This is going to be an ongoing story of the life and love of William Marshal and Isabel de Clare. I will be periodically adding new vignettes of their lives together. Beginning with William’s death. The piece will follow the unusual medieval couple back through their lives together until their marriage in 1189. This story is fictional but, in keeping with the ideas of Historical Ragbag, it will be very much based in fact. For the actual facts of this story please look here
I hope you enjoy it.
While Mass was being sung for William, Isabel could not walk without the danger of coming to grief for her heart and body, her head and limbs had suffered from her exertions, her weeping and her vigils. She had prayed long into the night but William was still gone. She lent on their son Will as they gave 100 shillings to Reading Abbey so they could share in William’s good deeds. Will half carried Isabel out of the abbey. There was still so much to do, money to be given to the poor, clothes to be given to retainers. William had prepared it all so he could die well, die right. Isabel would not let him down now, she would see his wishes completed to the letter. She forced herself to stand tall, to hold her head up proudly and tried to still her shaking limbs as she thought of the man, who had been her husband for thirty years, lying there alone apart from the grave cloths he’d bought in Jerusalem a lifetime ago.
Caversham 1219. Evening
William’s daughters came to him as he lay dying. Matilda was almost out of her mind with grief. She knelt and appealed to God, asking Him why He was taking away from her what her heart loved the most. Joan was so inconsolable that she fainted and Eve and Sybil’s grief knew know comparison. When his daughters left him for a moment to comfort their mother, who could not come to him at that time as it caused her so much pain, William spoke quietly to Jean de Earley.“I haven’t had such an urge to sing as I’ve had in the last three days.” Jean leant in “it might bring back your appetite?” William offered his most faithful knight a slight smile. “Such a song would do me no good at all, for the people here, I believe, would think I was a madman.” Henry Fitz Gerald interrupted gently. “Send for your daughters and they’ll sing.” The girls came in and he lost himself in their melodies. As they sang he closed his eyes and saw Isabel as she’d been on the first day of their marriage, golden and beautiful, a promise for the future. Then he opened his eyes and saw her standing behind the girls, she bore her years with grace and charm, her blue eyes were red rimmed from crying but they were fierce too. He knew she’d be beside him for this, his final battle. She was the rock on which he’d built his life since the day they’d married. He yearned to touch her, but he knew he couldn’t. She remained there on the edge of the room and his greatest regret in his own death was the pain he was causing her. Then she smiled at him and he knew she understood, that she forgave him for dying. So much passed between them in that glance, and in that moment with the songs of their daughters in his ears he felt almost at peace.
Caversham 1219. Afternoon
Isabel wanted badly to touch William, to just run her hand over his hair to reassure him that she was there, that she loved him. But she couldn’t. For the first time in their thirty years together she was forbidden to touch him. She had always been more than just the silent passive wife. They had ruled their lands together, as much as she could anyway, it was not in her nature to sit back and wait for something to happen. Now as her husband lay dying there was nothing she could do and she couldn’t even offer him real comfort. She couldn’t find solace for her own grief in William’s arms. She clenched her hands in her gown and forced herself to sit there and watch him sleep. She was angrier than she could admit even to herself. Angry at his pride and honour that had taken these last days away from her. It didn’t matter in that moment that his pride and honour were what made him the man she loved. All she saw was his stubbornness. She had to find someone else to blame, so even though it was wrong and she knew it she dammed the Templars.
Caversham 1219. Morning
William looked up at Isabel, his beautiful wife. The ten children she’d born him, children who stood around his bed, had changed her body, but he loved every inch of it. He knew he was dying. He’d set the country in order, King Henry would be safe, but for what he was about to do to Isabel he was not sure if she would forgive him. The pain in his stomach was worse, but he ignored it as he’d ignored pain for much of his life. He smiled to himself, this was nothing compared to having his helmet removed by a blacksmith. He looked up at Isabel’s eyes and forced the words out “My love, kiss me because we won’t be able to touch again.” Isabel lent in and fiercely pressed her lips to his. It was bittersweet for William because the kiss held so many memories. As Isabel drew back William looked into the austere eyes of Aimery de Saint-Maur the Templar Master. “I am ready to join your order now.” Isabel had to leave the room; nobody could comfort her, for her grief was too intense.
Isabel watched as William made ready to be taken to Caversham. She clenched her fists as she watched Henry Fitz Gerald and Will help William onto the barge, willing herself to stay outwardly calm and in control. She was a Countess, no one would see her pain.
She knew William wanted to leave the city, he wanted to die at home. She waved in farewell as his boat pushed out onto the Thames. She wished he could just be her William, but even as he went to his death he was still William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England. She gathered herself together as much as she could as she boarded her own vessel and made to follow her husband to what could well be his deathbed. She had known when they’d married that he would most likely die first, as he was more than twenty years older than her, but now the moment was coming she couldn’t bear it. She crouched low in her boat out of sight of anyone who might be able to see her and wept, completely disconsolate.
The coronation was hasty. The country was still at war and divided, though William held out hope that many of the rebel lords would return to the fold now that King John was dead. He wished that Isabel had been able to attend and that it was been able to be a proper ceremony, but as it was the little King was gowned in the robes of state and crowned with a circlet of his mother’s. Much of the royal regalia had been lost in the Wash and there was nothing else small enough. He watched the Queen with her son, he couldn’t help but think that the boy looked frightened and that Isabelle of Angouleme seemed more interested in her own fine dress than her son’s fears. William smiled to himself, his Isabel would have comforted her son if she had been the queen. He felt his heavy burdens lessen as he thought of his Isabel. She always made his burdens lighter, always stood by him. She had kept him whole through everything, maybe now King John was dead their family could be made whole as well.
Isabel had supported William silently as he stood by King John. She had stood by him all through their marriage and she couldn’t and wouldn’t rebuke him even as he stood loyal to the King who had held two of her sons hostage, who driven the eldest Will away from them and into the arms of the rebel forces. She held her peace as William stayed loyal through it all, but when his letter came telling her that the King was dead, died of some kind of fluxe in Newark only days after his entire baggage train had been drowned in the tide in the Wash, Isabel couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe her family would be whole again.
William loved his children. He who’d come up from nothing had a surfeit of sons to pass the land onto and a surfeit of daughters to cement alliances. His lands were secure and he owed it all to Isabel. He held her as they danced at their son Will’s wedding, delighting in her familiar warmth. He marveled that even after all this time she still seemed to want him. He knew he was twenty years older than her and as he’d got older he’d been concerned that her attraction to him would wain and die, but ten children later she was still looking up at him in a way that just made him melt. He smiled down at her and whispered in her ear. “Later.” She looked up at him with a smile that was entirely inappropriate for a Countess and a mother of ten and he grinned back unrepentantly.
Isabel scrunched the letter up in her hand, relief pouring through her body. Her sons were safe, she could let her anger with William go. She’d pushed it down for the sake of their marriage and their other eight children. She had never doubted that William loved their sons. She knew he would never endanger them by failing to keep faith with the King. She knew he could never do what his father had done, when William himself had been a hostage, and proclaimed to the King that he had the hammer and anvils to build new and better sons. But still she had feared for them, she wanted them home. But they were safe now in the care of Jean de Earley, William’s loyalest knight and a good man. She slid down the wall heedless of the damage to her dress. Her daughters heard her cry and came running. They huddled around her. “Mama what’s wrong?”
Isabel dashed away the tears in her eyes and hugged the girls. “Will and Richard will be coming home.”
William knew he had to return to the King’s side. He had no choice as he’d been summoned, but he had to find a way to bind the men he was leaving behind in Ireland to him and his cause. He spoke to Isabel about it; they were her lands after all. She was very pregnant and lent tiredly against his shoulder in their solar in Kilkenny castle, but her blue eyes were bright with interest. She smiled up at him. “Use me. I’ll be your symbol, they’ll follow me.”
William drew in a deep breath to say no, that it was too dangerous but Isabel sat up and met his eyes squarely. “I can do this William. It is the only way and you know it.”
William made one last attempt. “What about the baby?”
Isabel tossed her long blonde hair dismissively. “I’m pregnant not sick. Besides I’ve been pregnant most of out marriage. It’s never stopped me before.” She lent in and kissed him tenderly. “ Let me do this William, let me protect my lands.”
William gave in. He knew it was the best way.
So that evening he summoned his men to the hall and Isabel stood beside him, her golden hair winking in the light of the candles. “My Lords, here you see the Countess whom I have brought here by the hand into your presence. She is your lady by birth, the daughter of the earl who graciously, in his generosity, enfieffed you all, once he had conquered the land. She stays behind here with you as a pregnant woman. Until such time as God brings me back here, I ask you all to give her unreservedly the protection she deserves by birthright, for she is your lady, as we all know; I have no claim to anything here save through her.”
The men cheered and Isabel held her head high and in that moment she truly looked like the descendant of the Kings of Leinster that she was and William had never loved her more.
Isabel was about to go to Ireland with William. Her heart still hurt for the loss of her son Will as a hostage to the King for William’s good behaviour, but at least they would be free of the King’s grip in Ireland. Then Thomas of Sandford rode in and shattered her peace. The King wanted Richard too. She wanted nothing more in that moment than to run over and rail at her husband and demand that his children were more important than the King, but she was a countess so she couldn’t do that. She met his eyes furiously and she could see how angry he was, not at her, never at her but at the King. This was supposed to stop them going to Ireland. He turned to the messenger. “I must confer with my council.” Thomas nodded, “Of course My Lord.” His eyes widened as Isabel was included but he said nothing. Many of the men advised against it and Isabel objected vehemently. But William held fast, his voice was tired. “If that be his wish, I shall send him all the children I have.” Isabel forgot to breathe and in that moment she almost hated him. She glared at his back as William walked over to Thomas of Sandford. “My Lord, I will comply.” Isabel wasn’t sure she could forgive him.
William stood with Roger Bigod the Earl of Norfolk watching his daughter Matilda and Roger’s son Hugh. The lad was worthy, mild mannered and open hearted. He would never admit it but Matilda held a special place in his heart, his first daughter, but the time had come to arrange a marriage. He looked at Bigod. “My Lord Bigod?”
Bigod knew exactly of what he was speaking. “I think they’ll do well together my Lord Marshal.”
William flicked a glance over at Bigod’s slender wife Ida. He always found it hard to believe that she’d ever been a mistress of the old King Henry. She seemed so delicate, much more suited to Bigod’s leonine darkness that King Henry’s boundless energy. He smiled at Bigod. “What does you wife think?”
Bigod’s smile was genuine as he looked down at his wife. “She’s for it Marshal. Says Hugh needs to marry and I promise she’ll care for Matilda as if she was her own.”
William nodded. “That is all I can ask for.”
Bigod nodded at Isabel. “What about your wife?”
William smiled at Isabel, she still missed Will but was doing her best to be happy and his heart went out to her. “She’s sad to lose Matilda but she knows Ida well enough to know that Matilda will be loved, so she to is in favour. She likes Hugh as well.”
Bigod nodded. “So, we’ll arrange it?”
William nodded. “With the King’s permission yes.”
Isabel looked up when William entered the chamber. His face was haggard and worn. She ran forward. “What happened William, did the King not believe you?”
William collapsed on their bed and looked up at her with eyes heavy with guilt and grief. “No he didn’t love. He took her hands. “I’m so sorry Isabel. He demanded a hostage for good faith, he wants Will.”
Isabel’s breath caught and the cry from her throat didn’t feel real. “No, William, he’s only fifteen.”
William nodded sadly. “I know Isabel, remember my father handed me over as a hostage at the age of five. This is how it works and you know that.” He looked deeply into her eyes. “He’ll be safe Isabel. He’ll come to no harm. He’ll live at court and the King will see him well looked after. I will keep faith with the King and when he forgives me Will can come home.”
Isabel was crying silently. “How long William, how long?”
William shook his head. “I don’t know Isabel.”
Isabel turned her face away, there was nothing else she could say.
William watched the Queen being crowned. Isabelle of Angouleme was beautiful to be sure, but she was a beautiful child, not much more than twelve if he was any judge. His Isabel briefly clasped his hand as she stood beside him. She lent in. “Don’t worry about that girl William. She knows exactly what she’s doing.”
William looked down at her puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Isabel smiled. “I spoke with her yesterday thinking that she might need some support, some, advice. She’s as hard as stone. She’s willing to marry him to be queen, to have the pretty clothes and jewels, she’s not that much of a child.”
William took her hand. “Did you feel like that too when I married you? Were you willing to put up with me for the sake of being a countess?”
Isabel smiled at him. “I never regretted our marriage for a moment William and you know that. Yes you were a stranger, but you were never anything but kind. You gave me love, freedom and power. You never tried to stop me having a say in how my lands were run. You listen to me, accept my council. William I thank God everyday for my blessings.”
William kissed her hand surreptitiously. “Me to my love.”
Isabel looked at William as he came to her. “I’ve already heard. King Richard is dead.”
William sank down beside her, infinitely weary. “Yes, Prince John is to be the next King.”
Isabel drew in a sharp breath. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
William sighed. “No, but he’s better than Arthur who is still barely more than a child and in thrall of the Breton lords. I’ve thrown my support behind John so I don’t have much choice now.”
Isabel sighed too. “No I suppose not. I just hope you made the right choice.”
William grimaced. “So do I my love.”
Isabel had travelled with William to Normandy to be with him as he was in King Richard’s service. She had regretted it on the crossing of the Narrow Sea because she was pregnant with her first child, but when William was able to be there with her just after their son Will was born she was sure she’d never made a better decision. She watched as her new husband stared down at the little baby kicking free from his swaddling. When he’d come for her at the tower she’d thought him kind. When they’d consummated their marriage at his friend’s manor she’d thought him handsome and loving. But now as she looked at him falling completely in love with their son she felt something in her heart shift and she realized that this was the rarest of things, a marriage made for duty and politics that seemed to have become one of love without her even realizing it. She must have made some noise because he turned to her. “Isabel is everything all right?” She looked up at him and was surprised to find tears in her eyes. “Yes William it is, I think I’ve just realized that I love you.”
William laughed softly. He came over to the bed and held her gently. “I’ve known that I loved you since I met you. And now you’ve given me the greatest gift.”
Isabel laughed damply. “Even greater than Striguil and Longeuville and Pembroke and Leinster?”
William kissed her. “Infinitely.”
William drew in a deep breath. He’d had his eye on Isabel de Clare for months. He’d met her briefly when he’d come to claim his ward Heloise of Kendal and thought her beautiful, but there was something else to, he wasn’t sure what. It was more than just the fact that she was greatest heiress in the country, more than just fact that she could make him an Earl, he wanted her, just her and he wasn’t sure why. He watched as she came toward him in the church, she was wearing pink and she looked almost divine with her blonde hair and luminous blue eyes which were cast modestly at the ground. As he watched she glanced up and he caught just a hint of mischief and he had to suppress a grin. He shook himself silently; he was half in love with the girl already. He had to hope that this would be a good thing. She stood beside him and he couldn’t believe that finally after months and years of waiting. Of petitioning King Henry and then thinking he’d lost her when he’d killed Duke Richard’s horse to protect King Henry just before Henry died and Richard became King. After nearly dying on the ship on the way over when the decking collapsed. After everything she was truly going to be his. They were being married under a favorable star, he was sure. He drew in a deep breath and turned to the priest, ready to begin the rest of his life.