Monday, 25 August 2014

What Was a 'Real' Knight?

Books and films have encouraged the idea of the 'knight in shining armour' right up to the present day. He was courteous, loyal and brave, and lived by a code of conduct. Always ready to rescue a 'damsel in distress' or go on a quest, right wrongs and fight evil.

But, as Horrible Histories Measly Middle Ages says, “These knights were big bullies who battered British peasants into doing as they were told or fought for the king and battered foreign peasants.”

So how did the truth get so completely turned around?

Well, it didn't. Both versions of knighthood actually existed at the same time in the Middle Ages. That's not to say there were two different kinds of knights (though there were bad knights) – a knight would hold to the ideal at the same time as behaving in the most brutal way.

It's all because of King Arthur.


Around 1100, poems, songs and stories began to be written about a bygone age, when all of society worked together for the good of all. The peasants worked the land to provide food for everyone, the Church looked after the spiritual needs of the people, and the knights defended and protected them all.

Far from believing this age was over and gone, medieval people considered they were the faded remains of this great age. As stories grew, the ideal took hold. Knights began to be 'dubbed' in a special ceremony, and agreed to a code of behaviour, which included protecting the weak.

Stories like King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, Tristan and Isolde, and Piers the Ploughman told knights how they should live. Training for a knight not only involved rigorous physical training but learning about the literature and culture of his class.

Mind you, the medieval romances were also about forbidden love and impossible quests to prove your devotion to your lady, who may be married to someone else. Lancelot and Guinevere are a case in point.

Against this ideal, was man's natural desire for wealth and power, and the brutalising result of war, including the Crusades. The ideal was impossible to live up to, but many knights made a valiant effort, and certainly, away from the battlefield, displayed their courtly manners.

One last point is worth making. There was no clear delineation between fact and fiction in the Middle Ages as there is today. History and romance were both seen as vessels of truth, and not kept apart. So 'histories' written then would include the ideal as well as the factual. In the case of knights, this accurately reflects the way they endeavoured to live as well as their achievements.


Monday, 18 August 2014

Has Anyone Seen My Treasure?

In medieval times the king didn't hold court in one central location. He traveled about from place to place.

Sometimes he was leading an army against invaders or subduing a rebel lord, and he would hold court in the most convenient castle. At other times it was necessary to move because of the strain on the local area for providing food and fodder for the court.

Along with the king, it was necessary to transport everything he might need, including his treasure. For two particular kings, this proved to be a very bad idea indeed.

King John
King John is known as the bad king who was eventually made to sign Magna Carta. But he immediately had it annulled by the Pope, and his barons rebelled, turned to France and offered the crown to Prince Louis. The story is told in part in my book, Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John. John traveled the country trying to raise support, taking his treasure and crown jewels with him.

He was becoming more and more exhausted and ill, and in 1216 he travelled from Lincolnshire to Norfolk. In between was the huge estuary known as the Wash, full of mudflats, marshes and quicksands. John went the long way around, but he sent his baggage train across the causeway, which was only navigable at low tide.

The Wash
The horse-drawn wagons were very slow, and maybe he thought it would be quicker to go straight across. Unfortunately the wagons were too slow to beat the turn of the tide, and they were lost in the water.

I found this passage from Charles Dickens' A Child's History of England:
looking back from the shore when he was safe, he [the king] saw the roaring water sweep down in a torrent, overturn the waggons, horses and men, that carried his treasure, and engulf them in a raging whirlpool from which nothing could be delivered.” 

John died just over a week later, and the treasure has never been found.


King Edward II

Unlike King John, there are those who argue the case for Edward II, but he is generally regarded as a bad king. His story is told in my book Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth.

The barons rebelled against him and after a seeming victory, were eventually defeated. But Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer raised an army in exile and landed in England. The barons flocked to join them and the king was forced to flee.

He, his favourite Hugh le Despenser, and their retainers fled westwards and ended up in Wales, at Neath Abbey. Their next stop was to be Swansea Castle, and they sent word to strengthen the defences and sent all the king's treasure and personal effects ahead to Swansea.

The next day Edward and Despenser were captured in open country. Despenser was tried and horribly executed. Edward was persuaded to abdicate in favour of his son.

It wasn't until a few years later that an inquiry was set up in Swansea to locate the king's goods and treasure, which was estimated to be worth £63,000 (about £29m today). It included gold and silver plates, coins and jewellery, fine clothing, arms, armour, and horses. Many of the king's papers were found. After three inquiries about £3000 worth was recovered, and in April 1336 a Royal Commission sought to bring to justice those who had stolen the rest. It does not appear that anyone was convicted.

Monday, 11 August 2014

William Marshal: The Greatest Knight

There was a programme on TV recently about William Marshal. I knew of him because he comes briefly into the story of Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John, but I didn't know much about him.

Effigy of William Marshal in Temple Church
I was astounded at what I learned. The presenter called him 'A forgotten hero of our history' and 'The most celebrated warrior of his age'. The programme title called him 'The Greatest Knight'.

His name, Marshal, comes from the fact that his father John was Marshal of the King's horses, so he was called John the Marshal. Not a high rank, though it was a Norman family. William was born in 1147, one of six sons. John served King Stephen, but then supported the Empress Matilda in the war for the throne. John gave the five-year-old William to Stephen as a hostage in return for a truce, which he then broke. Stephen threatened to hang William, but John is reported to have said, "I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!" It was suggested to shoot the boy over the city walls from a catapult, but Stephen took pity on him and kept him prisoner for a while. How history would have changed if William had not lived!

At the age of twelve William sailed to Normandy to join the household of William of Tancarville, the chamberlain of Normandy, to learn how to be a knight. He was there 6 years. In 1166 he was knighted to fight against Flanders. He acquitted himself with some skill, which he used in peacetime to earn a living from tournaments.

William Marshal unhorses Baron Guisnes at a joust
William saved Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II, when he was escorting her and she was attacked. She paid his ransom and called him to court as mentor and companion to her son, the Young King Henry. William rose to the head of the retinue and people became jealous. A whispering campaign was started accusing him of adultery with the Young King's Queen, but when he challenged his accusers no one would fight him. He was forced to go into exile. The Young King realised how much he needed him and recalled him with his reputation intact.

In 1183 the Young King died without being able to fulfil his desire to go to Jerusalem. William went on his behalf, and fought for 2 years. In 1186 William returned to the court of Henry II and over the next 20 years forged his reputation as the greatest knight, defending the land and proving his loyalty.

In June 1189 he faced the rebellious Richard the Lionheart in battle while defending Henry, but lowered his lance and struck Richard's horse. He would not kill the heir to the throne. Two months later Henry died and Richard became king. Richard called on William and challenged him that he tried to kill him in battle. William said, “I am strong enough to aim my lance.” Richard brought him into his retinue because he had proved himself loyal to the last.


Chepstow Castle
He finally had the opportunity to settle down and have lands of his own. He married the heiress of Chepstow, Isabel de Clare, and became the Lord of Chepstow at 42. He now had his own knights and children. Isabel was the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke, and when he died, William became the Earl. His fame was such that he was not referred to by name or title, people just called him 'the Marshal'.

Pembroke Castle
William served Henry II, Richard I and King John. When John died, England was in danger of French occupation but John's son Henry was only nine. A few nobles who had remained loyal to King John met and begged William to protect him. He was crowned and William knighted him. William pledged to protect him as long as he was able. William became regent, because it was the honorable thing to do. As regent, he re-issued the Magna Carta, and it can be seen today with his seal on.

In May 1217, aged 70, he rode into battle against the French at Lincoln and inspired the troops to victory. If the battle had been lost, England would have become part of France.This was a time when men were considered old at forty. William died 2 years later.

His role has been rediscovered through a medieval manuscript – his biography. The first known biography, written in Anglo-Norman French, in verse. It was commissioned by his son, so we have to question whether the text tells the whole truth, but much is verifiable from other sources.

He served 4 kings and preserved the throne of England, but William Marshal and knights like him stemmed the tide of royal tyranny and promoted the rule of law. He rose through the ranks, was a great warrior, politician and courtier, and earned the reputation of the greatest knight in the world.

[Pictures from Wikimedia]

Friday, 1 August 2014

Why Visit a Castle?

Oystermouth Castle
1. Because it's there
Don't you have any curiosity? Even if you know nothing about history, you can't ignore the heaps of stone, doorways, towers and underground rooms perched majestically on a hilltop.

2. Because it's a fun playground for the kids
Castle ruins are a great place for kids. They provide a climbing frame, hiding places, open spaces, towers, dungeons, and a great stimulous to their imagination, with tales of kings, knights, fair maidens, and great battles.

3. Because it's the embodiment of history
Here is tangible evidence of the past. The castles were built by the conquerors to keep the conquered in check. Who were they? Sometimes they changed hands several times. How and why? Sometimes they were damaged in battle, sometimes ruined on purpose. Why would they do that? Some were left to decay, some are still lived in today. This is history about real people and real places. People not so different from ourselves, when you come down to it.

4. Because it inspires the imagination
It's not just children who have great imaginations. Looking up at the ruins of Swansea Castle, which is right in the town centre, started me asking questions that led to my fascination with medieval Gower and the writing of my two books, Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth and Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John. Go on, admit it – don't you sometimes dream of being a fair maiden or a brave knight?

5. Because all of human drama has been within its walls
Loyalty, betrayal, kindness, cruelty, love, hate, friendship, conspiracy. Courage and strength of character, cowardice and every fault of humankind. Wives and children protected, and used as pawns. Brothers and comrades kept close, and pushed away. Whatever kind of stories you like, you will find them here.

I've written about most of the castles of Gower, and this summer I hope to visit them all and bring you first-hand updates.