Sir William Marshall (Guillaume le Maréchal) is the plumb line for authors wanting to create medieval heroes, particularly of the chivalrous kind. Even among his contemporaries, he was considered the flower of chivalry, the ideal to which knights should strive, and described as “the greatest knight that ever lived” by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But even if you like darker heroes, William could serve as an inspiration there because some of the deeds credited to him would require quite a bit of arrogance, stubbornness and anger.
Most of what we know about him comes from L’histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, commissioned shortly after his death by William’s eldest son and based on his squire’s memories. William was born in relative obscurity (before him, the hereditary title of Marshal designated the head of household security for the king). He served four kings, (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John and Henry III) became a regent of England and one of the most powerful men in Europe and was referred to as simply “the Marshal.”
Key points about William:
- Was born around 1144. A younger son of a minor noble, he would inherit no land, title or money.
- Was given has hostage to King Stephen during the siege of Newbury Castle and almost hanged by the king when John Marshall (William’s father) broke the treaty. Allegedly, he told the king to go ahead and kill the boy because “I have the hammers and the anvils to forge still an even finer son.”
- Fostered by cousin William of Tancerville, chamberlain to the Duke of Normandy. Although many social historians like to talk about the emotional distance between parents and children because of high death rate and/or political necessity, in his autobiography, William talks about crying when he says goodbye to his mother and siblings. Of note is he doesn’t mention his father.
- Knighted in 1164 at approximately 20 years old.
- Fought his way, almost alone, through the French army during a battle at Drincourt (now Neufchatel-en-Bray), sealing his reputation.
- Spent two or three years on the tournament circuit, winning every contest and gaining a reputation for chivalry.
- Was taken prisoner in 1167. Eleanor of Aquitaine pays his ransom and King Henry II acknowledges him as a gallant knight.
- Becomes a knight-errant after vicious rumors about him and Henry, the young King’s wife are spread. He demands the right to prove his innocence, including by combat, but neither the king nor young Henry will contest him. In the end, young Henry sends his wife to her brother (king of France) and takes William back into his household.
- Crusades in the Holy Land in place of the young Henry, who died before he could fulfill his obligation.
- Unhorsed Richard the Lionhearted (possibly the only the man to do so). Richard eventually pardoned the unrepentant William.
- Married the Earl of Pembroke’s daughter, Isabel, gaining wealth, land, titles and love.
- Was accused of treason by King John. William literally throws down the gauntlet (his armored glove), which John ignores. William then challenges every knight in the room to pick it up and let him prove his loyalty; none do.
- Ruled as regent of England until King John’s son (Henry III) reaches his majority.
- Died May 14, 1219. Reports say the King of France openly wept upon hearing the news.
A common theme in William’s life is the need to belong, to have a home, to belong. He was about 5 when his father gave him as a hostage and said, “Do as you will.” King Stephen should’ve (according to the terms of the agreement) have hanged the boy. However, if we use William’s life we can use William’s life as the plumb line for almost any hero that we’re going to use in a medieval-set book to develop a more accurate, yet just as conflicted and complex hero. Right there we have our wounded hero.
Keena Kincaid writes historical romances in which passion, magic and treachery collide to create unforgettable stories. For more information about her books: http://keenakincaid.com/