The name William Marshal sounds ordinary enough
and could belong to any unremarkable Englishman. The chances are
that you do not associate it with anyone of note. Yet William Marshal
– or William the Marshal – was one of the greatest
men ever to have lived and arguably the greatest ever Englishman.
Although inexplicably omitted from schoolroom history he has a
dozen claims to fame. He rose from obscurity to end his life the
most famous knight in Europe, honoured with an earldom and the title
Earl Marshal of England. During his life he had loyally served five
kings in almost impossible circumstances, had beaten over 500 opponents
in single combat, knighted two kings and spared another king’s
life, ruled England as Regent, beaten a powerful French army on
English soil, saved the kingdom, and earned the respect of Europe.
He was called “The Flower of Chivalry”. Stephen Langton,
the Archbishop of Canterbury, described him as the "greatest
knight that ever lived". Every king and great nobleman in Europe
had an officer called a marshal, but by the time of his death in
1219 the whole of Europe knew William as “The Marshal”.
William’s childhood was not easy. A generation after William
the Conqueror, war raged between Stephen and Matilda, rivals for
the English throne. When King Stephen besieged Newbury Castle (at
Hamstead Marshall) in 1152, Stephen used the young William as a
hostage to ensure that his father John Marshal surrendered the castle.
John pretended to consider, but used the time to reinforce the castle
and to alert Matilda's forces. Stephen then ordered John to surrender
immediately or watch as he hanged William in front of the castle.
John replied with the words "I still have the hammer and the
anvil with which to forge yet more and better sons!". Stephen
loaded William into a trebuchet ready to shoot him into the castle,
but in the end could not bring himself to kill the lad.
As a younger son of a minor nobleman, William had no lands to inherit.
Around the age of twelve he was sent to Normandy to be trained as
a knight in the household of William de Tancarville, a cousin of
his mother. He was knighted in 1166 on campaign in Upper Normandy.
Leaving the Tancarville household he served in the household of
his mother's brother, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury. In 1168 the earl
was killed in an ambush by Guy de Lusignan. William was injured
and captured in the ambush, but was ransomed by Eleanor of Aquitaine,
who had heard of his bravery.
At liberty, he made a living out of winning tournaments. Tournaments
were at that time dangerous – often deadly – battles,
far from the showy jousting contests that they would later become
late on, Money, armour, horses and valuable prizes could be won
by capturing and ransoming opponents. William’s record on
the tournament circuit became legendary.
Carlow Castle in Ireland
Pembroke Castle in Wales
The Young King Henry. William’s career entered
a new phase in 1170 when he was appointed to the household of Henry
the Young King, the eldest surviving son of King Henry II of England.
The young Henry had been crowned that year as associate king to
his father. William was to be the boy's tutor-in-arms, and became
his mentor and his idol. For the next twelve years he was the Young
King's companion and tournament team manager. He followed the Young
King in his abortive rebellion against his own father in 1173–74.
William is claimed by his biographer to have knighted his young
master during the course of the rebellion, (though other sources
suggest that Young Henry had been knighted by his father before
his coronation in 1170).
William Marshal unhorses an opponent
Between 1174 (when Henry was reconciled to his father) and 1182,
William led the Young King’s Anglo-Norman team in all the
major tournaments of the day, winning a fortune. He was recalled
to the Young King's household following Henry’s second rebellion
against his father. William was at his side when he died of dysentery
near Limoges in 1183. William undertook to complete the crusader
vow that his dead master had made, and did so with the approval
of the bereaved father, Henry II.
Henry II. On his return in 1185 William joined
the court of Henry II, and served the Old King as loyally as he
had served the Young King.
In 1188 faced with an attempt by Philip II to seize the region
of Berry, Henry II summoned the Marshal to join him. In the campaign,
the king fell out with his heir Richard, Count of Poitou. Richard
then allied himself with King Philip II against his own father.
In 1189, while covering the flight of Henry II from Le Mans to Chinon,
William caught Richard unawares and could have skewered him on his
lance. Richard asked the William to spare his life. William killed
Richard’s horse instead, to emphasise that he had had the
Richard I. After Henry's death, William was welcomed
at court by Richard, now King Richard I, who recognised and valued
loyalty and military accomplishment. During Henry II’ last
days Henry had promised William the hand and estates of Isabel de
Clare, but had not completed the marriage arrangements. Richard
confirmed the offer and later in 1189, at the age of 43, the Marshal
married Isabel, the 17-year-old daughter and heir of Richard Strongbow.
Her father had been Earl of Pembroke, and William acquired large
estates in England, Wales, Normandy and Ireland. He did not immediately
receive Pembroke and the title of earl, which had been taken into
the king's hands in 1154, but he was granted them in 1199. The marriage
transformed the landless knight into one of the richest men in the
kingdom, reflecting his power and prestige at court. William and
Isabel had five sons and five daughters. William made improvements
to his wife's lands, including extensive additions to Pembroke Castle
and Chepstow Castle.
William was included in the council of regency which King Richard
appointed on his departure for the Third Crusade in 1190. He took
the side of John, the king's brother, when John controversially
expelled the justiciar, William Longchamp, from the kingdom. William
soon discovered that the interests of John did not always coincide
with those of King Richard or the good of the realm. In 1193 he
joined the barons loyal to Richard in making war on John. William’s
elder brother was John’s Seneschal, and naturally sided with
John. In spring 1194, during the course of hostilities, John Marshal
was killed defending Marlborough. Richard allowed William to succeed
his brother in the hereditary marshalship, and his paternal honour
of Hamstead Marshall. William was now William the Marshal.
William the Marshal served King Richard in his wars in Normandy
against Philip II. On Richard's death-bed the king designated Marshal
as custodian of Rouen and of the royal treasure during the interregnum.
King John. William now supported John when he
became king on Richard'd death in 1199. William was heavily engaged
with the defence of Normandy against the French armies between 1200
and 1203. He sailed with King John when he abandoned the duchy of
Normandy in December 1203. He remained loyal despite the King’s
military incompetence, capriciousness and lethargy. William was
sent with the earl of Leicester as ambassadors to negotiate a truce
with Philip II of France in 1204. There he took the opportunity
to negotiate the continued possession of his own Norman lands. John
took offence when William undertook to pay homage to King Philip,
and there was a major row at court which led to cool relations between
the two men. This coolness turned to hostility in 1207 when John
began to move against major Irish magnates, including William.
William left for Leinster but was recalled by the King. In 1208
John's justiciar in Ireland Meilyr fitz Henry invaded William’s
lands, burning the town of New Ross. Countess Isabel, William’s
wife, defeated Meilyr's army and William returned to Leinster. He
was once again in conflict with King John in his war with the Briouze
and Lacy families in 1210, but managed to survive. He stayed in
Ireland until 1213, during which time he had Carlow Castle erected
and restructured his honour of Leinster.
Back in favour in 1212, he was summoned the following year to return
to the English court. Despite their differences – and John’s
many weaknesses – William remained loyal throughout the hostilities
between John and his barons which culminated on 15 June 1215 at
Runnymede with the sealing of Magna Carta. William was one of the
few English earls to remain loyal to the king throughout the First
Henry III. On his deathbed King John trusted William
to make sure John's nine-year-old son Henry would succeed as king.
William also took responsibility for the king's funeral and burial
at Worcester Cathedral. On 11 November 1216 at Gloucester William
Marshal was named by the king's council (the chief barons who had
remained loyal to King John in the First Barons' War) to serve as
protector of the nine year old King Henry III, and Regent of the
Before John’s death, the majority of the great barons had
decided to overthrow him, and would almost certainly have succeeded
if they had had Williams support. As it was they had invited Prince
Louis of France to take the throne of England, and Louis was now
in England with an army and the support of the barons. In spite
of his age (he was now around 70 years old) William now prosecuted
the war against Prince Louis and the barons. At the battle of Lincoln
he charged and fought at the head of his army, leading them to victory.
Now the rebel barons reconsidered. Before, they had wanted to replace
an incompetent and capricious king. Now they had a new king, and
the greatest knight in Christendom as his Regent. The indomitable
William was preparing to besiege Louis in London when Hubert de
Burgh won a naval engagement against Louis’s fleet in the
straits of Dover. The game was up. The last few barons returned
to William, and Louis was finished.
William was criticised at the time for the generosity of the terms
he accorded to Louis and the rebels in September 1217; but the consensus
now is that his action represented, as usual, sound statesmanship.
Both before and after the peace of 1217 he reissued Magna Carta,
in which his son was a signatory as one of the witnessing barons.
Without his prestige the Angevin dynasty might well not have survived
the disastrous reign of John. While no one would trust John, everyone
could trust William.
William Marshal's health failed him in February 1219. In March
1219 he realised that he was dying. He summoned his eldest son,
also called William, and his household knights, and left the Tower
of London for his estate at Caversham in Oxfordshire, near Reading.
There he called a meeting of the barons, King Henry III, the papal
legate, the royal justiciar (Hubert de Burgh), and Peter des Roches,
Bishop of Winchester and the young King's guardian. William rejected
the untrustworthy Bishop's claim to the regency and entrusted it
instead to the papal legate.
Fulfilling the vow he had made while on crusade, he was invested
into the order of the Knights Templar on his deathbed. He died on
14 May 1219 at Caversham, and was buried in the Temple Church in
Although William himself is largely forgotten, you can still find
vestiges of his role in English, Welsh and Irish history. For one
thing you will find him in dozens of films and plays, often without
his name being mentioned. He is the Earl of Pembroke in William
Shakespeare's historical play King John. He makes an appearance
in The Lion in Winter.(both the 1968 and 2003 versions).
Many events in his life were incorporated into the 2001 film A
Knight's Tale. He is a major character in Ridley Scott's Robin
Hood. Played by William Hurt he tries to convince King John
to agree to the Magna Carta.
You can see his great castles such as Carlow Castle in Ireland,
and Pembroke Castle with its great tower, and Chepstow Castle in
Wales. His tomb is unknown but you can still see his effigy in the
Temple Church in London. And one other reminder: England is not
today ruled from Paris, as it might well have been without the Marshal’s
authority to fill the power vacuum left by an incompetent king 800
William Marshal's Tower at Pembroke Castle
Chepstow Castle in Wales
The Coat of Arms of William Marshal
The Medieval Coat of Arms of William Marshal
From the Film Robin Hood. William
Marshal (William Hurt) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins),
the Queen Mother.
William Marshal's Effigy in the Temple Church,