A French poem called L’Historie de Guilaume le Maréchal, with over 19,000 lines exists and details the colorful account of one of the greatest knights of the middle ages —William Marshal.
Likely the poem glorifies the man and maybe even embellishes his accomplishments, but there is no doubt that this warrior was a self-made man. He was the fourth son of a minor lord and despite a bleak future, he rose to become a trusted servant of kings and ranked as one of the wealthiest knights of his time.
William Marshal unhorses Baldwin Guisnes during a joust.
(From Matthew Paris' the Historia Major) *
Apparently, though, his road to greatness was hard-won.
In 1152, when he was only six years old, he was captured by King Stephen and was used as a pawn to force John Marshal, his father, to surrender a castle in Newbury, England. You see, John Marshal once served under the English king, but he later changed loyalties to Empress Matilda. William’s father made a deal with King Stephen, promising that he would release the besieged Newbury Castle in exchange for his son. But the elder Marshal broke his promise and sent reinforcements through the town gates, making it abundantly clear that he had no intentions of surrendering the castle. When William’s life was threatened, his father merely scoffed and declared “"I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!" The king, fortunately, was only bluffing and couldn’t bring himself to kill an innocent child.
Eventually William was returned to his father, but by then he probably knew that his father held little regard for him. Boys of his status were typically sent away to train as a knight when they were six years old. William’s father, however, didn’t bother to send him away until he was almost thirteen.
So in 1159, he arrived in Tancarville, Normandy to train under his cousin William de Tancarville. While there, he essentially honed all the combat skills he needed to become a full-fledged knight.
In 1167, the English and French kings were at war with one another. William’s cousin was sent to Drincourt to defend the Normandy borders against the French. It was at this location where William became knighted.
The following day news reached them that the French had crossed the border, causing havoc as they marched toward Drincourt. So when the enemies arrived at the town, William enthusiastically threw himself into the skirmish. They successfully defeated the enemies, and the newly minted knight was able to boast that he had warded off thirteen knights and unhorsed many more. His “victory” however was mocked by his peers since he had come away from his first battle with nothing to show for his efforts except for a torn vest and a dead horse.
A few months later, after France and England declared peace, William’s cousin asked him to fight under his banner at a prominent tournament in Le Mans, Normandy. At this tournament, his reputation soared. News spread about his amazing strength and bravery, and how he single-handedly killed five knights who had ambushed him. He also captured enough prisoners for ransom, and obtained many fine horses and equipment from his opponents. Needless to say, he loved participating in tournaments and winning.
The following year, before the new tournament season began, William accompanied his Uncle Patrick, the Earl of Salisbury. They had the task of escorting Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to her new holding in Lusignan. Unfortunately they were ambushed, and while the queen was able to get away, his uncle was killed. And even though he was seriously outnumbered, William fought his attackers. In the end, he managed to kill six of their horses before he was finally subdued and taken for ransom. The queen was impressed enough by her champion that she paid the ransom, and bestowed upon him the honor of mentoring Prince Henry, her 15 year old eldest son and heir to the throne. William’s service to the young prince proved to be unwavering, which later sent him on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the time of the Crusades.
In his long and eventful life, William served four kings, married one of the wealthiest heiresses in England, and acquired holdings in England, Ireland, Normandy and Wales. At one point, he was even chosen as a regent, and was in charge of running the kingdom until his young king came of age. He finally died on May 14, 1219 at the age of 72. And at his burial, the Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed William Marshal as “the best knight who ever lived.”
* Public domain image