William Marshal, the greatest knight who ever lived?
Born 1147, the 4th son of a man of no note, William Marshall rose to be one of the most powerful Barons in England, regent to a child king, and significant influence regarding Magna Carta. He was a man of loyalty, knightly chivalry, and clever diplomacy. That we know anything of substance about him is a testament to his strength of character. And there’s no doubt he stamped his mark on history. We must be grateful to his son, therefore, who ensured his life was documented shortly after his death in “L’ Historie de Guillaume le Marechal”.
In his eulogy, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, referred to William Marshal as the greatest knight who had ever lived. But what’s of particular note is that even his latter day enemy, Philip II of France, praised him. So what’s this great man’s story?
An early start that taught the power of choice…
Born into the midst of civil war between Stephen and Matilda, William Marshal learnt young what it felt like to be at the receiving end of a lack of chivalry. His father, John FitzGilbert who was Marshal of King Stephen’s court, for his own reasons sided with Matilda. This, in turn, led to him being besieged by Stephen. When the siege succeeded, the king demanded the surrender of FitzGilbert’s son, and William’s father showed his true colours. Willingly handing over his son – he could make many more, apparently – FitzGilbert then proceeded to break the truce agreed and endangered William’s life in the process. Broadminded, and admiring of the child’s good character, Stephen spared him.
William Marshal spent his boyhood as a child of lower nobility, but was then incorporated into the household of William Tancarville, the Chamberlain of Normandy. With such an upbringing, it was natural for him, therefore, to start the tournament rounds when he reached the right age.
William did well. These events were brutal, but he rose to the challenge and with that his popularity grew. He developed a name for being a bit of a knightly law enforcer, and his chivalric reputation developed; an antidote to his father’s behaviour, perhaps. It was not long before he was chosen for battle too.
It was during a campaign defending Eleanor of Aquitaine in France, and helping his uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury, that William’s life turned another corner. They were ambushed and his uncle was killed. Furious, William went on the rampage and was taken prisoner. Despite being badly injured, however, his strength held out. Eleanor ransomed him, and returned him to her husband – England’s Henry II and father of Henry the Young King. To have the support of such a powerful woman held weight.
Friendship with a young king burgeons…
William became head of Henry junior’s household. And, as a measure of the esteem in which he was now held, it was he who knighted the young Henry. But it wasn’t all roses and tournaments. William’s experience of divided loyalties was soon extended. The young Henry and his brothers constantly rebelled against their father, and William had to make a choice. Help the youngster, and he was rebelling against the king; help the king, and he was turning his back on the man he was sworn to. He chose his younger compatriot, but things were never to remain that simple.
William developed enemies. Rumours began to spread that he was sleeping with the young Henry’s wife. And though he refuted these claims, he was kicked out of court. Once more, he was a man on his own.
Left to his own devices, William gravitated back to what he knew and what he did well; tournaments. He became a desirable piece of property and was offered attractive incentives to join many ‘teams’. But perhaps, having had a taste of the highest court, he wasn’t prepared to compromise himself. He stuck to his own guns.
By 1183, however, Henry II was battling once more with his son. Ready to ground himself again, but as a testament to William’s chivalrous approach, he actually asked Henry II for permission to join his son’s court once more… against him. Perhaps the older king hoped that William would carry useful influence, for he gave his permission. But later that year, Henry the Young King died from an illness and a reconciliation would never be. It was a source of great grief for both father and friend.
We can only surmise that William felt, at this point, the need for some time to reflect. And at the risk of sounding blasé, in those days that meant a crusade. Oddly, there is little if anything written about William’s crusade other than that he connected with the Knights Templar. However, we also know it was conducted in honour of Henry the Young King, and that Henry II footed the bill.
Another Henry household opens its arms…
When William returned, it’s perhaps no surprise that Henry II accepted him into his own household this time. And William suddenly enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks, becoming a prominent adviser, husband to the wealthy heiress – Isabel de Clare – and as a result of this marriage, the bearer of the esteemed title of Earl of Pembroke. From being the 4th son of a ‘nobody’, William Marshal had now become one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe.
Loyalty proves its worth…
William may well have reached the pinnacle of his career, but that didn’t mean he could stop proving his worth. This time it was Richard, another of Henry II’s sons, who was up in arms against his father. Whilst defending Henry in a battle, William found himself in the awkward position of having to protect the current king from the potential future king. He charged at Richard, and killed Richard’s horse from under him. This was no insignificant act. When Henry II died, Richard wasn’t backward in confronting William about this action. However, William’s bravery and diplomacy held strong. He explained he’d struck the horse in exactly the way he’d meant to to protect Henry but not to harm Richard. The new king, who placed a lot of onus on loyalty, noted William’s chivalry and accepted him into his court.
This faith in William’s loyalty paid off for Richard. Whilst the king was away crusading, William helped run the kingdom and keep Richard’s brother, John, at bay. But if he’d proven his loyalty yet again, it was his mastery at diplomacy that came to the fore in the proceeding years…
John and Magna Carta…
King John isn’t known for the pleasantness of his reign. He was brutally tough on his people, harsh towards his barons, and appalling enough towards the church to find himself excommunicated.
Whilst John was in England, William was mostly in Ireland. However, as ever, he was a king’s man. When problems with the barons began to escalate, William was there by John’s side. Even after the signing of Magna Carta, and John’s subsequent reneging on the contract, William stayed loyal. However, he also managed to remain neutral, for though he never actively rebelled against the king, he never aligned himself publically with the king’s policies either. This proved to be a canny path to have trodden. For upon John’s death, perhaps being seen as the voice of reason during divided times, William was appointed regent until John’s 9yr old son, Henry, came of age.
One of his final duties was to successfully lead a charge for the child king against the French at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. The English won. The civil war was then overcome via a victory at sea. And a treaty was signed. On 24th May, 1219, William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, regent of England, and the greatest knight who ever lived, died. As we said at the beginning, even his enemy, Phillip II of France, had admiration and praise for him. In a brutal age of treachery and greed, William Marshal did, indeed, prove that chivalry, loyalty and diplomacy could still win the day.