William Marshal – The Greatest Knight that ever lived

William Marshal – The Greatest Knight that ever lived. His early life, rise to power and relationship with Ireland.

As I my research for my future visit to explore The Norman Way Heritage Trail in County Wexford, in the heart of Ireland’s Ancient East, I found myself becoming reacquainted with an old acquaintance, who’s name and exploits occupied many of my days in University in Wales. His name seems to sum up everything wonderful and terrifying about the Middle Ages, a man that through all the odds seemed to conquer the medieval world, that man is William Marshal and to fully understand his impact on history and in particular the history of Ireland it is important to understand the story of the man who would become known as the “Greatest Knight that ever lived”. 

I will be guiding you to some of Ireland’s most famous historical sites, and along the Norman Way in County Wexford where many of the major sites were founded by William Marshal; some of these are New Ross, Country Wexford, Ferns Castle, County Wexford, Tintern Abbey, County Wexford, Hook Lighthouse, County Wexford, Carlow Castle, County Carlow and many more. It is my intention to become reacquainted with “The Marshal” by walking in his footsteps and I hope you will join me on this journey though Ireland’s Ancient East and The Norman Way, in search of The Greatest Knight that ever lived.

Who was William Marshall?

William Marshal is a man that you have all probably seem depicted in movies, mentioned in books, and now immortalized in the Ros Tapestry, in the heart of the Town he founded with his wife Isabel de Clare. There is an old phrase that always reminds me of William Marshal “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride”. He was a man of no property, no wealth but he had loyalty, an aspect of his personality that would forever put him in the favor of King’s and a determination combined with a vicious warring heart, that struck fear into the very souls of his opponents and enemies.

He loyally served 5 of the medieval worlds most prominent and well-documented Royals from The House of Angevins, the first Plantagenets.

He had grit and determination that allowed him to ride into our history books, rising from nothing to be one of the richest and most powerful men in Medieval Europe, a man that would change the Medieval World. The story of “The Marshal” is based in historical fact but reads like an Arthurian legend and he could almost be compared to a figure such as Lancelot, the Greatest Knight that always served his King with loyalty and honor. A Norman by birth, born into a warring class, with a destiny that was shaped, by the Art of War.

The Marshal capturing our imaginations.

He is the ultimate tale of a poor boy that would become one of the most famous and powerful men in history and take part in major historic events that have shaped our futures. A man who’s life is filled with tales of tournaments, wars, crusades, loyalty, fulfilled vows, Knights Templar, the most famous Monarchs of the Middle Ages and the boy with nothing who would become one half of the medieval worlds ultimate power couple and end his life as one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom and as Regent to a young King and Protector of The Crown. A man that lived by, the code of chivalry and loyalty.

The Medieval Town of New Ross, which he founded and the lands he retained in Ireland would forever be associated with “The Marshal” and play significant roles in some of histories most important events The legacy of “The Marshal” still lives on to this day. His fame as the Greatest Knight that ever lived will always endure, with his life and achievements are immortalized in countless books, the only known surviving biography of a Knight from the Middle Ages is that of The Marshal called L’Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal (The History of William Marshall) and this resides in Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York City.

William Shakespeare immortalized him in his play John I, referred to as “The Marshal” and his character has appeared in countless film productions spanning generations, most recently in Robin hood (2010) where William Hunt portrays him wonderfully. His life and achievements read like an Arthurian legend, a man from humble beginnings that rose to the highest power in the land, but most importantly he was a man of great power but he never abused that power. He lived by the code of chivalry and died with the honor of being a member of the most famous order of Knights that ever lived, The Knights Templar. He was intelligent and most of all a survivor and famously survived and overcame the tempers of the most temperamental monarchs in History.

Early Life and Rise to Fame.

Born the second son of a minor noble named John FitzGilbert, The Marshal of the King’s Horses, William’s life started out in an extremely turbulent manner. He was born in 1146 or 1147 at Newbury Castle, during a time in history known as “The Anarchy”, when 2 rival factions laid claim to the Throne, King Stephen and Empresses Matilda.

William’s father supported Stephen’s claim to the throne but later decided to change his allegiance to the side of Matilda and during a siege of his castle by Stephen the young William, thought to be about 4 or 5 was taken hostage and was used to try and bribe his father into surrendering but it was to have no effect on his father, who’s heart seemed to be made of stone, even though the young boy was put in a trebuchet and aimed at the castle walls, they also threatened to use him as a human shield and even went as far as putting the child upon the gallows, however Stephen could not find it in his heart to harm the boy. He was eventually released back into his fathers care after a peace accord in 1153 at Winchester ended “The Anarchy”.

William Marshal A Knight is Born

William at 13 was sent to the home of William de Tancarcille, his mother’s cousin, to train as a Knight. The House of Tancarcille was the ultimate school for budding Knights and this is where the true story of William Marshall starts to unfold, this is where he would have learned the code of Knights such as chivalry, He would have been educated to pray in Latin but he like many Knights was thought to be illiterate. He would also have been trained in skilled horsemanship.

He would also have been schooled in weaponry and military tactics as well as medieval law, such as the politics that would have surrounded the Medieval Royal Courts. He was officially Knighted in 1166 and would start his career as a tournament knight, this was a way for him to make his fortune and it is estimated that he took part and was successful in over 500 bouts, earning him the title “the greatest knight that ever lived”. During his time as a tournament Knight he would have captured his opponents and ransomed them, as well as their horses and amour. He gained a reputation as fearless and ruthless. 

The Marshal in the Courts of Kings

He would have operated as a sword for hire and guarding the homes and Castles of higher Nobles and worked as their personal protection. It was during this period that William Marshal made his mark simply by chance. He and another knight were charged with escorting a wealthy woman from one of her castles to another. On the road they were attacked and his companion was killed, William fought against an estimated 60 men at arms and bought the noble woman enough time to escape to her castle.

He was injured and captured but the noble woman was none other then Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of King Henry II, forever sealing his fate to loyally serve the kings of England, France and Ireland. She paid William’s ransom and he became part of the most powerful Royal Court in Europe. It is also rumored in history that Marshal and Eleanor had a love affair. Marshal was a handsome, tall and striking figure, standing at over 6 feet tall when the average height of a man during medieval times was approximately 5’7”, Marshall must have been an intimidating sight on the battlefield.

Eleanor of Aquitaine hired William Marshal to be her second son’s tutor in the world of Medieval Tournaments; William served at his side for many years. Henry the younger was the 2nd son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II, he was crowned during his father’s lifetime and was known as King Henry the Younger, but he was a king with no kingdom.

He was never granted any meaningful power by his father and this caused a rift between them. He was obsessed with Medieval tournaments and was guided by The Marshal, He fought with his father and brother and died without ever making peace with King Henry II. He had taken the oath of the Crusaders and up his deathbed he gave his mantle to William Marshall, it is thought to have held the Crusaders Cross of The Knights Templar. He asked the loyal Marshal to rerun this mantle to the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, and it is presumed that The Marshal fulfilled his dying request.

The Marshal in the Service of The Kings and Lords of Ireland.

It is during the Reign of King Henry II that we seen William Marshal’s relationship with Ireland start to develop. During the 1160’s Dermot MacMurragh the deposed King of Leinster sought the help of Henry II to regain his lands in Ireland, this help came from the Welsh Marshes in the form of Strongbow, Richard De Clare, Earl of Pembroke and the invasion was successful but resulted in Strongbow taking the Lands of Leinster for himself. Henry II visited Ireland to take control of Strongbow in 1172, accompanied by Marshal and it is during this period that we see the development of the massive Castles that dot our landscapes today.

The Norman Invasion and conquest of Ireland would for the next 800 years intertwine the fate and laws of Ireland with that of England and it’s Monarchs. Strongbow was married to Aoife the daughter of the deposed King of Leinster, meaning all the lands would fall into his hands. It is with the birth of their daughter Isabel that the story of William Marshall becomes intertwined in Irish history, legend and a medieval love story that has survived through the ages and enchanted our hearts and minds for generations.

During a period of unrest between Henry and his son’s, the man now know simply as The Marshal, was the only man to ever unhorse the future King Richard I, also known as the Lionheart. It is said that Marshal could have killed Richard but killed his horse instead. Henry and his sons had a turbulent relationship that was the ultimate power struggle between father and son’s and was based on rights of inheritance and lands. Upon the death of Henry II it was the forever-loyal Marshal that insured he received a proper burial, carrying the dead King Henry II himself to Fonteviaud Abbey, his final act of pure loyalty to the King he had pledged his life to serve. This final act, impressed the now King Richard and insured The Marshal a place at the new Kings side.

The Marshall, The Loyal Crusader.

The Marshall was to loyally serve the Lionheart, whom he followed on Crusade to the Holy Land at a dark time when relations between, Saladin and the Crusaders were at boiling point. We known very little of The Marshal’s actions during The Crusades but we do know that he made a vow to join The Knights Templar before he died. Henry II had promised The Marshal the hand of Isabel De Clare and all that marriage to her would offer, thus transforming a landless knight into one of the Kingdom’s wealthiest men.

The Lionheart upheld this arrangement, and they were married in London in 1189. After the death of the Lionheart Marshall went on to serve King John I. The Marshal was also destined to be involved in an epic event that was to forever change the laws and rights of people in Britain and Ireland.  He did not initially inherit the title of Earl of Pembroke that his father-in-law had held as this was reverted back to the King, upon Strongbow’s death, however this title was bestowed upon the Marshal by King John, in the second Earldom of Pembroke making him 1st earl of Pembroke.

King John, previously Lord of Ireland, who had constant Issues with his barons, particularly in the North due to his policy of harsh taxation, ultimately John gave into the demands of the Barons and we see the establishment of one of the worlds most famous and important documents The Magna Carta in 1215, The Marshal is one of those who signed this original document.

Marriage to Isabel De Clare and Ireland

Upon the death of Strongbow The Crown assumed control of his lands in Wales and Ireland, as there was no adult heir to assume control, however under the Medieval Feudal Laws his widow Aoife was entitled to a third of Strongbow’s estates and she took those rights very seriously.  Aoife took her rights to lands in England, Wales and Ireland.

Their daughter was a Ward of The Crown, which meant that the reigning Monarch had the right to choose her husband; this was to be The Marshal. Isabel’s lands and wealth combined with the favor granted to The Marshal made them a formidable combination. Despite the age difference, he was in his early 40’s and she was 18, it is said that there was wonderful affection between them and they had 5 sons and 5 daughters. They were married for 30 years. 

Their first powerbase was in Wales. Even though they were entitled by inheritance to the Lands of Leinster it was in the hands of John brother of Richard the Lionheart, who without lands to call his own did not want to surrender them to The Marshal, Richard intervened on his behalf and Leinster came under their control once again. Richard the Lionheart died without an heir and the during the power struggle between Arthur (son of Richards dead older brother) and King John the youngest of Henry’s Children, The Marshal sided with John, resulting in the King restoring the Earldom of Pembroke.

This event marks the reestablishment of powerbases in Ireland, Isabel and The Marshal now controlled the Norman power centre of Leinster, and they resided in Ireland, during times when his relationship with King John was not on good terms, which was often the case with King John and his Barons. King John was famously temperamental.

Isabel De Clare became heiress to her father’s lands after the untimely death of her brother. She was to inherit the lands in Wales as well as her father’s lands in Leinster. As with most Medieval marriages it was an arranged match but their story was to be a happy one, despite their age difference. The Marshal and Isabel were said to be very much in love and it was a marriage of deep respect.

He is said to have not just thought of her as a means of producing heirs but he wisely took her council and respected her opinions. As a couple they became a force to be recoded with. Soon after their marriage the couple ventured, to their lands in the Kingdom of Leinster, where they began to establish a significant power base. One of their first endeavors was to establish a secure Town at the site of modern day New Ross, which was to replace the older Gaelic town of Ros.

They spent most of their time in Kilkenny where they established a powerbase and established the port of New Ross to trade with their lands in Wales. The Marshal also established the world famous Hook Lighthouse. New Ross was to be a principle Port of the South East of Ireland. The Marshal also founded the Cistercian Abbey at Tintern, County Wexford known as Tintern of the Vow and Duiske in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny.

He was also responsible for the establishment of Castles at Ferns and Enniscorthy County Wexford as well as Carlow Castle in Country Carlow. In late 1208 New Ross was destroyed by a rebellion lead by Meilyr FitzHenry, but having inherited her parents fighting spirits Isabel defended the town and overcame the attack at a time when The Marshal was at court in England. He returned to Ireland and stayed until 1213

Later life, Magna Carta and Death 

Marshal’s relationship with King John was tempestuous at best and they had many periods of serious falling outs due to King John’s treatment of his Barons. During times of disagreement with The King, The Marshal spent much of his time developing and running his lands in Leinster. However The Marshal ultimately always remained loyal to the King. In 1215 King John had little choice but to agree to an accord with his Barons, this document became one of the most important documents in history and was to be known as the Magna Carta, The Great Charter. In essence this document put the law above the King and John quickly broke his word and the agreement of Magna Carta, which resulted in a Civil War. 

The result was that the rebels invited the Dauphine of France Louis to invade England, in order to lay claim the Throne. King John died in 1216, The Marshal who had remained neutral during the war, making himself popular with both sides, this made him John’s first choice to become Regent until the heir to The Crown 9 year old Henry III came of age.

At the age of 69 The Marshal took up his sword once again in the defence of the Kingdom against Louis. This was to be the famous Battle of Lincoln, where The Marshal and his forces were victorious. The Marshal also reissued the famous Magna Carta, which to this day holds his seal as Regent of the Crown, holding laws and influence, many of which still hold true today.

He protected and restored faith in The Angevin Dynasty after what many consider the disastrous reign of King John. On his death bed at the age of 73, The Marshal fulfilled a vow he had made many years before and became a member of The Knights Templar and upon his death was interred in the famous Temple Church in London, which was the headquarters of The Knights Templar in England and is where this champions tomb is still visible today, and even survived the bombing of Temple Church during World War II, his is presumed to be the tallest of the effigies.

Although The Marshall had 5 sons’ they all died without issue, this resulted in his daughters inheriting his lands and carrying on the family line.

By | 2017-07-21T13:09:44+00:00 June 22nd, 2017|Irish Knowledge|0 Comments

About the Author:

Sinead is the head of our Historical and Cultural research team. Sinead studied Archaeology with modular Anthropology, and has Post Graduate qualifications in Heritage Management, including History, Museum Management and Religious Studies.

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