This week, in AD 1219, Sir William the Marshal died in his bed.
The Marshal was old by the standards of the time — 72! — and made a good end: heard his daughters sing, gave alms to the poor, made sure his knights would get their Christmas cloaks, bade his much-younger wife farewell, then joined the Order of the Temple to die in seclusion a few hours later.
So, 795 years ago a knight succumbs to old age. What of it?
The Marshal died in his bed, not because he avoided hazarding himself in battle, but because when he did take the field, no man might withstand him.
Two years previously, at the grand age of 70, the Marshal led the charge into the City of Lincoln.
It was a key battle in one of those messy civil wars the Middle Ages did so well. Lords who had rebelled against King John now fought on against the young King Henry III. Worse, they had French backing and Prince Louis of France was rampaging around England with a large army.
When the council named the Marshal as the King Protector, the old knight had wept. He’d literally fought his way up from landless tournament knight to powerful magnate (think Conan meets William Thatcher from Knight’s Tale), had won a reputation as the Greatest Knight, but now History would remember him as — I translate liberally from the Norman French — “That stupid old codger who lost England to the French.”
However, he took up the challenge and, along with a gang of aging action heroes, set out to put to bed the results of a generation of misrule.
The turning point was the Siege of Lincoln, a strategic city in the Midlands. (If you play Medieval II Total War, think “Nottingham, but to the north east.”) The French had carried the town, but the castle still held.
The Marshal’s relief force rolled up and trapped the French in the town, thus creating a kind of Russian Doll siege: the English besieging the French besieging the English.
Medieval sieges are risky for everybody. Sure, the defenders might starve, but at least they are sitting on an infrastructure. The attackers, however, are camped out on land nobody wanted to build on, and are very numerous. It’s like an armed Woodstock and it only took the first Woodstock a couple of days to turn into a kind of public health disaster; imagine what a siege camp was like after a few weeks. No wonder that “camp fever” took off many a prince, including Edward the Black Prince and Henry V.
So a medieval siege is a game of chicken. Will starvation make the defenders quit before disease drives off the attackers?
In this case, the attackers had a lucky break. There was an unguarded gate in the city wall. It was unguarded because it had been walled up. However, the masonry must have been of poor quality. A quick sallie from the castle garrison and the way was clear for the English army to ride into the Lincoln and take the battle to the French.
Falkes de Breaute, the late King John’s pet mercenary, led the first wave, secured the gate and packed it and the castle with crossbowmen. However, in the confusion, he got himself captured and his men were pushed back to their positions. (Or perhaps he got the wrong gate. The sources don’t really agree on this.)
Meanwhile, unabashed, the French kept hammering at the castle with stone-throwing engines.
The Marshal took in the scene. “God’s lance. Bring me my helmet!”
The Bishop of Winchester urged caution, sent in scouts, and then urged more delay.
The Marshal, however, was having none of that. Just as some four decades previously, when he and Henry the Young King (Henry II’s heir, died in rebellion against his father… long story) found themselves facing a mass of footmen and archers who had no place in a tournament, the Marshal preferred to strike hard and fast.
He spurred his horse into motion.
A squire caught up and reminded him that he had forgotten a couple of things, namely his helmet and the rest of the army.
Finally, helmet strapped on, army behind him, the old knight led the charge one last time.
They poured into the gate and cut down the siege engineers at their machines, then the battle turned into one massive melee: jostling horses crushed together in the narrow streets; knights dead in the saddle with nowhere to fall; men yelling, screaming, hacking with swords, maces, axes.
And like an aged Conan, William the Marshal carved a path through the mayhem, while his followers streamed behind him yelling, “God Help the Marshal,” the war cry he’d used back in his tournament days.
A rebel champion, Robert of Roppesley, broke his lance on the Earl of Salisbury and hurtled past.
The Marshal snapped off a sword-strike, caught Robert between the shoulders, and sent him tumbling from his horse to scamper off to the shelter of the houses.
Now, ahead lay the Marshal’s target, one last prize: the count of Perche, the French commander taking his stand before a church.
The Marshal hacked his way to the count and caught the man’s bridle in the old way. But the count had already taken a sword thrust through the eye. He took his sword in two hands, struck the Marshal three blows to the head, then dropped dead.
The helmet, however, held.
And so it was that two years later, one of the greatest knights to have wielded lance and sword died, not in the field, but in his bed.
If you visit by Temple Church (London), stop by his tomb and say hello for me.
M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) is a Scottish-based writer and swordsman who wrote a Foreworld SideQuest about William the Marshal’s adventures in the Holy Land and how he hung out with Viking crusaders and fought assassins. His creative writing handbook, Storyteller Tools is now available on Amazon.