From the castle keep to the halls of Westminster in an age of chivalry and knights gallantly astride their steady mounts came the one Knight that had the greatest impact on not only English history but that of all Europe. The height of the Middle Ages in a world filled with long bows, broad swords and lancers, this was life in the 11th century. The days of chivalry and knighthood where on galloping horses lancers in hand jousting tournaments were held all over the land. In Merry Old England and out of the pages of history comes the greatest knight of them all. His name was William Marshall. A tower of a man standing six feet five whose capabilities earned him histories best knight of them all. In all of recorded history no other knight would match the skill, the sheer power and cunning of histories greatest Knight. The feats he accomplished and the bounty he amassed enabled him to gain rank and privilege that was only bestowed to those of noble blood.
In a time of unthinkable hardship born in relative obscurity by force and determination grew to become the man who would be king. Most of what we know about his life derives from a chronicle “The History of William Marshall written in 1226 by a man that came to know William not only in his prime but till the end of his life. There is also a poem written by Marshall’s eldest son. This chronicle is Black satta king believed to be the first medieval biography of a layman achieving fame and fortune on his way to become the man who would be king. This biography depicts the two extremes of medieval society that William Marshall lived through. For forty years William was a landless knight who frequented tournaments and he when he died was the Earl of Pembroke and the regent of all of England.
Through-out his life span he served five Angevin kings and is arguably responsible for saving the Plantagenet dynasty which would survive for another 250 years. Yet, to this day he has not been popular with chroniclers and historians. Could it be this was due to his low birth and a lineage associated with peasant life in a time of Monarchs and knighthood? Despite being close to so many kings during the most eventful period in medieval history, the story of William Marshal is still a curiously neglected source. His life sheds light on chivalry, tournaments, and warfare during a time many people associate with the times of Robin Hood. But it is William Marshall who is remembered as the greatest knight of them all.
Witnesses tell the stories that fueled his rise to fame. He unhorsed Richard, the future King Richard I, the Lionheart, in battle and spared his life. It was Richard I who had the sense to recognize Marshal’s qualities. Marshall defeated over 500 opponents in single combat, knighted two kings, ruled England as Regent, beat a powerful French army on English soil, saved the kingdom of England, and earned the respect of all of Europe. He was called “The Flower of Chivalry”. Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, described him as the “greatest knight that ever lived”. It is said that every king and great nobleman in Europe had an officer called a marshal, but by the time of his death in 1219 the whole of Europe knew William as “The Marshal&rdquo.
William was born in 1147, the fourth son of John FitzGilbert, Marshal during the reign of King Stephen the grand son of William the Conqueror. From the time William was born life was harsh enough. But, in 1152 a civil war broke out between the heirs of Henry I, Stephen and Matilda, Matilda was Henry I daughter and Stephen was his nephew. When Stephen besieged Newbury castle young William was captured. In the end John Marshall never did surrender the castle and young William now was in the hands of the King. We have to remember this was a period of political power grabbing where the heirs of William The Conquer pitted one against the other for the throne of England.