William Marshall was a famous knight born in England in either 1144 or 1147 to John Marshal and Sibile – again, medieval records vary. William was a younger son and was not in line to inherit any lands. A famous incident, well documented, occurred during a siege of Newbury Castle during the civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda, the daughter of deceased King Henry I.
John Marshall was Matilda’s man. In 1152, John was trying to help stop the war. As part of his efforts, a one day truce was declared. As part of the truce, John had sent his five-year old son, William to King Stephen at Newbury Castle. John was a sneaky man, using the truce to bring in more troops and supplies. King Stephen was understandably upset. King Stephen sent an ultimatum to Marshall to yield. John was already disfigured, having lost an eye in an earlier incident during a church siege.
According to the chronicles, King William had the five-year old William placed in a catapult basket. The King said he’d have young William launched if John didn’t surrender. William’s father replied that he “Had the hammer and anvils to produce another”.
William survived his childhood and was eventually sent to learn the knightly arts in the household of William de Tancarville, the Chamberlain of France. In 1167, William received his spurs of knighthood and joined the fight between King Henry and King Louis of France. He was blooded in battle, losing a horse in the process. He learned humility when he questioned de Tancarville’s request for a crupper (a piece of horse tack).
When the war was over, William had to decide his next direction: a position as a household knight or knight-errant (wandering man). He choose knight-errant. He wandered the main continent competing in tournaments and occasionally offering his services to lords on a temporary basis.
In tournament fighting, the winner kept the losing knight’s armor, weapons, and horses. An alternative to taking the losing knights items, the winner could ransom his opponent. William was very successful, gaining fame and fortune as he travelled the land. William claimed he’d taken five hundred knights in tourney battles at the end of his ‘career’ when he returned to England. He was captured once and ransomed by Queen Eleanor.
In 1170 William became the companion to Henry the Young King, son of Henry II. William knighted Henry the younger in 1173. He remained with Henry, still competing in tournaments. In 1183, Henry the Younger rebelled against his father with William alongside. To William’s dismay, Henry became sick with dysentery and died. A guilty William went to Jerusalem in Henry’s place.
When he returned, William joined King Henry’s court. William was granted the estate of Cartmel in Cumbria and Heloise of Lancaster. Documentation shows William fought for King Henry during the rebellion of Richard against his father. During a skirmish, William unseated Richard from his horse and killed the animal. Marshall had the chance to kill Richard but let the son of Henry live – a choice he may have later regretted having lived through the days of Richard bankrupting England for his crusading adventures. King Henry promised, and during his last days of life, allowed William to marry Isabel de Clare, the daughter & heiress of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke. This turned William into one of the richest men in England. Together, William and Isabel had ten children: five sons and five daughters.
William served King Richard. After Richard died, William remained true to the monarch of England, swearing allegiance to John. William had a short time as a counselor to King John, the youngest son of King Henry disliking the famous Earl. The King harassed William, even demanding two sons of William as hostages. When King John was on his last legs, he placed the guardianship of Henry III, his heir, in William’s hands. Once John was dead, William became the regent of England. William knighted Henry III as one of his first official acts. Ironically, one of his benefits was to be granted the deed to Newbury Castle, scene of the place where he almost died as a child. It took time to fix the problems created by years of bad decisions by King John.
William died May 14, 1219. His exploits were chronicled by a poem, ‘L’Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal’. He is buried in the Temple Church, London, England.
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