Sir William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 14 May 1219), also called William the Marshal (Guillaume le Maréchal), was an Anglo-Norman soldier and statesman. He was described as the “greatest knight that ever lived” by Stephen Langton. He served four kings —Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John and Henry III — and rose from obscurity to become a regent of England for the last of the four, and so one of the most powerful men in Europe. Before him, the hereditary title of “Marshal” designated head of household security for the king of England; by the time he died, people throughout Europe (not just England) referred to him simply as “the Marshal”.
William’s father, John Marshal, supported King Stephen when he took the throne in 1135, but in about 1139 he changed sides to back the Empress Matilda in the civil war of succession between her and Stephen which led to the collapse of England into “the Anarchy”.
When King Stephen besieged Newbury Castle in 1152, according to William’s biographer, he used the young William as a hostage to ensure that John kept his promise to surrender the castle. John, however, used the time allotted to reinforce the castle and alert Matilda’s forces. When Stephen ordered John to surrender immediately or watch as he hanged William in front of the castle John replied that he should go ahead saying, “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!” Fortunately for the child, Stephen could not bring himself to hang young William.
As a younger son of a minor nobleman, William had no lands or fortune to inherit, and had to make his own way in life. Around the age of twelve, when his father’s career was faltering, he was sent to Normandy to be brought up in the household of William de Tancarville, a great magnate and cousin of young William’s mother. Here he began his training as a knight. He was knighted in 1166 on campaign in Upper Normandy, then being invaded from Flanders. His first experience of warfare was not a great success. He failed to take advantage of the knights he had managed to overcome in the street skirmish at Neufchâtel-en-Bray. In 1167 he was taken by William de Tancarville to his first tournament where he found his true métier. Quitting the Tancarville household he then served in the household of his mother’s brother, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury. In 1168 his uncle was killed in an ambush by Guy de Lusignan. William was injured and captured in the same skirmish. It is known that William received a wound to his thigh and that someone in his captor’s household took pity on the young knight. He received a loaf of bread in which were concealed several lengths of clean linen bandages with which he could dress his wounds. This act of kindness by an unknown person perhaps saved Marshal’s life as infection setting into the wound could surely have killed him. After a period of time, he was ransomed by Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was apparently impressed by tales of his bravery. Thereafter he found he could make a good living out of winning tournaments. At that time tournaments were dangerous, often deadly, staged battles, not the jousting contests that would come later, and money and valuable prizes could be won by capturing and ransoming opponents, their horses and armour. His record is legendary: on his deathbed he recalled besting 500 knights during his tourneying career.
William Marshal and the Young King Henry
The Marshal’s career entered a new phase in 1170 when he was appointed to the household of Henry the Young King, eldest surviving son of Eleanor and her second husband Henry II of England, crowned that year as associate king to his father. William was intended to be the boy’s tutor-in-arms, but became his mentor and idol. He infected the boy with his passion for the tournament, and for the next twelve years he was the Young King’s constant companion and tournament team manager. He followed the Young King in his abortive rebellion against his father in 1173–74, and William makes his first appearance in the historical record in a list of rebels compiled by the clerks of Henry II. William is alleged by his biographer to have knighted his young master during the course of the rebellion, but we know from other sources that Young Henry had in fact been knighted by his father before his coronation in 1170.
Between 1174, when Henry was reconciled to his father, and 1182, William led his master’s Anglo-Norman team in all the major tournaments of the day, especially frequenting the huge international meetings in Picardy. His job was to devise tactics and during the course of the tournament to act as minder to the Young King, to make sure he avoided the embarrassment of capture. By the time of the French state tournament of 1179 at Lagny-sur-Marne, held to celebrate the coronation of Philip II of France, William Marshal was sufficiently wealthy to raise his own banner over his own company of knights. He was also by then subject to the envy and conspiracy of rivals at the Young King’s court. In 1182 they engineered his downfall, by claiming that Marshal was more interested in profiting from tournaments than protecting his lord. There were also accusations of disrespect to the king in his choice of war cry for his company (‘God aids the Marshal’) and the way his men trumpeted his fame above the king’s. His biographer attempts to deflect these serious charges by his enemies, by adding to them the preposterous charge that William Marshal had seduced the king’s wife. He was treated coldly by the king, until fed up by the insults, Marshal left to join the tournament team of the Young King’s rival and cousin Philip of Flanders. He was however recalled to the Young King’s household following the king’s second rebellion against his father, and was at his side when Henry died of dysentery near Limoges on 11 June 1183. The Marshal undertook to complete the crusade vow his dead master had made, and took his cloak stitched with the cross to Jerusalem, with the approval of the bereaved father, Henry II.
Upon his return during the course of 1185 William rejoined the court of King Henry II, and now served the father as a loyal captain through the many difficulties of his final years. The returns of royal favour were almost immediate. The king gave William the large royal estate of Cartmelin Cumbria, and the keeping of Heloise, the heiress of the northern barony of Lancaster. It may be that the king expected him to take the opportunity to marry her and become a northern baron, but William seems to have had grander ambitions for his marriage. In 1188 faced with an attempt by Philip II to seize the disputed region of Berry, Henry II summoned the Marshal to his side. The letter by which he did this survives, and makes some sarcastic comments about William’s complaints that he had not been properly rewarded to date for his service to the king. Henry therefore promised him the marriage and lands of Dionisia, lady of Châteauroux in Berry. In the resulting campaign, the king fell out with his heir Richard, count of Poitou, who consequently allied with Philip II against his father. In 1189, while covering the flight of Henry II from Le Mans to Chinon, William unhorsed the undutiful Richard in a skirmish. William could have killed the prince but killed his horse instead, to make that point clear. He is said to have been the only man ever to unhorse Richard. Nonetheless after Henry’s death, Marshal was welcomed at court by his former adversary, now King Richard I, who was not foolish enough to exclude a man whose legendary loyalty and military accomplishments were too useful to ignore, especially in a king who was intending to go on Crusade.
During the old king’s last days he had promised the Marshal the hand and estates of Isabel de Clare (c.1172–1220), but had not completed the arrangements. King Richard however, confirmed the offer and so in August 1189, at the age of 43, the Marshal married the 17-year-old daughter of Richard de Clare (Strongbow). Her father had been Earl of Pembroke, and Marshal acquired large estates and claims in England, Wales, Normandy and Ireland. Some estates however were excluded from the deal. Marshal did not obtain Pembroke and the title of earl, which his father-in-law had enjoyed, until 1199, as it had been taken into the king’s hand in 1154. However, the marriage transformed the landless knight from a minor family into one of the richest men in the kingdom, a sign of his power and prestige at court. They had five sons and five daughters, and have numerous descendants (see below). William made numerous improvements to his wife’s lands, including extensive additions to Pembroke Castle and Chepstow Castle.
William was included in the council of regency which the King appointed on his departure for the Third Crusade in 1190. He took the side of John, the king’s brother, when the latter expelled the justiciar, William Longchamp, from the kingdom, but he soon discovered that the interests of John were different from those of Richard. Hence in 1193 he joined with the loyalists in making war upon him. In spring 1194, during the course of the hostilities in England, before King Richard’s return, William Marshal’s elder brother John Marshal was killed defending Marlborough for John, whose seneschal he was. Richard allowed Marshal to succeed his brother in the hereditary marshalship, and his paternal honour of Hamstead Marshall. The Marshal served the king 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 and Magna Carta
William supported King John when he became king in 1199, arguing against those who maintained the claims of Arthur of Brittany, the teenage son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey Plantagenet. William was heavily engaged with the defence of Normandy against the growing pressure of the Capetian armies between 1200 and 1203. He sailed with King John when he abandoned the duchy in December 1203. He and the king had a falling out in the aftermath of the loss of the duchy, when he was sent with the earl of Leicester as ambassadors to negotiate a truce with KingPhilip II of France in 1204. The Marshal took the opportunity to negotiate the continued possession of his Norman lands. When William paid homage to King Philip, John took offence and there was a major row at court which led to cool relations between the two men. This became outright hostility in 1207 when John began to move against several major Irish magnates, including William. Though he left for Leinster in 1207 William was recalled and humiliated at court in the autumn of 1208, while John’s justiciar in Ireland Meilyr fitz Henry invaded his lands, burning the town of New Ross. Meilyr’s defeat by Countess Isabel led to her husband’s return to Leinster. He was once again in conflict with King John in his war with the Braose 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. Taken back into favour in 1212, he was summoned in 1213 to return to the English court. Despite their differences, William remained loyal throughout the hostilities between John and his barons which culminated on 15 June 1215 atRunnymede with the sealing of Magna Carta. William was one of the few English earls to remain loyal to the king through the First Barons’ War. It was William whom King John trusted on his deathbed to make sure John’s nine-year-old son Henry would get the throne. It was William who took responsibility for the king’s funeral and burial at Worcester Cathedral.
On 11 November 1216 at Gloucester, upon the death of King John, 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. In spite of his advanced age (around 70) he prosecuted the war against Prince Louis and the rebel barons with remarkable energy. In the battle of Lincoln he charged and fought at the head of the young King’s army, leading them to victory. He was preparing to besiege Louis in London when the war was terminated by the naval victory of Hubert de Burgh in the straits of Dover. William was criticized for the generosity of the terms he accorded to Louis and the rebels in September 1217; but his desire for an expeditious settlement was dictated by sound statesmanship. Self-restraint and compromise were the keynote of Marshal’s policy, hoping to secure peace and stability for his young liege. Both before and after the peace of 1217 he reissued Magna Carta, in which he is a signatory as one of the witnessing barons. Without his prestige the Angevin dynasty might not have survived the disastrous reign of John; where the French and the rebels would not trust the English king’s word, they would trust William.
Death and legacy
Marshal’s health finally failed him early in 1219. In March 1219 he realized that he was dying, so he summoned his eldest son, also William, and his household knights, and left the Tower of London for his estate at Caversham in Berkshire, near Reading, where he called a meeting of the barons, Henry III, the papal legate Pandulf Masca, 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 the regency to the care of the papal legate; he apparently did not trust the Bishop or any of the other magnates that he had gathered to this meeting. 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, where his effigy can still be seen.
After his death, his eldest son, also named William, commissioned a biography of his father to be written called L’Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal. This book, written so soon after his death, has preserved (and probably enhanced) the legend of William Marshal for posterity. While his knightly achievements may be debatable, there is no doubt of his impact on the history and politics of England, from his stalwart defence of the realm to his support of the Magna Carta.