadwick developed a fascination for the Middle Ages in her teens and began writing historical fiction as a hobby. In her thirties that hobby became a career when she was taken on by a leading literary agent and her first novel, The Wild Hunt, won a Betty Trask Award. Her novel The Greatest Knight was a New York Times bestseller, and its sequel, The Scarlet Lion, was nominated as one of the top 10 historical novels of the decade by Historical Novel Society founder Richard Lee. To Defy a King won the Romantic Novelists' Association (RNA) Best Historical Fiction of the Year Award in 2011. She is currently writing the third novel in a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, stripping back the years of old varnish and embellishment before adding fresh colours and nuances to that particular area of historical storytelling.

Chadwick has also reviewed Dan Jones's Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter, which can be found at The History Girls. You can learn more about this author and her works at her website; her blog, Living the History; on Facebook and at Twitter. She also runs a Facebook group dedicated to William Marshal, his life and times, which is open to all.


  1. Absolutely riveting! I could not stop reading this fantabulous account of William Marshal and am now charged: I MUST read more!

  2. Fabulous fabulous Elizabeth.

  3. Superb post, Elizabeth, and right on the mark!