I know that many of you are very interested in William Marshall after reading about him in Elizabeth Chadwick’s excellent books The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion.
William was a contemporary of Roger de Lacy so I thought I’d share this story about a time when their paths crossed during the Norman campaign of 1204. This account is taken from the Archaeologia Cambrensis (July 1859, page 195)
“In this year also he (William Marshall) was selected as the man of greatest vigour and capacity in the English court to relieve the gallant Roger de Lacy, besieged for seven months by the French king in Chateau Gaillard, the last hope and hold of the English – Vernueil and Rouen having already fallen. The earl marched to the ground with a body of 3000 horse and 400 foot, but owing to the late arrival of a flotilla of seventy boats, in which he trusted to destroy the floating bridge over the Seine, he was repulsed, the castle shortly afterwards was taken and John (King John) having lost the whole of his Norman possessions, fled to England.”
Chateau Gaillard was built overlooking the river Seine by Richard I (Richard the Lionheart). It had three separate wards and was deemed to be impenetrable. During King John’s attempt to defend his lands in Normandy from the French, the castle was held by Roger de Lacy and for seven months he held out under siege. But his supplies were running low and in an attempt to conserve what food was left Roger expelled all the villagers who had taken shelter in the castle. The French army let some through but then received orders to prevent the rest leaving and many were left to starve or die of cold in the no man’s land between the two camps. This tragedy became known as ‘the useless mouths to feed’.
Meanwhile the French eventually succeeded in mining the outer wall which collapsed and Roger de Lacy was forced to withdraw to the second ward. The one story that’s told about the taking of Chateau Gaillard is that the French eventually got into this ward through an unguarded toilet window that led to the chapel. Some historians dispute this and say that they simply broke into the badly defended chapel that had been added to the original plans by King John.
But got in they did and Roger de Lacy and his men were forced to withdraw to the innermost fortification. This was surrounded by a water moat with a natural rock bridge that crossed it, but the besieging army used the bridge as cover to dig a tunnel that breached the final wall. The inner court was too narrow for the English to mount a defence and overwhelmed by superior numbers Roger de Lacy and his 129 knights were taken prisoner.
It’s said that the French king, Philip Augustus, was so impressed by Roger de Lacy’s heroic defence of the castle that he saved him from being ‘run through’. He was ransomed for 1000 marks, paid by King John, and he returned to England.