The Select of the Select: The History of William Marshal on the Tournament at Lagny

On All Saints Day 1179 Henry the Young King and his younger brothers Richard and Geoffrey represented their father, Henry II at the coronation of the young Philippe Capet at Rheims. Young Henry carried Philippe’s crown in the procession and supprted his head during the ceremony. He bedazzled all the present with his spledid retinue and most precious gifts for the new king [Young Henry and Philippe were brothers-in-law], the latter ones on the behalf of his father. In an unusual fit of largesse the old king sent not only silver, gold and results of his hunting in England, but also provided for his son’s journey so that the younger Henry "accepted free quarters form on one, either on the road thither or during the festival”.

A great tournament followed, held on the border of Champagne, between Lagny-sur-Marne and Torcy, east of Paris, on the east bank of the river Marne (the major site for holding tournaments in the late twelfth century, today partly occupied by Disneyland Paris). Henry the Young King and his household knights distinguished themselves that day, alongside with his younger brother Geoffrey of Brittany. Although at some point the Young King found himself in quite a predicament and saved his face only thanks to the intervention of the two Williams, Marshal and de Preux. The author of The History of William Marshal described in vivid detail the major events of the day, which were given to him - as he claimed – by eye-witnesses, men who were present and participated.

According to my source, the tournament that now took place at Lagny-sur-Marne was the greatest ever seen before or since, and the Young King attended with a splendid company as you’re about to hear – I’m going to tell you and noone’s going to stop me! The count of Flanders came, too, bringing knights from Flanders, Hainault, the Low Countries and Germany: he’d sought to enlist every good knight as far as the heights of Mont-Joux! But the Young King had all his household at his side , and their reputation now was soaring. Hear now the names of those involved, which were given to me by eye-witnesses, men who were present, for knowledge so reliable should be given full respect.

I’ll name the French first – it’s only right to give them pride of place, on account of their rank and reputation and the high honour of their country. Let me describe the conduct and the qualities of those who bore banners [commanded their own companies of knights] – I’ll not skate over this…

[Here the author names the most valiant of French kinghts with the famous William des Barres at the head, his sons William and Simon, and Count Robert of Dreux ("from Orleans to Evreux there was none more valiant than he – no one came near; he was the equal of  them all together – and his valour had earned him a place at the Young King’s side”).

Then he proceeds with naming the greatest knights of Flanders with Baldwin de Bethune in the first place who served both the Young King and later Richard the Lionheart, and was William Marshal’s close friend.

The knights of England follow with William Marshal, Simon de Marisco and the Marshal’s younger brother, Ansel "a trusty, charming, loyal, worthy knight”. The list includes Earl David [David of Huntigdon] the younger brother of King William I of Scotland.

Of the Normans, the knights of interest are definitely the de Preux brothers: John de Preaux, „a bear of a man when receiving blows , and anyone who took him on received a few himself! He always showed what he was made of! A skilled fighter he was indeed: he rightly bore a banner”. And his younger btothers, Peter and Roger, William and Enguerrand – "there were no five finer brothers (or even as good) between Rouen and LeMans”. The brothers served first the Young King and after his untimely passing Richard I. William saved Richard from Muslim captivity in the Holy Land.

Then the author lists the knights of Anjou of whom Sir Goeffrey FitzHamo "deserves fond mention, as he was to all good men.”]

Of the Young King’s company competing with him at Lagny I’ve named four score knights of outstanding quality – the select of the select. Why should they be so called? Because the most discriminating had chosen them as the very best; that’s how it should be understood. But there were a great deal more than eighty altogether – seven times that numer, in fact, for I should explain that every banner-bearing knight in the Young King’s company was paid twenty shillings per day (both while travelling and whilem there at Lagny, form the moment they left their lands) for each knight he brought with him. It was a wonder where all the money came from! But God bestowed such wealth on the Young King and he dispensed it freely. And since there were fifteen bearing banners, I assure you there were well over two hundred, as I say, who were the Young King’s knghts and took their living from him.

But that’s not all: besides the Young King there were no fewer than nineteen counts at this tournament, not to mention the duke of Burgundy ; in short, it was reckoned there were more than three thousand knights at Lagny, in the company of either king or count.

But let’s move on! They armed, advanced and set about their business. There were s omany different banners unfurled that they couldn’t be distinguished well enough to describe them in any detail. The plain was seething, completely filled – there wasn’t an inch of empty ground. And then the two sides charged.

There was nothing restrained about the clash: the noise was defeaning! All were bent on landing mighty blows : what a shattering of lancesyou’d have heard, the stumps and shards so littering the ground thet the horses were stopped in their tracks. In the heaving throng thta filled the plain the companies bawled their battle cries. There were plenty to be learnt about fighting there. You’d have seen knights’ bridles being seized, other knights being rescued, horses running in all directions, pouring sweat. All were striving with might and main, seizing the chance to prove their prowess. There were fearsome clashes all over the field and many great feats of arms that day; it was a splendid tournament indeed, eeven before the king and count entered the fray [the king was Young Henry, the count – Geoffrey of Brittany].

But then you’d have seen the earth tremble as the king cried: 'This is getting tiresome! I’ll not wait a moment longer! Charge!'

And he thrust in his spurs; but the count cannily held back, not joining the fray till he saw the time was right – though then he charged at once. The king’s men surged forward so audaciously that they left the king behind, and with such ferocity that their opponents took to flight – and it was a shambles: they found themselves driven among vines and ditches, floundering over thick-laid vinestocks where horses fell by the dozen, and thrown riders were dreadfully trampled, mangled, battered. Now Count Geoffrey led a furious chargé with his company., and soon the whole battalion who should have been with the king were far ahead, in hot pursuit of the fleeing foe – some intent on a fine display, others intent on booty – leaving the king stranded and mightily frudtrated at being so, with the enemy out of his reach. But then he spotted a band of them away to his right – at least forty knights there must have been. Clutching his lance he charged at them and smashed into their midst, with such force that his lance shattered like glass, and he was overwhelmed by numbers and they seized him by the reins. They were swarming round on every side and he found himself entirely alone except for the Marshal who was right behind – he always stayed close to the king in any combat. There he was, near at hand, along with William de Preaux, who’d just been made a prisoner that day and withdrawn from the contest he had a hauberk hidden under his surcoat and an iron cup on his head, but was otherwise unarmed. The enemy had the Young King in their clutches and were bent on teraing the helm off his head. The Marshal charged and plunged amongst them , striking out to right and left: he showed them what he was made of. Then he seized the headstall of the king’s horse and hauled and heaved till he dragged it off, along with the bridle, and William de Preaux grabbed the horse by the neck and did all he could to escape from the fray while their enemies pressed abou him, trying to keep hold of the king. They aimed blow after blow at the Preaux; the king deftly covered him with his shield, warding off the blows and protecting him from harm: but they’d manager to rip the helm from the king’s head, much to his vexation. On and on the combat raged, but the Marshal had the best of it, raining mighty blows upon the foe.

Meanwhile the count of Flanders was thrilled to hear that the Young King’s banner appeared in the melee – it had been there now for quite some time. There was no stopping him: he confronted them with a mighty chargé, scattering the king’s men, weary from their long contest, and the pursuit that followed was hell for leather. Count Geoffrey was dismayed and distraught: several Times he turned to face the pursuers, but he was the only one who did and he couldn’t keep it up – though when he laid into them they found him quite a handful! He left a good few unhorsed.

But before this rout there was another incident I really should have mentioned; I’ll describe it exactly as I find recorded – not that it’s possible to relate every action and blow in a tournament. While the king was trying to escape from the fray as I explained, standing apart was Sir Herlin de Wavrin, seneschal of Flanders, with a companyn of at least thirty knights. One of them came racing up to him and said:

‘In God’s name, Sir, look there! (The king is on the brink of being captured. Go and grab him and take the credit! He’s already lost his helm: he’s in real trouble!’

Sir Herlin was overjoyed and replied: ‘I’d say he’s ours!’

And he and his compnay thrust in their spurs and went galloping after the king. But the Marshal didn’t hesitate: he charged to meet them. With such force that he smahed his lance to pieces; [he was nearly knocked down from his sadlde, his head] right down by his horse’s hocks. But he hauledb himself upright instantly; then battle raged about him, they attacking he defending, hewing and cleaving everything in sight, splitting shields and staving helms: that was William Marshal’s way! They’d completely lost track of the king, who declared – as did all who witnessed it, or heard it recounted later – that no single knight was ever seen to deal finer blows than the Marshal did that day…


The quoted fragment comes from The History of William Marshal translated by Nigel Bryant, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2016


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