William Marshal: One of the Most Important Knights in Medieval England

William Marshal: One of the Most Important Knights in Medieval England

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William Marshal (also called William the Marshal), 1st Earl of Pembroke, is one of the most important figures in the history of medieval England. He was a knight and nobleman who lived between the 12th and 13th centuries AD, during which he served five English monarchs – Henry the Young King, Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III. Due to William’s efforts, the House of Plantagenet was saved during this period of time, and survived for around 250 years after.

In spite of his contributions and significance, William was not popular amongst the chroniclers of his time. As a result, much of our knowledge about William’s life has been derived from L’Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal (meaning ‘The History of William Marshal’ ). This is a poem commissioned by William’s eldest son, William Marshal II, and is said to have been written about seven years after his father’s death.

Tomb effigy of William Marshal in Temple Church, London.

Tomb effigy of William Marshal in Temple Church, London. ( Public Domain )

Family Betrayal

William Marshal was born around 1147 AD, and is recorded as being the fourth son of a minor nobleman, John FitzGilbert, Marshal of King Stephen’s court. William’s mother was Sybil of Salisbury, John’s second wife, whose brother, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, was once a local rival of John’s.

One of the stories told about William’s childhood takes place when his father made the decision to switch his allegiance from King Stephen to his cousin, and rival to the English throne, the Empress Matilda.

King Stephen of England.

King Stephen of England. ( Public Domain )

As a result of this betrayal, John was besieged, and in exchange for a truce with the king, he surrendered the five-year-old William as a hostage. John did not intend to honor the truce, and when the king found out about this, he threatened to kill William, to which his father responded that he still had the “hammer and anvil” with which to forge more and better sons. In other words, John could not care less if the king killed William. Fortunately for the young boy, the king could not bring himself to kill him, and William remained a prisoner for many months until the civil war ended.

After this, William was sent to the household of William de Tancarville, the Chamberlain of Normandy, who was also a cousin of Sybil. It was here that William trained as a knight. In 1166, William was knighted by de Tancarville, returned to England, and entered into the service of his uncle, Patrick of Salisbury. In 1168, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of King Henry II, was sent to rule the county of Poitou, which had belonged to her father. Salisbury and his household, including William, accompanied her as bodyguards.

William’s Rise to Power

During the journey in France, the queen’s retinue was ambushed by the Lusignans, who were rebelling against their overlords. Salisbury was killed, and William, despite fighting valiantly, was wounded and taken prisoner for ransom. The queen, however, managed to escape, and eventually paid the ransom. Additionally, William gained the attention of Henry II, who appointed him as “tutor in chivalry” to his eldest son, Henry the Young King.                

Not everyone was happy with William’s rise to power, and his enemies spread rumors saying that the knight was sleeping with his master’s wife. Although he denied these allegations, and even demanded a trial by combat, William was removed from court. Without a master to serve, William became a knight errant, and took part in many tournaments around Europe. Whilst on his deathbed, William claimed that he had defeated 500 knights in the tournaments he had taken part in throughout his life.

William Marshal unhorses Baldwin Guisnes at a joust. From the history of Major of Matthew Paris

William Marshal unhorses Baldwin Guisnes at a joust. From the history of Major of Matthew Paris ( Public Domain )

The Knight Returns to Service

In 1183, Henry the Young King revolted against his father, and William decide to return to the politics of the English court. The knight requested permission form Henry II to join his son against him, which the king, surprisingly granted. Henry may have been hoping that William would use his influence to stop the revolt. There was no need for that, however, as Henry the Young King died in the same year from an illness.   

The Young Henry.

The Young Henry. ( Public Domain )

William then embarked on a personal crusade in honor of Henry the Young King, though the details of this adventure were not recorded. When William returned, he was appointed as one of the king’s most important advisors. In addition, the king arranged for the knight’s marriage to Isabel de Clare, the heiress of a considerable amount of land in southern Wales and Ireland. As a result of this marriage, William became the Earl of Pembroke, as well as one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Western Europe.

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