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William Marshal

William Marshal is the name of two important men in English history. They were father and son. The better known William (the father-- 1146 to 1219) was the 4th Earl of Pembroke and "greatest knight that ever lived" (Stephen Langton). Before him, the hereditary title of "Marshal" designated a sort of head of household security for the king of England; by the time he died, when people in Europe (not just Britain) said, "the Marshal," they meant William.

When William was about six years old, his father John Marshal had switched sides so often between King Stephen and Empress Maud that John had to give William to Stephen as a hostage for John's keeping his word that he would surrender Newbury Castle, which Maud had told John to hold for her. John broke his word, and when Stephen ordered John to surrender immediately or watch as he hanged William in front of the castle, John replied that he could always make another son, and a better one, too. Stephen could not bring himself to hang William, of course, or his story would end here.

As a younger son of a baron without much to leave him, William learned to make his own way: He was knighted in 1167 and was making a good living out of winning tournaments (which at that time were bloody, hand-to-hand combat, not the jousting contests that would come later); he fought in 500 such bouts in his life and never lost once. In 1170 he was appointed captain of the guard for Henry the Young King; he continued to serve the king of England for forty-nine years: through the rest of Henry II's reign, all of Richard I's, all of John's, and three years into that of Henry III. William Marshal it was who stood by Henry II when his wife and sons rebelled against him; William once came face to face with Richard in battle and could have killed him but killed Richard's horse instead, to make that point clear. William it was whom Henry trusted to guard Queen Eleanor when he would let her out of prison to make some public appearance. William it was whom King John trusted on his deathbed to make sure John's nine-year-old son Henry would get the throne. It was William on 15 June 1215 at Runnymede who dealt with the barons who made King John agree to the Magna Carta, and it was William who dealt with the kings of France (Louis VII and Philip Augustus). When they would not take the English king's word, they would take William's.

On 11 Nov 1216, upon the death of King John, William Marshal was named by the king's council (the chief barons who had remained loyal to King John) to serve as both regent of the 9 year old King Henry III, and regent of the kingdom. William's first action after being named as regent was to reissue the Magna Carta, in which he is a signatory as one of the witnessing barons.

For his service to them, the Plantagenets gave him as his bride (in August 1189, when he was 43 and she 17) the second-richest heiress in England, Isabel de Clare, who had inherited large estates in England, Wales, and Ireland. She brought with her the title of Earl of Pembroke. They had five sons and five daughters, and every one of them survived into adulthood. Their eldest son William would marry (in April 1224) Eleanor, the nine-year-old sister of Henry III (and daughter of King John).

William Marshal's health failed him in February 1219, and he died three months later, on May 14 at Caversham, near Reading. In March of 1219 he realized that he was dying, so he summoned his eldest son, also William, and his household knights, then he left the Tower of London for his estate at Caversham in Oxfordshire, where he called a meeting of the barons, Henry III, the papal legate, the royal justiciar (Hugh de Burgh), and Peter des Roches (Bishop of Winchester and the young king's guardian). William rejected the Bishop's claim to the regency and entrusted the regency to the care of the papal legate; he apparently did not trust the Bishop or any of the other magnates that he had gathered to this meeting. He wanted to be buried as a Knight Templar, so he was invested into that order before he died, and he was buried in the Temple Church in London, where his effigy may still be seen.

Children of William Marshal & Isabel de Clare:

The end of the Marshal family

During the civil wars in Ireland, William, Sr., had taken two manors that the Bishop of Ferns claimed but could not get back. Some years after William's death, that bishop is said to have laid a curse on the family that William's sons would have no children, and the great Marshal estates would be scattered. Each of William's sons did become earl of Pembroke and marshal of England, and each died without issue. William's vast holdings were then divided among the husbands of his five daughters. The title of "Marshal" went to the husband of the oldest daughter, Hugh Bigod, 3rd Earl of Norfolk, and later passed to the Mowbray dukes of Norfolk and then to the Howard dukes of Norfolk, becoming "Earl Marshal" along the way. The title of "Earl of Pembroke" passed to the husband of Joan Marshal's daughter, Joan de Munchensy, the first of the de Valence line of earls of Pembroke.


Four generations of the Marshal family, from Isabel de Clare's parents through William fitzWilliam's fictitious bastard son, are the subjects of a series of four historical romances by Mary Pershall. Dawn of the White Rose (1985) is the one about William Marshal and Isabel de Clare.