Chivalry and the Chamberlain’s Honor
Social standing and personal honor were of prime importance in the culture of chivalry. Status and honor were most often defended in the main arena of combative knighthood. However, the duties incumbent in fealty of serving one’s master could also be a challenge to a knight’s personal honor.
If the duties of a certain office involved offering the lord his finger bowl after dinner, woe betide the man who tried to usurp that duty! So proud and so touchy about their “rights and privileges” were these exemplars of chivalry, that it could happen that a great lord would find himself engaged in a public tug of war over water basins! And all in the name of honor!
William de Tancarville was King Henry II’s Great Chamberlain for Normandy. His father had been Great Chamberlain to King Stephen; his grandfather had been Great Chamberlain to King Henry I. This was a hereditary family position and one in which de Tancarville took great pride. De Tancarville was a great knight, a man of high honor – and even higher dignity and self-esteem. Young William Marshal had been fortune to be accepted into his household for his knightly training.
Once, as chronicler Walter Map relates,
“William de Tancarville, great chamberlain to the king [Henry II] by tenure, a man noble in worth, a very death to the envious, became suspect to our king, through accusations of many persons. Still, the king often heard of him as victor in many encounters, heard that he was a father to his knights, and bread to the needy, that he was one who could turn the hearts of all, save only of the envious, to his will, and that he was acceptable and dear to the king of the French, and to others of whom the king stood in awe” (all quotes from De Nugis Curialium or “Courtiers’ Trifles,” by Walter Map, M.R James, ed. & trans.; C.N. L. Brocke & R.A.B. Mynors, rev.; Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 498).
. Still, the suspicious Henry II didn’t trust de Tancarville. De Tancarville was just too powerful, held too many castles and had too many men, and was respected by too many other powerful lords. Henry began to harass de Tancarville,
“He persecuted this good man much, pulled down all his fortresses by way of breaking his horns short, denied him his due legal rights and liberties, and gave unreasonable power over his possessions to his enviers. He [de Tancarville], however, concealed his feelings and endured with correctness what he had to bear.
Now it happened that the feast of Christmas was proclaimed with much heraldry to be kept by the lord king at Caen. So a great concourse of people, alike strangers and natives assembled…”
Present were King Henry II; his two sons, Henry “the Young King” and Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany; and another Henry, the exiled Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, who was Henry II’s son-in-law through his marriage to Henry’s daughter Mathilda. Also present were a courtful of bishops and a “provinceful” of counts and barons.
De Tancarville was also present, and fully prepared to fulfill the very public role that was part of the office of Great Chamberlain, and that would visibly demonstrate his high status. A part of that role was to pour water over the king’s hands, into a basin, before the king dined. The other eminent guests were to receive the same service. But … things did not go according to protocol. Someone else took on de Tancarville’s role – and his reaction was dramatic.
“So then when on the feast of the Nativity someone was attending on the lord king to pour water on his hands, lo! through the midst of the crowd came the aforesaid William [de Tancarville]– being the great chamberlain – escorted as was his wont by a number of knights, and casting off his cloak in a way proper for ministers, seized the silver basins and pulled them violently towards him.
The other kept hold of them with difficulty, and looked at the king, who bade him let them go, and received patiently the robbed water.
William, after giving water to him, to his sons and to the duke of Saxony, handed the basins to a follower of his own and went to take his seat. There was great surprise at this, and the officer of the king’s bedchamber, instantly demanded the basins, but the king sent him off, and bore all without appearing to perceive any offence.”
William de Tancarville not only successfully defended his right to present the king with his silver finger bowls, he kept the finger bowls! And Henry II was impressed enough by his determination, that he let it stand.
Later, de Tancarville’s envious enemies tried to turn the king towards punishment by implying the king was an “appeaser and no punisher of wrong.” De Tancarville proclaimed his full loyalty and, equally, proclaimed that it was his duty and his right as hereditary chancellor of the province to supply the water.
In response, Henry II related an anecdote about another William, Earl of Arundel. Arundel, who had been freshly back from Jerusalem after three years on crusade, had done likewise in serving wine at the court of King Louis at Paris, and also been forgiven. The king still didn’t like de Tancarville! He did, however, agree to the justice of his behavior. His chamberlain did indeed have the right to hold the finger bowls – and the right, in all honor, to defend that right.