William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke and Striguil (Chepstow)
Of all the barons assembled at Runnemede, William Marshall was the most distinguished. He was not one of those opposed to King John; he was an old man and had served as counselor to three Plantagenet Kings, His part was that of intermediary. While not a surety he deserves our veneration more than any of the twenty-five. It was he who made possible the realization of Magna Charta.
In his youth he was acclaimed by his contemporaries as the perfect type of chivalry. In his old age and in history he appears as one of the noblest of medieval soldier statesmen. He filled the foremost places in England and Ireland, and never compromised his honor.
He is described as tall and handsome, of beautiful countenance and dignified bearing, with unusual strength. We do not know the exact date of his birth but it must have been shortly before 1140, for as a boy in 1152 he was given by his father as a hostage to King Stephen, and he was over 80 when he died in 1219.
He was the second son of John Marshall, by his wife Sybil, sister of Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and daughter of Walter d’Evreux, and grandson of Gilbert Marshall from whom he inherited the office of Marshall. This name, it may be explained, was derived from two words, “mare,” meaning originally horse, and “schalc” meaning “care-taker”; a marshall was a master of the horse, and the office became the most important in the days of chivalry. For this reason, the Marshall of England always carried the golden spurs at the coronation of the sovereigns of England. William, as a younger son, did not inherit the family estates, which were in Wiltshire and Berkshire, until the death of his older brother in 1194; therefor he was sent as squire to the Chamberlain of Tankarville in Normandy, where he learned courtly ways and what was necessary to become a knight. He had his own career to make which he did by his strength and skill in the tournament. His early life reads like a story from King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. He seemed to move in an aura of fantasy, as if led to perform legendary deeds. He saved the life of Richard Coeur de Lion, carried the heart of young King Henry, son of Henry II, to Palestine, served as guardian to two boy Kings and remained unmarried until at the age of 50 he could win the hand of a great heiress, and then had ten children.
In 1167 he returned to England to live with his uncle, the Earl of Salisbury. Shortly after he followed the Earl in a campaign in Normandy, where, while defending his uncle in an ambush he was taken prisoner, but later escaped. At this time he was unsurpassed in the tourney; it is said that, with a companion, Roger de Gaugi, captured 103 Knights, in different parts of France.
In 1170 he was given charge of the young King Henry, son of Henry II, who was made, although a boy, King of England during his father’s life time. Thus, early in his life, he was charged with loyalty to the crown, and remained constantly with the prince until the latter’s death in 1183. The young Henry was so devoted to William that, on his deathbed, he beseeched his friend to take his heart to the Holy Land, which William Marshall did the same year.
In 1188 a crucial event in his life occurred. He was in battle fighting the forces of Prince Richard, who was in rebellion against his father, Henry II, when he came face to face with the prince and could have slain him. Richard called out “slay me not, for I am unarmed.” William killed Richard’s horse instead and saved the prince.
One year later William was at the deathbed of Henry II. On Richard’s accession to the throne, he remembered he owed his life to William, and gave him in marriage to the great heiress of Struguil, Eva, daughter of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke and granddaughter of Dermot, King of Leinster. She was only seventeen, he about fifty.
Soon after Richard left on the Crusade for which he became so famous; William Longchamps was left in charge of the kingdom, and William Marshall counselor to him. On Richard’s return he continued as advisor to the King, and acted as mediator between Richard and Philip of France.
At Richard’s death in 1199, William Marshall seems to have been the one responsible for John’s succession. Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, headed the council to decide between Arthur, who, as son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey Duke of Brittany, was therefor first in succession, and John himself. In the discussion William exclaimed “Arthur is a tool of the French, he loves not England.” He sensed that John, in spite of his trickery, would be accepted by the English.
In this decision, we may not discern the wisdom for which William was noted, for our sympathies are apt to be swayed by romance. But from the facts we know of Arthur he was a worthless fellow, not a boy at all as Shakespeare described him, but a young man with little sense of loyalty. He had never been in England.
During most of John’s reign, Marshall was occupied with his estates in Ireland. He sheltered there William de Braise who fled from Wales — a matter which brought John to Ireland. Here, William’s firmness and reasonableness, combined with his reputation for loyalty to the crown, saved him from John’s revenge. He always used his influence on the side of justice and moderation; John continued to employ him as mediator between himself and his barons. As we know already, he was at King John’s side at Runnemeade, although in sympathy with the baron’s cause. What part he played in the framing of Magna Charta is a matter of conjecture, but it is difficult to believe that Stephen Langton was alone responsible, or that the justiciars, or William Hardell had the foresight and sagacity to word many of the clauses that made the Charta immortal. William Marshall had those qualities, besides that serenity of mind that comes from age and experience. His biographers, while unstinting in their admiration, point out he belonged to the age of feudalism, his own age, when loyalty to one’s overlord was the supreme virtue; he was no prophet of a new order. On the other hand, Magna Charta was not a revolutionary document; it was eminently a practical body of laws and judgements based largely on previous and existing laws and customs.
William Marshall was the supreme man for the hour when John died, leaving as his heir a boy of nine. One half of the kingdom was in the hands of the French King; there was civil war. To William Marshall was entrusted the task of guarding the safety of the young king, whom he personally knighted; he was appointed “Guardian of the King and of the Realm.”
His direction of the battle of Lincoln was a masterpiece of strategy. It is worth noting that Saher de Quincy was taken prisoner by him in this campaign.
It was during the three years of disorder after the death of John that William Marshall’s greatest and special work was done accomplishing the pacification of the country. Only his wisdom and courage preserved England from becoming a tributary province of France; it was he in truth who made possible the realization of Magna Charta. As death approached, he retired to his manor of Cavershamin Berkshire, which was his patrimony. He had castles in Ireland and Wales where he could have died surrounded by pomp, but he preferred the place of his birth.
He died May 14, 1219. As he had been in the Holy Land, he was buried in the Knight’s Templer’s Church in London, where his tomb still exists.
At his deathbed, Pandulph, the Papal legate, claimed the guardianship of the boy King. William Marshall was wise enough to reply “Not so, you are to be only joint guardian with Hubert de Burgh.”
By his wife, Eva (Isabel ?)(sometimes called Isabel – Eva ?) De Clare he had five sons and five daughters. Following a curse made by a priest who claimed to have been deprived of some land, and unfortunately believed by his wife, all his sons died childless, but the daughters had descendants. These children were:
- William, the second Earl, Magna Charta Surety, who died in 1231
- Richard, who died 1234
- Gilbert, who died 1241
- Walter, who died 1245, and
- Anselm, who died 1246
- Maud, who in 1206 married 1st Hugh Bigod the Surety, and second William Earl Warenne. Maud’s son Roger Bigod , was after the deaths of all his uncles, Earl Marshal of England.
- Isabella, married 1st to Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Clare, and Magna Charta Surety, and had Richard, 8th Earl, and second to Richard, Earl of Cornwall.
- Sybil, married to William Ferrers, Earl of Derby, and had seven daughters.
- Eva, married to Reginald de Braose of Breakneck, and had a daughter Maud, married to Roger Mortimer.
- Joan, married St. to Warin de Munchesni by whom she had John and Joan, and 2nd William de Valence who was created Earl Pembroke, 1264, who had no issue.
The office of Marshall passed to the Bogods and through them to the Mowbrays and eventually to the Howards.