William Marshal Post Part II
First, I want to apologize for taking so long to post. Life happened but I should be back to posting regularly now. Now, onto the conclusion of my quest into William Marshal and the question of was he the greatest knight to ever live.
To call William Marshal the greatest knight who ever lived, I believe, takes away from the other knights and their lives. He was, however, undeniably a great knight by that times standards and was one of the greatest knights. No man is perfect, and William Marshal did have his flaws and issues with the kings that he served. Despite all of that he was very much close to the ideals I discussed in the first blog post.
Martin Crampin (ed.), Stained Glass in Wales Catalogue, University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth, 2015. http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/object/2417 (accessed 2 August 2017)
William Marshal was a great individual fighter demonstrated by the fact that he was in the entourage of powerful people who he had impressed with his skills along with working for the Plantagenet royal households. While a young man the Marshal was in the service of his Uncle, the Earl of Salisbury. The Earl and Marshal were escorting Queen Eleanor when ambushed. The Earl was killed, and the Marshal was captured. Queen Eleanor was so impressed by the Marshal that she paid his ransom and at the age of 21, he became part of the queen’s household. The Marshal was also placed with the young King Henry when the young king was 15. William clearly demonstrated his skills as a knight and managed to impress the royal family. He would not have been part of the queen’s or the young king’s household if he wasn’t highly a skilled knight. His rise as a knight would mean that he would be a court and had to also navigate the court politics.
William Marshal was a second son and used his skill to accumulate wealth and power and had the ability to engage with others in court. This was a part of a chivalry that was just a crucial as being a good fighter. He was able to navigate the courts through what was considered courtly chivalry- cheerful, witty, wise, and the ability to mask his feelings. These traits can be found in the romance literature that was popular at the time and is summed up by the French word Courtesie. These traits served the Marshal well as he was able to survive a falling out with King John and remained a loyalist during the Baron's revolt. When it mattered most William Marshal supported his king, which chivalry demanded of him and he his loyalty was rewarded multiple times by multiple kings. King Richard arranged a marriage for Marshal to the heiress of Striguil and then became Lord Striguil by marriage. The Marshal became a Magnate in 1189 and was made the Earl of Pembroke in 1119 Then, when King John died in 1215, William was made regent and had joint power with a papal legate for nineteen months until he resigned. Marshal had risen in the ranks from a second son to regent. Clearly, the Marshal was able to navigate court politics and live up to the ideal for knights off the battlefield and in court.
William Marshal at a joust unhorses Baldwin Guisnes. From the Historia Major of Matthew Paris, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library, vol 2, p. 85. From <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Matthew_Paris_-_William_Marshal.jpg>
The last part that would make Marshal an exemplary knight would be a concern for his soul as being a good Christian. After the young king’s death, Marshal went on a crusade. The Crusades were a way to ensure that despite all the killing you could earn a place in heaven. In addition, the Crusades were a way for a knight to demonstrate his prowess while also demonstrating his piousness. On his deathbed, William Marshal became part of the Order of the Knights Templar. Helping to cement his position as a Christian knight, fulfilling the last major part of being a great knight.
William Marshal was a great knight but the major source we have for him is biased in his favor as it was a commissioned history by his descendants. I am skeptical of calling anyone in history the greatest. It is an argument that, while there is evidence, is ultimately an opinion that is often found with bias in it. While we there is no way to completely eliminate bias in history, it cannot be ignored either. That being said I am looking forward to starting The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge and will post about my thoughts when I finish.
For further reading (I used these works for this post) I suggest The English Aristocracy by David Crouch, The Reign of Chivalry by R. W. Barber, Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300 by John France, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe by Richard W. Kaeuper, and William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219 by David Crouch.