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A knight resting a sword on his shoulder

William Marshal: England’s greatest knight


He rose from obscurity to become a renowned warrior, a confidante of kings, and, just when he should have been thinking of retiring, the saviour of England. Meet William Marshal, the nation’s greatest-ever knight.

The young hostage

William’s first brush with danger came early when he was almost catapulted into a castle as a young boy. This was in 1152 when England was mired in the Anarchy – a messy civil war triggered by a succession dispute between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. William’s father, John Marshal, was a minor nobleman who had originally supported the king, before switching allegiance to Matilda.

King Stephen duly besieged Newbury Castle, where John and his people were holed up. The king declared that if John did not surrender, he would kill young William – whom he had taken as a hostage – by firing him at the castle with a trebuchet (a catapult-like siege engine). According to the medieval biography of Marshal, the young lad innocently assumed the trebuchet was a swing to play on. His father, meanwhile, had already dared the king to go ahead and kill the boy, saying that he ‘still had the anvils and hammers to produce even finer sons.’

Ultimately, the king could not bring himself to harm the boy, and he was later released. All set to start a life that would change the nation.

The celebrity knight

William went to Normandy to begin training as a knight in his teenage years. He soon distinguished himself as a champion competitor at tournaments, where knights would hone their skills through often messy, wide-ranging mock battles that could be deadly (a far cry from the more regulated jousting tournaments that emerged in the later medieval period).

William came to the notice of Eleanor of Aquitaine – Queen of England because of her marriage to Henry II. William developed a famous friendship with her fun-loving, athletic son, Henry the Young King. Henry was an enthusiastic patron of the tournament circuit, and William continued to achieve renown in the mock battles, amassing wealth and fame like the medieval equivalent of a football star.

When Henry the Young Kid was succumbing to dysentery, aged just 28, he asked William to fulfil his vow to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was then a crusader state. William did just that.

The royal favourite

After returning from the Middle East, William became a key member of Henry II’s court. So key, in fact, that the king handed him a grand estate in Cumbria. William later became embroiled in a long-running power struggle between Henry and his heir, Richard the Lionheart (brother of William’s old friend Henry the Young Kid). This led to a dramatic confrontation in which William managed to force the great warrior Richard from his horse. Instead of slaying the upstart prince, William made an example of him by killing his horse.

Rather than bearing a grudge, Richard recognised William’s value as a warrior and man of principle and retained him at court when he became king after Henry II’s death in 1189. Not only that, but Richard arranged for William’s marriage to the immensely wealthy noblewoman, Isabel de Clare. The 43-year-old William’s wedding to the 17-year-old Isabel instantly made him one of the richest and most powerful men in the realm – quite a turn-up for someone from an obscure background who had started his career as a jobbing knight.

The power broker

In 1199, Richard was succeeded by his controversial brother, King John, whose rocky reign would see William play an even more significant role in English history. The king’s economic policies and autocratic rule led to a rebellion by wealthy barons, which threatened to become an all-out civil war. William was one of the chief negotiators between the king and the barons and played a crucial role in the creation of the Magna Carta in 1215.

But Magna Carta was only a temporary respite, and hostilities soon resumed. For support against the king, the barons turned to the French Prince Louis, who had a tenuous claim to the English throne because he was married to John’s niece. In 1216, Louis and his forces landed in England and marched to London, where the French prince was proclaimed Louis I of England. Almost exactly 150 years after the Battle of Hastings, a new conquest of the country was underway, and William Marshal was about to come to England’s rescue.

The champion of England

King John died during Louis’ invasion. His son Henry III was still a child, and William was appointed regent. At 70 years old, the veteran knight found himself the ruler of England and facing down an existential threat from Louis, who by this time controlled much of the realm.

Not only was William a legendary and respected warrior, but he was a canny political operator. With John now dead, William was able to persuade some of the barons to retract their support for Louis and return to the English royal fold. Things came to a head at 1217’s Battle of Lincoln – a crucial confrontation between William and Louis’ forces. Despite his advanced age, William led his knights and crossbowmen in person, and over six hours he oversaw a decisive victory over the French troops.

It was a great turning point. Some months later, a naval victory cut off vital reinforcements for Louis, who was forced to negotiate a peace treaty that year. William’s victory over the invaders capped an incredible career as a soldier, celebrity, and political giant. He died in 1219 and was inducted into the Knights Templar on his deathbed. A fitting final moment for England’s greatest knight.