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?
Most 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
William 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.