John Marshal: The biography
‘Qui de si mais voldreit oir
Del bon Mareschel, de Johan’
‘To you who would hear more
of the worthy John Marshal.’
(Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, lines 120-121)
The great William Marshal had an equally great father, but his reputation does not have the burnish of his son’s. Indeed, John’s reputation has somewhat suffered at the hands of modern mindset in my opinion and from misunderstood motives. John Marshal had his flaws, he was no ‘perfect, gentle, knight,’ but neither was he a callous, treacherous robber baron, indifferent to his small son’s life. Professor David Crouch, senior authority on the Marshals in the academic community says of him. ‘John Marshal was a formidable model for his son: astute, physically powerful, an easy companion in the royal chambers, and a cool warrior in the field…he was no coarse bandit and played the great game of politics with talent and perception…John Marshal was ‘a definitive man of standing in his son’s eyes.’
John Marshal was probably born in the South West of England (most likely Wiltshire or
Gilbert the Marshal had estates provided for him to live off whilst he performed his duties at court. These included Tidworth in Wiltshire and Nettlecome in
The Marshal family were of the minor nobility but ambitious. They were middle ranking royal civil servants on the make. A Marshal’s duties were numerous, and since John followed his father into the position, he must have grown up learning the ropes. The word ‘Marshal’ comes from ‘Marescallus’ meaning ‘Horse slave’ and at one time they had been stable hands under the control of the Constable’s department. Although the office rose from these humble beginnings, the marshal’s work was much concerned with horses and transport and keeping order. The Marshals had their own department at court and there were several of them, although with a ‘Master Marshal’ in charge of all. This was a somewhat fluid position when John was growing up and there was a certain amount of jockeying for position within the ranks.
The Marshal’s duties included seeing that the stables were properly run and supplied and providing harness and mounts for those in need of them. The job also involved dealing with the kennels and the mews. It was the marshal’s task to provide carts for transport when the court was on the move. He had to find lodging for the household and keep order at the court. As a symbol of the latter office, he carried the Marshal’s Rod. He had to ensure that the ‘verge’ was observed. A verge was a personal space between the king and any supplicant. Take a step too far and the Marshal’s rod would make sure you knew you had transgressed! The Marshal was in charge of the ushers who saw to it that only desireables got in to see the king. They were the club bouncers of their day so to speak – and I am sure sometimes not above taking bribes. Another aspect of the job was dealing with the 'ladies of the night' who serviced the court. The Marshal had to keep the working girls in line and regulate their activities. There were fines for unruly behaviour, and one suspects that this is another area where backhanders and insider dealing went on.
The Marshal also had to sit at the exchequer. It was his task to take responsibility for anyone who couldn’t pay their debts there, and his department maintained the debtor’s prison. Being in there would cost a sheriff or a bailiff half a mark for every night they were in custody. On top of this he kept the tallies of all the wages owed to the King’s troops when in the field and saw that they were paid, for which he was entitled to a portion of that wage bill. Perks of the job included being entitled to every black and white horse taken on a battle campaign.
Each time a noble’s son was knighted at court, the marshal was entitled to a payment of a palfrey or a saddle. His daily wage was two shillings a day and he was entitled to bread, wine and candles whilst working at court. There were also ‘backhander’ perks from barons higher up the food chain who thought that a bit of glad-handing in the form of grants of land was useful in order to keep the king’s marshal sweet.
When John was in his mid twenties, he and his father had to fight for their right to be the Master Marshals of the court. Two of the other Marshals, Robert de Venoix and William de Hastings were claiming the post but John and his father were successful in their petition, which probably the form of a trial by combat. (Sidney Painter. William Marshal. Knight errant, Regent and Baron of England).John’s father died around 1129 or 1130 and John inherited his position at court, although he had to pay forty marks for the privilege. This included the office of ‘avener’ or provider of provender. To inherit his lands, he had to pay the death duty of £22 13s and 4d. Some time over the next few years, he married an heiress of modest worth with lands adjoining his own Wiltshire and
She bore John two sons – Walter and Gilbert. In 1135 King Henry died and the country was thrown into turmoil as two claimants jostled for the crown – Henry’s daughter Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen. Initially, John swore fealty to Stephen and was granted the castles of Ludgershall and town and
Ruins of Ludgershall Castle
Sheep on the Marlborough Downs near
Rockley, a manor that John Marshal
gave to the Templars.
In 1139, the Empress came to
Unfortunately for John, the Empress’s attempt to regain the throne was not plain sailing and to cut a long story short, she lost her advantage and while besieging the Bishop of Winchester at his
The River Teste at Wherwell Today
He fought for as long as he could, but with D’Ypres’ numbers too great to withstand, he retreated into the nunnery and barricaded himself in. D’Ypres knew he couldn’t leave a man like John Marshal to create mayhem in his rear, so he ordered the nunnery to be burned along with the men inside it. There was chaos. Some of the troops fled the burning church only to meet their end on the edges of the mercenary’s swords. John barricaded himself in the tower with another knight and refused to come out. When his companion feared for their lives and wanted to surrender, John told him that he would kill him with his own hands if he mentioned that word again. They stayed put, but John paid the price when molten lead from the church roof landed on his face and burned out his eye. Once D’Ypres’ force had moved on, John staggered from the church with his companion, and the two of them made their way to safety. This must have been something of a feat because that safety was twenty five miles away at
Houses in Wherwell village today
John’s most powerful neighbour in the region was Walter of Salisbury, hereditary sheriff of
John and Sybilla swiftly began a second family. It’s perhaps telling that he only had two sons by his first wife in the course of fifteen years and six (and perhaps seven) offspring with Sybilla over the same period. The first was born within a year of the marriage and christened John for his father. The second, destined for fame and legend was William, born in either 1146 or 1147. We know for certain there were two daughters, Sybilla and Marguerite, and two more sons, Ancel and Henry. Henry went on to become bishop of
The fighting continued and the Empress’s position grew more desperate as her adherents either gave up or died. She lost her stalwart supporter Miles of Gloucester when he was accidentally shot by one of his own men whilst out hunting. Her half-brother Robert of Gloucester died, and her stalwart supporter Brian FitzCount retired to a monastery. The Empress herself departed
For John Marshal the period covered by the late 1140’s up to 1153 was a continuing dark time when he was involved in a war of slow grinding attrition. His lands were burned and ravaged by Eustace, the son of King Stephen and the best that John could manage was to grit his teeth and endure – which he did. He was known as a man of great cunning, a builder of castles ‘designed with wondrous skill’ and a man well able to attract men to his banner. Although a generous benefactor to the Church, he was still vilified by certain bishops and clergy. He was excommunicated for raiding church lands and forcing the church to answer in his secular court. He also made the church’s tenants build his castles for him, which did not go down well. ‘He built castles designed with wondrous skill, in the places that best suited him; the lands and possessions of the churches he brought under his own lordship, driving out the owners whatever order they might belong to.’ (Gesta Stephani). John seems to have taken the excommunication stoically and to have treated it as a hazard of the job so to speak.
John’s relationship with the Church was not all bad-feeling and acrimony. He was in fact a generous patron. He donated his house and lands in
3D map of Winchester. The tiny black arrow
on the left indicates the site of John
Marshal's house that he gave to Troarn
Abbey. Click to enlarge
Since that article was written, some archaeological dowsing work has taken place at the site and bears out the above details so far. Also it turns out that the Bishop of Salisbury had a residence on this site in the 12thC. This ties in with the Gesta Stephani’s comment above ‘He built castles designed with wondrous skill, in the places that best suited him; the lands and possessions of the churches he brought under his own lordship, driving out the owners whatever order they might belong to.’
There's also this article on my blog. http://livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com/2009/03/return-of-castles-in-ether.html
Be that as it may, John fortified a position in the Newbury area and held it for the Empress. In the summer of 1152 King Stephen besieged it on his way to try and take
With the time he had been given, John set about stuffing his keep to the rafters with men and supplies. Why did he do this when he could have yielded? I suspect it was because he was buying time for
Stephen duly came on the appointed day to demand the surrender of the castle and John refused him and told him he would fight. When threatened with the execution of little William by hanging, John uttered those by now infamous words. ‘Il dist ken e li chaleit de l’enfant, quer encore aveit les enclumes e les marteals dunt forgereit de plus beals.’ ‘He said that he did not care about the child, since he still had the anvils and hammers to produce even finer ones.’
Callous father? Cool brinkman gambling with his son’s life? A man caught between a rock and a hard place and doing what he must to safeguard others? I leave that for readers of A Place Beyond Courage to decide. I will say that there is far more going on under the surface than a cursory glance informs and that it is vital for anyone studying this incident to read it through the lens of medieval mindset. It’s not what’s on top that matters here, but what’s underneath. Stephen could not bring himself to hang the boy, although for a time William was the plaything victim of the royal camp as he was also threatened with being flung from a catapult and squashed whilst strapped to a hurdle intended to attack the castle gate. This is often not mentioned in the various secondary source narratives concerning the incident. From what I have garnered elsewhere, young squires and captive sons were frequently subjected to such torments – rather like the traditional ‘punishment details’ for youths at public school.
Stephen took William into his household and John Marshal’s son seems to have settled well in his new life. He was happy and confident enough despite his ordeal to want to play a game with King Stephen, involving jousting with plaintain leaves. One wonders how such a chirpy, confident, secure little boy could have been born of such supposed parental indifference. A servant was sent to keep an eye on William, ‘because his family had great fears that he would come to harm’ (Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal) but was caught in the act and chased away.
John’s castle at Newbury eventually fell to Stephen, but John had managed to buy that extra time for
Stephen died in 1154 and Henry FitzEmpress, at the age of twenty one, became King of England. Life slowly settled down. It is likely that John’s final son Henry was born at this time and named for the new power in the country. Henry set about restoring order. All adulterine castles were to be destroyed, and I suspect this is what happened to Newbury. Henry also took several castles back into his own power, including
John died in 1165, around the age of 60, which is as much as we know about his demise, although it may be telling that he made a grant to Bradenstoke Priory of half of the
John was buried at Bradenstoke Priory, the foundation of his marital relatives the Earls of Salisbury. His tomb and Sybilla’s have now been lost, but their bones still rest somewhere beneath the grass and tumbled stones of the ruins.
I can say without a doubt and from personal experience, that their spirits live on and John’s is a particularly vibrant one!