William Marshal has been described as the greatest knight to have lived. His success on the field of battle and tournament is legendary.
Many stories abound about medieval knights in shining armour such as Ivanhoe. None can be quite as exciting as the true tale of William Marshal.
William Marshal’s Early Life
William Marshal was born in 1146. At the age of 12 he was sent to Normandy where, in the care of his mother’s cousin, William de Tancarville, he began his training to become a knight.
Marshal was knighted in 1166 while on campaign in Normandy and attended his first tournament the following year. Little did he know at that stage that he was to make his name and fortune on the tournament field in years to come.
Later that year, Marshal joined the household of his uncle, Patrick Earl of Salisbury.
William Marshal and the Royal Household
In 1168 Salisbury was killed and Marshal captured but his release was secured when a ransom was paid by Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Marshal joined the household of King Henry, known as the young King. The practice of crowning the heir during the lifetime of the incumbent monarch was practiced by the French Capetian dynasty and adopted by English Monarchs King Stephen and the young King’s father, Henry II. Here he quickly became the King’s mentor as the two men shared a passion for the tournament.
Henry made Marshal the manager of his tournament team and Marshal followed the King in the abortive rebellion against his father King Henry II between 1173-74.
The rebellion led to an estrangement between royal father and son. During this time, Marshal continued to lead the young King’s team in major tournaments, particularly favouring the international meetings such as Picardy. During this time, tournaments were often bloody affairs where mock battles took place. It was Marshal’s role to ensure the young king remained unharmed and avoided capture.
As William Marshal’s personal wealth and fame grew, he began to loose the favour of the young King and Marshal left to join Henry’s rival; Phillip of Flanders, but returned to join his former master when Henry led a second abortive rebellion against his father. The young King died on June 11, 1183.
Marshal and the Court of Henry II
In 1185, William Marshal joined the court of the old king, Henry II and in doing so he was granted the royal estate of Cartmel in Cumbria and the guardianship of Heloise, heiress to the northern honour of Lancaster.
Following the death of Henry II on July 6, 1189, Marshal continued to be favoured by his successor, Richard I.
In August 1189 Marshal married the daughter of Richard Strongbow,Earl of Pembroke. With her hand came land in England, Wales, Ireland and Normandy. From his humble beginnings as a penniless knight, William Marshal had become one of the richest men in the country.
Leaving for crusade in 1190 Richard appointed Marshal to the Council of Regency. Initially Marshal sided with Richard’s brother, John following the expulsion of the justiciar, William Longchamp, (the justiciar would be the equivalent of the Prime Minister.) However, it quickly became apparent that John was looking after his own interests before those of Richard and the country.
In 1193 William joined the loyalists in an uprising against John. During the ensuing hostilities, Marshal’s older brother John Marshal was killed defending Marlborough.
On his death bed, Richard designated William Marshal as custodian of Roun and the Royal treasure during the interregnum (the period between two successive reigns.) Marshal supported John when he became king in 1199.
Following John’s death in 1216, the King’s Council called on Marshal to act as protector for infant King Henry III, and Regent for the Kingdom.
William Marshal was invested in the Order of the Knights Templar on his deathbed. He died on May 14, 1219 and was buried in the Temple Church, London where his effigy can still be seen today.