EVENTS IN LIFE AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT
William Marshal was the fourth son of John fitz Gilbert, hereditary
marshal of--keeper of the horses-- of the Anglo-Norman kings
. William was born ca. 1147, John's second son by his second wife, Sybil
(whom he married in 1145), the sister of Earl Patrick
William Marshal has received a great deal of attention from modern historians; there have been four major biographies of him since 1933. The reason for this is an extraordinary primary source, the Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, a long (19,214 line) poem composed by "John the Troubador" c. 1224-6 for William's son Earl William II. The poem had been long lost and was only rediscovered in 1860. The author's intention, of course, was to glorify William Marshal and to present him as the "flower of chivalry," and the reader of the poem needs to remember that this is a literary work rather than an historical study. None the less, the author did the necessary research, interviewing members of the dead Earl's mesnie (household), most notably John of Earley (or Erley), William's squire, household knight, and closest friend. He also appears to have consulted charters and perhaps even contemporary chronicles. In short, this is an extraordinary source, one of the few biographies of a non-king or non-saint written in the thirteenth century, which explains why William has attracted so much historical attention. Excerpts from this poem dealing with war and tournaments are posted by the "De Re Militari Society" (the Society's webpage is by far the best online resource for medieval warfare). At present there is only a French translation of the poem, but the first complete English translation by Stewart Gregory with the assistance David Crouch is scheduled to be published by the Anglo-Norman Text Society. The first volume is supposed to be out in 2003.
Crouch, David. William Marshal: Court, Career and Chivalry in the Angevin
This is by far the best biography of Marshal, a fine work of scholarship that goes well beyond the stories related in the Histoire. It is very readable as well.
Gillingham, John. "War and Chivalry in the History of William the Marshal." Thirteenth Century England v.2 (1991), p.
1-13. A seminal article that argues convincingly that 1) the Histoire is concerned more with Marshal's activities in war, both as general and soldier, rather than as "knight-errant" on the tournament circuit; and 2) that the warfare described in the Histoire was the typical warfare of the period, marked by battle avoidance, ravaging of the countryside to deprive the enemy of economic resources and to destroy morale, followed up by sieges.
Duby, Georges. William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry.
Anthropological approach to William's deathbed scene by one
Crosland, Jessie R., William the Marshal: the last great
Painter, Sidney. William Marshal: Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of
This is the first full biography of William Marshal written by one of the great American medieval historians. Painter was a first-rate scholar and knew his sources. The biography, however, is very much colored by Painter's romantic conception of twelfth-century chivalry. Readable and sound (with the above caveat).
See also Catherine Armstrong, "William Marshal, earl of Pembroke"
1066 - William the Conqueror, duke of
1100-1135 - Reign of Henry I, William the Conqueror's third and youngest son. Creation of the COMMON LAW (royal law enforceable throughout the realm). Sophisticated central administration characterized by 1) royal circuit justices; 2) treasury and accounting department (Exchequer); 3) written records of royal revenues and expenditures ('Pipe Rolls').
1135 - Henry's dies without legitimate male issue (his only legitimate son drowned in 1120). With the death of Henry I, a civil war erupts over the question of who will succeed to the throne. The two claimants are:
-Mathilda, daughter of Henry I and designated heiress; her husband is
Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of
The result is FEUDAL ANARCHY between 1139 and 1153. The disputants bid for the loyalty of the barons, and many of the barons shift allegiance as it suits their family interests.
1141-John fitz Gilbert, marshal (i.e. keeper of the King's horses) of the
court and a prominent local landholder in southwestern
1145 -John fitz Gilbert's ambitions bring him into conflict with
the most powerful magnate in Wiltshire, Patrick, Earl of
1146/1147 -William Marshal is born, John Marshal’s fourth
son. Note the uncertainty about the date. He was not then a great man, and his
birth went unrecorded.
1152 – John Marshal
gives William as a hostage to King Stephen, who is besieging John
Story: John, needing to reinforce and provision Newbury arranges a truce
with Stephen, ostensibly to give John time to consult with Mathilda on possible
surrender. Stephen demands a hostage, and John hands over his son William (then
four or five). John promptly broke his promise, telling the King that he could
do what he wanted with the child (John: I have the hammer and anvils to make
more and better sons'). Stephen couldn't bring himself to kill the child.
1153 - The civil war comes to an end with the agreement that Stephen is to
rule in peace for the rest of his life. Henry, son of countess Matihlda and
Geoffrey Plantagenet is to succeed him. Henry is to be the first
"ANGEVIN" (i.e. counts of
1154 - Stephen dies; Henry Plantagenet, or Henry II, succeeds to the Crown.
By inheritance, Henry II is 1) king of
John fitz Gilbert is awarded wiith numerous holdings for his loyalty to countess Mathilda's cause.
ca. 1159-1167- William serves as squire to John fitz Gilbert's
(or, perhaps, his mother's) cousin, William of Tancarville, Chamberlain of
1165 -John fitz Gilbert and his eldest son Gilbert both die. William's elder brother John inherits the patrimony.
1167 - William is knighted (in a simple affair) by William of Tancarville at Driencourt, where a number of Norman knights have assembled for the purpose of helping King Henry II in his war with King Louis VII of France. William of Tancarville, the Count of Eu, and the Earl of Essex successfully defend the town of Neufchatel against the forces of the powerful Philip Count of Flanders, an ally of Louis VII. William distinguishes himself in combat, but loses his horse.
Story: William became the butt of a joke. During the celebration, Earl William de Mandeville asked William for a horse collar. The young knight responded that he has none. "What are you saying," the earl growled, "you had forty or sixty of them, yet you refuse me so small a thing!" The point: William had to learn that a knight fights for profit as well as glory. A lesson in the realities of war.)
Later in the year, Earl Patrick, William's uncle, is killed by the de
Lusignan brothers, knights of Louis VII, and William Marshal is injured in the
same fray. He is ransomed by Eleanor of
NB: King Henry II and King Louis VII were heartfelt enemies. Louis perceived
Henry as a threat to royal power in
1170 - King Henry II elevates his eldest son Henry to the dignity of
king, but keeps all power in his own hands. Henry II keeps his son on a
generous allowance, and tries to control his household (mesnie) by
appointing the household officers and clerics. Henry the Younger, without
responsibilities, surrounds himself with young, 'chivalrous' knights, and spends
his days going to tournaments, hunting, and spending money recklessly. In the
terms of the age, Henry the Younger, despite his anointing as king, remains a
"youth" (landless knight). What Henry wants is rule of either
Henry II, impressed with William Marshal's service in the recent war,
appoints him tutor in chivalry to the Young King. The Marshal joins Henry the
Younger’s mesnie (i.e. household)
and soon becomes young his devoted retainer.
1173-1174 - King Henry the Younger and his teenage brothers Richard (15) and Geoffrey (14) rebel against Henry II, angered by his refusal to give them any real power or substantial income. They are encouraged in their revolt by Louis VII and by their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who has been angered by the king's infidelity. The revolt ends when Henry gives his sons greater responsibility and authority.
It is during the course of this revolt that William Marshal knights the
young Henry. This is the world turned upside down, since Henry is his lord.
1177-9 -William is on the tournament
circuit as partner to another bachelor in Henry's household, Roger de
Gaugie; for two years they go from tourney to tourney. According to list kept
by Wigain, the young king's clerk, they captured 103 knights in the course of
1180 - Philip II Augustus
(1180-1123) succeeds his father as king of
1182 -William is disgraced and cast out of the Young King's
household. He is accused of adultery w/ Henry's wife Margaret, d. of Louis VII
Story: In 1175 Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders, had discovered on his
mesnie in a secret liaison with his wife. The culprit was denied a hearing;
executed summarily by, first, being beaten by the count's butchers and then
hung head down in a latrine until he suffocated. Adultery was not taken
lightly. It was considered to be afelony, i.e. betrayal of one's feudal vows.)
William Marshal becomes a knight-errant and several French
counts bid for his services. Despite the “History” claims that he
turned down all these offers, there is evidence that he accepted Count Philip
of Flanders’s offer of the rents of a quarter of the city of St-Omer in
Flanders as a fief in return for his service in tournaments. William Marshal is
recorded as having participated in a tournament at Gournai in Jan 1183. During
this period he also made a pilgrimage to
(The author of the Histoire tells a story about how William Marshal, on his way to rendezvous near Paris with two friends who were also rushing to support the Young King, encountered a runaway monk and a noble lady in the forest. After questioning them and discovering that the monk planned to support himself and the lady by money-lending, William took their money (£48) in order to prevent the monk from committing the sin of usury--perhaps hypocritically, given that William was later to receive the gift of a Jew from King John, which implies that Marshal had no scruples about benefiting personally from usury. Upon meeting up with his companions at a tavern, William told them the story and divided up the money. They urged him to catch up with the eloping couple and take their horses and baggage, but William decided against this course of action. David Crouch points out that if William had wished to stop the elopement and the future usury, he could have taken the monk to the nearest archdeacon. That he chose not to do so is interesting. This incident is revealing about the nature of 12th-century chivalry.)
The Poitevin vassals of Henry II's son Richard the Lionhearted, now duke of
June 1183--Henry the Younger suddenly dies in the midst of the rebellion, attended by William Marshal. He had vowed to go on crusade, the breaking of which vow led him to have his dying body taken from his bed and laid on a bed with ashes, with a stone pillow, a hair shirt on his back, and noose around his neck. He kissed the ring that his father had sent him as a token of peace and died. Before dying he asked William Marshal to fulfil his vow.
1183-85--William was on Crusade. We know nothing about his activities in the East except that he promised Templars that he would end his day amongst them--and he did.
1185 (April)-1186 -William Marshal enters Henry II's mesnie (i.e. household). Henry II
gives William the wardship of the fourteen year old JOHN OF EARLEY
(1172-1230). John of Earley was the heir to a considerable honor the widespread
lands of which lay in
1187-89-- Continued raids, sieges, battles, conferences and truces between
Henry II and King Philip Augustus of
1188 William apparently
was dissatisfied with the fief of Cartmel, and the hand of Helois of
To the very end William
remained loyal to Henry II. From the favor Henry showered on William, it is
clear that the old king regarded him as his most trusted military advisor and
depended upon him as commander of his dwindling troops. Indeed, in the last
months before Henry's death, on 4 June, William came close to killing Richard
the Lionheart in an ambush he sprung on Richard at
1189—6 July: Henry II died--William took charge of the burial--and Richard became king (crowned 13 September).
1189-1199 -Richard succeeds his father as Richard I (the Lionheart). He is
especially known for winning glory in the Third Crusade, being captured by the
William made his peace with RICHARD I, though he refused to apologize for
killing his horse, and Richard gave him the heiress that Henry II had promised.
William married Isabel in August 1189 and became, by right of his wife, Lord of
Striguil and Pembroke. (Striguil consisted of 65.5 knights' fees, and a large
demesne in south east
William celebrated his good fortune by going on a circuit of his wife's
lands, taking homage and demanding relief from his new vassals, and by founding
a priory with his lands at Cartmel, which he dedicated to the souls of Henry
II, and 'his lord' King Henry the Younger (note that William in 1189 still
identified himself as the man of the Young King).
1190-1194. Richard was on Crusade (until 1192), and then was a prisoner of
the Emperor Henry VI (1192-4). William remained in
1194 -William's elder brother John Marshal died and William succeeded
to his father's inheritance and to the title of royal Marshal (keeper of the
king's stables). JOHN of Earley was also knighted (probably by William
Marshal) in this year. From 1195-1199 William fought for Richard on the
continent against Philip Augustus and served his lord on a diplomatic mission
1199-1216 - Reign of King John, Richard's younger brother.
John was a relatively weak king who lost much of the Angevin holdings in
Richard died on 20 March 1199 and John
became king (despite the claims of his nephew Arthur of Brittany, son of
his elder brother Geoffrey). William supported John's claim to the Crown.
John rewarded him by confirming his lands and bestowing upon him the title in
his own right of earl (before this he was simply the husband of a countess).
John made him sheriff of Gloucestershire and of
1203-1204 Philip Augustus conquered
1207-1212 William Marshal, having lost the king's love, left court and
sailed to Ireland in the spring of 1207 to try to secure his wife's Irish
inheritance, the county of Leinster. This
period is marked by William's war against his Irish vassals led by Meilyr fitz
Henry, one of Earl Richard of Clare’s original followers and John's
1212 John, frightened by the rumor of a baronial plot to kill him and
wishing to surround himself with men of whose loyalty he could be sure,
recalled William to
1213 King John, facing an invasion
1214 King John, going on the offensive, forges a military coalition that
includes the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV, his nephew, and the counts of the
1214-1215 John had spent an enormous amount of money to fund the Bouvines campaign. Its failure further undermined the king’s already tattered prestige and credibility among the English barons. When John tried to punish English nobles who had failed to pay scutage (a money commutation of military service), a baronial revolt broke out.
15 June 1215 at
1216-1272 - Reign of Henry III. Henry is only nine years old at his father's
death. The papal legate initially serves
as his regent, followed by William Marshal when the Cardinal leaves the country
1216-1219. On 11 Nov 1216 William Marshal was formally chosen by
the king's council (the chief barons who remained loyal to John) to serve as
'regent of the king and the kingdom'. William's
first action was to reissue the Magna Carta. William commanded the royalist
troops, and even fought in hand to hand combat during the siege of
14 May 1219 William Marshal died at Caversham near
“ART OF DYING”:
William's dying shows him stripping off various layers of his mortal self: his regency, his baronage, his secular profession (becoming a Templar), his moveables (treasures), and, finally, his life itself. As presented in the Histoire, William's dying is a theater of renunciation.
A. Resignation of the Regency:
In March of 1219 Wm realized that he was dying. Summoning his eldest son
William and his household knights he left the Tower of London for his estate at
Caversham (Oxfordshire), where he summoned a meeting of the magnates of the
realm, including Henry III, the papal legate, and the royal justiciar (Hugh de
Burgh), and Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester (the young king's guardian).
Rejecting the bishop's claim to the regency, William entrusted the young king
into the care of the papal legate. William, obviously, did not trust Peter or
any other magnate.
B. Bequests to children.
I. Main bequests determined by law and custom of inheritance (not by will)
i. Countess Isabel--would hold during her lifetime
her own inheritance (Striguil, Pembroke,
ii. William the Younger (eldest son) received immediately the patrimony (the Marshal ancestral lands in Berks and Wilts) and was heir to the honour held by his mother.
II. Secondary bequests by will (Lords, it would be well if I should complete my will and take care for my soul....This is the time to free myself from all earthly cares and turn my thoughts to things celestial"--Painter 280). William first made an oral testament, witnessed by his sons and household, and then had it drawn up in written form by his almoner Geoffrey the Templar. It was sealed by the Marshal, his wife, and his eldest son.
1. The sons
i. Richard (second son, at that time in the court of
Philip Augustus in
iii. Gilbert, third son, was to be a churchman.
iv. Walter, then a boy, an unknown amount of land.
v. Anselm, the youngest son, first received nothing, but, through the pleas of John of Earley, was provided with Irish lands worth 140 pounds (ordinary knight's fee was worth 20 pounds).
i. Joan, the only unmarried daughter, received lands worth 30 pounds a year and a cash sum of 133 pounds 6s.8d.
3. Legacies to monasteries: 33
pounds to Notley abbey; 10 marks (6 pounds 13s.4d) to the cathedral of
C. The Marshal's body
Fulfilling his vow made as a
crusader, William became a Templar and arranged to buried at the church of the
D. Marshal and the demands of the clergy
A couple of weeks before he died, he was lying in bed surrounded by his household knights. One of them, Henry fitzGerold reminded William that he should be thinking about his soul and that the clerks taught that one cannot be saved unless one gives back all that he has taken from others. “Henry, do not be too hard on me,” responded William Marshal, “the clerks are very severe on us and shave us too close. I have captured 500 knights in my lifetime and have kept their arms, their charges and their harness. But now I can do no more than give myself to God, repenting for all the wrong that I have done. If God’s kingdom is withheld from me on this account I must resign myself. Unless the monks wish to banish me altogether, they must pursue me no further. Either their argument is false or no man can be saved.” John of Earley responded to this, “what you say is true and I can guarantee that not one of your neighbors could say as much at the end of his life. Crosland 148-9.
The day before
William died one of his chaplains, Philip, advised him to sell his rich robes
in the wardrobe and to use the money for charity to benefit his soul. "Be
silent mischievous man," William berated the cleric. "You have not
the heart of a gentleman, and I have had too much of your advice. Pentecost is
at hand, and my knights ought to have their new robes. This will be the last
time that I will supply them, yet you seek to prevent me from doing it." Marshal
then ordered that more robes be purchased in
E. Marshal's death
Midday 14 May 1219. To John of Earley: "Summon the countess and the knights, for I am dying. I can wait no longer, and I wish to take leave of them." To wife and household: "I am dying. I commend you to God. I can no longer be with you. I cannot defend myself from death."
The abbot of
The body was
Postscript: years later, about 1240 or so, the body was moved and the tomb opened. The body was putrid with decay. Matthew Paris, a monk and chronicler who wrote around 1260, regarded this as evidence of William's sins. William Marshal had died an excommunicant (by the Irish Bishop of Ferns). While John of Earley had no doubt about William's final resting place, it is obvious that not all of his contemporaries agreed.
Crosland, Jessie. William Marshal: The Last Great Feudal Baron.
Crouch, William. William Marshal: Knighthood, War and
Chivalry, 1147-1219, 2nd edn.
Painter, Sidney. William Marshal.