SIR WILLIAM MARSHAL:
THE Englishman Sir William Marshal (c. 1146-1219 CE, aka William the Marshal), Earl of Pembroke, is one of the most celebrated knights of the Middle Ages. Renowned for his fighting skills, he remained undefeated in tournaments, spared the life of Richard I, King of England (r. 1189-1199 CE) in battle, and rose to become Marshal and then Protector of the Kingdom – king in all but name. Shortly after William’s death, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, described him as ‘the greatest knight that ever lived’ and his deeds and titles are such that the claim still seems justified today.
William Marshal was born c. 1146 CE and he experienced his very first misadventure aged just six when his father’s castle at Newbury was attacked by an army of King Stephen’s (r. 1135-1154 CE). John Marshal was forced to give up his young son William as a hostage while the attack was suspended in order for the terms of a surrender to be settled. However, John had other ideas and used the respite to restock his castle with provisions. This seemed a risky strategy considering his son was in the hands of his enemies but when threatened with the execution of William his father glibly replied ‘I have a hammer and an anvil on which I can forge better sons than he!’ (Phillips, 104). Fortunately for William, he escaped both death and his family when Stephen decided not to end his young life by hanging him as threatened (or catapulted over the castle walls as some had proposed) and instead made him a royal ward. This was a fortuitous outcome for everybody since William, being the younger of several brothers, had no chance of inheriting the estates of his father and had to make his own way in the world anyway. It was not a bad start, after all.