Practical Chivalry in the Twelfth Century: The Case of William Marshal
By Richard Abels
Published Online (2012)
Introduction: William Marshal (c.1147-1219) is among the most extraordinary individuals in medieval English history. Eulogized by Archbishop Stephen Langton as “the best knight in the world” and by King Philip Augustus of France as “the most loyal man” he had ever known, William Marshal, the younger son of a local English landowner and royal marshal, served two English kings (Henry the Young and his father Henry II) as a household knight, two others (Richard I and John) as a baron and counsellor, and a fourth—Henry III—as guardian and regent. William, a landless household knight until the age of forty, ascended into the highest ranks of Angevin English politics and society through marriage to an heiress, Isabel de Clare, his reward for loyal service to King Henry II. Through her he became Earl of Striguil and Pembroke in Wales, lord of Leinster in Ireland, and lord of Longueville in Normandy. William Marshal’s remarkable rise was largely a consequence of the qualities that made him an exemplar of late twelfth-century chivalry: prowess in tournaments and combat, tactical and strategic acumen in war, the “courtesy” and discretion necessary to navigate the shoals of the royal court, and, above all, the reputation for unwavering loyalty to those whom he served. Like many other barons, William Marshal fell victim to the suspicions and caprice of King John and suffered a period of voluntarily exile from the court to his lands in Ireland. And yet William remained loyal to King John throughout the baronial rebellion that culminated in the signing of Magna Carta. Upon John’s death in 1216, the nearly 70-year earl was chosen by the king’s council to be guardian and regent to the child King Henry III. In his capacity as regent, William Marshal successfully defended the rule of the boy king against a French invasion supported by a domestic baronial rebellion, and made his mark on English constitutional history by twice reissuing Magna Carta in 1216 and 1217.
Born c. 1147, William Marshal was the fourth son of John fitz Gilbert, hereditary marshal (i.e. keeper of the horses) of King Henry I of England (1100-1135). John the Marshal, a local baron of some prominence in southwestern England, held scattered estates in the counties of Wiltshire, Somerset, and Berkshire. Despite his office in the royal household, John had been only a minor landowner during the reign of King Henry I, but the civil war between King Henry’s nephew Stephen and his daughter the Empress Mathilda over the throne (1138-1153) afforded him the opportunity to increase his wealth and power at the expense of his neighbors. And this John did by seizing lands, building castles, and cannily shifting allegiances between the two claimants to the throne to his benefit. Around 1145 John Marshal consolidated his fortunes in Wiltshire and the neighboring shires by marrying Sybil, the sister of the region’s most powerful nobleman and John’s erstwhile enemy, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury. John was married at the time, but this did not prove to be a serious obstacle. Probably “discovering” that he and Adelina were within the seven degrees of consanguinity proscribed by the Church, John had their marriage annulled (Crouch 18-19). Adelina, who had borne John two sons, cooperated by marrying another local landowner. The marriage of John Marshal and Sybil of Salisbury soon proved fruitful. William Marshal was the second of their four sons.
See also our interview with Richard Abels about his research on “Representations of Warfare in the Morgan Picture Bible”