On the 20th May 1217, the City of Lincoln bore witness to one of the most decisive battles of our long history. The Capetian forces, headed by Louis VIII of France, and those of the Angevin forces led by Henry III of England, did battle to determine who would be the King of this country.
What sets this battle apart, amongst other things, is the involvement of a Knight who, at the age of 70, led the charge straight into the midst of the French soldiers, when to all intents and purposes he should have been directing from a safe distance, relying on his military nous and experience to ensure victory without quite literally risking life and limb.
But this was no ordinary figure; this was a man who as a child had been sentenced to death, survived to train as a Knight, served five members of the Angevin dynasty, fought in the Levant during the Crusades, would be one of the few to best Richard the Lionheart in combat, and also became one of the instigators of Magna Carta. His name was William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke.
Yet all of these achievements are arguably overshadowed by the events at the Battle of Lincoln. To put it into context, the Kingdom at this point was suffering in the aftermath of the reign of the infamous King John, who had died in 1216 and handed power over to his nine year old son, Henry. The treasury was depleted, supporters were few, and what remained of the Angevin Empire looked set to fall into the hands of foreign invaders. Yet, through sheer determination and, most of all, loyalty to the lineage which he had served his entire life, Marshal came out of retirement to command the forces of Henry III to a great victory, and eventually banish Louis VIII from England once and for all.
One of the final wishes of King John as he lay dying, was that full care and responsibility of his son was to be placed in the hands of William Marshal, but with the Kingdom being as it was, Marshal could have chosen to switch sides and ensure the safety of his titles and land for which he had worked so hard to gain. Indeed many others were doing exactly the same, believing that victory was all but impossible under the reign of an adolescent.
As Marshal rode out to meet the nine year old Henry for the first time, he had a decision to make.
The two finally met, with the great Knight towering over the would-be King (so small was he that Marshal could have carried him in one arm), and the following words were spoken:
Henry: “I give myself over to God and to you, so that in the Lord’s name you may take charge of me”
Marshal: “I will be yours in good faith, and there is nothing I will not do to serve you while I have the strength”.
At this moment, it is said that they were both overcome with emotion, and broke down into tears. It was the turning point of the war.
This year marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and it is right that this should be celebrated, but I think if we are to do this, it is altogether fitting that we should celebrate another 800 year anniversary in 2017, specifically on the 20th May, for if the fight at Lincoln had been lost, it could have rendered Magna Carta all but meaningless. Instead, Henry III would go on to re-issue the Great Charter, and the people of this country would begin to forge a new identity separate from mainland Europe, which would set off the chain of events that lead to us to this present day.
It is unfortunate that the name of William Marshal has been eroded by history, but I hope that this article can go some way into renewing an interest in this colossal figure, although alone it does not do him justice. The historian Thomas Asbridge has written an excellent book on this very subject, and I would encourage you all to read it.
For now, prepare to raise a toast to the Great Charter on the 15th June, but make a note also to visit Templar Church in London, where William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, is buried. If you do, take a moment to say thank you to the man who did everything possible to ensure that the legacy of the Great Charter would not perish.
Photo by Anita363