Turtle Bunbury

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HISTORY

HEROES AND VILLAINS

William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (1147 - 1219)
Crusader, Templar, Kingmaker
This is based on an article written for a tourism website in 2000.

William le Mareschal (or Marshall) was a 12th century jousting champion, die-hard crusader and pre-Machiavellian tactician who survived life in the turbulent courts of Kings Henry II, Richard III and John to become Regent of the Realm, Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leinster and the richest man in the British Isles by his death in 1219. As successor to Strongbow and Aoife, he did more to establish Anglo-Norman control in Leinster than any other man.

THE KING’S HAND

William Marshal was the most powerful of the Anglo-Norman lords who came to Ireland in the late 12th or early 13th century. There were others who were very strong, such as de Courcy, de Lacy, FitzGerald and Marshal’s father-in-law Strongbow, but Marshal was the most powerful of them all.

He was a jousting champion, a die-hard crusader and pre-Machiavellian tactician who survived life in the turbulent courts of four Plantagenet Kings to become Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leinster and the richest man in the British Isles by his death in 1219.

Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, declared him ‘the greatest knight that ever lived.’ An exceptionally talented jouster, he claimed to have bested over 500 knights in the course of his life, including Richard the Lionheart.

For the last three years of his life, he was Regent of England, effectively ruling over the Kingdom of England, as well as the lordship of Ireland and parts of Normandy, including the Channel Islands, and most of the Duchy of Aquitaine.

William's life was exciting from an early age. Born in Wiltshire in about 1147, he was the second son of John FitzGilbert, Royal Marshal, aka head of household security, to Henry I. When civil war broke out in England, John ultimately served under Henry’s daughter Empress Matilda. Five-year-old William was sent as a hostage to Matilda’s enemy, King Stephen. When Stephen threatened to hang the child, FitzGilbert told him to go ahead. "I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!" Stephen briefly contemplated catapulting the boy into the walls of FitzGilbert’s castle at Newbury but then took pity and spared his life.

William spent much of his subsequent childhood with a wealthy cousin in Normandy where he was knighted in 1166. He rapidly became one of the most fearless men on the tournament scene, repeatedly emerging victorious from the violent “mock” battles. In 1170 William Marshal became tutor in chivalry and tournament team leader to Henry the Young King, son of Henry II. William was at Burs le Roi in Normandy for the Christmas of 1171, when the Young King held a feast at which only men named William were allowed to attend. At some time between Christmas and April 1172, the Young King sailed to Portsmouth to await his father's return from Ireland; Henry II had been in Ireland since 1171 and landed back near St David's on 17 April. The Book of Howth claims William was actually in Ireland in 1172 but this seems speculative. [1]

In 1179, William was one of 3000 armour-clad knights attended the tournament at Lagny-sur-Marne held by Louis VII of France in honour of his son's coronation. He also served in Syria for two years under Guy of Lusignan, King of Jerusalem.

By 1186, he was serving under Matilda’s son Henry II, who gifted him the royal estate of Cartmel in Cumbria in return. In 1189, Henry’s son Richard (aka Richard the Lionheart) went into rebellion against his father. During an ensuing skirmish, William Marshal unseated Richard from his horse. He could have slain the wayward prince but instead killed his horse to prove his point. He is said to have been the only man who ever bested the Lionheart.

THE MARRIAGE TO ISOBEL DE CLARE

When Richard became king later that year, he accepted William Marshal into his inner circle. In August 1189, a month after his accession, he permitted 43-year-old William to marry Isobel de Clare, the 17-year-old heiress of a massive estate that covered much of Leinster, Wales and the Welsh borders, as well as Hertfordshire and Essex. Born in 1172, Isobel stands out as one of the truly remarkable woman of this age and always strikes me as a Sansa Stark sort of character. She was the daughter of Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow, who was himself directly descended from Rollo, the Viking warrior who established Normandy in the early 10th century. [2] Her mother was Aoife, daughter of Diarmait Mac Murchada, the deposed King of Leinster. Strongbow died in 1176 aged about 45. Isobel was about four years old at the time and one has to hand it to Aoife that she, an Irish girl with two small children, was able to defend her families claims to such vast estates. She was a deft negotiator and could advise on both Irish and English affairs, suggesting she had a very keen understanding of Strongbow’s rights and responsibilities on both sides of the Atlantic. The hope, of course, was that all this would pass to Strongbow’s only son, Gilbert de Clare, but, crushingly, that boy died in about 1186. Thereafter all eyes focused on young Isobel, not least when Aoife herself died in 1188.

Isobel had left Ireland in her early childhood and was brought up in England and Wales in the aristocratic Norman tradition, although she apparently spoke Irish as well as French and Latin. A measure of what life was like for the young girl at this time is a record of her being holed up in Chepstow Castle where she was protected by a constable, a chaplain, his clerk, a porter, three watchmen, 25 men-at-arms (10 inside the castle, 15 outside) and 10 archers. Such a garrison, all devoted to her, meant that she must have learned how to command such men from an early age. At some point she was also a ward of Ranulf de Glanville, Justiciar of England; as a scion of the House of Butler, I feel a strange loyalty towards Ranulf.

Strongbow’s family could have faded into obscurity at this point but for Richard the Lionheart’s decision to honour his late father’s pledge to grant Isabel’s hand in marriage to Marshal in 1189. Such a choice was a matter of immense delicacy at this time because clearly whoever became her husband would wield immense control in Ireland at a time when the colony’s loyalty to the Anglo-Norman crown was still somewhat questionable. As an outside, Marshal was by no means popular with the Leinster barons while there were also substantial protests from the MacMurroughs who denied Isabel’s actual right to inherit under Irish law. Marshal himself played the game well because while he legally secured authority over Isabel’s lands after the marriage, he ensured she remained an active participant in the governance of those lands.

Isobel's marriage to William transformed the landless knight into one of the wealthiest men in the realm. By 1192, William and his young wife were ensconced in the running their mini-empire, beginning with the construction of the port town of New Ross in south-east Ireland, as well as erecting a motte at Old Ross. Three years later, they began restoring Kilkenny town and castle which had been destroyed by the O'Briens in 1173. The present-day castle is based on the irregular rectangular stone fortress that Marshal designed, comprising an irregular rectangular fortress with a drum-shaped tower at each corner, upon which the present Castle is shaped. Three of these towers survive to this day. By 1200, Kilkenny was the capital of Norman Leinster and New Ross was its principal port.The Marshals also founded the Cistercian abbeys at Tintern in County Wexford (circa 1200, as a thank you gift to God for granting safe passage across the Irish Sea during a particularly rough storm) and Duiske in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny, as well as the castles at Ferns and Enniscorthy. Under their watch, the castles at Pembroke and Chepstow in Wales were also considerably extended.

In 1194, William succeeded his brother John Marshal to become hereditary Earl Marshal of England. When Richard the Lionheart’s brother John became king in 1199, William was created Earl of Pembroke.

****

MEILER FITZHENRY

“Then Robert the son of Stephen
Got himself ready the first …
Brave knights of great renown
He brought with him none or ten.
One was Meiler, the son of Henry
Who was vert powerful.’
(The Song of Dermot)

This seems a senisble point to introduce Marshal’s greatest nemesis in Ireland, a veteran baron by name of Meiler FitzHenry. Meiler came from exceptional stock, being a grandson of Henry I of England, youngest son of William the Conqueror. The only problem was the Meiler’s father was illegitimate. Henry FitzHenry, as his father was known, was the first-born child of the beautiful Tudor princess Nesta, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the last king of Deheubarth in south Wales. She had been and impregnated by the Conqueror’s son shortly after puberty in about 1103. Henry FitzHenry was killed fighting in Wales in about 1158, presumably while Meiler was still quite young, and he succeeded to two huge estates in Pembrokeshire. His sister Amabilis FitzHenry married Walter de Riddlesford, one of first wave of Anglo-Normans to invader Ireland. Riddlesford shot to prominence when he killed a petrifying Viking warrior by name of John de Wode and he also built the motte and bailey at Kilkea Castle, the rump of which may still be seen on the golf course. Riddlesford was succeeded by his nephew Sir Hackett de Riddlesford, for whom Ballyhacket and Hacketstown in County Carlow are named.

[NESTA FITZGERALD: It is truly astonishing what an impact this one woman had on Ireland. because Nesta went on to marry Gerald of Windsor, with whom she had at least 10 children, from whom the FitzGerald, Barry and Carew families descend. Her grandchildren included Meiler FitzHenry, Gerald Fitzmaurice (ancestor of the FitzGerald Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster), Thomas FitzMaurice FitzGerald (ancestor of the earls of Desmond, the Knights of Glin and Knights of Kerry), Raymond Le Gros FitzGerald, Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Windsor) and Philip de Barry. By her second marriage to Stephen, her husband's constable of Cardigan, Nesta was also mother to Robert Fitzstephen, another key player in the Anglo-Norman conquest. [Six centuries after Nesta, the FitzGeralds were still at it – Emily, Duchess of Leinster, had nineteen children by her husband James FitzGerald, before she shot off with the tutor and had another two!]

With a stocky frame and stern dark eyes, Meiler FitzHenry accompanied his uncle Robert FitzStephen during his first expedition to Ireland in 1169 when they invaded Ossory, the kingdom established by Cearbhall MacDunlaigne back in the 9th century. On one occasion, he was ambushed near Waterford but fought his way out, returning with three axes in his dying horse and two more embedded in his shield. When the Normans conquered Limerick in 1175, Meiler was famously one of the first to drop into the River Shannon and swim across and begin the fight. For his endeavours, he was rewarded by Strongbow with lands in Offaly and Kildare, including the barony of Carbury where he built the motte and bailey on the site where the Colleys would later build Carbury Castle in the Tudor Age. In about 1182, these lands appear to have been exchanged for the present-day county of Laois by order of the Justiciar, Hugh de Lacy, who not only gave Meiler his niece to marry but also built him a fine castle at Timahoe, Co. Laoise, by the site of Saint Mochua’s 7th century monastery. Meiler also secured the strategically important Rock of Dunamase where he is credited with building the first Norman fortress. Other buildings which arose on his watch include the Augustinian foundations at Clonfert, Killaloe and Great Connell near Newbridge, County Kildare, in 1201. He filled the latter with Regular Canons from the Monastery of Lanthony in Monmouthshire, and this is where he was later buried. [Faelan MacFaelain, lord of Offelan, died in Great Connell monastery in 1203]. For all his founding of Christian centres, he also played for the devil on occasion and he was one of a handful of Norman knights who trashed the monastery at Lismore. Indeed, all those who took part in the sack of Lismore were allegedly cursed that they would die without legitimate heir and that is precisely what happened.

In 1199 Meiler had his big break when his cousin, King John, appointed him Lord Justiciar. This was at a time when Anglo-Norman Ireland was awash with such massive egos as the de Lacy, de Burgh, de Courcy, FitzGerald, Butler and Marshal families. On his king’s orders, Meiler also constructed a new castle in Dublin in 1204; this would become the centre of English administration in Ireland for the next 813 years. Meanwhile, King John and William Marshal had a serious fall out which culminated in William being summoned to the king's court in London where he was publicly humiliated and ordered to remain. He had left his Irish estates in the hands of his heavily pregnant wife Isabella and loyal followers such as Jordan de Saukeville, John d’Erlée and his cousin, Stephen d’Evreux, founder of the Devereaux family of Wexford.

In 1207, egged on by his king, Meiler FitzHenry led the Leinster barons in an uprising against the Marshal family in Ireland, nabbing their barony of Offaly and neighbouring Fearcall, and destroying and Isobel's fledgling port at New Ross. It is thought that John de Clahull of Carlow Castle also sided with Meiler. This came to a head when FitzHenry and the Leinster barons laid siege to Isabel while she was ensconced in Kilkenny Castle in January 1208. It added to the drama that this young woman, Strongbows daughter, was heavily pregnant at this time. Isobel evidently took charge of the situation and arranged for a man to be discretely lowered over the battlements. The man duly alerted the de Lacys and others loyal to Marshal who arrived and forced Fitzhenry into a humiliating submission. Captured in Thurles, Meiler was not only compelled to surrender to Strongbow’s daughter but also had to hand over a son as hostage, as well as his beloved castle on the Rock of Dunamase which William Marshall fuly strengthened. While FitzHerny was relived of his post as Justiciar, he was still considered one of the most powerful magnates in Ireland until at least 1212. In 1219 Henry III ordered him to render service to Marshal but this appears to have been too much for the old warrior. He died in 1220 and was buried in the Chapter House of Great Connell Priory.

Listen to Abarta Heritage AudioGuide on Meiler at this link. The audioguide is free to download and was funded by Laois County Council and Laois Partnership as a heritage tourism project.

THE LORD OF LEINSTER

Isobel's victory instantly restored the family’s standing in Leinster, and obliged King John to allow William Marshal to return to Ireland. While Marshal must have been immensely proud of her, she was apparently miffed when he freed all the hostages she had taken from Meiler’s allies on the promise of good behaviour

The Marshals now took absolute command of their Irish estates and made sure every square inch was profitable. They introduced the three-field system of crop rotation to Ireland, as well as sheep farming on lands unsuitable to cattle and, I believe, rabbits! William also acquired Carlow Castle from de Clahull and rebuilt it as an imposing stone fortress. The Marshals not only established a solid network of of castles, churches, towns and strategic infrastructure, buit also instituted a new administrative framework that stabilised the hitherto precarious Anglo-Norman colony.

By 1212, he was back in favour with John, whom he served loyally for the next four years. He helped to persuade John to give his Great Seal to Magna Carta, a pioneering legal document that sought to limit the king’s powers and to protect the rights of his subjects.

On 27 July 1214, the French defeated an army of King John’s allies at the battle of Bouvines in Flanders, after which John had to accept the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, which his ancestors had held since the 10th century. To John’s horror, the only continental lands he now retained was in Gascony. He had no option but to launch an all out war against the French to try to get them back, but this led the French crown prince Louis the Lion (Later Louis VIII) to invade southern England and Louis was all but crowned king of England on 2 June 1216.

Following John’s death in 1216, William was declared the protector of the nine-year-old Henry III. England was once again submerged in war but the 70-year-old personally led his army to victory, trouncing the French in the battle of Lincoln on 20 May 1217 and bringing an end to the French claims over the English throne. Noble in victory and gallant to the vanquished, his charisma did much to woo both the English and French barons back on the side of the Angevin dynasty after the disaster of King John’s reign.

In March 1219, just weeks before his death, William summoned the young king and leading barons to his Berkshire estate at Caversham where he named Pandulf Masca, the papal legate, as the new Protector.

As a young crusader in the Middle East, William had once vowed that he would be invested into the order of the Knights Templar before he died on. He did just that on his deathbed. William was the richest man in the kingdom when, aged 72, he died at Caversham in England on 14th May 1219. He was buried as a Knight Templar in the Temple Church in London, where his tomb can still be seen today. He may have subsequently donated the lands at Ballintemple to the Knights Templar for use as a sanctuary.

Isobel was genuinely distraught after his death and exhausted herself fighting endless legal battles over her ownership of his lands with the justiciar Geoffrey de Marisco who was finally forced to agree in June 1219. She died in 1220 aged fifty and was buried at Tintern Abbey in Wales. [Some hold that she is buried in a tomb in St. Mary's Church, New Ross, which bears the inscription "ISABEL LA FEM".] She left five sons but they managed no legitimate sons between them and so the family lands would once again devolve upon a woman, her eldest daughter Maud, wife of the Earl of Norfolk but that is another story ...

The Succession

By an act of partition dated 9th May 1247, the Marshal's vast estates were divided among William and Isabel's five daughters - Maud, Joan, Eva, Isabel and Sibyl - and their families - Bigod, de Munchinsi, de Braoise, de Clare and de Ferrers. (2) Probably the most powerful of these heirs was Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hereford, who married Isabel Marshal and secured the entire county of Kilkenny as part of her dowry. County Kilkenny later passed by marriage through the Le Spencer family (forbears of Princess Di) to James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde. Carlow Castle passed via Maud to the Bigod family.

In 2000, The Sunday Times listed William Marshal as the 2nd richest man in the British Isles to have lived during the 13th century, worth about STG£9.9 million in today's money. The richest was Richard, Earl of Cornwall, a younger brother of Henry III. Among William Marshal's legacies to survive are the Black Abbey in Kilkenny City and Ferns Castle, St. Mary's Church, Tintern Abbey and the bridge at New Ross in Co. Wexford.

footnotes

(1) The notion that Marshal was in Ireland much earlier than his marriage to Isabel arises in ‘The Book of Howth’ which transpires to be a sixteenth-century manuscript compiled over a decade by Christopher St Lawrence, the seventh Baron of Howth. He makes the claim that Marshall was in Ireland in 1172 at the time when Henry II summoned the council at Cashel. "The weather was so strange and the wind so terrible and unstable, that in all the winter no ship could come over into Ireland. The King went into Waterford, and tarried there a while, and full much desirous he was to hear news out of England. And the Kings that he found in Ireland he drew to him sleghly for coste, and the best as Raymond and Myles de Cogane, William Marsciall, and others, for to make his part the stronger and the Earl's part the feebler." (Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts - The Book of Howth, p. 62), edited by John Sherren Brewer, William Bullen (Longmans, Green, Reader, & Dyer, 1871).While this appears to be a speculation penned 400 years after the event, far be it for me to say Lord Howth was in error. With thanks to Alan Ryan who adds that 'it makes a lot of sense for Henry to bring his best knight to Ireland.' However, Elizabeth Chadwick observes that, given William's commitments to Henry the Young King, his presence in Ireland was unlikely. In June 2017 she advised me: "The only time William could have come to Ireland was in February 1172 and as a messenger from the Young King whom he was serving, perhaps returning with Henry to join the Young King at Portsmouth. But there would need to be good reason for the Young King to send William to his father or for Henry to summon him. At this stage, William was still a whippersnapper in his 20's and while a man of local good standing and on the make, hardly someone to create waves internationally or be of big importance. The manuscript says that he had William Marshal with him BEFORE the Lent ships arrived, which can't be true because we know he was with the Young King at that point." Elizabeth suggests we "treat this information as highly suspect and caused by very possible confusion on the historical timeline - and find the primary source before giving it any sort of credence." For more, see 'Henry the Young King 1155-1183' by Matthew Strickland (prof of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow), published by Yale University Press in 2016.

(2) Strongbow descended from the Carolingian Line, tracing its roots back to Charlemagne. By marrying his daughter, William Marshal thus ensured his heirs were also descended from the Carolingian Line. A family tree showing William Marshal's descendents can be found here. Conor Kostick suggests that Strongbow’s invasion force in August 1170 comprised 1500 troops, including 200 heavily-armed cavalry, and that they were joined in Ireland by a smaller army under Raymond Le Gros ...

NB: One of the most realistic looking medieval scraps I’ve seen occurs in John Boorman’s disastrously unsuccessful film “Excalibur”, filmed in the Wicklow Mountains around Glendalough. A bunch of knights attack each other. The fight is played out in real time and it’s an incredibly slow process. They bash one another repeatedly about the head and ribs and legs with giant mallets. They hack and hack and hack away at gaps in one another’s sumptuous suits of heavy duty armour until they finally strike it lucky and white-splintered blood starts to gush through the chainmail. It’s not all quick shots and MTV style collages. It’s a tick tock tick tock new situation every second sort of scrap in which one of you is genuinely going to be dead at the end of the scene. (Incidentally, I thought Excalibur was a perfectly good movie and a darn sight more intelligent than “First Knight”. The only trouble is that King Arthur has been kidnapped by Monty Python. I cannot watch the Knights of the Round Table and take them seriously. I am consistently waiting for Sir Lancelot to whip off his helmet and turn into Eric Idle shouting out “Bugger Off!”.

With thanks to Tee MacNeill (William Marshal Tours), Elizabeth Chadwick (novelist supremus) and Alan Ryan (master gardener, at Colclough Walled Garden).

Further Reading

'The Greatest Knight’ (2005) by Elizabeth Chadwick.
'The Scarlet Lion' (2006) by Elizabeth Chadwick.
‘William Marshal and Ireland’ by John Bradley, Cóilin Ó Drisceoil & Michael Potterton, editors.
'Strongbow - The Norman Invasion of Ireland' by Conor Kostick.
'The Norman Invasion of Ireland' by Richard Roche.
'War, Politics & the Irish of Leinster' by Emmet O'Byrne.
'Henry the Young King 1155-1183' by Matthew Strickland


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