Portsmouth-based historian and acclaimed author of The Knight Who Saved England: William Marshal and the French Invasion 1215-17, Richard Brooks, argues that important lessons from the medieval period should be remembered in this current age of Brexit, economic crisis and nationalist bigotry.
800 years ago, England was divided and beleaguered. Through ineptitude and treachery King John had lost the continental empire he inherited from his brother Richard the Lionheart. French warships commanded by the gender-shifting pirate Eustace the Monk scoured the Channel. A French army led by Louis the Dauphin, heir to the throne of France, occupied London, Winchester, and Portsmouth, at the invitation of disaffected English barons. At the height of the turmoil, King John himself chose to die, leaving a nine year old boy as his heir.
Luckily for the future Henry III, he was protected by one of the foremost soldiers of the age: William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. Born in the 1140s, younger son of a robber baron from Wiltshire, William had made good as a tournament champion, a knight in the royal household, and military tutor to Henry II’s eldest son. One of Richard the Lionheart’s closest associates, William stood by King John despite every provocation, playing a key role in negotiating the revolutionary charter of legal guarantees that we now know as Magna Carta. When John died suddenly in October 1216, William’s age and prestige made him the only serious candidate for the Regency.
William had no money and few troops, but he had the support of the Church. This enabled him to outmanoeuvre the rebellious barons politically, first by crowning Henry III at Gloucester, then by reissuing the Charter under his own seal. When Louis divided his forces in May 1217 to besiege Dover and Lincoln, William took immediate advantage of the opportunity. Marching briskly to Lincoln, the seventy year old Marshal led his men through an ill-guarded gate to overthrow the rebels on the cathedral steps, charging on horseback down streets too steep for modern motor vehicles. Three months later William orchestrated an unprecedented naval victory off Sandwich, where the men of the Cinque Ports intercepted and slew Eustace the Monk bringing reinforcements for the Dauphin.
Contemporary English opinion saw their double deliverance in biblical terms. Ralph of Coggeshall wrote: ‘And thus the Lord smote the head of his enemies coming to annihilate the English race, and many were captured in many ships, and the Lord drew the waters of the sea over… them as they fled, and they were sunk like lead in the stormy waters’. The Dauphin’s departure on 30 September was a modest triumph, however. He only left after receiving a £10,000 sweetener, in exchange for vague promises to restore the lands lost overseas. Henry III was impoverished and destabilised, vulnerable to further outbreaks of baronial unrest, culminating in the battles of Lewes and Evesham in the 1260s. The loss of the Angevin lands overseas was a foreign policy disaster of the first magnitude. Nobody in 1217 would have indulged in such oxymoronic slogans as ‘making a success of Brexit’. They could recognise a shipwreck when they saw one.
This has not stopped some modern commentators such as the Daily Mail‘s Dan Jones drawing glowing parallels between the events of 1217 and Britain’s imminent departure from the Europe Union. Misunderstanding and misrepresenting the thirteenth century context, they have hijacked historical truth for today’s partisan ends. Thirteenth century England never turned its back on Europe. On his deathbed, the Marshal entrusted the king, now eleven, to a European institution. English political inconstancy was notorious. In his perplexity William turned to the Pope: ‘If the land is not defended by the Apostolic See… then I do not know who will defend it’. Protestant Victorians, their isolationism already obsolete, lamented England’s subjection to papal authority, but in the circumstances the Marshal’s choice was sound.
England remained enmeshed in European power politics. Royal expeditions still sailed for Brittany and Gascony. Henry III married a French princess; his brother-in-law was Saint Louis, the Dauphin’s son. Europe’s political fragmentation ensured that English goods never faced exclusion from continental markets, as soon they may. Medieval England’s main export was wool, shipped to the Flemish weavers of modern Belgium. The trade remained the bedrock of England’s foreign trade until the Tudor period, followed by the exchange of English grain for Gascon wine.
The Marshal would have been baffled by today’s nationalist outpourings. Educated in Normandy, he spoke French. His oldest companion in arms was Baldwin of Béthune, in northern France. His happiest days were probably spent with his Countess in her castle at Longueville, near Dieppe, skirmishing with French knights and begetting children. Isabel’s estates lay both sides of the English Channel, giving William practical experience of the difficulty of having cake and eating it. When he did homage to Philip Augustus, King of France, to save her Norman castles, King John accused William of treason. The old tournament champion only escaped by offering to fight anyone misguided enough to support John’s accusations. The battles of 1217 left intact the social ties between international elites. When William died, King Philip Augustus of France was one of three Frenchmen who pronounced the final words of the epic History of William Marshal, praising his wisdom, prowess, and loyalty: the moral trinity that defined the perfect knight. Among those present at the French court was William’s second son, Richard.
Political separation from Europe had even less effect upon the masses. Most people lived off the land. Modern Britain can neither feed itself, nor supply the labour to pick the crops it does grow. Thirteenth century Portsmouth was a self-sufficient farming and fishing community, three or four hundred people clustered around the Camber and St Mary’s. Its infant dockyard, down by Gunwharf, was soon to fall victim to Henry III’s poverty. Today the city’s most significant economic assets are its university and the international Ferryport, but for how much longer? Only a minority of thirteenth century English people travelled: a few masons and clergy moving between cathedrals and universities, the equivalent of today’s skilled workers and students, whose freedom of movement will soon face bureaucratic impediments unimaginable in the thirteenth century.
Much can be made of the linguistic and constitutional glories that lay ahead for post-Angevin England: the growth of a rich new language from the combination of Norman French and Old English; Magna Carta’s spur to parliamentary government and the rule of law. Eight hundred years ago such developments lay so impossibly far in the future as to lack any relevance to the imagined advantages of Brexit. English today is an international culturally hegemonic language, used for official European business. Brexit can only hasten its descent into Americanised Globish.
Magna Carta’s heritage is widely shared with our European partners. Experience of modern tyranny makes them more aware of its importance than home-grown politicians more interested in repatriating controls over their fellow-citizens than preserving their human rights. Newspapers who attack judges as ‘enemies of the people’ go unrebuked by the very ministers responsible for maintaining the judicial independence that protects the common folk against the arbitrary abuses of power. Parliamentary sovereignty faces as serious a threat from a Prime Minister hell-bent on forcing Brexit through by uncontrolled use of the royal prerogative as from the unaccountable mannekins pis of Brussels. All in all, anyone arguing for a future as rosy as that faced by post-Angevin England seem to care as little for modern realities as they understand about the thirteenth century.
Richard’s book on William Marshal is available to buy here from Osprey Publishing.
All images courtesy of Richard Brooks.