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.

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John Balliol – a summary

Born around 1249, King John Balliol ruled Scotland from 1292 until his abdication in 1296.  He was perhaps best known by his unfortunate nickname, Toom Tabard, or Empty Shirt (or Coat), having been unceremoniously stripped of his office by England’s Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’.

The death of Scottish king, Alexander III, from a riding accident on 19 March 1286, left Scotland without a king. All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him. There was one grandchild, his three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, and prior to his death, Alexander had made efforts to have Margaret recognised as his legitimate heir to the Scottish throne.  This would have secured his dynastic line, but fate had one more card to play against the unfortunate Alexander.

During the crossing from Norway to Scotland in 1290, the young Margaret took ill and died. Thus came down the curtain on a golden age for Scotland.  The chain of events would eventually lead to a thirty-year war against England, one of the most powerful states in Europe, and would devastate a once wealthy country. (Pictured, Edward I welcoming Alexander III as a guest of the English parliament.)

Political Void and the Ragman Rolls

The disastrous deaths of Alexander and his heirs in such a short space of time left Scotland with a power vacuum and several candidates willing to fill it. No less than fourteen contenders put themselves forward as potential heirs to the Scottish throne, among them Robert de Brus (grandfather of Robert the Bruce), John Balliol and England’s Edward I (pictured).

Edward himself knew that his own claim was weak but his chance to take control of the Scottish throne, by a more circuitous means, came when the Scottish magnates requested that he arbitrate in their dispute as to who had legitimacy to rule.

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King Stephen of England – a summary

Grandson of William the Conqueror, Stephen of Bois was King of England as King Stephen from 1135 until his death on 25 October 1154. Born in Blois in central France, Stephen was raised at the English court of his uncle Henry I, soon becoming his favourite. But his right to the throne was disputed by the Empress Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I.

Henry I

Henry I had ruled England since his accession to the throne in August 1100, having succeeded his older brother, William II. Henry’s heir was to be his eldest son, William Adelin, but on 25 November 1120, the 17-year-old William drowned with the sinking of the White Ship. In the aftermath of William’s death, Henry’s attention naturally turned to the issue of the succession. Although he had other children, their illegitimacy ruled them out as potential candidates. He had nephews too to consider, one of them being Stephen of Blois. Stephen had been living in his household for several years and had already demonstrated impressive military and political skills on a previous trip to Normandy.

So far unconsidered was Henry’s first-born child, Matilda, pictured, now Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Although Matilda had the strongest claim among his family, she was, of course, a woman.

Henry took some time to discuss Matilda’s suitability with his leading barons and advisers. In general they were uneasy about Matilda succeeding her father. After all, there was no precedent of female governance in England. In an era where the role of monarch encompassed politician and soldier, the unsuitability of women for such a position was a sentiment echoed by many. King David I of Scotland, the brother of Henry’s late wife, and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, however, both spoke out in favour of Matilda and it was to these men that Henry listened. Thus, in January 1127, Henry named Matilda as his heir and invited the leading clergymen and barons of the realm to swear an oath of fealty to her, supporting her succession to the throne of England and the Duchy of Normandy.

Stephen of Bois also backed Matilda’s accession but his support proved to be fickle.

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William the Conqueror – a summary

William the Conqueror, the future William I of England, was born between 1027 and 1028 at Falaise in Normandy. As the product of a brief relationship between his father, Robert, the 2nd Duke of Normandy and his mother, Herleva, the daughter of a local tanner, William came to be known as the Bastard by his contemporaries. After the death of his father in 1035, the boy William inherited the Duchy of Normandy with his great uncle acting as regent. Due to his illegitimacy, there were several Norman magnates who refused to accept the young William as the rightful heir and in 1040 they hatched a plan to murder him. The plot failed but William’s guardians were killed.

Norman Invasion

By 1045 William was old enough to take control of the Duchy and successfully crushed the first threat to his power in 1047 at Val-es-Dunes. It was after a visit to his distant cousin, King Edward the Confessor, in 1051 that William alleged he had been promised the throne of England. This was later confirmed with Harold’s Godwinson’s visit in 1064. After King Edward’s death and the coronation of Harold as Harold II in January 1066, William prepared to invade the country. The Norman army arrived at Pevensey on September 28th and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th. After his coronation on Christmas Day 1066, William spent the early years of his reign stamping out English resistance and strengthening the borders, including the building of defensive “marcher” counties along the border of Wales in 1081.

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Empress Matilda – a summary

The story of England’s first civil war is one of strong personalities and conflicts. The Empress Matilda is one such personality who for her sheer determination and ambition, stands head and shoulders above the rest. Though she was never able to secure the succession for herself, she was instrumental in bringing about the rule of her son, Henry II, and the welcome return of peace to the kingdom after almost two decades of fighting.

The King’s Heir

Born on 7 February 1102 at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire, Matilda was the only legitimate daughter of Henry I and his first wife, Edith of Scotland. When her brother William died in the White Ship disaster of 1120, Henry nominated Matilda as his heir to the throne of England – an unusual position for a medieval princess. In an era where the role of monarch encompassed that of a soldier and politician, a woman’s unsuitability for rule was a foregone conclusion.

Of all Henry’s leading men, only two supported Matilda’s nomination – David, King of Scotland, and Robert of Gloucester – Matilda’s uncle and half-brother.

But whether the barons liked it or not, Matilda had already proven herself capable of direct rule. Back in 1114 Matilda had married Henry V, the German King and Holy Roman Emperor. During their 11 year union, Matilda ruled alongside her husband and independently during his many periods of absence. On his death in 1125, Matilda was recalled to England by her father and soon after married Geoffrey Plantagenet, son of the Count of Anjou. Like her first marriage, the match was purely political and designed to produce a son who might, one day, sit on the English throne. In the meantime Henry had his barons swear an oath of fealty to Matilda on three separate occasions – in 1127, 1128 and 1131 – to ensure the smooth succession of his crown.

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Battle of Bannockburn – a summary

Robert the Bruce had been king of Scotland since March 1306 but his land was still populated by several English garrisons and under constant threat from his southern neighbour and its king, firstly Edward I until his death in 1307, then his son and successor, Edward II. The Scots rallied behind Bruce and between 1306 and 1314 they set about recapturing the castles and towns of Scotland that were still under English control. After eight years of successful guerilla warfare and a number of plundering raids into northern England, Bruce felt ready to meet the mighty English in open battle.

Robert the Bruce prepares

The ground that Robert the Bruce (pictured) chose for the battle, which was to determine the fate of his country and crown, was that which would give him the best advantage against the superior forces he was likely to face.

He took up position just to the north of the Bannock Burn with the thickly wooded New Park giving cover to his rear.  The English army, advancing from the south, would have to cross the burn in order to engage the Scots, but with areas of swamp on either flank they would be severely restricted in their movement.

The Scots army was standing directly in the path of the English host, and their goal of saving the garrison at Stirling castle could only be achieved by a frontal assault against Bruce’s well-drilled spearmen.

The Scots were drawn up in three infantry formations, or shiltrons, with a small contingent of cavalry.  A large number of camp followers were also nearby, although these were largely unarmed and unsuited for battle.  Indeed, King Robert had dismissed many men who were willing to fight for him but, unable to afford suitable weapons or armour, had come ill prepared.

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Edward I – a summary

Edward I of England, Hammer of the Scots, born 17 June 1239, was at 6 foot 2, a giant of a man for the time, earning him the nickname Edward Longshanks. He was 33 by the time he came to the throne following the death of his father, Henry III, in 1272.

Edward I has been described variously through time as a murderer, pagan, ambitious and self-serving.  He was also an astute political leader, a good soldier and had the virtues of fairness and moderation in many instances. An intelligent man, he was fluent in English, French and Latin and after the chaotic years of his father’s rule, was an ardent reformer.

He was also an excellent administrator and a good negotiator and held the respect of his subjects.

As a young man, Edward and his father were, during 1264-5, held captive by his uncle, Simon de Montfort during the Barons’ War. But he was less a prisoner and more of a confined guest. When offered a number of new horses to try out, Edward took the opportunity to make his escape. Edward organised an attack against de Montfort which resulted in his uncle’s death at the Battle of Evesham.

Edward married twice, first as a fifteen-year-old to Eleanor of Castile, then, ten years after her death in 1290, to Margaret of France, a woman forty years his younger. Between them, his wives bore him at least 20 children. Edward was still fathering children as a 67-year-old.

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Robert the Bruce – a summary

Few figures from the time of the First Scottish War of Independence (1296 to 1328) are more confusing than Robert the Bruce. Feted as a Scottish hero and the man who delivered independence to the Scots from the hated English king, Edward I, and hailed as the heroic victor at the crucial Battle of Bannockburn (1314), the Bruce has remained a pivotal figure in Scottish history.

The truth about the man is far less flattering.  It shows Robert the Bruce as a self-serving man who was interested in only one goal, seizing the crown of Scotland for himself.

The Earl of Carrick

Robert the Bruce was born on 11 July 1274, the son of Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale, and grandson of Robert de Brus that had contended the Scottish throne during the Great Cause.  In 1292, following the death of his mother, Robert the Bruce was given the position of the Earl of Carrick.  That same year Edward I chose John Balliol as the king of Scotland ahead of Robert.

During the early part of the First Scottish War of Independence, the young Earl allied himself to Edward I.  This was probably to give himself a better chance to seize the crown for himself when, presumably, Balliol was defeated and deposed.

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The Battle of Sluys – a summary

The often forgotten Battle of Sluys of 24 June 1340 was a major turning point in the Hundred Years’ War—a war that practically defined the direction that both England and France would follow for centuries.

The Players

The Hundred Years’ War began in 1337 after nearly three hundred years of disagreements between the Kings of England and the Kings of France over land claims on the Continent.  By the fourteenth century the Capetian dynasty of France had wrested away most of the previously held English territories on the Continent (such as Anjou and Normandy).  King Edward III of England was seemingly passed over in the dynastic succession of France when Philip VI was crowned King of France.  While Isabella (daughter of Philip IV of France), Edward III’s mother, was, by law, clearly not able to become the monarch of France, Edward III made the case that the throne could pass through a female line (thus making him King of France) rather than reverting back a generation to Philip VI, son of Charles, Count of Valois.

Through the 1330s, the French began to build their navy, especially in northern waters.  The English felt that their relations with the Low Countries (today, Belgium and the Netherlands) were threatened by this naval build up.  The Low Countries’ economy depended on cloth weaving and, at the time, the wool provided by England was crucial.  In May 1337, Philip seized Aquitaine and by October Edward took official steps to war.

The Early War

In early 1338, the French began raiding English coastal towns, such as Southampton and Portsmouth, and the Channel Islands.  Flanders rose in rebellion against the local count, Louis de Nevers, who supported the French side—the cloth trade was hurting as a result.  By the end of 1338, the Holy Roman Emperor, Ludwig of Bavaria, joined Edward III against the French.

Early in 1339, the French continued raids on the English towns of Folkestone, Harwich, Hastings, Southampton, Plymouth and Dover.  The English navy was steadily growing in strength as the English army marched ineffectively through France in September and October of 1339.  In February 1340, Edward III was officially crowned King of France in a ceremony in Ghent.

Combat at Sluys

By the summer of 1340, there had been no major battles fought between the English and French.  Following a failed attack on Cinque Ports by the French and the desertion of Italian mercenaries from the French navy, the French fleet in the Channel was severely cut back.  The English heard news of this and rushed to the French coast, raiding towns including Ault and Le Tréport.  Thus the stage was set for the first major battle of the Hundred Years’ War.

The French and English fleets met outside the town of Sluys (today spelled Sluis; L’Ecluse in French) on 24 June 1340.  The English fleet was somewhat outnumbered, but they had advantageous positioning.  Edward himself commanded the English forces and was wounded in the battle.  Combat lasted the better part of the day extending into the evening.  The two French commanders were both captured and killed in an overwhelming victory for the English forces.  The English suffered a few thousand casualties whereas the French suffered nearly 20,000 casualties.  The English captured what French ships were not destroyed by the battle.  The English losses were minor enough that they could assume dominance of the English Channel.

Significance of the Battle of Sluys

The Battle of Sluys was a major turning point early in the Hundred Years’ War because it virtually destroyed the French fleet.  The majority of French ships had been amassing to invade England.  However, the English victory at Sluys ensured that a French invasion would never come to pass.  Thus, the majority of combat throughout the Hundred Years’ War occurred in France.  To a nation whose history is full of important naval victories, the English victory at Sluys is an early and tremendously important maritime success that should be remembered.

Sarah Jane Bodell

The Battle of Roncevaux Pass

In his 46 year reign as the king of the Franks and emperor of the Romans, Charlemagne engineered glorious military victories but, on 15 August 778, he suffered one stunning defeat.  This great battle—the Battle of Roncevaux Pass—is best remembered through the oldest extant piece of French literature, the Song of Roland.  The Song of Roland was written several centuries after the actual battle and greatly mythologizes the real events of 15 August 778.

By the eighth century, the Muslims had gained a strong foothold in Europe on the Iberian Peninsula, with the Umayyad capital at Córdoba.  In 711, Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel routed the invading Muslims in southwest France at the Battle of Tours (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Poitiers).  Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne and son of Martel, assured Frankish control north of the Pyrenees by subduing Aquitaine in 759.  Charlemagne later assumed the title Duke of Aquitaine.

It was against this backdrop that around 777 the anti-Umayyad governor of Barcelona and Girona, Sulayman al-Arabi, requested military help from Charlemagne in return for his submission as well as that of the governors of Zaragoza and Huesca.  The Umayyad ruler, Abd ar-Rahman I, had the upper hand in Iberia and there were indications that another anti-Umayyad force would soon arrive from Baghdad.

Charlemagne the Opportunist

Charlemagne, ever the savvy opportunist, saw a chance to expand the bounds of Christendom (and his own power) into Spain.  He turned his attention away from the Saxons and prepared to head west.  He marched across the Pyrenees with an amassed force—one portion going south through Catalonia and another going north through Gascony and the Basque Country.  From there, al-Arabi added his own forces to those of Charlemagne.  At about the same time, the governor of Zaragoza made an advance of his own against the Umayyads and decided his position of power had increased such that he did not need an alliance with the Franks and claimed to never have pledged allegiance to Charlemagne.  Charlemagne then laid siege to Zaragoza and, after a month of the siege, decided to turn back and head home.

Roncevaux Pass

So, the Frankish retreat began and on the way Charlemagne ordered the defensive walls of Pamplona to be destroyed.  Enemies of the Franks began to form together.  When the task at Pamplona was complete, the Franks again entered the Pyrenees proceeding through the narrow and heavily wooded Roncevaux Pass.  It was here, on the evening of 15 August 778, that Charlemagne’s army was attacked from behind by a force composed mainly of Basques.  The heavy arms and armor carried by the Frankish army put them at a further disadvantage in the cramped situation at Roncevaux.

The Death of Roland

The Franks were caught so off-guard and unready that the ambush became a slaughter of the rearguard.  Among the many killed were a number of noble military commanders including Roland, the governor of the Breton March, and Eggihard, an important mayor of the palace (a high-ranking Frankish government official).  The Song of Roland turned this rout into an epic battle between 400,000 Muslim Saracens and Charlemagne’s substantial army.  The Basques were, in fact, a Christian people and certainly not Saracen and there were almost certainly not 400,000 of them present that day at Roncevaux. Pictured is the moment of Roland’s death, Le Mort de Roland, by Jean Fouquet (1420-1480)

Nonetheless, the loss was large and embarrassing enough for Charlemagne to remain absent from the Iberian Peninsula for a number of years following.  The chroniclers of Charlemagne’s life often avoided detracting from his remarkable reputation, but they did not remain silent about this defeat.  The Battle of Roncevaux Pass did blemish the reign of Charlemagne somewhat, though perhaps not as much as purported by the Song of Roland.  Nevertheless, the military career of “Father of Europe” before and after Roncevaux is no trifling matter and the Frankish army stands as one of the most dominant forces the world has ever seen.

Sarah Jane Bodell
See also Charlemagne’s Daughters