William Marshal, 4th Earl of Pembroke

Born: 1146

Died: May 14, 1219

Caversham, Oxfordshire, England (Age c. 73)


William Marshal was born the second of the four sons of John FitzGilbert (a minor nobleman and hereditary king’s marshal of England) and his second wife Sybilla, (a sister of the Earl of Salisbury), and John’s fourth son overall. While William’s date of birth is by no means set in stone, the year 1146 has become widely accepted amongst historians and there is no real reason to question this estimate to any great extent. The future regent of England was born in the dead center of a chaotic period of English history that has come to be known simply as the “Anarchy,” where King Stephen and the Empress Matilda (daughter and heiress to King Henry I) wrestled for control of the throne. John Marshal had originally sided with Stephen but ultimately switched his allegiance to Matilda and her son Henry (the future Henry II), to whom he would remain staunchly loyal until his death.

William makes his first appearance in history in 1152. It was in this year that King Stephen besieged John Marshal’s stronghold of Newbury castle. Given that the castle was not at all prepared to endure even a short siege, John made a deal with Stephen that, if the fortress were not relieved by Matilda’s forces by a certain date, it would be handed over to the king. As a stipulation of the temporary truce, John was forbidden to replenish or reinforce the castle in an anyway and gave the six-year-old William as a hostage as collateral for his good behavior.  The latter was to be executed if John violated the terms of the agreement. That his son was in the king’s custody, and set to die if he broke his word, did not stop John from reinforcing the castle anyway. Fortunately for William, Stephen was a sympathetic man and did not have the heart to execute such a young child simply because of his father’s petty and cruel behavior. Therefore, William remained the king’s honored guest for some months until, the following year, he was released back to his parents’ custody upon the conclusion of the  Treaty of Wallingford between Stephen and Henry of Anjou (who would become King Henry II in October 1154).

By 1159, William had been sent to Normandy to serve as a squire in the household of his cousin, Lord William of Tancarville. It was here that William would be educated in the art of chivalry and receive the knightly training he would become so famous for in his later years. After eight years of serving as a squire, William was knighted by his cousin in the summer of 1167. Very soon after his knighting, William had his first chance to prove himself on the battlefield when he fought against the French at the Battle of Drincourt, an engagement which the Angevin forces won.

Later that same year (after further establishing himself in a series of tournaments in various locations), William travelled with his uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury, to Poitou (within the always-turbulent duchy of Aquitaine) to put down a rebellion in the king’s name. Unfortunately, the forces of Salisbury and William were surprised by those of the powerful Lusignan family (who had spearheaded the rebellion). Salisbury was killed in the engagement and William was injured and taken captive by the Lusignans, in whose custody he remained for the next several months. William was ultimately ransomed from his enemies’ clutches under orders from Queen Eleanor, the consort of Henry II and Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, who had apparently been impressed with the young knight’s bravery. This was to be a crucial moment in William’s life and career and marked the beginning of his long and close relationship with the royal house of Anjou.

By mid-1170 William had been assigned to the household of the fifteen –year-old Henry the Young King (eldest son and heir of Henry II), who had recently been crowned and anointed king, despite his father still being alive, in the tradition of the Capetian Kings of France. While William’s official title and duties within his new master’s household were ambiguous at best, it seems to have been assumed that it would be his responsibility to teach the Young King the art of chivalry, in order to prepare the latter to himself become a knight, as well as to serve as a sort of bodyguard. The Young King undoubtedly learned a great deal about knighthood from his tutor and William remained fiercely loyal to his young master.

When the Young King rebelled against his father in the spring of 1173, William did not desert him, apparently rationalizing his actions with the fact that he owed direct homage to the Young King, not to Henry II himself. It does not appear that William played any major role in the Great War, outside being a moral supporter to his master, and when Henry II crushed the rebellion the following year, he received no punishment for remaining loyal to the Young King. For the remainder of the 1170s, William passed his time by participating in a countless number of tournaments throughout France (some with and some without his master), earning himself the reputation as one of the greatest knights-errant in all of Europe and making him, by far, the most important man within the Young King’s household.

As seemed inevitable, William’s success gained him the hatred and envy of a number of his fellow knights and courtiers. In 1180, in an attempt to avenge themselves on their rival, several knights began a rumor that William had been engaging in an illicit affair with the Young King’s wife, Margaret. Believing that the knights had no reason to be untruthful, the Young King took them at their word and, for the next two years, William and his master were very much estranged. By the fall of 1182, William was desperate to prove that the accusations that had been levied against him were completely false and offered to prove himself through single combat with any man who dared challenge him. The Young King, who still clearly did not believe his tutor, was not interested in William’s offer. For this reason, William asked for leave from his master’s service, a request that was readily granted. During the next several months a number of powerful French lords attempted to persuade William do join their own households, but with no success.

In the spring of 1183, the Young King was, once again, in rebellion against his father’s rule and was advised that it would be in his best interest to bring William back into his household. Having reconciled their differences, William readily rejoined his master, but as they travelled toward Poitou, the apparent primary source of the rebellion, the Young King suddenly fell ill and died. While on his deathbed, the Young King expressed regret that he had taken the cross as a crusader but had never gotten the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land and fight for the Christian cause. Therefore, he asked his faithful servant if he would take his cross-embroidered cloak to the Holy Land as a sort of symbol of the crusade that he had meant to take. Under the circumstances, William could not refuse his royal master and received permission from Henry II to fulfill the latter’s son’s dying wish. Practically nothing at all is known of William’s activities in the Holy Land, or of his journeys to and from his destination, and he did not return to the Angevin domains for four long years.

After returning home from the Holy Land in the spring of 1187, William would remain a close and faithful servant to Henry II himself for the remaining two years of the latter’s life and reign. Before the death of the Young King, William and Henry II had actually not been on the best of terms. The Old King felt (with good reason to an extent) that William was responsible for influencing his son in the wrong way when it came to spending large amounts of money on wasteful tournaments and chivalric enterprises. It is for this reason that the king shed no tears when William left his son’s household in disgrace. But, when he finally realized just how highly the Young King valued his loyal servant, the elder Henry welcomed William into his own household with open arms and showered rich rewards on him.

The final years of Henry’s reign were dominated by his quarrel with Philip II of France and the shifting position of the former’s eldest surviving son, Richard. As one of the English king’s primary advisors, William played a major role in the organization of the various sieges and skirmishes that were taking place. By the beginning of 1189 it had become blatantly clear that the two sides would not be able to come to any sort of peaceful arrangement and prepared for all out war. Prince Richard, whom Henry refused to officially name as his heir, was now decisively aligned with King Philip against his father. The momentum was clearly on the side of Richard and Philip, considering that Henry was now a sick and dying man, who was in no position to exert himself as he had been able to in the past.

As the situation quickly deteriorated for the English royal party, an event took place that has become one of the more famous of William’s life. Near Le Mans, William encountered an unarmed Richard and aggressively charged at him, lance in hand. As the prince begged for his life, William showed no signs of stopping but, in the end, only ending up killing Richard’s horse, sending him tumbling to the ground. Clearly, William felt that the rebellious prince deserved a hard-taught lesson on where his loyalties lay, and a punishment for betraying his own king and father. When Henry II died shortly after this event, William was understandably nervous that the man that he had so recently threatened and humiliated was now his sovereign.  But, to the surprise of all those familiar with the situation, the new king granted William a full pardon for his actions at Le Mans and seemed to admire the fact that he had remained completely loyal to his king to the very end (William was indeed one of the only men to do so).

Additionally, Richard gave William permission to marry Isabel de Clare, the heiress of the Earl of Pembroke (Henry II had previously promised the young girl to William). With this accomplished, the king sent William to England with the important task of freeing the former’s beloved mother (and indeed a woman that William himself was much indebted to), Eleanor of Aquitaine, from her imprisonment at Windsor Castle. Though, it appears that the queen mother had already been informed of her husband’s death because she was at liberty when William arrived. William then travelled to London where he married Isabel de Clare and proceeded to take control of her inheritance, which consisted of vast lands and estates in Ireland and the Welsh marches. Thanks to his fierce and undying loyalty to the Angevin dynasty, William was now one of the wealthiest noblemen in the realm.

It is well known to history that King Richard had very little interest in governing his kingdom and his mind was almost exclusively set on going on crusade. When the king departed England for the Holy Land shortly after his coronation, William, as one of the most powerful and trustworthy barons of the realm, was given a substantial role in the regency. He was to be one of four associate justiciars who served under the head justiciar, the king’s chancellor, Bishop William Longchamp of Ely (whom Richard had given the most power to during his absence). William handled his duties with undying loyalty to his king, as was expected, but was no dear friend of chancellor Longchamp. While no one debated that the bishop was a faithful servant of the king, it soon became apparent that he was a poor leader indeed. He alienated much of the nobility by handing out important posts in the realm to his own family members and adherents and made a powerful enemy of the king’s younger brother, Prince John (arguably the most powerful magnate in the realm), over the royal succession, should Richard die childless.

Longchamp also did his best to limit the power of the Marshal family and was even believed to have lain siege to one of William’s castles while the latter was away from the kingdom. For this reason, it came as no surprise that, when the quarrel between Prince John and Longchamp reached its boiling point, William, while attempting to remain neutral, showed more support for John. Besides his general dislike of Longchamp, William was John’s vassal for a majority of his lands in Ireland and therefore owed him direct homage. In addition, William was aware of the fact that King Richard may very well die childless and that John was one of his most likely successors. So, while William would never even consider supporting any plots by John to usurp his brother’s throne, he certainly did not want to do anything to anger him unnecessarily. Therefore, William supported Longchamp’s deposition in the fall of 1191 and his replacement with the more moderate Archbishop Walter of Rouen.

With Longchamp neutralized and the situation in England a bit less chaotic, William concentrated his attentions more thoroughly on his administrative and judicial tasks and, as one of the leading marcher barons, on subduing the rebellious activities of the various Welsh princes. Unfortunately, relative peace would not last for long within England. On his way home from crusade, King Richard was captured within the domains of the Holy Roman Empire. This emboldened his brother John to form an alliance with Philip II of France and invade England with an army of mercenaries, with the goal of seizing the throne for himself. On this occasion though, William would not support John as he did during his quarrel with Longchamp and took precautions to stop the would-be usurper’s momentum. John was able to seize a number of important castles, but ultimately realized that opposition to him was far too great (at least for the time being), and he was forced to agree to a truce. With John’s ambitions temporarily stymied, William worked hard to raise cash to pay Richard’s lucrative ransom. The king was released from captivity in January 1194 and returned to England two months later. Once again, William had proved his loyalty to his king, even in the face of serious opposition.

Right around the time of King Richard’s return to England, William experienced yet another stroke of good luck, if it can indeed be called that, when his only remaining elder brother, John, died without issue. John’s death left William as the head of the Marshal family and inheritor of the lands and possessions the family held, including the post of king’s marshal. While the Marshal inheritance was not a particularly large one, it served as a nice addition to the vast estates that William already held through right of his wife. The office of king’s marshal (from which the Marshal family derived its surname), while primarily ceremonial by this point, put William in constant close proximity to the king, and therefore won him even more royal favor.

William then accompanied King Richard to the continent where, for the next five years, he was to serve as both trusty general and councilor to the warrior monarch. The enemy at hand was, of course, Philip of France, who had decided to take advantage of Richard’s lengthy captivity by invading Normandy and stirring up rebellion in other parts of the Angevin domains. As the conflict between the Kings of England and France during this period was nothing more than a series of confused skirmishes, raids, minor sieges and temporary and sporadic peace treaties, it cannot be claimed that anything truly noteworthy occurred during this time period pertaining to William. It was not until Richard met his sudden end at the siege of Chalus in April 1199 that the situation became infinitely more interesting.

Since Richard died without any legitimate children, the issue of the succession now took center stage. William almost immediately, and without hesitation, supported the claim of the late king’s brother John to succeed him as head of the vast Angevin empire, despite the objections of Archbishop Hubert Walter of Canterbury, who believed that Arthur of Brittany, the son of John’s deceased elder brother Geoffrey, had the better claim based on primogeniture (which he technically did). The reasons for William’s wholehearted support for John’s accession seem to be fairly cut and dried. For example, he must have believed that a man of thirty-two would be better equipped to govern such a large empire better than a child of twelve – Arthur – who had close ties to the King of France, the mortal enemy of the Angevins. While it is true that John himself had once connived with King Philip against Richard, William undoubtedly saw him as the lesser of two evils over Arthur. In addition, William had built up somewhat of a close overlord/vassal relationship with John over the years and even defended him against Richard on a number of occasions. Finally, it is fairly common knowledge amongst historians that Richard, while on his deathbed, indeed named John as his official heir, and any man who knew William knew that he would never consider disobeying the strict orders of his dying master.

Whatever his specific reasons may have been, William put his full support behind John and was responsible for convincing the English nobility to swear allegiance to their new king, a task he accomplished with very little resistance. For his loyal service, William was well rewarded. At his coronation ceremony, John created William Earl of Pembroke (a title that had been held by his late father-in-law) and further rewarded him with a number of lands throughout England. Yet again, William proved to his sovereign that he was indeed a valuable commodity.

Despite being risen to further wealth and greatness by the new king, it would appear that William played a fairly minimal role in the disastrous events that occurred within the first five years of John’s reign, which saw the Angevin empire of Henry II reduced to England and a small portion of the duchy of Aquitaine. Perhaps if John would have taken the wise counsel of William Marshal, the empire could have been saved. But, there is no guarantee of this and it must be assumed that the Angevin empire, for all intents and purposes, died with Richard I. Practically nothing is known of William’s activities within the first three years of the new reign (though it must be assumed that he played at least somewhat of a role in John’s government).

When war broke out between John and Philip II in 1202, the earl’s primary task seems to have been to defend Normandy, a prize that the French king wanted nothing more than to snatch from his enemies. As was the case with much of the English baronage, William held fiefs as King John’s vassal not only England, but also within Normandy, where he was lord of the county of Longueville. Therefore, as can be imagined, William had a vested interest in Normandy’s safety. Unfortunately, over the following two years, John would prove that he was not the strong ruler that his father and brother were. William and his fellow generals did all they possibly could to fend off the aggressive French invasion but, by the spring of 1204, it had become abundantly clear that the duchy would no longer be under John’s control (and, within months, it was not). The French conquest of Normandy put William in a very precarious position because he was now at great risk of losing his Norman lands. King Philip offered William, as well as a number of other barons, the opportunity to pay homage to him and keep their lands as his personal vassals. Not wanting to anger John by performing this act behind his back, William asked the permission of his supreme overlord to pay homage to the French king and save his valuable territories. Surprisingly, John was receptive to the earl’s request and granted him full permission. William then paid homage to Philip and officially became his vassal for his Norman lands.

John’s amicable mood, unfortunately, did not last for long and he soon began criticizing William for paying homage to his enemy, despite the fact that it was he – John – who had given him permission to do so. The situation became more heated when William refused to accompany John to Poitou to fight against the French. According to feudal law, William was technically right to refuse because he had paid homage to Philip. In fact, if the French king requested that William supply him with troops at any given time, he, as his overlord, would be completely justified in doing so. John attempted to try William in court for his refusal to go to battle with him, but found little support from the baronage and was forced to back down. Since he still did not trust William completely and wanted to assure his loyalty (and most likely out of spite as well), John demanded that the earl hand over his eldest son as a hostage for his father’s good behavior. William, being the honorable man he was, did this willingly.

With his relationship with the king strained to say the very least, it came as no surprise that William requested permission to depart England and manage his lands in Ireland in person. At first, John willingly gave his consent, but almost immediately regretted doing so. John, as Lord of Ireland (a position he had been awarded by his father in 1185), felt that he possessed no real authority in his own land, which was in reality ruled by several powerful local barons, with royal influence being confined to Dublin and several other cities and coastal areas. William himself was Lord of Leinster in right of his wife. Therefore, John assigned one of his men, Meiler fitz Henry (a minor landowner within the enigmatic island), with the duel task of acting as his justiciar and promoter of English influence within Ireland. The local barons did not care for Meiler’s presence in their lands and William certainly did not appreciate him actually seizing one of his own castles in Leinster (especially considering that Meiler was William’s vassal).

In addition to his tense relations with the king, Meiler’s actions were a major cause of William’s desire to finally visit his Irish domains.  When Meiler learned that William was on his way to Ireland, he immediately sent word to John not to allow him to come, being that the earl was a seasoned general and would put a halt to the progress he had made in Ireland in the king’s name. John, in turn, ordered William not to depart England. In reply, William brusquely told the king that he was going anyway. As a result, John deprived William of all his important English posts and demanded that all of the earl’s English and Welsh lands, as well as another one of his sons, be delivered into his custody to further assure his good behavior. Once again, William willingly complied with the requests of his master and departed for Ireland in the spring of 1207.

William’s first priority upon arriving in Leinster was to summon Meiler before him and his fellow Irish lords so that he may answer to them as to why he seized one of his lord’s castles. Meiler remained defiant, claiming that he had only taken the castle under orders from the king. John confirmed this and scolded the lords for harassing his justiciar, who was only obeying his commands, before ordering William, Meiler and several other local lords to return to England to discuss the matter further. Leaving his wife and his most trusted knights in Ireland, William returned to England at the king’s behest just months after he had departed. Summoning the earl back to England, however, was nothing but a clever ruse on the part of the king. While John kept William busy with petty matters in England, Meiler returned to Ireland and attacked the earl’s lands, though with no success whatsoever. With this plan having failed, John turned his attentions to diplomacy with William and the Irish lords, but on terms that would be more beneficial to him than anyone else. In the end, William and John agreed on a charter which substantially increased royal authority within Ireland, allowing the king more power over the treasuries and judicial systems of the Irish lordships. This was by no means an ideal compromise for William (indeed it was the exact opposite of one) but, when all was said and done, the earl still held considerable sway within his lands.

Having felt that he had humiliated William thoroughly enough for the time being, John allowed his vassal to return to Ireland. After punishing Meiler for his previous recalcitrant behavior, William governed his Irish lands fairly peaceably – but only for a short time. William’s next quarrel with the crown came when he harbored an old friend of his named William de Briouse. De Briouse was once a royal favorite who had apparently had a severe falling out with the king and had decided to flee the English court with his wife and children to escape John’s wrath. After being informed of the situation, John decided to travel to Ireland personally to see to the punishments of de Briouse and all those who had aided him.

The king arrived in Ireland in June 1210 and he and his army proceeded to make themselves at home on William’s lands as if a pack of locusts, eating and drinking everything that came their way, costing the earl and his vassals a fortune. If this insult was not enough, John then marched into the lands of several other Irish lords and forced them to submit to him. If they refused to do so, he seized their lands. The king then turned his attentions back to William and once again attempted to put him on trial, this time for his harboring of the de Briouse family. Yet again, William defended himself honorably, stating that he had not committed treason, forcing John to drop the charges. In one of his trademark displays of spitefulness, the king demanded that William give him more hostages to insure his good behavior, a request that the earl had no choice but to obey. Shortly after this event the king, thankfully, departed Ireland. Though humiliated once again, William had escaped his master’s wrath relatively unscathed, particularly in comparison to some of his fellow lords.

The final five years of the life and reign of King John were dominated by two significant issues at home: John’s excommunication from, and reconciliation with, the church and the outbreak of the Barons’ War. William was to play a substantial advisory role in John’s declining years and would be one of the few noblemen to remain completely and unquestionably loyal to him throughout these times of crises. The earl was recalled from Ireland by the king in mid-1211 so that he may aid him in putting down a rebellion in Wales. Being that William held so much sway in the Welsh marches, he was the perfect candidate to put down the revolt, which he did easily enough. To show that he was serious (at least outwardly) about making amends with his powerful vassal, John returned all of William’s lands and hostages (excepting his eldest son) that he had been holding in order to assure the earl’s loyalty.

This was a crucially wise move by the king because, when John was excommunicated from the Catholic church by Pope Innocent III in August 1211, meaning all those who normally owed him allegiance were now exempt from that oath, William remained at his master’s side and convinced a number of other powerful barons to follow suit. Knowing that John would face an imminent invasion from the French (with papal support) if he did not reconcile himself with the Catholic church sooner rather than later, William advocated to the king that he should make peace with Pope Innocent. John willingly listened to this advice, even though it ended with him acknowledging Innocent as his overlord for England and Ireland. William was well rewarded for his wise counsel in the form of further grants of land and a complete and unconditional return to royal favor.

Over the subsequent years, tensions between the king and his barons slowly simmered before coming to a boiling point with the outbreak of Barons’ War in 1215. In the failed negotiations between the two sides that directly proceeded the outbreak of civil war, William seems to have played the role of moderator, apparently having the confidence of the baronial party in addition to that of the king himself. When war did break out, William refused to defect from the royal party even when prompted by his fellow barons, who threatened to raid his lands (though it does not appear as if the rebels made an serious attempts to make good on this threat). It looks as if William’s role in this early part of the Barons’ War involved strengthening the royal castles, as well as his own, as opposed to taking any real military action.

When it became clear that John was losing the fight, William urged him to make peace with the barons and it was he himself that once again took on the role of nonpartisan moderator. The case can easily be made that William and Archbishop Stephen Langton of Canterbury were the two men who were most responsible for John signing Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215, in addition to being the primary creators of the now-legendary document. As is well known to history, Magna Carta did not end the civil war, but William was still unswerving in his loyalty to the crown, despite the fact that his eldest son William was one of the rebel barons. During this new outbreak of violence it appears that William was most responsible for controlling the situation in Wales and the marches, where his influence was strongest.

When Prince Louis of France was invited by the rebel barons to conquer England, William was one of the envoys sent to the continent to negotiate, unsuccessfully, with King Philip (the prince’s father) to prevent his son from going through with the invasion. The French prince arrived on England’s southern coast in May 1216 and John wisely followed William’s advice in retreating, as opposed to doing battle with his enemies. The earl remained loyal further still, even as Louis and the barons proceeded to take castle after castle, including the capital of London. By the time of John’s sudden death in October 1216, William had risen so high in his esteem that, while on his deathbed, the king supposedly bequeathed custody of the realm, as well as of his nine-year-old son, Prince Henry (who succeeded his father as King Henry III), to him. It would be a great task indeed to prove that William had not earned such a prestigious honor.

The premature death of King John and the accession of a nine-year-old boy to the throne undoubtedly threw the realm into further chaos. Yet, in some ways, the king’s passing was a blessing in disguise. The rebellion had begun because of John’s tyrannical and despotic behavior towards his barons, which led them to garner an intense hatred for him. It would be hard to make the case that it was just to transfer this enmity to a young child. To build momentum and establish legitimacy for the new child-king, William knighted him and had him crowned and anointed King of England very shortly after his father’s death.

Since Henry was obviously too young to rule any kingdom,  (let alone one in the depths of civil war), some sort of arrangement had to be made until the king came of age. Even if King John had not (supposedly) given custody of his heir and the realm to William, it was clear that he was the best man for the job of regent, and virtually all of the important men within the royal party wholeheartedly agreed. William, however, was hesitant to take up the regency to say the very least. After all, he was a man of around seventy and he faced a daunting task of removing a powerful foreign enemy from the kingdom, as well as regaining the allegiance of a majority of the English nobility to the royal cause. It was only when Gualo, the papal legate, informed William that he would be acting as God’s agent on earth in taking up the regency that the earl finally decided to accept the post. While there were certain restrictions on William’s authority, for all intents and purposes, the earl now possessed near-sovereign power and had the final say in all matters pertaining to the well-being of the realm.

To show that he was serious about making amends with those English noblemen who had defected from the crown for John’s past misdeeds, one of William’s first acts as regent was to work with his fellow royalists to draw up a second draft of Magna Carta, which included several important additions and subtractions that would make it more appealing to the disgruntled barons. This task being accomplished in November 1216, William began his next challenge of raising as much money as he possibly could to fill the empty exchequer so that he could pay the mercenaries that would be necessary to fight in the royal army. After selling as much treasure as he could find in royal castles not under enemy control and calling in as many unpaid debts and fines to the crown as possible, this was also accomplished (to at least a satisfactory degree). Knowing that Prince Louis was running low on men and supplies and needed to rejuvenate both assets in France, William’s first strategy was to prevent the French prince from doing so. The regent was unsuccessful in doing this but, in Louis’ absence, the royalists were able to take back a number of important castles.

Unfortunately, when Louis returned to England, he immediately began to regain the ground he had lost, though he did suffer a huge setback when William, Earl of Salisbury (an illegitimate son of Henry II), and William Marshal the younger decided to rejoin the royalists. These defections helped to embolden the regent, whose army soon after scored a decisive defeat against the Franco-baronial forces at the Battle of Lincoln, where William himself was in the thick of the battle in the streets of the town. This loss was a huge setback for the cause of the French prince, who proceeded to retire to the rebel stronghold of London to await further reinforcements from France. But, momentum was clearly on the side of the royalists and, as the rebel barons flocked back to the English royal standard in droves, William had no intention of allowing Louis’ army to land safely. Therefore, the royal army travelled to the coast and set out to sea to intercept them. At the naval Battle of Sandwich, a majority of the French fleet was destroyed or captured, effectively putting the final nail in the coffin of Prince Louis’ plan to conquer England.

This devastating defeat put Louis in full negotiating mode, a development which was greeted happily by the regent, who greatly wanted to see the conflict brought to a conclusion. This mutual desire for peace resulted in the Treaty of Lambeth, which stipulated (among other things) that all English barons who rebelled against the crown were to be granted full pardons and that Louis was to release them from their oaths of allegiance to him and promptly depart England. Another article that William decided to throw in that is a bit more perplexing involves a payment of ten thousand marks to the French prince for him to merely consider returning all of the lands that English noblemen had lost on the continent after the French conquest of the Angevin territories in 1204. This, of course, never happened, making William’s choice to pay Louis such a large sum when the kingdom was struggling financially seem rather uncharacteristically foolish. But, the fact of the matter is that William Marshal, regent of England, was, even at an advanced age, able to rid the realm of civil war and a strong foreign foe. The fact that he did so in such a generous and merciful fashion, only further showed that he was indeed a man of great honor, whom even his enemies could not help but look at with anything but the utmost respect.

The subduing of the Barons’ War was to be the final event of an exciting and adventurous nature in the life of William Marshal. His final two years on earth would be strictly dedicated to administrative tasks which were necessary to bring the structure and economy of England back from the brink of collapse. Just as when he first took up the reins of government following King John’s death, William’s first post-war priority was to draw up yet another draft of Magna Carta (the third and final one), so that all of the barons of the realm could give their input and approval (as opposed to only those who had remained loyal to the crown, as was the case with the second draft).  It appears that William and the papal legate Gualo were the two primary creators of the charter, which was duly completed by the end of the year (though it was not officially confirmed until Henry III came of age in 1225).

During this time of reconstruction, the most dire issue in the kingdom was, by far, the financial situation. Not only did William have to worry about paying the annual tribute to England’s overlord (the Pope), but he now had to find a way to raise the money to pay Prince Louis the ten thousand marks he had promised. This task was made more difficult by the fact that the crown had not been able to collect its general revenues or levy taxes effectively since the outbreak of the Barons’ War. The regent did his very best to accomplish his financial goals by collecting taxes, calling in past due debts and seizing unlawfully-held crown lands, in addition to contributing money out of his own pocket. William’s efforts greatly increased the revenues due to the crown but, even after his death, the financial situation within the kingdom was fair at best, though substantially better than it had been. In addition to these important tasks, William was also responsible for bringing the English justice system out of the near-chaotic state it was in during the civil war; making peace with King Alexander II of Scotland and Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwith of Wales (two of Prince Louis’ most powerful allies during the war); and for creating a new Great Seal for Henry III to use when he reached his majority.

All of these duties and more did William complete during his time as regent of England. By March 1219, William, aged about seventy-three and worn down with the stress and anxiety that inevitably comes with running a kingdom, fell seriously ill. Knowing that he did not have long to live, the earl resigned the regency the following month. With the king still only eleven years of age, the question now arose as to who would succeed William as regent. The two most obvious choices for the position were England’s justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, and Bishop Peter des Roches of Winchester, the young king’s tutor. Both of these men were highly ambitious and William knew that having one of them as regent would only bring about bitterness and envy on the part of the other. Therefore, the earl made the wise decision of handing off authority (though without the official title of regent) to the new papal legate, Pandulf. By doing this, William was essentially leaving the king in the custody of England’s overlord, the Pope, who was represented by the person of the papal legate. Neither de Burgh nor des Roches were happy with this arrangement, but they were not about to question William’s deathbed decision. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke; regent of England; and quite possibly the most well-known and respected knight-errant of his time, breathed his last breath on May 14, 1219. He was succeeded as earl by his eldest son William, though he made sure that all of his children were well-provided for.

Assessment and Analysis

When assessing the life and career of William Marshal (or simply “the Marshal” as he has most famously come to be known as), it is important to understand two crucial facts: His was a life that almost never was; and his was a life that was, but was not much. This statement can easily confuse the general reader and therefore requires an immediate explanation. But, these two facts are critical to seeing William’s achievements for what they truly were: the conquering of seemingly crippling adversities.

William’ s was a life that almost never was because, it must be remembered, when he was a young child he was, for all intents and purposes, left for dead by his own father. If not for the fact that King Stephen was one of the most gentle and sympathetic of medieval monarchs, the historical legend of the Marshal would never have come into existence. Had Stephen decided to follow through on his threat and execute the youth, William would have been nothing more than a tiny blot within the pages of history. Clearly, John Marshal felt that William, as a forth son, was expendable. It is this statement that perfectly explains why William’s was a life that was, but was not much.

Being a forth son of a relatively minor nobleman by no means assured a successful life and career. William was not due to inherit any titles, lands, offices or substantial amount of money. The fact that he worked his way up through society with such persistence is truly astounding. In following the Marshal’s career, one will see that he went from being a sacrificial lamb; to a simple squire; to a knight-errant and soldier; to a royal servant; to a powerful and influential nobleman; and, finally, to regent of England. It would be nearly impossible to find a more impressive career within the Middle Ages than that of William Marshal. This is not to say that the Marshal’s success was not based somewhat on circumstances (the premature deaths of his three elder brothers and his marriage to Isabel de Clare, for example). But, even after taking these facts into consideration, William produced quite an impressive resume.

Over his career, William served four very different kings: Henry II, Richard I, John and Henry III. All four of these monarchs had great respect and admiration for William because of his honor, his staunch loyalty and his absolute refusal to disobey the basic chain of command and other aspects of feudal law. When William first began his service to the Plantagenet royal family within the household of Henry the Young King, he absolutely refused to abandon his master during the Great War, even though the latter was committing treason against Henry II. The reason William gave was that he owed direct allegiance to the Young King who, in turn, owed allegiance to his father. Once the Young King died, Henry II gladly accepted William into his own household and the latter remained loyal until the day the Old King died.

William was so loyal to the Henry II that he even risked gaining the permanent enmity of Richard the Lionheart when he knocked him off his horse just days before he took the throne. Instead of punishing William, Richard admired the fact that he did not desert his rightful sovereign in his time of need. William then further proved his loyalty to the new monarch by remaining completely loyal to him during his absence on crusade, his captivity and the attempts of Prince John and Philip of France to usurp his crown and fiefs. When Richard died, William, without hesitation, transferred his allegiance over to John, the monarch with whom he shared his most complex relationship with.

To a certain extent, William and John were kindred spirits. They were both forth sons who were never expected to achieve much and were written off early on as mere background figures. Yet, fate had other plans for both of them. Unfortunately, John was, by nature, a paranoid and jealous man and garnered a certain amount of rancor towards William. While both men were wealthy and successful beyond their wildest dreams, William was looked upon with a great deal of admiration, while John was looked upon with just as much scorn. John did not appreciate the fact that William followed feudal law so strictly that he would not fight against Philip of France on the continent because he owed allegiance to the latter for his Norman fiefs. The fact that William held great sway in Ireland, a land that John was overlord of, only further instigated the situation. Naturally, John attempted to destroy his powerful, yet faithful vassal.

But, in the end, even a man as stubborn as John realized that he would be a fool to not want a man such as William Marshal on his side. Even through John's falling out with the church and the outbreak of the Barons' War did William remain completely and utterly loyal to his king. Finally, this loyalty was transferred to the young Henry III, in whose name William took up his most prestigious position to date: the regency of England. His two and a half years as regent marked the pinnacle of William's brilliant career and proved that, even as a man over seventy, he was dedicated to upholding the principles of honor, chivalry and loyalty. One would indeed be hard pressed to find a greater and more inspiring success story within the Middle Ages than that of William Marshal. Though not without his faults, there was no man in the kingdom more admired than William. Upon his death, even those who considered him to be an enemy, could not help but shed a tear for the loss of the most well-respected knight in Europe, the great Marshal of England.

Primary Source

Sidney Painter, William Marshal: Knight-Errant, Baron and Regent of England

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