William Marshal: Ultimate Knight?

Image By Kjetilbjørnsrud from no, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2910296

I started off wanting to write something about William Marshal, a figure who has fascinated me since I first read about him in William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219 by David Crouch for my capstone paper. I recently picked up a copy of The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge. To be fair, I haven’t read Asbridge’s book yet. I wanted to solidify my own ideas before I started reading his.

The assertion of William being the greatest knight was interesting to me and I thought it would be a great topic to explore further on my blog (Crouch does deal with this but it wasn’t the focus of my reading). Once I started my research I realized it was a bigger topic than I anticipated. I needed to define what made a knight great during William Marshal’s time before I could even get into whether he was a great knight much less the greatest knight. I had to split the topic up. This post is going to explore what made a knight great and the next one will then compare William Marshal’s life to the criteria for a great knight.


 Detail of a marginal drawing of an inverted shield with the arms of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, referring to his death, and a pair of clasped hands above referring to the marriage of Richard, first earl of Cornwall and king of Germany, to Isabella of Gloucester. England, S. (St. Albans) Matthew Paris


The criteria for a great knight was based around the type of warfare that was common during William Marshals time. Major battles and sieges were uncommon for twelfth-century warfare and it remained that way until the fourteenth-century. There was an emphasis on the individual knight as they trained to fight individually as they were most often engaged in small scale skirmishes and situations where individual actions mattered quite a bit. As a warfare society, war played a huge role in society and for the aristocracy. Another large part of society, which conflicted with warfare in William Marshal’s era in England, was the Catholic Church.

The Church had pacifist traditions that clashed with the warrior lifestyle of knights. While knights were supposed to protect against violence they were also the cause of violence. The warrior class was a danger to those who were a part of the church and the poor, who were the church’s main concern. Violence was a concern to the Church due to the pillaging and raiding that knights took part in. The Church was further in conflict with a knight’s lifestyle due to the idea of a universal Christian state. The way in which it could be achieved, according to the Church, was through peace and a unified Christendom. This meant that the Church believed that there was only a set of certain circumstances in which violence was acceptable and it did not include for political or economic reasons.

The Church had a strict definition of acceptable violence which was their definition of a just war. The Crusades fit this definition as they saw it as a war of defense as they were taking back the holy land, which they believed was rightfully theirs. The Crusades provided a way for knights to engage in Church sanctioned warfare. As the Crusades were considered a just war in the Church’s eyes, the Church offered a remission of sins for those who went on a Crusade. This was ideal for a knight who had spent his life killing, a large sin in the Church’s teachings.

Chivalry, the ideals for warriors in the late middle ages, was based around the individual knight. Just like the realities of being a knight the ideals in chivalry conflicted with each other and with the reality of being a knight. The concept of Chivalry could be found in the poem and stories from this time. Medieval romances provided a structure for how a knight could love a lady from afar, epics provided the ideals a knight should display on the battlefield, and writers fused these ideals with Christian values (this is, of course, a very brief explanation for a very complex and nuanced concept). These ideals presented in the literature are of course unachievable all at once. Chivalry focused on individual honor prowess, and accomplishments. Violence was glorified and painted as noble while some of the realities of war were glossed over. In addition, there was the idea of restraint, mostly coming from the Church’s teachings, which also discounted the realities of being a knight. The ideals though did serve a purpose, warlike aristocracies needed warrior models to encourage their own warriors to conform to ideals that would allow the aristocracy to retain their power and position in society.

While there is no one set definition of Chivalry there are a few general takeaways that would make a knight great. Great individual deeds in battle, being a Crusader, and love a lady from afar. The ideal knight would serve his lord and not be afraid to die in his service while at the same time being a good Christian. In my second post, I will compare the main ideals presented in chivalry with William Marshal’s life along with the realities of warfare to better understand what kind of knight he was.

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, and Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe by Richard W. Kaeuper.

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