In our second special episode, we review the life and times of the medieval knight and courtier, William (the) Marshal. His extraordinary career sees him serve Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John and the young Henry III as well as encompassing the world of tournaments and the emerging concept of knighthood and chivalry. You can listen a preview of the special episode below or read on to find out more about William and how to purchase the episode.
William was born in about 1146 or 1147, the son of John Marshal and Sybilla of Salisbury into an Anglo-Norman family of relative status. William’s grandfather, Gilbert Giffard, had served Henry I as Royal Master-Marshal, traditionally associated with the care and maintenance of the king’s horses. William’s father was the first to inherit this title, becoming Lord Marshal in 1135, a title which remained in place until it changed to Earl Marshal in 1397 and in which form it still survives today, being the 8th most senior of the 9 great offices of state, technically responsible for organising state funerals, coronations and the state opening of Parliament.
Interestingly, William always seems to have been called Marshal well before he actually became the Marshal, meaning this was an early example of a surname in medieval England. The reason we know so much about William is that his son commissioned a biographical poem soon after his father’s death, based largely on official documents, the recollections of friends and the anecdotes that William himself used to tell. This gives us a wonderful insight into the culture of medieval knights and the Plantagenet court, though the text is a little on the biased side! William’s associations with the hated King John tend to be rather downplayed while, despite their self-deprecating nature, William always comes out of the anecdotes and escapes rather well. However, the actual events described can be backed up by the historical record, as can William’s role in them.
Despite the glory William would later achieve, as a second son he had relatively limited prospects and nearly saw his life cut very short during the Anarchy (a civil war between King Stephen and his cousin, the daughter of the previous king, Matilda). William’s father, John, switched sides from Stephen to Matilda and when he was besieged at Newbury castle, Stephen agreed to a truce to allow him time to surrender. Instead, John used the time to alert Matilda and acquire reinforcements. Stephen was furious, not least because as surety for his actions, John had given his son, William, as hostage. By rights, Stephen should have killed William (about 7 years old at this point) and threatened to do so on more than one occasion, only for William’s father to give the callous reply, “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!” Thankfully, Stephen had a weakness for women and children in war and could not bear to kill little William, effectively keeping him as a ward until the war came to an end the following year.
Becoming a Knight
As a second son, William would have to find his own way in the world, so when his father died in 1165, he joined the household of his mother’s cousin, William de Tancarville. Tancarville was a Norman magnate with a large household of young men being trained in the ways of the newly developing concept of knighthood. William would have learnt horsemanship, hand-to-hand combat and the politics of courtly life and how to get ahead in the world. William seems to have been the perfect character for knighthood, with his self-deprecating manner helping to ingratiate him to others without seeming too much of a threat. His fighting style was rather less subtle, favouring blunt force (often a big whack on the head!) over artistry, his biography noting that “he hammered like a blacksmith on iron” when fighting.
After a few years with Tancarville, where he gained his first experience of battle at Neufchatel, he joined the mesnie (effectively the household troops) of his maternal uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury. They were sent to help put down a rebellion in the territory of Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen to the new king of England, Henry II. Ambushed on their return, Patrick was killed after being run through with a lance before having a chance to put on his armour. Surprisingly, it was relatively rare for knights to be killed (particularly one so senior) as the armour was virtually impenetrable, meaning the biggest danger tended to be financial if you were captured and ransomed. Enraged, William charged into battle to avenge his uncle and, having fought bravely, someone popped round the back a hedge and drove a lance through his leg, leading to his capture.
At this point, with his uncle and sponsor dead, William’s prospects looked very bleak. He was initially poorly treated and had to rip up his own clothes to make a bandage for his wounds until he managed to turn the head of a “noble-hearted kind lady” who sent him a loaf of bread hollowed out to conceal linen bandages. William recovered from his wounds and finally had his ransom paid by no less than Eleanor of Aquitaine herself, who had evidently been informed of his bravery and liked what she saw.
A Royal Knight
Thanks to the patronage of Eleanor, William was now brought to the Plantagenet court and given a very promising position in the household of Henry the Young King. The Young Henry had technically been crowned co-king by his father (the only time this happened in England, the practice being more common on the continent) and William was appointed his tutor-in-arms, becoming one of his closest friends and advisors.
Usually, having a surfeit of sons was a good thing but for Henry II it proved to be something of a nightmare. Henry ruled over a vast empire, which included England, Ireland and most of the west (or left!) of France. As his sons grew older, they demanded their own share of territory to rule while the Young Henry (as co-king) was indignant at his father refusing to actually give him any power or responsibility. However, by far the most dangerous member of the family to anger was Eleanor, who became estranged from Henry II following his very public affair with Rosamund Clifford. These factors combined in 1173 to produce the Great Rebellion, where the Young Henry and his brothers Richard and Geoffrey (egged on by Eleanor), linked with the King of Scots and the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne to make war on Henry II. Impressively, Henry II saw his challengers off and was largely very forgiving, taking no action against his sons or their households but imprisoning Eleanor for the rest of the reign.
Chastened by their failure, the Young Henry and his household left court and entered the world of medieval tournaments. These were grand affairs, essentially the sport of the rich in medieval Europe, providing something for the thousands of idle knights to do in times of peace. These would involve various different teams competing against each other, initially in a large cavalry charge but then a free-for-all melee that took part over several miles of countryside. Initially, Young Henry’s household performed poorly and were mocked for frequently being captured and ransomed. It seems that William himself was often at fault, his hot-headed and boyish enthusiasm for combat meaning that he often charged off into battle and abandoned his lord instead of helping to protect him. However, they soon learned from their errors and became highly successful. William himself became so respected that he started to be invited to tournaments as an individual but this seems to have caused resentment in the Young Henry’s mesnie and William went into exile following rumours of lèse-majesté (adopting his own war cry, keeping his own ransoms) and adultery with the Young Henry’s wife. They were reconciled a year later in 1183, but only on the Young Henry’s deathbed, having contracted dysentery in the midst of another failed rebellion against his father.
Most of the Young Henry’s mesnie immediately sought new lords, but William had made his late master a promise to help him fulfil an oath to go on the Crusades by taking his cloak with the Crusaders cross to Jerusalem. Before he went, William sought permission from Henry II to make the journey and was promised a place at the king’s court on his return. William was now on the way to becoming a man of significant standing, receiving his first estate (Cartmel in the Lake District) as well as two wardships, whereby he was guardian for a young orphaned noble, giving him effective control of their estates. However, although loyal William was also ambitious. Henry probably expected him to marry his female ward, Heloise of Lancaster, and saw acquire her lands but he held out for something better, leaving Henry to wryly note in one letter to William that “you have frequently complained to me that I have bestowed on you only a small fee” and promised him more territory and a better marriage prospect.
Henry II was a great and powerful king, but by 1189 his health was failing and he was under assault from an alliance between the wily French king, Philip Augustus, and Henry’s own formidable son, Richard the Lionheart. As ever, William stayed loyal to his lord to the bitter end, helping to cover Henry’s retreat from Le Mans as it was captured by Richard. Determined to catch his father, Richard raced after him, leading to a dramatic confrontation between William and Richard on horseback, as detailed in this preview from our podcast (if you are unable to listen, William pointedly avoided killing Richard but did kill his horse to prevent his pursuit of Henry!)
Henry II died not long after, leading to a potentially awkward meeting between William and Richard at Henry’s tomb. However, Richard valued William’s honesty and loyalty and brought him into his household and allowing him to marry Isabel de Clare. Isabel was 17 years old to William’s 43 and, as the daughter of Richard de Clare (AKA Earl Strongbow) brought extensive lands in Normandy (Longueville), England (Caversham, Pembroke) and Ireland (Leinster). William raced off to England to marry her and thus became in one fell swoop a very rich and senior man of the kingdom, as demonstrated by his prominent position at Richard’s coronation where he carried the new king’s sceptre.
However, William was to see very little of Richard for the next five years. Richard headed off to join the Third Crusade, leaving William Longchamp as his Chief Justiciar to run the kingdom as well as a council of 4 men to monitor Longchamp, which included William. In his absence, Richard’s younger brother John started to scheme and plot. Longchamp proved unpopular and John persuaded William and his colleagues to write to Richard to have him removed. However, when Richard was imprisoned on his return from the Crusades and John made a bid for power, William stayed loyal to the king. While Eleanor set about securing the huge ransom required to release Richard, William helped organise the military response, besieging the castles in England of which John had taken control. When Richard returned in 1194, John’s castles surrendered and William carried the sword-in-state at a new crown-wearing ceremony for Richard.
Having seen almost nothing of Richard for five years, William now spent the next five years constantly at his side. As part of John’s scheming, Normandy had been given up to Philip of France in return for support in gaining the English throne. Consequently, Richard had to do a lot of work in getting it all back again and William was often either at his side or leading his troops in other locations. One notable occasion was at Milly-sur-Therain, when despite being in his 50s William still could not resist getting involved in the action, rushing across a dry moat, climbing a wall and knocking out a defensive commander before finding himself rather tired and taking a breather by sitting on said commander!
The Barons Wars
This was probably a very happy period for William, engaging in proper combat and serving one of the great military leaders of the medieval era. Unfortunately, in 1199 Richard managed to get himself killed when he refused to duck at a crossbowman taking pot-shots at him from a castle wall. William then played a crucial role in the succession, arguing in favour of John rather than John’s nephew, Arthur of Brittany. William was rewarded for his loyalty by being invested as the Earl of Pembroke and receiving various new grants, lands and titles and was now one of the most senior nobles in the kingdom.
Sadly, John was no Richard and a disastrous campaign in Normandy (following the controversial “disappearance” of his nephew) saw John lose his European allies before he and William (after a failed attempt to relieve the castle of Chateau Gaillard) were forced to return to England. In 1204, the castle fell, Eleanor of Aquitaine finally died and Normandy was lost to France. This affected William personally as he had lands in Normandy and his favour with John quickly came to a halt when, having been sent to negotiate with King Philip, he recognised Philip as his liege-lord in return for retaining his lands in Normandy. This meant that when John tried to organise a campaign in Poitou in 1205, William refused to go as it would mean breaking his oath to Philip. John was (quite understandably) furious and William went to his Irish estates in a self-imposed exile.
A little like Churchill in his wilderness years, William Marshal (now about 60 years old) seemed to have seen the last of his days at the centre of national life. John confiscated his English territories and sought to undermine him also in Ireland, recalling William to court and, in his absence, giving his own justiciar in Ireland free reign to attack William’s territories. Thankfully for William, his household knights stayed loyal to him and his pregnant wife was a formidable leader in her native lands and John’s justiciar was defeated and captured. Reluctantly, John restored William to his lands and over the next few years William was able to ingratiate himself with John, earning a recall to a prominent position at court in 1212-13.
Part of the reason that John was so open to William’s overtures was that he was fast running out of support at court and desperately needed someone of William’s stature and standing. John’s high taxes, military failures and general personality meant that he was a hated figure and rebellion was brewing. When rebel nobles captured London, Lincoln and Exeter, John sent the Archbishop of Canterbury (Stephen Langton) and William to negotiate. The peace deal they struck in 1215 involved a treaty with extensive provisions relating to the limitations on the king’s power that became known as Magna Carta. However, this initial version was unsuccessful, being denounced by the Pope as “not only shameful and demeaning, but illegal and unjust” and war was unavoidable.
John actually started rather well, successfully besieging Rochester castle and seeing off a Scottish invasion. However, the rebels then invited Louis of France (the son of the French king) to invade in 1216. He soon took control of the south-east (London, Southampton and Winchester) and held most of the major castles of England but for Dover, Windsor and Lincoln. John was haemorrhaging support and, while marching to Lincoln, his health failed him and he died in October 1216.
Guardian of the Realm
As ever, while all the other rats were leaving the sinking ship, William stayed loyal to John, in spite of how he had been treated in Ireland. In 1216, though, William’s loyalty to the Plantagenet cause was really tested. Louis were gladly have accepted William’s support and restored his lands in Normandy and at that point he seemed a much better bet than John’s son, the new king, Henry III – a mere boy at just 9 years old. He debated with his household knights whether he should do the task, with his closest friend (and former ward) John of Earley fearing he was too old to take on such a burden (at nearly 70 years old, William was older than Churchill in 1940), but William decided to remain loyal, pledging to carry little Henry on his back even if all others abandoned him. He then met his young king on the road at Malmesbury in an emotional scene where Henry gave himself into William’s care, who promised his king, “I will be yours in good faith. There is nothing I will not do to serve you while I have the strength.” William was then appointed Guardian of the Realm – an extraordinary rise from the young boy almost killed by King Stephen as he was now effectively king in all but name.
Although the odds were against Henry III and William Marshal, their cause was not completely doomed. Firstly, John was dead, and as the main source of the conflict his removal (and replacement with an innocent boy) made reconciliation with the other English barons much more attainable. William was the most respected knight in the kingdom (if not the whole of Europe), and he was supported by powerful nobles in the form of Ranulf of Chester, Hubert de Burgh (defending Dover), the Bishop of Winchester (Peter des Roches) and the papal legate, Guala. William had John’s treasures melted down to pay for the defences at Dover and then reissued Magna Carta, removing some of the more controversial clauses and using the document as something of a manifesto for a more conciliatory approach to royal government.
William was able to win many nobles back to his cause, but the military situation was still formidable and it would take a great victory to turn it around. William saw an opportunity when Louis decided to split his forces between Lincoln and Dover. William decided to focus his attack on Lincoln, risking an all-out attack (very unusual in this period) with himself (as ever) at the forefront of a cavalry charge and a dramatic victory that wiped out a huge part of Louis’ army. A subsequent naval victory at Sandwich (this time led by Hubert de Burgh – William was persuaded not to take part himself and so was forced to watch nervously from shore) prevented Louis receiving reinforcements and the war was over. William negotiated pretty generous peace terms that was criticised by some contemporaries, but in reality he sensible wanted to get Louis and the French out of England as quickly as possible.
Having saved England from a French invasion, William was now effectively regent during the early years of Henry III’s minority. He reissued Magna Carta again in 1217 along with the Charter of the Forest, which reduced the size of the royal forests and improved rights for free men to use the land. It was this latter charter that led to Magna Carta being so named in order to differentiate it from the new forest charter. The regency had other successes, beginning the restoration of the exchequer and bringing the country back under royal administration after a rather chaotic few years. Unlike many regents, although William did reward his supporters, he was never rapacious or deluded by a sense of his own power and grandeur and was an essential unifying figure at a time when personal conflicts could easily have derailed the rebuilding process.
However, William was an old man for the time and his health finally failed him in 1219. He was rowed up the Thames from the Tower of London to his manor at Caversham to die at home. He held a final council from his bed where he relinquished power to the papal legate (a new man called Pandulf) rather than Peter des Roches and urged Henry III to “grow up to be a worthy man” and not to follow “in the footsteps of some wicked ancestor”. Finally, William made provision for his family and his household knights and died on 14 May 1219 at the age of about 72 years. Before he died, he fulfilled a pledge made while he was in Jerusalem to be inducted into the Order of the Knights Templar and so was buried at the round New Temple church in London. The funeral service was performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, who fittingly described William Marshal as “the greatest knight to be found in all the world”.
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