William Marshal – History’s greatest Knight?

William Marshal lived from 1147-1219, from the reign of King Stephen through to Henry III. He was born into the anarchy of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda and died after the First Baron’s War and the establishment in 1215 of the Magna Carta. But just being there between these two huge events in English history is not enough to merit importance, so just why is William Marshal so significant?

William MarshalMost of what we know about his life derives from L’Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal or ‘The History of William Marshal’, a poem commissioned by his eldest son and written in 1226 by a man who claimed to have known Marshal in his prime, and believed to be the first medieval biography of a layman who was not a King. It depicts the two extremes of medieval society, for forty years William was a landless knight who frequented tournaments and he who died as the Earl of Pembroke and the regent of the whole of England.

He served five Angevin kings and is arguably responsible for saving the Plantagenet dynasty which would survive for another 250 years. Yet he was not popular with chroniclers. Was this due to his low birth or because of the gaps in his life that have still not been filled? Despite being close to so many kings during some very big moments in medieval history, the story of William Marshal is a curiously neglected source. It is however a great source for well-informed aristocratic opinion and sheds light on chivalry, tournaments, warfare and more, making them real institutions for us to see.

This article will examine William’s life and lead to the understanding that William Marshal was unique in his time and an important player in English history. Much more important than historians of the medieval period have given him credit for.

The uneventful early life

Empress MatildaWilliam was born in 1147, the fourth son to John FitzGilbert, Marshal of King Stephen’s court. John Marshal was of no importance in the political structure and had no notable land. It is possibly one of these reasons that made him turn his back on Stephen and take sides with Matilda (pictured). This betrayal is certainly not condemned in the biography and should not be seen as unique during the time of the anarchy. But all of this led to John Marshal being besieged by Stephen and forced to surrender his five-year-old son, William, as hostage. John Marshal told Stephen that he did not care for his son’s safety and that he could easily make other sons. John then broke the truce, directly endangering his son’s life. William was only saved by his youthful innocence; King Stephen admired the young boy and spared him his life.

After this, William spent his childhood like a regular boy of the lower nobility. He found his way into the household of his cousin, William de Tancarville, the Chamberlain of Normandy. He was known to be idle and made a name for himself by how much he could eat, drink and sleep. From about 1167, William made a name for himself in tournament circles. Tournaments in the twelfth century were not the romantic affairs we might imagine. But, although brutal, knights were not meant to seriously hurt their opponent; yet they taught men how to fight and prepared them for war. The aim was to capture and ransom your opponent. William excelled and became popular through his performances.

During this time William stopped a noblewomen running away with a monk, which would have been a shameful and definitely criminal act for the pair. William enjoyed the experience of being seen as a form of knightly law enforcer.

He would have carried on in this role for the rest of his life, going into tournaments and getting rewards without ever writing his name into history if it was not for a tragedy. He was with his uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury, in France, helping put down a rebellion by the de Lusignan family when they were ambushed and his uncle murdered. In a fit of rage, William fought many of his attackers but was taken prisoner. Although badly injured, he survived the ordeal. Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom they were defending and arguably the most famous Queen of the Middle Ages, ransomed him and eventually returned him to her husband, England’s Henry II, and, more importantly, the household of their 13-year-old son, Henry, the heir apparent.

Serving the Angevins

Henry IIIn 1270, Henry II (pictured) crowned his son as a king. Known as Henry the Young King, Henry was obsessed with tournaments rather than politics. He spent a lot of money chasing glory. And it was with the Young King and his friends that William Marshal found his home. It would have been a match made in heaven. William was head of his household and there to teach the young king the chivalric ways of knighthood. To show how well respected William became during this time, it was him that knighted the young king. During this time, Henry and his brothers constantly rebelled against their father, demanding real power. This would have been the first taste William had of divided loyalties – to who did he owed his allegiance. If he was to aid the rebellion he was revolting against the king; not to aid it was going against the man he was sworn to and the man who would one day be king.

It was around this time that William made enemies at court. They spread rumours that he had been sleeping with the wife of Henry the young King. He refuted the claims and demanded a trial by combat but, nonetheless, was kicked out of court. William Marshal was barely on the aristocratic scene for long and was already in what seemed similar to a modern day soap opera. But it was during this time William found his worth, and his calling.

Without anyone to serve, William frequented the tournaments and was offered lucrative contracts by powerful men such as the Count of Flanders and the Duke of Burgundy. It was the ability in tournaments that had made him desirable. Tournaments were like modern day sports are today, the rich paid for the best performers to be on their team. However, William rejected this in favour of going alone. By 1183 Henry II was in another quarrel with his son, and William decided to re-join the court. He asked permission from Henry to join his son against him, and, surprisingly, Henry allowed it. The king may have hoped that William would use his influence to stop his son’s revolt. However, in 1183, Henry the Young King, aged 28, died of illness, causing much grief to his father and friend.

William was now to take part in something that no medieval story would be complete without, a crusade. Not a major crusade, but his own one in the honour of Henry the Young King. This is also the most intriguing part of reading the History of William Marshal, as quite simply nothing is said about it. The trip to the Holy Land is unrecorded, maybe because it was too personal to write or simply because he did not reveal what happened to anyone who could relay it after his death. All we know is that William achieved in two years what most knights had done in seven. And that it was during this time he linked up with the most famous group of knights, the Knights Templar.

The omission of this period is most disappointing to historians wanting to learn about the crusades as William was in the Levant just before the 1187 Battle of Hattin, a major turning point in history. But Henry II had paid for William’s crusade, and on his return accepted him into his own household. Remarkably he swiftly promoted William through his personal ranks into one of his most important advisors, promising him something that would change William’s life forever – a wealthy heiress for a wife. Isabel de Clare was the heiress to a vast amount of land in southern Wales and Ireland. To marry her would make him Earl of Pembroke CastlePembroke, one of the richest and most powerful men in the western world. William, in his forties, was about to be married to an 18-year-old. Unlike many medieval age gap marriages however, this match turned into a classical love story, a love that would stay strong right up until their deaths.

(Pictured: Pembroke Castle).

Earl and Regent, defender of the realm

It was also at the end of Henry II’s reign that William was involved in one of his most important yet not fully appreciated moments of his life. During yet another rebellion by the king’s sons, William was helping Henry retreat to safety and charged at the heir to the throne, Richard, killing his horse from under him. This could have easily gone wrong for William – not only could he have killed the king’s eldest son, he had now attacked the future king, the man he would have to serve and obey to keep his newly-found status. When, in 1189, Henry died, William’s friends feared for his safety, The new king, Richard I, the Lionheart, confronted him about almost killing him. The marshal replied that he did not try to kill him and had struck precisely where he meant to. Fortunately for William, Richard favoured loyalty, and certainly needed it during his crusade. William spent Richard’s reign in England, helping run the kingdom and oppose the king’s brother, John, who was vying for the crown. William also showed how useful he was when England had to pay a significant ransom to get Richard out of jail. So far William had been a famous knight, a loyal servant, and a medieval police office amongst other things; it was during John’s reign however that William’s fortunes rose even further and is why we know so much about his life.

King JohnKing John (reigned 1199 to 1216, pictured) would prove to be William’s and England’s biggest challenge yet. John was harsh towards his barons, much to William annoyance. The king was weary of William’s power and paranoid of nearly everyone. He isolated himself and caused William much grief. King John had lost Normandy in 1204 and had failed to win it back; he had also been excommunicated by Pope Innocent III, and was uninspiring to his barons. William spent most of these years with his family in Ireland. In Leinster he created a thriving and economically successful area of land to the benefit all those who lived there. William proved himself to be an adept manager. After years of harsh treatment by John and being called a traitor, William Marshal was one of the only men who came to King John’s aid in 1211 when problems with the barons escalated.

By 1215 King John had no choice but to sign one of the most important documents in history, the Magna Carta. The charter put the king below the law and not above it, as the Angevins had successfully done. But John quickly went back on the charter causing a civil war. The rebels invited the Dauphine, Louis, to England to take the throne for himself. In 1216, having lost ground in England, King John died. William Marshal stayed loyal until the end, and, according to the History, John’s final words were of William and his loyal service. William was almost a neutral baron during this period; he never rebelled against his anointed king, but had never identified himself with John’s harsh policies. This made him popular with both sides and first choice to become regent until John’s nine-year-old son, Henry, the future Henry III, came of age.

William had reached the pinnacle of power; he had gone from the fourth son of a nobleman of no importance, to the ruler of the whole of England. But he had a mammoth task on his hands. Louis and the rebels had control over most of England but William’s years of experience helped him manage the situation well. He successfully gained the support of many neutral and rebellious barons. Then, in an event that sums up his incredible life story, he led the charge for the King against the rebels and French at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. At the age of 70. The English won the battle and the civil war was swiftly won with a victory at sea, sealed by a treaty. On 24 May 1219, aged 72, and at the peak of his career, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent of England, died. He died a Knight’s Templar, making his life journey complete.


At William Marshal’s eulogy, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called him the greatest knight who had ever lived while his final enemy, Philip II of France, also praised him. The life of William is often overlooked by many, especially as so many gaps exist in his story. But his importance is paramount. He was practically illiterate; and without being able to read and write either French or Latin, the languages of the courts, he still rose to the zenith of power. Historians also agree that if William had joined the rebellious barons, King John could easily have lost his throne, and English history would look very different today.

William lived in a period marked by a variety of conflicts and military confrontations and some historians have discounted him as simply as a strong arm who owed his advancement to his ability in tournaments. However, he went through the households of the Chamberlains of Normandy, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, Richard I, John and finally Henry III. William was clearly a clever, well-measured man and a survivor. He survived a crusade, life-threatening injuries, had, in his fifties, singlehandedly lead a charge on a castle, and, aged 70, charged into battle.

He had also survived the temperament of three of the most notoriously bad-tempered kings in English history. They had required his counsel due to his wisdom and discretion, but most importantly due to his honesty. He reprinted the Magna Carta in his regency, something not often mentioned. Ultimately, William could look towards death proud of his illustrious life and career, and his incredible achievement of honour over money.

Michael Judd

See Michael’s site: http://completelyrandomtopics.wordpress.com/