The Earl Marshal (England)

Chapter 2 : Who were the Earls Marshal?

The earliest marshal of whom much is known in England is John FitzGilbert, Marshal to Henry I. On Henry’s death, he first supported Stephen, then transferred his allegiance to the Empress Matilda.  Following the failed siege of Winchester in 1141, the Empress took refuge at FitzGilbert’s house, whilst he was engaged in further fighting, during which he lost an eye.

Ten years later, King Stephen besieged FitzGilbert, who initially surrendered, handing over his five- year-old son, William, as hostage. FitzGilbert reneged on the deal and young William was lined up for hanging, or possibly being used as a human canon ball. Stephen, a kindly man, if an ineffective king, could not bring himself to order the boy’s death, and kept him hostage instead.

This merciful act was of immense long-term benefit to the crown. William grew up to be one of the greatest men of the mediaeval period; a famous jouster and an accomplished warrior, but also a man of integrity and honesty.  He was captured in a skirmish in 1166, but was ransomed by the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and shortly afterward appointed to the household of her son, Henry the Young King, as a master-of-arms. The two became notable jousters, winning prizes at many tournaments.

There was a hiatus in William’s service to the Young King, when he was accused of some uncertain crime – possibly adultery with the Young Queen, Marguerite of France.  Nevertheless, he was restored to favour, and was with the Young King at the latter’s death.  In fulfilment of a final vow to Henry, William went on crusade in his place.

On his return, William joined the household of Henry II, where his elder brother, John, had the role of Marshal. He served Henry faithfully through the last years of the king’s reign, including against Henry’s own family – Queen Eleanor and the couple’s remaining sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John.

On Henry’s death, Richard, now king, recognised that such loyalty was invaluable and confirmed William as part of the regency council, left to rule whilst Richard went on crusade. On his brother’s death, William inherited the role of Marshal and he went on to serve the next king, John, just as faithfully, until John’s increasingly unpopular rule brought a breakdown in relations between crown and barons.  William largely evaded this, concentrating on his lands in Ireland, and at the time of the king’s death, was nominated by him to protect the king’s heir, nine-year-old Henry.

England was on the brink of war – Prince Louis of France had invaded, but William, along with the other barons loyal to Henry, had the boy crowned as Henry III, and chased the French out. On behalf of the king, William reissued Magna Carta.

On William’s death in 1219, his son, William 2nd Earl of Pembroke, succeeded to the position of Lord Marshal, which by that time had extended to such a degree that he needed numerous deputies, who carried out the hands-on management of his various duties. This William had no children, and was succeeded as Lord Marshal by his brother, Richard Marshal. Richard Marshal, no doubt in hopes for the salvation of his soul, ‘deforested’ a large tract of his lands.  ‘Deforested’ does not mean an environmental outrage, but the removal of the much-hated forest law, which preserved land for hunting, preventing its use as common land. 

We may hope that Richard’s soul benefited but it did not help his family – he also died childless, to be succeeded by the third brother, Gilbert Marshal, 4th Earl of Pembroke. In an astonishing run of bad luck for the family, Gilbert died childless, as did the next brother, Walter, 5th earl, and finally, the youngest, Anselm Marshal. This wholesale devastation of the male line was attributed to a curse laid against the first William in 1216 – that he would have no male heirs.

The office of Marshal passed to the family of the eldest daughter, Maud Marshal, Countess of Norfolk. Her son, Roger Bigod 4th Earl of Norfolk, became Lord Marshal in 1246. Unlike his grandfather, Roger was prepared to rebel against the king, and supported Simon de Montfort in the Barons’ War against Henry III.

It seems the curse against the Marshals continued – Roger Bigod had no sons, and the title passed to a nephew, another Roger Bigod, who also died childless. Since this Roger’s only brother was a priest, there were no more male heirs.   By the time of Roger’s death customs had changed, and he had been obliged to surrender his earldom to the king, to have it regranted in tail male – thus when he died, his inheritance did not pass to his sisters or their families but escheated to the crown.

With no heirs, the office of Marshal was granted to Robert de Clifford, 1st Baron Clifford. Robert was the great-great grandson of Isabella Marshal, sister of the Maud Marshal mentioned above. Robert was active in Edward I’s Scottish wars and supervised the coronation of Edward II on 25th February 1308. Despite this service, he lost the Marshalship, which was granted later that year to Nicholas Segrave.

In 1312, the earldom of Norfolk was granted to Edward I’s eldest son by his second marriage – Thomas de Brotherton, and the numbering of the earldom began afresh.  Four years later, the office of Lord Marshal was also bestowed on him. De Brotherton’s only son died, and his daughters Alice and Margaret de Brotherton were his co-heirs. By this time, if an inheritance fell to female heirs, they shard it (co-parceny) rather than the eldest sister taking priority as had previously been the custom.

Alice’s husband, Baron Montagu, held the post of Lord Marshal for a period, but then lost it – perhaps as part punishment for the fact that Alice died from an assault by his retainers.  Only one of Alice’s children survived her – Joan Montagu, Countess of Suffolk, whose children all died young. On Joan’s death in around 1376, her share of the Norfolk lands was reunited with that of her aunt, Margaret de Brotherton.

With the death of the other heirs, Margaret de Brotherton became Countess of Norfolk and Earl Marshal.  She was later granted the title of Duchess of Norfolk – one of the few women granted a title in her own right, as opposed to inheriting one. The next, and more famous woman, to achieve this honour, was Anne Boleyn, created Lady Marquis of Pembroke in 1532. In Margaret’s case, the title was for her life: only the earldom could pass to her heirs.

Margaret was twice married – first to Baron Segrave (the grandson of the Baron Segrave who had previously been Lord Marshal), by whom she had four children. The marriage was unhappy, and Margaret tried to divorce Segrave on the grounds that she had been married before she had reached the age of consent. Before the pope had ruled, Segrave died and Margaret married Sir Walter Mauny. She had three children from her second marriage.

In 1377, Margaret lost of the office of Marshal, which was granted to Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, nephew of Robert de Clifford, who had held the post in the early years of the century. Northumberland retained it only for the year, to be succeeded by John FitzAlan, Baron Maltravers in 1378. He held the post until his death in 1385, whereupon it was granted to Margaret de Brotherton’s grandson and heir, Thomas de Mowbray, who was also descended in the paternal line from Isabella Marshal. He was appointed as Lord Marshal for life, but this was then extended to an hereditary office, in tail male, under the title of Earl Marshal. 

This Thomas was initially at odds with his king, Richard II, and was one of the Lords Appellant who sought to control the headstrong monarch. He gradually worked his way back into favour, allegedly by dint of murdering the king’s aggravating uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester. Richard granted him the title of Duke of Norfolk, two years before he inherited the earldom from Margaret. Whether or not Thomas had murdered Gloucester for Richard’s sake, he was unable to count on the king’s gratitude, and was exiled for life, with his office of Earl Marshal being confiscated and settled on the king’s nephew, Thomas Holland, Duke of Kent.

Kent was the nephew of John FitzAlan, the incumbent before Mowbray, but he had little time to enjoy the office. Having supported Richard II against Henry Bolingbroke to the extent of arresting his own uncle, the Earl of Arundel, he forfeited his offices when Bolingbroke became king as Henry IV.

The office of Earl Marshal was granted to Henry’s brother-in-law, Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, yet another descendant of Isabella Marshal, on 30 September 1399. He resigned it twelve years later, in favour of his son-in-law, none other than John de Mowbray, son of the exiled Thomas and now 5th Earl of Norfolk.  

One of the Earl Marshal’s duties was the proper management of precedence and heraldry. Although the mediaeval obsession with rank seems laughable to us, it was of great importance and feuds rooted in questions of rank or privilege could last for generations. John had a long-standing dispute with Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, as to which of their respective earldoms was senior, only resolved when, once again, the title of Duke of Norfolk was revived.

It was this John whose sister, Margaret de Mowbray, married Sir Robert Howard, and when the Mowbray line died out with the decease of Anne de Mowbray, Countess of Norfolk, it was Margaret’s Howard descendants who claimed the titles of earl and duke of Norfolk, and Earl Marshal. The king, Edward IV, however, had other ideas. He arranged for Anne’s widower, his son, Richard, Duke of York, to have both titles and lands, to the detriment of the heirs.

Conveniently for the Howards, Richard of York, and his elder brother, Edward V, were dispossessed, and disappeared into the Tower of London, never to be seen again, whilst John Howard’s friend, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became king as Richard III. One of Richard’s first acts was to confer the dukedom of Norfolk on Howard, along with the office of Earl Marshal. Once again, the numbering of the dukedom restarted.

John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk was killed at the Battle of Bosworth. As he and his son, Thomas, had fought on the losing side, their titles were forfeit. On 19th February 1486, the Earl Marshalship was conferred on the next heir of the Mowbray family, William Berkeley, later Marquis of Berkeley. Following Berkeley’s death in February 1492, Henry VII granted the office to his younger son, Henry, Duke of York, who held it until his accession as Henry VIII in April 1509.

In the intervening years since the Battle of Bosworth, the Howard family had climbed back into favour, so Henry reinstated the head of the family, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, later 2nd Duke of Norfolk, as Earl Marshal for life. On the duke’s death, rather than the title passing to his son, now 3rd duke, Henry appointed his brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, as Earl Marshal – an act which doubtless fostered the enmity between the two men. On Brandon’s death it was given to Norfolk, but lost once again when he was attainted of treason and granted to Edward Seymour, uncle of Henry VIII’s heir, soon-to-be king, Edward.  Seymour, promoted to the title of Duke of Somerset, held the office until his execution in 1552, at which time it was appropriated by his successor as leader of the council, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.

Northumberland, too, came to a sticky end, on the accession of Mary I, who restored the Howard titles and lands. Thomas, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, held the office until his death in 1554, followed by his grandson, the 4th duke. During his tenure, he was obliged on one occasion to stand aside from a judgement in a disputed case over the inheritance of the lands of Lord Dacre. He had married Dacre’s widow, and did not wish to make a judgement between the late lord’s sisters and co-heirs. Elizabeth I therefore selected the earls of Pembroke, Arundel, Northampton and Leicester to hear the case, but with the proviso that this did not reduce the Earl Marshal’s privileges for the long term.

This duke died on the scaffold, and the office of Earl Marshal was granted to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury (husband of the famous Bess of Hardwick). He was yet another descendant of the original William Marshal, but whether that was relevant to Queen Elizabeth’s decision to confer the title on him is unknown, as by the late sixteenth century you couldn’t throw a stick without hitting a descendant of William’s daughters.

On Shrewsbury’s death, the post was held ‘in commission’, that is the duties were carried out by a panel – in this case Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham, grandson of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk.  After Burghley’s demise, Elizabeth granted the post to her favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who certainly took the military aspects of the role very seriously. 

Like many an Earl Marshal before him, Essex came to grief and was executed. For the rest of Elizabeth's reign, it was held in commission, before being granted by the new king, James VI & I, to Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester.  Worcester only held the office for a year, after which it was held in commission by a variety of Howards, Stewarts and Talbots, with a peppering of Villiers and Herberts, until 1622, when it once again came to the senior branch of the Howard family, in the person of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey, and grandson of the 4th Duke of Norfolk.

He was succeeded in the office by his son, and after a brief hiatus in the mid 17th century, the office has descended in the Howard family to its current holder, Edward William Fitzalan-Howard , 18th Duke of Norfolk. The 17th Duke presided as Earl Marshal over the coronation of HM The Queen in 1953.