William Marshal From 4th Son to Earl of Pembroke
William spent a dozen years in young Henry´s service with his loyalty unquestioned, but in 1182 he was accused of having an affair with Henry´s wife, Marguerite of France, and was forced to leave Henry´s house. But when he had the opportunity, William returned to discuss the situation with Henry and his father, the King. Standing in their hall, he challenged any who would accuse him of the affair to trial by combat to prove the truth upon his body. No one was foolish enough to take up the challenge against the greatest warrior of the day, even when he offered to bind his arm behind him, or to cut two fingers from his own sword hand first.
In anger William turned and left the hall, but not before telling the assembled crowd, “Since no man raises his head among those who cast blame upon me, and since thus it is allowed despite the law of the land, and since your court is entirely against me, who have nonetheless offered more than my due, I see indeed that I must seek elsewhere the place where I may live a better life. It is my pleasure, at least, that such a gathering can see with its own eyes that my rights have been taken from me.”
We may never know if it was William´s words to the two Henrys, or the loss of such a paramount knight from their mesnie, but within weeks Henry repudiated his wife, sent her back to France, and asked William to return to his household. William, ever loyal, agreed, and was lauded for his staunch convictions.
Soon after this, we see another example of William´s convictions. William is said to have been resting on the side of the road one day, when a well dressed young man and woman rode past him at some speed. Curious at what he considered an unusual sight, William chased after to question them and discovered the young man was a monk, and that he and the woman were running off to be married. Surprisingly to our modern senses, this does not seem to bother William. When he asked how a runaway monk would maintain a lady of her station, the monk told William that he had some amount of coin that he would put to loan at interest. “By God, a man of the cloth enacting the sin of usury!” cried William, “This will not do!”
Usury was the collecting of interest, which the Church considered a grave sin. William, taking the coins from the monk, offered to escort the lady home to her family, and then rode away – a flower of chivalry to the 12th century chronicler who saw this as protecting the lady from the sin of usury, and as showing great mercy by not taking harsher action against the monk.
William had not been back long in young Henry´s company before his lord sickened and died – but Henry´s last charge was that William take his cloak to Jerusalem and place it upon the Holy Sepulcher. William, a loyal knight, never considered refusing this request, and he soon set out for the Holy Land. He completed the task his lord had set him, but remained there for several years fighting with King Guy of Jerusalem before returning to find himself in the service of King Henry II.
Now in direct service to the King, William soon proved himself the loyal vassal once more, assisting his liege in putting down rebellions by his sons John, Geoffrey, and Richard. During the last of these, when a sick Henry was forced to flee from Le Mans, his son Richard saw a chance to capture his father. In his haste to keep Henry from escaping, and imagining that as heir he would face little direct challenge from the knights in the sick and aging king´s service, Richard Couer de Lion (Lionheart) failed to don his armor. Unfortunately for the king´s son, one knight in king´s mesnie felt his oath was more important than his future well-being, and the Marshal turned and charged directly at the ill prepared Richard! Fortunately for the Prince, Williamís honor would not allow him to slay the unarmed man, so instead he ran his spear through Richard´s horse before turning and riding after Henry once more.
In gratitude for William´s service, the King promised him in marriage the hand of Isabel de Clare, the daughter of Richard de Clare who had been the Earl of Pembroke. As her father´s heir, this would bring her father´s titles and vast estates in England, Wales, Normandy, and Ireland to her new husband. William, still a landless Knight, was about to become a landed noble and one of the wealthiest men in the realm, but before this could be brought about, the aging Henry died.
When called before Richard, now the new King, William must have been quite nervous and feared stiff reprisal – at least the loss of what had been promised him – but Richard instead chose to put their past confrontation aside. In the end he agreed to honor his father´s promise, and a year later when he set off on Crusade he even offered William a place on his Regency Council.
Though it had taken him nearly five decades, by 1189 William had risen from his beginnings as the fourth son of a minor noble with few prospects, to become the Earl Pembroke and Striguil, the Lord of Leinster in Ireland, as well as numerous smaller holdings. And with the death of his last brother a few years later he gained his families hereditary title, Marshal. From his obscure beginnings he had become one of the most powerful nobles of the realm.
With his elevation to the new station, William left behind him the thrill and the risks of the Tournament. Though he still fought in many battles, it is said that he left the Tournament to the young who still had needs to prove themselves. His new rank meant that he would seek renown in a different venue.
In time William Marshal went on to even great glory as he loyally served two more kings. First John, who he defended against the Barons in the conflicts over the Magna Carta, and then his son Henry III, who he would serve as serve as Regent of England.
John Marshal had said he had “the hammer and anvil by which to forge an even finer son,” but I think history has proven that very unlikely. A man would be hard pressed to have a finer son than one men would call the “greatest knight that ever lived.”