Monday, May 28, 2012

The Siege of Newbury Castle, 1152

Stephen of Blois, King of England

Despite having more than twenty children, when King Henry I of England died in 1135, he had no surviving legitimate sons.  He left his kingdom to his daughter Matilda, but common citizenry and powerful nobles alike rejected her in favor of Henry's nephew, Stephen of Blois, who was crowned King in 1135.  However, Matilda had her supporters, and a civil war called the Anarchy broke out between the two factions.

One of Stephen's knights, John Marshal, deserted his service and backed Matilda instead.  He forged an alliance with Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, by deserting his wife and marrying Patrick's sister Sybilla instead.  In 1152, he found himself in Newbury Castle, 65 miles west of London, under siege by King Stephen himself.  The conflict was not going well for John, and he and Stephen signed a truce while John supposedly was to plead with Matilda for allowing the castle to surrender.  As assurance that he would comply with the terms of the truce, and as was the custom of the day, Stephen accepted John's fourth son William as a hostage.  Stephen kept William, then about six years old, in his personal tent, where they would sit on the floor and play undertake games of chance, which Stephen naturally let little William consistently win.

John, however, had no intentions of surrendering the castle.  During the break in hostilities, he filled the keep to capacity with men and supplies - a gross violation of the truce - and then informed the King that he would not surrender after all.  Stephen was infuriated by this betrayal, and his advisors informed him that William's death would have to be at least threatened, if not carried out.  Stephen sent John an angry message, threatening to publicly hang the boy if John did not cease his actions.  John, apparently caring more for the castle than for the fourth of his six sons, essentially dared Stephen to carry through on his threat, replying "I have both the hammer and the forge to make more, and better, sons!"

Stephen's advisors told him that he must then carry through with the threat.  Begrudgingly, but still angry over John's violations, Stephen ordered that the young boy would have to be killed as custom dictated.  On the way to the execution, little William asked to play with the shiny, bright javelin of one of his escorting soldiers.  When they approached the catapult with which William's body was to be hurled back at his father's forces, the cheerful boy said the bucket was just his size, and asked if he could swing from its ropes.  Stephen could no longer bear the thought of killing the boy, and personally lifted William up in his arms and carried him back to his tent.  On the way, the King chastised his advisors, saying that "one would have a heart of iron to see such a child perish."  

William stayed with King Stephen for another two months, during which time they would play a game of toy soldiers, using plantains as stand-ins for duelling knights; William was quite pleased with his repeated victories over the King.  As for Newbury Castle, as it turns out it did not fall; a peace treaty was derived in 1153 in which Stephen would continue as King, but upon his death the title would pass to Matilda's heir; the war was over, and William was returned to his father.  Stephen died only a year after that in 1154, and Matilda's son Henry became King Henry II of England, in whose time Newbury Castle was disassembled so thoroughly that its very location is no longer certain to anyone.  John Marshal fell out of favor with the court, and William cut ties with him before his 20th birthday.

William Marshal in a tournament
It was also fortuitous that King Stephen decided to save young William Marshal.  Despite the fact that landless fourth sons of disgraced, brutish soldiers usually amounted to very little in feudal England, William served as a notable exception to this trend.  He sought his fortune in France, where he was knighted in 1166.  Sponsored - and, at one point, ransomed - by Eleanor of Aquitaine, he grew to be known (without hyperbole) as the greatest knight that ever lived, winning tournament after tournament and defeating more than 500 knights during his career.   He served Henry II as a military captain, went on Crusade, and married the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke.   After Henry II's death, he served Richard I, and after Richard's death, he served King John, supporting him even in the face of rebellion and promoting the Magna Carta, which may not have passed otherwise.  After John's death, William served as Regent for the nine-year-old Henry III and personally leading the Royal Army to victory in a charge at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, despite being over 70 years old at the time. 

William died two years later.  William's father had originally taken his surname from his occupation, as 'Marshal' at the time meant 'Stable keeper'.  It is because of William's achievements that the word has its current meaning, as the commander of an army.
Pembroke Castle, which became William Marshal's home

Sources and Links:
William Marshal on Wikipedia
William Marshal in the Dictory of National Biography 1885-1900, as presented in Wikisource.

Duby, Georges and Richard Howard, William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry, Random House, 1987.
Money, Walter, The History of the Ancient Town and Borough in Newbury in the County of Berks, Parker and Co., 1887.
Painter, Sidney, William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England, University of Toronto Press, 1933.

Image of William Marshal on horseback is by Angus McBride, and appeared in Christopher Gravett's Elite 17: Knights at Tournament, Osprey Books, 1988.
Photo of Pembroke Castle by Athena's Pix.

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