William Marshal was called the “best knight that ever lived.” Born in 1147, he served four kings — Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John, and Henry III – and rose in the ranks to become the Earl of Pembroke and one of the most powerful men in England. But all this might not have happened if he wasn’t saved from being catapulted at his father’s castle when he was just four or five years old.
We know a great deal about William Marshal from a chronicle of his own life, written at the request of William’s son around 1226. The History of William Marshal is greatly admired by historians for the fascinating view of knighthood and warfare during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
David Crouch, one of the leading scholars on William Marshal, explains that while this account generally portrays William as a hero, he also includes stories of embarrassing defeats and even times when William was made a fool of. The author, Crouch writes, “endeavoured to compile the fullest life possible of his difficult subject and constructed it deliberately as a chronological narrative to tell the story his patrons most desired: the story of an old man they had loved and who had earned their love, a man who had risen through devoted service and his political and military talents to the rule of a kingdom, and who, in ruling it, could claim to have saved from dispossession its royal dynasty.”
One of the first stories included in the History of William Marshal goes back to the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), which was marred by a civil war with Empress Matilda. William’s father, John Marshal, originally supported Stephen and was a close advisor, but then after a few years he switched sides. In 1152, Stephen was besieging John at Newbury Castle, when the two sides agreed on a truce. The English king demanded that John send him a hostage to secure his promise that he would surrender the castle, and the nobleman sent his fourth son, William, to the enemy camp.
However, it soon became clear that Newbury Castle would not be surrendered. What would now become of the young boy? King Stephen could have him executed, and threats that would happen were sent to John. According to the History of William Marshal:
Word came of this to his father,
but he said that he did not care
about the child, since he still had
the anvils and hammers
to produce even finer ones.
This callous remark spurred the besiegers to bring William next to the castle, where they prepared to execute him. As they did so the young boy, ignorant of what was happening, asked to play with the Earl of Arundel’s javelin. The King could not continue with the pretence of an execution, telling William, “I’ll spare you this torture, you can be sure you won’t die here now.”
However, the King’s supporters convinced him to have the boy put into a type of trebuchet, so he could be catapulted against the castle’s walls. The History of William Marshal states:
The child, too young to have much understanding of events,
was led away towards the catapult.
When he saw the catapult’s sling,
he took a step back,
and said, “Gracious me! What a swing!
It would be a good idea for me to have a swing on it.”
He went right up to the sling
For a second time, Stephen decided he could not go through with it. He shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Anyone who could allow him to die in such agony would certainly have a very cruel heart.”
The scene plays out again a third time – here William was placed hanging over a siege machine and brought back to the castle. One of Stephen’s men shouted to John Marshall, “Lord constable, show yourself. Here’s your lord’s son; he’s going to die now in great pain, because we’re going to put him on that frame.”
“Is that a promise?” John asked. When they replied yes, the father replied, “Right then, so he’ll die, I swear! I’ll tell you this: the only present he’ll get is to be squashed to a pulp like a drum skin. This trick of yours won’t get you anywhere, you’re going to see him die right now.”
John then had his troops hurl down a large millstone at the besiegers. Little William, still hanging there asked what kind of toy this was. Again, this broke the will of King Stephen, who burst out laughing and said, “William, a toy like that would be no good at all for you. To do you any harm would be a great shame because you haven’t done anything wrong. I shall spare you toys such as this, you’ll never die at my hands.”
After this third attempt, King Stephen took William back to his own tent and made sure he would not be harmed. The History of William Marshal adds that they even played a game, in which the boy collected flowers and they played ‘knights’ with them – somehow William always won. Eventually he was returned back to his father.
Historians have wondered about the episode, even questioning if it really happened (no other source but the History of William Marshal records it). Most have concluded that even if the story has some embellishments, because it was based on a tale told by William himself, it was for the most part true.
Other historians have focused on the actions of King Stephen, on whether or not he should have killed his hostage. Georges Duby writes “I am personally convinced that no one on either side believed that anyone would go all the way, to the point of execution.” Meanwhile, another biographer of William Marshal, Sidney Painter, finds that this story proves why King Stephen wasn’t considered a good king – he was too nice and unwilling to make the harsh, if unsavoury decisions.
Luckily for William and us, the English boy grew up to become one of the most famous knights of the Middle Ages.
You can read three more selections from the History of William Marshal at De Re Militari, including the account of the Battle of Lincoln in 1215.
Practical Chivalry in the Twelfth Century: The Case of William Marshal, by Richard Abels
William Marshal: A Relic of Chivalry, by Mary Lana Rice
William Marshal: Perception and Past, by David C. Harrell
The castle building of William Marshal in Ireland, by Pat Dargan