William Marshal, 3rd Earl of Pembroke
(1146–14 May 1219)




William Marshal, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (1146–14 May 1219), also called William the Marshal (Guillaume le Maréchal), was an English soldier and statesman. He has been described as the "greatest knight that ever lived" (Stephen Langton). He served five kings — Henry the Young King, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John and Henry III — and rose from obscurity to become one of the most powerful men in Europe. Before him, the hereditary title of "Lord Marshal" designated a sort of head of household security for the king of England; by the time he died, when people in Europe (not just England) said, "the Marshal," they meant William.

A Remarkable Beginning
In 1152, when William was probably about six years old, his father John Marshal switched sides in the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. When King Stephen besieged Newbury Castle, Stephen used William as a hostage to ensure that John kept a promise to surrender the castle. John broke his word, and when Stephen ordered John to surrender immediately or watch as he hanged William in front of the castle, John replied that he go ahead, for "I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!" Fortunately for the child, Stephen could not bring himself to hang young William, and John's words were to prove very unlikely.

As a younger son of a minor nobleman, William had no lands or fortune to inherit, and had to make his own way in life. As a young man he was sent to France to serve in the household of William de Tancarville, where he began his training to become a knight. Through William de Tancarville, he served in the household of mother's brother, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, but in 1168 his uncle was killed in an ambush by Guy of Lusignan. William was injured and captured in the same battle, but was ransomed by Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was apparently impressed by tales of his bravery. He had been knighted in 1167, and soon found he could make a good living out of winning tournaments. At that time tournaments were dangerous, often deadly, staged battles, not the jousting contests that would come later, and money could be won by capturing and ransoming opponents. His record is legendary: he fought in 5000 such bouts in his life and never lost once.

"The Flower of Chivalry"
By 1170 his stature had risen so far that he was appointed tutor in chivalry for Henry the Young King, son of Henry II of England. The Young King's relations with his father were always fractious, and William stood by Henry during the Revolt of 1173-1174, during which he knighted the Young King. However, in 1182 William Marshal was accused of undue familiarity with Marguerite of France, the Young King's wife, and was exiled from court. He went to the court of Henry II that Christmas to ask for trial by combat to prove his innocence, but this was refused. A few months later the Young King died, and on his deathbed he asked William to fulfil his vow of going on a Crusade. William did so, crusading in the Holy Land from 1183 to 1186; while there he vowed to be buried as a Knight Templar.

The Right Hand of Kings
Upon his return William rejoined the court of King Henry II, and now served the father through the many rebellions of his remaining sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and John). In 1189, while covering the flight of Henry II from Le Mans to Chinon, William unhorsed the undutiful Richard in a skirmish. William could have killed the prince but killed his horse instead, to make that point clear. After Henry's death, he was welcomed at court by his former adversary, now King Richard I, who was not foolish enough to exclude a man whose legend, and power, just kept growing.

In August 1189, when he was 43, King Richard arranged for him to marry the second-richest heiress in England, Isabel de Clare, the 17-year-old daughter of Strongbow. Her father, had been Earl of Pembroke, and this title was granted to William, along with large estates in England, Wales, Normandy and Ireland. The marriage transformed the landless knight from a minor family into one of the richest men in the kingdom, a sign of his power and prestige at court. They had five sons and six daughters, and though every one of them survived into adulthood, their family line went no further (see below). William made numerous improvements to his wife's lands, including extensive additions to Pembroke Castle and Chepstow Castle.

William was included in the council of regency which the King appointed on his departure for the Third Crusade in 1190. He took the side of Prince John when the latter expelled the justiciar, William Longchamp, from the kingdom, but he soon discovered that the interests of John were different from those of Richard. Hence in 1193 he joined with the loyalists in making war upon the prince. Richard forgave Marshal his first error of judgement, and allowed him to succeed his brother, John Marshal, in the hereditary marshalship, and on his death-bed designated him as custodian of Rouen and of the royal treasure during the interregnum.

King John and the Magna Carta
William supported King John when he became king in 1199, but they had a falling out when William did homage to King Philip II of France for his Norman lands. William left for Leinster in 1207 and stayed in Ireland until 1212, when he was summoned to fight in the Welsh wars. Despite these differences, it was William on June 15, 1215 at Runnymede who dealt with the barons who made King John agree to the Magna Carta, and he was one of the few English noblemen to remain loyal to the royal side through the Barons' War. It was William whom King John trusted on his deathbed to make sure John's nine-year-old son Henry would get the throne.

On November 11, 1216, upon the death of King John, William Marshal was named by the king's council (the chief barons who had remained loyal to King John in the First Barons' War) to serve as both regent of the 9 year old King Henry III, and regent of the kingdom. In spite of his advanced age (around 70) he prosecuted the war against Prince Louis and the rebel barons with remarkable energy. In the battle of Lincoln he charged and fought at the head of the young Kings army, leading them to victory. He was preparing to besiege Louis in London when the war was terminated by the naval victory of Hubert de Burgh in the straits of Dover. He was criticized for the generosity of the terms he accorded to Louis and the rebels in September 1217; but his desire for an expeditious settlement was dictated by sound statesmanship. Self-restraint and compromise were the key-notes of Marshals policy, hoping to secure peace and stability for his young leige. Both before and after the peace of 1217 he reissued Magna Carta, in which he is a signatory as one of the witnessing barons. Without his presence England may not have survived the disastrous reign of John; where the French and the rebels would not trust the English king's word, they would trust William.

Death and Legacy
William Marshal's health finally failed him in February 1219. In March 1219 he realized that he was dying, so he summoned his eldest son, also William, and his household knights, and left the Tower of London for his estate at Caversham in Oxfordshire, near Reading, where he called a meeting of the barons, Henry III, the papal legate, the royal justiciar (Hubert de Burgh), and Peter des Roches (Bishop of Winchester and the young King's guardian). William rejected the Bishop's claim to the regency and entrusted the regency to the care of the papal legate; he apparently did not trust the Bishop or any of the other magnates that he had gathered to this meeting. Fulfilling the vow he had made while on crusade, he was invested into the order of the Knights Templar on his deathbed. He died on May 14, 1219 at Caversham, and was buried in the Temple Church in London, where his effigy may still be seen.

After his death, his eldest son, also named William, commissioned a biography of his father to be written called L'Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal. This book, written so soon after his death, has preserved (and probably enhanced) the legend of William Marshal for posterity. While his knightly achievements may be debateable, there is no doubt of his impact on the history and politics of England, from his stalwart defence of the realm to his support of the Magna Carta.

William Marshal, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, is our 27th Great Grandfather

Source: Wikipedia