William the Marshal: The Greatest Knight

By , July 3, 2010 10:44 am

William Marshal 1146 – 14th May 1219

William Marshal unhorsing an opponent in a joust, from Matthew Paris' "History"

William Marshal unhorsing an opponent in a joust, from Matthew Paris' "History"

William the Marshal’s life is astonishing, and shows him as one of the towering giants of Medieval England.

William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, rose from the obscurity of being a 4th son of a minor knight, to serving Kings and Queens of England and the Duchies of Anjou, Normandy, Maine &  Aquitaine, and was then Regent of England.

He was known across Christendom as “the Marshal”, and even went to Jerusalem as a pilgrim.

William’s loyalty and commitment were legendary, and enabled him to serve successive Kings who loathed and fought each other (despite the fact that those Kings were father / son or brothers).

Knights jousting, from René d'Anjou's "Livre des tournois"

Knights jousting, from René d'Anjou's "Livre des tournois"

William was a powerhouse of military skill and strength, winning prizes and acclaim throughout Europe.

He also won a reputation as being a loyal, chivalrous and honourable knight, who made his name on the tournament circuit, and was still leading an army at the age of 70, when his forces won the Battle of Lincoln on behalf of Henry III.

William married one of the greatest available heiresses, Isabel de Clare, who was 17 years old to his 43, and yet appears to have had a happy marriage, fathering many children.

This is the first of two articles about William. This one looks at his family, childhood, early exploits, and service under Henry the Young King and King Henry II.

The second looks at William’s services to King Richard I and King John, his role as governor of England, and as  the Regent who ruled while King Henry III was a child, and can be found by clicking on this link:

William the Marshal: 1st Earl of Pembroke & Regent of England

Family and Childhood

The Empress Matilda, also known as the Lady of the English

The Empress Matilda, also known as the Lady of the English

Born During the Anarchy

William was born half-way through the time called “The Nineteen Year Winter”, a bitter civil war which started in 1135 when King Henry I died without a male heir.

The following 19 years saw a battle between King Stephen, Henry I’s nephew, and Empress Matilda, Henry’s daughter, which ended only when Stephen died in 1154 and was succeeded by King Henry II, Matilda’s eldest son, and Henry’s Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

For more about this Civil War, see this article: Empress Matilda v King Stephen: When Christ and His Saints Slept.

William suffered directly and personally in the Civil War.

John FitzGilbert the Marshal – William Marshal’s Father

William was the 4th son of John FitzGilbert the Marshal, also known as just John the Marshal. The Marshal post was a mostly hereditary job in the Royal Household.

Originally the Marshal (or Maréchal in the Norman French spoken by the top levels of society) was in charge of the King’s horses and stables (the Marshalsea), but the post expanded to include organising the King’s household and soldiers in general.

The remains of Marlborough Castle, held by John the Marshal, and probable birthplace of William Marshal

The remains of Marlborough Castle, held by John the Marshal, and probable birthplace of William Marshal

John’s father, Gilbert, had also been a royal marshal, for King Henry I. (John’s often-used surname, FitzGilbert, means “son of Gilbert” in Normal French).

John the Marshal married firstly Aline Pipard, and they had two sons, Gilbert and Walter. His marriage to Aline was annulled, and he then married Sybilla of Salisbury, by whom he had four more sons, John, William, Henry and Ancel (or Anselm), and two daughters.

John was renowned for being extremely tough and a fierce opponent. He was described as being “a limb of hell and the root of all evil”.

During a battle John was imprisoned in a burning church, and molten lead dripped down his face and body, caused horrific burns. Despite the injuries, he escaped and recovered to fight again.

John became Marshal to King Henry I when his father died, in about 1130, and when King Henry himself died in 1135 AD, he became King Stephen’s Marshal in turn.  John held Hamstead Marshal as his own inheritance, and was granted the castles of Marlborough and Ludgershall nearby – all are in Berkshire and Wiltshire.

Sybilla of Salisbury – William Marshal’s Mother

Sybilla was the sister of Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and daughter of Walter of Salisbury. Her family and John the Marshal’s had been local enemies, and the marriage was designed to keep the peace so that both families could join together and harass others instead of themselves.

William Held as a Hostage

King Stephan of Blois, from Matthew Paris' early 13th century chronicle

King Stephan of Blois, from Matthew Paris' early 13th century chronicle

John the Marshal was on the Empress Matilda’s side, and built an adulterine castle, one which was not permitted or licensed, on his lands at Hamstead Marshal, near Newbury.

In 1152, when William was 5 or 6 years old, King Stephen and his army besieged Newbury. A truce was agreed, so that John Marshal could seek permission to surrender the castle, and his young son William was given as  a hostage for John’s good behaviour.

Instead of surrendering, John took the opportunity offered by the truce to re-fortify and re-supply the castle, so that it could continue to hold against the siege.

King Stephen threatened to hang the boy and catapult his body over the castle walls if John did not surrender, and John replied:

I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!

Fortunately for William, but to the disgust of his allies, King Stephen couldn’t bring himself to kill a small boy, and William survived.

For more about Newbury Castle, see Hamstead Marshall Castles.

Military Training

At the age of 11 or 12, William was sent to be a page, then squire (training to be a knight) in a relative’s household in Normandy, in William de Tancarville’s care. He late moved, once knighted, to his maternal uncle’s household, Patrick of Salisbury.

Later Medieval Tournament illustration (15th century)

Later Medieval Tournament illustration (15th century)

He started to fight as a Knight from about 1166, aged 20, and attended his first tournament in 1167.

He became a very successful tournament fighter: tournaments and jousts at this time were extremely dangerous events, with many competitors dying or suffering serious injuries.

Knights who were caught by another competitor lost their horse and armour, and if rich, had to pay a ransom to the captor. So a tournament fighter could both make and lose vast sums of money, and William tended to win.

See this article for more about Medieval Armour.

First contact with Royalty

In 1168, the rebellious rebels, the de Lusignans, killed William’s uncle, Patrick of Salisbury, and captured William in an ambush near Poitiers, in Aquitaine.

The group was on business for Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Duchess of Aquitaine and wife of King Henry II. Eleanor paid William’s ransome, and he entered royal service as a knight.

William Marshal and Henry the Young King

King Henry II

King Henry II

King Henry II had decided to follow the French example of crowning the heir to the throne during the King’s lifetime. Henry, the oldest surviving son of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, was therefore crowned in August 1170, when he was 15 years old.

William the Marshal was appointed as the Young King’s tutor and an important part of his household.

In 1173 Henry the Young King joined his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his brothers Geoffrey and Richard, in rebelling against King Henry II.  A bitter family war ensued, with father aligned against 3 of his sons and his wife, their mother.

William Marshal supported his lord and master, Henry the Young King, although by 1174 King Henry II had triumphed, making peace with his sons and capturing and imprisoning his wife, Queen Eleanor (she remained in captivity until Henry II died in 1189).

After peace broke out in 1174, William Marshal lead the Young King’s tournament team, and they competed across France, Normandy, Anjou, Aquitaine, Picardy and Flanders from 1174 until 1182. William devised the team’s tactics, and acted as guard for Henry the Young King, as Henry’s being captured and held for ransom would have lead to serious embarrassment all round.

By 1179, William was wealthy enough to run his own team of knights in tournaments.

In 1182, William and Henry fell out, for reasons that are not entirely clear, but probably owed much to others’ jealousy of William’s influence over the Young King, and increasing wealth and prestige from martial sports. William left the Young King’s household in the summer of 1182.

Henry the Young King

Henry the Young King

Some 6 months later, the Young King recalled William to his service. Henry was once again rebelling against his father, King Henry II, and this time also fought against his brother Richard, heir to the Duchy of Aquitaine.

Henry the Young King died of dysentery, or the bloody flux as it was then known, in June  1183. Henry had started to raid monasteries and shrines to pay mercenaries to fight against his father and brother, and many saw his death as a sign of divine displeasure. Fearful of damnation on his deathbed, the Young King asked William Marshal to take his cloak on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to fulfil the Crusader vow he had taken and not carried out.

After Henry the Young King’s death, William Marshal, with King Henry II’s approval, made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and returned 2 years later, to join Henry II’s household.

William Marshal and King Henry II

King Richard I, also known as Richard Lionheart, or Richard Coeur de Lion

King Richard I, also known as Richard Lionheart, or Richard Coeur de Lion

William basked in royal favour from 1185 onwards. He was given estates in the north-west of England, in Cumberland (now Cumbria), and the wardship of a Cumberland heiress, Heloise.

Late in 1188, Henry II’s sons, Richard and Geoffrey, rebelled against their father again. William Marshal acted as captain of Henry II’s troops, and accompanied Henry II as he travelled to fight the revolt.

On one occasion, William became the only man ever to knock Richard off his horse, as Richard and his soldiers chased after Henry II.

By mid 1189, Henry II was unwell. He promised William the heiress Isabel de Clare, one of the greatest heiresses in any of Henry II’s domains.

But before the marriage could take place, and the transfer be formalised, Henry II died in August 1189, mourning because his youngest son John had joined the rebellion of his older brothers.

Although William Marshal had fought against him on behalf of Henry the Young King and later Henry II, Richard valued the loyalty and prowess William had shown in the service of his brother and father.

Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, appointed William Marshal to his own household, and sent him urgently to England, to release his long-held mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Read on for part two! William the Marshal: 1st Earl of Pembroke & Regent of England

3 Responses to “William the Marshal: The Greatest Knight”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AncientDigger. AncientDigger said: William the Marshal: The Greatest Knight http://bit.ly/a4r2Pv via Web History of England [...]

  2. federal grants says:

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  3. Cathy Janiak says:

    I am in the process of researching my family tree and came upon William Marshall WHO WAS MY 25TH GRANDFATHER!! I enjoyed the information you have posted. If you have any other info you can share with me please do.

    Kindest Regards


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