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William Marshal

Ca! Dieu aide au Maréchal!” (God help the Marshal!) – William Marshal’s war cry[1]

Considered one of the brightest blooms of the flower of chivalry by the time he died, William Marshal started life among the rank of a castle servant and ended life an English Earl. Much of what we know about William comes from an Old French poem L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal. This work was commissioned by William’s son and was probably based on his friend and squire John d’Erley’s recollections. It was intended to praise William’s chivalrous character and is one of the earliest biographies we have of a person who was not a king and is a unique way to learn about the society of 12th century chivalry directly from the knightly class. This biographical poem was written, as Georges Duby points out, in the style of the Romans, but in the spirit of the chansons de geste.[2]

“Marshal” is a Medieval occupation which, as is often the case among family histories, developed over time into a surname. The word derives from the Old Frankish “marhskalk meaning “horse boy.” The marshal was in charge of a castle’s stables and wagons. The title was respectable but not noble, and a class of little interest. William’s father John was the master Marshal in charge of four marshals, held some land, and had a position among King Henry I’s many royal officers. John married Sybil of Salisbury and increased his landholdings by doing so.

Little is known about William Marshal’s birth or boyhood. He probably grew up on his father’s motte-and-bailey castle at Hamstead. The lad William (then around 6 or7) was integral to a famous incident at Newbury Castle in 1152. His father was holding the castle against Stephen of Blois (who held a tenuous rule of England) for Empress Matilda (whose husband Geoffrey of Anjou had taken Stephen’s holdings in Normandy). They were fighting over the succession of England. Stephen’s men were besieging Newbury castle and held young William as a hostage. But John Marshal reinforced King Stephen’s enemies, declaring callously that “he still had the anvils and hammers to forge even finer ones [sons].”[3] On three separate occasions during the siege that followed (if the L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal speaks truly) Stephen’s advisors wanted to kill William. But each time King Stephen was so charmed by the lad’s courage and unaffected honest that he protected him. Thus did young William’s first narrow escape from death come at an early age.

Henry II, the red-headed son of Empress Matilda, eventually was declared the next heir of England’s throne and succeeded Stephen when he died in 1154. It was after these political upheavals that William Marshal was sent across the channel to Normandy to become a knight in the house of William of Tancarville, a wealthy and powerful chamberlain of King Henry who happened to be William’s cousin. In those days boys were commonly sent to wealthier relatives to be a page (around the age of 7), to work their way to a squire (around age 14), and eventually to become a knight. William’s father, however, didn’t bother to send William off until he was 13. He essentially became a foster child of William of Tancarville, along with other boys on their way to knighthood. They became part of the household and carried Tancarville’s honor in their deeds as men. William was knighted around 1167 (when he was about 21 years old). William marked his knighthood as the major turning point in his life. “God, may He be thanked for it, has since I am a knight done he protected good all my days; my courage now rests upon the certainty that He will continue.”[4]

William’s biographer records that he distinguished himself by feats of arms in battle shortly afterward, and was wounded lightly by an iron hook that pierced thirteen of the rivets on his chainmail. He left his cousin’s castle to go into the wide world with little more than a sword, a mail shirt, and a cloak (which he later had to sell). William, like many new knights, entered the circuit of tournaments held every season. Here knights fought each other (usually in mock battles on teams) and took hostages to win possessions and ransom, all under the applause of the nobility who watched the “sport.” William excelled, gradually becoming better equipped. He attached himself to the prominent houseof Patrick, Earl of Salisbury (his mother’s brother).

William was an illiterate warrior, but he excelled at more than just war: he enjoyed singing. His biographer records he sang a song for the knights and ladies to dance to at the tournament of Joigny. He was noted for his courtesy and courtly prowess as well as military prowess. 

It was shortly after William came to Patrick’s court that King Henry sent them to protect his wife (Eleanor of Aquitaine) on a trip. They were attacked en route by the sire de Lusignan’s rebel troops, and Patrick of Salisbury was mortally and treacherously wounded. William ran courageous and without his helmet to avenge his dying uncle. The chronicler of his life reports he fought 68 soldiers single-handedly (doubtless an exaggeration), but was at last wounded in the thigh and carried off for ransom. Queen Eleanor sent the ransom and brought William to the royal court.

In 1170 Henry II crowned his oldest son, also named Henry (sometimes called “young Henry” or “Henry the Younger”), as the heir-apparent. He was promised the position of co-ruler, but in reality, had no power. From that point on history speaks of both as king. Because young Henry was only 15 years old and not knighted, he needed a mentor to learn the ways of chivalry: and William Marshal was chosen. William soon found himself in the middle of battles between the older and the younger Henrys. And this should not really surprise us since William’s student was a teenage king with plenty of money and prestige, surrounded by ambitious people. In 1173 young King Henry joined a revolt of English barons against his father. The French King, Louis VII joined sides with the younger Henry – he was also Henry’s father in law after his daughter Margaret married Henry in 1171. In a characteristic display of chivalric love for his liege lord, William Marshal followed his master into rebellion against old King Henry. It was William who knighted young Henry and gave him his first sword. He felt like a father to Henry. “As a child,” wrote historian Georges Duby of William Marshal, “he had played in the king of England’s arms. Now with his own hands he was leading the king of England from childhood to full manhood.”[5]

Peace was made the next year. Henry and his retinue of knights wandered about England and France seeking fame and fortune in tournaments. William was their leader andcontinued to distinguish himself. By Christmas 1182 a conspiracy of knights, jealous of William’s status, succeeded in accused William of adultery with Henry’s wife Margaret. William was determined to clear his name. He offered to have a finger cut off and then fight champions of Henry’s choosing in a trial by arms to prove once and for all he was innocent. Henry refused but still sent him from the court. William continued to be successful on the circuit of tournaments. Maintaining a good name and protecting his innocence was vitally important to the chivalry displayed by William Marshal. Righteousness, an adherence to God’s moral code, was vital to chivalry. As the author of L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal wrote:

“What then is chivalry?
So strong a thing, and of such hardihood,
And so costly in the learning,
That a wicked man or low dare not undertake it…”[6]

When the young king sent for William a few months later in 1183, William came immediately – proving devotion to his liege lord was even stronger than the anger he must have felt at being accused and banished. He found Henry on his deathbed from disease. Henry’s dying wish was that William go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for him. When Henry died William took his body to King Henry II and was pardoned for his participation in younger Henry’s rebellion. He then fulfilled his vow, setting off for the Holy Land, where he joined the Knights Templar and possibly fought to defend the king of Jerusalem against Muslim incursion. He returned to England in 1187 where he went to serve Henry II. He was granted a small fief in Lancashire. Two years later in 1189, when around 45 years old, William received from the aging KingHenry the hand of Isabel of Striguil, Countess of Pembroke, who brought with her “sixty-five-and-a-half fiefs.” He went from being poor to a very wealthy overnight. William and Isabel had ten children!

At this time King Henry was at open war with his son Richard the Lionheart. William, while protecting the aged king’s retreat at Le Mans, lanced and killed Richard’s horse from underneath him. A short time later Henry died and Richard was crowned king. It was a tense time for William, but the new king pardoned him, even leaving him to manage England when he left for the Third Crusade in 1190. William went on to serve King John I and then was regent to John’s son Henry III after John’s death, during which he negotiated peace between England and France.

William died on May 14, 1219, having risen to become the first Earl of Penbroke, leaving the title to his oldest son. John d’Erley, William’s squire and friend, recorded that praise to God was among the knight’s last words, and he exclaimed (during a vision of two white-robed beings), “Blessed be the Lord our God, who hitherto has granted me his grace.”[7]


[1]Duby, George. Richard Howard translator. William Marshal the Flower of Chivalry. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 1985. P 47
[2] Duby, George. Richard Howard translator. William Marshal the Flower of Chivalry. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 1985. P. 28.
[3]Asbridge, Thomas. The Greatest Knight. https://erenow.com/biographies/the-greatest-knight-william-marshal/3.html
[4] Duby, George. Richard Howard translator. William Marshal the Flower of Chivalry. NewYork, NY: Pantheon Books. 1985. P. 69
[5]Duby, George. Richard Howard translator. William Marshal the Flower of Chivalry. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 1985. P. 83
[6]Duby, George. Richard Howard translator. William Marshal the Flower of Chivalry. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 1985. p. 55(quoting from L’Histoirede Guillaume le Maréchal)
[7] Duby, George. Richard Howard translator. William Marshal the Flower of Chivalry. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 1985. P. 20

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