Well, I think that I’ve exhausted the Boggis research – at least for now. After a tangent that encompassed a few days and a few posts, I feel that I can now safely resume to the work I set out to do.
I find names fascinating. In many cases, you can learn a lot about a person simply by knowing his name – and nowhere is that more evident than in the Middle Ages. For the most part, there were no family names – a person was known by their name, and their father’s name (in most cases – the common Fitz surnames date from this: William Fitz Roy, or William, son of the king. A famous exception to this is the Angevin king Henry II, who is often referred to as Henry FitzEmpress, to highlight through whom his claim to the throne of England had come. However, in the Middle Ages, there were very few surnames as we know them, and those that did exist were rarely found outside the nobility.
As he was born into the minor nobility, William Marshal did not originally have a last name, and would thus probably have been referred to as William FitzJohn. His father, John FitzGilbert, also happened to be the Marshal of England under King Stephen. The position was hereditary, and had originally been filled by William’s grandfather Gilbert. Here, though, the histories differ: though most of the accounts associated with William and his family list Gilbert, the royal serjeant (the spelling is theirs) of King Henry I, as the first marshal, though I’ve also found accounts that list that era’s marshal as Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (also known as Strongbow), with his son Richard inheriting the title upon the latter’s death in 1148.
The competing accounts of de Clare and William’s ancestors can be explained much easier than one would think: the discrepancy is a result of the Anarchy, that time when England was so embroiled in civil wars that, to quote the Laud Chronicle of 1137, “men said openly that Christ and his saints slept”. During this nineteen year period (1135-1153) after the death of King Henry I, England and its companion, the French Duchy of Normandy, found themselves torn between the supporters of the king’s heir, the Empress Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen, who had claimed the throne to keep a woman (and, for that matter, her husband, Geoffrey V, comte d’Anjou [called both “Le Bel (The Fair)” and Plantagenet] from coming to power).
The de Clares were supporters of Stephen – who, though he was an usurper, had been crowned King of England – and were among the king’s most loyal followers. Though John FitzGilbert was in name a supporter of Stephen, his true loyalties lay with Matilda – something that would eventually lead to a young William Marshal’s first brush with history (more on that in a later post).
Of course, to those who have studied history, the outcome of the Anarchy is well known: although there was a period where she had captured and imprisoned Stephen, Matilda never got a chance to wear the crown she felt was rightfully hers. Matilda eventually renounced all of her claims on the crown, the treaty that ended the civil wars disinherited Stephen’s issue in favor of Matilda’s son, Henry (the FitzEmpress mentioned earlier), who was crowned as the first Angevin king following Stephen’s death in 1154.
The eventual triumph of Matilda’s cause in the form of her son, Henry II, meant that it was John FitzGilbert that would be confirmed as Marshal of England. To today’s minds, ‘marshal’ is generally seen as a military rank, often the highest rank one can achieve. However, to the people of the Middle Ages, the role of the Lord Marshal was completely different. The marshal was the member of the king’s household who held the responsibility of feeding the king’s horses. Other tasks devolved on him: he helped keep the rolls that showed who had performed the military service that they owed the king. It was the marshal who supervised the court treasury (This is one of the reasons I like Ridley Scott’s 2010 production of Robin Hood: one of the scenes that features William Marshal has King John note that “…you speak for the money, Marshal” – a rare instance of someone getting something right in a movie), and it was the marshal who was responsible for keeping order in the palace and for guarding the doorway to the king’s hall.
It may come as a surprise then, when I say that the office of Marshal (now the Earl Marshal) still survives. Like in the time of William, it is a hereditary office. Considered one of the great Offices of State, nowadays the Marshal is responsible for the coronation and funeral of the monarch – nowhere near the importance of the post in the Middle Ages, but still important enough that the Earl Marshal was one of the officers allowed to keep his seat in the House of Lords when the right of hereditary peers to sit in the chamber was removed.
Thus, the name of William should be William the Marshal (and indeed, the French chronicle of his life is titled L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal – the History of William the Marshal). And yet, he became so famous during his lifetime that people (around Europe, not just in England) called him “the Marshal”, and that histories nowadays make his office a surname, much like the surnames of Baker, Carpenter and Fisher, among others.