William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke: 'The Greatest Knight in the World'

 

William Marshal, born about 1147, was the second son of a minor lord who held the hereditary title of ‘Marshal’, or head of the king’s security. William became the most powerful man in the kingdom, the hero of Magna Carta and a saviour of England. Through sixty years he remained loyal to a series of five kings. At his funeral in the Temple Church, 20 May 1219, he was described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘the greatest knight in the world’. How did William do it?

First, he had presence. William grew up, we are told, to be tall, well-proportioned and handsome, and with a broad stride that suited him perfectly for riding. In a world of personal courts and courtiers and of battles and tournaments between at most a few hundred knights, he was an unmistakable, imposing figure.

Secondly, he was fearless. In 1168 he entered the household of his uncle Patrick Earl of Salisbury. When Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, their Angevin empire stretched almost 1,000 miles from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees.  Henry and Eleanor both went in 1168 to Aquitaine. Henry summoned Patrick Earl of Salisbury to be his second-in-command; and with Patrick went young William. Disaster followed: local nobles ambushed the Queen and her party; Patrick and his troops covered the Queen’s escape; Patrick was killed; the furious William charged, was badly wounded and was captured. But Eleanor surely heard of William’s ferocious courage. She ransomed him, and took him into her household. William’s new patron was the most powerful woman in Europe. He was making his way in the world.

And so to tournaments. With his horsemanship and courage, William was made for them. Tournaments were the epitome of chivalric life and a perfect training for battle. Nobles would gather from far and wide with their entourage or mesnie. A large area was marked out by palisades and ditches; it could include whole villages and their fields. The gathered forces were divided into two teams according to their regions of origin or political allegiances. One team charged in serried ranks with lances extended, and the mêlée began: with lances and – when these were broken – with swords and maces. This was ferocious fighting and demanded severe courage and coolness.

Knights captured in a tournament had to leave the field and arrange their ransom. Horses and armour were booty for the captor. Even at his first tournament William won four war-horses, a string of palfreys and packhorses and a fine array of equipment. Over time he became a team-captain and -manager on the international and professionalized tournament-circuit; and he won from it immense prestige, booty and ransom-money. Count Philip of Flanders offered him the vast transfer-fee and retainer of 500 pounds a year to enter his service.

Next: William was famously loyal. In 1183 he was in the service of the Young King when the Young King died. The Prince had vowed to go on Crusade, and William discharged his lord’s vow by going on Crusade himself. He spent two years in the Holy Land. While there he entrusted his body, wherever he should die, to the Knights Templar for burial among them. He also acquired two lengths of silk which he brought back with him from the Holy Land; they were, when he died, to cover his bier.

In 1188–9 William campaigned with Henry II against the King of France. Henry’s son Prince Richard sided with the French. In a skirmish William unhorsed Richard and could have killed him, but instead killed Richard’s horse. Few knights could have done so; even fewer would have dared. Within days Henry II had died. The new King Richard summoned William, and to save face insisted that he, Richard, had saved his own life in the encounter: ‘Marshal, the other day you intended to kill me, and you would have if I had not deflected your lance with my arm.’ William held his ground: ‘I never intended to kill you. I am strong enough to aim my lance, and if had had wanted I could have killed you.` It was a make or break moment. The new King was impressed. Richard confirmed William’s marriage to Isabel de Clare, daughter of the late Richard Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, and of the Irish princess Aoife (Eve) of Leinster. She was heiress of vast lands in Ireland, England, France and Wales. William was now a magnate of the realm.

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