William Marshal is an incredible figure in English history. He was a dedicated Knight, loyally serving several Kings, and led an army that helped to save England from the French in the First Barons’ War. His story is amazing, even more so because it is true.
William was born in 1146 into a minor, but noble family. Like many young men of the time he joined another household, the de Tancarvilles, at the age of twelve, for training as a knight.
It is not known if William had his sights set upon becoming head of the army at the time. However by serving through the reign of several kings, from Stephen onwards, he rose to that position by the time of King John.
William Marshal excelled at his profession as a Knight. He was a hero who cut through the tournament lists ‘like a hot knife through butter’. His proficiency quickly claimed the attention of other noble families and a marriage to Isabel de Clare brought him into one of the great families of the land, providing land, riches, and also prestige at court. In 1199 he became the Earl of Pembroke.
Thus we find him at the centre of our story in the ‘Wars of the Magna Carta’.
One of the things William Marshal will always be linked to is the Magna Carta. He was loyal to King John even after John’s signing and subsequent repudiation of the charter of rights which led to civil war in 1215. It is most likely William gave his support to the King because he wanted to preserve the State of England rather than believing power should remain with the King.
In 1216 much of England, from the Wash to Bristol, was in the hands of rebel barons. King John and his remaining allies, including William, had the challenge of defeating the rebels and their French allies.
The situation became even more complex when King John, who had been suffering from dysentery, died following a visit to Lincoln. The crown fell to John’s 9 year old son Henry III. How would the youngster manage the kingdom, how would he even survive in times when the life of a king was not guaranteed?
To make matters even harder for the young monarch, his mother, Isabella of Angouleme, left England for France in high dudgeon for not being given a place on her son’s Council of Regents.
William Marshal was one of the key figures to restore the peace. He, along with Hubert de Burgh and Peter des Roches, became the protectors of and key advisors to Henry III.
One of the turning points in the war was the breaking of the Siege of Lincoln. Through the incredible work of Lincoln’s castellan Nicholaa de la Haye and Matilda of Laxton, the stronghold was holding. However, the invading French army was slowly wearing down the defenders. Perfect timing from William Marshal, who at the head of the English relieving army, broke the siege.
After the end of the First Barons’ War William remained a loyal supporter of Henry III. He also had a role in the reissue of the Magna Carta, signing as one of the Barons to bear witness to the new King signing it.
William’s tomb is in Temple Church, London. The tomb features an effigy of the Knight in life; you can view it in the image above.
Part of William Marshal’s story is re-told in the series, ‘Wars of the Magna Carta’. The novel is available from Amazon in ebook as well as paperback.