William Marshal - The Flower of Chivalry

submit to reddit

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




If you want yourself geared up like William, make sure to visit the website armorvenue.com for your protective clothing.


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 choice.


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 Barons' War.


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 kingdom.

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 London.

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 years ago.


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, London




source documents 1, 2, 3




   ::::   Link to us   ::::   Medieval Warfare Resources   :::    © C&MH 2010-2013   :::   contact@medievalwarfare.info   :::   Advertising   :::