|William's oak gates at Chepstow Castle|
Born in about 1147, into comparative obscurity as the son of a minor baron, William Marshal rose to become landowner of immense estates in Britain and Normandy and was the renowned and trusted servant and sometimes regent of 5 English monarchs.
He acquired Chepstow Castle - then called Striguil - through his marriage, somewhat late in life at 43, to the rich Isabel de Clare, with whom he had 5 sons and 5 daughters but he did not inherit the title of Earl of Pembroke immediately from her father, Richard de Clare, (Strongbow).
We know about him because of a long poem to be called when popularised: L'Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, comte de Striguil et de Pembroke, discovered by a young French scholar, Paul Meyer. Its 19,000 lines are not entirely impartial as they portray him as the perfect knight, sidelining any dubious events or actions, but they give a fascinating and detailed account of his life. He was handsome, strong and a mighty fighter and appears to have been a faithful husband, there being no recorded illegitimate children.
William's father veered from supporting King Stephen to backing the Empress Matilda, during which time of The Anarchy, William was used as a hostage by Stephen and was threatened with being hanged or launched, aged 5, from a type of trebuchet. Stephen relented and there are tales of his playing a game of straw knights with the lad who seems even then to have had charm. Being landless, he was sent to the household of the Norman baron, William de Tancarville, to be trained as a knight, learning concepts of chivalry, how to behave in court and some literature and religion - though possibly not reading and writing. Injured in a skirmish, his life was saved by an unknown helper who gave him a loaf with bandages concealed inside to keep his wound clean: Eleanor of Aquitaine then ransomed him, impressed with his bravery. However, he had earned the nickname "gasteviande" or greedy guts, not a particularly romantic image, although he was knighted in 1166.
Much of his early life was consumed by tournaments which were not the more sedate jousts we may connect with chivalry but deadly staged battles, sometimes chaotic, which led to a victor receiving money and valuable prizes. This practice in becoming a preudhomme, a skilled and ideal warrior, led to his being the tutor-in-arms of the boy known as the Young King, the good-looking but extravagant son of King Henry II, who soon shared his fanatical love of tournaments. (It was the refusal of Thomas a Becket to crown this minor during his father's lifetime that was part of the fatal quarrel between the two.)
One of the first of several dilemmas of loyalty occurred when a conspiracy to overthrow Henry II tested William since the opponents included the Young King, 2 of his other sons and his wife, Queen Eleanor. Marshal remained with the Young King whom he possibly knighted in 1173. Such problems were a part of his later life also when allegiances conflicted and his dual motives of service and material gain also collided.
The Young King died an agonising death from dysentery, witnessed by William, who then fulfilled the youth's vow to take the cross and venture on a crusade. Little is known of his 2 years in the Holy Land or of his true piety but the whole expedition was so disastrous a failure that the Pope dropped dead of shock and grief on hearing of it.
On his return, William became counsellor to Henry II and as such was at the side of the most powerful man in Europe, at the very centre of the Angevin world and involved with the great travelling circus of Henry's court. He thrived there as well as on the tournament field because of an impassivity of manner and glacial, diplomatic composure. His importance was sufficient for him to begin to assemble his own mesnie, an entourage of knights loyal to him but, we must remember, not necessarily conforming to modern romanticised ideas of chivalry. There was little rescuing of damsels in distress nor protection of the vulnerable. No dragons were slain.
It is not clear whether the gift on marriage of Chepstow (Striguil) was freely offered or was an agreed price for continued allegiance but it came along with massive estates on the Welsh Marches (including Usk Castle), Normandy and Ireland, making William a great baron by the time that Henry died, knowing that his son John was a traitor. William began works of improvement to the castle in Chepstow in late 1189 or early 1190, adding to the existing stone keep a formidable double-towered stone gatehouse, technically advanced for the period with 2 portcullises and the famous oak gates which can still be seen on a staircase.
Whilst King Richard I was on the 3rd Crusade, William defended his territory, but the most ambiguous part of his royal attachments came with the accession of King John, whom he rushed to greet from Chepstow, missing the funeral of his own brother. From then on he served a deeply flawed monarch who was incapable of meeting the requirements of office. Quite apart from a controversial marriage to the very young Isabella of Angouleme, with whom he he is reported to have spent disproportionate amounts of time in bed, John became infamous for mistreating captives at Mirebeau, behaved appallingly to the young (probably murdered) Arthur, failed in war and lost most of the Angevin empire. William Marshal fell in and out of favour with him but obliged in handing over at least one of his sons to this unpredictable man as a "ward" but more likely a hostage. By contrast, Matilda, wife of William de Braoze, had bravely refused to do this with her sons. One source of conflict was William's slipping over to France to do homage to Philip Augustus for his lands in Normandy.
Importantly he was closely involved in the forging of Magna Carta and its reissuing in the years following 1215. He was by now a great established figure and probably worked in harmony with Stephen Langton. Two thirds of the barons renounced King John but William remained loyal for some unknown reason, although his son joined the baronial party.
After the death of John he pledged full support for the claim to the throne of the small child Henry, which brought with it the challenge of rekindling the fortunes of the Angevins, defeating the barons and saving the heir whom he promised with resounding rhetoric to carry on his back "from country to country ... even if I have to beg for my bread." He was now around 70 and Guardian of the Realm with an illustrious reputation and wealth of experience - which did not stop Llewellyn ap Iorwerth and inhabitants of Caerleon from going on the rampage on neighbouring territory.
Death and afterwards
Knowing he was ill, he relinquished authority: all the kings he had served (the Young King Henry, Henry II, Richard I, John and Henry III) died sudden or tortured deaths. His son William was to receive Chepstow amongst other territories as inheritance and his 4th son was promised Goodrich Castle. After a slow death, possibly from cancer, on 14th May 1219, much mourned, his body was taken to Westminster Abbey for a vigil. He was interred in the Temple Church in London, because he was a knight of that Order, where his effigy can be visited today. His pall was the rich cloth he had brought back from the Holy Land in 1186.
It is hard to summarise his character since we cannot see some of his behaviour in terms of the idealistic image of knighthood we may nowadays connect with Arthurian legend: he was intent on material gain and capable of brutal conduct but he was undoubtedly brave, charismatic, popular and loyal. His story is outstanding and redolent of the mores and aspirations of the tumultuous period through which he lived. Richard I described him as "molt corteis", most courtly. and Stephen Langton called him "the best knight that ever lived." The designation Earl Marshal is now an established hereditary title.
You may like to visit the castles connected with William Marshal: Chepstow Castle, Goodrich Castle and Usk Castle. The story of Matilda, wife of William de Braoze is told in my post about him (he was an associate of William) and there is more on the trebuchet and perrier - which was the precise weapon threatened to launch the boy - on my post about weapons in castles on the Welsh Marches.