British History – William Marshal, Knight and Statesman

Next September the village of Cartmel near my home will celebrate the 8ooth anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, although the event actually took place in June.

Why? It is not simply that it is one of those dates that schoolchildren were expected to learn, but an event of great significance, for it limited the King’s powers and safeguarded the rights of his subjects.

Why our local celebrations? It is because one of the royal representatives at the signing was William Marshal, the founder of Cartmel’s beloved priory.

The subject of several novels and a recent television documentary William Marshall was a remarkable man who has been declared our greatest statesman and our greatest knight. What makes him so noteworthy is the longevity of his service to a succession of kings, his long tenure of high office and positions of importance, his achievements in battle and his prowess as a knight. In the middle ages the servant and advisor of one king rarely found favour with their successor or other members of the court.

Born in 1147 during the during the period of struggles between Stephen of Blois and Henry I’s daughter, Mathilda, for the throne he is sometimes described as penniless but in fact his father was a prominent landowner in the Berkshire and Wiltshire, John fitz Gilbert. William, however, was a second son and, therefore, did not stand to inherit. John also chose to support Mathilda and the young William in 1152, was surrendered as hostage to Stephen. So it was not an auspicious beginning.

However, William was to go on to serve Henry II, Henry the young King, Richard I, John and Henry III. Through his marriage in 1189, aged 43 to the young Isabel de Clare, 17 years old, he gained extensive lands in the Welsh borders and Ireland, eventually her father’s title, Earl of Pembroke, and with the demise of his elder brother, he also inherited his father’s lands.

It was as a knight that he initially arose to prominence. As a second son he was sent to another’s house, probably a family member’s, to serve as a retainer and learn the ways of a knight. In 1167 he was in the service of William of Tancarville who knighted him. He served Henry II in the wars against Louis VII but then for a period he was out of favour as rivalry amongst Henry’s sons seethed. He then became a knight errant, gaining fame throughout Europe as he won tournament after tournament until he became recognised in the words of Stephen Langton, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, as “the greatest knight that ever lived”.

Henry II saw the Young King’s need of William’s talents, not simply as a renowned knight and great soldier but as his advisor. That need saw him returned to favour and to court. When the Young King died in 1183 William fulfilled the latter’s pledge to go on Crusade. On his return to Henry II’s household he was rewarded in 1385 with the fiefdom of Cartmel and given custody of the King’s ward, Heloise of Lancaster. He might have been expected to marry her but with Henry’s sons still bickering he was sent by Henry as emissary and intermediary to the rebellious Richard and his reward was the offer of the hand of Isabel de Clare, a much better match.

William gave Henry II loyal service and it might have been anticipated that on his accession, Richard might have reneged on his father’s generosity especially since in June of 1369 he had almost killed Richard in battle. But he did not. They made peace and William got his heiress. Richard needed William and he served his King as royal justice. In 1194 his elder brother’s death brought him the family estates. William Marshal’s star was in the ascendency. He was to serve Richard on the battlefields of the continent and as a diplomat throughout his reign.

On John’s succession his position might again have been tenuous but he supported John as he had Richard and his father, receiving further honours. There was a brief period when he lost John’s favour but he was recalled to court in 1212 becoming John’s most trusted and loyal supporter and was at his side to witness the signing of the great charter.

John’s son, Henry, was only nine at his accession and it was the faithful William Marshal who was chosen in 1216 by the King’s Council to serve as “regent of the King and the kingdom”. To be selected by his peers is noteworthy because those rewarded by kings did not usually win favour at court amongst those also seeking honours and William had found much favour. His skills as an advisor, diplomat and wise counsellor were valued and his legendary prowess in battle was not diminished but was again displayed when at the age of 70 he commanded the royalist troops at the siege of Lincoln. There he engaged in hand to hand combat and gained victory.

His wisdom is shown in his peace negotiations in 1217 when his fairness of terms proffered to Louis and the rebel barons was not the mark of weakness but sound statesmanship because it negated further hostility and secured stability. There was some need to deal with a few recalcitrant individuals but a fair peace pre-empted further rebellion. He was a man to be trusted and respected.

His death came in 1219. Whilst on Crusade he had expressed a desire to join the Knight’s Templars and on his deathbed he was invested into that order and was buried as Templar, a fitting rest for the most chivalrous of knights.

In Cartmel Priory in September, 2015, we will celebrate Magna Carta but also pay our respects to William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who founded the Priory in 1188 and dedicated it to two of the kings he served, Henry II and Henry the Young King.