Post-classical history

The Five Sons of the Good Knight

WILLIAM THE MARSHAL left five sons, the first, named after his father, succeeding to the earldoms of Pembroke and Striguil and the hereditary post of marshal of England. At no other period of English history has one family possessed as much power and wealth as the Marshals at this juncture. In addition to their enormous estates in England and Wales, they owned all the possessions in Ireland which Strongbow had accumulated, nearly all of Leinster, and, by virtue of a rather extraordinary arrangement made with Philip Augustus when he was King of France, they retained their Norman estates at Longueville, Orbec, and elsewhere.

There was an equal number of daughters, Matilda, Isabella, Sibilla, Eva, and Joanna, handsome and high-spirited girls who had married representatives of other powerful families, Bigod, Warenne, Clare, Derby, Braose, Warin, Valence. Isabella, the second of the five daughters, who was the real beauty of the family, was first married to Gilbert de Clare and brought six children into the world. On her husband’s death in 1230 she was still so beautiful that the King’s brother, Richard of Cornwall, who had been looking for a wife among the princesses of Europe, gave up the quest and elected instead to take the young widow as his bride. They seem to have been quite happy and had four children before Isabella died at a relatively early age. Matilda, the eldest daughter, had married Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, and it was through this connection that the post of marshal of England came finally into the Howard family. The alliances thus created added immeasurably to the power of the Marshals as a family.

Henry was King of England, but it is certain that he was a poor man compared to the head of the Marshals, who lived in semi-royal state. While the first son lived they never used their power to oppose the King, but it was recognized that potentially they were strong enough to dictate to the Crown if the need should arise.

Before telling of the part the five sons took in the affairs of England, particularly in forcing Henry to abandon the Poitevins, there is a story about them which should be related because of its bearing on what was to follow.

It goes back to a quarrel in Ireland between the Good Knight himself and the Bishop of Ferns over two manors which each of them claimed. Old William had no doubt in his mind at all that the land belonged to him because he had taken it in the civil wars, and he retained possession without paying any heed to the shrill claims of the churchman who resorted to every legal means without success and finally proclaimed a ban of excommunication on him. No one seems to have been concerned over what had happened, least of all the Good Knight himself. When the marshal died, however, King Henry began to worry about the state of his soul. Would the ban issued at Ferns keep him in purgatory until some means could be found to have it lifted? Some years later, the bishop being still alive, the young King summoned him to London. Together they walked into the Round Church, where the tomb of the great warrior stood against the wall.

The bishop was a choleric man, and his sense of wrong flared up as soon as he stood in the presence of his former enemy, even though the body of the marshal had been moldering into dust for years. Without waiting for royal prompting as to what was expected of him, he stepped forward and shook an admonitory finger at the stone coffin.

“Oh, William,” he said, speaking as man to man, perhaps in the hope that some response or sign might be elicited from the tomb. “Oh, William, who are here entombed and bound by the bonds of excommunication, if those possessions of which you have wrongly despoiled my church are restored with adequate compensation—by the King, or by your heirs, or by any of your family—then I absolve you.”

A moment of silence followed in the small circular space of the church. Then the indignation of years mounted still higher in the mind of the old bishop. He took a step forward, his face mottled with the intensity of his feelings, his outstretched hand trembling.

“But if not,” he cried, “I confirm the sentence that, involved in your sin, you shall remain in hell forever!”

Henry was dismayed beyond measure. He was afraid that, in his desire to do something for the grand old man who had secured for him the crown of England, he had made things worse. With the shrill voice of the bishop ringing in his ears, he hurriedly summoned the eldest son of the family, who was now Earl of Pembroke and marshal of England, and told him what had occurred. Would it not be a sensible thing, he hinted, for the family to give up the two manor houses in question?

William the son was not at all disturbed. He declared that, in the first place, the lands had belonged to his father, that they had been fairly won in time of war, and that his father had died legally seized of them. It is not recorded that he used the most important point, which must have been, however, in all their minds, that the papal legate had offered his father remission of all his sins if he would assume the burden of the kingdom after John died, that the old marshal had done so and had driven the French out of England, thereby assuring to Henry the possession of the throne. This promise had come directly from the Pope at Rome and would override any earlier ban pronounced by a bishop.

At any rate, the young marshal declared that he had no intention of being intimidated into relinquishing the land.

When the bishop heard what had been decided he fell into a state of such sustained anger that he hurried to demand an audience of the King. “What I have said, I have said!” he cried. He went on then to prophesy the end of the family. “In one generation the name shall be destroyed. The sons shall be without share in that benediction of the Lord, ‘Increase and multiply.’ Some will die a lamentable death and their inheritance will be scattered. All this, my lord King, you will see in your lifetime.”

Having thus said his last word on the subject, the old bishop returned to Ferns.


William, the oldest of the five brothers, remained head of the family for twelve years, fighting in all the wars with such stoutness that he was considered a worthy successor to his great father. He resembled the Good Knight closely, being tall and magnificently put together and having a handsome head of light brown hair. He became Chief Justiciar of Ireland and crushed all opposition there with thoroughness. He also succeeded in giving Llewelyn a drubbing when that ever-aggressive chief of the Cymry elected to invade the Marshal domain in Wales.

King Henry was very fond of William the second and offered his youngest sister, Princess Eleanor, to him in marriage. Mention has already been made of Eleanor, when as an infant of one year she had been at Corfe Castle with the Pearl of Brittany as well as her own brothers and sisters. She was now about seven years old and a very pretty girl, more attractive even than her oldest sister Joanna, who was Queen of Scotland and noted for her beauty and her wonderful disposition. Eleanor would never be noted for her disposition. She was a young lady with a mind of her own and a foot to stamp when things did not suit her. It was already evident that she would grow up into a woman of individuality and character as well as beauty.

The King’s offer created immediate opposition. The members of the Council wanted to find a royal husband for the little princess. As a matter of principle also they were against allowing any more commoners to take wives of royal blood. William himself did not think well of the idea; he would have to wait too long for his wife to grow up. Henry persisted, and so in due course the match was arranged. When Eleanor was ten years of age the ceremony was performed, but it was not until five years later, at which time William was in his middle forties, that the marriage was consummated.

It will be recalled that the first William had married the heiress of Pembroke when he was about the same age and she was in her teens. That had been a most successful marriage, and there was every reason to believe that the union of their son with the princess would have turned out equally well. Eleanor was deeply in love with the tall and handsome marshal. She had fulfilled her early promise and was now a very great beauty indeed. During the brief term of married life which fate allowed them she went everywhere with him, riding by his side when he hunted, sitting with him when he transacted business. She would have gone with him to the wars in France (Henry’s farcical effort to regain his lost territory occurring at this time) if that had been allowed.

William died with tragic suddenness at the end of one year of complete happiness with his high-spirited bride. He had returned from France and had seen his sister Isabella married to Richard of Cornwall, his great friend, and had seemed in good health. Three days later he was dead. History records nothing of his death except the abruptness of it, and it can only be assumed, therefore, that some inner disorder was the cause. His bride of sixteen was so overcome with grief that she was sure everything worth while in life had come to an end. She took an oath never to wed again (a dramatic manifestation of the intensity of her grief which would cause much trouble later) and contemplated entering a nunnery for the rest of her life.

Henry was stricken with grief also and seemed to think the death of his stanch lieutenant another proof of the punishment exacted from the Plantagenets for the death of Thomas à Becket. At any rate, on hearing of the fatality, he exclaimed, “Alas! Is not the blood of the blessed Thomas the Martyr yet avenged!”


Richard, the second of the five sons, had been abroad for eleven years, administering the family estates in Normandy. In the expectation that his life would be spent there, he had married Gervase, a daughter of Alan le Dinant. On William’s death he returned to England and took over the estates and offices of the family.

There had been little of his famous father in Richard as a boy. He lacked the towering height and the great strength of the head of the family, being inclined to the sickly side. By sheer determination, however, he had overcome his frailty and had acquired enough soldierly reputation to have been offered the post of marshal of France. He had in full measure the shrewdness and the stanch spirit of the old marshal and in addition a clarity of vision all his own. This young knight, in fact, about whom history has little to say because he died so soon after taking office, was cut to the measure of greatness. Had he lived he might have saved England many years of bitter strife.

Peter des Roches realized that the Marshal family, with this resolute second son at the head of it, might become too powerful for him to cope with, and characteristically he decided to take the offensive. Richard had no sooner been confirmed in his offices and estates than the power behind the throne attacked. A court official named William de Rodune, who acted as representative of the Marshals, was dismissed and a Poitevin put in his place. Richard, surprised and infuriated, responded in kind, demanding of the King that he get rid of his foreign advisers. The issue was joined.

Peter des Roches struck again immediately, sending royal troops on some flimsy pretext to seize the lands of two supporters of the Marshals, Gilbert Basset and Richard Siward (the two knights who later effected the escape of Hubert de Burgh), and, for added measure, turning the confiscated estates over to his own son, Peter des Rivaux, into whose insatiable maw everything worth while was being gathered. At the same time messengers that Richard had sent to Normandy were held up and searched, on the supposition that they might be carrying treasonable instructions.

The Good Knight had always acted on a deep sense of loyalty to the King he served. He had ridden to Runnymede with John, even though he knew that the cause of the barons was a just one, and it is doubtful if any circumstances could have brought him to the point of drawing sword against his anointed sovereign. His son Richard, seeing things in clearer focus, had no such scruples. He realized that Henry had become the servant of the Winchester party and that, for the good of the realm, action would have to be taken. Although making no secret of his readiness to intervene by force of arms if necessary, he proposed, nevertheless, that strife be averted by a conference, and he was on his way to meet the King’s representatives when a messenger stopped him at Woodstock. His sister Isabella, married to Richard of Cornwall and in a position to know what was going on at court, had sent him warning not to attend. The King, who was completely a tool of Peter des Roches, summoned the young marshal to attend another conference to be held some months later. When Richard did not appear he was proclaimed a traitor, his offices were taken from him, and it was announced that his possessions were forfeit.

Without further delay the head of the Marshal family drew the sword and set up his standard against the King. From his castle at Chepstow the young marshal saw the West blaze into rebellion behind him. Llewelyn the Great lost no time in throwing in his lot with the rebels. His wife Joanna had been detected in an infidelity with an English nobleman, and Llewelyn had caught the paramour and hanged him publicly. He had been champing for a chance to avenge himself on the royal family and he emerged from his fastnesses with a strong force, going into action at once. In the fighting which ensued the King’s forces had all the worst of it, being routed at Grosmont and Monmouth.

Henry, lacking the steel to fight on in the face of defeat, came to terms at this stage and agreed to get rid of his foreign advisers. Richard of Pembroke was to be received back into favor, and all his possessions and honors were to be restored.

Believing the King’s word, Richard hurried over to Ireland, where his enemies, the Lacys, had taken advantage of his involvement at home to seize some of his castles. The Lacys proposed a truce, but when the young earl rode out to the Curragh of Kildare to discuss terms he was set upon by a large force of armed men. In the fighting which ensued he was badly wounded and died later in the castle of Kilkenny, to which he had been carried. It was said that the surgeon who attended him brought about his death by unskilled cauterization of his wounds.

Thus died the man who would inevitably have commanded the forces of liberty and who might perhaps have held Henry to recognition of the responsibilities of his high office. He left no children.


Henry did not like the younger Marshals, but the reason was probably not a personal one. They were an obstacle to his enjoyment of the fattest source of revenue in the kingdom. When a man of large possessions died without a male heir his estates passed to the courts of chancery and the King was in a position to benefit hugely. Twice the holders of the enormous Marshal estates had died without issue, and each time there had been a cadet to step up and claim the inheritance. It is not improbable that Henry thought often of the Bishop of Ferns raising his angry forefinger and shrilling his prediction that all the Marshals would die without heirs. Why did they not get along about the business?

After the sensational murder of the able and resolute Earl Richard, the third son, Gilbert, was confirmed as head of the family. It was done in a grumbling spirit, and the lack of cordiality was so evident that the new marshal considered appealing to the Pope. The ill will of the King reached a head on the following Christmas, which the court spent at Winchester. Henry usually went to Winchester because it was a wealthy see and willing to pay all the holiday expenses. The nobility of the land flocked after him and found accommodation in the many monasteries and castles which clustered about the ancient capital and in the taverns of the town.

Earl Gilbert came there with the rest and presented himself on the holiday morning. The whole court was beginning to hum and shine with Christmas hilarity, for Henry loved Christmas, loved to celebrate it as a day of high jollity with, of course, religious undertones.

The Christmas matins had been sung just before dawn with all the proper ceremonial. The bishop himself, wearing his dalmatic, had chanted St. Matthew’s Genealogy, after being escorted by the acolytes to the rood loft, where candlesticks were elevated above him. It had been a solemn occasion. The King had spent it on his knees, thrilling to the deep gloom of the edifice, the drone of the bishop’s voice, and then the rich chorus of the monkish voices in the Te Deum which followed. He loved ritual. It uplifted him, made him feel more than an earthly king, gave him, perhaps, a sense of participation in heavenly rule.

Now the festivities of the day were starting and everything would be done with the refinement and magnificence which the Normans had introduced into such celebrations. The yule log had been dragged in already while gleemen sang the popular carol of the day,To English Ale and Gascon Wine, the refrain of which ran:

May joys flow from God above,
To all those whom Christmas love.

The wassail bowls were ready with the fragrant hot spiced ale and the roasted apples. The meats were making on the spits, pig and boar and goose, and the kitchens were still busy preparing such holiday delicacies as dilligrout and karum pie.

There was no hint of seasonal good cheer, however, about the reception which Earl Gilbert was tendered. Court officials demanded his name (the best-known name in the kingdom) and then refused him admission. Gilbert persisted but was told with curt finality that his presence was not desired. He returned to his own quarters and dispatched a note to the King, complaining bitterly of what had happened.

King Henry received the message in the midst of the festivities. Gleemen were singing in the galleries and everyone was sprawling happily in the warmth of the great fires. “Each must drain his cup of wine, and I the first will toss off mine,” someone had sung as the King waited for the French mystery play to begin.

Henry had now reached his thirties and had become a little stout and florid. He had been letting a habit grow on him of loose talking. With or without provocation his high-pitched voice would suddenly be raised in comment which was as twisted and baseless as it was ill-natured. On this cheerful Christmas Day, with the flames warming his well-turned thighs stretched out before the fire, he lapsed into a most indiscreet mood when the message reached his hand.

“How is it,” he demanded, “that Earl Gilbert turns his heels threateningly upon me?”

Earl Gilbert had turned his heels only when no other course was open to him, but this royal habit of twisting facts was quite familiar to all about the King. Henry had lost his Christmas joviality. He frowned into his cup of wine and continued to talk of the faults of the Marshal family. Finally he turned his attention to the previous incumbent and declared in a bitter voice that Earl Richard had been a “bloody traitor.”

When this was reported to Gilbert he left Winchester in a white fury, and there was never any love lost between the two men thereafter. The King persecuted his marshal, finding fault with him and threatening to dispossess him. He made the occasion of Gilbert’s death a reason for attacking his memory and assailing the rest of the family.

For Gilbert died, and without issue, after a very few years of directing the fortunes of the Marshals. He had been sickly as a boy and on that account had been intended for the Church. All through his life he seemed to feel the need of proving that he had become strong and hard and a true son of his great father; and it was this which led to his early death. Although Henry had forbidden tournaments on the ground that he did not want his subjects killing each other in sport, Gilbert attended one at Ware and in a spirit of bravado appeared in the lists on an Italian horse which no other man had dared mount. The charger threw him and, his foot catching in the stirrup, he was dragged for some distance. He died from the injuries.


Henry went into a tantrum when the fourth son, Walter, came forward to claim the inheritance on Gilbert’s death. He refused to confirm him in the earldom and the hereditary post of marshal, indulging in a tirade which began with the conduct of the Good Knight himself. This was something new. The King had lashed out at all the sons often but had spared hitherto the memory of the man who had put him on the throne.

“Your father William,” he charged, “was tainted with treason. He saved Louis from being taken when in England.” This was a reference to the moderate terms which the old marshal had given the defeated French prince in order to bring the civil war to a close. There had been some criticism then, and the thought had been festering in the King’s mind. Now, for the first time, it had been put into words, a proof of the brevity of the royal memory and Henry’s small capacity for gratitude.

“Your brother Richard,” went on the King, “was taken prisoner and slain in arms against me.” Gilbert, he went on, had been killed in an act of disobedience. He, Walter, the claimant, had been at the tournament when his brother had died and was therefore equally guilty. This was the only fault which could be found in Walter’s record, but the King made the most of it, asserting loudly his decision to withhold all honors from him.

It took a year for the royal displeasure to cool, but finally Walter was allowed to succeed. He went to Gascony with the King the following year but had no opportunity to display his mettle. He married Margery, the widow of John de Lacey, Earl of Lincoln, on his return, but the union remained unblessed by children. Three years later he followed his three older brothers into the grave, dying suddenly at Goodrich Castle on March 24, 1245.

There was still one son left, Anselm. One month after Walter’s demise, before anything had been done about his investiture as head of the family, he also died and was buried beside Walter at Tintern. He had been married to Maud, a daughter of the Earl of Hereford. It is perhaps superfluous to state that they had no children.

That five brothers had thus died in a space of fourteen years and that none of them had left any children could easily have been coincidental, but no one in that age believed it anything but the result of the curse pronounced by the Bishop of Ferns. The choleric old man had been in his own grave for years, but he least of all would have doubted that his prophecy had exacted this bitter toll for the two manor houses and the few hides of land around them which William the Marshal had seized. This much was fact: The possessions of the family were broken up among the daughters, or rather among their husbands; the hereditary post of marshal was vested in the husband of the oldest daughter, and from their children descended in time to the family of Howard; the name Marshal no longer existed among the great families of England.


It was neither strange nor unusual for men to die at an age which later would constitute the prime of life. Despite remarkable advances in several important aspects which will be noted later, the practice of medicine in the thirteenth century was still shrouded in medieval mumbo-jumbo. What little was known of disease was a heritage from the early Greek and Arabian teachers, and even these sources had become suspect. The works of Aristotle were forbidden at a synod held in Paris in the year 1210, under the same great pope, Innocent III, who had done so much to encourage the building of good hospitals, and it was not until 1231 that Gregory IX passed a decree permitting them to be used again in the universities of Europe. Even after that the biological works of Aristotle were seldom consulted. There had been one great shining light in the prevailing darkness, the medical school at Salerno, and near the close of the twelfth century a German army under Henry VI sacked it, taking away the teachers as prisoners and selling their wives and daughters at auction. Salerno never recovered from this blow, and though other schools rose to prominence at Montpellier in France, and at Naples and Palermo, they seemed unable to attain the stature or to match the fine spirit of Salerno.

Matthew Paris is authority for the statement that in his day there were only five reputable doctors in London and six in Paris. It may be taken for granted that the handful of men thus distinguished had little learning to put them much above the practitioners of quackery.

The thirteenth century was still, therefore, a time when physicians believed that red curtains draped around a couch would cure smallpox (the first glimmer of belief in the value of dyes); that men could cure heart palpitations by carrying a piece of coral in the mouth; that some medicines were useful only if boiled in the skins of fat puppies; that the effect of medical brews was heightened if they could be imbibed from a church bell; that asses’ hoofs attached to the shank checked the effects of gout. Midwives, in difficult cases, would fold their arms and allow the mother to die, then remove the infant by the Caesarean method, hoping to find it still alive. Even Roger Bacon, that great and advanced leader, father of the scientific approach to knowledge, is found recommending prescriptions such as this: powdered pearls, rubies, sapphires, and amethysts, emerald dust and finely ground gold, mixed together in a gold pot, then exposed to the air for eight days (but covered when the moon came out!), and then administered in doses after eating. This was a general specific, but clearly a remedy which could be given the very rich only.

There was little capacity shown in the identification of diseases. Those believed to be infectious in the thirteenth century were the plague, certain fevers, smallpox, itch, erysipelas, and leprosy. The treatment in all such cases was isolation, the patient being left to settle the issue with nature. There was a deeply rooted impression, although the better men strove to eradicate it, that all other ailments came from God and that it was sacrilege to interfere.

It is easy to understand, therefore, why there is such a paucity of information about the nature of the disorders from which men died. It would usually be recorded as the ague, a quartan fever, or such. Almost invariably the dark whisper of poisoning would spread and loose accusations would be made at the expense of anyone who stood to benefit by the death. Hubert de Burgh, who undoubtedly had no knowledge whatever of the nature and use of poisons, was widely accused of a dozen deaths by that medium.

It was an age when many children were born and few survived; and that ten of the children born to the first Marshal and his wife lived to maturity is proof that it was sound stock. Bearing that in mind, it is still not strange that all the sons died at a relatively early age. It is much harder to account for their lack of progeny. Some of them married widows who had already brought children into the world, and it may be taken for granted that certain of them at least had illegitimate children.

The Bishop of Ferns had lived to a ripe old age, but not long enough to see the fulfillment of his prophecy.

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