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The Knight of Knights

William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry

by Georges Duby, translated by Richard Howard
Pantheon, 155 pp., $15.95

It is a remarkable coincidence that the two most distinguished medieval historians of their generation in France and England respectively, Professor Georges Duby and Sir Richard Southern, have a particular gift in common, although their interests are very different. Both have a striking capacity for seizing on a single career, a single text, or a single event, and using it as a vehicle to convey, vividly and in brief compass, perceptions founded in profound and powerful learning. Professor Duby’s William Marshal is a small masterpiece in this genre.

Duby opens this biography, with typical originality, at the deathbed of William Marshal, called “the Marshal.” He died at his manor of Caversham, whither he had been carried by water from London, in March of the year 1219, when his body told him he could do no more. This is not only an original but a very effective opening, for it plunges us immediately into an unfamiliar world where things are done differently, and whose stock reactions and attitudes are strange to us.

William in 1219 was a very great man earl of Pembroke in his wife’s right, and up to the spring of 1219 he had been regent for the boy-king Henry III; so his death was a great event whose movements, as was to be expected in such a case, were publicly orchestrated. We are shown him making his dispositions on his bed and surrounded by his faithful men, putting his eldest son in seizin of his lands, setting his seal upon his will, receiving his final absolution, and calling for the silk cloths which he obtained in Palestine and which he would have spread on his body when it came to be buried in the Templars’ London church. We see the master of the Temple arrive to admit him to his order: this is when he bids farewell to his countess, whom afterward, as one bound by the order’s rule, he must not approach. We see him ordering his coffers to be opened and his goods distributed. Finally, we watch the stately progress of his body from Caversham to London, lying one night in Reading Abbey and another in the church of Staines, on its way to the Temple church, where it was buried near the tomb of Aimery, master of the Temple, “who had given up the ghost while awaiting the earl’s death.”

The last agonies of William Marshal lasted for nearly two months; Professor Duby is able to follow them in this strange and moving detail because their every movement was recorded in the verse biography that William’s heir commissioned of his father. For the historian this is a priceless text, virtually the only full-scale life story that has survived from this age of a great secular magnate who was less than a king or prince. Put together from what William’s friends, and above all his faithful knight John d’Erley, could recall of what William himself had told them of his life, it is at one remove only from the memoirs of the man himself. Above all, it is exceptional in that it traces the whole story, from childhood (and the moving tale of how, as a boy hostage in the civil wars, he played games with King Stephen in the royal tent before besieged Newbury) down to the very end, to the rich rituals of the death-bed with which Duby opens.

By means of this poem Professor Duby is able to follow, step by step, the amazing career of the Marshal. Born (somewhere about 1145) as the fourth son of a baron of distinctly middling rank, he started life without prospects; for the last two years before his death he was virtually ruler of England. He had carved the way for himself, almost literally, with his sword. In the crucial early days—and really, indeed, down to his marriage in 1189—he was carried forward by his knightly prowess, displayed on the battlefield and in countless tournaments that were disputed scarcely less briskly than battles. His great chance came when, in 1170, Henry II of England singled him out to be the tutor in knighthood of his fifteen-year-old heir. Henry “the young king.” Great risks, difficult adventures, and turns of fortune still lay ahead of him then: nevertheless, it was a point after which his fortune never really turned back.

This young Henry had been crowned in 1167, but his father granted him no share in the government of his widely flung territories (this drove the frustrated young prince into rebellion in 1173). That rebellion apart, he and his household—and William with it—led over the next decade an extravagant and fairly aimless life in northern France, which centered principally on a constant round of tournaments: “Almost every week, tournaments were held in one place or another.” These tournaments were very rough affairs, mock battles ranging widely over the countryside; and fatalities were common. Yet both the “high barons” and the young knights-errant who formed their followings flocked to them. There were two great attractions: the glory that could be won in them and the prospect of rich pickings, since those who were taken prisoner were put to ransom and their valued horses and armor were the spoil of their captors. To make prisoner one of the high barons might be worth a fortune, and William’s lord and charge was naturally a coveted prize: more than once the Marshal rescued him from great danger. Thus William built a distinguished reputation, on his loyalty and on his skill and valor in combat, and also on his generosity, for of his own prizes he kept nothing, distributing largess recklessly among his companions.

These three qualities, loyalty, valor, and largess, were, as Duby stresses, the nucleus of the tough, martial, knightly ethic of the twelfth century, whose warriors were only beginning to learn that money as well as might is necessary to sustain dignity. The twelfth century was a period of quickening commercial activity, of much borrowing and lending, and capable administrators like Richard Fitz-Neal could see the importance of currency in politics: “Money appears necessary not only in time of war but in time of peace…for the preservation of the kingdom.” The knightly values of William Marshal and his kind, particularly in the matter of largess, were becoming a little behind the times.

In 1183 Henry the young king died at his castle of Martel on the Dordogne, and it fell to William to discharge on his behalf the vow that he had taken to go on crusade. The Marshal had by this time established for himself a name for chivalry that was known throughout the French-speaking world of northern Europe; when he returned from the Holy Land, with his fame still further enhanced, he was taken into the personal service of his late master’s father, Henry II himself. In the old king’s last years he served him with the same loyalty that he had shown his dead son, and this good service brought him at last reward of the kind for which every adventurer of his stamp hoped, the promise of marriage to an heiress in the king’s gift.

The heiress that William was promised was Isabella, daughter of Richard Strongbow, earl of Clare, lord of Pembroke, and lord too of wide lands in Normandy, by Aoife, daughter of Dermot, king of Leinster, who had brought to Richard his claim to the lordship of Leinster in Ireland. When William married her, just after the accession of Richard I, he exchanged overnight the status of a poor if famous knightly adventurer for that of one of the greatest lords of the Angevin dominions in England, France, and Ireland. From this point forward, he was at the center of affairs in a new way, and one that opened new problems, new tensions, and new tests of loyalty.

The difficulty here, as Professor Duby explains lucidly, was the crisscrossing of feudal allegiances, fraught with political peril, that great landed wealth so often brought with it in this age. The lands that William now held in Ireland he held not of Richard I, his lord in England and Normandy, but of Richard’s restive and untrustworthy brother John. When John became king and lost his hold on Normandy, William’s lands there came to be held of John’s enemy, King Philip of France. William had a very delicate course to steer, between conflicting loyalties to these rival lords—and to friends among his fellow barons who had fallen foul of John; but steer he did, and so skillfully that at the end it was he who was called to be regent for the young Henry III, when John died in the middle of the civil war that had broken out after the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215. In his last battle, at Lincoln in 1217, William overthrew the rebels against Henry, son of his late lord John, who were led by Prince Louis, son of the King Philip who was his lord in Normandy; and afterward he escorted the defeated prince out of England, without ransom. He had managed to be loyal to Henry III and to John’s memory, and to old friends among the barons—and to his second and French lord too.

Loyalty, carefully, scrupulously but at the same time often schemingly maintained, had been the theme of William Marshal’s life history; that and his courage. It is a splendid story, and Professor Duby tells it splendidly. At the same time, as I have said, he uses it as the vehicle for his perceptions about the aristocratic society of the age in which the Marshal lived, long a main subject of his researches. In this book his sharpest attention is concentrated on the early period of the Marshal’s life, when he was a “bachelor knight” in the service of the “young” Henry (traveling from tournament to tournament and distributing largess lavishly to companions and hangerson). Here Duby is able to develop some of the themes set out in his brilliant paper, “Youth in Aristocratic Society,”* in which he studied the significance of the bands of young adventurers, cadets mostly and consequently landless, who made up the martial followings of the high baronage and of its heirs—adventurers of whom William was a prime example. The way of life and aspirations of these unsettled men at the fringes of seigneurial society were, Duby argues, important factors in promoting the contemporary craze for tournaments, in sustaining the Crusades, and in the rise of the cult of courtly (and often adulterous) love. These chivalric and cultural developments of the twelfth century reflect, in his view, the need of these young men for a recognized mode of life, for exalted and exalting objectives, and also the need of a male and almost entirely unmarried group to find for itself an outlet for eroticism.

William Marshal’s story, as the verse biography tells it, is almost entirely without courtly overtones, it is true; but it is in a courtly light, Professor Duby suggests (ingeniously and I think convincingly) that we may read one of its most interesting interludes, the tale of how William was accused by jealous peers to his lord young Henry of an adulterous liaison with Henry’s wife, Queen Margaret. The verse history’s account of William’s offer to rebut the charge in a duel with anyone who would challenge him openly (a challenge none would take up) brings us to the brink, though only to the brink, of a scene very familiar from the romantic knightly narratives of the adulterous loves of Tristram and Lancelot. Does it go no further because William, loyal once again, did not in his old age see fit to retail the story of his young affections? Professor Duby, I think, would like to answer yes to this question; and I think he may be right.

In his account of William Marshal’s early life Professor Duby is able also to pursue another theme of social importance, the way in which, as he sees it, the knightly ethic of the late twelfth century was becoming strained in its relation with practical reality by the chivalrous aversion to the power of money. Chivalry’s tough and masculine martial spirit, its exultation over blows and gifts of weapons and horses, had been created in a preceding age when, as Duby puts it, “gift and countergift constituted almost everything which, in the movement of wealth, did not proceed from inheritance.” Knighthood overreacted against the growing power of money by rejoicing in foolish extravagance and reveling in running into debt; and the reverse side of this coin was a sharpening of the perennial quest for inheritance, for marriage to a good heiress of landed fortune.

These reactions of twelfth-century knighthood had important long-term effects in the history of aristocratic life and culture. It may be that, as a consequence of the very long period during which William Marshal remained unmarried, and of his single-minded devotion as a “bachelor” to arms, Professor Duby has here allowed his picture of the male dominance and strictly martial inclination of the society he is describing to become somewhat overdrawn. Twelfth-century history would not be the same without the great women of independent spirit—and in some cases independent authority—who left their mark on it: the empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Héloïse, Marie de France. And there were aristocratic households where there was a little more attention to administration and a little less to tournaments than was the case with that of Henry the Young King. Nevertheless, Professor Duby is surely right in his emphasis on the old-fashioned quality of the Marshal’s biography, with its stern military tone, its demanding and dangerous warrior ethic, and above all its nostalgia for what is conceived as a heroic past still within the reach of memory, but receding—the past of the Marshal’s youth that men knew would not quite be seen again.

From a single source, and in a book of small compass, Professor Duby has reconstructed a living picture of a particular sector of society at a crucial moment, at the brink of great change. The vividness, the intimacy, and the historical perception with which he presents his picture of the fascinating and eventful life of the Marshal, and of the world in which he lived, will win him readers not just among scholars, but among all who are drawn by the unending interest of the humanity of the human past.

  1. *

    Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society, translated by Cynthia Postan (London: Edward Arnold, 1977), pp. 112–122.

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