In 1197, the Marshal—Sir William the Marshal—stormed a French castle single-handed. He was fifty years old.
A respected commander, past his best as a combatant, the Marshal had stood by and watched while King Richard Lionheart hurled his men at the ramparts. Two knightly storming parties weathered a rain of arrows, stones, lumps of wood, hauled themselves to the top of their ladders, took on the flails, forks and spears of the defenders. One of the ladders broke. Thousands of pounds of men and maille thudded into the ditch.
The other party retreated, all except for Sir Guy de la Bruyere, trapped at the top of the ladder—the defenders had him hooked by his maille. He could only keep his shield up while they hammered at him with flails, and archers peppered his armour.
The Marshal draws his sword, leaps down into the ditch, slithers through the mud. Shafts buzz past, ping off his helm. Long-limbed, he takes the ladder like an iron-skinned spider.
King Richard—the man who led the beach assault at Jaffa, crossbow in one hand, Danish axe in the other—wants to go after him. His advisors hold him back; Leave the crazy old knight to his fate, they tell him. We need to regroup and attack properly, or not at all.
The Marshal reaches Sir Guy, climbs over him, vaults onto the battlements. A single greybeard, outnumbered, out-of-puff, surrounded by a mob of men with spears and flails. How will this end?
Badly for the defenders.
The Marshal strikes to the left and the right, clears the parapet. He stands in the midst of the carnage, gasping for breath. He’s too old for this game.
Sir William de Monceaux, the young constable of the castle, sees his chance to win fame. He charges over the blood-slick wall walk and lays into the greybeard. The Marshal cleaves his helmet with a single blow. The blade passes through the maille and padding beneath, shears into the scalp, throws the young knight unconscious to the stones.
Tired now, the Marshal sits on the downed man and waits for the rest of the army to join him.
And that was the Marshal at the age of fifty. At seventy he led the charge into Lincoln, carved his way through the bodyguard of the French captain. What must he have been like in his thirties when he went to the Holy Land?
More to the point, what did he get up to while he was there?
His rollicking contemporary biography, The History of William Marshal gives us a blow-by-blow account of his career. He’s pretty much a posh William Thatcher from the movie Knight’s Tale, working his way up from nothing via the tournament circuit (only with more fatality and less Rock and Roll). Then in 1183 his patron died, and the Marshal took ship for the Holy Land. All the History tells us is that he stayed there for a couple of years and did great deeds.
What great deeds?
The Marshal arrived too late for the main 1183 campaign—no glorious battles, that one anyway. By 1187, he’d been home for at least a year, so was not there when the Crusaders rode out to their doom at the Horns of Hattin.
However, we have a record of one feat of arms for the very end of 1183. It was the kind of crazy stunt only the Marshal could have pulled off, and therein lies the genesis of M. Harold Page’s new SideQuest, Marshal vs the Assassins.
This standalone SideQuest is out now via 47North.