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William Marshall

In: Historical Events

Submitted By birgitteb
Words 797
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Another "peacetime" occupation was the tourney. The tournaments of the twelfth century were not jousts, or formalized single combats. Rather, they were mock wars, in which two or more groups of mounted warriors fought each other for loot and glory. Tournaments differed from real battles in only two respects. First, there was usually a safe area near the tourney site. Second, the chief goal of the warriors was not to kill or injure their opponents, but to capture their equipment and ransom their persons.

Tournaments offered twelfth-century knights an opportunity to practice their warlike skills and to win or lose fame and treasure when no real wars were taking place. It was a very dangerous amusement, and it was thus most popular among the so-called "youths," young knights who had no yet settled down to raise families and run their own households.

William Marshal spent sixteen years tourneying, with occasional interruptions for war. The History dwells at length on this period of his life, and tells us much about the tourneys of the time.

William gained much profit from his tourney success. One of the first things he got was a patron. King Henry II, hearing of his chivalry, chose him to be the tutor of his eldest son, Henry the young king.

But there are spots on this record, too. When the young king was still alive, William supported him in his revolts against his father, Henry II. A more serious matter is his policy after the French took Normandy away from John. William got from John permission to swear fealty to the French king for his Norman estates; thus his lands were not confiscated as were most English fiefs in Normandy. But when later John launched an expedition against France, William refused to help in any way, because he was now the French king's vassal, too. This was the beginning of a long feud between John and the Marshal.

In later times some Englishmen, looking back on William's years as regent, found much to criticize. William, rather than destroying the French army that had been supporting the barons against John, negotiated an agreement that allowed them to withdraw. Some said this was because he did not want to endanger Prince Louis, the heir to the French throne and the leader of the army. Matthew Paris, in reporting this incident a generation later, said "William Marshal was ever after branded as a traitor."

I am inclined to side with the poet. William Marshal's claim to loyalty was not his patriotism, or his attachment to the English crown, but his personal fidelity to his immediate lord. He never broke his pledged word or was disloyal to his lord, even when King John, who distrusted him after the disagreement over Normandy, spent years trying to ruin William and the whole Marshal family.

At least, this is the version put forward by his friends.

The paradoxical opinions about William's loyalty have a simple resolution. William was loyal, but he also looked out for his own rights--and few of his ambitious, acquisitive peers would have faulted him for that.

It is worth pointing out what the History does not mention.

It is worth pointing out what the History does not mention.

There is no courtly love in the poem; there is one anecdote that shows William entertaining some ladies with his singing before a tourney, but there is not a trace of self-denying, idealistic or romantic love in his makeup. The respect he shows for his wife has a lot to do with the immense size of her inheritance, and her consequent political importance.

Likewise there is nothing particularly interesting about William's religious sentiments. William was a crusader at one point in his life, but, curiously, the poem says very little about it. Otherwise his religion consists of generous gifts to the church, and an association with the Knights Templar, in whose London church he was buried.

The audience of the History of William the Marshal was not interested in either love or religion, past a certain minimal point. They were far more concerned with William Marshal as an example of prowess, honor, and loyalty. The interest shown in these matters is quite sincere.

More important than the literal truth of the work is the impression the life of William Marshal made on his friends. They knew that knights, like other people, were imperfect creatures; everyone was afflicted with original sin. But William Marshal had made them believe that it was possible for a knight to live a long, successful life in accordance with the chivalric virtues -- their chivalric virtues, not necessarily ours.

William Marshal is important to us, as students of chivalry, because he was the man they would have liked to have been.…...

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