His remarkable life is the stuff of a blockbuster movie; here are a few reasons why he truly was England’s greatest knight.
1. Born in 1147, he was used as a hostage by his father and King Stephen at just 5 years of age during the Civil War. Most historians agree that it was William’s charm, as well as the personality of King Stephen, that kept him alive until the end of hostilities in 1153.
2. As a young man, William made his living as a tournament knight where, in addition to earning wealth and fame across Europe, he became skilled in combat and the laws of chivalry. In fact A Knight’s Tale (2001), starring Heath Ledger, was inspired by William’s early life.
3. After being wounded in an ambush in 1168 he was ransomed by none other than Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of Henry II, which began his lifelong association with the royal dynasty. For much of Henry’s reign his sons and queen conspired against him, and he against them. So for William to have served five kings in this family was no small achievement.
4. After fighting in the Holy Land, William returned to service with Henry II during several conflicts with the king’s sons. He was famous for having killed Richard the Lionheart’s horse from under him - William could have despatched Richard too had he chosen to do so. Despite, or perhaps because of this, Richard took William into his service after the death of Henry. William was one of the people Richard trusted to guard his kingdom from his younger brother John when he went on crusade.
5. William’s loyalty to this royal family continued after the death of Richard when he supported John as King of England. Although the two had a very volatile relationship, since John trusted no one, William stayed loyal once again to his king throughout the First Barons’ War and the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215. On John’s death, William was nominated to act as Regent to John’s son: the nine-year-old King Henry III.
6. His great experience in battle was key to beating the French at the 1217 Battle of Lincoln. Marshal led his army to victory in Lincoln resulting in winning the First Barons’ War for King Henry III and resisting the French invasion.
7. William’s link with the royals lasted beyond his death in 1219. Although his sons died without any children, through one of his daughters’ children William is related to the last Plantagenet kings - from Edward IV to Richard III - and all English monarchs from Henry VIII onwards.
William Marshal truly was England’s greatest knight.
Thanks to Sue Dowman for the words in this article. William Marshal image: badassoftheweek.com (strong language).