Review: Mound Trust Lecture

“The History of William Marshall,” was this year’s annual Mound Trust lecture, given by Mr Bryant, an ex-drama teacher at Marlborough College who is now a translator of Medieval literature, such as Chretian de Troyes, late Arthurian Romances and The History of William Marshall: the oldest surviving biography of a Medieval knight.
“Welcome to the moat of Marlborough Castle. I’m standing in it and you’re on the bank.” So began Mr Bryant’s wonderfully informative talk. He spoke about the life of one of the most celebrated Medieval knight’s William Marshall, whose biography was written in the 1220s has survived remarkably intact in one manuscript, which Mr Bryant has translated. William Marshall’s life was deeply intertwined with Marlborough and so a study of him helps us understand the old Norman Castle that once stood on the Mound, and the people who lived there.

Mr Bryant began with a description of the knight’s rise, from his obscure origins as a son of the minor castellan of Marlborough Castle, to his training in Normandy, to his phenomenal success on the Norman tournament circuit in the 1160s, shooting him to fame and earning him a large fortune in the process. William Marshall gained further wealth when he married the heiress to the earldom of Pembroke. Magnates offered him rich sums to come into their employment but he pledged his unwavering loyalty to a series of English kings.

Nigel Bryant continued, about Marshall’s fascinating life, detailing how he stood by King John through the barons’ rebellion in 1215-6, eventually becoming the Regent to the King of England, nine-year-old Henry III. Even after that, William Marshall still had time to win a famous and crushing victory against the rebels at Lincoln, aged 70 at the time.

Yet the lecture was not merely recounting the life of a famous Medieval Knight, most pertinent to the Marlborough audience was how Mr Bryant related it to Marlborough Castle. We were told how there is almost no archaeological evidence for Marlborough Castle, but from contemporary chroniclers we can understand how tactically crucial it was. We know Henry III intensely rebuilt it during his reign (1216-1272) and it had been around for a previous 150 years before that. In 1138, William Marshall’s father was made castellan of Marlborough Castle. It became a crucial frontier in the war Civil War between King Stephen and Matilda (1135-54), as the King was based in London and Matilda in Bristol, splitting the country between East and West with Marlborough situated in the middle. Eventually it was handed back to the King, but Marlborough Castle did not diminish in importance. It was the site of King John’s wedding, and one of Henry III favourites places to visit, which he came to 36 times in his 56-year reign. In comparison the Tower of London was visited just a fraction of that. All of this Mr Bryant wonderfully fleshed out with primary sources, making each member of the captivated audience feel briefly like a professional historian, trying to decipher the truth like a detective (a metaphor that Mr Bryant used to describe his profession).

On top of this, Mr Bryant was also able to give the audience a brief history of England from The Norman Conquest to Henry III, detail the difficulties medieval historians face with sources, partly explain the chivalric code that knights like William Marshall subscribed to and still have time for questions at the end. He also managed to cram it all into a lecture of just an hour.

We are very grateful for Mr Bryant give such a fascinating talk, and put Marlborough’s Mound in a medieval perspective. As he put it, “it’s a wonderful story, worth the price of a book!”

Adam Dalrymple (SU U6)

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