Giving a speech before a battle - How William Marshal spoke at the Battle of Lincoln

If you have read a few accounts of battles in the Middle Ages, you will notice that chroniclers and writers were fond of recording the speeches given by military commanders. This was the case with the anonymous author of The History of William Marshal, who reported the rousing speech given by his protagonist before the Battle of Lincoln on May 20, 1217.

Historians are generally skeptical of the accuracy of speeches that were given before battles. One would not expect them to have been immediately written down in the midst of the action, and few could accurately remember all the words spoken. Instead, it is often believed that these speeches were invented by the chroniclers and writers, and were a narrative device to both add drama to the upcoming battle, and to help portray the side they supported in a better light, and cast the enemies as even more villainous.

Therefore, we can never be sure if these were the words that William Marshal used to rally his troops before the battle of Lincoln. The author of his biography does point out that William “was a master of such speeches”. It has many elements of what makes a great speech - that God was on their side, the enemy was destined to lose, and that by being brave the English warriors were going to gain much honour.

Here is the battle speech of William Marshal:

Listen now, sirs! Glory and honour are at hand! Right here and now, you can win the country’s freedom, truly: so damn any man who fails this day to challenge those who seize our lands and property! And may God see that right prevails! The enemy are here, right here in your hands. They’re at our mercy, I promise you, come what may, unless heart and courage fail us. And if we die in this mission, then God who sees and knows the good will set us in His paradise, in that I place my certain trust; and if we defeat them, without a lie, we’ll have won lasting honour for all time, for ourselves and all our line! And I tell you, our enemies labour under another grievous burden: they’re excommunicated! How much more that shackles them! What a dismal fate they have in store: they’ll be going straight to Hell! They’re waging war on God and Holy Church, and I swear God has placed them at our mercy. So come, make haste, let’s fall on them - the time and the hour are upon us!

With the speech done, the English troops began their march on the castle and town of Lincoln. What happened next, you can read about in our new issue of Medieval Warfare magazine.

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