The English rode to battle gaily, as if to a tournament. The morning sunshine of the first Saturday after Pentecost shone on the white crosses stitched to their surcoats, for these men were Crusaders, newly shriven and assured of heaven if they fell in action. Before them lay the sprawling mass of Lincoln Castle, much battered by hostile siege engines, for the blockading army in the city beyond included French knights and engineers, the best in Europe. But where were the French, usually so forward in a tourney? Perhaps they had miscounted the strength of the approaching host, less than a thousand all told, misled by the spare shields and banners flying from the wagons that followed the fighting men.

Scouts rode to and fro, speaking with the castle’s loyal defenders, probing the ancient town walls for a way in. Crossbowmen infiltrated the castle’s outer gate, but that was too narrow a path for knights. The Earl of Chester’s vanguard veered off to the north gate, while the main body of the relieving army rode straight on towards the west wall. There the warlike Bishop of Winchester had found an undefended gate, carelessly walled up, too near the castle for the besiegers to watch closely. When the leading sergeants, professional men-at-arms serving for pay, dismounted to pull away the loose stones stacked against the timbers of the old West Gate, there were no hostile eyes to see them.

The attackers burst through so suddenly that their own leader had still to put on his helmet. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, ‘The Marshal’, was seventy years old but vigorous enough to have been chosen guardian of the realm and its boy king, Henry III. ‘Wait for me,’ he called out, ‘while I get my helm.’ William’s men did not stop, however. They pressed on into the city, killing the besiegers’ chief engineer as he placed a fresh stone in the sling of his machine. Not to be left behind, the Marshal spurred on his horse, carving a path three lances deep in the enemy ranks, driving all before him. Surging past the castle, the English turned right into the open space before the cathedral, to find a great mass of French and rebel English knights. One of the latter broke his lance upon William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, but the Marshal dealt him such a blow that he slid off his horse, and slunk away to hide. Crossbowmen appeared on the castle walls and roof tops, picking off the horses of the enemy knights below like so many slaughtered pigs. The Earl of Chester’s men, having smashed their way through another gate, threw their weight into the battle. Unhorsed riders were dragged away in chains. Sparks flew as swords clashed on swords, or glanced off helmets.

As the opposing knights recoiled, William seized the bridle of their commander, Thomas, Count de la Perche, ‘a man strenuous in arms and drawn from royal blood, who had not yet reached the age of thirty’ (Waverley Annals). Called on to surrender, he refused to do so, swearing great oaths. Provoked beyond endurance, Sir Reginald Croc, a valiant knight, lost patience and ran his sword point through the count’s helmet eye-holes. In a last spasm, Thomas smote the Marshal three double-handed blows over the head, denting his helmet, and fell down dead. This was an unexpected departure from the script: leading knights were rarely slain out of hand; William and the count were first cousins, and everyone grieved to see him killed.

The loss of their commander was a fatal blow for the besiegers, who retreated down the steep slope towards the River Witham. They rallied halfway, only to break again as the Marshal’s men emerged from between the castle and cathedral, and the Earl of Chester appeared on their right flank. The broken army fled south down the High Street to the Bargate, fortuitously blocked by a stray cow. Over 300 French and rebel knights were captured, though only three men of note were killed in the fighting. Two hundred panic-stricken knights escaped to London, seeing Marshals in every bush. The single most decisive battle of medieval English history, after Hastings, had been won at less cost in human life than many tournaments.


William Marshal’s helter-skelter victory at Lincoln on Saturday 20 May 1217 was the final exploit of one of the most remarkable men of an age filled with larger than life figures: Henry II, King of England, his consort Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons: Henry ‘The Young King’, Richard ‘Coeur de Lion’ and John ‘Softsword’. More dubious characters included John’s mercenary leader Fawkes of Bréauté, named from the scythe he allegedly used to kill his first man, or the French master pirate and necromancer Eustace the Monk, whose ability to make himself invisible did not save him from summary decapitation in the bowels of his flagship.

William began life during the so-called Anarchy of the mid-twelfth century, the penniless younger son of a Wiltshire landowner: a robber baron described by a local bishop as ‘a limb of hell and root of all evil’. William had to make his own way, combining a strong arm with a calculating eye and cool head. We know about his ascent from an epic poem: l’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, referred to below as the History. Composed soon after its subject’s death in 1219, this is the first surviving vernacular biography of medieval times to feature a non-royal layman. Written by a professional poet or trovère named John, probably from Touraine, its sources were recollections of the Marshal’s own tales of his early days, the eyewitness testimony of his intimate followers, and long lost documents. Together these make the History a unique record of the life of a knight errant and great feudal magnate.

Narrowly escaping death as a hostage when aged five, William was apprenticed to arms in Normandy, making his fortune on the international tournament circuit, where he earned a reputation as ‘the finest knight in the world’. Such praise from a French observer is remarkable: jousting was a French-dominated sport. England was considered a poor country for breeding knights. William’s career took off with his entry into royal service. He was wounded defending Queen Eleanor against Poitevin renegades, ransomed, and appointed military tutor to Henry II’s heir, known as the ‘Young King’, acting as his tournament manager. After the Young King’s premature death, William wore his Crusader’s cloak to the Holy Land. When the future Richard I rebelled in 1189, William was one of the few to stand by the ‘Old King’ to the bitter end.

Despite this, William became a key figure at Richard’s court, marrying the heiress to vast estates in Wales and Ireland, and acting as royal justiciar during the king’s absence on Crusade and as military adviser in the never-ending war with King Philip Augustus of France. On Richard’s death, William played a leading role in the accession of his brother John, being rewarded with the Earldom of Pembroke. His reputation and restraint helped him survive accusations of treachery following the loss of Normandy. Despite John’s enmity, William remained faithful throughout the disturbances that brought the unwilling king to make the unprecedented concessions enshrined in Magna Carta.

It was William’s fidelity, as well as his prowess and longevity, that persuaded the loyal barons of England to entrust him with the regency on John’s death. It was no common emergency. John had driven his barons beyond revolt, to the point of offering the crown to Louis the Dauphin, eldest son of Philip Augustus. By the spring of 1217, French and rebel troops held most of south-east England including London, Windsor, and Winchester. Dover and Lincoln were besieged. The crisis represented the gravest threat to England’s independence between the Norman Conquest and the Spanish Armada. Had Louis succeeded, England might have become a French province, much as Languedoc had done following the battle of Muret in 1213. Seizing his moment, however, William smashed the Dauphin’s northern army at Lincoln, jousting down streets too steep for modern traffic. Panic-stricken, Louis withdrew from Dover, and summoned reinforcements from France. Two months later these were intercepted at sea and destroyed, forcing Louis to withdraw. Never again would foreign invaders thrust so deep into English territory.


William’s victory was more than just a military success. He had already reissued Magna Carta, within a month of John’s death, undermining the rebels’ political platform. He confirmed it again after Lincoln, permanently subjecting the arbitrary power of the king to the rule of law. Without Magna Carta, parliamentary government and English common law would not have developed as they did. American and French revolutionaries of the eighteenth century would have had no constitutional example to inspire them. There might have been no Gettysburg Address or European Declaration of Human Rights. At the time of the battle, England’s rulers spoke French, as they had since 1066. A French victory at Lincoln might have delayed the emergence of a distinctive English cultural identity for another century. Without the patronage of an Anglophone nobility there might conceivably have been no Chaucer and, hence, no Shakespeare.

William’s charge at Lincoln elevates him from the status of an international sporting champion, or another self-seeking magnate, to that of saviour of his country. If his early career made him a super-star in his own time, its dramatic conclusion, with its long-term significance for England and the world, should make him a national hero today. William’s victories, however, are morally ambivalent. Like those of Oliver Cromwell, they occurred during a civil war between Englishmen, subverting traditional narratives of English history as a glorious pageant. Henry III was a peaceful king who preferred paintings to jousting. He came to resent and disparage the tournament champion who had preserved his throne. The Marshal clan fell into disfavour, and, lacking male heirs, historical oblivion.

Lincoln is a rare example of a medieval battle with long-lasting consequences. Most wars in the Middle Ages were won by raids and sieges. In the only major battle of his career, William showed a remarkable grasp of the military principles of mobility, concentration, and surprise, striking at Lincoln while the Dauphin’s forces were divided; gaining access to the city through an old gate the enemy had overlooked. Once inside, he successfully combined missile action by crossbowmen on roof tops with shock action in the streets below. Lincoln is more indicative of how English soldiers fought in the high Middle Ages than the ultimately pointless victories of the Hundred Years War which attract so much attention.

Existing studies of the Marshal pay insufficient attention to the military aspects of his life. Sidney Painter’s William Marshal: Knight Errant, Baron and Regent of England presents a romanticised view of the Marshal’s career: his chivalry was calculating and sometimes brutal. Georges Duby’s Guillaume le Marechal ou le meilleure chevalier du monde (translated as The Flower of Chivalry) treats the Marshal as a muscular simpleton. David Crouch’s William the Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry focusses on the political and administrative aspects of William’s career, treating battles and campaigns as incidental.

None of these makes use of the History’s extensive detail of real and sham fights to set William’s career in the military context of his day, or looks beyond the Marshal family narrative to evaluate his contribution to the interminable Anglo-French wars of the 1190s and 1200s. What were the relations of the ‘finest knight’ with those devious monarchs John and Philip Augustus? How did he resolve the contradiction between the individualism of the knight errant and the prudence demanded of the royal counsellor? The baronial class has often been depicted as consisting of obtuse reactionaries. The History’s lucky survival provides a unique opportunity to challenge this caricature. Previously available only in Middle French, or in a nineteenth-century précis, it has recently appeared in modern English verse with every scholarly facility. As Lincoln’s 800th anniversary approaches, the time seems right to reconsider the reputation of England’s forgotten champion.

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