Richard Abels


Copyright 2012

(This work may be freely used for educational purposes)





William Marshal (c.1147-1219) is among the most extraordinary individuals in medieval English history. Eulogized by Archbishop Stephen Langton as “the best knight in the world” and by King Philip Augustus of France as “the most loyal man” he had ever known, William Marshal, the younger son of a local English landowner who was also a royal marshal, served two English kings (Henry the Young and his father Henry II) as a household knight, two others (Richard I and John) as a baron and counselor, and a fourth (Henry III) as guardian and regent. William, a landless household knight until the age of forty, ascended into the highest ranks of Angevin English politics and society through marriage to an heiress, Isabel de Clare, his reward for loyal service to King Henry II. Through her he became Earl of Striguil and Pembroke in Wales, lord of Leinster in Ireland, and lord of Longueville in Normandy. William Marshal’s remarkable rise was largely a consequence of the qualities that made him an exemplar of late twelfth-century chivalry: prowess in tournaments and combat, tactical and strategic acumen in war, the “courtesy” and discretion necessary to navigate the shoals of the royal court, and, above all, the reputation for unwavering loyalty to those whom he served. Like many other barons, William Marshal fell victim to the suspicions and caprice of King John and suffered a period of voluntarily exile from the court to his lands in Ireland. And yet William remained loyal to King John throughout the baronial rebellion that culminated in the issuance of Magna Carta. Upon John’s death in 1216, the nearly seventy-year earl was chosen by the king’s council to be guardian and regent to the child King Henry III. In his capacity as regent, William Marshal successfully defended the rule of the boy-king against a French invasion supported by a domestic baronial rebellion, and made his mark on English constitutional history by twice reissuing Magna Carta in 1216 and 1217.




Born c. 1147, William Marshal was the fourth son of John fitz Gilbert, hereditary marshal (i.e. keeper of the horses) of King Henry I of England (1100-1135). John the Marshal, a local baron of some prominence in southwestern England, held scattered estates in the counties of Wiltshire, Somerset, and Berkshire. Despite his office in the royal household, John had been only a minor landowner during the reign of King Henry I, but the civil war between King Henry’s nephew Stephen and his daughter the Empress Mathilda over the throne (1138-1153) afforded him the opportunity to increase his wealth and power at the expense of his neighbors.  And this John did by seizing lands, building castles, and cannily shifting allegiances between the two claimants to the throne to his benefit. Around 1145 John Marshal consolidated his fortunes in Wiltshire and the neighboring shires by marrying Sybil, the sister of the region’s most powerful nobleman and John’s erstwhile enemy, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury. John was married at the time, but this did not prove to be a serious obstacle. Probably “discovering” that he and Adelina were within the seven degrees of consanguinity proscribed by the Church, John had their marriage annulled (Crouch 18-19). Adelina, who had borne John two sons, cooperated by marrying another local landowner. The marriage of John Marshal and Sybil of Salisbury soon proved fruitful. William Marshal was the second of their four sons.

John Marshal possessed the qualities necessary for a baron to profit from these disturbed and lawless times. He was a hard and resolute man of flexible loyalties. One story in particular illustrates the traits that made him successful.  Early in his reign, King Stephen had entrusted John Marshal with several royal estates in northern Wiltshire, including the town and castle of Marlborough, which dominated a strategic road traversing the Kennet valley.  By 1141, however, John had switched sides. In that year he was helping Mathilda besiege Winchester. Upon receiving news of the siege, King Stephen immediately dispatched a large force to relieve the town. He hoped to take the Empress by surprise and capture her.  When Mathilda’s scouts reported the approach of an army much larger than her own, Mathilda prudently decided to break off the siege and withdraw to the castle of Ludgerhall. John Marshal was given the unenviable task of covering her flight as best he could. He held out long enough to allow the Empress to escape.  After his overmatched forces were shattered, John, accompanied by a single knight, took refuge in the nearby church of Wherwell abbey. The King’s men set fire to the church and waited for the “traitor” either to surrender or be consumed by the flames. When John Marshal’s companion suggested that they surrender rather than burn to death, John responded, “Never another word on those lines, I forbid it. If you utter just one word like that again, I will kill you with my own hands.” The heat was so great that melted lead dripped from the roof on to John’s face, blinding him in one eye. Nevertheless, John and his cowed retainer remained hidden in the smouldering church until their enemies, assuming that they had to have died from the flames and smoke, finally rode away. Despite serious injuries, John and the knight limped their way through the night to the safety of John’s castle at Marlborough. (History, ll. 243-276.)

William appears for the first time in historical records as a seven year old hostage of King Stephen for his father’s good behavior. As related in the History of William Marshal (L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal), a massive biographical poem commissioned by William Marshal’s son, John Marshal had established a castle at Newbury, Wiltshire, in 1152, that controlled a strategic crossroads for Mathilda. King Stephen responded quickly, arriving in force before Newbury. John’s constable in Newbury, faced with a blockade and imminent starvation, requested a truce before the siege began in earnest to consult his lord. King Stephen granted it on condition that John the Marshal provide him with a hostage, his youngest son William. John, apparently, had no intention to honor his pledge to King Stephen. Instead, he used the truce to resupply and reinforce the garrison at Newbury. When King Stephen discovered he had been tricked, he threatened to kill the boy unless John immediately surrendered the castle. John refused, telling the king that he had “the hammers and anvil” to forge more and better sons than William. King Stephen responded by threatening to catapult the boy against the castle walls. A king such as Henry I wouldn’t have thought twice about fulfilling the threat. But Stephen, a less ruthless and hence less effective king, couldn’t bring himself to give the order. William, who thought this all was a game, touched Stephen with his innocent curiosity about the catapult. Instead of being dashed against a wall, William was taken into the king’s household and became a royal favorite. The boy was returned to his father when a peace treaty was made the following year between King Stephen and Matilda’s son by Count Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, Henry Plantagenet. By terms of this treaty, Henry succeeded Stephen to the throne upon his death in 1154, becoming King Henry II (1154-1189).

As a fourth son of a local baron, William was destined either to be a serving knight or a cleric.  He inherited no lands or wealth from his father, only a family name and connections. When he was 12 or 13 years old, William was sent to join the household of his mother’s cousin, William of Tancarville, the constable of Normandy. There William learned the tools of knighthood: horsemanship, the ability to wield lance and sword, the skills of the hunt, and the courtliness necessary to prosper as a household retainer. In 1166 William of Tancarville knighted William, but for reasons unknown, did not invite him to become a permanent member of his household Instead, William returned to England and by 1168 was in the service of his powerful uncle Earl Patrick of Salisbury. It was in the service of Patrick that William came to the attention of King Henry II of England (reigned 1154-89). Henry II’s reign was filled with wars against rebellious barons—including his sons—and neighboring princes, in particular King Louis VII of France. In 1168 Henry II sent his wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to rule the county of Poitou that had belonged to her father. This coincided with a revolt by the powerful Lusignan family.  Earl Patrick and his household were dispatched to serve as Queen Eleanor’s bodyguard. While traveling between castles, the queen and her unarmed party were ambushed by the brothers Geoffrey and Guy de Lusignan. Eleanor managed to escape, but Earl Patrick was struck down from behind. William Marshal was so enraged that he charged the Poitevins without a helmet on. His horse was killed under him. Surrounded, he fought on until he was felled by a slashing wound to the thigh.

Because of his connections, William was taken prisoner for ransom rather than killed on the spot. His captors saw no need even to treat his wound.  Surprisingly, it was Queen Eleanor who paid the ransom, perhaps because of good reports given of William by his Salisbury kinsmen. Through Eleanor, William came to the attention of King Henry II who appointed him “tutor in chivalry” to his eldest son, Henry “the Young King” (1155-1183). Henry was called “the Young King” because that is what he literally was. King Henry II, the first of the Angevin kings of England, ruled a patchwork empire acquired through inheritance and marriage. From his mother Mathilda he inherited the throne of England, the duchy of Normandy, and the county of Maine. From his father, Geoffrey “Plantagenet” of Anjou, he inherited the county of Anjou (“Angevin” is the Latinized adjective for Anjou). By marriage to Eleanor, he was consort to the Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitou. In addition, as king of England, Henry II claimed overlordship over Wales and (after 1171) Ireland. In all, Henry II’s “Angevin Empire” stretched over much of Britain and nearly all of western France. With the king’s four sons—Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John—growing into their teenage years, the question was which son would succeed to which of their father’s various territories. In 1170 King Henry II made clear his intention that his eldest, Henry, would succeed him as king of England by having him anointed and crowned. Despite this, however, Henry II retained all power in his own hands. He gave the Young King a generous allowance, and tried to control his household (mesnie) by appointing the household officers and clerics. Henry the Younger, without responsibilities, surrounded himself with young, 'chivalrous' knights, and spent his days going to tournaments, hunting, and spending money recklessly. In the terms of the age, Henry the Younger, despite his anointing as king, remained a "youth" (landless knight). What Henry the Younger wanted was rule over Normandy, Anjou, or England. His father told him to be content with the title. In 1173-1174 King Henry the Younger and his teenage brothers Richard (15), whom Henry had named duke of Aquitaine two years earlier, and Geoffrey (14), rebelled against their father, angered by his refusal to give them any real power or substantial income. They were encouraged in their revolt by King Louis VII of France and by their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who has been angered by the king's infidelity. The revolt ended with King Henry II giving his sons greater responsibility and authority. William Marshal fought for his lord the Young King in this war. At the beginning of the revolt, William was given the great honor of knighting his lord Henry.

As a household knight, William Marshal distinguished himself by his prowess in tournaments and war and through reputation for loyalty to his masters.  William’s reputation grew and with it his prominence with the Young King’s household. Henry the Younger made him a “knight banneret,” that is, a knight with the right to have his own banner and retinue. William’s fellow knights in the Young King’s mesnie became jealous and began to spread rumors that William was guilty both of showing contempt for the Young King’s majesty and, more seriously, had engaged in an adulterous affair with his lord’s wife, the French princess Margaret, daughter of King Louis VII. They also accused William of promoting his reputation as a tournament knight at the expense of his master’s own considerable prowess. The Young King, fearing the shame of being “proved” a cuckold, denied William a chance to defend himself and banished him from his household. King Henry II was pleased by the news. He had come to regret his appointment of Marshal as his son’s tutor in arms. The History admits that the king viewed the Marshal as a bad influence on his son, blaming him for the extravagant sums of money that the Young King spent on tournament going.  King Henry II may have also held Marshal responsible for spurring his son to rebellion in 1173, or, at the very least, for failing to restrain him.  From other sources we know that William Marshal had an acquisitive streak.  War, even more than the tournament, was the arena in which serving knights such as Marshal could demonstrate their value to their lords. War offered them the promise of profit. On Christmas Day 1182, William appeared with his cousin William de Tancarville at the court of King Henry II and demanded from the Young King the right to prove his innocence through trial by combat. He offered to fight any three of his accusers on three successive days. If any one of them defeated him, then the Young King could hang him. When Young Henry refused, William upped the ante by offering to allow them to chop off a finger on his right hand as an added handicap. Young Henry was unmoved. William then turned to King Henry II and demanded a safe conduct out of the king’s realms so that he could depart for places where he would be treated with greater justice.

William Marshal became a knight-errant, a romantic term for a knight without land who did not belong to a household. Because of William’s reputation as a tournament knight, 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 handsome 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, and William is recorded as fighting on Count Philip’s team in a tournament at Gournai in January 1183. During this period he also made a pilgrimage to Cologne. In January 1183, war broke out among the sons of King Henry II, as Henry and Geoffrey joined forces against Richard, who was supported by their father. The accusations of adultery and lese majestie were forgotten, and in February of 1183, the Young King, needing the military prowess and strategic insights of William, recalled him to his service in preparation for war against his father.

Soon after William joined his master in Poitou, Young Henry fell gravely ill. William discovered that he had come to attend a funeral rather than fight a war. On his deathbed, the Young King begged William to fulfill the crusading vow that he had taken years before. William agreed. King Henry II, mourning the death of his son and appreciating the loyalty that William had demonstrated to him, not only agreed to permit William to go but offered him a place in his household. He took two of William’s war horses as a pledge for his return, and gave him one hundred pounds Angevin to cover his travel expenses. After saying farewell to his brother John, now the royal marshal, his sister, and his cousin William of Salisbury, William departed for the Holy Land. Uncharacteristically, the History is silent about William’s adventures on crusade. It simply boasts that he did more in two years than other men did in seven. While in Palestine, William grew close to the Military Order of the Temple of Solomon. Thinking ahead to his death, William purchased two expensive silken cloths to cover his corpse, and apparently promised the Templars that he would end his day as one of them.

When he returned from the East in the spring of 1186, King Henry II welcomed William into his mesnie (household).  King Henry II’s patronage took the form of giving William the wardship of a fourteen year old heir John of Earley (1172-1230). John of Earley was the heir to a considerable honor, the widespread lands of which lay in Somerset and Berkshire. (John took his toponym from his manor in Earley, Berkshire.) Despite this, John, who became William's squire, was to remain in William's household long after he reached majority and was to be his loyal man and friend until the Marshal's death. He became a kinsman to his friend and lord in 1194, when William married him another of his wards, Sybil, who was probably the illegitimate daughter of William's older brother John.  John of Earley is the chief source of information for John the Troubadour’s L'Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal.

Perhaps more important to William that the guardianship of John of Earley, was Henry II’s grant of William’s very first landed fief, Cartmel, a large royal estate (28,747 acres) in Lancashire. At the age of 40, William had finally become a landed baron. To round off his patronage, Henry II gave William the custody of Helois of Lancaster, a royal ward and heiress to the barony of Kendal in Lancashire and Westmoreland. Apparently Henry II intended to settle William in northern England. If he had married Helois, William would have achieved an equivalent status to his father and his older brother.  William, however, was apparently dissatisfied with the fief of Cartmel and the hand of Helois of Lancaster. According to a letter from Henry II to William only discovered in 1996, William had been complaining to Henry about having been insufficiently rewarded for his services.  In response, Henry II promised to give William the great castle of Chateauroux in Berry (the county east of Poitou) and all of its holdings. This presumably meant that William was to marry the heiress to Chateauroux, Denise. The catch was that Chateauroux was in the hands of Philip Augustus, now supported by Henry II’s rebellious son Richard the Lionheart, Duke of Aquitaine. At Lent in 1189 William gave up his sure thing--the guardianship of Helois of Lancaster—for a chance of trading up to Denise, but as matters turned out the ailing Henry II was unable to retake Chateauroux. In compensation, Henry II awarded William the guardianship (and right to marry) one of the wealthiest heiresses in England, Isabel, daughter of Earl Richard (Strongbow) of Striguil in the Welsh marches and Leinster in Ireland.

On 6 July 1189, Henry II died, abandoned by virtually all his supporters. To the very end, however, 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.  After the death of Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart was left as Henry’s eldest remaining son and heir apparent. Anxious to provide his youngest son John, Henry II offered to have Richard crowned king of England, as he had had his elder brother crowned, in return for giving up the Aquitaine. Richard refused, and claimed the right to succeed to all his father’s holdings. (Richard’s younger brother Geoffrey, who had married the heiress to the county of Brittany in 1181, died in 1186 leaving a child named Arthur as his heir.) In 1187 Richard allied himself with King Philip Augustus of France to force his father to accede to his demands.  Most of Henry II’s nobles abandoned him during this last war. Henry was old and ailing and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the king would die and Richard would succeed him. William Marshal became an increasingly prominent member of the old king’s household, commanding Henry’s dwindling forces in the king’s last war against his sons. Indeed, a few months before Henry's death, William came close to killing Richard the Lionheart. Richard and his forces were in pursuit of Henry II as he retreated from Le Mans. Anxious to overtake his father and overconfident, Richard rode after his father without even taking the precaution of putting on armor.  William stayed behind to cover the king’s retreat. Knowing how impetuous Richard was, William set an ambush. The History  (ll. 8840-7) relates that Richard was taken completely by surprise when he suddenly encountered Marshal on horseback, with his lance poised to skewer the prince. Richard yelled at the top of his voice, ""God's legs, Marshal! Do not kill me! That would be a wicked thing to do, since you find me here completely unarmed."  The Marshal replied: "Indeed I won't; let the Devil kill you! I shall not be the one to do it." This said, he struck the count's horse a blow with his lance, and the horse died instantly; it never took another step forward.  It died, and the count fell to the ground. It was a fine blow, which came at an opportune moment for those riding ahead, since they had no other protection against death or capture, these being the objectives of those who could well have achieved such aims, had it not been for this incident."

Soon after, Henry II died, surrounded only by domestic servants who stripped the body of all its valuables. William Marshal, left with the chore of overseeing the burial of his lord, accompanied the body to the abbey of Fontevrault in Anjou where it was interred. Richard, who appreciated loyalty, chose to reward rather than punish Marshal, and confirmed his father’s gift of the heiress Isabel de Clare. William married Isabel in August 1189 and became, by right of marriage, Lord of Striguil and Pembroke. (Striguil consisted of 65.5 knights' fees, and a large demesne in south east Wales; Pembroke was an earldom in southwest Wales.) Isabel also was heir to a great lordship in Ireland, the ancient kingdom of Leinster.  In theory, Leinster was a great prize, but in practice, much of the county was in the hands of vassals of Prince John, who had been named Lord of Ireland by his father King Henry II. Perhaps in compensation for this, King Richard granted William also half of the Giffard lordship, to which Isabel had a distant claim, which made him lord of Orbec and Longueville in Normandy. 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). From 1189-1219, William was de facto Earl of Pembroke (in southwestern Wales) and Striguil (in the Welsh 'marches,' i.e. frontier), lord of Longueville in Normandy, and Earl of Leinster in southeastern Ireland. (He wasn’t formally granted the title of 'earl' by King John until 1199.)  In 1194, William's elder brother John Marshal died and William, as the only surviving son, succeeded to his father's inheritance and to the title of royal Marshal, the honorary office of keeper of the king's stables. 

King Richard’s immediate interest was to fulfill the crusader vow that he had taken in 1187. The first year of his rule was taken up with raising money, men, and provisions for the Third Crusade. Making a treaty with his onetime friend and now main rival, King Philip Augustus of France, Richard left England on Crusade in 1190. He was not to return to England until 1194. For the last two of those years he was a prisoner of the Emperor Henry VI. Given William’s reputation for military savvy and prowess, it seems odd on first glance that King Richard left William behind. But Richard believed that William could better serve him at home than on crusade. In return for a proffer of cash, King Richard appointed William Marshal sheriff of Gloucester and custodian of the castle of Gloucester. This meant that Marshal controlled the roads leading to his lordships in south Wales. Between his private land holdings and his shrievalty, Marshal became the second most powerful baron in southwestern England. The greatest baron was Richard’s brother Count John of Mortain, earl of Gloucester through marriage. Richard further enhanced Marshal’s power and authority by advancing his brothers. William’s older brother, Richard Marshal, was made sheriff of Yorkshire, and his younger brother Henry, a cleric, was appointed dean of the cathedral of York. Richard’s trust in William’s loyalty manifested itself most dramatically in his appointment as associate justiciar and as a member of the board of regents Richard created to rule England in his absence. As associate justiciar William duties included traveling through the shires as an itinerant royal justice, sitting in the curia regis in Westminster, supervising the accounts of the Exchequer, and advising the justiciar, the royal chancellor William de Longchamp, bishop of Ely and papal legate to England, on matters of state. Although William de Longchamp was the king’s regent, John was by far the most powerful magnate in England. Richard had granted him virtual royal authority over most of the southwest, and had given him important castles and estates in the Midlands. John’s main interest was to secure support for his succession to the throne in the event of the death of the childless King Richard against his nephew, the child count of Brittany, Arthur. John was also resentful that Richard had made the lowborn Longchamp regent rather than himself. Given the irascible temperaments of the two men, it was perhaps inevitable that Longchamp and John would come into conflict.

In this dispute, it was to William’s benefit to support John, to whom he had done homage for both the county of Leinster in Ireland and the manor of Cartmel in Lancashire.  As earl of Gloucester, and lord of Glamorgan in Wales, John was also William’s most powerful neighbor. Longchamp quickly identified the Marshal family as potential enemies and acted to lessen their authority. When the tensions between the king’s regent and his brother erupted into violence, William threw his support behind John. Richard, then in Sicily, responded to news of warfare between Longchamp and John by replacing Longchamp as regent with another bishop, Walter of Coutances, archbishop of Rouen, and Archbishop Walter, with the aid of William and the other barons on the council of regents, soon restored order. More serious hostilities, however, broke out in 1192 when reports arrived telling of Richard’s imprisonment by Emperor Henry VI of Germany.  John took this as an opportunity to seize the throne with the aid of Richard’s rival King Philip Augustus of France. In return for his recognition and support Philip demanded and received John’s promise to surrender to him Normandy east of Rouen and several important castles in the county of Maine. In the civil war that followed, William Marshal, despite his ties to John, remained loyal to King Richard and his Justiciar Walter of Coutances. In response to the Walter’s orders, he raised a mercenary army to besiege John’s castle at Windsor. Simultaneously, Walter imposed a 25% tax on moveables to raise the money that Henry VI demanded for Richard’s ransom. Upon the receipt of 100,000 pounds, and to the distress of Philip August and John, Henry VI released Richard from captivity in February 1194.  John’s support melted away. John, realizing the game was up, threw himself on the mercy of his brother, who, somewhat insultingly, forgave him for a ‘youthful’ indiscretion. Marshal emerged from this turbulent period unscathed. He had navigated the political shoals well enough to remain high in King Richard’s confidence and favor without having alienated John.

The remainder of Richard’s reign was dominated by war in France to recover the lands and castles in France that Philip Augustus had seized while Richard was on crusade and in captivity. William played his part, both as a military commander and a royal counselor.  By January of 1199, Richard had recaptured most of the lost territory, and Philip Augustus, distracted by marital problems that led him into conflict with the pope, was anxious for peace. The two kings signed a five year truce, and Richard turned his attention to quelling a brewing rebellion in the south by two of his great Poitevin vassals, the Viscount of Limoges and the Count of Angoulȇme.  Two months later, on 20 March 1199, Richard was killed by a crossbow bolt while besieging the castle of Chalus-Chabrol.  In his ten year reign, Richard had spent approximately nine months in England. On his deathbed, Richard named John as his heir, passing over the claims of their young nephew, Count Arthur of Brittany, son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey. During the succession debate, William Marshal had been among the most vocal supporters of John's claim to the Crown, and 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 also made him sheriff of both Gloucestershire and of Sussex. William Marshal became an even more prominent member of King John's court than he had been in Richard’s, and from 1200-1203 his name appears frequently as a witness to the king's charters.

 John proved to be a miserable failure as king. His legacy was to be the loss of much of the Angevin holdings in France to Philip Augustus and the tendentious issuance of Magna Carta to quell a baronial revolt. Because he needed money for mercenaries, he used his feudal rights extortionately, and because he proved unsuccessful in recovering these lands (which meant massive losses for the English nobility), he came to be despised and hated by his nobles. The result was Magna Carta (1215). In addition, he became embroiled in a losing struggle with the papacy when he insisted on his right to name the archbishopric of Canterbury. This conflict almost resulted in Pope Innocent III giving his blessing to a French invasion of England as a crusade. John died fighting against a French invasion and a native baronial revolt. John’s reign, however, began well with a successful campaign against his nephew Arthur and King Philip Augustus, who had recognized Arthur’s claim to the counties of Anjou, Maine, and Poitou. By 1200, John had forced Philip Augustus to enter into the Treaty of Goulet, which formally acknowledged him as the legitimate heir to his brother Richard. Arthur, however, continued to contest the inheritance, until his defeat and capture in battle in the battle of Mirabeau in 1202. Arthur was placed imprisoned at Rouen and placed in the custody of John’s loyal follower, William de Braose. John’s harsh treatment of Arthur’s followers and the ingratitude he showed to ally William de Roches, the powerful seneschal of Anjou, led to an uprising against him in Brittany and William de Roches shifting his support to King Philip of France.  John enraged by the Breton uprising apparently murdered his nephew, perhaps by his own hands. At any rate, on April 1203 Arthur “disappeared.” But what brought John to ruin was a marital dispute. One of his great French vassals, Hugh de Lusignan, count of La Marche, had been betrothed to Isabel, heiress to the neighboring county of Angoulême. In order to forestall this alliance that threatened his control over Poitou, John in 1200 decided to marry the 12 year old Isabel himself. The result was a revolt by Hugh and his family, which John crushed. Hugh responded by appealing to their common overlord, King Philip Augustus of France. King Philip, citing the Treaty of Goulet, ordered John to appear in Philip’s court at Paris in 1202 to hear the charges against him. John refused, claiming that by ancient custom dukes of Normandy were exempt from answering such summonses. Philip responded that he summoned John not as duke of Normandy but as count of Poitou. When John refused to answer that summons, Philip declared all of his holdings in France to be forfeit. The result was war.

Between 1203 and 1205, Philip Augustus conquered Normandy, Maine, and Anjou. This created a dilemma for William Marshal, who held land in Normandy as well as England. While serving as John's ambassador to Philip (1204), William agreed to do homage to Philip for his Norman lands if John had not recovered Normandy within a year.  John approved the deal, but William apparently had not told him that King Philip was insisting that William do liege homage to him for his lands in France. This meant that King Philip would be William’s primary lord in France and, consequently, that William could not personally take arms against him if John launched a campaign to recover his lost territories. The result was William saved his French holding of Longueville but lost the favor of the king, especially after William refused to go on campaign against Philip in France, pleading his homage to the French king. John accused him of cowardice and disloyalty and demanded that William give him his eldest son as a hostage. John went to Poitou in France; William was entrusted with the military defense of England. From this point until 1212 William was out of royal favor.
          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 fitzHenry. Meilyr, the son of a bastard of King Henry I, had been one of Earl Richard of Clare’s original followers.  Now King John's justiciar in Ireland, Meilyr refused to acknowledge William's lordship. In September 1207 William and Meilyr were summoned to England by John, leaving Isabel in Ireland under the protection of three loyal household knights, serving as his bailiffs: John of Earley, Stephen d’Evreux, and Jordan de Sauqueville. John allowed Meilyr to return to Ireland to attack William’s lands, and forced William to remain at court with him. Meilyr attacked Marshal’s supporters. To deprive William of his military support in Ireland, King John now summoned John of Earley and William’s other two bailiffs to England. Since they held lands “in chief” (directly from the king), a failure to answer the summons meant the loss of their lands. Nevertheless, they chose loyalty to their lord over their private interests and refused the summons. John responded by confiscating their lands and taunted William that his men seemed to fare poorly in his service. When this failed to get a rise out of Marshal, John invented a story about how two of his bailiffs had been killed attempting to lift the siege of Kilkenny and the third, John of Earley, lay mortally wounded. This was a flat out lie; the Irish sea was impassable in January, and no ship had arrived for months from Ireland. William quietly responded to the ‘news’: “What a pity about the knights, sire, for they were your men too, which makes the business all the more regrettable.”  William’s refusal to show any anger or discomfort in the face of provocation seems to have gotten to John.  In late February a ship arrived from Ireland with the news that William’s men, with the support of Hugh de Lacy, earl of Ulster, had defeated and captured Meilyr.  John made the best of this bad news and came to an agreement with William Marshal, by which the Marshal surrendered Leinster to John, who granted it back to him, but with more limited rights of jurisdiction. In the spring of 1208 William, with John’s permission, returned to Ireland. A year later, William's relations with John took still another turn for the worse, because of William's harboring in Ireland of the fugitive baron William de Braose, not only William's friend but also his overlord for some land in England. John couldn't prove that William was guilty of treason, but he still demanded further hostage, including his squire and best friend John of Earley. William spent 1211-1212 in Ireland quietly, rewarding his loyal followers with lands and punishing his vassals and tenants who had fought against him.

In 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 England to fight against the Welsh. He was reconciled with John, who released the hostages. After returning to Ireland, William again was recalled in April 1213 to aid John against his rebellious vassals and a threatened invasion by the French.  To the latter, John launched a preemptive naval strike with a fleet of 500 ships against Philip’s 1700 ship fleet harbored at Damme, near Bruges. The English commander William Longsword, earl of Salisbury, John’s illegitimate half-brother, caught the French completely by surprise. Salisbury seized 300 ships and burnt another 100, removing the threat of invasion. In the following year, King John went on the offensive, forging a great military coalition that included his nephew the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV and the counts of the Low Countries, and devising an ambitious strategic plan. His own forces would assemble in the Aquitaine and attack northward. When Philip went south to engage John, Emperor Otto and his allies would then invade from the north and seize an undefended Paris. In concept, the plan was brilliant, but strategy is the mastery of time and place, and given the ad hoc character of thirteenth-century armies, coordinated actions were always problematic. John landed at La Rochelle in February. After some success, he was forced to fall back to La Rochelle on 9 July—before John’s allies had even finished assembling. When Otto and his allies finally invaded from the north a couple of weeks later, Philip was able to meet them with most of his forces. Philip won a decisive victory at Bouvines on 27 July 1214, preserving his throne—and costing Otto’s his.

John had spent an enormous amount of money to fund the Bouvines campaign. Its failure further undermined the king’s already tattered military 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 in the north and quickly spread to the south.  On 15 June 1215 at Runnymede near London, King John was forced by the rebels to sign Magna Carta. William Marshal, who remained firmly loyal to John throughout the crisis, witnessed the signing as John’s representative and swore to uphold Magna Carta’s provisions. John himself had no intention of honoring Magna Carta. He immediately sent a message to Pope Innocent III, his feudal overlord since 1213, begging the pope to release him from the oath he had taken, as it had been coerced rather than given freely. Pope Innocent III, who had little use for rebels against the Lord’s anointed, quashed Magna Carta and threatened excommunication for all those who tried to impose its provisions. At the same time, John dispatched William on embassy to King Philip, to deter the French king from launching an invasion. The negotiations failed. Philip Augustus, who had been poised to invade two years before, saw an opportunity to rid himself of his Angevin rival. Taking advantage of an offer by the rebels to his eldest son Louis and heir as king, Philip dispatched an expeditionary force to England led by the young prince.  William's eldest son, William Marshal the Younger, one of the rebel leaders, declared his support for Prince Louis. William Marshal the Elder, however, remained loyal to John, and led the king’s troops until John's death on 19 Oct. 1216. John's nine year old son succeeded as King Henry III. John had named his feudal overlord, the pope, as the child’s guardian, which in practice meant the papal legate in England.  But the English barons loyal to the child king looked to one of their own to be the king’s guardian and regent. They turned to William Marshal. 

          William Marshal, who had been a serving knight until the age of 40, had risen to be the most powerful man in England. Marshal’s first order of business as guardian of the king and defender of his realm was to defeat the French invaders and put down the baronial uprising. William Marshal hoped to win back the rebels by diplomacy. Acknowledging their grievances, he ordered Magna Carta to be freely reissued in the new king’s name in 1216 and again in the following year. Magna Carta was thus recast as a legitimate grant of privileges by the Crown.  Meanwhile he rallied the royal forces against the French Prince Louis. In this he received the support of the Church.  Since England was a papal fief and Pope Honorius III had accepted the succession of Henry, the pope declared the defense of England to be a holy war. The History makes this explicit. The poet has William Marshal deliver an oration before the battle of Lincoln in which he  promised the “noble, loyal knights … [who] keep faith with the king … redemption and pardon for all our sins,” since by defending their homes they were also upholding “the peace of Holy Church” (ll. 16,147-16,150).  William Marshal’s victory at Lincoln in 1217 ended the French threat. 

On 14 May 1219 William Marshal died at Caversham near Reading. As he lay dying he fulfilled his vow to the Templars by becoming one of their order and by his own directions was buried in the Temple Church at London. William left behind a widow, five sons and five daughters. Ironically, none of his sons left sons and the great Marshal barony lasted only a single generation.


Chivalry in the History of William Marshal (L’Historie de Guillaume le Maréchal):

          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, L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, a long (19,214 line) poem composed by "John the Troubadour" for William's son Earl William II, and completed in late 1226, seven years after the Marshal’s death. 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, 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). The first complete English translation (by Stewart Gregory, edited by A.J. Holden with historical notes by David Crouch) has been published by the Anglo-Norman Text Society.

The History presents William Marshal as a prud’homme, a “worthy man.” For the poet, a prud’homme was a man of prowess who possessed the complementary skills and temperament of a courtier. William’s reputation as the ‘flower of chivalry’ during his career as a household knight was most dramatically demonstrated by his success in tournaments. Both Sidney Painter and Georges Duby emphasized the importance of the tournament in the early career of William Marshal. William Marshal was a professional tournament knight. The History of William the Marshal mentions sixteen tournaments in which William participated between 1167 and 1183, mostly under the banner of the Young King Henry. Between 1177 and 1179 William partnered on the tournament circuit with another bachelor in Henry's household, Roger de Gaugie; for two years they went from tourney to tourney. According to list kept by Wigain, the Young King's clerk, they captured 103 knights in the course of 10 months.  In one tournament William Marshal captured ten knights along with their twelve horses. His tournament prowess was so valued by the Young King Henry that he was favored with the privilege of fighting under his own banner, leading a team of knights within the Young King’s larger contingent. That a landless, household knight should have honored as a knight banneret was exceptional, but, then again, William appears to have been an exceptional tournament athlete.

The history of the tournaments mimics the social history of the medieval aristocracy. Although there were probably similar sorts of war games in the 10th century, tournaments as such seem to have arisen toward the end of the 11th or the beginning of the 12th century as part of the developments that created courtly society. By 1125 tournaments were popular in France (especially in northern France) and Germany, so much so that it provoked a papal denunciation by Innocent II in 1130. By 1200 popularity of tournaments had spread throughout Western Europe, though France was still known as the home of the best and greatest tourneys (English chroniclers termed tourns "the Gallic battle").  The tournament of the twelfth century was largely a military affair, designed to give knights practice in fighting in units. Actual battlefield tactics, based on conrois of knights (cohesive, feudal tactical units) operating in conjunction with foot soldiers, were employed. Tournaments of the 12th and 13th centuries were dangerous and rough affairs--they were, in essence, war games meant to reflect actual conditions of battlefield combat and were distinguishable from actual warfare only by the presence of roped off 'refuges' where knights could take time out to rest or repair their equipment. Otherwise, they were no holds barred affairs. Knights were rarely killed—capture and ransom were the goals—but many suffered concussions, broken bones, and dislocations. The battering that even a victorious knight took is underscored by a story told in the History. In one tournament William Marshal had so distinguished himself that Count Philip of Flanders with the assent of the other great nobles present decided to honor him with the prize of a giant fish (a pike), but William was nowhere to be found. Finally, they were informed that he was at a blacksmith’s shop and when they arrived with the fish, they found him keeling with his head on an anvil and the blacksmith hammering away at William’s battered and misshapen helm in an attempt to remove it. Although, as David Crouch observes, most late twelfth-century tournaments were small scale, with about 20 or so knights divided into two teams, the number of combatants at some of the greater tournaments could rise to the level of medieval armies.  The author of the History of William Marshal reports that more than 3,000 knights participated in the great tournament at Lagny in 1179. The contingent of the Young King Henry alone numbered 560 knights. (Crouch, Tournament, p.76) Although tournaments were sport, given the political tensions and rivalries among the great nobles who fielded teams, the potential for war games to turn into small private wars was always present, and kings such Henry II of England banned tournaments from their realms as a threat to public order. But tournaments could also limit violence by substituting for war. The counts of Burgundy and Nevers settled their differences at a tournament held on the frontier between their counties in 1172. (Keen, Chivalry, p. ) By doing so, they prevented the ravaging of the countryside, which, after all, was the most common form of warfare throughout the medieval period (as a generalization, the actual practice of warfare in the Middle Ages resembled Sherman's march to the sea far more than it did Gettysburg.)

The Church was also hostile to tournaments, viewing them as invitations to violence and disruptions of the Christian peace that churchmen were intent on promoting. Ecclesiastical writers preached against tournaments. One reported that demons were heard and seen in the form of vultures and crows at tournament of Neuss in 1241. The famous mid13th-century preacher Jacques de Vitry wrote that tournament encompassed all seven deadly sins: pride, since participants strive for empty glory; hate and anger; sloth, because failure in the leads to depression; avarice, since men seek to despoil one another and then recoup by exploiting helpless tenants; gluttony, because of feasts associated with tournaments; vanity; lechery, since they are fought 'to please wanton women' whose tokens knights adopt. For these reasons tournaments were repeatedly condemned by Church councils, beginning with the Second Council of Clermont in 1130. A this council Pope Innocent II denounced 'those detestable markets and fair, vulgarly called tournaments, at which knights are wont to assemble, in order to display their strength and rash boldness' and prohibited Christian burial to those who died in tournaments. His injunction was repeated at other Church councils in 1139, 1148, 1157, 1179, 1215, 1245, 1279, 1313, down to 1316, when Pope John XXII finally gave up the fight and bestowed his blessings on them. Knights may have respected and even feared the spiritual powers of the clergy, but their willingness to obey the dictates of the clergy hit its limit when it came to tournaments. For those who participated in them, there was no contradiction between Christian piety and the tournament.

Tournaments served a critical function in the social world of the late twelfth-century aristocracy. The great lords of northern France, such as the Counts of Champagne and Flanders, gained reputation and prestige from their patronage of tournaments, while the ordinary knights gained fame, glory, possibility of material gain (in the form of horses, trappings, armor, and ransom)--or loss--, and an arena in which to prove their worth to potential lords (for which read 'employers'). Tournaments served as training grounds for war, as opportunities for opportunities for obtaining booty and prestige, as social gatherings for the aristocracy, as arenas for theater, ceremony, and ‘play.’ In essence, the tournament helped the nobility to define itself, and changed as the nobility's self image changed. By the late twelfth century, tournaments had become a staple of chivalric romance literature. The Arthurian romances depict their heroes as champions of tournaments. In Chrétien de Troyes’ late twelfth-century poem Yvain, the Knight with the Lion, Gawain lectures the newly married and uxorious Yvain about the need to frequent tournaments in order to maintain his reputation:

“What! Would you be one of those men,” said my lord Gawain to Yvain, “who are worth less because of their wives? … He who has a beautiful woman as wife or sweetheart should be the better for her; for it’s not right for her to love him if his fame and worth are lost. Indeed, you would suffer afterwards for her love if it caused you to lose your reputation, because a woman will quickly withdraw here love—and she’s not wrong to do so—if she finds herself hating a man who has lost face in any way after he has become lord of the realm. A man must be concerned with his reputation before all else! Break the leash and yoke and let us, you and me go to the tourneys, so no one can call you a jealous husband. Now is not the time to dream your life away but to frequent tournaments, engage in combat, and joust vigorously, whatever it might cost you. …Indeed, you must come along, for I’ll fight under your banner.” ….My lord Yvain immediately requested leave to accompany the king and frequent the tournaments, lest he be called a coward. (Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, trans. W.H. Kibler, Penguin, 1991, pp. 326-7).

In the same poet’s Perceval, the Story of the Grail, Gawain is mocked by ladies for refusing to participate in a great tournament. They speculate that he must be a merchant disguised as a knight to avoid paying tolls and customs duties. Gawain’s reason is that he is traveling to fight a trial by combat to acquit himself of the charge of treason and is reluctant to risk an injury that might render him unfit. Nonetheless, when the daughter of his host asks him to bear arms in the tourney for love of her, Gawain courteously accedes to her request, wins horses for the girl, her mother, and her two sisters, and “carries off the honors on both sides.” For Chrétien de Troyes and his audiences, tournaments were the venue through which knights such as the young William Marshal demonstrated their worthiness to lords and ladies alike.

The thirteenth century witnessed a gradual transformation in the tournament, as its pageantry began to become more elaborate, and as jousting began to complement the melee. The expense of tourneying rose as the tournament became grand ‘theater, a public arena in which barons could show-off their prowess, their chivalric qualities, and their wealth. Feasts and pageantry (songs, dances, and formal processions) took up more and more time, and the presence of ladies became an accepted and necessary aspect of the games. As Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France both make clear, ladies were already attending tournaments in the late twelfth century.  Although the History emphasizes William Marshal’s prowess as a tournament knight, it also shows that, if the occasion called for it, he could emulate Chrétien’s courtly knights.  At the tournament of Joigni, for instance, William left the field to talk and dance with the Countess of Joigni and her ladies in waiting, who had come to watch the games. The Countess’ minstrel cleverly composed a song on the spot with the refrain ‘Marshal, give me a good horse.’  When a knight from an opposing team rode by, William suddenly leapt upon his horse, knocked the knight off his charger, and calmly gave it to the minstrel, to the praise of the Countess, her ladies, and the other knights present. The presence of ladies added an erotic undercurrent to the proceedings, which might help explain the growing popularity of jousting. Jousting, which emphasized individual martial skills, did not prepare a soldier as well for warfare as did the melee, but it did allow him to be the focus of attention as he demonstrated his prowess. In a joust a knight might honor his lady and advertise his “love” by wearing her sleeve or veil. In essence, the purpose of the tournament was changing. Though tournaments never completely lost their military value, they became increasingly stages for chivalric pageantry, demonstrations of chivalry and aristocracy. The tournament was the place in which a nobleman could distinguish himself from a burgher. This process is perhaps best understood through a weird example, that of the Bavarian knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein who wrote a pseudo-autobiography in which he described his Venusfahrt (1227) and his Artusfahrt (1240). For the former, he dressed up as "Frau Venus", in full armor with woman's clothing over it, and wearing a blond woman's wig. He travelled from Italy to Bohemia, offering a general to all to joust with him. To each knight who broke three lances with him he gave a gold ring, but if the challenger was defeated, he was to bow to the four corners of the earth in honor of Ulrich's lady. He tells us that he broke 300 lances in a month's jousting. The Artusfahrt saw him doing the same thing, but now disguised as King Arthur and accompanied by six companions. The Arthurian motif caught on in the early 13th century; the earliest example of a tourneying in Arthurian dress is a tournament held on Cyprus in 1223 described by Philip of Novara.

As important it was to William Marshal’s success as a household knight, his reputation as a prud’homme rested on more than his success as a tournament knight. Chivalry in the late twelfth-century required much more than brawn, horsemanship, and skill in the use of lance and sword. As David Crouch observes, in the courtly society of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the term prud’homme denoted not simply a brave, loyal, and skilled knight, but a “practiced, intelligent soldier and man of affairs” (Crouch, William Marshal, 187). The poet (and undoubtedly William himself) attributed his success to his possession of exceptional chivalric qualities. Most visible were the feudal qualities: prowess and loyalty. William was an exceptional warrior, who demonstrated his extraordinary prowess in combat, demonstrated both in tournaments and in warfare. He also cultivated a reputation for loyalty by faithfully serving until the bitter end a series of lords on the losing side. He was at the deathbeds of both the Young King Henry and his father King Henry II, and in the case of the former, he even fulfilled the Young King’s vow to go on crusade. (But see below for a more nuanced view of Marshal’s vaunted loyalty.) 

William’s “chivalry” was performed also in his lords’ courts. The History portrays William as the consummate courtier. He is praised on several occasions as corteis (courtly), raisnables (reasonable in his behavior), and prudent or wise. He was affable to his lords and his peers, and apparently was accomplished at telling self-deprecating stories about his accomplishments, which both emphasized his accomplishments and took the curse of them by laughing at himself. When asked to sing by a group of ladies at a tournament, William, like Tristan in Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem, at first demurred but when he finally gave him, he sang beautifully. The only courtly qualities not emphasized in the History are those that have to do with the courting of women. William loyally and deferentially served a number of noblewomen, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, but he is never shown flirting with them. In fact, when William was accused of adultery with the Young King’s wife by jealous rivals in Henry’s household, his response was anger and horror. William Marshal undoubtedly heard poems about Lancelot or Tristan but in real life he had no desire to emulate them.

Above all William demonstrated mesure, the quality of self-restraint and moderation in word and deed—the quality that Raoul of Cambrai so conspicuously lacked in the epic named after him. The ability to control one’s emotions in heightened circumstances was a prized chivalric attribute for both lords and their men. The author of the History described Richard the Lionheart as showing no emotion as he stood beside the bier of his father at Fontevrault. Richard’s restraint evidenced itself also in the generosity with which he treated the men who had loyally supported his father, most notably William Marshal. Most of the nobles present expected that William would, at the very least, be deprived of the heiress promised to him by Henry II. Richard summoned William Marshal to meet with him outside the abbey. “Marshal,” Richard is supposed to have said, “good sir, the other day you tried to kill me, and you would have done so it if I had not turned your lance aside with my arm.” William responded boldly, answering that if had meant to kill the Count, Richard would now be dead, adding that since he had been defending his lord, he would not apologize even for having killed Richard’s horse. The answer apparently delighted Richard, who, to the dismay of his courtiers, laughingly told William that he would give him what his father had only promised, the hand of Isabel de Clare in marriage, which is undoubtedly what he had intended from the first. (Painter 72-3)

For the author of the History, Richard the Lionheart was the model of the courteous king. His brother John, however, was another matter. The poet pointedly played off William Marshal’s noble restraint as a courtier, his mesure, against the discourteous, erratic, and intemperate behavior of King John, traits that other contemporary writers also criticized in the king. King John’s reign was marked by conflict with his barons, culminating in the rebellion of 1215 that led to the coerced signing of Magna Carta. John’s problems stemmed, in large measure, from his leadership style and vindictive and suspicious personality. Despite a real talent for administration, a flair for strategic planning, and a dedication to the judicial responsibilities of kingship, John was a wretched failure as a king. Good kings ruled in partnership with their barons and bishops. John provoked a fight with the papacy over his refusal to accept Stephen Langton’s election as archbishop of Canterbury, while simultaneously alienating the lay nobility through high handed acts and extortionate financial demands. To be sure, a strong king kept his barons in check, imposing his peace upon them; but he was also expected to seek and act upon their advice, and to enrich them through his wise rule. All medieval kings, including John, ruled through a combination of reward through royal patronage and threat of punishment. Cruelty was not necessarily a vice in medieval rulers. Henry I, John's great grandfather, practiced mutilation of royal agents who abused their offices, cut off the hands of minters who produced counterfeit coins, and blinded traitors. But he did so with consistency and at least the veneer of justice. His cruelty was 'well committed,' the firm hand of a rex pacificus (a king of peace) who 'did not bear the sword in vain' (Romans 13:4-5). John's cruelty, in contrast, seemed capricious and disproportionate. The most egregious example of John's abuse of his barons was the case of William de Braose. Like William Marshal, William de Braose was a Marcher lord. He had a reputation as a fierce warrior, and was one of John's closest 'friends' in the early years of his reign. In 1202 he had the distinction of capturing in the battle of Mirabeau John's young nephew and rival for the throne, Count Arthur of Brittany, and was probably present when John murdered his nephew with his own hands (either strangling or drowning him). John rewarded William's loyalty and service by showering him with land grants and offices, making him the most powerful baron in south Wales. The king arranged advantageous marriages for de Braose's children, secured a bishopric for one of his younger sons, and gave William the great earldom of Limerick in Ireland. Six years after the battle of Mirabeau, William fell from favor, possibly because he supported the cause of his friend William Marshal. When John sent a messenger to William de Braose demanding from him his son as a hostage, William's wife Mathilda refused, indiscreetly declaring that she would 'not deliver up my sons to your lord, King John, because he basely murdered his nephew Arthur.' Though William attempted to silence his wife, her retort was carried back to the furious king. William de Braose with his wife and their children fled to Ireland before they could be seized.

In 1210 John sent an army to Ireland after de Braose and the Irish barons who had offered him shelter. William de Braose fled to Wales, leaving his wife and children under the protection of his neighbor Hugh de Lacy, lord of Ulster, and sent messages to John offering him the impossibly large sum of £33,333 for the king’s peace. (The average baron's annual income at that time was about £200.) John refused, and ordered his forces into Ulster. Mathilda and her eldest son escaped to Scotland, where they were captured and handed over to John. The lady offered John £33,333 pounds as a ransom, but William de Braose was unable to raise the money. Sick and worn out, William de Braose sought refuge with Philip Augustus in France, where he died in 1211. Mathilda and her eldest son were (according to a several contemporary chronicles) starved to death in captivity.

To cap matters, John, in stark contrast with his famous brother the Lionheart, was a military failure. In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the military component of kingship was critical to the success or failure of a reign. John’s loss of his patrimony, the duchy of Normandy and the county of Anjou to King Philip Augustus of France in 1203-1205, coupled with his lackluster attempt to defend and recover them, saddled him with the derisive nickname “Softsword.”  This judgment might not be completely fair. John was, in fact, a sophisticated strategist. He was the type of military commander whose strategic planning exceeds the capacity of his troops to execute it successfully. His plan to relieve the siege of Richard ‘s great castle Chateau Gaillard in 1203 is a prime example. In 1196 King Richard ordered the construction of the castle on a bend in the River Seine on a cliff above the town of Les Andelys. The great concentric castle and its complementary fortifications in Les Andelys and on a nearby island that dominated the Seine crossing were completed within two years. Strategically, Chateau Gaillard protected Rouen from French invasion, served as a launching pad for campaigns to recover the Vexin, and even threatened Paris. Before Philip Augustus could take Normandy, he had first to take Chateau Gaillard. When John learned that Philip Augustus had invested Chateau Gaillard and had built a bridge of ships across the Seine in support of the siege, John responded by sending a large army under the dual command of William Marshal and John’s mercenary captain Lupescar and a naval fleet of seventy ships to lift the siege.  The intention was for the land and naval forces to fall simultaneously upon the besieging army. The key word here is “simultaneously.” The fleet was delayed by unfavorable currents and winds, so that the land forces arrived first. The French were able to defeat the English land and naval forces in detail. On a larger scale, the same problem of the inability to coordinate forces doomed John’s Bouvines campaign of 1214. The author of the History was apparently embarrassed enough by Marshal’s role in this military fiasco that he edited his hero out of the story, placing all the blame on Lupescar. John’s response to the failure was paralysis. He made no other attempts to relieve Chateau Gaillard, which fell after a siege of six months, opening the way to Rouen and the rest of Normandy.  John's character flaws, exacerbated by his military reversals, proved fatal to his kingship. Unable to inspire or give trust, John ruled with a heavy hand. 

All that said, William Marshal’s fall from royal favor was as much the fault of William as John. William had supported John’s succession to the throne over the claim of his nephew Count Arthur of Brittany. John had responded by showering patronage and favors upon William, including formally granting him the title of Earl of Pembroke. The relationship between the two soured dramatically in 1204, when William was sent by John on an embassy to King Philip Augustus to negotiate a truce. King Philip Augustus’s conquest of Normandy and Anjou posed a dilemma to those English barons who like William Marshal held lands in France. If they remained loyal to King John, they would lose their holdings in Normandy and Anjou. If they did homage to King Philip for their French possessions, they faced the confiscation of their estates in England. As we have seen above, William Marshal managed to hang on to both his English and Norman lands by agreeing to do liege homage to Philip Augustus for the Norman lordship of Longueville. William had taken Philip as his liege lord in France. The practical consequence was that William was compelled by his oath to refuse John’s summons to join him in his expedition to France to recover his lost lands. The author of the History, undoubtedly echoing the Marshal’s own justification, excused his hero by noting that William had been granted permission by John to do homage to King Philip. John had not specifically forbidden William from doing liege homage, but it is clear from his response that John was surprised and enraged by the Marshal’s action, which, to him, bordered on treason. For a man who had spent most of his life as a landless household knight, the prospect of losing a rich lordship tested the limits of his vaunted loyalty.  Even Sidney Painter had difficulty believing that William “was not guilty of intentional deception.” (Painter 141) 

When William refused a summons to join King John on expedition to recover his lands in France, John accused him of treason and demanded a formal judgment from the barons at court. William characteristically responded by offering to prove his innocence through trial by combat. None of John’s knights were willing to take up the challenge. The result was a stalemate. John could not confiscate the lands that William held as husband of Isabel de Clare; nor could he imprison the earl without a judgment rendered against him by the other barons. But he could—and did—strip him of the lucrative offices of sheriff of Gloucester and custodian of the Forest of Dean, and take from him all the royal castles he held in England. John added insult to injury by demanding William turn over his two eldest sons as hostages as warranty for his loyalty. No longer welcomed at court, William withdrew to his lands in Ireland, where by virtue of his marriage to Isabel de Clare he was earl of Leinster.  Unfortunately, this brought him into further conflict with the king, since John was “Lord of Ireland” and John’s Irish vassals held much of the de Clare lands in fief.  William’s attempt to press his claims over his wife’s Irish inheritance led to war between his supporters and John’s, the latter led by the king’s justiciar, Meilyr. John responded by summoning William to court, reasoning that the earl’s cause would collapse in his absence. The ploy failed because of the loyalty of William’s men, in particular his squire and friend John of Earley. To deprive William of his military support in Ireland, King John then summoned John of Earley and William’s other two bailiffs to England. Since they held lands “in chief” (directly from the king), they know that failure to answer the summons would result in the confiscation of their lands. Nevertheless, they chose loyalty to their lord over their private interests and refused the summons. The poet of the History has John of Earley deliver (in his words) “a magnificent speech that was full of wisdom” which elicits from Marshal’s other faithful men a stirring expression of love and loyalty:

“My lords, it would be a most disgraceful thing to leave the earl’s land, land which he has committed to us to guard. Once should be concerned with his honour, so that no tale of our wrongdoing can be told; shame lasts longer than destitution. If the land is abandoned in this manner, our own honour will be diminished. So we are in a trap, for, on the one hand, we lose hour and land, and, on the other, we lose land and honour and the love of our lord as well.” Stephen d’Evreux then said: “May the man never share in the love of Jesus Christ who leaves this land! We shall perform well, if it please God, and defend the land well. It may be that the King will do what he likes with our lands; however, may any man receive eternal shame from God who abandons the earl’s land, who does not do his utmost to defend it, whatever misfortune he brings upon himself.” Each of them replied for himself immediately: “Very true, very true in faith!” (ll. 13,720-13,744)

John predictably responded by confiscating their lands, and taunted William that his men seemed to fare poorly in his service. When this failed to get a rise out of Marshal, John spitefully invented a story about how two of his bailiffs had been killed attempting to lift the siege of Kilkenny and the third, John of Earley, lay mortally wounded. This was a flat out lie; the Irish Sea was impassable in January, and no ship had arrived for months from Ireland. William quietly responded to the ‘news’: “My dear lord, I can tell you in truth that the death of those knights is a loss. There is nobody here, be he a fool or wise, who does not know, in a word, that they were your own worthy men, and for that reason this business is an even sorrier affair” (ll. 13,845-13,851). William’s refusal to show any anger or discomfort in the face of provocation was the very essence of mesure.

The History is not a romance and the career of William Marshal reveals the complexities of twelfth-century aristocratic society and the pragmatic aspects of chivalry, in particular the hard choices that barons sometimes had to make when maintaining loyalty to a lord in a losing conflict placed their lands and wealth at risk. The prospect of losing his Norman lordship of Longueville, put William Marshal’s vaunted loyalty to the test, a test that he arguably failed. Even William Marshal’s remarkable loyalty to King John during the Magna Carta crisis can be seen as a pragmatic decision, since Marshal’s eldest son and heir was among the leaders of the rebels. No matter who won, the Marshal family would come out alright. Sidney Painter, faithfully following a leitmotif in the History, believed that, as a chivalric “knight errant,” “William’s first consideration was always the search for military glory. The capture of horses, arms, and prisoners was an unworthy [emphasis added] though highly profitable sideline.” (Painter 57). The reality, however, was that William Marshal was very much concerned about receiving the material rewards that he believed that he merited through his loyal service.  A summons issued by King Henry II to William Marshal in 1188, only discovered in 1996 by historian Nicholas Vincent, underscores this. “You have ever so often moaned to me that I have bestowed on you a small fee,” King Henry wrote. “Know for sure that if you serve me faithfully I will give you in addition Chȃteauroux [in the Limousin] with all its lordship and whatever belongs to it [as soon as] we may be able.” (Cited by Crouch, William Marshal 61)  The picture that emerges is of a dissatisfied, grumbling William Marshal repeatedly nagging Henry for payment more commensurate with his service than a piddling manor in Lancashire—the 28,747 acre royal lordship of Cartmel (Crouch, William Marshal 59)—and wardship of the heiress Heloise of Lancaster.  The William Marshal whom King Henry II knew was not quite the stoic seeker of knightly renown of Painter’s biography.

The story in the History that perhaps best illustrates the difference between modern romantic conceptions of chivalry and the actual chivalry practiced by knights in the late twelfth century concerns an encounter between William Marshal, then still a bachelor knight, and an eloping couple. William Marshal, having weathered his disgrace and the rumor of adultery, had been summoned by his erstwhile lord King Henry the Younger to return to his service and lead his forces in rebellion against his father (ll. 6683-6864). On his way to rendezvous near Paris with two friends who were also rushing to support the Young King, William encountered a runaway monk and a noble lady in the forest. William, who had fallen asleep by the side of the road, was awakened by the sound of horses riding by. Without first arming himself, the curious William decided to chase after them to find out who they were and “what their business is.” When he caught up with them, William grabbed hold of the man’s heavy cloak and demanded to know who he was. The man, noticing that William was unarmed, pulled himself free and responded that he should mind his own business. When the man placed his hand on his sword, William told him that he was game for a fight, and called on his squire to hand him his sword. “The man took fright and drew back … The Marshal dug in his spurs and seized the man by his hood; he tugged at it so violently” that the man’s hood came off, exposing him to be “the most handsome monk to be found between there and Cologne.” The lady revealed herself to be the sister of a knight from Flanders whom William knew quite well. “My fair lady,” William lectured her, “you are not behaving sensibly … I advise you in good faith to desist from this folly, and I shall reconcile you with your brother.” The lady, fearful of being shamed, refused to return to her kinsmen. The Marshal then turned to the monk and demanded to know how he planned to support himself and the lady. The monk showed him a heavy purse containing forty-eight pounds. Although this was a large sum of money, William asked how the monk intended to live off of that money. “’We shall advance them to others to make a profit and live on the interest.’ The Marshal replied, ‘What! Usury! God’s lance, I don’t much care for this.” He then ordered his squire to take the money from them in order to prevent the monk from committing the sin of usury. He sent them on their way with a lecture. Upon meeting up with his companions at an inn, William told them the story and generously shared the loot with them. They urged him to catch up with the eloping couple and take their horses and baggage as well, but William decided against this course of action.  (ll. 6677-6864)

Sidney Painter, characteristically, took pains to excuse the behavior of his hero. “At first glance William’s conduct appears as officious meddling followed by plain highway robbery,” Painter admits. But he goes on to assure the reader that “such an interpretation is neither in accord with his known character nor with the fact that the author of the History was anxious to record the event for posterity. Both William and his biographer were distinctly proud of his adventure. The solution must be sought in the mediaeval conception of the order of chivalry as a semi-official police force” (Painter, 52-3). David Crouch points out, however, 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. One, in fact, might see this as a mugging.  The justification that William gave for depriving the couple of their money—to prevent the sin of usury—does not stand up under scrutiny. In 1201 King John rewarded Marshal’s loyal service with the gift of a Norman Jew, Vives de Chambray (Crouch, p. 177). The gift of a Jew was in practice a gift of the profits that came from the Jew’s moneylending. Whatever the poet of the History wanted his audience to think about William Marshal, the real William Marshal had no scruples about benefiting personally from usury. More likely, William Marshal remembered and retold this story because his friends and household knights thought it very funny. The mugged couple, in particular the uppity cleric, deserved their fate for their shameful behavior, and William and his companion knights deserved to profit from it.  In William’s actions we can hear an echo of the joy with which his contemporary, the knight-troubador Bertran de Born viewed the prospect of despoiling rich commoners: "And it will be good to live [when the princes go to war], for one will take the property of usurers and there will no longer be a peaceful pack-horse on the roads, all the townsmen will tremble; the merchant will no longer be safe on the road to France."


Chivalry and Warfare

William Marshal, as David Crouch points out, was an effective courtier who possessed the traits summarized by the term cortoisie. For the author of the History, however, the Marshal’s “chivalry” was distinctly martial. Modern biographers of William Marshal, as noted above, have tended to focus on his career as a tournament knight, and, accordingly, have portrayed the tournament as the arena in which Marshal displayed the qualities that made him the “flower of chivalry.” John Gillingham, however, has, calculated that of the19,214 lines comprising “The History of William Marshal” 8,350 describe warfare and only 3150 are about tournaments. War, not tournaments, was the main focus of the poet and his audience, the court of William Marshal’s son. The type of warfare depicted in the “History,” furthermore, is not what one might expect from a chivalrous knight.  Battles are rare in the poem. The poet describes only three or four battles, in two of which William fought (Bouvines in 1214 and Lincoln in 1217), as compared with seventeen sieges (Gillingham, “William Marshal” 262). War, then, in the “History” is largely made up of sieges, skirmishes, and pillaging. In 1188 William Marshal, now serving in King Henry II’s household, defended the castle of Gisors against an attack by King Philip Augustus of France. An annoyed Philip took out his frustration by chopping down a then famous elm tree. As soon as the Capetian army had returned to French territory and dispersed, William went to his lord King Henry II and advised him: “’Listen to me sire. Philip has divided and disbanded his troops. I advise you to disperse your men too, but to give them secret orders to reassemble at a given time and place. From there they are to launch a chevauchée into the territory of the king France. If this is done in force, prudently and promptly, then he will find he has to suffer gar greater damage than the loss of one elm.’ ‘By God’s eye’s, said the king, Marshal, you are most courteous (molt corteis) and have given me good advice. I shall do exactly as you suggest.’” (ll. 7782-7852) Henry II followed Marshal’s advice, disbanded his forces with secret orders that they were to muster again at Pacy on the Norman border with France. Henry’s army then crossed into the French royal lands, burning, ravaging, and pillaging the countryside around Mantes. The French were caught by surprise and could do little to stop the Anglo-Norman chevauchée. This was standard operating procedure in French and English warfare in the late twelfth century. What is remarkable is that the poet saw no problem in describing this and other actions in which William Marshal’s troops burned fields, villages, and towns, all the while plundering and killing cattle and noncombatants. As the poet observed, such raids were effective because “when the poor can no longer reap a harvest from their fields, then they can no longer pay their rents, and this, in turn, impoverishes their lords.” (ll. 659-69) The poet has the elderly William Marshal rally his men before their march to relieve the besieged city of Lincoln, telling them that they were not only fighting for their honor but for the safety of their wives, their children, their land, and the existence of their country. As Gillingham remarks, “war is not fought for the sake of individual gain, whether glory, reputation or material gain, but for the common good, a thoroughly conventional message, and one that the History shares with didactic treatises on chivalry.” (Gillingham, “William Marshal,” 261-2)

          Gillingham also points out that the military commanders in the poem think and act strategically. Campaigns were planned with the intent of catching the enemy by surprise; defenders, in turn, were always fearful about being surprised.  Ambushes are described with approval throughout the poem. The poet emphasizes, over and over again, the importance of good reconnaissance. The Marshal, of course, is represented as a great warrior. An incident in the poem that is invariably mentioned by biographers is how in 1197 the 50-year old Marshal ascended a siege ladder, despite his advanced age. As Gillingham points out, what the biographers omit is the reaction of William’s lord, King Richard the Lionheart, who criticized him for being foolhardy and inappropriate. Gillingham also points out that the modern biographers tend to ignore that Richard’s campaign in the Beauvaisis was carefully planned out, with Richard leading one column to take the castle of Milli by surprise and Richard’s mercenary captain Mercadier leading another to capture the bishop of Beauvais.

          If ambushes, deception, and raids designed to ravage the countryside, destroying the enemy’s economic resources were all accepted military activities, then, asks Gillingham, what, if anything, was considered unchivalric by the poet and his audience? For the poet it came down to killing an unarmed knight and abandoning a town that one is obliged to defend. Otherwise, all was fair in war, “a deliberately destructive type of warfare, a type of warfare characterized by watchfulness, deviousness, and sudden swoops” (Gillingham 262). Not all of the poet’s contemporaries approved of this type of warfare. Clerics actively disapproved. But for soldiers such as William Marshal there was nothing shameful or dishonorable in waging war that targeted peasants and townsmen. Even for the “flower” of late twelfth-century chivalry, warfare was waged more through fire than the sword.

          Nonetheless, the essence of chivalry for the author of the History was not strategic skill. Nor was it courtliness or generosity. For him at the heart of chivalry was prowess in the service of loyalty. As Richard Kaeuper points out, “Even John Marshal, William’s father, who at times played as ruthless and unprincipled a robber baron as ever wore armour, is praised by the author as ‘a worthy man, courteous and wise’ (‘preudome corteis e sage’), who was ‘animated by prowess and loyalty (proz e loials)’ (ll.27, 63).” (Kaeuper, p. 283).  After describing the feats of arms performed by the aged William Marshal in the battle of Lincoln, the poet paused to instruct his audience about the true character of chivalry:


What is armed combat? Is it the same

        as working with a sieve or winnow,

        with an axe or mallet?

16856         Not at all, it is much nobler work,

        for he who undertakes these tasks is able to take a rest

        when he has worked for a while.

        What, then, is chivalry?

16860         Such a difficult, tough,

        and very costly thing to learn

        that no coward ventures to take it on.

        Is every knight really such?

16864         Not at all, for.............

        there are many who do nothing with their arms,

        but that does not prevent them from boasting.

        Any man seeking to achieve high honour

16868         must first see to it

        that he has been well schooled.

        At the battle of Lincoln

        were some who had learned sufficiently

16872         to have won high renown.

        I can tell you that in that battle

        prowess was not lacking,

        for you would have seen knights

16876         armed and mounted on their chargers,

        holding their shields by the straps.

        Any man who rode a valuable horse

        and had in his hand a sturdy lance,

16880         would not have traded that lance for all the gold in Blaye,

        nor would he have lent it at that hour of need,

        for, had he done so, he would have been hard put to it to get it back.

        Had you been there, you would have seen great blows dealt,

16884         heard helmets clanging and resounding,

        seen lances fly in splinters in the air,

        saddles vacated by riders, knights taken prisoner.

        You would have heard, from place to place,

16888         great blows delivered by swords and maces

        on helmets and on arms,

        [and seen] knives and daggers drawn

        for the purpose of stabbing horses;

16892         their protective covering was not worth a fig.

        You would have seen hands stretched out

        on many a side to take horses by their bridles.

        Some spurred forward to help

16896         and come to the rescue of companions

        they saw suffering injury,

        but there was no question of an actual rescue.

        The noise there was so great

16900         that you would not have heard God thunder

        for anything, had he chosen to do so,

        and nobody would have been aware of it.

(This text was translated by Stewart Gregory, with the assistance of David Crouch.  We thank Ian Short of the Anglo-Norman Text Society and David Crouch for their permission and assistance in republishing this section. Taken from the


            In the words of Richard Kaeuper, prowess was the “demi-god” of chivalry. It was the sine qua non to be a prud’homme in the late twelfth century. For the author of the History, the essence of William Marshal’s “chivalry” was his prowess in combat used in the service of those to whom he had sworn loyalty.


The Piety of William Marshal (based on Crouch, William Marshal, pp. 207-16):


            William Marshal's piety was typical of his time and class. He founded monasteries, was the benefactor to other religious houses, and went on Crusade. The latter, however, was done for an untypical motive: love and loyalty for a dead lord. In June 1183, William's lord King Henry the Younger died in the midst of the rebellion against his father King Henry II of England, with William Marshal, his loyal tutor in chivalry by his side. Young Henry  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 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. As we have seen, before dying Henry asked William Marshal to fulfill his vow and out of love for his dead lord William agreed. From 1183 to 1186 William was on Crusade. He was especially impressed with the Templars, warrior monks who combined the profession of arms with religious devotion, and swore that he would end his day amongst them and be buried in a Templar house--which he was.

William Marshal's first monastic foundation was Cartmel, a large royal estate (28,747 acres) in Lancashire, which was also the first fief he had received (from Henry II in 1187). He converted this into an Augustinian priory in 1189, soon after he married Isabel and acquired her wealth. It was a gift to God to thank him for his new found prosperity. It was also an act of piety toward his dead lord Henry. As William explained in his charter, he founded the priory "for the widening of the field of Holy Religion and for the soul of the lord King Henry [II], and for the soul of Young King Henry my lord, and for the soul of King Richard; for my soul and the soul of my wife Isabel, and those of my ancestors and our heirs." The new monastery drew its monks from Bradenstoke priory in Wiltshire, where Marshal's father was buried. William's charter concluded with a curse in his own name and in God's of any man who troubled the priory. Marshal's other foundations were Duiske in Ireland and Tintern Parva, both founded in 1189, the latter as a result of a storm at sea during William's crossing to visit the Irish lands of his wife in Leinster. William vowed that if he survived the storm he would thank God with a monastery, and he did. This was not unusual in the twelfth century, and there are a number of other monasteries that were founded in these circumstances. Other than that, Marshal's donations to the Church took the form of confirmations of previous grants by Isabel's father and kinsmen. He tended to favor the Augustinian friars and the Templars. He fulfilled his vow and became a Templar on his deathbed (see above).

William Marshal, like other barons in the late twelfth/early twelfth century, had about a dozen chaplains (priests) and clerks (deacons) in his household. They travelled with him and performed religious duties, the chaplains saying mass and taking confession, and kept his central financial accounts and correspondence. William’s snappish response to his chaplain Philip when he admonished him to sell the robes he kept for his retainers and give the proceeds to charity is a reminder that barons regarded their chaplains as subordinates. Marshal also counted a number of bishops among his friends, notably Hugh le Ros, bishop of Ossory in Ireland, and William's younger brother Henry Marshal, bishop of Exeter. On the other hand, William's relations with Ailbe, bishop of Ferns, an Irish Irish bishop and William's neighbor in Leinster, were poisonous. The bishop of Ferns and he quarreled over land jurisdiction, and the archbishops of Tuam and Dublin even placed William's lands under interdict to force him to give Ailbe justice. The case even made it to the papal court in Rome. William obstinately refused to settle with the bishop, and Ailbe finally excommunicated him for have seized by violence two episcopal estates. William died excommunicant, though the bishop's excommunication was trumped by a plenary indulgence from the papal legate Gualo.

From William’s deathbed complaint about the unreasonable demands of monks upon knights, one cannot help but get the impression that in William’s scheme of things, the piety of the knight was as honorable, if not more so, than that of the clergy. Clergy, to be sure, were necessary for administering sacraments and for their prayers on behalf of knights, but, in William’s mind, the Lord God was just that, the greatest of lords, whom knights served by being honorable knights and prud’hommes.



William Marshal’s “Art of Dying” (based on Duby 3-23 and The History of William Marshal, ll. 17,880-29,214):


As Georges Duby observed, William Marshal actions as he lay dying were performed as a public spectacle that revealed and reinforced the values that guided Marshal during his life.  His deathbed bequests show 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 History, William's dying is a theater of renunciation.


Resignation of the Regency: In March of 1219 William 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.

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, Leinster, and the honor of Giffard).

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

a.                   Richard (second son, at that time in the court of Philip Augustus in Paris)--the Norman lordship of Longueville and the Giffard lands in Bucks (held by Isabel for her lifetime) ii. Walter--estate of Sturminster (acquired from count of Meulan)

b.                  Gilbert, third son, was to be a churchman.

c.                   Walter, then a boy, an unknown amount of land.

d.                  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).


2.      Daughters

a.       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 Leinster.


C. The Marshal's body

Fulfilling his vow made as a crusader, William became a Templar and arranged to be buried at the church of the New Temple in London. He gave a manor in Hertforshire to the Templars as a gift.


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 London so that none of his men would go without. (Painter 287-88; Crouch 145, 215; Crosland 151)


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 Reading told the dying earl, "Sire, the legate salutes you. He sends you word by me that last night at Cirencester he had a vision about you. God had given to St. Peter and his successors, the popes, the power to bind and unbind all sinners. By virtue of this power, delegated to him by the pope, the legate absolves from all the sins you have committed since your birth which you duly confessed." William had received a plenary indulgence from pope. William then confessed, was absolved, and died.

The body was carried to Reading abbey and placed in a chapel that Wm had founded. Mass was said, and the corpse was then taken to Staines, where the great barons of the realm met the procession. The bier was carried to Westminster abbey, where another mass was celebrated, and finally interred in the Temple church.

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.







History of William Marshal. Ed. A.J. Holden with S. Gregory and D. Crouch. 3 vols. Anglo-Norman Text Society, Occasional Publication Series, nos. 4-6. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 2002, 2004, 2006. A critical edition of the original Old French L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal with facing English translation. This is the first complete English translation of the massive 19,214 line poem. The third volume contains the introduction, notes, and indices. The historical notes by David Crouch are particularly valuable. Excerpts concerning the tournament at Lagny-sur-Marne and the battle of Lincoln are posted at Unfortunately, the Anglo-Norman Text Society has not promoted the translation. The volumes may be purchased directed from them.


Chretién de Troyes. Arthurian Romances. Trans. W.W. Kibler. London: Penguin Books, 1991.


Crosland, Jessie. William Marshal, the Last Great Feudal Baron. London: Peter Owen, 1962. Dr. Crosland, a scholar and translator of medieval French literature, describes this book as neither a biography or a history. Rather, it is an attempt “to reproduce as accurately as possible … the vivid scenes and even the conversations noted down” by the author of the L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal (p. 7). As such, it can most accurately described as a modern prose retelling of the poem.


Crouch, David. William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219, 2nd edn. London: Longman, 2002. David Crouch’s biography is the most recent and in some ways the soundest, as it is based not only on the 1226 poem (L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal/History of William Marshal) but on charter evidence. Crouch uses the life of William Marshal to explore and revise common notions about “chivalry” and “feudalism.” He demonstrates that William Marshal was more than a loyal and extraordinarily accomplished tournament knight and warrior, as he is often portrayed, but was a canny courtier who successfully navigated in the dangerous waters of court politics. Crouch’s valuable analysis of the knights in Marshal’s household also challenges received ideas about the nature of “feudalism” in early thirteenth-century England.


Crouch, David. “Loyalty, Career and Self-Justification at the Plantagenet Court: the thought world of William Marshal and his colleagues.” In Culture politique des Plantagenêt (1154-1224). Ed. M. Aurell. Poitiers, 2003. Pp. 229-40.


Crouch, David. Tournament. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2005.


Duby, Georges. William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry. London, 1986.

Anthropological approach to William's deathbed scene by one of France's greatest medievalists. Interesting as an example of French mentalite school, but shows little original research. Duby uses Marshal to illustrate his ideas about the centrality of household knights (“Youths”) in twelfth-century chivalry and as a window on to contemporary understanding of the obligations and love that nobles felt toward family, lords, and vassals.


Gillingham, John, "War and Chivalry in the History of William the Marshal", Thirteenth Century England v.2 (1991): 1-13, posted at A seminal article that argues convincingly that 1) the History 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 History 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. Written in refutation of Duby’s book.

Kaeuper, Richard. Chivalry and Violence (1999). A brilliant study of chivalry as portrayed in medieval vernacular romances. Kaeuper, like Painter, examines how nobles themselves viewed chivalry, and how royalty and clergy attempted to shape the ethos to their liking. The basic thesis is summed up by the title: prowess was the capstone value of chivalry, and, rather than moderating or curbing violence, the ideal of chivalry legitimized it. Kaeuper analyzes L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal on pp. 280-4.

Kaueper, Richard. Holy Warrior: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry. (The Middle Ages Series.) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. An examination of how knights developed a conception of piety appropriate to their knightly “order” which valorized the violence and hardship to which they exposed themselves in service to lords.

Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. Yale, 1984. The standard scholarly work on the subject. Keen discusses William Marshal in his chapters on “The Secular Origins of Chivalry” and “The Tournament.”

Painter, Sidney. William Marshal: Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England. New York, 1933.

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 the full range of sources for the life and career of William Marshal.  The biography, however, is very much colored by Painter's romantic conception of twelfth-century chivalry and by his sometime uncritical reading of The History of William Marshal. This is a very readable and sound biography (with the above caveats).


Strickland, Matthew. “On the Instruction of a Prince: The Upbringing of Henry, the Young King.” In Henry II: New Interpretations. Ed. C. Harper-Bill and N. Vincent. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007. Pp. 184-214.


 Vincent, Nicholas.William Marshal, Henry II and the Honour of Chateauroux,” Archives 25 (2000): 1-15.