Richard Abels

William Marshal was the fourth son of John fitz Gilbert, hereditary marshal of--keeper of the horses-- of the Anglo-Norman kings . William was born ca. 1147, John's second son by his second wife, Sybil (whom he married in 1145), the sister of Earl Patrick of Salisbury. John was a local baron in southwestern England (Wiltshire and Berkshire), who had considerable local clout, especially during the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Mathilda.  As a younger son of a local baron, William was destined to be a serving knight.  He was a household retainer of various lords (including the Angevin kings: Henry the Young King and his father Henry II) and distinguished himself for his prowess in tournaments and war and his loyalty to his masters.  It was not until 1187, when he was forty years old that he received a landed endowment. Henry II gave him the lordship of Cartmel in northwestern England.  He was granted the hand of Isabel de Clare, heiress of Earl Richard (Strongbow) of Striguil in 1189. 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, Earl of Leinster (southeastern Ireland) [title of 'earl' granted by King John, 1199]; regent for Henry III's minority (1216-1219).
    William Marshal has received a great deal of attention from modern historians; there have been four major biographies of him since 1933.  The reason for this is an extraordinary primary source, the Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, a long (19,214 line) poem composed by "John the Troubador" c. 1224-6 for William's son Earl William II. The poem had been long lost and was only rediscovered in 1860.  The author's intention, of course, was to glorify William Marshal and to present him as the "flower of chivalry," and the reader of the poem needs to remember that this is a literary work rather than an historical study. None the less, the author did the necessary research, interviewing members of the dead Earl's mesnie (household), most notably John of Earley (or Erley), William's squire, household knight, and closest friend. He also appears to have consulted charters and perhaps even contemporary chronicles. In short, this is an extraordinary source, one of the few biographies of a non-king or non-saint written in the thirteenth century, which explains why William has attracted so much historical attention.  Excerpts from this poem dealing with war and tournaments are posted by the "De Re Militari Society" (the Society's webpage is by far the best online resource for medieval warfare). At present there is only a French translation of the poem, but the first complete English translation by Stewart Gregory with the assistance David Crouch is scheduled to be published by the Anglo-Norman Text Society. The first volume is supposed to be out in 2003.

Crouch, David. William Marshal: Court, Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147-1219. London, 1990; second edition 2003.

This is by far the best biography of Marshal, a fine work of scholarship that goes well beyond the stories related in the Histoire. It is very readable as well.

Gillingham, John. "War and Chivalry in the History of William the Marshal." Thirteenth Century England v.2 (1991), p.

1-13. A seminal article that argues convincingly that 1) the Histoire is concerned more with Marshal's activities in war, both as general and soldier, rather than as "knight-errant" on the tournament circuit; and 2) that the warfare described in the Histoire was the typical warfare of the period, marked by battle avoidance, ravaging of the countryside to deprive the enemy of economic resources and to destroy morale, followed up by sieges.

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

Crosland, Jessie R., William the Marshal: the last great feudal baron. London, 1962. Based largely on the poem.

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 his sources.  The biography, however, is very much colored by Painter's romantic conception of twelfth-century chivalry. Readable and sound (with the above caveat).

See also Catherine Armstrong, "William Marshal, earl of Pembroke"

CHRONOLOGY (Events from William Marshal’s life are in boldface)

1066 - William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy (in modern day northwest France) conquers England and becomes the king of England. This is the beginning of the close (and often hostile) relations between the kings of England and the kings of France that was to mark European politics for the next four centuries. For the king of England, in his capacity as duke of Normandy, was in theory a vassal of the king of France.

1100-1135 - Reign of Henry I, William the Conqueror's third and youngest son. Creation of the COMMON LAW (royal law enforceable throughout the realm). Sophisticated central administration characterized by 1) royal circuit justices; 2) treasury and accounting department (Exchequer); 3) written records of royal revenues and expenditures ('Pipe Rolls').

1135 - Henry's dies without legitimate male issue (his only legitimate son drowned in 1120). With the death of Henry I, a civil war erupts over the question of who will succeed to the throne. The two claimants are:

-Mathilda, daughter of Henry I and designated heiress; her husband is Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou; their son is Henry Plantagenet, destined to become Henry II. Painter refers to Mathilda as "countess Mathilda" She Is assisted in her campaign for the throne by Robert of Gloucester, her half-brother (the eldest bastard son of Henry I).

-Stephen of Blois, count of Boulogne and Mortain, and son of William the Conqueror's daughter Adela. His wife is (confuslngly) also named Mathilda; Painter refers to her as "Queen Mathilda."

The result is FEUDAL ANARCHY between 1139 and 1153. The disputants bid for the loyalty of the barons, and many of the barons shift allegiance as it suits their family interests.

1141-John fitz Gilbert, marshal (i.e. keeper of the King's horses) of the court and a prominent local landholder in southwestern England (Berkshire and Wiltshire), had sworn allegiance to Stephen, but then switches his allegiance to countess Mathilda. He wins her favor by holding a bridge at the river Test so that she can escape to the stronghold of his castle at Ludgershall. Story: John was pursued by Stephen's knights into a nearby nunnery, which they set afire to flush him out. Threatening a companion knight with death if he left, John stayed within the burning building. Believing him dead, his pursuers lefts, and John staggered home, scarred but alive.

1145 -John fitz Gilbert's ambitions bring him into conflict with the most powerful magnate in Wiltshire, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury. To resolve their dispute, John agrees to become Patrick's man. Together the two plunder the surrounding countryside. To cement the alliance, John puts away his wife and marries Patrick's sister, Sybile. William Marshal is their second son.

1146/1147 -William Marshal is born, John Marshal’s fourth son. Note the uncertainty about the date. He was not then a great man, and his birth went unrecorded.

1152John Marshal gives William as a hostage to King Stephen, who is besieging John Marshal’s castle of Newbury.

Story: John, needing to reinforce and provision Newbury arranges a truce with Stephen, ostensibly to give John time to consult with Mathilda on possible surrender. Stephen demands a hostage, and John hands over his son William (then four or five). John promptly broke his promise, telling the King that he could do what he wanted with the child (John: I have the hammer and anvils to make more and better sons'). Stephen couldn't bring himself to kill the child.

1153 - The civil war comes to an end with the agreement that Stephen is to rule in peace for the rest of his life. Henry, son of countess Matihlda and Geoffrey Plantagenet is to succeed him. Henry is to be the first "ANGEVIN" (i.e. counts of Anjou) king of England.

1154 - Stephen dies; Henry Plantagenet, or Henry II, succeeds to the Crown. By inheritance, Henry II is 1) king of England, 2) duke of Normandy, 3) Count of Anjou. Through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine (in 1152) he also holds (very loosely) the duchy of Aquitaine. By the time of his death in 1189 Henry's dominions will include England, Ireland, and the western half of France. The king of France's domain, in comparison, was a territory about the size of Vermont extending from a little north of Paris to Orleans.

John fitz Gilbert is awarded wiith numerous holdings for his loyalty to countess Mathilda's cause.

ca. 1159-1167- William serves as squire to John fitz Gilbert's (or, perhaps, his mother's) cousin, William of Tancarville, Chamberlain of Normandy, a powerful Norman baron.

1165 -John fitz Gilbert and his eldest son Gilbert both die. William's elder brother John inherits the patrimony.

1167 - William is knighted (in a simple affair) by William of Tancarville at Driencourt, where a number of Norman knights have assembled for the purpose of helping King Henry II in his war with King Louis VII of France. William of Tancarville, the Count of Eu, and the Earl of Essex successfully defend the town of Neufchatel against the forces of the powerful Philip Count of Flanders, an ally of Louis VII. William distinguishes himself in combat, but loses his horse.

Story: William became the butt of a joke. During the celebration, Earl William de Mandeville asked William for a horse collar. The young knight responded that he has none. "What are you saying," the earl growled, "you had forty or sixty of them, yet you refuse me so small a thing!" The point: William had to learn that a knight fights for profit as well as glory. A lesson in the realities of war.)

Later in the year, Earl Patrick, William's uncle, is killed by the de Lusignan brothers, knights of Louis VII, and William Marshal is injured in the same fray. He is ransomed by Eleanor of Aquitaine (wife of Henry II), whom he and the Earl were defending.

NB: King Henry II and King Louis VII were heartfelt enemies. Louis perceived Henry as a threat to royal power in France, for the 'Angevin Empire' dwarfed the French royal domain. There is also a personal element to the animosity: Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had been previously married to Louis VII. Since Louis VII could not defeat Henry II militarily, he resorted to intrigue, using the discontent of Henry's sons. He also aided Archbishop Thomas Becket in his dispute with Henry (1166-1170).

1170 - King Henry II elevates his eldest son Henry to the dignity of king, but keeps all power in his own hands. Henry II keeps his son on a generous allowance, and tries to control his household (mesnie) by appointing the household officers and clerics. Henry the Younger, without responsibilities, surrounds himself with young, 'chivalrous' knights, and spends his days going to tournaments, hunting, and spending money recklessly. In the terms of the age, Henry the Younger, despite his anointing as king, remains a "youth" (landless knight). What Henry wants is rule of either Normandy, Anjou, or England. Henry tells him to be content with the title.

Henry II, impressed with William Marshal's service in the recent war, appoints him tutor in chivalry to the Young King. The Marshal joins Henry the Younger’s mesnie (i.e. household) and soon becomes young his devoted retainer.

1173-1174 - King Henry the Younger and his teenage brothers Richard (15) and Geoffrey (14) rebel against Henry II, angered by his refusal to give them any real power or substantial income. They are encouraged in their revolt by Louis VII and by their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who has been angered by the king's infidelity. The revolt ends when Henry gives his sons greater responsibility and authority.

It is during the course of this revolt that William Marshal knights the young Henry. This is the world turned upside down, since Henry is his lord.

1177-9 -William is on the tournament circuit as partner to another bachelor in Henry's household, Roger de Gaugie; for two years they go from tourney to tourney. According to list kept by Wigain, the young king's clerk, they captured 103 knights in the course of 10 months.)

1180 - Philip II Augustus (1180-1123) succeeds his father as king of France. Philip is to pursue a much more hostile policy towards the Angevin kings.

1182 -William is disgraced and cast out of the Young King's household. He is accused of adultery w/ Henry's wife Margaret, d. of Louis VII of France, by members of Young King's household who were jealous of him. He demands justice before Henry II at Caen during Christmas 1182, asking for trial by combat, but is refused permission to prove innocence.

Story: In 1175 Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders, had discovered on his mesnie in a secret liaison with his wife. The culprit was denied a hearing; executed summarily by, first, being beaten by the count's butchers and then hung head down in a latrine until he suffocated. Adultery was not taken lightly. It was considered to be afelony, i.e. betrayal of one's feudal vows.)

1183 William Marshal becomes a knight-errant and several French counts bid for his services. Despite the “History” claims that he turned down all these offers, there is evidence that he accepted Count Philip of Flanders’s offer of the rents of a quarter of the city of St-Omer in Flanders as a fief in return for his service in tournaments. William Marshal is recorded as having participated in a tournament at Gournai in Jan 1183. During this period he also made a pilgrimage to Cologne. In February 1183, King Henry the Younger recalls William to service in his mesnie in preparation for war against the Young King’s father, Henry II.

(The author of the Histoire tells a story about how William Marshal, on his way to rendezvous near Paris with two friends who were also rushing to support the Young King, encountered a runaway monk and a noble lady in the forest. After questioning them and discovering that the monk planned to support himself and the lady by money-lending, William took their money (48) in order to prevent the monk from committing the sin of usury--perhaps hypocritically, given that William was later to receive the gift of a Jew from King John, which implies that Marshal had no scruples about benefiting personally from usury.  Upon meeting up with his companions at a tavern, William told them the story and divided up the money. They urged him to catch up with the eloping couple and take their horses and baggage, but William decided against this course of action. David Crouch points out that if William had wished to stop the elopement and the future usury, he could have taken the monk to the nearest archdeacon. That he chose not to do so is interesting. This incident is revealing about the nature of 12th-century chivalry.)

The Poitevin vassals of Henry II's son Richard the Lionhearted, now duke of Aquitaine and Poitou, rebel against his harsh rule. Richard's brothers Henry and Geoffrey count of Brittany, decide to assist the rebels, which leads to Richard seeking his father's aid. The war between brothers now becomes a war of sons against their father. Henry the Younger finds himself once again at war with Henry II. Needing all the good advisors and strong warriors he could possibly obtain, he allows himself to be reconciled with William Marshal. The reconciliation between Henry and William was brought about by the advise of Geoffrey de Lusignan, William's old enemy.

June 1183--Henry the Younger suddenly dies in the midst of the rebellion, attended by William Marshal. He had vowed to go on crusade, the breaking of which vow led him to have his dying body taken from his bed and laid on a bed with ashes, with a stone pillow, a hair shirt on his back, and noose around his neck. He kissed the ring that his father had sent him as a token of peace and died. Before dying he asked William Marshal to fulfil his vow.

1183-85--William was on Crusade. We know nothing about his activities in the East except that he promised Templars that he would end his day amongst them--and he did.

1185 (April)-1186 -William Marshal enters Henry II's mesnie (i.e. household). Henry II gives William the wardship of the fourteen year old JOHN OF EARLEY (1172-1230). John of Earley was the heir to a considerable honor the widespread lands of which lay in Somerset and Berkshire (John took his toponym from his manor in Earley, Berks). 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 is the chief source of information for John the Troubador's L'Histoire de Gauillaume le Marechal. At about the same time, Henry II granted William his first landed FIEF, CARTMEL, a large royal estate (28,747 acres) in Lancashire, and gave him custody of HELOIS of Lancaster, one of the king's female wards, heiress of 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.

1187-89-- Continued raids, sieges, battles, conferences and truces between Henry II and King Philip Augustus of France (1179/80-1223).. RICHARD THE LIONHEART, Count of Aquitaine, Henry II's eldest son and heir presumptive, rebels against his father.  Richard had long been angered--since 1184--by Henry's stated plan to take the duchy of Aquitaine away from him and to transfer it to his brother John (of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame) in return for acknowledging Richard as heir to the Crown. In 1187 Henry refused to confirm that Richard would succeed him, and so Richard defected to the side of Henry II's lord and enemy, King Philip, to whose sister Alice he was affianced (though Henry refused to set a date for the marriage and seems to have kept Alice dangling as a political bargaining chip/hostage).  Together Richard and King Philip defeat Henry II and he dies on 6 July 1189, a defeated and broken man.  

1188 William apparently was dissatisfied with the fief of Cartmel, and the hand of Helois of Lancaster. According to a recently discovered (1996) letter from Henry II to William, 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.

To the very end William remained loyal to Henry II. From the favor Henry showered on William, it is clear that the old king regarded him as his most trusted military advisor and depended upon him as commander of his dwindling troops. Indeed, in the last months before Henry's death, on 4 June, William came close to killing Richard the Lionheart in an ambush he sprung on Richard at Le Mans while covering the old king's retreat. The L'Histoire (ll. 8840-7) relates that Richard was surprised and unarmored when he suddenly encountered Marshal. 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."

1189—6 July: Henry II died--William took charge of the burial--and Richard became king (crowned 13 September).

1189-1199 -Richard succeeds his father as Richard I (the Lionheart). He is especially known for winning glory in the Third Crusade, being captured by the duke of Austria and held for ransom by the Holy Roman Emperor on his way home from the Holy Land. Avid about defending his Angevin holdings in France (which Philip Augustus attacked during Richard's absence).

William made his peace with RICHARD I, though he refused to apologize for killing his horse, and Richard gave him the heiress that Henry II had promised. William married Isabel in August 1189 and became, by right of his wife, Lord of Striguil and Pembroke. (Striguil consisted of 65.5 knights' fees, and a large demesne in south east Wales; Pembroke was an earldom in southwest Wales.) William also received his wife's claim to a great lordship in Ireland, Leinster (in theory a great prize, but in practice held firmly by Richard's brother, John), and the lands of Orbec and Longueville in Normandy. Richard allowed William to buy control of the office of sheriff of Gloucester, and to purchase half of another lordship, the lordship of Giffard.)

William celebrated his good fortune by going on a circuit of his wife's lands, taking homage and demanding relief from his new vassals, and by founding a priory with his lands at Cartmel, which he dedicated to the souls of Henry II, and 'his lord' King Henry the Younger (note that William in 1189 still identified himself as the man of the Young King).

1190-1194. Richard was on Crusade (until 1192), and then was a prisoner of the Emperor Henry VI (1192-4). William remained in England during this time, and served as subordinate justiciar (a royal justice) and sheriff of Lincoln. He first supported the king's brother Earl John (his overlord in Ireland) against Richard's viceregent, Bishop William de Longchamps (who hated William Marshal). But William Marshal remained loyal to Richard--albeit reluctantly--when John rebelled with the aid of Philip Augustus in 1193. John of Earley was married to another of William's wards, Sybil, who was probably the illegitimate daughter of William's older brother John.

1194 -William's elder brother John Marshal died and William succeeded to his father's inheritance and to the title of royal Marshal (keeper of the king's stables).  JOHN of Earley was also knighted (probably by William Marshal) in this year.  From 1195-1199 William fought for Richard on the continent against Philip Augustus and served his lord on a diplomatic mission to Flanders.

1199-1216 - Reign of King John, Richard's younger brother.

John was a relatively weak king who lost much of the Angevin holdings in France to Philip Augustus. 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. Hence Magna Carta (1215). In addition, he becomes embroiled in a losing struggle with the papacy when he insists on his right to appoint nominees to the archbishopric of Canterbury. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, King John undertakes to win the friendship of the pope when It becomes obvious that he can not win against him; he gives the pope the entire realm of England and receives it back from him as his vassal.

Richard died on 20 March 1199 and John became king (despite the claims of his nephew Arthur of Brittany, son of his elder brother Geoffrey). William supported John's claim to the Crown. John rewarded him by confirming his lands and bestowing upon him the title in his own right of earl (before this he was simply the husband of a countess). John made him sheriff of Gloucestershire and of Sussex. He became one of John's court and from 1200-1203 his name appears frequently as a witness on the king's charters.

1203-1204 Philip Augustus conquered Normandy, Maine, Anjou. This created a dilemma for William, 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 lege 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 defence of England. From this pount until 1212 William was out of royal favor.

1207-1212 William Marshal, having lost the king's love, left court and sailed to Ireland in the spring of 1207 to try to secure his wife's Irish inheritance, the county of Leinster. This period is marked by William's war against his Irish vassals led by Meilyr fitz Henry, one of Earl Richard of Clare’s original followers and John's justiciar in Ireland (and the son of a bastard of King Henry I), who 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 then (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 regretable.” 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 surrended 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.

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. From 1213 to 1215 William was John's most trusted and loyal supporter. He advised the king, served as guardian for the king's eldest son Henry, and served John as both a castellan (warden of royal castles) and justice.

1213 King John, facing an invasion of England by Philip Augustus, made peace with Pope Innocent III. He not only accepted Innocent III’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, which had been the cause of the quarrel, but did homage to Innocent and gave the kingdom of England. Innocent III then gave it back to John to be held from “St. Petere” as a “fief.” John then made 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.

1214 King John, going on the offensive, forges a military coalition that includes the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV, his nephew, and the counts of the Low Countries. John devises an ambitious strategic plan. He would begin the assault by attacking northward from Aquitaine. When Philip went south to engage John, Emperor Otto and his allies would invade from the north and sieze an undefended Paris. The plan fails for lack of coordination. John lands 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 finished assembling. Consequently, Philip was able to meet the invasion from the north with all of his forces and won a decisive victory at BOUVINES on 27 July.

1214-1215 John had spent an enormous amount of money to fund the Bouvines campaign. Its failure further undermined the king’s already tattered prestige and credibility among the English barons. When John tried to punish English nobles who had failed to pay scutage (a money commutation of military service), a baronial revolt broke out.

15 June 1215 at RUNNYMEDE, King John is forced to sign MAGNA CARTA. Marshal was one of the royal representative who witnessed the MAGNA CARTA and swore to uphold its provisions. He was sent on embassy to King Philip of France, who was about to invade, but the negotiations failed. Philip Augustus sent his eldest son Louis (later to be King Louis VIII of France) with an expeditionary force to aid the English rebels, and William's eldest son sided with Louis. William himself remained loyal to John and led his troops until John's death on 19 Oct. 1216. John's son Henry, still a boy, succeeded as King Henry III. The war with the French continued.

1216-1272 - Reign of Henry III. Henry is only nine years old at his father's death. The papal legate initially serves as his regent, followed by William Marshal when the Cardinal leaves the country in 1218.

1216-1219. On 11 Nov 1216 William Marshal was formally chosen by the king's council (the chief barons who remained loyal to John) to serve as 'regent of the king and the kingdom'. William's first action was to reissue the Magna Carta. William commanded the royalist troops, and even fought in hand to hand combat during the siege of Lincoln. The result was a royalist victory, and a favorable treaty with the French (11 Sept. 1217). 1218 witnessed some mopping up of recalcitrant English rebels.

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.


William's dying shows him stripping off various layers of his mortal self: his regency, his baronage, his secular profession (becoming a Templar), his moveables (treasures), and, finally, his life itself. As presented in the Histoire, William's dying is a theater of renunciation.


A. Resignation of the Regency: In March of 1219 Wm realized that he was dying. Summoning his eldest son William and his household knights he left the Tower of London for his estate at Caversham (Oxfordshire), where he summoned a meeting of the magnates of the realm, including Henry III, the papal legate, and the royal justiciar (Hugh de Burgh), and Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester (the young king's guardian). Rejecting the bishop's claim to the regency, William entrusted the young king into the care of the papal legate. William, obviously, did not trust Peter or any other magnate.

B. Bequests to children.

I. Main bequests determined by law and custom of inheritance (not by will)

i. Countess Isabel--would hold during her lifetime her own inheritance (Striguil, Pembroke, 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

i. 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)

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

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

v. Anselm, the youngest son, first received nothing, but, through the pleas of John of Earley, was provided with Irish lands worth 140 pounds (ordinary knight's fee was worth 20 pounds).


2. Daughters

i. Joan, the only unmarried daughter, received lands worth 30 pounds a year and a cash sum of 133 pounds 6s.8d.


3. Legacies to monasteries: 33 pounds to Notley abbey; 10 marks (6 pounds 13s.4d) to the cathedral of Leinster.


C. The Marshal's body

Fulfilling his vow made as a crusader, William became a Templar and arranged to buried at the church of the 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; 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." Plenary indulgence from pope. Wm 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.



Crosland, Jessie. William Marshal: The Last Great Feudal Baron. London: Peter Owen LTD, 1962.


Crouch, William. William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219, 2nd edn. London: Longman, 2002.


Painter, Sidney. William Marshal. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1933.