On Wednesday, 6 February 1861, a young French scholar named Paul Meyer walked into Sotheby’s auction house, then located just behind London’s Covent Garden, at 13 Wellington Street. A prestigious sale was scheduled to begin at 1.00 p.m., with the official catalogue proclaiming that ‘Some most valuable and important early manuscripts, chiefly on vellum’ would be offered for purchase. These were works drawn from the celebrated Savile collection of rare medieval texts, assembled during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and not displayed in public for more than two centuries. Meyer – a dedicated student of the Middle Ages – was in England to attend this event, and what he saw that day changed the course of his career, sparking a forty-year obsession, a hunt to uncover a lost history and a discovery that would reshape our understanding of the medieval world.
A distinguished future awaited Paul Meyer. In time, he would achieve international renown as an academic and archivist, becoming the pre-eminent authority on early French manuscripts and the interpretation of arcane, handwritten texts. This rather esoteric expertise led Meyer to be called as a key witness in the notorious Dreyfus trial of 1898, where his testimony helped to clear the accused of espionage.* But in early 1861, he was just a twenty-one-year-old scholar, enrolled in Paris’s esteemed centre of medieval studies, the École des Chartes, and still working on his somewhat un-inspiringly titled thesis: ‘Research on the language spoken in France in barbarian times (fifth to ninth centuries)’.
Meyer had been sent to London by the staff of the Bibliothèque Impériale (soon to be re-dubbed the French ‘National Library’), so that he might bid on their behalf in the Sotheby’s auction, and hopefully acquire three well-known works of medieval French literature. Unfortunately, the library furnished him with only meagre funds, leaving little prospect of matching the wealthy private collectors and professional archivists sure to flock to the Savile sale. Meyer resolved to savour this exceptional opportunity nonetheless, and arrived at Sotheby’s early in the morning, allowing himself time to stalk the exhibition room.
For a man of his background and training, this was akin to entering a treasure vault. Over the next two hours he scoured the tables, scribbling notes on each of the manuscripts presented. Many were copies of famous texts; some were wonderfully ornate and highly decorated, with vibrantly coloured illuminations. But one that drew his eye was neither familiar, nor at first glance especially remarkable. Listed as Lot 51, this unassuming work was bound in worn, dark brown leather (dating from the sixteenth century) and, in size, resembled a modern hardback book – its pages measuring nine-and-a-half inches by six-and-three-quarter inches. The Sotheby’s catalogue described it simply as a ‘Norman-French chronicle on English Affairs (in Verse)’, written on vellum ‘by an Anglo-Norman scribe’ in the thirteenth century, and helpfully quoted the last four intriguing, yet unspecific, lines of its text:
Ci fini del conte lestoire
Et dex en perdurable gloire
Here ends the Earl’s story
Vont que la sue ame seit mise
Et entre ses Angles assise. Amen.
rest in eternal glory
Carefully opening the front binding, Meyer could perceive no obvious identifying marks, no title or indication of subject matter. He was confronted by a simple, but elegantly decorated text – with a minuscule script inscribed in black ink, set out in two columns, across 127 leaves (or pages), and a mixture of red and blue capital letters, each embellished with ornate, swirling, abstract designs. The first page showed some signs of water damage, but was still legible, so he examined the earliest sections of the work and jotted down a quick summary of his initial findings: ‘Contains an original chronicle, which seems to report the conflict that broke out in England during the reign of Stephen, nephew of Henry I.’
Meyer began to suspect that this manuscript had remained untouched and unopened for at least 250 years. He would later write that this book ‘strongly excited my curiosity’, but this was in large part because he had no idea what it might be. In all his studies, he had never come across any mention of a medieval French verse account of this type. His interest was piqued. As he sat through the auction later that day, noting the bidding on Lot 51, it became obvious that the attention of others had also been drawn. The British Museum offered £200, then the archivist, Sir Frederic Madden, raised this to £250, but they had no chance of matching the famed book collector and antiquarian, Sir Thomas Phillipps – a self-confessed bibliomaniac, renowned for his outrageous profligacy. Phillipps bid the ‘enormous price’ of £380 (9,500 French francs by Meyer’s calculation), adding Lot 51 to the other thirty-four Savile manuscripts he snapped up that day.
As the sale came to a close, the mysterious ‘Norman-French chronicle on English Affairs’ was packed away. Meyer would not see the text again for twenty years, and would only later realise that on that Wednesday in 1861 he had briefly handled a ‘work of extraordinary importance’ – the sole surviving copy of an unknown biography, detailing the life of an illustrious medieval knight. A man who rose through the ranks, serving the English crown, befriended the likes of Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine, helped to negotiate the terms of Magna Carta and defended England from French invasion at the age of seventy. This storied warrior was William Marshal, and, unbeknown to Meyer, his body lay buried in London’s Temple Church, less than a mile from Sotheby’s.
In the years that followed, Paul Meyer’s professional career flourished, but he became increasingly fixated by the intriguing ‘Norman-French chronicle’ he had seen in 1861. Two years after the London auction, he was formally attached to the manuscripts department of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and sent to comb the great British libraries in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow and Edinburgh, in search of manuscripts related to the culture and history of medieval France. He began to publish, earning a reputation for erudition and meticulous scholarship, even as archivists and academics across Europe continued to push back the frontiers of knowledge and chart the course of the Middle Ages. Yet in all this time, Meyer could not forget Lot 51.
At first, his enquiries began in a leisurely, almost random, manner – confident that a reference to the ‘Norman-French chronicle on English Affairs’ must appear somewhere amid the lists of manuscripts already archived in France, Britain and Germany. A slow search began, through thousands of entries, in each of the august institutions Meyer toured. But after years of increasingly painstaking research, he still had found no mention of any work that resembled the elusive verse text. Even more frustrating was the fact that Lot 51 appeared to have vanished into the Phillipps collection. Sir Thomas’s extraordinary personal library contained some 60,000 manuscripts, acquired over many decades and deposited at his Middle Hill estate in Worcestershire. Since 1837, he had been slowly, but fastidiously, cataloguing these works – apportioning each text a unique reference number – and then proudly publishing an ever-expanding inventory via a small, private printing press. Few copies of these lists were circulated, yet Meyer tracked them down; but even here he could find no mention of his obscure manuscript, though other works bought in the Savile auction were noted.
Part of the problem seems to have been that Phillipps had decided, in 1863, to move his entire library to a large mansion in Cheltenham – a feat that took two years to complete. He was also nearing the end of his life, increasingly cantankerous and utterly determined that no one else should come near his precious books. When Sir Thomas died in 1872, at the age of seventy-nine, the situation hardly improved. The future of Phillipps’ collection and estate was contested by his heirs; when Meyer contacted them with polite enquiries about a certain missing text, his letters went unanswered. It seemed that the ‘Norman-French chronicle’ had disappeared.
Nonetheless, Meyer persisted. He was now nearing his forties: an eminent academic, editor of his own highly regarded scholarly journal, Romania, and soon to be appointed as director of the École des Chartes itself. Phillipps’ family finally relented in the autumn of 1880, granting Meyer access to the collection in Cheltenham. After a succession of visits, he narrowed the search down to 5,000 works and began checking each one by hand. At last, in 1881, he found the misplaced book – Phillipps had numbered the volume ‘25155’, but it had never been properly catalogued, nor read. After two decades, Meyer had the ‘Norman-French chronicle’ in front of him once more. A quick leaf through its pages confirmed that this was indeed a unique copy of an otherwise unknown account, but its contents proved to be more significant that even he had imagined.
Meyer was probably the first person to read the manuscript in 600 years, but now that he was able to move beyond its initial pages, and absorb the 19,215 lines of rhymed medieval French verse, it became clear that this was neither a chronicle, nor a piece of fictionalised literature. His initial notes, hurriedly compiled in 1861, had barely scratched the surface, for the text moved far beyond the mid-twelfth century ‘anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign. In fact, it laid out – in glorious detail – the entire life story of a man named Guillaume le Maréchal, William Marshal. Meyer knew of scores of well-studied texts describing the careers of famous kings, queens and saints, but this was the first biography of a medieval knight, and had originally been composed in the mid-1220s.
Meyer began to work at a feverish pace, immersing himself in the study of the manuscript – which he now christened the History of William Marshal – while hunting down other references to Marshal. He clearly had been no ordinary knight, appearing intermittently in other contemporary chronicles and documents, identified as an important royal servant, and later, as the earl of Striguil and Pembroke. Towards the end of his life, Marshal had even been regent of England and re-issued Magna Carta. He was an established, yet shadowy presence in the annals of medieval history. The account discovered by Meyer suddenly added human flesh to the bones of this long-forgotten figure. It traced Marshal’s path from relatively humble origins, through the pageantry of chivalric tournaments and the brutish realities of war, to the opulent royal courts of Europe, it followed him as he ranged across the medieval world – from his birthplace in England to the foothills of the Pyrenees and the distant Holy Land – and it charted his rise to prominence and the foundation of the Marshal dynasty.
The long hunt for Lot 51, the ‘Norman-French chronicle’, had been worth it – Meyer had made a crucial breakthrough, unearthing a text that shone revelatory light upon the culture and history of the Middle Ages. Within a year, he published an article, describing his search for the manuscript and initial observations on its text. He then dedicated another twenty years of his life to producing a full printed edition of the History in three volumes, published between 1891 and 1901 as L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, comte de Striguil et de Pembroke.
It is the manuscript of the History of William Marshal, identified by Paul Meyer and now residing in the vaults of the Morgan Library in New York, that allows the life of this peerless knight to be reconstructed. Drawing upon the evidence it preserves, and a range of other contemporary material, the details of William Marshal’s extraordinary story can be pieced together. Yet, for all the insights that it furnishes, the History has to be read with a cautious and critical eye. The biography was commissioned by a member of Marshal’s family, soon after his death, and written by an otherwise unknown Anglo-French scribe working in England, named John. The text was completed soon after 1226, and the extant version was a copy of this original, made in the course of the next twenty-five years.*
The biographer claimed to have drawn some of his account from personal experience and used a number of other documents and records, but he relied heavily upon the oral testimony of those who had known William Marshal – his close kin and trusted retainers. Marshal’s friend and supporter of almost forty years, the knight John of Earley, was a particularly important source of information. Earley was not only able to recall what he had seen with his own eyes, but also repeated many of the tales of daring adventure that Marshal had himself been fond of recounting.
The History was a celebration of William Marshal’s astounding achievements. As such, it offers an unashamedly biased account, presenting its hero as the perfect knight. In its pages William almost became the living embodiment of the mythical Arthurian knight, Lancelot – one of the central heroes of the popular literature written in Marshal’s own day. Many of the History’s claims can be corroborated in other sources, but there were times when the biographer omitted uncomfortable details related to Marshal’s rise to prominence, from his involvement in rebellions against the crown to his dealings with King John, England’s infamous monarch. In some respects, the History’s inherent partiality can be useful, because it offers a glimpse of contemporary sensibilities. The biographer imbued his subject with laudable qualities and clearly expected readers to be thoroughly impressed by Marshal’s character. Some of these qualities – like valour, martial prowess, loyalty and honour – are precisely what we might expect to find in an idealised medieval warrior; others – such as cunning, duplicity and avid materialism – are not.
This book offers a new biography of William Marshal: the landless younger son who became perhaps the most famous knight of the Middle Ages, lauded as a peerless warrior and paragon of chivalry, a man who achieved untold power and status as a baron and politician, ultimately ruling England itself. In retracing his career, it follows in the footsteps of works by esteemed scholars such as Paul Meyer, Sidney Painter and David Crouch. But, for the first time, this account places Marshal’s life into a far broader context.
William’s astonishing story offers an unrivalled window on to the world of the medieval knight, allowing us to witness first-hand the emergence of the near-mythical warrior class that stood at the heart of medieval European history. This book traces the development of this elite martial cadre, from its training and rituals to the evolution of knightly arms, armour and fighting methods. And it reveals how a collision between the harsh realities of medieval war and politics and romanticised Arthurian myths spawned the notions of chivalry and courtliness, the codes that William Marshal came to epitomise and define.
It also follows Marshal, as he stood at the right hand of five kings, through a tumultuous era of military confrontation and cultural upheaval – a period that transformed England. William witnessed the rise and fall of the English monarchy’s mighty Angevin ‘Empire’, fought embittered wars of conquest against the French that served, for the first time, to foster a distinct sense of ‘English’ identity and was party to the forging of Magna Carta, the original ‘bill of rights’, which reset the balance of power between the king and his subjects. This knight’s tale thus traverses one of the most formative periods of our medieval past. It is the story of a remarkable man, the creation of the knightly ideal and the birth of a nation.