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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.

Richard’s Rebellion

Henry soon faced another rebellion, led by another of his sons, Richard. In one of the battles between Henry and Richard, William helped the king retreat to safety by charging at Richard and killing his horse from under him.

 In 1189, Henry II died, and Richard became the new king of England. When Richard confronted William about the battle during which the knight charged against him, William replied that he had no intention to kill Richard, and struck where he had planned to strike. Richard valued William’s loyalty, and as the king was going on a crusade, appointed him as one of the men who would govern the kingdom in his absence.

Death of William Marshal

Richard was succeeded by his brother John, whose reign would see the First Barons’ War and the signing of the Magna Carta. William remained loyal to his king, and did not join the baron’s in their revolt. Nevertheless, William did not condone John’s harsh policies either. As a result, he was seen as a neutral baron and was popular amongst the supporters of both parties. When John died in 1216, his nine-year-old son, Henry became king, and William was appointed as his regent.

A 13th-century depiction of the Second Battle of Lincoln, which occurred at Lincoln Castle on 20 May 1217; the illustration shows the death of Thomas du Perche, the Comte de la Perche.

A 13th-century depiction of the Second Battle of Lincoln, which occurred at Lincoln Castle on 20 May 1217; the illustration shows the death of Thomas du Perche, the Comte de la Perche. (Public Domain)

William Marshal died in 1219, and was interred in the Temple Church, London. Apparently, whilst in the Holy Land, William had promised the Templars that he would die as one of them. Thus, he was allowed burial in their church. His tomb, and its effigy, can still be seen there today.

William Marshal was interred in Temple Church, London.

William Marshal was interred in Temple Church, London. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Featured image: Tomb effigy of William Marshal in Temple Church, London. Photo source: (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Wu Mingren


Abels, R., 2012. Practical Chivalry in the Twelfth Century: The Case of William Marshal. [Online]
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Abels, R., 2016. William Marshal - Events in Life and Historical Context. [Online]
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Armstrong, C., 1998. William Marshal. [Online]
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History In An Hour, 2014. William Marshal – History’s greatest Knight?. [Online]
Available at:, 2005. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. [Online]
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I highly recommend  Thomas Asbridge’s  –  The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones.  For anyone seeking to learn what the life of a knight was really like this is a must read!  Note: Tournaments, for example, were nothing at all like we see in the movies!   Tournaments took place over many miles and for many days and were a major source of income for knights and royals.  Even more important the tournament circuit was followed like many sports are today.  Tournaments are where skills and tactics were honed.  By the time of the Crusades there was a large recruiting pool of skilled warriors that participated in the tournaments.  Incidentally tournaments were focused more on capture than injury.  Knights were paid a randsome for the opponents they captured and this was part of the game.    Teams were developed for their the skills they brought to the team and how well they could play the game to win.

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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