St Govan’s Chapel in Pembrokeshire Wales, is one of those places that has stories seeped into it. There’s not a lot of information, but it’s a fascinating place so in the tradition of Historical Ragbag, I thought I’d write about it. Especially because my last two posts have been so long and in depth, I thought something with a few more pictures and a little bit shorter might be nice too, so I settled on St Govan’s.
I wanted to start with the coast that St Govan’s is nestled in. The spectacular coastline is part of the Pembrokeshire National Park, but St Govan’s itself is actually situated on land owned by the Ministry of Defence. It’s called the Castlemartin Range, and means that it isn’t always open to visitors when the military is using the area. The Pembrokeshire National Park and The Ministry of Defence work closely together to preserve and protect this bit of coastline. You can see just how beautiful if is in the photos below.
You would be forgiven for missing St Govan’s. I had no idea it was there certainly. I was lucky enough that the owner of the BnB I was staying in knew I was interested in medieval history and drove me to some of the best medieval sites in the region. St Govan’s is nestled so close into the rock, it is almost invisible.
In winter waves can break over the Chapel. I was lucky enough to be there in excellent weather, it is still somewhat of a precarious descent though.
When you reach the bottom of the steps, you are met with a secluded door.
Once you walk through the Chapel, you can see why it is so prone to incursion by the sea.
So the history of this little Chapel, built into the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, is actually quite up for debate. All sorts of stories have grown up around it over time, it is even arguable who St Govan was and how he came to give him name to the Chapel. The spelling of ‘Govan’ is relatively contemporary with earlier maps referring to the chapel as St Gouen, Gowen, Goven, Gofan and Gobin. He could have been the nephew of St David, or possibly a disciple of St Eilfyw who baptised St David, or both. According to the information sign at the chapel, St Govan was most likely St Gobham who was the Abbot of Dairinis in County Wexford in Ireland, but there is an argument that this St Gobham was a totally seperate person who became confused with Govan over time because of the similarity of the names and two sources that got confused. It also gets murky because there is the possibility that the name Govan is a bastardisation of Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights. This is unlikely (apart from the fact that Gawain is probably legendary), it is a story that has become woven into the history of the chapel over the centuries, and doesn’t seem to have any vaguely contemporary references. Most likely St Govan, if he existed at all, was a local saint possibly connected to St David. Regardless of who he was; at some point in probably the 5th century Govan came to the area and set up a monastic hermitage on the site the chapel now stands on. The current building dates to later than this, but I’ll return to that in a moment.
So the next question is, why did St Govan decide to set up a monastic hermitage on this site? Now, as you’ll see will become common in the history of St Govan’s, there’s a few different version of the story. The basic narrative is that he was being pursued by pirates, or the local villagers, or bandits of some kind and he couldn’t find safe refuge, so he prayed and a cleft in the rock opened miraculously for him to hide in. In one version the rocks closed so tightly around him to protect him that his ribs left an impression in the stone. Then in thanks he built a hermitage there and stayed the remainder of his life. St Govan’s Chapel is certainly in a small cleft in the rock, though I don’t think it was opened miraculously by God.
The other part of this legend is St Govan’s Bell. Again there are different versions, but the gist is that St Govan had a silver bell that he used to warn people of pirates in the area. The pirates stole the bell and St Govan prayed for its return and angels brought the bell back and set it in stone, so St Govan could still send out warnings. The large rock to the right of the Chapel is said to be this bell, and is still called bell rock.
Another, slightly more poetic version of the story can be seen in the BBC Cymru clip below, it also gives you a great idea of the landscape surrounding St Govan’s.
So, so far we aren’t sure exactly who St Govan was, or why he was there, or what he was doing, but there are lots of good stories. Now let’s turn to the Chapel itself. It was built on the site in either the 11th, 12th, 13th or 14th centuries, depending on who you talk to, and it is possible that versions of it were built in all of these centuries. It was definitely restored in the 1980s, which is why it is so intact. In particular I think the roof is the most recent. The Chapel itself is a single chamber measuring 5.5m by 3.7m with three doors, one of which opens into a natural cave which you can see in the photo below.
This cave is known as the saint’s cell, and it most likely here that the original St Govan set himself up before any version of the chapel was built, it is also possible that this is where he hid from the pirates (or whoever else was chasing him). It is right next to the altar in the chapel proper. There are a couple of intriguing legends that tie to the saint’s cell, one is that Jesus hid in there at one point, possibly from pirates (though no one seems clear on why Jesus was in Wales hiding from anyone). There is also the legend that if you climb into the cell and can turn around while making a wish, that it will come true. So again St Govan’s history is almost more of myth than of fact, but that in many ways makes it more interesting.
So the interior of the Chapel proper is quite sparse there is an altar, a piscina (a place for disposing of holy water etc), some stone benches and a well, along with some small windows looking out to sea. I will return to the well in a moment. You can see the interior of the Chapel in the photos below.
But to return to the wells. There are two at St Govan’s but only the one outside the Chapel is named for the saint. You can see it under the little domed cover in the bottom right of the photo below.
So the well at St Govan’s would have been famous locally for centuries, but the earliest recorded mention of it as a place to visit is from 1662 where a traveller John Ray said “Thence the same day to St. Gobin’s Well, by the sea side, where under the cliff stands a little chapel, sacred to the saint, and a little below it a well, famous for the cure of all diseases. There is, from the top of the cliff to the Chapel a descent of 52 steps”
Before I return to the well, I just want to quickly make a point about the steps. There is a legend that it is impossible to exactly count the number of steps down to the Chapel. Every account certainly seems to give a different number ranging between 50 ish and 70.
Returning to the well though. “Cure of all diseases” is a lovely catch all. Pilgrims did definitely go there to be cured over the centuries, and even into the 19th century sick people were visiting St Govan’s well in the hope of miraculous cures. As travel became easier more people were able to visit the well and it became known for cures for “scrofula, paralysis, dropsy, and other complaints” according to one account from the late 19th century. By 1922 however, the well was dry, as it remains today and St Govan’s story, and the Chapel’s story began to drift back into obscurity. Though it has remained a lovely and rather fascinating tourist destination, as well as having a very real history interwoven with myth. It’s definitely well worth visiting for the location alone, but I wouldn’t be looking for a cure for COVID there (sadly).
This is part two of my exploration of the life of Henry the Young King. This post is going to cover the last nine years of his life, from when he travelled with his knights to fight on the tournament circuit in c.1175 to his death in 1183. Part one covered his life up to this point, and can be read here.
As I explained in part one, I can not cover all of Young Henry’s life, as that would be an entire book. In fact there is an excellent book on Young Henry- Henry The Young King: 1155-1183 by Matthew Strickland which I highly recommend if you want to know more, I have drawn on it heavily for both posts. I’m also not going to rehash what I’ve already written, but like the first post I will be conveying a series of vignettes of Young Henry’s life. I will pick up where I left off. His time on the tourney field.
In c.1175 Young Henry received permission from his father Henry II to travel to the continent to take part in the tournament circuit. He had taken part in tournaments before, but this wasn’t just attending the odd tournament here and there, this was an extended tour of the tournament fields of France. This is one of the best known periods of Young Henry’s life. This is mainly because the History of William Marshal devotes a significant portion of its content to the tourney exploits of its hero William Marshal, and thus Young Henry who was his lord during this period of time.
I want to pause in my narrative about Young Henry at this point to explore the tournament circuit just a little, to give an overview of what exactly Young Henry was involved in. I’ll then move on to the fantastic descriptions of some of his exploits that can be found inthe History and other contemporary sources.
So the tournament circuit is essentially what it sounds like, a series of tournaments in this case conducted around what is now considered France. Henry II was not a fan of tournaments, and had banned them in England possibly because he was concerned that they would stir up too much dissent. Tournaments were popular as training grounds for martial ability, a place to make a name and fortune for younger sons, and for nobility of all ranks to earn prestige and reputation. In the late 1100s tournaments were so popular it was possible to attend one every two weeks roughly if you so desired.
This was not polite jousting, with pretty colours and maidens’ favours that is the popular image of tournaments today. They could be quite brutal, with melees and hard fighting. The aim wasn’t to kill your opponent, it was to capture them to claim a ransom. People did die in tournaments though, in fact Young Henry’s younger brother Geoffrey was killed in a tournament in 1186.
Tournaments at the time were usually three day events and were sponsored by a great lord, such as the Count of Flanders. The lord, or lady, who sponsored the event was responsible for promotion, providing prizes, organising events around the tournament and making sure there was seating for the spectators. These were the high point of medieval entertainment and the nobility came from far and wide to watch and take part. The key component of the tournament, as far as Young Henry was concerned, was the melee which usually took place on the final day of the tournament. This was essentially a no holds barred cavalry charge between different teams of knights. The aim was to capture other knights for ransom, but prizes were also awarded for the best fighters. For example William Marshal was once awarded a pike (as in the fish) as a prize.
The melee was certainly worthy of the name- knights fought in teams but they didn’t wear ‘team’ colours. They all shouted the battle cry of their lords, but it was easy enough (and it did happen occasionally) to mistake friend for a foe. So it was into these exciting, brutal and most of all brilliant world of tournaments that Young Henry threw himself with much enthusiasm. You can see the violence of the melee depicted in the the 14th century Codex Manesse below. You claimed a ransom from another knight often by tearing off their helmet and wrestling them off their horse.
To begin with Young Henry and his knights were not incredibly successful, but over time they began to develop a reputation as amongst the best on the tournament circuit. It must have been a godsend for Young Henry, as he finally had the chance to build a reputation for himself, away from his father, and in an area where it turned out he excelled. At the height of his prowess on the tournament circuit he had more than 200 knights fighting under his banner, of which 15 were lords who had mesnies (men who followed them) of their own. Marshalling all these fighters was William Marshal the hero of the History and who was ultimately responsible for making sure Young Henry wasn’t captured. Young Henry was one of the few kings to take to the field and was recognisable because he wore his own heraldic device on his shield, banner and probably horse which made him a recognisable target. A king’s ransom would be the ultimate prize for most of the knights on the field. He definitely led from the front though; with the History describing him as many a time it happened that, when he spurred on, so the companies with him spurred on too, so vigorously as they advanced that those riding towards them from the other side could not withstand their charge. And it often happened that the other side had far more men than they, and yet they were thrown into disarray by the might power of the King’s companies.
Between 1176 and roughly 1180 Young Henry was a star of the tournament circuit. The History described him as a worthy, fine, and courtly man later in his life performed such high exploits that he revived the notion of chivalry, which as the time, was near to extinction. He was the gate, the way and the door through which chivalry returned, and he was her standard bearer.
The History goes onto record some of the more amusing exploits on the tournament field, such as the time when Marshal was leading a captured knight through the town of Anet and when Marshal wasn’t looking and the knight swung himself off his horse, onto a gutter and got away. The History says that the King saw it; he said not a word, preferring not to. It then goes on to say that it was all seen as a splendid trick. The tournament field gave Young Henry the chance to be different, to stand on his own reputation. Ralph of Diceto, who was a dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, recorded in 1179 that Young King Henry, the king’s son, left England and passed three years in tournaments spending a lot of money. While he was rushing all over France he put aside the royal majesty and was transformed from a king into a knight, carrying off victory in various meetings. His popularity made him famous; the old king was happier counting up and admiring his victories. What is interesting about this passage is firstly that it conveys that Young Henry was very much in the middle of the fighting, but also that his father approved of his foray into the world of tournaments because it added to his reputation. This second point contradicts the theory that Henry II would have disapproved of his spendthrift son. It is possible that he was happy that Young Henry was suitably occupied and thus not pestering him to rule parts of the Plantagenet Empire- as Henry II was not keen on relinquishing power. You can see Henry II’s effigy from Fontevraud Abbey beside Eleanor of Aquitaine’s in the photo below.
So the idea of Young Henry as a spendthrift is contemporary. It was somewhat of a double edged sword, because he needed to make the best impression he could, it was part of his reputation on the tournament circuit, and this involved largess and being open handed with his men, but he was also accused of running up debt. The History described it as It is true that the Young King, in the castles in town in every place he happened to come to, led such a lavish life that, when it came to the end of his stay, he had no idea how to take his leave. When it came to the last day, debtors would appear, men who had supplied him with horses, garments and victuals. Most of the debtors would have known that his money came from Henry II, so would have continued to lend knowing that Young Henry had the revenues of the crown to draw upon. It is worth noting that not all his spending would have been his, his retinue would have contributed and as they jockeyed for position within his household knights, including William Marshal, would have sought payment and favour from him. It was partly to keep them all in the luxury they thought they deserved that Young Henry would have spent his money.
So that brings me to the end of this vignette; Young Henry as the doyen of the tournament field was an important part of his life, and probably the first time he had real purpose and direction. There was also an ugly side of this band of young knights that flocked around the Young King. There was one incident in particular that I wanted to mention, as it isn’t mentioned inthe History mainly because it does not portray Young Henry in the ideal chivalric light that the History for the most part paints him. In 1176 Adam de Chirchdowne, who was Young Henry’s vice-chancellor, was discovered passing messages to Henry II. He was essentially warning Henry II that Young Henry had met with several nobles who were hostile to Henry II. Young Henry and his retinue were going to have Adam put to death either by hanging or flaying alive as he viewed the betrayal as treason. The Bishop of Poitiers intervened saying Adam was a Clerk and couldn’t be punished by the secular court, but once he’d left Young Henry exacted revenge. Roger of Hoveden described it as:
The king, the son, on his return, upon coming to Poitiers, took Adam de Chirchedowne, his vice-chancellor, who was a clerk of Geoffrey, the prior of Beverley, chancellor of the king, the son, and caused him to be beaten with sticks, charging him with having disclosed his secret counsels to the king, his father; and after being thus beaten, he had him led naked through the streets of the city of Poitiers, while, being still whipped, proclamation was made by the voice of a herald, ” Thus does he deserve to be disgraced who reveals the secrets of his master.”
Not exactly the act of the a paragon of chivalry.
Young Henry wasn’t only on the tournament circuit at the end of the 1170s, he was involved at least a bit with government. Roger of Hoveden records him a present at Windsor at Christmas 1176. You can see the keep of Windsor castle in the photo below:
Young Henry was then at Nottingham with Henry II when, with the bishops, they divided the kingdom of England in to six parts and appointed 3 justices to each section. He certainly held a peace of sorts with his father, fighting with him in various small wars in France.
Another small, but tragic vignette into the life of Young Henry occurred in 1177. Young Henry’s wife, Margaret who was the daughter of Louis VII of France, was delivered of a son who was either still-born or who only lived for a handful of days. I say this is a small vignette because it is only mentioned in passing by the chroniclers, it must have loomed large in Young Henry’s life and the life of his Queen. It’s sometimes hard to remember that even though the infant mortality rate was high, losing a child must have still been an incredibly painful experience. I am moving to speculation here, but it isn’t too far fetched to think that Young Henry must have had some dynastic plans, and he’d been married to Margaret since 1160 and this was the first pregnancy- though both were only in the mid twenties at this time.
I’m now going to jump forward a few years to the beginning of the end. Young Henry was doing things in between 1177 and 1183- he undertook more tourneying, he fought alongside his father in a number of French wars, he helped shore up the tottering reign of his brother in law Phillip II the new King of France, a task Henry II also helped with and which he would probably come to later regret. But by 1183 things were starting to unravel.
Young Henry and Henry II had managed to maintain peace since his rebellion in 1173, but by the 1st of January 1183 it began to implode. The key issue is that Henry II’s plans were dynastic, he wanted his empire to stay together- you can see an image of what the Plantagenet Empire looked like at the height of its power in the image below (if you read part one you’ll have seen this already)
He envisioned Young Henry as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Anjou, Richard as Duke of Aquitaine and Geoffrey as Duke of Brittany and John as possibly Lord of Ireland, or various other domains he tried to bequeath to him to overcome his appellation of ‘lackland’. He saw them as all working together, effectively paying homage to Young Henry as King of England. Unfortunately (and this is grossly simplifying a complex situation) he didn’t cede authority well, the brothers weren’t interested in working together (unless they were rebelling against each other or their father) so his plan had quite a few holes. It was one of these holes that tipped the balance in January 1183.
The hole was Richard, Aquitaine and paying homage to Young Henry. Homage was complicated, because while it was a swearing of allegiance, it also bound the person to whom homage was being sworn to protect the rights of the person swearing homage. So like the idea of Young Henry as a spendthrift and a a prince dispensing largess, homage was a double edged sword. The dispute began in 1182 when Richard built a castle on lands that would have traditionally been part of Anjou. Anjou was part of the territory that Young Henry would have inherited from his father, even though he had no control over it at this point. He most likely saw Richard as encroaching on his patrimony before he’d even had a chance to rule it. There was a patched up peace for the Christmas court in 1182 at Caen- you can see Caen castle in the photo below.
The situation came to a head in January 1183 in Le Mans. Henry II wanted Geoffrey to swear homage to Young Henry for his lands he held as Duke of Brittany, which went off pretty much without a hitch. He’d already performed this homage in 1169 to Young Henry in Young Henry’s position as Duke of Normandy. Henry II wanted Richard to perform homage as well. This was a bit tricker because Aquitaine wasn’t considered a subject of any of the lands Young Henry held. Richard considered himself Young Henry’s equal. He was claiming the rights to Aquitaine through his mother-as Young Henry was inheriting from primogeniture through their father.
Ralph of Diceto described Richard’s anger at the proposed act of homage,
Since he came from the same father and same mother as his brother, it was not right for him to acknowledge his elder brother as superior by some sort of subjection. Rather, by the law of firstborn sons, the paternal goods were due to his brother, and he claimed equal right to legitimate succession to the maternal goods.
Essentially Richard was seeing himself a Duke of an independent Aquitaine, which is not how Henry II had envisioned his empire running after his death. He had most likely envisioned Young Henry taking his place as the head of the family and as overlord of all the domains being held by his brothers. Eventually though, Henry II did persuade Richard to perform the act of homage provided that Young Henry swore that he would formally recognise that Aquitaine was to be held by Richard, and any heirs he might have, undisputed.
It should have worked, but Young Henry had other ideas- he refused to accept Richard’s homage. He cited that he could not as he had already pledged himself to help the recalcitrant Aquitainian barons who had be rising up against Richard. He said that he had made this pledge due to the castle that Richard had built, and urged Henry II to take the castle away from Richard. Roger of Hoveden recorded Richard’s reaction
Richard, feeling greatly indignant at this, withdrew from the court of the king, his father, and going to Poitou, his own territory, built there some new castles and fortified the old ones.
Henry II prevailed on all three brothers to come to Angers to swear a perpetual peace between them, you can see Angers castle in the photo below (it dates to the 14th century but is on the site that had been home to the Counts of Anjou for centuries)
Richard was persuaded to hand his castle over to Henry, probably to stop Young Henry from having an excuse to meddle in Aquitaine. So a peace again was patched up, but it was short lived. In February 1183 Geoffrey was sent to work out a truce with the rebels, but he immediately sided with them instead- which was most likely pre-arranged with Young Henry. Young Henry offered to act as an intermediary, but ultimately he joined forces with Geoffrey and the Aquitainian barons and thus began another family war- one that was to be the Young King’s last.
There was a couple of key points to this conflict that it is worth examining, but as this is supposed to be about Young Henry and his life I am not going to go through what can be called the brothers’ war in great detail.
So the key points:
Firstly it is arguable who the instigator of the conflict was. It seems that Geoffrey and Young Henry were trying to provoke Richard to give them a legitimate reason to rise up against him. It’s possible that Young Henry thought that if he could take Aquitaine then he would finally have some lands of his own to rule and, with the resulting revenues, not be beholden to his father. Geoffrey’s motives are murkier, but he may have been trying to put a stop to a situation where Richard ruled Aquitaine after their father’s death and started trying to take chunks out of Brittany. He may have seen Young Henry as a lord of Aquitaine that would be better for him. He may have also rebelled because Henry II hadn’t handed over all of the lands and rights that came with the Dukedom of Brittany- which Geoffrey held by right of his wife Constance. Henry II was in some ways an instigator as well, because in a moment of anger when his second attempt at peace failed and Richard left the court again, according to the History he declared (speaking about the Aquitainian barons and their fight against Richard) “Go on then, go to their aid, said the father, I’ll permit that.” So they left the King, and therewith that strife began which was not resolved until everyone all around had the worst of it.
The last words aptly sum up the brothers’ war, as everyone certainly had the worst of it.
So the second point that is important about this war is how it was fought. Geoffrey and Young Henry had learnt from their rebellion in 1173 and the forces they established against Richard were extensive. Gerald of Wales described it as an army greater than was ever before assembled at any time by a man having neither territory or treasure. This is typical Gerald of Wales- biting to say the least, but he isn’t wrong that it was a formidable army. The History describes it as
They retained in their service knights and soldiers, mercenaries and crossbowmen, fine footsoldiers and archers. And the high-ranking barons in the region, whom the count [meaning Richard], whom they hated bitterly, had treated badly, rode in great numbers, every one of them of a mind to fight for they would have loved to humble the pride of count Richard, if only they had the opportunity and could get the upper hand
This was a force to be reckoned with.
So these are the two key points to the start of the war: Geoffrey and Young Henry against Richard. You can see Richard’s effigy from Fontevraud in the photo below
This brings me to my next vignette of Young Henry; as a commander in his final war. He continued to protest to his father that he was trying to make peace between Geoffrey, the Aquitainian barons and Richard. Henry II continued to believe him until he tried to approach Limoges and was shot at by Geoffrey and the Young King’s forces. With Richard’s duchy seriously under threat in an increasingly incendiary war (the countryside and the people living there was being ravaged by mercenaries hired by Young Henry and Geoffrey) Henry II ended up on Richard’s side.
So once again Young Henry was in rebellion against his father. It was a culmination of all that had gone before, and even in rebellion Young Henry continued to act as an intermediary between the two forces. Whether this was in good faith or not we can never really know, but it does show how tentative he was, even in rebellion he couldn’t really find the place where he fitted.
This brings me to one of my last vignettes, Young Henry taking the cross. At St Martial, he swore on the holy relics that he would take the cross. We don’t know what his motivation was, it could have been genuine, Young Henry was an adventurer, and taking the cross would have certainly been an adventure. It could also have been a way out of a sticky situation. Most likely Young Henry hadn’t intended to end up in rebellion against Henry II, he was trying to fight Richard not his father, but he had sworn to the Aquitainian barons to help them, so he couldn’t back down even when his father entered the war on Richard’s side. So taking the cross, could have been his get out of gaol free card so to speak. Roger of Hoveden, has Henry II initially making this cynical assessment saying that Henry II was thinking that he had done this more through indignation than religious feeling
Hoveden then goes on to describe an emotional scene where Henry II begs Young Henry not to take the cross, but becomes convinced that Young Henry was sincere in his desire, he also promised to equip him for the trip. Henry II was an astute ruler and he must have recognised that having Young Henry out of the way meant that he would be more able to bring Geoffrey to heel. Additionally he’d be able to de-intensify the volatile situation in what had become a very nasty war- especially for the people living in the countryside that was being ravaged by Geoffrey and Young Henry’s routiers. So Young Henry and Henry II patched up a peace between the two of them. It was not to last though, Roger of Hoveden says
Shortly after, the king the son, pretending that he wished for peace, requested his father to send to him Maurice de Crouy with a truce, and some other barons ; and while some of their followers were conversing with him, they were slain in the presence of the king the son, by the enemies of our lord the king.
Now Hoveden is biased towards Henry II, and it is arguable whether this event actually occurred, but it was shortly after this Young Henry, finally and irretrievably threw in his lot with the rebels, he stopped trying to patch up even pretend peace with his father.
Thus began his final weeks.
Young Henry’s first problem was that he was running out of money. Henry II had vast resources to draw on, Young Henry simply didn’t and he knew that his routiers would only stay loyal if they were paid. Young Henry didn’t have many options, but the ones he chose can be seen as painting him in a sadly desperate light. He began robbing churches. Roger of Hoveden describes one such depredation
Money now failing him, the king, the son, proceeded to Saint Mary de Roche Andemar, stripped the tomb of Saint Andemar, and carried away the treasures of the church.
This wasn’t the only church he robbed, though he did promise to pay it all back, but it was the last. Which brings me to the final vignette of Young Henry. His death.
Before I discuss it though, I want to put the church robbing in a little context. It wasn’t seen as honourable in his own time, but it was not unheard of. Strickland argues, that he was building a war chest for a renewed campaign which was stopped by his untimely death. We will probably never know if his actions were basically to keep his troops paid, or if he was planning something bigger, because barely days after this final depredation, he was dead.
Roger of Hoveden says
In the course of a few days after this, the king, the son, seeing that he could not do any material injury to the king, his father, in consequence of indignation and rancour of mind, was attacked by a severe malady at a village called Martel, not far from the city of Limoges.
The History of William Marshal re-enters the picture here, because Marshal was back with Young Henry, just before his death. He’d been banished, according to the History because of calumny brought against him by jealous members of Young Henry’s household, and had been earning his way fighting for various lords for some time. The History has Young Henry saying to his Chamberlain Ralph fitz Godfrey Ralph, go to find the Marshal for me through any land you have to, and do not stop until you find him. I beg and pray that you tell that I am summoning him in good faith not to fail to come to me. And never let it show, whether in public or in private, that I ever had any mind to bear him ill-will; rather let him be again both lord and master of my household, just as he ever was, or even more so, so that nobody notices any difference. And let him know that I have found proof of the treachery which was concocted out of vicious envy by those damnable traitors.
Marshal- after having received letters of conduct from Henry II, and apparently offers of letters from the King of France and Duke Richard, returned to Young Henry’s side, to be in time to witness his death.
Death in the medieval period was a mercurial thing, because it was possible to die well. I have written about this before- so I won’t go into detail here. You can read my previous post on a good death below- Marshal’s death 36 years later is another good example (though for different reasons)
When Young Henry became sick so soon after robbing Andemar it was seen as divine retribution. So when he realised he was dying. Young Henry enacted the most spectacular example of repentance, and in doing so established his reputation, and enforced the ideal of him a chivalric champion.
Both Roger of Hoveden and the History have accounts of Young Henry’s death and in many ways as a theatrical performance, it was very much in line with the pageantry that was his life.
Hoveden records that:
He was first attacked with a fever, and then by a flux of the bowels, which reduced him to the point of death. On seeing that his death was impending, he sent for our lord the king, his father, who refused to come to him, as he dreaded his treachery.
Young Henry was determined to repent of his sins in his death and he had bishops summoned for confession of these sins and he gave to Marshal the responsibility of bearing his cross to Jerusalem. The History recorded him as saying
Marshal, Marshal, you have ever been loyal to me, a staunch supporter in good faith. I leave you my cross, so that on my behalf you can take it to the Holy Sepulchre and with it pay my debts to God.
Marshal agreed and spent nearly three years in the Holy Land, buying his own grave palls while he was there. But that’s another story.
Roger of Hoveden’s account of Young Henry’s death is detailed to say the least:
After this, laying aside his fine garments, he placed upon him haircloth, and fastening a cord around his neck, said to the bishops and other religious men who stood around him : “By this cord do I deliver myself, an unworthy, culpable, and guilty sinner, unto you, the ministers of God, beseeching that our Lord Jesus Christ, who remitted his sins to the thief when confessing upon the cross, will, through your prayers and His ineffable mercy, have compassion upon my most wretched soul.” To which all made answer, “Amen.” He then said to them: “drag me out of this bed by this cord, and place me on that bed strewed with ashes,” which he had caused to be prepared for himself; on which they did as he commanded them, and placed under his head and feet two large square stones; and, all things being thus duly performed, he commanded his body be taken to Rouen in Normandy, and there be buried. After saying this, being fortified with the viaticum of the holy body and blood of our Lord, in the fear of the Lord, he breathed forth his spirit
The History records his final words as being to Marshal
You will bear my body to the church of Notre Dame in Rouen, once my soul has parted company with it. And another thing I pray and beg of you is that you beg my father for mercy, asking him to curb his anger against me and to give me his blessing. After that he said “To the glorious God in Heaven I commend you, since I can no longer speak with you, now that Death is laying hands on me, Death who harries me with such cruelty that I cannot feel heart or body, or limb. But I ask you, in the name of God, to remember me.” So much he said and his soul departed.
And thus Young Henry died, at the age of 28 on the 11th of June 1183-a king but not really a king. There were arguments over where his body was to be buried (he wanted his brain and intestines buried at Martial at Limoges as a further act of contrition and the people of Le Mans managed to co-opt and actually inter his body) but ultimately he had his wish and he was interred in Rouen Cathedral. You can see the cathedral in the photo below, along with his (non contemporary) effigy.
Henry II was distraught at his son’s death, especially as he had not believed him and had refused to come to his side. It was not the end of the brothers war- but the Young King’s part in it was over so I will leave it there.
These posts do not cover all of Young Henry’s life, but I hope I have succeeded in illustrating it in vignettes, and if you’d like to know more I highly recommend Strickland’s book.
Young Henry is one of history’s classic ‘what ifs’. If he hadn’t died, there would have been, probably, no Richard the Lionheart and no King John- one of England’s most turbulent times in history could have been very different- no Magna Carta, no barons revolt, no Robin Hood legend the list goes on. Rather like the sinking of the White Ship and the death of William the Aethling in 1120 a single death re-routed the course of English history. His legacy is also complex. Dismissed by some as an idle spendthrift, lauded by others as a paragon of all virtues.
The History’s final verdict on Young Henry was always going to be laudatory because Marshal served him, but it lays out the paragon of virtue angle quite well.
A man of such worth that no man was ever his equal as regards valour and liberality. Never did Arthur or Alexander, whose lives were noted for their noble deeds, perform so many in such a short time. If God, by his command had allowed him to live a long life, he would have quite surpassed those two in valour and noble deeds.
As always with history the truth is probably somewhere in between. A King in name only with no authority or purpose, a son arguably driven to rebellion by a father who could not relinquish control. A young knight, who fought valiantly on the tournament field, a flower of chivalry and a despoiler of churches, a rebel and a loyal son, a want to be crusader, a husband and very briefly a father. Young Henry was all of these things. But he is almost held in amber- in stasis because he died before he could become more. If he had lived longer and become king in more than name, his legacy could have been completely different, or it could have been worse, extravagance and misplaced loyalties leading to disarray and break up of the Plantagenet Empire even earlier (most of it fell to the French under King John). We can simply never know. I do think it is interesting, and as always with the History of William Marshal you have to take it with a bucket of salt especially when it puts speeches in people’s mouths, that the History has his last words as
But I ask you, in the name of God, to remember me.
I hope with these posts I have helped a little to make sure he is remembered.
Anonymous. History of William Marshal. (ed.) AJ. Holden. (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volumes I, II & III. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society. 2002.
Aurell, Martin. The Plantagenet Empire 1154-1224. (trans.) David Crouch. Harlow: Pearson Education. 2007.
Strickland, Matthew. Henry The Young King 1155-1183. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2016
Roger of Hoveden. The Annals of Roger of Hoveden Comprising the History of England and Other Countries of Europe from A.D 732 to A.D 1201. (trans.) Henry T. Riley, Volumes I & II. London: H.G Bohn. 1853.
Crouch, David. William Marshal. London: Routledge. 2016.