The story of William Marshal spans from 1147-1219 or, basically, from the reign of King Stephen through to Henry III. Marshall was born in the anarchy of the civil war, but he managed to live long enough to be around the establishment of the Magna Carta in 1215, and to be honest, these two historical events are not the best that happened to him or around him. William Marshall is considered one of the greatest knights in known history, and today you will find out why!
The biggest number of things we know about William is from the “L’Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal” or translated “The History of William Marshal.” If you didn’t know, this is a poem commissioned by Marshal’s eldest son and written in 1226 by a man who claimed to have known Marshal in his prime. This poem is also considered to be the first biography written by a simple man about another one that was not a King himself. It tells a story of William Marshal, a landless knight who frequented tournaments and died as the Earl of Pembroke and the regent of the whole of England. According to this poem, William managed to serve five Angevin kings, and he is (arguably) the man to thank for the salvation of the Plantagenet dynasty which survived for another 250 years.
You would think that these deeds would be enough for the chroniclers to praise him wherever they got a chance, but it simply didn’t happen. Many believe that this was because of his low birth but also because of the gaps in his lifespan that have not been filled to this day. In this piece, you will read about William’s life, get an insight in the uniqueness that is Marshal and his importance in the English history.
The early life
William was born in 1147, and he was the fourth son to John FitzGilbert, who was at the time Marshal of King Stephen’s court. Since John was of no political importance to King Stephen and since he did not have a land of his own, John turned his allegiance to Matilda. This was undoubtedly an act of treason, but in harsh times back then, while the anarchy bloomed, it was pretty normal and occurring thing. Due to his betrayal, King Stephen besieged John and demanded to surrender his five-year-old son, William, as a hostage. Since he did not care about his son’s safety, (and believed that he could easily make more), John broke a truce which directly put his son William in harm’s way. Thanks to William’s youthful innocence and King Stephen admiration, his life was spared.
William spent his childhood like any other regular boy of the lower nobility, and sometime later managed to find his way into the house of his cousin – William de Tancarville, the Chamberlain of Normandy. From 1167, William made a name for himself in tournament circles, where the main goal was to teach boys how to become men, learn to fight and prepare for war. Another purpose of these tournaments was to capture and ransom your opponent, and William really excelled in that, which is why he grew so popular. One thing in life pretty much defined him and what he will become, and it is the time when he stopped a noblewoman running away with a monk (a shameful and criminal act at the time). This made him appear as a form of knightly law enforcer, and he very much fancied that role.
During his life, he managed to find himself in a lot of places, and one of those was France, where he helped his uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury to put down a rebellion started by the de Lusignan family. In that battle, his uncle was killed and he was imprisoned. Thankfully, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most famous Queen of the Middle Ages, paid for his ransom and returned him to her husband, England’s Henry II, and the household of their 13-year-old son, Henry, the heir apparent.
The time under Angevins
The period around 1270 and Henry II just crowned his son as a king. Known as Henry the Young King, the boy was obsessed with tournaments rather than politics, which is why he spent a lot of his money chasing glory. This is the thing that went under arm for one man, and you probably guessed it, William Marshal. Right beside Henry the Young King and his friends, our William found his home and peace. At the time he was head of his household and with a very important task at hands – to teach the young king the chivalric ways of knighthood. William’s importance there was too big, and just one part of that was shown with a single gesture – Marshal was the one that knighted the young king. During this period William got the taste of his first divided loyalties. Back then Henry and his brothers constantly rebelled against their father and wanted more, real power. William had a tough task there since he had to decide where does his allegiance lies, with the rebels (to the man he was sworn to and the man who would one day be king) or the King.
Naturally, this was the period when William started making enemies in and around the court. They have tried everything to discredit him, and the most successful thing was the rumor that he had slept with the wife of Henry the young King. Marshall refuted these accusations and demanded a trial by combat but he was denied of those wishes, and he was kicked out of the court. After this persecution, William took a long time to return to the aristocratic scene, but thankfully, all that time was not wasted in vain. During this tough period, he found his worth and calling.
Thanks to the fact that he was a night without land, on his visits to tournaments he got very lucrative contracts from powerful men such as the Count of Flanders and the Duke of Burgundy. You have to imagine those tournaments as any kind of high-paying sport. Best players in it get to be picked by the most powerful men. What is a bit peculiar is that William refused these contracts in favor of continuing on his own. In 1183 Henry II had another dispute with his son and that is when William Marshal decided to return to court. When he returned he did something incredible – he asked Henry II if he can join his son against him, and surprisingly the King allowed it in hopes that William’s influence will be enough to make his son stop his revolt. However, something else happened. In 1183, Henry the Young King, aged 28, died of illness.
After the death of Young King Henry, William embarked on a crusade, but not the regular one as we know about it. It was a personal crusade in honor of his deceased friend. Interestingly enough this crusade to Holy Land went totally unrecorded and we know nothing about the endeavors of William Marshal. Whether it is 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, we will never know, but one thing is for sure, William achieved in two years what most knights had done in seven.
During his personal crusade, Marshal managed to get together with Knights Templar, and during their time together managed to find himself in the Levant just before the 1187 Battle of Hattin, which was a major turning point in history. King Henry II paid for William Marshal’s entire crusade and upon his return accepted him into his household. This was the boost and incentive for the knight to swiftly go through the ranks and end up as King’s most trusty advisor. The king also promised him the one thing that will turn his life around – a wealthy heiress for a wife – Isabel de Clare. She was the heiress to a vast amount of land in southern Wales and Ireland, and if William married her, he would become Earl of Pembroke.
Earl and Regent, defender of the realm
King Henry II still struggled with his sons and this time William sided with the king. In one of the battles, he was helping Henry II to retreat and to save the king charged at the heir to the throne, Richard, killing his horse from under him. Thanks to this William was in a bad spot back then, 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. After King Henry II died in 1189, William was left for dry, and he and his friends feared for his wellbeing. After the new king, Richard I, the Lionheart, took the throne he confronted William Marshal about the attack on him, and William defended that he did not want to kill him and that he struck his sword precisely where he meant to. Since Richard I the Lionheart appreciated loyalty he decided to keep William around, and in the following years and events that proved to be the right choice.
King John (reigned 1199 to 1216) as it turned out to be, was a very difficult task for both William Marshal and England as well. He was famous for his harshness towards his barons, which didn’t sit well with William. King John was a very paranoid person, and because of that, he became very closed and isolated. That costed him of Normandy in 1204 and once again when he failed to win it back, he got excommunicated by Pope Innocent III, and was deeply uninspiring to his barons. During this tough period, Marshal spent the most time with his family in Ireland. In Leinster, he managed to show just how good of a manager he is and created a thriving and economically successful area of land to the benefit to all those who lived there. Although King John never appreciated him as much as he should, (he called him a traitor), William was one of the few people who rushed to aid his King when he got in trouble with the barons in 1211.
In 1215 King John was backed to a wall and had no other choice than to sign one of the most important documents in history, the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta put the King below the law and not above it which is something King John quickly tried to change by causing a civil war. This war allowed for the rebels to call the Dauphine, Louis, to England to take the throne for himself. In 1216 after a heavy defeat King John died. William stayed loyal to him to the very end and remained somewhat of a neutral baron all the time which was welcomed by both sides. This brought him another benefit, and it is the first choice to become regent until John’s nine-year-old son, Henry, the future Henry III, came of age.
This was the time when William reached his full power. He started from nothing and climbed his way up to the ruler of the whole of England, with a colossal task at hands. He had to balance the situation between the Crown and Louis and the rebels who controlled most of the country. Thanks to his great wisdom and experience he managed the situation very well. He gained the support of many rebellious and neutral barons as well as the opportunity to lead a massive charge for the King against the rebels and French at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. As you all know, the English won the battle, and the civil war was swiftly won with a victory at sea, sealed by a treaty. On May 24th, 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.
It was time for the eulogy, and boy was it some eulogy. Starting from the Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury to Philip II of France there was nothing but words of praise, admiration and a hint of veneration. He remains as one of the greatest knights who had ever lived, especially when you consider the fact that he lived in a period riddled with conflicts and military confrontations. William Marshal was clearly a clever, well-measured man and a survivor. He came on top of a crusade, life-threatening injuries, and on top of all, singlehandedly lead a charge on a castle, as well as charge into battle at the age of 70.
If that is not enough for everyone’s awe, then just remember that he managed to balance his way through the temperament of three of the most notoriously bad-tempered kings in English history. He was by their side all the time and offered them his counsel due to his wisdom and discretion, but most importantly due to his honesty. Last but not least is the fact that he reprinted the Magna Carta in his regency, something not often mentioned and known.