The Marshall Family and Marlborough Castle

One family in particular had a special connection to Marlborough Castle, and among its members was a remarkable figure who rose from being a younger son with no prospect of inheritance to be- come regent of England during the early years of Henry III’s reign, while the king was under age. William Marshal came from a distinguished family who had been officials at Henry I’s court, and at the end of his life he dictated his life story to a poet who wrote a vivid biography of him. The History of William Marshal records his dramatic career as a champion fighter in tournaments, and his stormy relationship with the royal family, from his part (as a young squire) in the rescue of Eleanor of Aquitaine from an ambush in France, to his role as tutor to Henry II’s eldest son, and finally as mentor of Henry III, who spent a great deal of time at Marlborough in his early years as king. Marlborough was one of Henry III’s favourite castles, and this may have been due to William Marshal.
Screenshot 2023-06-09 at 12.56.39 pm

During the period of anarchy after the death of Henry I in 1135, there was civil war between Stephen, who claimed the throne as Henry’s near- est male relative, and Matilda, Henry’s daughter, who had been formally recognised by Henry’s barons as his legitimate heir. John Marshal was the hereditary marshal of England, an important figure at court. He had in- herited the office from his father Gilbert in 1130, and Stephen appointed John castellan at Marlborough in 1136. Robert earl of Gloucester was the most powerful lord in the area, and at first John supported Stephen. How- ever, in 1138, Robert changed his allegiance and became the leader of Matilda’s followers. John seems to have gone over to Matilda at the same time, but in the years following sometimes acted on his own account. He either built or rebuilt Marlborough Castle at this time, and a contempo- rary writer said that ‘he built castles, designed with wondrous skill, in the place that best suited him’.

Marlborough was important for Stephen, and in July 1139 he laid siege to it, leading operations himself. At the beginning of August, however, Robert of Gloucester landed in England with men from Normandy, and Stephen abandoned the siege to counter the new threat. Later in Stephen’s reign, John Marshal was besieged by Stephen at Newbury Castle; John agreed to surrender the castle on a certain date, and sent his young son William as a hostage to be held until he did so. However, John used the time to strengthen the castle and summon help from Matilda. He refused to surrender, and Stephen sent a message saying that William would be hanged. John’s answer was that if he did so, ‘I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!’ Stephen then pretended to get ready to put William into a siege catapult and hurl him at his father’s troops, but all that actually happened was that he remained a hostage until peace was negotiated the following year.

John Marshal was deprived of Marlborough Castle in 1163 for saying that according to an ‘obscure pseudo-prophet’ Henry would not return from a voyage to Ireland, probably quoting the Prophecies of Merlin which Geof- frey of Monmouth had recently written.

By 1176, the Marshal family had regained Marlborough, and John’s elder son Gilbert was castellan. He died in 1194, and his brother William was not appointed, as he was at odds with king John. However, after John’s death, William, whose spectacular career had taken him from be- ing a landless knight to becoming regent of the kingdom of England dur- ing Henry III’s minority, regained the castle because his son had seized it in the last days of John’s reign. William Marshal the Younger was the last of the Marshal family to hold the castle, and the last male heir of the family, another Gilbert, died in a tournament in 1241. But there was one more period when a member of the family occupied Marlborough. Aymer de Valence, William the Elder’s great-grandson, was given the use of the castle for his wife in 1297, while he was with Edward III’s army in Flanders.