Tuesday, October 04, 2022

 A very long time ago I wrote two poems about William Marshal, who was born the fourth son of a minor baron, before he died was regent of England, and in between for a decade or two one of the top tournament knights in western Europe. He is also the only knight of the period for whom we have a biography written shortly after his death by someone with access to the subject's retainers and relatives. I thought there was material for additional poems earlier and later than the ones I wrote, so titled them Gesta Gugliemi II and III.

I have now written Gesta Gugliemi I. Comments welcome. I am particularly interested in how well it works for readers who are not already familiar with the relevant history.

       Gesta Gugliemi I
When Henry’s son was lost at sea
He chose his daughter his heir to be
And since succession is seldom tame
Twice swore his nobles to back her claim.
But Stephen of Blois, his sister’s son,
Beat Matilda in the race to run
Across the channel to London town
And claim the kingdom and the crown.
Through fifteen years of civil war
The royal cousins battled sore,
Ravaging England South to North
While bishops and barons switched back and forth.
Sir John the Marshal was Stephen’s man
But after Matilda came to land
He called to mind the oath he swore
And loyally served her the rest of the war.
When Stephen’s queen broke Winchester siege
John fled the fight with his lady liege;
His stand at the ford bought her time to fly,
He saved the lady, lost an eye.
Ten years later, John’s sentinels see
An army coming for Newbury,
A mighty host meets their staring eyes
With Stephen leading, a grim surprise.
At Newbury castle the first attack
In a desperate fight was beaten back,
But supplies were few, the garrison small,
By siege or storm it would surely fall.
The constable bargained a day of grace
To ask John’s leave to yield the place;
Sir John prayed three to ask his liege
To bring an army and break the siege.
For which he offered to agree,
If it was found at the end of three
That she could not come with sufficient might,
He would yield the castle without a fight.
King Stephen, when the terms were heard,
Feared the Marshal might break his word,
So as a pledge that it would be done
Demanded young William, John’s second son.
The host went off for another fight
And as soon as Stephen was out of sight,
Expecting no help from his lady liege,
John stocked the castle against a siege.
When Stephen returned there met his sight
A wall well manned and a gate shut tight,
When he asked Sir John to keep his word
This, I am told, is what he heard.
“You have my leave to storm or siege
But I hold this castle for my liege;
If I lose one son I have still his brothers
And hammer and anvil to forge me others”
They built a gallows to hang the boy.
Young William thought it a clever toy,
Young William started to play and swing,
Which touched the heart of England’s King.
It was proposed another day
To send him home by trebuchet;
Without a thought of fear or harm
He climbed right up the throwing arm.
It was by innocence, not art,
Young William won proud Stephen’s heart
And so survived to prove in time
The savior of the royal line.
When the rebel barons held London town
And Louis of France claimed the English crown
King John on his deathbed gave William care
Of his kingdom and his child heir.
At seventy years, with lance and sword,
As Earl of Pembroke and Leinster’s lord,
He made the French and the rebels run
And saved the throne for a dead king’s son.
William served five kings of the Angevin line;
The last of the five was a child of nine.
And thanks to his loyalty and skill
English kings rule England still.

1 comment:

William H. Stoddard said...

From the ballads I've read, the phrasing of this seem a bit too explicit about its moral conclusions; such verse generally seems more elliptical, giving a bare narration of the facts and leaving the hearer (or reader) to draw the conclusions. But the versification itself is a good job; the scansion and rhyme seem well handled throughout.