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 unhorsed Richard, the future King Richard
I, the Lionheart, in battle and spared his life. He loyally served
five Plantagenate kings, including Richard his erstwhile enemy,
who had the sense to recognise Marshal's qualities.
He defeated over 500 opponents in single combat, knighted two kings,
ruled England as Regent, beat a powerful French army on English
soil, saved the kingdom of England, 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&rdquo.
King Stephen. 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 boy. Instead William became a favourite at the
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 he accompanied
the Earl as part of a Eleanor of Aquitaine's escort. The earl was
killed in an ambush by Guy de Lusignan. William was injured but
kept fighting long enough to allow Eleanor to escape. He was later
ransomed by Eleanor, 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. No modern counterpart exists,
but some idea of his fame and presige might be imagined by combining
the world's most famous footballer with the world heavywieght boxing
champion and equestrian Olympic gold medalist.
The Coat of Arms adopted by William Marshal
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..
Gilbert Marshal unhorses Baldwin Guisnes.
From the Historia Major of Matthew Paris.
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 went on crusade to the Holy
Land with the approval of the bereaved father, King Henry II.
King Henry II. On his return in 1185 William joined
the court of King Henry II, and served the Old King Henry as loyally
as he had served the Young King Henry. 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.
Henry died long afterwards, William supervised his funeral and
burial, largely at his own cost, at Fontevraux abbey.
King Richard I. After Henry's death, William was
welcomed at court by Richard, now King Richard I, who recognised
and valued The Marshal's 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. This 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, Marshal of England.
William the Marshal served King Richard in his wars in Normandy
against King Philip II. On Richard's deathbed the king designated
Marshal as custodian of Rouen and of the royal treasure during the
King John. William now served John when he became
king on Richard's 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 liege 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 a peace treaty that we now call Magna
Carta. The Marshal witnessed it for the king while his eldest son,
also called William, sealed it as one of the 25 barons named in
the Security Clause. John immediately repudiated Magna Carta and
at his request it was annulled by the pope, Innocent III.
William, who seems never to have broken his feudal oaths of loyalty
(unlike almost all of his peers) was one of the few English earls
to remain loyal to the king throughout the First Barons' War. On
his deathbed King John trusted William to make sure John's nine-year-old
son Henry would succeed him 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 as Regent of the kingdom.
King Henry III. 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 William's 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 most of the barons. In control of most of the country, Louis
was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey.
On his own initiative William had Henry III crowned and voluntarily
re-issued the Great Charter, Magna Carta, under his own seal,
taking the precaution of having the papal legate seal it as well.
As he was militarily weak, this had little effect in bringing back
the rebel barons, so the civil war continued. In spite of his age
(he was now around 70 years old) William prosecuted a war against
Prince Louis, his French army and most of the English barons. At
the battle of Lincoln he charged and fought at the head of his loyalist
army, leading them to victory over a larger incumbent army, and
killing his own cousin. Now the rebel barons had to think again.
Before, they had planned to replace an incompetent and capricious
king. Now they had a new anointed English king, whose who had done
no wrong, and whose right was unquestioned, with the most respected
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.
Louis was deprived of his much-needed reinforcements. The game was
up. William again reissued Magna Carta in 1217, again on
his own initiative and again under his own seal. The rebels no longer
had a cause or a viable alternative king. Louis had been comprehensively
outmanoeuvred, both militarily and diplomatically. It seems never
to have occurred to him to offer to issue Magna Carta. The
last few rebel barons returned to William, and Louis's claim was
finished. On September 11, 1217, Marshal negotiated the Treaty of
Lambeth which ended the civil war and the French invasion. 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. (Henry
III, who had had his own doubts, would eventually realise this and
would reissue Magna Carta again in 1225 and in 1229)
Without the Marshal's prestige the Plantagenate dynasty might well
not have survived the disastrous reign of John. While no one would
trust John, everyone could trust William. Respected by all, the
international sporting super-star had become the Churchill of his
William Marshal's health failed him in February 1219. In March
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 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 inducted 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, Irish and Norman 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. Elizabeth Chadwick has written two
excellent novels about his life.
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 grave is unknown but you can still see his tomb effigy
in the Temple Church in London. And one other reminder: England
is not today ruled from Paris, as it would certainly have been without
the Marshal’s authority and prestige to fill the power vacuum
left by an incompetent king 800 years ago. And of course we still
have Magna Carta - not the failed peace treaty of 1215 sealed
by John under duress and annulled by the Pope - but the one still
valid in English law, issued voluntarily on behalf of the king,
on the initiative of and under the seal of William Marshal.
William Marshal's Tower at Pembroke Castle
Tomb Effigy of William Marshall
The Marshal's tomb in the Temple Church was
damaged during the Second World War. This is a cast taken
before the war and kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum
This statue of The Marshal stands behind
the Royal Throne in the House of Lords, holding a copy of
The Office of Marshal, now Earll-Marshal
still exists, and still holds responsibility for Royal Funerals.
The present Earl Marshal is the Duke of Norfolk. This is the
tip of an Earl-Marshal's baton presented to the Fifteenth
Duke of Norfolk on his first marriage, by the College of Arms,
William Marshal's Effigy in the Temple Church,
London, damaged by bombing.
|A modern image of William, The Marshal