William Marshal: A Relic of Chivalry
By Mary Lana Rice
Undergraduate Essay, Harlaxton College, 2010 (Winner of the Harlaxton College Essay Prize 2010)
Introduction: William Marshal, hailed at his death as the “greatest knight in the world” by the Knights Templar and the Archbishop of Canterbury, certainly lived up to those claims. Living in the turbulent, almost mythological, era of the Angevian Empire, Marshal himself lived a life worthy of the legends of the time. His utter dedication to his vows of chivalry delivered him from the hopeless obscurity of a landless younger son to the household of the Young King Henry, to the Crusades in the East, to become Earl of Pembroke under King John, and eventually to the position of Regent for the young Henry III. William attended kings, he knighted kings, he fought for kings, he ruled for kings: he was ultimately the maker of kings. At the height of his life, he was not only the greatest knight in the Angevian Empire, but among the greatest knights of all Christendom. All of this prestige was due to his unwavering devotion to three pillars of chivalry, named by Georges Duby to be loyalty, valor, and generosity. The greatest of these in William’s life was, by far, his steadfast loyalty and it served to carry him from the dying days of true militaristic chivalry into the days in which such chivalry was but a nostalgic relic of the past.
Before William’s birth, his father, John, was appointed the title of Lord Marshal, one of the Great Officers of State, by King Stephen who had assumed the throne after the death of Henry I. Despite this, John was still only a lesser noble. When William was born sometime around 1147, he was a younger son, and as such had little hope of inheriting any land from his father. Just before his birth, Matilda – daughter of Henry I – invaded England and challenged Stephen’s claim to the throne. Around the time of William’s birth John switched his loyalty from Stephen to Matilda. In 1152, during the ensuing civil war, King Stephen besieged Newbury castle and took William hostage. In an attempt to force John to surrender, he threatened to hang the child, but John replied that he did not care – he had “the hammers and anvils to make more and better sons”.
William – painfully unaware of his situation as he begged to play with the javelin of one of the guards escorting him to the gallows – was not hanged. Rather, King Stephen carried him away and William (telling the story in his later years) said that the king would often keep him with him in his tent and entertain the boy with games. William eventually reunited with his family at the death of King Stephen in 1154. As a younger son, unable to inherit any of his father’s estate, the path of chivalry was the only available path. This decided, William departed for Normandy to train as a knight-errant with his cousin, William of Tancarville.