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Elizabeth Chadwick | The Role of Marshal

September 7, 2012

Elizabeth ChadwickA PLACE BEYOND COURAGEA PLACE BEYOND COURAGE is the story of a Medieval knight, soldier and baron called John FitzGilbert, who, if you look him up online, had something of a reputation as a hard man of his times, willing to sacrifice his small son in order to hold onto one of his castles.  I was interested in finding out more about  his life, and to discover what really happened.  Did John really say that even if the boy was killed by the men who held him captive, it didn’t matter because he could beget better sons to replace him?

John FitzGilbert was also known as John the Marshal. His second name was his job description.  So what exactly did a marshal do in the Middle Ages – and specifically the royal marshal, answerable to the king?  What were his responsibilities and duties?

The name Marshal derives from Marescallus, which meant ‘Stable hand.’ So essentially the original job had to do with horses.  It was the marshal’s job to ensure there was stabling and fodder for the horses in the royal household.  From there, the duty spread out into provision and responsibility for the hounds in the kennels and the hawks in the mews.  It also meant making sure that harness and tack was kept in good order and available when needed.  Men whose sons were knighted at court were obliged to either pay a fee to the master marshal or give him a horse or a saddle.  During times of war the marshal was entitled to any pied horses that were captured, and these would go into the pool of remounts and horses available for use.   It was the marshal’s task to keep a tally of how much the king’s mercenaries were owed and to see that they were paid, for which he took a percentage of the money pot.

Associated with the constant movement of the court, it was the marshal’s job to provide the pack horses and carts to travel from A to B and to keep everyone in good order.  On the road and more especially at court, the marshal had the duty of policing the household and maintaining a space around the king known as the ‘verge’ which the marshal did with his rod of office.  Anyone crossing the verge was likely to receive a swift admonitory blow from the latter.  The marshal had servants called ushers whose job it was to keep the king’s doors and make sure only desirables gained access to the royal presence.  In John the Marshal’s day, we know from an existing document that the keepers of the doors were called Ralf and Gilbert Bonhomme.  Other men answering to the Marshal included the watchmen, the fire stoker, the king’s tent-keeper and all the various huntsmen.

John the Marshal also had responsibility for supplying and regulating the prostitutes who frequented the court.  He determined who was on the books so to speak and who wasn’t. If there was trouble among the ‘working girls’, he was entitled to exact fines from the transgressors.

Beyond the above varied and ‘interesting’ tasks, the Master Marshal had duties at the Exchequer  which was the Medieval counting and accounting house. During the reign of Henry II it came to be permanently established at Westminster.  Prior to that the sessions had often been held at Winchester and we are told that the Marshal sat at the Exchequer when the sheriffs came to pay their dues. If a sheriff couldn’t afford to pay his taxes, then the Marshal had the key to the debtor’s prison and the unfortunate sheriff would be locked up as a punishment.  It is no coincidence that the debtor’s gaol in Winchester was only a short walk from the marshal’s house.

Of course the royal Marshal delegated much of these tasks out to underlings,  but even so, in the period of A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE, it was still very much a hands on occupation, sometimes in more ways than one and it took a special sort of man with an aptitude for multi-tasking, good social skills and a cool head in all situations to keep the wheels turning.  John FitzGilbert was that sort of man, and I am so pleased that I have been given the opportunity in my career to write about him.

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