William Marshal From 4th Son to Earl of Pembroke

Part II

For the next several years, William traveled around the tournaments of England and the continent with great success. The tournaments of this time were more like a practice for actual warfare than formal combat or jousts so typical in literature. They were in essence a series of grand melees, which ranged across the countryside, through field and woods, across farms, and even into villages and buildings. Despite using the weapons of war, the real goal of the knights in the tournament was not to kill their opponents, but to capture them, often claiming their horse or armor as ransom. These were incredibly valuable prizes, and the victors of the tournament field could easily make their fortune.

By all accounts, William was an amazing fighter, and the Histoire says, "They put every effort they could into doing him harm and capturing him, but they dared not stand there and take his blows." It mentions numerous occasions were he defeated some of the best warriors of the time, or stood against multiple opponents with great success. Even in situations where a lesser man might have yielded, William often knew success. Once he fought off an entire group of knights who surrounded him and struck him with such force that his helmet was spun around on his head. Somehow he still broke free from the five knights and another was heard to say, “An army led by that man will be nearly impossible to defeat.”

At another tournament the Duke of Burgandy was given, “a most amazing pike” (the fish not the weapon). The Duke gave a flowery speech and insisted that the gift be given to the Count of Flanders, but the Count in turn chose to pass it on. The pike passed through several hands, until it became obvious that the grand statements would continue half the night unless another solution was found. After a bit of discussion, the assembled men agreed that the pike should be given to William Marshal – for he was truly the knight who had proved most worthy that day. But William could not be found – until someone finally thought to check the blacksmith´s shop. There they found him with his head lying on the anvil. William´s helmet had been so badly battered that he was unable to remove it from his head without the blacksmith´s help. The Histoire tells us, “Many gave him a wide berth, yet many a blow struck with sword and mace were directed at William Marshal, squashing his helmet completely and reaching through to his very scalp.” In time the helmet was removed, and he received the “most excellent pike.”

William´s success came not only from his skill with the lance and sword, for he was an exceptional horseman as well – and perhaps even more importantly he was a clever strategist. He would often maneuver to grab his opponent´s bridle and drag him out of the fray, or even into the midst of a group of William´s own companions where he could be more easily defeated or simply forced to yield. Even if the knight he was leading jumped off his horse, William would simply ride away with a very nice prize.

Another tactic the clever William employed was to act as bait, luring one or more opponents into chasing him when they thought he had became separated from his companions – but the canny knight would circle or lead them into an ambush of his waiting comrades.

In later years, William would often emulate a tactic he had once witnessed the Count of Flanders using. While other knights would race into the fray, desperate to make their mark in the beginning of the melee, the Count (and later William) would hold back, or even rest off the field. As the other combatants began to tire, he would enter the combat, often capturing many opponents far more easily than if he had been equally exhausted.

In addition to the renown brought by his prowess, William was also widely revered for his charity and largesse. At one tournament, as William relaxed in the safety of the refuge, a troubadour approached him and the group of ladies he was chatting with and sang a song. The chorus of this song included the refrain “Marshal, give me a good horse.” William was so impressed that he leapt on his horse, and charged onto field. Within minutes William had defeated a knight, and lead his horse back as a gift to the troubadour. This is akin to giving a waiter a Lamborghini as a tip for dinner service.

William´s success made the young knight a hero of his day, and his success brought him even greater fame and glory. Thanks to his renown William was charged by Henry II to head the mesnie (household) of his son, the fifteen-year-old Henry. William had taken another step towards greatness.

William was to train him in all the aspects of Chivalry – the skills of battle, as well as the chivalric behavior expected of a knight. More than a teacher, William was also expected to act as young Henry´s companion, and even as his personal guard in battle.

William trained the youth well, and in time, he was even asked to knight young Henry himself – an act which was considered to form a permanent bond of fealty between them. Before long William led Henry´s mesnie out to the tournaments of Flanders and Normandy. The success of the entire company was practically ensured by William´s skill and leadership. William further upheld his bond of fealty, and his duty as the head of the young lord´s mesnie by rescuing Henry on multiple occasions. William´s success continued to grow, and his renown was growing even further.

On one occasion, William, who had become separated from the rest of Henry´s mesnie, came across a group of fifteen French knights entrapped by a company of English knights that outnumbered them four to one. Spotting the famous William, the French knights called out their surrender to him – rather than to the knights who had them surrounded. They felt there was much less dishonor in surrendering to a man like William than to any other knight. Of course, this angered the English knights, but when William offered to meet any who would dispute this with him, they backed down to a man. William then turned to the French knights and released each one accepting no ransom from any. Though this clearly cost him a fortune in lost ransoms, the increase to his renown was huge.

When Henry decided to take a break from the tournaments, William asked his permission to continue without him. William and Roger de Gaugi, another knight from Henry´s mesnie, decided to travel together, and to act as partners. In less than a year they traveled through numerous tournaments across the continent, and captured over one hundred knights whose ransoms they divided between them.

Continued, Part III

Marshal – Flower of Chivalry   •   Coming to Three Rivers Memorial Day Weekend 2009