The Man Who Would Be King

timwilliams By timwilliams, 14th Jul 2016 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>News>World

The life and times of histories greatest Knight, William Marshall.

The Man Who Would Be King

From the castle keep to the halls of Westminster in an age of chivalry and knights gallantly astride their steady mounts came the one Knight that had the greatest impact on not only English history but that of all Europe. The height of the Middle Ages in a world filled with long bows, broad swords and lancers, this was life in the 11th century. The days of chivalry and knighthood where on galloping horses lancers in hand jousting tournaments were held all over the land. In Merry Old England and out of the pages of history comes the greatest knight of them all. His name was William Marshall. A tower of a man standing six feet five whose capabilities earned him histories best knight of them all. In all of recorded history no other knight would match the skill, the sheer power and cunning of histories greatest Knight. The feats he accomplished and the bounty he amassed enabled him to gain rank and privilege that was only bestowed to those of noble blood.

In a time of unthinkable hardship born in relative obscurity by force and determination grew to become the man who would be king. Most of what we know about his life derives from a chronicle "The History of William Marshall written in 1226 by a man that came to know William not only in his prime but till the end of his life. There is also a poem written by Marshall's eldest son. This chronicle is believed to be the first medieval biography of a layman achieving fame and fortune on his way to become the man who would be king. This biography depicts the two extremes of medieval society that William Marshall lived through. For forty years William was a landless knight who frequented tournaments and he when he died was the Earl of Pembroke and the regent of all of England.

Through-out his life span he served five Angevin kings and is arguably responsible for saving the Plantagenet dynasty which would survive for another 250 years. Yet, to this day he has not been popular with chroniclers and historians. Could it be this was due to his low birth and a lineage associated with peasant life in a time of Monarchs and knighthood? Despite being close to so many kings during the most eventful period in medieval history, the story of William Marshal is still a curiously neglected source. His life sheds light on chivalry, tournaments, and warfare during a time many people associate with the times of Robin Hood. But it is William Marshall who is remembered as the greatest knight of them all.

Witnesses tell the stories that fueled his rise to fame. He unhorsed Richard, the future King Richard I, the Lionheart, in battle and spared his life. It was Richard I who had the sense to recognize Marshal's qualities. Marshall defeated over 500 opponents in single combat, knighted two kings, ruled England as Regent, beat a powerful French army on English soil, saved the kingdom of England, and earned the respect of all of Europe. He was called “The Flower of Chivalry”. Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, described him as the "greatest knight that ever lived". It is said that every king and great nobleman in Europe had an officer called a marshal, but by the time of his death in 1219 the whole of Europe knew William as “The Marshal&rdquo."

William was born in 1147, the fourth son of John FitzGilbert, Marshal during the reign of King Stephen the grand son of William the Conqueror. From the time William was born life was harsh enough. But, in 1152 a civil war broke out between the heirs of Henry I, Stephen and Matilda, Matilda was Henry I daughter and Stephen was his nephew. When Stephen besieged Newbury castle young William was captured. In the end John Marshall never did surrender the castle and young William now was in the hands of the King. We have to remember this was a period of political power grabbing where the heirs of William The Conquer pitted one against the other for the throne of England.

As a young son of a minor nobleman and now a ward of the court of King Stephen William had no legal rights of any lands to inherit. When William was 12 he was sent to Normandy to be trained as a knight. Finding himself in the custody of William de Tancrville a cousin of his mother he was a quick study in the art of war. William soon amassed the skills that enabled him to become well suited in all forms of combat. At the age of 19 Williams was Knighted because of his actions on a military campaign in Upper Normandy.

Now a full fledged Knight he left the Tancrville estate only to end up serving his mother's brother, the Earl of Salisbury. In 1168 he accompanied the Earl as part of Eleanor of Aquitaine's escort. Showing feats of bravery after the Earl was killed in an ambush an injured William kept fighting long enough for Eleanor to escape. But, in the ensuing skirmish was captured only to be latter ransomed by Eleanor who remembered it was William who fought so bravely allowing Eleanor to flee.

Now, at liberty with no land to call his own with skills honed from years of training and combat he made a considerable fortune out of winning tournaments. These tournaments are often deadly exercises in the art of mortal combat. Money, amour, horses and valuable prizes could be won by capturing and ransoming opponents. William's success became legendary. In today's modern sport world to gain some insight of how William was so successful we have to combine today's world's champion in heavyweight boxing, in equestrian horsemanship and the abilities of the best full back football player all rolled into one individual. There was one tournament that showcases the sheer violence of these knightly affairs. He was seen stretched out on his back while a Blacksmith was hammering away at his armor helmet trying to reshape it so that William could take it off. After a series of blows the armor plating shifted enough so that the helmet came off. Must have been quite a headache. It is also said that during this time William stopped a noblewomen running away with a monk, which at that time was definitely criminal act for the pair. The art of chivalry was now fully embedded in Williams actions.

He would have carried on in this role for the rest of his life, going into tournaments and getting rewards But it was Eleanor of Aquitaine who soon after ward provided William with the opportunity to serve the court of Henry II and act as protector of Henry's 13 year old son, the heir apparent. In 1270 William was there to teach the young king the chivalric ways of knighthood. During this time, Henry and his brothers constantly rebelled against their father, demanding real power. In the court of Henry II divided loyalties only complicated matters for who would William support? If he was to aid the rebellion and supported the younger Henry he was revolting against the king. And, on the other hand not to aid it was going against the man he was sworn to and the man who would one day be king.

With divided loyalties William found himself being forced from the court. So back to the tournament circuit where William Marshal was offered lucrative contracts by powerful men such as the Count of Flanders and the Duke of Burgundy. It was his in tournaments that had made him desirable. We must remember that those tournaments were like modern day sports are today, the rich paid for the best performers to be on their team. However, William the consummate warrior rejected this in favor of going alone. By 1183 Henry II was in another quarrel with his son, and William decided to re-join the court. He asked permission from Henry to join his son against him, and, surprisingly, Henry allowed it. The king may have hoped that William would use his influence to stop his son’s revolt. However, in 1183, Henry II son, died of illness.

Soon after the death of Henry's son William set off on a personal crusade traveling to the Holy Lands where he met up with a band of Templar Knights. In the ensuing two year in the Holy lands Marshall became one of the Knights Templar. In 1187 William was in Levant at the battle of Hattin which was a major turning point in history. After the battle William returned to England and continued his service to Henry II. soon after Williams arrival at Henry's court the King swiftly promoted William through his personal ranks into one of his most important advisors, promising him something that would change William’s life forever, a wealthy heiress for a wife. Isabel de Clare was the heiress to a vast amount of land in southern Wales and Ireland. To marry her would make him Earl of Pembroke, one of the richest and most powerful men in the western world. William, now in his forties, was about to be married to an 18-year-old. Unlike many medieval age gap marriages however, this match turned into a classical love story, a love that would stay strong right up until their deaths.

It was also at the end of Henry II’s reign that William was involved in one of his most important yet not fully appreciated moments of his life. During a rebellion by another of the king’s sons, William was helping Henry retreat to safety and charged at the heir to the throne, Richard, killing his horse from under him. This could have easily gone wrong for William not only could he have killed the king’s eldest son, he had now attacked the future king, the man he would have to serve and obey to keep his newly-found status. In 1189 Richard the Lionheart became King and fortunately for Williams the King favored loyalty, and certainly needed it when King Richard went off to the crusades. Here William spent Richard’s reign in England, helping run the kingdom and oppose the king’s brother, John, who was conniving against Richard in attempts to steal the crown. vying for the crown. It was William who secured the ransom for Richard which enabled he king to return home. Upon Richard's death John assumed the crown. It was during this unsettling period of King John's reign that William spent most of these years with his family in Ireland. In Leinster he created a thriving and economically successful area of land to the benefit all those who lived there. William proved himself to be an adept manager. After years of harsh treatment by John and being called a traitor, William Marshal was one of the only men who came to King John’s aid in 1211 when problems with the barons escalated.

By 1215 King John had no choice but to sign one of the most important documents in history, the Magna Carta. The charter put the king below the law and not above it, as the Angevins had successfully done. But John quickly went back on the charter causing a civil war. The rebels invited the Dauphine, Louis, to England to take the throne for himself. In 1216, having lost ground in England, King John died. William Marshal stayed loyal until the end. William was almost a neutral baron during this period; he never rebelled against his anointed king, but had never identified himself with John’s harsh policies. This made him popular with both sides and first choice to become regent until John’s nine-year-old son, Henry, the future Henry III, came of age.

William had reached the pinnacle of power; he had gone from the fourth son of a nobleman of no importance, to the ruler of the whole of England. But he had a mammoth task on his hands. Louis and the rebels had control over most of England but William’s years of experience helped him manage the situation well. He successfully gained the support of many neutral and rebellious barons. Then, in an event that sums up his incredible life story, he led the charge for the King against the rebels and French at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. At the age of 70. The English won the battle and the civil war was swiftly won with a victory at sea, sealed by a treaty. On 24 May 1219, aged 72, and at the peak of his career, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent of England, died. He died a Knight’s Templar, making his life journey complete.

At William Marshal’s eulogy, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called him the greatest knight who had ever lived while his final enemy, Philip II of France, also praised him. The life of William is often overlooked by many, especially as so many gaps exist in his story. But his importance is paramount. He was practically illiterate; and without being able to read and write either French or Latin, the languages of the courts, he still rose to the zenith of power. Historians also agree that if William had joined the rebellious barons, King John could easily have lost his throne, and English history would look very different today.

William lived in a period marked by a variety of conflicts and military confrontations and some historians have discounted him as simply as a strong arm who owed his advancement to his ability in tournaments. However, he went through the households of the Chamberlains of Normandy, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, Richard I, John and finally Henry III. William was clearly a clever, well-measured man and a survivor. He survived a crusade, life-threatening injuries, had, in his fifties, singlehandedly lead a charge on a castle, and, aged 70, charged into battle. He had also survived the temperament of three of the most notoriously bad-tempered kings in English history. They had required his counsel due to his wisdom and discretion, but most importantly due to his honesty. He reprinted the Magna Carta in his regency, something not often mentioned. Ultimately, William led an illustrious life and career, and his incredible achievement of honour over money earned him histories greatest knight, the man who would be king.


11Th Century, England, Knights, The Middle Ages

Meet the author

author avatar timwilliams
I am a feature writer for The Tampa Bay Examiner and The American chronicle. Earned Ph.D in Economics

Share this page

moderator johnnydod moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar cnwriter..carolina
17th Jul 2016 (#)

this is a marvellous recounting dear Tim and congratulations being Author of the to you....

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?