‘Such was the Marshal’s passing…’: The Death of Willam Marshal

By Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik

“While I was in the Holy Land, I committed my body, wherever I might be when I came to die, to burial in the Temple. That’s my wish and that’s where I’ll lie.”

Around the end of January 1219, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England, was taken seriously ill. His entire life he enjoyed good health, even at the advanced age of 70. Two years prior he had fought at the Battle of Lincoln, where he was so eager to fight the French that he forgot to put on his helm. Hence, at first, the earl did not realize this illness may be fatal. Only after consulting with the doctors in the Tower of London (who, according to the History were ‘’of no use’’), did he acknowledge the truth: he was dying.


William Marshal’s final days and hours can be reconstructed in meticulous detail thanks to the History of William Marshal composed and completed after his death, around 1223. It was commissioned by William’s eldest son and namesake, the 2nd Earl, the material arrarnged and work seen to fruition by John of Early, William Marshal’s ward and household knight ‘who has devoted heart and thought and money’ to complete the work.

Marshal’s visit to the Tower of London took place on 7 March. In the middle of the month he was taken by boat to his manor at Caversham, near Reading. Usually the journey by the Thames took less than a day. This time, however, for the sake of the ailing earl, it took three. His wife, Countess Isabel, accompanied him all the way. At Caversham, despite acute pain, he conducted business for three weeks, dictating letters and dispatching messengers.  At his request,


… the king and the legate arrived, and other great lords with them, their hearts heavy with sorrow. The Marshal propped himself on his elbow and called the king, and in the sight of all he took him by the hand and said to the legate:

‘Sir, I have pondered and deliberated long about the matter we discussed yesterday, I wish to place my lord here in the hands of God and the Pope – and in your hands, truly, for you are here in his stead.’ Then he said to the king: ‘Sire, I pray to almighty God that if I have ever done anything pleasing in His sight, He may grant that you grow to be truly worthy…’

Temple Church, London. Photo Courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk

This meeting took place on 8-9 April. In his last days he enjoyed steadfast attendance of his eldest son and entourage. He famously rebuked his clerk Philip for trying to persuade him to sell his fine fur-lined gowns of scarlet and vair and use the money as atonement for his sins:

‘Quiet, you wretch! (…) it’ll soon be Pentecost; my knights have the right to receive their gowns – I know it’s the last time I give them any.’


He expressed concern about his children and discussed their fate at length with John of Early:

But I worry about my daughter Joan; it troubles and upsets me that I haven’t given her in marriage before I die. If she were married my soul would rest forever more content; it’s the only thing that bothers me…

He sent John of Early to his estates in Netherwent (Lower Gwent) and asked him to take charge of Striguil. And upon his return to bring him two lengths of silk he gave to one Stephen, most probably Stephen of Evreux, for safekeeping. In his own words he had these sheets for thirty years:


When I returned from Outremer I had them brought back with me to fulfill the purpose they’re about to serve. I’ve kept them to be draped over me when I’m buried. That’s their promised role.

Temple Church, London. Photo Courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk

Then further explanation follows, with Marshal reminiscing about the Holy Land again and expressing the wish to be buried as a Templar in the Temple Church of London. The manor of Upleadon (north-west of Gloucester) would be his deathbed gift to the knightly order.

Marshal’s testament survived which is of great value, taking into consideration how few texts of baronial testaments survive from that period. Upon his death, all the lands he had by marriage would return to his wife, until her death. Pembroke, Leinster, Striguil and the Marshal’s lands in England went to his eldest son. His second son, Richard, was to hold Marshal’s Norman lordship of Longueville and the Giffard honour of Crendon in England.

Having settled his affairs, he was received into the order of Knights Templar in a poignant scene, asking his wife, Countess Isabel to kiss him:


“Kiss me now, my dear love: you will never do so again.”

William Marshal at the Temple Church, London. Photo Courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk

Then an even more tearful scene followed, when Marshal confided in John of Early that never for three years or more, had he felt such an urge to sing as in the last three days. But he himself wouldn’t be persuaded to sing. Hearing this Henry FitzGerald came up with an idea to call Marshal’s daughters. When they arrived, Marshal asked his favourite, the eldest, Matilda to sing for him. Then Joan.

He died on 14 May, about midday, supported by his son and surrounded by his men, his eyes fixed on the cross. At his request the windows and doors of his chamber flung open. The burial ceremony followed, performed with great pomp and splendour. Before his body was taken to London, it was embalmed at Reading Abbey, where it was laid in state in the chapel he had financed. Countess Isabel and his entourage accompanied it there and stood vigil at night. His wife then made a grant of rents to the Abbey. After hearing mass the next morning, the funeral party left for Staines, where it was joined by many barons and earls. From there the brier was borne to London. Before it was laid to rest in the Temple Church it was taken to Westmienster Abbey, where another mass was siad. The burial service in the Temple was performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London. His men believed that his soul was in the company of God, because ‘’he was good in this life and his death.’’

News of Marshal’s passing spread quickly also abroad. When it reached the French court Philip Augustus was reported to say to the messenger:

“Wait: it would be best not to speak of this till Richard the Marshal has dined with the others – he’ll be most distressed, you’ll see.”

The king was to beckon to another great knight and courtier of the era, William des Barres, the same who accompanied him to the Holy Land and who won fame there, first due to his famous/infamous quarrel with Richard I, then due to his courage on the battlefield. Whether this exchange between the French king and des Barres actually took place or not, it is still worthy of a mention:

“Did you hear what this man told me?”

“What was that, my Lord?”

“In faith, he came to tell me that the worthy, loyal Marshal is buried.”

“Which marshal?” asked des Barres.

“Marshal of England – William! So full of prowess and so wise he was.’

‘Truly, Sire, that is a great pity,” Sir William said then. “In our time there has been no finer knight anywhere nor one who so excelled in arms, so talented a warrior.”

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik specializes in British literature and history. She writes for different magazines and websites on Polish and European Middle Ages. She runs a blog dedicated to Henry the Young King.

Top Image: Photo Courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk