In 2002 in the UK, I received a contract to write 2 novels about the great Medieval knight and magnate, William Marshal. I thought there was plenty of scope to tell a good story, but little did I know that the research into the Marshal family during the Medieval period was going to become a life-long obsession!Those novels became The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion, already published by Sourcebooks in the USA. Additional research led me onto the Bigod family, Earls of Norfolk, who had close connections with the Marshals. Their eldest son and heir, Hugh, married my William Marshal’s eldest daughter Mahelt. The Bigods themselves are interesting as Ida Bigod, Countess of Norfolk, had once been the young mistress of Henry II and had borne him a son before her marriage to Roger of Norfolk. I became interested in the match between Hugh Bigod and Mahelt Marshal because I was already researching the two families anyway, and I was curious about the eldest daughter of the great William Marshal. Was she like him? What was her personality like? How did she cope with what happened to her family during the reign of King John? Her story as a wider motif for how aristocratic medieval women dealt with social and political difficulties in their lives interested me too. What was it like for a girl of about 14 to say goodbye to her family and adapt to a life with people she barely knew but were now her in-laws? To be married to someone 11 years older than her? I had to begin digging, and that is always an enjoyable part of the crafting of a historical novel. A writer has to become a detective and an interpreter. There are so many untold stories, particularly of women and I find it satisfying to bring them into the light. The same is even true for more well known people. There are still aspects of their history that are unknown, or that have been so maligned and misinterpreted down the centuries, that peeling pack the layers of detritus is guaranteed to reveal something fresh and amazing if you know where to look.
Like most women of the medieval period, Mahelt is little mentioned in historical records. However there are a few charters and documents that point to her personality and her life even 800 years after she stood on the wall walk at Framlingham, or played on the banks of the River Wye at Chepstow.There is no birth date for her, but she was the third child and first daughter of Earl William Marshal and his Anglo-Irish wife, Isabelle de Clare. Their first two children were boys and would have been about three and eighteen months respectively when Mahelt was born. Two more brothers followed – Gilbert and Walter, and it wasn’t until around 1200 that the next girl, Isabelle arrived. Mahelt had around 7 years of being the only girl in the family and in that sense she had her father to herself. Was there a special relationship between William Marshal and his firstborn daughter? I think there was. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal which is an eye witness biographical poem about William says of Mahelt that she had the gifts of ‘wisdom, generosity, beauty, nobility of heart, graciousness, and I can tell you in truth, all the good qualities which a noble lady should possess.’ These are formal, traditional descriptions of a high born lady and as such to be taken with a pinch of salt. However, the poem also says ‘Her worthy father, who loved her dearly, married her off, during his lifetime to the best and most handsome party he knew, to sir Hugh Bigot.’ This is interesting because following on from this, the other daughters and their qualities are mentioned, but there is no more of the ‘loved dearly’ business. Mahelt is the only daughter who receives this accolade. The Histoire says of Mahelt when her father was dying: ‘My lady Mahelt la Bigote was so full of grief she almost went out of her mind, so great was her love for him. Often she appealed to God, asking HIM why HE was taking away from her what her heart loved most.’ When her sick father calls for his daughters to sing to him, he says : ‘Matilda, you be the first to sing.’ She had no wish to do so for her life at the time was a bitter cup, but she had no wish to disobey her father’s command. She started to sing since she wished to please her father, and she sang exceedingly well, giving a verse of a song in a sweet, clear voice.’ The other daughters are not mentioned save for the youngest, Joanna. I suspect these were the daughters he knew best of the five, both having belonged to times in his life when he had the opportunity to be more at home and watch their formative years.Of course a medieval man couldn’t let such strong father/daughter bonds get in the way of politics and when William went to Ireland in 1207, he had to decide what to do for the best with Mahelt. William duly approached Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk and ‘asked him graciously, being the wise man he was, to arrange a handsome marriage between his own daughter and his son Hugh. The boy was worthy, mild-mannered, and noble hearted and the young lady was a very young thing and both noble and beautiful. The marriage was a most suitable one and pleased both families involved. Again there are the standard accolades, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is to note that the business was a done deal between the fathers, not their children!
At this stage Hugh would have been about 25 years old, but it was indeed a shrewd and good match for both sides to make in the dynastic sense. The Bigods were in favour with the King and had a royal kinship tie through Ida, Countess of Norfolk. Through her, the prospective bridegroom was half-brother to the King’s half-brother. The Earl of Norfolk was rich and powerful and East Anglia where he dominated was almost a kingdom in itself.
Little is known of Mahelt’s life at Framlingham after her marriage but we do know that she bore a son, Roger, in 1209, two years after her marriage, another son, Hugh, in 1212 and a daughter Isabelle in 1215. There was a third son, Ralph in 1218. The three year gaps are interesting. Did she breastfeed? Did they practice abstinence or some other form of contraception? Was Hugh away a lot? There is plenty of scope for the novelist to fill in the blanks here where a historian cannot.During the Magna Carta crisis of 1215 and the war that followed, leading up to the death of King John and then the minority of Henry III where the regent was William Marshal, I wonder how Mahelt managed to balance her life. Her new family, the Bigods, were opposed to King John, as was her brother, William. What must she have felt about having family members on both side of the divide? In 1216, Framlingham was besieged by King John and the castle swiftly capitulated. It is known that one of Mahelt and Hugh’s sons was taken hostage – presumably Roger the eldest. Where was Mahelt when this happened? We don’t know. Her father in law was in London – or headed that way, but certainly not at home. We don’t know where Hugh was either. Having seen her brothers taken hostage by King John, knowing what happened to Maude de Braose (starved to death in a dungeon with her son while being kept hostage by John), I wonder how she reacted?
In some ways working through the research is like putting lots of small tiles side by side, which will eventually make a bigger picture on history’s floor, but at the time is all so much close up detail – but very fascinating detail.
Outside the scope of the novel, but affecting Mahelt’s later life was her remarriage following her widowhood when Hugh predeceased her. Her second husband was William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. He was the Bigod’s neighbour with lands in Norfolk and Yorkshire and castles at Castle Acre and Conisburgh. He was considerably older than she was – by my reckoning he was at least 60 years old. I find it very interesting that in all of her charters at this time, she calls herself ‘Matildis la Bigot’ never ‘Matildis de Warenne.’ Or only as an afterthought. For example: A charter dated between 1241 and 1245, following the death of her second husband has the salutation ‘….ego Matilda Bigot comitissa Norf’ et Warenn.’ The ‘Warenn” is an official title like the ‘Norf’ The Bigot is her personal name.
The latter does actually change in 1246 when she was granted the Marshal’s rod by King Henry III. All of her brothers and sisters were dead and thus the hereditory Marshalship of England came into her hands. And NOW she does change her name. She becomes in her charters ‘Matill marescalla Angliae, comitissa Norfolciae et Warennae.’ I sense a militant gleam in her eyes somehow, and a taking up of tradition that encompassed her ancestors, including her beloved father. She would be a Bigod, she would be a Marshal, but she would not be a de Warenne.
I do believe that Mahelt Marshal was a strong woman who survived and learned wisdom through much adversity. I don’t think she gad it easy. I think she was greatly loved but not necessarily lucky in love. She died in 1148 and was buried at Tintern where here bier was borne by four of her sons.
Although the name of Marshal died out of the history books with the childless demise of William’s five sons, his eldest daughter Mahelt was a matriarch whose offspring went on to forge weighty links across the history of the thirteenth century and beyond to the present day.