William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, 1146-1219

AV 1 William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke.jpg
AV 1 William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke.jpg

William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, 1146-1219

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William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1146-1219) was an Anglo-Norman soldier and statesman, he served four English kings, Henry II (whose eldest son, Henry, predeceased him), Richard I, John and Henry III. His eldest son commissioned a record of his father's life: "L' Historie de Guillaume le Maréchal". He was sent to Normandy to train as a knight in 1159. Knighted in 1166, he spent his younger years as a knight errant and was reportedly unbeaten in the tiltyard. When Young Henry died in 1183 Marshal travelled to the Holy Land to take Young Henry’s cross to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Until Henry II's death in 1188, William Marshal served as his knight, his counsellor, and his ambassador. On Henry II’s death Richard I recognized Marshal as a brother and equal in chivalry. Fulfilling the promise made by his father, Richard gave Marshal the heiress Isabel de Clare and all her lands in marriage in 1189. Thus, he became Earl of Pembroke through marriage to the 17-year-old daughter of the immensely powerful Richard de Clare (“Strongbow”). This was the second creation of the Pembroke Earldom. Marshal was included in the Regency of the Kingdom when Richard I departed on the 3rd Crusade in 1190. He supported King John’s ascent to the throne in 199. In 1216, he was appointed protector for the nine-year-old Henry III, and regent of the kingdom.

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The history of our country is that of a great and enduring monarchy. We have managed to survive bad kings, religious upheaval and political turmoil with a measure of sang froid which is the secret envy of our detractors. We like to think that this is because of stoical, dogged, racial characteristics, and to some extent it may be, but it is also due in great measure to our geography and to a constitution which is sufficiently fluid to allow the best men to rise, without excessive effort, to power and authority.

It is hardly surprising that many of those who have steered us through hard times and whose names are now legendary, were unattractive characters, for those who acquire greatness usually do so at the expense of others. Yet there are some who are born great and who add to the lustre of their heritage without finding it necessary to destroy their rivals in the fire of their ambition. William, hereditary Master Marshal of England, was one such man.

He was introduced to the violent political game at an early age for John FitzGilbert, his father, gave him, when still a child, to King Stephen as a hostage - a guarantee for his father's good behaviour. It is to Stephen's credit that he did not take his pound of flesh but spared the child despite his father's bad faith. William acted as squire to William de Tancarville in Normandy until he was about twenty-one years old. He then returned to England for a short time but was soon back in France fighting under his uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury. He was captured at Poitou in 1168 but was ransomed by Queen Eleanor, the wife of Henry II, and made a member of the household of Henry's son, known as the 'Young King' as he had been crowned during his father's lifetime.

After young Henry's death in 1183 he fulfilled a promise to take his cross to the Holy Sepulchre.  About four years later he was back supporting the king against his rebellious son Richard. However, when Henry died, Richard, perhaps recognizing William's loyalty to the Crown, gave him his royal favour and it was William who carried the sceptre with the cross at Richard's coronation in 1189. Two years later he married a great heiress, Isabel, the sole legitimate daughter and heir of Richard FitzGilbert, Earl of Pembroke. After his marriage he was styled Earl of Strigoil, in the right of his wife, and in May 1199 he was girded with the sword of the Earldom of Pembroke. Shortly afterwards he was confirmed in the office of Master Marshal which he had inherited from his brother John in 1194.

He was active in King John's service and supported him at Runnymede. It was one of John's last wishes that William should look after his ten-year-old son Henry. It says much for William's character that he was unanimously elected Regent in 1216. He fully justified the faith placed in him by routing the French and the rebel lords and, in 1217, he concluded the Treaty of Lambeth with Louis of France.

William died at his manor of Caversham, near Reading in England and was buried in the Temple Church, London, in 1219, the model of chivalry, loyal to the Crown no matter how self-centred or pusillanimous the wearer, and a munificent benefactor of the church in England, France and Ireland.

It is said that the Bishop of Ferns, two of whose manors William appropriated, laid a curse on him and it is certainly true that, although he left five sons, they all died without issue, each having succeeded in turn to the family honours. On the death of Aselm, his fifth and last son, in 1245, the office of Marshal was allowed to his eldest sister Maud, Countess of Warenne and formerly wife of Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. The present holder of the office, now styled Earl Marshal and Hereditary Marshal of England, is the Duke of Norfolk.

Before William, Earl of Pembroke became Hereditary Master Marshal the office was not one of great importance. The marshal assisted the constable in the control of the royal stables, kennels and mews and acted as a sort of assistant Quartermaster-General in the king's army. It is recorded that at Richard l's coronation it was the marshal's duty to keep the peace in the royal palace, assign billets and guard the doors of the king's hall. The symbol of his office was, and indeed still is, a baton, the virga marescalciae. It was probably William's exalted position as an earl and later as Regent of England that helped to raise the office of marshal from that of an officer of the household to a great officer of state. It has also been suggested that the rise in the status of the office was due in some measure to the 'new conditions of mercenary warfare and court discipline'.

Although an illustration in Matthew Paris' History gives William's eldest son a shield charged with hammers, else­where the arms of the marshal and his descendants are given as Per pale Or and Vert a Lion rampant Gules, or a red lion on a shield parted gold and green as in the illustration. These arms were also used by Roger Bigod after inheriting the office of marshal from his grandmother Maud, daughter of William the Marshal.

The sword and shield of a knight were not simply offensive and defensive weapons, they were symbolic of chivalry and it seems particularly fitting that William the Marshal, the very pattern of chivalry should hold them to his heart in his effigy. He is clad in mail which consists of a hauberk[1] with mittens, chausses[2] and a coif[3] with a vantail[4] - a flap secured by a strap which can be drawn up to protect the lower part of the face. The thongs below the knees and round the coif help to support the weight of the armour. Instead of wearing a helmet over the coif, William wears a baskinet[5] or metal skull-cap under it, a custom which gained popularity towards the middle of the thirteenth century. Over his armour he wears a long surcoat, the forerunner of the armorial surcoat or coat of arms.

The Norman shield was a long, convex, kite-shaped object. Although as time passed it became flatter, a little shorter and straighter at the top, it was in general use until about the middle of the thirteenth century. William's shield is typical of his period. Appropriately William rests his feet upon a lion like that in his arms.

[1] A piece of defensive armour: originally intended for the defence of the neck and shoulders; but already in 12th and 13th c. developed into a long coat of mail, or military tunic, usually of ring or chain mail, which adapted itself readily to the motions of the body.

[2] Pantaloons or tight coverings for the legs and feet; esp. of mail, forming part of a knight's armour.

[3] A close-fitting skull-cap of iron or steel, or later, of leather, worn under the helmet; the skull-cap of a helmet.

[4] The movable part of the front of a medieval helmet, fitting over the nose and mouth; the upper beaver.

[5] A small, light, steel headpiece, in shape somewhat globular, terminating in a point raised slightly above the head, and closed in front with a ventail or visor; when used in action without the ventail, as was frequently the case in England, the great ‘helm,’ resting on the shoulders, was worn over it.