Master Mainard and CO. Part II: William Marshal

When we say Henry the Young King we think William Marshal, when we say William Marshal we think Henry the Young King. The two men, the king and his tutor in arms, seemed to be inseparable, and William’s name is omnipresent in Henry’s story. As I have mentioned in Master Mainard & CO. Part I, the year 1170 turned out to be a breaking point in Henry the Young King’s life. On 14 June the prince was crowned co-king of England, the only English king to have been crowned in his father’s lifetime, and established with a household of his own. For William too 1170 marked the beginning of his slow but constant rise from rather humble beginnings to unexpected- mostly for William himself- greatness.

Upon William’s death on 14 May 1219 his eldest son and namesake commissioned one John, a poet to write a poem on an epic scale to celebrate his late father’s life story. Written in Middle French and comprising 19,214 lines in rhyming couplets, the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal is the only surviving biography of a layman of that time, “tale of the worthiest man who lived in our times”. And it is a treasure chest full of information concerning not only William himself, but also his young lord, Henry.

Thanks to the Histoire we know that it was William who knighted his young lord in the course of the Great Revolt, during Henry’s escape from his father’s lands, shortly after he crossed the French border on 8 March 1173. Initially Henry the Young King was to be dubbed by his father-in-law, Louis VII of France, but chose to ask his most faithful companion and tutor in arms, William Marshal to lead him into manhood. Knighting was in the 12th century a prerequisite for full majority and Henry needed badly to be knighted before he could take over the charge over the rebellion against his father. The Histoire, which gives a detailed account of the event, makes it clear that Henry had chosen at the last minute ‘the best knight who had ever been or will be’ to belt him with the sword of knighthood. Although usually a young nobleman was knighted by a king, the Young King’s case showed that knightly prowess and qualities sufficed to bestow such honour upon a modest knight of humble origin, the one as William Marshal himself. That is why it was honourable for Henry to be dubbed by the ‘best knight’. William considered himself even more honoured, which the History clearly states. In his own words: ‘God has here done great honour to Li Mareschal this day, for in the sight of counts, of barons, and of men of such high names, he has belted the sword to the king of England’. After he kissed his Young Lord, belted him with the sword and Henry became a knight, William’s own prestige in Henry’s household and among the knights was increased.

For the fifteen-year-old freshly crowned king the day when his new tutor in arms appeared in the tiltyard must have been a memorable one. In fact, I daresay that Young Henry never forgot the very moment when his eyes caught a glimpse of William Marshal for the first time. He must have heard about the man from his mother, the Queen, tales of courage and prowess and unwavering loyalty. Perhaps she also remarked that William owed her his freedom for she had ransomed him from the Lusignan captivity in 1168. It was partly her influence that he was to hold the highly honourable position in her eldest son’s household. He was to become the chief of knights who composed the prince’s mesnie [military household] and Henry must have been looking forward to the knightly training. In his times rulers were trained to be soldiers leading their men into battle. For this reason entrusting the care of the eldest son to a knight was a common practice from at least the eleventh century. Royal sons had tutors in arms assigned to with the purpose of both instructing and protecting them.

Henry’s first tutor in arms, although not officially, must have been Master Mainard, albeit in his tutelage- we cannot forget that he had entered young Henry’s service when the princeling was but one year old- he had probably limited himself to playing knightly games with his young ward. In his History of Everyday Things in England. Vol. I, C. H. B. Quennell gave a vivid description of how such playing with toy knights might have looked like:

‘The two boys […] are playing with jointed wooden soldiers, which are dressed in the armour of the period. The feet of these figures were weighted with lead to keep the balance, and were jerked backwards and forwards by means of a cord passed through their middle, each boy holding one end of the cord. The arms were jointed as well as the legs, and moved with the motion of the figures; and with the tightening and slackening of the cord, the little soldiers strutted and pranced, and doubtless waved their arms and swords in a very warlike manner.’(p.81)

I like to imagine the future king of England, aged three or four playing at “knights” with his Master, just like five-year-old William Marshal, miraculously saved from being hanged, played at “knights” with King Stephen in the king’s tent erected before the walls of Newbury. William used plantains for the purpose, but Young Henry, the royal child and his father’s pampered heir must have had toy knights and toy weapon for such occasions. There is a delightful little nugget of information, a record in the pipe rolls dating back to 1160 when queen Eleanor, young Henry’s mother acted as regent of England in her husband’s absence. It reads as follows: ‘For the repair of the Chapel and of the houses and of the walls and of the garden of the Queen … and for the transport of the Queen’s robe and of her wine and of her Incense, and of the Chests of the Chapel, and for the boys’ shields…’ The boys were, respectively, five, three and two years old at the time (the youngest, Geoffrey hardly able to hold the shield), the king’s sons being prepared from the earliest childhood to become warriors one day. They were taught how to ride a horse, how to hunt and hawk, but the training began in earnest when they reached puberty, the moment they must have been waiting for with both anticipation and excitement. As we read in David Crouch’s invaluable Tournament: ‘Apart from the bow and the pole axe, every weapon ever used by knights turns up in the tournament. Swords, lances, maces and knives all feature at some time or other, and they were the same weapons that knights used in war’. (p.78)

And they must have been the same weapons that William Marshal used while training Henry the Young King. Not only did Henry practice with the other young men, but also with a quintain. Here let me quote Sports and Games of Medieval Culture by Sally E.D.Wilkins to explain how the device worked:
‘A quintain was a target hung on a pole, balanced on a point, or set on rockers so that when it was struck it would spin around or rock and then stand back up. The young men in training would ride toward the quintain, carrying a pole for a lance with which they attempted to hit the target. Often the quintain had a swinging arm, so that it could “fight back”.’ (p.133) It is interesting to speculate how many times Henry, the young man in training fell from his horse after the quintain “fought back”. He was probably no exception before he gained skills sufficient to win fame on the tournament field, which he later did, becoming- as Dr Crouch put it- “celebrity in the tournament world”. He owed his success and renown to his tutor and friend William Marshal with whom he traveled vastly all over Northern France and took part in virtually all possible tournaments.

I have written "friend", for there was no other person in the Young King’s short life, who would have proved to be as faithful and steadfast as William Marshal. They were inseparable, with the exception of a short period between the end of 1182 and the beginning of 1183 when they became estranged for the reasons nowhere clearly stated and varying from William outshining his young lord and falling prey to his fellow household knights’ jealousy to William having a love affair with young Henry’s Queen. If the latter was indeed true, William escaped serious consequences suspiciously easily. He was forced to leave the court and seek his fortune elsewhere. He traveled as far as Cologne, where he prayed at the Shrine of the Three Kings*. And to good effect, for shortly afterwards he was recalled and reunited with his young lord. But their joy was not to last. Soon after William’s return Henry the Young King, ‘his life suddenly cut off like a thread’, died ‘in the flower of his youth’, aged twenty-eight, in the region called Turenne in Gascony, at Martel, on Saturday, the feast day of St Barnabas the Apostle.  In the opening months of 1183 Henry was busily occupied with wresting control of the Duchy of Aquitaine from his younger brother Richard. With Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, another younger brother, and an ardent support of Poitevan barons discontent with Richard’s iron rule, the Young King was desperate to win a portion of the family domains for himself. He stood in opposition not only to Richard, who at that time was facing a formidable French-Burgundian-Toulousain coalition backing up the Young King and his rebels, but also to his father king Henry II of England, who hastened to Richard’s rescue. It was the second time that Henry took up arms against his father, the King. The underlying cause of this revolt had been the same as in 1173: he did not want to be a king only in name and just like ten years before. And just like in 1173, William stood firmly by his side and at his deathbed. Shortly before William’s return the Young King contracted bloody flux [dysentery] and now lay dying in one Etienne Fabri’s maison. One thing kept troubling him in the last hours of his life: some time before he had taken the cross. Now regretting the lightness he had done it with, he committed his crusader’s cloak to William, asking his friend and most faithful companion to take it to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in his stead. It was that very moment which Geoffrey of Vigeois immortalized on the pages of his Chronicon, showing William as his young lord’s carissimus promising to undertake the pilgrimage, always a perilous journey from which so many had not returned. William would turn out to be as good as his word, fulfill the dying friend’s wish and return safely to serve the Young King’s father. Many years later he would found a house of Augustinian canons at his estate of Cartmel, Lancashire in memory of the two kings he had served: Henry II and Henry the Young King, whom he would call invariably and poignantly ‘my lord’.

* "Milan was besieged by the emperor Frederick [Barbarossa], the number of whose forces may be estimated from the circumstance of his being enabled to attempt the reduction of so very powerful a city, inordinately boasting of the multitude and boldness of her inhabitants. After various events, however, and multiplied encounters, it surrendered, and fell into the enemy's hands. The victorious emperor razed the city, but did not destroy the inhabitants, because they had surrendered themselves. He, however, dispersed them, and transferred those celebrated relics of the Magi, there deposited, into Germany, to the inexpressible grief of the Lombards, and honored the city of Cologne with the custody of this treasure" (from William of Newburgh

Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History Vol. II translated into English by J. A. Giles

The Plantagenet Chronicles  Ed. by Dr.Elizabeth Hallam

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

William Marshal. Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England by Sidney Painter

Tournament by David Crouch

“Classic Knigthood as Nobility Dignity: the Knighting of Counts and Kings’ Sons in England, 1066-1272” by D’A.J.D. Boulton in Medieval Knighthood V ed. by Stephen Church and Ruth Harvey

A History of Everyday Things in England Vol. I by Marjorie and C.H.B.Quennell

Sports and Games of Medieval Culture by Sally E.D.Wilkins

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Marion Meade


  1. Ahhh, William Marshal, what a wonderful man! :) I love these little snippets like the reference to the boys' shields even at such a young age.

    1. Indeed, Kathryn. I too find them poignant and disarming. These must have been toy shields, but for the two-year-old future Duke of Brittany still quite heavy:-) Each time I try to imagine the toddler-Geoffrey bending under the weight of his shield I cannot help smiling.

      Thank you for paying a visit to our Lesser Land:-)

  2. Yes, that's a lovely heart-warming image! :)

    It's great to be here, and I'm so glad you have a blog now. ;)

  3. We(read Henry and me :-))are happy, too, and grateful for every single visit! :-)


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