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27 March 1168. Fateful Day?

27th March 1168 must have been one of the darkest days of William Marshal's life. According to Eyton*, on this day William's uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury, was killed in an ambush in Poitou, whereas William himself received a bad wound in his thigh and was taken captive, with no prospects of winning his freedom. In the long run, however, that day's events turned out to be the most fortunate for him. He could not have forseen that he had just taken the first step on the road to his brilliant career.

   The effigy of William Marshal in Temple Church, London (photo: Kjetilbjørnsrud, via Wikipedia)

William's maternal uncle**, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, was Henry II's staunch supporter and one of few king's men of Anglo-Norman origin to hold post in the lands of Queen Eleanor. The king named him commander of his military forces in Aquitaine by 1163. In this he was given priority over Theobald Chabot, lord of Vouvent and the Poitevin constable of Aquitaine.

On that fateful day, Patrick, together with his twenty-one-year-old nephew and a small force, was escorting Queen Eleanor from castle to castle when they were surprised by the Lusignan brothers. Shortly before Henry II had quelled the rebellion of which the latter had been chief instigators and took the Castle of Lusignan. He went to confer with Louis VII leaving his queen and the earl in charge of the province. Geoffrey and Guy***, two of the brothers, ambushed the party, and whereas the queen managed to reach the safety of a nearby castle, the unarmed earl Patrick was struck from behind and died on the spot under his nephew’s eyes, the most shocking event by the 12th century standards. Thanks to The History of William Marshal we get the glimpse of the pandemonium that followed:
"When the Marshal saw the blow delivered that killed his uncle, he almost went out of his mind in his grief, because he was unable to reach in good time the man who had killed him; he would have gladly avenged his death. He did not wait until he was fully armed.With only his hauberk on, but otherwise unarmed, he launched himself into a violent attack. With the lance he held in his hand he went to engage the first of them and knocked him off his horse. He was bent on exacting violent revenge; never was a starving lion so savage towards its prey. No man did he meet in his path who did not suffer a painful and ignominious fate. He would have taken full revenge for the Earl’s death, but the other side overwhelmed him with their lances and killed his horse under him. And even when he had hit the ground, he did not hold back for a minute. There was no way that he could find to escape them. I believe that more than sixty of them attacked him all at once; they all wanted to overwhelm him and all strove to take him.” (You can find the whole story here)

Enraged William fought bravely, but after receiving wound into his thigh he was captured and held for ransom****. To William, being a landless knight, the situation must have seemed hopeless. Fortunately the Queen, having learned of his predicament, came to his aid. She paid the ransom and ‘to recompense him for his sufferings, gave him money, horses, arms, and rich vestments’ (Painter, p.27). Moreover she endowed an anniversary mass to be said annually "for the soul of Earl Patrick who died in our service” at the church of Saint-Hilaire, Poitiers, where William's uncle was laid to rest.

We can safely assume that the origins of William’s close relationship with the House of Plantagenet ( that was to last until his death in 1219) and his rise to power and fame lay in the aforementioned events. Shortly afterward, in 1170 , he was appointed tutor-in-arms to the newly crowned Henry the Young King.

* Eyton gives 27th March as the day, whereas Ralph Turner in his biography of Eleanor says the incident occured in late March or early April.

** William's father, John the Marshal, took Patrick's sister, Sybil, for his second wife.

*** Geoffrey joined the Young King's household on the occasion of the war of 1183, whereas Guy, who according to Roger of Howeden "slew” Patrick, was banished from Poitou by the "enraged” king Henry. He took the Cross and went to Jerusalem, where he remained in the service of King Baldwin IV [the Leper] only to become king of Jerusalem himself in 1186.

**** The author of the History says that William would have stood his ground and not have been seized, had it not been for the “outrageous act”: he was surprised from behind by a knight who jumped over the hedge [apparently William was fighting with a hedge behind his back] and pierced his thigh.


Court, Household and Itinerary of King Henry II by Robert William Eyton, 1878. Internet Archive.

The Annals of Roger de Hoveden  trans. by Henry T. Riley. Internet Archive of Northeastern University Libraries.

The History of William Marshal. Online resources.

William Marshal. Court Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147-1219 by David Crouch. Harlow, 1990.

William Marshal. Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England by Sidney Painter. Toronto, Buffalo, London, 1982.

The World of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Literature and Society in Southern France between the Eleventh and Thirteenth Centuries ed. by Marcus Bull and Catherine Leglu. The Boydell Press, 2005.

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Ralph V. Turner. Ne Haven and London, 2011.


  1. Fate, eh? Love this man.

    thanks Kasia,

  2. Thank you, Joan! To be honest, I do like to believe that we know the exact date of the event, although it's safer to state that it occured sometime in late March/early April :-)

  3. very topical for me - really enjoyed the documentary on William Marshal last night. Hope you get to see it soon.

    1. What about Henry the Young King? the director told me there's some nice stuff about him :-) Was he right?

  4. Another brilliant post, dear Kasia. Shared on my timeline, Sharon's page and on Elizabeth's page. :) Will share on the Review tomorrow.

    1. Thank you, dear Marsha! The Young King is really fortunate to have such loyal supporters :-)

  5. Kasia, well written. The word ambush comes to mind as to Marshall's downfall. Do not be shy about a true date. The well-notated Ralph Turner often shies from showing nerve when the facts are before him. Why would Turner say the ambush happens between Poitiers and Niort, when clearly multiple sources site a location near Lusignan? Of course, Marshall's own story is embellishes - a clash of lances and surrounded by 60?

    Now some detective work as to the true events. William, certainly the military governor Patrick would have spotted a ruckus of 60 half a mile off. Forewarned, then men would have been armed. The accounts say Patrick was ridding nonchalant without his hauberk, stashed in a trail horse. It makes no sense at all that Eleanor would be riding with her guard, unarmed near Lusignan if her husband had just raised that castle.

    A more likely account is Eleanor was on a mission of soliciting homage to settle a run of Aquitaine castles from Lusignan to Niort, (possibly to Benon and Saintes where her aunt lived as abbess.) Recall that only three months before, Eleanor sailed in 7 ships with her property, children and their tutors and knights to raise them at Poitiers. Henri installs her as the figurehead of governance. So, on this mission of homage, the Lusignan commit a total surprise attack, perhaps to ransom Eleanor. The amazing William Marshal is able to recover from the assault and let no man pass to take the queen. She could have easily taken the short gallop back to Poitiers. I doubt there was a "charge of lances," for the Lusignan were anything but chivalrous. Their forces were in the bushes, with a royal target already set. Also, Henri II dismantles Castle Lusignan AFTER the attack as a punishment from the sources I read. I think this was largely Amy Kelly's thesis. - mrb

    1. Thank you, Mark, for you comment and for paying a visit to our blog. Henry must be very happy to welcome every new reader. Of course, the History was written to highlit Marshal's courage, so it's pretty obvious that the author might have exaggerated at some points. You're absolutely right that it is impossible to overlook a party of 60 lurking in the bushes :-) (I can picture the scene in my mind's eye :-)) Not without reason Patrick was named military commander of Henry's forces in the region. He was a seasoned soldier (thanks to bygone struggles with William's father, among others :-)), hence the attack mysthave come as an utter surprise.

      As for a "true date", I'm not shy. I just want Henry's readers know what all MY available sources say. I understand that being a writer of historical fiction means making up certain decisions about the dates and sites (even if they remain uncertain). "It was in late March or early April, the year of our Lord 1168, when Eleanor accompanied by a small escort...." doesn't sound good, or does it? :-)

      As for "the amazing" William Marshal, who "let no man pass", I think you underestimate him. Someone who has just seen his uncle slain is able to perform such feats, for he's boiling with blind rage and does not think clearly :-)

      Still, thank you for all the observations and taking time to read my text :-)


  6. Well, Kasia, the Young king gets a mention - with reference to his betrayal of his father and how William did his best to be loyal to Henry II. There was also the scandal of William and the Queen.

    1. Thank you, Anerje! The director told me there's some "nice stuff" about him. Well...

  7. Kasia what a great post you have written really enjoyed it


  8. Goes to show, the worst day of your life could set you on the path for a great future! ;o)

    1. Exactly ;-) Thank you for dropping by, Cristina!

  9. William is one of my heroes along side Harold Godwinson, and I know he was very loyal to those he served.

    1. Indeed, Paula! William's loyalty never cease to amaze me. Of course, he was acting in self interest, too (who wasn't, after all), but for me, the most telling proof of his sincerity is the fact that he did fulfill Henry's crusading vow and took the Jerusalem road in his stead.

  10. Re Mark's post, I've always been sceptical of some of the recounting of that fateful day. With Queen Eleanor under their protection, everyone would have been armed to the teeth.

    Interesting to think about

  11. I do agree, Joan! Some of the recounting was to serve to highlight William's courage, but, on the other hand, what was Patrick occupied with if he let himself be killed from behind? I wonder whether he was on horseback or really get down to put on his armour. Interesting. I guess we can only speculate.


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