William Marshal was one of 16 Illustrious Men, counselors to King John, who were listed in the preamble to Magna Carta.
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In 1152, during the siege of Newbury, Berkshire, his father handed him over to King Stephen as a hostage. His father broke the terms of his agreement with Stephen, who expected the surrender of Newbury Castle, but William's life was spared. King Stephen is said to have played in his tent with William instead of, as threatened, catapulting William over the battlements into Newbury Castle. The story goes that William's father, threatened with the death of his hostage son, responded that he had the anvils and hammers to make a finer one.
Subsequently, William was a squire of William de Tancarville, Master Chamberlain of Normandy, for eight years. He was a younger son, and had to a great extent to make his own way initially, which he did as a warrior and participant in tournaments. He was probably knighted in 1166 and was almost immediately involved in a frontier war.
In 1168 he went with his uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury to Poitou, where Patrick was killed and William was captured by the forces of Guy de Lusignan. He was ransomed by Eleanor of Aquitaine and returned to England. Eleanor made him a member of her household.
In 1170 William Marshal went on to join the household of Henry the Young King whom he trained in arms and chivalry. In 1173 he supported the Young King in his rebellion. In 1174 he was a witness to the subsequent agreement between Henry II and his children.
William's relationship with the Young King and the rewards from his participation in tournaments gave him financial independence and the resources to maintain a household of knights.
The Young King had made a vow to go on crusade, but died in 1183. On his deathbed, he asked William to crusade in his place. This William did, after escorting the remains of Henry the Young King to Rouen.
William was back in Normandy, possibly by the spring of 1186, and became a member of Henry II's household. He took part in the fighting in the next two years against the future King Richard I. In Henry II's last months he was a commander of the king's household guard, was in command of the rearguard when Henry II escaped from Le Mans to Angers in 1189. The story goes that in rearguard action against the future Richard I, he had Richard at his mercy and spared his life, killing his horse instead. He attended Henry II's deathbed at Chinon and escorted the king's corpse to Fontevraud.
William Marshal retained royal favour on the accession of Richard I, who gave him as wife Isabel de Clare. Their marriage took place in July or August 1189. in London where she lived in the Tower (for her protection against abduction and a forced marriage). The marriage made him a very wealthy lord, with lands and claims to lands in England, Wales, Ireland and Normandy. Through his wife he assumed the title Earl of Strigoil.
William and Isabel had ten children - five sons and five daughters - who lived to adulthood, but none of his sons had any legitimate heirs.
At Richard I's coronation on 3 September 1189, William carried the gold sceptre and cross, and indication of the favour in which he was held. Soon after he was made a justiciar under William de Longchamp, Chief Justiciar of England. When Walter de Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen became Chief Justiciar in the autumn of 1191, William was his main assistant.
In 1189 he was granted Pembroke Castle, which he began to turn from an edifice of wood and earth into a stone fortification.
In 1193 the future King John rebelled against his brother: William Marshal stayed loyal to the king and captured Windsor Castle but declined to do homage to Richard I for his Irish lands, saying the homage was owed to John. That year he was made Sheriff of Sussex.
William Marshal helped to secure the smooth accession of King John in 1199, and was present at the coronation on 27 May 1199. King John granted him the title and estates of Earl of Pembroke which his wife's father had had, but had been deprived of by Henry II in 1154.
He served King John in Gascony, England, and Normandy, and fought for him in Wales. In 1202 he was made Constable of the castle of Lillebonne in Normandy. In 1203 his forces were defeated when he tried to relieve the castle of Chateau Gaillard in Normandy. Soon after that, he accompanied King John to England.
King John's loss of Normandy threatened William's possession of his estates there. John sought to give him some compensation with lands in England, but William entered into negotiations with Philippe-Auguste, leading to his paying the French king homage for his Normandy possessions in 1205. This led to his falling temporarily into John's displeasure, exacerbated when William Marshal refused to join in a planned expedition to Poitou. At one point King John sought to have him arraigned for treason, but other peers refused. John also tried to get one of his household knights to challenge William Marshal, but nobody was willing to do so.
Between 1207 and 1213 William was mainly in Ireland, effectively in exile. King John deprived him of some of his offices, and some of William's supporters abandoned him. William sought to build bridges with John in 1212, when he clearly sided with the king at a time of threatened baronial conspiracy. In 1213 William was summoned back to England, where lands that had been confiscated were returned to him and he was given additional lordships. He was a witness to King John's act of submission to the Pope. The king entrusted him with castles in Wales and Ireland.
In 1215 William Marshal was one of the Illustrious Men listed as King John's counsellors in the Magna Carta. He stayed loyal to the king and when civil war broke out, he secured the Welsh Marches. He oversaw King John's funeral at Worcester and was one of his executors.
The next year, at the age of about 70, he commanded the royal forces in their victory over rebels and the French in the Battle of Lincoln, taking an active part in the fighting. In September 1217 he concluded a peace treaty with the French. An agreement with Llywelyn of Gwynedd followed in March 1218.
William died in May 1219. On his deathbed he committed Henry III to the care of the Papal legate., and also was formally made a member of the Knights Templar in fulfilment of a vow made on crusade. He died at Caversham, Berkshire on 14 May 1219 and was buried in the round chapel of the Knights Templar in what is now the Temple, London.
In William's lifetime, no one actually called him 'the 4th Earl of Pembroke' nor did they call him 'the 1st Earl of Pembroke' - "re-created" or otherwise. He was simply the Earl of Pembroke. Whether The Marshal was the 4th or the 1st of Pembroke is a distinction which scholars of modern time debate. Isabel de Clare's father, Gilbert de Clare (Strongbow) was Earl of Pembroke. After her brother died, Isabel became Countess of Pembroke.
It is doubtful that William was born at Pembroke, which he obtained through his wife's inheritance later in his life, not from William's father. It is doubtful he was born in France, while his father was fighting Earl Patrick and King Stephen for his castles in England. It is likely he was born in England, but it is not stated in a known record.
"Marshal" originally referred to a function of "horse servant", which is what the word meant in the old language of the Franks. By William's lifetime, the work of the king's Marshal had grown far away from its original tasks. There were thus many marshals, but William's family held the highest marshalcy in the royal household. The office became hereditary in the time of William's father.
Duties of the Master Marshall "involved the keeping of certain royal records" and the management of "four other lesser marshals, both clerks and knights, assistants called sergeants, the knight ushers and common ushers of the royal hall, the usher of the king's chamber, the watchmen of court, the tent-keeper and the keeper of the king's hearth".
Even before he inherited the office William was apparently referred to as "the Marshal" (li Mareschal in the French of the time). By the time William died, all of Europe referred to him this way, and he had given the position a new status, leading in later generations to the peerage title of "Earl Marshall", something William had sometimes been called (comes mareschallus in Latin).
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