William Marshal and Richard the Lionheart: Two fierce knights in the 12th century

By Steven Muhlberger

What happens when William Marshall and King Richard I take part in the same siege?

The History of William Marshal is a classic source for chivalry in France and England in the late twelfth century. The Marshal died in 1226 as a towering figure in Anglo-Norman politics and perhaps the most important earl in the Plantagenet realm. After William’s death, a member of the Marshal party was commissioned to record his accomplishments and claim some of his glory for his heirs and surviving associates.


The History had much to say about William’s diverse career, his honesty, intelligence and practicality. But one of the most interesting aspects of William’s life, for contemporaries and for us, was his long record as a single-combat champion, starting with his initial successes as a young tourneyer in the 1160s and continued into the late 1190s, when he was still an active warrior of undoubted prowess.

Prowess – that’s the most important virtue that William manifested, according to his biographer. We often see William as the perfect example of chivalry in his era, but the word “chivalry” hardly appears in The History. Prowess, however, prowess is all over the place. And it doesn’t mean simply excellence in single combat. It includes loyalty and good sense.


But prowess in the form of excellence in single combat was a central value for a knight, one which was very important in establishing his renown.

The historian, whose name we don’t know, gives us a dramatic illustration of this fact in a story he tells about the Siege of Milly in the late 1190s. Here are the dramatis personae.

The first is William Marshal, a capable professional who has served kings and queens and shown his worth at jousts, tournaments, battles and campaigns. He’s in his 50s, which is awfully old for an active fighting man, but he’s got what it takes. He’s in armour and is at Milly ready to fight as well as command. But according to the experts it is uncertain when he was actually at Milly.

13th century floor tile showing a knight on horseback representing Richard I in combat. Image courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

Richard is King of England and overlord of many other countries. He is an enthusiastic warrior and an ambitious conqueror. Richard may not have been really present at Milly, but he is presented in The History as an excellent knight, as most people think of him even today.


Sir Guy de la Bruyère, a Flemish knight fighting for Richard, a vigorous and determined warrior. He may or may not have been at Milly – this is the only mention of him in surviving records!

We also have to take into account that the story was written a full generation after the events it purports to record. Maybe this is a legend passed around in the Marshal’s household rather than sober history. Even if we were content to take this as pure fiction – which I don’t – it still would have some interesting things to say.

Depiction of a siege from the late 12th-century – UBH Cod. Pal. germ. 112 fol. 11v

The scenario presented by The History begins with Richard’s men climbing ladders to the top of the walls of Milly. The Frenchmen pushed back until there is only one of Richard’s men on top, that excellent knight Sir Guy, who is in imminent danger of death:


Those defending the town
Had caught him with their spiked pikes 
Between his chin and his chest,
so overpowering him that he could in no way
Help himself with either hand.

The Marshal reacted immediately ”with pity and anger”:
Fully armed as he was
He jumped down into the bottom of the ditch
And climbed…fully armed as he was, sword in hand…
Until he reached the ladder on which  the knight was held 
By those who sought to kill him.
He dealt them such blows with his sword
As to fully repay each of them individually for the  harm
they had done to the knight…those inside fell back
And left him in sole charge of the field….
Our men were so filled with glee
That they all shouted out as one man
“The castle is taken, let’s help him!”
Sure enough, the castle was soon taken.

Certainly the Marshal won many admirers by his derring-do that day. There were also critics. While William was increasing his renown, his king was watching with disapproval. Richard said:

My lord Marshal, this is not right, indeed it  is wrong
For a man of such eminence
And such great valour to have to do this
Leave that to the young knights 
who still have to win their reputation.
As for you, it is a fact well-known
That you or have for so long pursued fame
That you now hold it in the palm of your hand.


So Richard seems to be a practical leader who is happy enough to use knightly zeal in its place, from the right sort of people, but doesn’t expect it from “eminent” men. They have different roles to play.

But wait — doesn’t Richard have much the attitude as the Marshal?  Here’s how he reacted when he saw the Marshal climbing the ladder:

…When the king  saw him leap forward
to climb the wall and mount an attack,
He was very angry and wanted to do likewise,
without delay, but the high-ranking men present
advised against this course and prevented it.

These two incidents tell us some interesting things about the expectations of knights by Anglo-Norman society on either side of the year 1200. In some situations knights were expected to tap into their anger (against the enemy—ire, corocia)—that would motivate them to fight whatever the danger; equally they might out of pity fight to defend their companions. Young knights hoped to win renown or fame. Those who achieved that goal became “high-ranking men” like the ones who prevented an angry King Richard from foolishly following the angry Marshal into the fray.

After the battle Richard tells the Marshal why his angry – but successful –initiative was inappropriate. The Marshal has established his renown: unlike  young knights, he has “so long pursued fame” that he now holds it in the palm of his hand. The Marshal is now a high-ranking man and he should not simply act on his fiercest instincts. The anonymous historian gives Richard a short but eloquent statement of that point of view. But does the historian agree with it?  No. I think he has no doubt that the Marshal is a hero not to be judged by ordinary standards.

Fierceness was both widely admired and central to a knight’s identity. Richard the King could make the case for a sensible restrained tactic, but Richard the Knight was as motivated by anger as any young knight seeking renown.

Steven Muhlberger, before he retired from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon published by Freelance Academy Press.

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