William Marshal - Events in Life and Historical Context

By Richard Abels. [I am grateful to the author for permission to include a copy of this page here.]

William Marshal was the fourth son of John fitz Gilbert, hereditary marshal of--keeper of the horses-- of the Anglo-Norman kings . William was born ca. 1147, John's second son by his second wife, Sybil (whom he married in 1145), the sister of Earl Patrick of Salisbury. John was a local baron in southwestern England (Wiltshire and Berkshire), who had considerable local clout, especially during the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Mathilda.  As a younger son of a local baron, William was destined to be a serving knight.  He was a household retainer of various lords (including the Angevin kings: Henry the Young King and his father Henry II) and distinguished himself for his prowess in tournaments and war and his loyalty to his masters.  It was not until 1187, when he was forty years old that he received a landed endowment. Henry II gave him the lordship of Cartmel in northwestern England.  He was granted the hand of Isabel de Clare, heiress of Earl Richard (Strongbow) of Striguil in 1189. From 1189-1219, William was de facto Earl of Pembroke (in southwestern Wales) and Striguil (in the Welsh 'marches,' i.e. frontier), lord of Longueville in Normandy, Earl of Leinster (southeastern Ireland) [title of 'earl' granted by King John, 1199]; regent for Henry III's minority (1216-1219).


1066 - William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy (in modern day northwest France) conquers England and becomes the king of England. This is the beginning of the close (and often hostile) relations between the kings of England and the kings of France that was to mark European politics for the next four centuries. For the king of England, in his capacity as duke of Normandy, was in theory a vassal of the king of France.

1100-1135 - Reign of Henry I, William the Conqueror's third and youngest son. Creation of the COMMON LAW (royal law enforceable throughout the realm). Sophisticated central administration characterized by 1) royal circuit justices; 2) treasury and accounting department (Exchequer); 3) written records of royal revenues and expenditures ('Pipe Rolls').

1135 - Henry's dies without legitimate male issue (his only legitimate son drowned in 1120). With the death of Henry I, a civil war erupts over the question of who will succeed to the throne. The two claimants are:

-Mathilda, daughter of Henry I and designated heiress; her husband is Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou; their son is Henry Plantagenet, destined to become Henry II. Painter refers to Mathilda as "countess Mathilda" She Is assisted in her campaign for the throne by Robert of Gloucester, her half-brother (the eldest bastard son of Henry I).

-Stephen of Blois, count of Boulogne and Mortain, and son of William the Conqueror's daughter Adela. His wife is (confuslngly) also named Mathilda; Painter refers to her as "Queen Mathilda."

The result is FEUDAL ANARCHY between 1139 and 1153. The disputants bid for the loyalty of the barons, and many of the barons shift allegiance as it suits their family interests.

1141-John fitz Gilbert, marshal (i.e. keeper of the King's horses) of the court and a prominent local landholder in southwestern England (Berkshire and Wiltshire), had sworn allegiance to Stephen, but then switches his allegiance to countess Mathilda. He wins her favor by holding a bridge at the river Test so that she can escape to the stronghold of his castle at Ludgershall. Story: John was pursued by Stephen's knights into a nearby nunnery, which they set afire to flush him out. Threatening a companion knight with death if he left, John stayed within the burning building. Believing him dead, his pursuers lefts, and John staggered home, scarred but alive.

1145 -John fitz Gilbert's ambitions bring him into conflict with the most powerful magnate in Wiltshire, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury. To resolve their dispute, John agrees to become Patrick's man. Together the two plunder the surrounding countryside. To cement the alliance, John puts away his wife and marries Patrick's sister, Sybile. William Marshal is their second son.

1146/1147 -William Marshal is born. Note the uncertainty about the date. He was not then a great man, and his birth went unrecorded.

1152 - William is given as a hostage to the forces of King

Stephen, who is besieging John fitz Gilbert's castle of Newbury.

Story: John, needing to reinforce and provision Newbury arranges a truce with Stephen, ostensibly to give John time to consult with Mathilda on possible surrender. Stephen demands a hostage, and John hands over his son William (then four or five). John promptly broke his promise, telling the King that he could do what he wanted with the child (John: I have the hammer and anvils to make more and better sons'). Stephen couldn't bring himself to kill the child.

1153 - The civil war comes to an end with the agreement that Stephen is to rule in peace for the rest of his life. Henry, son of countess Matihlda and Geoffrey Plantagenet is to succeed him. Henry is to be the first "ANGEVIN" (i.e. counts of Anjou) king of England.

1154 - Stephen dies; Henry Plantagenet, or Henry II, succeeds to the Crown. By inheritance, Henry II is 1) king of England, 2) duke of Normandy, 3) Count of Anjou. Through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine (in 1152) he also holds (very loosely) the duchy of Aquitaine. By the time of his death in 1189 Henry's dominions will include England, Ireland, and the western half of France. The king of France's domain, in comparison, was a territory about the size of Vermont extending from a little north of Paris to Orleans.

John fitz Gilbert is awarded wiith numerous holdings for his loyalty to countess Mathilda's cause.

ca. 1159-1167- William serves as squire to John fitz Gilbert's (or, perhaps, his mother's) cousin, William of Tancarville, Chamberlain of Normandy, a powerful Norman baron.

1165 -John fitz Gilbert and his eldest son Gilbert both die. William's elder brother John inherits the patrimony.

1167 - William is knighted (in a simple affair) by William of Tancarville at Driencourt, where a number of Norman knights have assembled for the purpose of helping King Henry II in his war with King Louis VII of France. William of Tancarville, the Count of Eu, and the Earl of Essex successfully defend the town of Neufchatel against the forces of the powerful Philip Count of Flanders, an ally of Louis VII. William distinguishes himself in combat, but loses his horse.

Story: William became the butt of a joke. During the celebration, Earl William de Mandeville asked William for a horse collar. The young knight responded that he has none. "What are you saying," the earl growled, "you had forty or sixty of them, yet you refuse me so small a thing!" The point: William had to learn that a knight fights for profit as well as glory. A lesson in the realities of war.)

Later in the year, Earl Patrick, William's uncle, is killed by the de Lusignan brothers, knights of Louis VII, and William Marshal is injured in the same fray. He is ransomed by Eleanor of Aquitaine (wife of Henry II), whom he and the Earl were defending.

NB: King Henry II and King Louis VII were heartfelt enemies. Louis perceived Henry as a threat to royal power in France, for the 'Angevin Empire' dwarfed the French royal domain. There is also a personal element to the animosity: Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had been previously married to Louis VII. Since Louis VII could not defeat Henry II militarily, he resorted to intrigue, using the discontent of Henry's sons. He also aided Archbishop Thomas Becket in his dispute with Henry (1166-1170).

1170 - King Henry II elevates his eldest son Henry to the dignity of king, but keeps all power in his own hands. Henry II keeps his son on a generous allowance, and tries to control his household (mesnie) by appointing the household officers and clerics. Henry the Younger, without responsibilities, surrounds himself with young, 'chivalrous' knights, and spends his days going to tournaments, hunting, and spending money recklessly. In the terms of the age, Henry the Younger, despite his anointing as king, remains a "youth" (landless knight). What Henry wants is rule of either Normandy, Anjou, or England. Henry tells him to be content with the title.

Henry II, impressed with William Marshal's service in the recent war, appoints him tutor in chivalry to the Young King. The Marshal soon becomes young Henry's devoted retainer.

1173-1174 - King Henry the Younger and his teenage brothers Richard (15) and Geoffrey (14) rebel against Henry II, angered by his refusal to give them any real power or substantial income. They are encouraged in their revolt by Louis VII and by their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who has been angered by the king's infidelity. The revolt ends when Henry gives his sons greater responsibility and authority.

It is during the course of this revolt that William Marshal knights the young Henry. This is the world turned upside down, since Henry is his lord.

1177-9 -William is on the tournament circuit as partner to another bachelor in Henry's household, Roger de Gaugie; for two years they go from tourney to tourney. According to list kept by Wigain, the young king's clerk, they captured 103 knights in the course of 10 months.)

1180 - Philip II Augustus (1180-1123) succeeds his father as king of France. Philip is to pursue a much more hostile policy towards the Angevin kings.

1182 -William is disgraced and cast out of the Young King's household. He is accused of adultery w/ Henry's wife Margaret, d. of Louis VII of France, by members of Young King's household who were jealous of him. He demands justice before Henry II at Caen during Christmas 1182, asking for trial by combat, but is refused permission to prove innocence.

Story: In 1175 Count Philip of Flanders had discovered on his mesnie in a secret liaison with his wife. The culprit was denied a hearing; executed summarily by, first, being beaten by the count's butchers and then hung head down in a latrine until he suffocated. Adultery was not taken lightly. It was considered to be a felony, i.e. betrayal of one's feudal vows.)

1183 -Wm Marshal receives offers from French nobles, but refuses them. He becomes a knight-errant, travelling to a tournament at Gournai in Jan 1183, then to Cologne, and then back to France, until he is reconciled w/ Henry the Younger in Feb 1183.

(The author of the Histoire tells a story about how William Marshal met a runaway monk and lady in the forest and took their money in order to prevent the monk from committing the sin of usury--perhaps a bit hypocritically, given that William was later to receive the gift of a Jew from King John. This incident is revealing about the nature of 12th-century chivalry.)

The Poitevin vassals of Henry II's son Richard the Lionhearted, now duke of Aquitaine and Poitou, rebel against his harsh rule. Richard's brothers Henry and Geoffrey count of Brittany, decide to assist the rebels, which leads to Richard seeking his father's aid. The war between brothers now becomes a war of sons against their father. Henry the Younger finds himself once again at war with Henry II. Needing all the good advisors and strong warriors he could possibly obtain, he allows himself to be reconciled with William Marshal. The reconciliation between Henry and William was brought about by the advise of Geoffrey de Lusignan, William's old enemy.

June 1183--Henry the Younger dies in the midst of the rebellion.

He had vowed to go on crusade (the breaking of which vow led him to have his dying body taken from his bed and laid on bed with ashes, with a stone pillow, a hair shirt on his back, and noose around his neck. He kissed the ring that his father had sent him as a token of peace and died. Before dying he asked William Marshal to fulfil his vow.

1183-86--William was on Crusade. Promised Templars that he would end his day amongst them and buried in a Templar house.

1187-89- Continued raids, sieges, battles, conferences and truces between Henry II and Philip Augustus. Richard II, son and now heir apparent of Henry II, switches his allegiance from one side to the other. He is affianced to Philip's sister Alice, and is fearful (with some reason, it seems) that Henry II will give the crown to his younger brother, John, so he ultimately throws his forces in with Philip Augustus. Together they defeat Henry II and he dies in 1189, a defeated and broken man.

1186 -William Marshal Enters Henry II's mesnie (i.e. household).

1187 -William receives the grant of a FIEF, CARTMEL, a large royal estate (28,747 acres) in Lancashire, and is given custody of HELOIS of Lancaster, one of the king's female wards, heiress of the barony of Kendal in Lancashire and Westmoreland. Apparently Henry II intended to settle William in northern England. If he had married Helois, Wm would have achieved the same status as his older brother.

1189-1199 -Richard succeeds his father as Richard I (the Lionheart). He is especially known for winning glory in the Third Crusade, being captured by the duke of Austria and held for ransom by the Holy Roman Emperor on his way home from the Holy Land. Avid about defending his Angevin holdings in France (which Philip Augustus attacked during Richard's absence).

1187-1189 RICHARD THE LIONHEART, Henry II's eldest son and heir presumptive, rebelled against his father with the aid of Henry's feudal overlord, King Philip Augustus of France (1180-1223). Richard had long been angered--since 1184--by Henry's stated plan to take the duchy of Aquitaine away from him and to transfer it to his brother John (of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame) in return for acknowledging Richard as heir to the Crown. In 1187 Henry refused to confirm that Richard would succeed him, and so Richard defected to the side of Henry II's lord and enemy, King Philip.

1189 William is used as an emissary to Richard. The negotiations failed, but William's stock rose, and Henry rewarded him by allowing him to trade up in his marital prospects, exchanging Heloise for ISABEL de Clare, daughter of earl Richard Strongbow (Norman conqueror of Ireland), and heiress to Pembroke, Striguil, and Leinster, a vast barony in Wales, the Welsh marches, and Ireland.

4 June 1189 William almost killed an unarmed Richard in battle (killed his horse instead). 6 July 1189 Henry II died--William took charge of the burial--and Richard became king.

William made his peace with RICHARD I, though he refused to apologize for killing his horse, and Richard gave him the heiress that Henry II had promised. William married Isabel in August 1189 and became, by right of his wife, Lord of Striguil and Pembroke. (Striguil consisted of 65.5 knights' fees, and a large demesne in south east Wales; Pembroke was an earldom in southwest Wales.) William also received his wife's claim to a great lordship in Ireland, Leinster (in theory a great prize, but in practice held firmly by Richard's brother, John), and the lands of Orbec and Longueville in Normandy. Richard allowed William to buy control of the office of sheriff of Gloucester, and to purchase half of another lordship, the lordship of Giffard.)

William celebrated his good fortune by going on a circuit of his wife's lands, taking homage and demanding relief from his new vassals, and by founding a priory with his lands at Cartmel, which he dedicated to the souls of Henry II, and 'his lord' King Henry the Younger (note that William in 1189 still identified himself as the man of the Young King).

1190-1194. Richard was on Crusade (until 1192), and then was a prisoner of the Emperor Henry VI (1192-4). William remained in England during this time, and served as subordinate justiciar (a royal justice) and sheriff of Lincoln. He first supported the king's brother Earl John (his overlord in Ireland) against Richard's viceregent, Bishop William de Longchamps. But William remained loyal to Richard--albeit reluctantly--when John rebelled with the aid of Philip Augustus in 1193.

1194 -William's elder brother John Marshal died and William succeeded to his father's inheritance and to the title of royal Marshal (keeper of the king's stables). From 1195-1199 William fought for Richard on the continent against Philip Augustus and served his lord on a diplomatic mission to Flanders.

1199-1216 - Reign of King John, Richard's younger brother.

John was a relatively weak king who lost much of the Angevin holdings in France to Philip Augustus. Because he needed money for mercenaries, he used his feudal rights extortionately. And because he proved unsuccessful in recovering these lands (which meant massive losses for the English nobility), he came to be despised and hated by his nobles. Hence Magna Carta (1215). In addition, he becomes embroiled in a losing struggle with the papacy when he insists on his right to appoint nominees to the archbishopric of Canterbury. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, King John undertakes to win the friendship of the pope when It becomes obvious that he can not win against him; he gives the pope the entire realm of England and receives it back from him as his vassal.

Richard died on 20 March 1199 and John became king (despite the claims of his nephew Arthur of Brittany, son of his elder brother Geoffrey). William supported John's claim to the Crown. John rewarded him by confirming his lands and bestowing upon him the title in his own right of earl (before this he was simply the husband of a countess). John made him sheriff of Gloucestershire and of Sussex. He became one of John's court and from 1200-1203 his name appears frequently as a witness on the king's charters.

1203-1204 Philip Augustus conquered Normandy, Maine, Anjou. This created a dilemma for William, who held land in Normandy as well as England. While serving as John's ambassador to Philip (1204), William agreed to do homage to Philip for his Norman lands if John had not recovered Normandy within a year (apparently with John's permission). The result was William saved his French holdings and lost the favor of the king, especially after William refused to go on campaign against Philip in France, pleading his homage to the French king. John accused him of cowardice and disloyalty and demanded that William give him his eldest son as a hostage. John went to Poitou in France; William was entrusted with the military defence of England. From this pount until 1212 William was out of royal favor.

1207-1212 William Marshal, having lost the king's love, left court and sailed to Ireland to try to secure his wife's Irish inheritance, the county of Leinster. This period is marked by William's war against his Irish vassals led by Meilyr fitz Henry, John's justiciar in Ireland, who refused to acknowledge William's lordship (at one point, William was recalled to England by John, leaving Isabel in Ireland; she ended up being besieged. King John went so far as to confiscate the lands of John of Early and William's other household knights who held in chief from him). In 1208 William's relations with John took still another turn for the worse, because of William's harboring in Ireland of the fugitive baron William de Braose, not only William's friend but also his overlord for some land in England. John couldn't prove that William was guilty of treason, but he still demanded further hostage, including his squire and best friend John of Early.

1212 John recalled William to England to fight against the Welsh. He was reconciled with John, who released the hostages. After returning to Ireland, William again was reclaled in April 1213 to aid John against his rebellious vassals. From 1213 to 1215 William was John's most trusted and loyal supporter. He advised the king, served as guardian for the king's eldest son Henry, and served John as both a castellan (warden of royal castles) and justice.

15 June 1215 at RUNNYMEDE Marshal was one of the royal representative who witnessed the MAGNA CARTA and swore to uphold its provisions. He was sent on embassy to King Philip of France, who was about to invade, but the negotiations failed. Philip Augustus sent his eldest son Louis (later to be King Louis VIII of France) with an expeditionary force to aid the English rebels, and William's eldest son sided with Louis. William himself remained loyal to John and led his troops until John's death on 19 Oct. 1216. John's son Henry, still a boy, succeeded as King Henry III. The war with the French continued.

1216-1272 - Reign of Henry III. Henry is only nine years old at his father's death. The papal legate initially serves as his regent, followed by William Marshal when the Cardinal leaves the country in 1218.

1216-1219. On 11 Nov 1216 William Marshal was formally chosen by the king's council (the chief barons who remained loyal to John) to serve as 'regent of the king and the kingdom'. William's first action was to reissue the Magna Carta. William commanded the royalist troops, and even fought in hand to hand combat during the siege of Lincoln. The result was a royalist victory, and a favorable treaty with the French (11 Sept. 1217). 1218 witnessed some mopping up of recalcitrant English rebels.

14 May 1219 William Marshal died at Caversham near Reading. As he lay dying he fulfilled his vow to the Templars by becoming one of their order and by his own directions was buried in the Temple Church at London. William left behind a widow, five sons and five daughters. Ironically, none of his sons left sons and the great Marshal barony lasted only a single generation.


William's dying shows him stripping off various layers of his mortal self: his regency, his baronage, his secular profession (becoming a Templar), his moveables (treasures), and, finally, his life itself. As presented in the Histoire, William's dying is a theater of renunciation.

A. Resignation of the Regency: In March of 1219 Wm realized that he was dying. Summoning his eldest son William and his household knights he left the Tower of London for his estate at Caversham (Oxfordshire), where he summoned a meeting of the magnates of the realm, including Henry III, the papal legate, and the royal justiciar (Hugh de Burgh), and Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester (the young king's guardian). Rejecting the bishop's claim to the regency, William entrusted the young king into the care of the papal legate. William, obviously, did not trust Peter or any other magnate.

B. Bequests to children.

I. Main bequests determined by law and custom of inheritance (not by will)

i. Countess Isabel--would hold during her lifetime her own inheritance (Striguil, Pembroke, Leinster, and the honor of Giffard).

ii. William the Younger (eldest son) received immediately the patrimony (the Marshal ancestral lands in Berks and Wilts) and was heir to the honour held by his mother.

II. Secondary bequests by will (Lords, it would be well if I should complete my will and take care for my soul....This is the time to free myself from all earthly cares and turn my thoughst to things celestial"--Painter 280). William first made an oral testament, witnessed by his sons and household, and then had it drawn up in written form by his almoner Geoffrey the Templar. It was sealed by the Mashal, his wife, and his eldest son.

1. The sons

i. Richard (second son, at that time in the court of Philip Augustus in Paris)--the Norman lordship of Longueville and the Giffard lands in Bucks (held by Isabel for her lifetime) ii. Walter--estate of Sturminster (acquired from count of Meulan)

iii. Gilbert, third son, was to be a churchman.

iv. Walter, then a boy, an unknown amount of land.

v. Anselm, the youngest son, first received nothing, but, through the pleas of John of Earley, was provided with Irish lands worth 140 pounds (ordinary knight's fee was worth 20 pounds).

2. Daughters

i. Joan, the only unmarried daughter, received lands worth 30 pounds a year and a cash sum of 133 pounds 6s.8d.

3. Legacies to monasteries: 33 pounds to Notley abbey; 10 marks (6 pounds 13s.4d) to the cathedral of Leinster.

C. The Marshal's body

Fulfilling his vow made as a crusader, William became a Templar and arranged to buried at the church of the New Temple in London. He gave a manor in Hertforshire to the Templars as a gift.

D. The Marshal's moveables

The day before Wm died one of his chaplains, Philip, advised him to sell his rich robes in the wardrobe and to use the money for charity to benefit his soul. "Be silent mischievous man," William berated the cleric. "You have not the heart of a gentleman, and I have had too much of your advice. Pentecost is at hand, and my knights ought to have theirnew robes. This will be the last time that I will supply them, yet you seek to prevent me from doing it."Painter 287-88.

E. Marshal's death

Midday 14 May 1219. To John of Earley:"Summon the countess and the knights, for I am dying.I can wait no longer, and I wish to take leave of them." To wife and household:"I am dying. I commend you to God. I can no longer be with you. I cannot defend myself from death."

The abbot of Reading told the dying earl, "Sire, the legate salutes you. He sends you word by me that last night at Cirencester he had a vision about you. God had given to St.Peter and his successors, the popes, the power to bind and unbind all sinners. By virtue of this power, delegated to himby the pope, the legate absolvesfrom all the sins you have committed since your birth which you duly confessed." Plenary indulgence from pope. Wm confessed, was absolved and died.

The body was carried to Reading abbey and placed in a chapel that Wm had founded. Mass was said, and the corpse was then taken to Staines, where the great barons of the realm met the procession. The bier was carried to Westminster abbey, where another mass was celebrated, and finally interred in the Temple church.

Postscript: years later, about 1240 or so, the body was moved and the tomb opened. The body was putrid with decay. Matthew Paris, a monk and chronicler, regarded this as evidence of Wm's sins. He had died an excommunicant (by the Irish Bishop of Ferns).

While John of Earley had no doubt about William's final resting place, it is obvious that not all of his contemporaries agreed.