For someone who played such a key part in the politics, drama - and eventual peace - in Medieval England, it's a wonder we don't hear more about Sir William Marshall. Here are 10 reasons William Marshall still totally deserves the title of 'The Greatest Knight'.
He helped shape the Magna Carta
William accompanied King John to Runnymede in 1215 for the Magna Carta negotiations, but when John withdrew his agreement shortly afterwards, it's William Marshall we have to thank for its resurrection. After John's death and Henry III's coronation, William (who was now acting as regent) proposed a newly drafted version, under his seal and the seal of the papal legate, to appease the barons and try to bring rest to England. (1) He also tried to get the Magna Carta agreed in Ireland too, but this never happened. There continued to be a lot of debate over the terms of Magna Carta, with the issuing of new drafts in 1216 and 1217. Eventually, Henry III reissued the final draft in 1225. The significance of the Magna Carta has often been said to have been vital to the evolution of English law, and the later US Constitution. (2)
He fought against the French at the Battle of Lincoln, when he was 70 years old
This is the now often-told-tale of how William, aged 70, rode into battle at Lincoln Castle to fight the French in May 1217 and forgot to put on his helmet. In the end, he remembered (thank goodness) and, with his royalist troops, successfully defeated Prince Louis' forces. Aged 70. Which was really elderly in Medieval terms. With all that armour on. Seriously. This guy.
He served under four different kings, and was loyal to all of them
William Marshall first served under Henry II, and then Richard I, John and Henry III. He was well known for his loyalty to the crown. Even though there was animosity at times between him and King John, John did end up entrusting him with the kingdom - and his son - after his death.
He battled adversity
Looking at William's accomplishments and considerable wealth, it's even more awe-inspiring to consider where he came from. His father, John Marshall, switched sides during the Anarchy, and supported Matilda. When King Stephen found out, he ensured John's future loyalty by taking his young five-year old son, William. His father still switched sides though, and when Stephen threatened to kill the child, his father retorted that he had 'the hammer and anvil' to make more and better sons, putting his son in immediate danger. Stephen didn't have the heart to kill him though, and William was sent to live out his childhood under the care of his mother's cousin in Normandy, France. (3) He then trained for the battlefield, taking part in organised melees, where his talents were noticed. He was left nothing in his father's will. Despite everything - William kept going and never gave up. It makes you wonder whether his childhood adversity helped shape the determination and fighting spirit he was known for later in life.
He was only threatened once he was dead
It seems that honestly no one had the nerve to threaten William during his lifetime. It's said he often offered to fight trials by combat, but no one came forward. However one person actually did curse him - but after his death. The Irish Bishop of Ferns lost lands to William, during wartime. The Bishop petitioned the king to return these lands after Marshall's death but he was unsuccessful. The frustrated and angry Bishop then placed a curse on the Marshall family, saying that William's sons would have no more male heirs. The male line did indeed die out in 1245 when Anselm Marshall, William's youngest son, died. Ooo. *blinks slowly* (4)
He presided over Henry III's coronation
King John died in 1216, leaving his nine-year old son to inherit the throne. And with most of London being in the hands of the French, William knew that he needed to get John's son Henry crowned as soon as possible, to enable a smooth succession. He quickly organised a ceremony at Gloucester Cathedral where he knighted the young prince and the papal legate crowned him. William was one of the thirteen executors appointed by John to look after the country in his son's minority, but he entrusted William as guardian to the young king.
He defeated Richard the Lionheart
OK, so he was loyal to the crown - but when Richard, as a young prince, decided to rebel against his father, William fought on the side of Henry II and he and Richard came to blows. They met in battle, and William managed to unseat Richard from his horse (yeah, you know, the one they call the Lionheart for his bravery and courage) and could easily have killed him, but instead, William killed his horse, to 'make a point'. Richard never forgot this, and rewarded William for his loyalty once he became king. (3)
He ruled the whole of England, from a small, green village in Berkshire
When John died, he placed his son under the care of William Marshall. Although he had a council of nobles to assist him, William ran the country as regent from his estate in Caversham, near Reading. It's thought that his moated manor house was once on the site of today's Dean's Farm. It was also here, in 1219, that William died at the age of 72. His body was taken from Caversham to Reading Abbey and then to London, to be buried in the Temple Church. (5)
He trusted no one
When William knew that death was near, he went home to Caversham, where he called a meeting of the influential barons and bishops. The Bishop of Winchester very much wanted to take over as regent on William's death, but William apparently trusted none of these men, sent them all home and passed the regency to the papal legate, instead. Over the years he had certainly gained enough experience to be able to understand the motives and characters of those in power. (4) He would not be swayed or influenced by arguments or words and he clearly made a careful decision, motivated no doubt, like many of his other decisions, to keep the country at peace.
It would be a very different England now if William had never existed
William is the reason the Magna Carta - the document that puts limits on the power of the monarch - was re-written, re-negotiated and eventually agreed. It calmed down the barons and settled England into a time of peace. It was also his leadership and experience that led to the defeat of the French at the Battle of Lincoln. Without it, and if the French had won, we might have had a King Louis in our history, which would have changed the course of every successive kingship after that. Imagine English history with no Tudors, or Georgians. And he ensured, on his death, that England was reunited behind the young Henry III.
What do you think? Do you have any thoughts about William Marshall? Let me know in the comments below...
You might also like 9 Times The Empress Matilda Was a Total Badass and Ladies of Magna Carta - A Review.
Notes and Sources - all accessed 24 Sept 2020.
1. Allen Shoenberger, William Marshal, Great Knight and Protector of Magna Carta: The Unknown Founder of the Right of Englishmen and Americans!, 50 J. Marshall L. Rev. 1 (2016)
2. Britannica, Magna Carta
3. Ben Johnson, A Knight's Tale - William Marshall.
4. Wikipedia - William Marshall, First Earl of Pembroke
5. Reading Museum, The Greatest Knight to be Found in All the World.