William, the fourth son of John the Marshal, was an insignificant child born to a minor English baron of no great importance. He grew up in a decently-adequate castle, sure, but this kid was so far down the line of inheritance in his own family that it was obvious from his birth that he would receive precisely jack shit after his dad died, and could expect nothing out of life except what he was able to forge with his own two hands out of the still-beating hearts of his enemies. He would never inherit land, title, or wealth. He would never be important enough to receive training in the arts of warfare or battle. In short, William’s unlucky position in his family’s birth order left this poor bastard doomed in the ranks of the knights errant, those masterless noble warriors left to wander the countrysides of Medieval England D&D player-character style looking to create their own legends through sheer determination, cleverness, and, occasionally, brute force applied liberally to the skulls of anyone stupid enough to fuck with them.
By the time his life had run its course, William had personally served as the trusted military advisor of five English Kings, knighted two of them, captured over 500 enemy knights in battle, survived a Crusade and a couple wars with France, kicked Richard the Fucking Lionheart’s ass in a fight to the death, and married a millionaire countess babe half his age who also kicked ass commanding armies on the field of battle herself. At William’s massively-attended state funeral in London almost exactly 798 years ago today, the Archbishop of Canterbury – the highest-ranking Church official in England – referred to William Marshal, First Earl of Pembroke, as “The Great Knight Who Ever Lived.” Which is a big-ass deal back at a time when you couldn’t huck a crucifix without clanking it off the plate armor of some would-be Crusader.
At the age of fifty, white-haired William Marshal single-handedly scaled the walls of a French castle in full fucking plate armor, killed the Captain of the Guard with a single massive blow from his epic broadsword, and then held the walls alone against an onrushing horde of fanatical enemy soldiers until reinforcements could arrive to back him up. But something that would make or break the legends of lesser men barely warrants mentioning in Marshal’s biographies, since at that point in his life he was already a 45-year veteran of over-the-top badass medieval siege warfare. His first encounter came at the age of five, back when William’s dad was involved in a civil war against King Stephen of England. William’s dad had supported Stephen’s sister as the true claimant to the Throne of England, so naturally Stephen attacked, surrounded the castle with his army, captured William, and held the boy for ransom. While John the Marshal watched from the walls of his castle, King Stephen took five year-old William, loaded him into a goddamned catapult, and said he would launch the kid full-speed into the walls of the castle if John didn’t surrender immediately. John, not giving a royal half-shit about his own fucking kid, screamed back, “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge yet more and better sons!”, which is something I hope to God was said while demonstratively grabbing his crotch. Then, after basically daring King Stephen to pull the trigger, John ordered his men to attack, knowing full well that this was a death sentence for William.
Well King Stephen didn’t launch the kid, partly because he’s not a fucking horrible monster, and partly because he liked that young William didn’t cry or complain or beg for his life but was totally ready to careen head-first into a fucking brick wall at high velocity and take his horrible death like a man. So, after King Stephen was done defeating John in battle and forcing the surrender of his castle, he let William go free to return home.
At the age of 12, William left home and sailed across the Channel to France, where he lived with his uncle in a rad Norman castle. He spent the next seven years training in combat with the sword, lance, and mace, became an expert at horseback riding and archery, and grew to be six feet tall at a time when the average man stood significantly shorter than that. Unfortunately, the fun couldn’t last, and in 1168 a rival noble ambushed William and his uncle while they were out hunting – William’s uncle was killed in the fighting, and William was severely wounded.
Now nineteen years old with no lord, no inheritance, and nothing of value to speak of, William decided to make a name for himself with his primary marketable skill – being able to beat the fucking shit out of people with a sword. He started signing up for Tournaments, which are like the most badass sporting event of all time, and began competitively testing his skill in combat against the knights of France and England for money like some kind of awesome medieval UFC Fight Club.
No matter how hard your friend’s obnoxious girlfriend might insist otherwise, Medieval Tournaments in 12th-century England were nothing like a Saturday afternoon at the Ren Faire. Knights weren’t at the whole “gentlemanly jousting” stage of things just yet… these Tournaments involved something called the melee, which is where a shitload of fucking mounted knights just crash into each other and start pounding on one another as hard as possible in a gigantic clusterfuck of armor and swords. Designed as a way of keeping sharp when there wasn’t a good war to fight, these spectator sports centered around one principle – you charged out there with your sword, kicked the fucking piss out of your enemy, force him to yield to your superior might, then make him pay you money not to kill him. People died at these things all the time, sure, but mostly it was training, and it was a way of basically Racing for Pinks. Think of it like Team Sports Mugging, or a gang fight in a dark alley, only it’s with warhammers and you do it on a soccer field in front of thousands of screaming fans.
And William Marshal was the fucking Michael Jordan of that shit.
Standing a head taller than his enemies, tactically brilliant, and with a humongous iron “hammer and anvil” package that made him utterly fearless, William Marshal quickly became a superstar in the organized asskicking circuit. Leading a team of warriors into battle, his signature move was to charge up to a guy on horseback, grab the reigns of the dude’s horse, and then bring the horse and guy down to the ground by yanking on it. Then he’d jump down, kick the dude in the ribs, put a sword in his face, steal the guy’s wallet, and move on to the next, careful to conserve his energy for the end when all of his foes were too exhausted to withstand more than one or two epic crushing blows to the skull from his ten-pound iron-headed war mace. His team deathmatch Clan won tournament after tournament, earning him tons of fame, glory, and gold.
Well one dude who was super into Tournament fighting in the 1170s was Prince Henry, the eldest son of King Henry II of England and his wife, the awesome-as-hell Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry II invited William to London, and recruited him to be the leader of the Royal Tournament Team and also the personal fighting instructor and mentor to Prince Henry. William spent 12 years in the household of the King of England, winning battle after battle and earning the trust of the Royal Family. In Tournaments, he let the teenage Prince fight it out on his own, but was careful to step in with some groin-kicking badassitude if it looked like the kid was getting himself into trouble.
Prince Henry died of dysentery in his twenties, tragically crapping himself to death in 1183. On his deathbed, the Prince wept because he had never had an opportunity to take up the Cross and fight in the Crusades.
William Marshal, kneeling by the Prince’s bedside, swore to his friend that he would fight on the Prince’s behalf.
In 1183, Marshal sailed the Mediterranean to Jerusalem, joined the Knights Templar, and served two years battling on the frontiers against Muslim forces in the Levant. He was fortuitously called home by King Henry II in 1185, leaving the region just two years before the Templar were almost completely annihilated by the hardcore warriors of Saladin at the Battle of Hattin in 1189.
William had been called back because Henry II needed his help dealing with a threat to his rule – a revolt by Henry’s son Richard, a dude you and me now know as Richard the Motherfucking Lionheart. Richard the Lionheart isn’t on this site, but I have a chapter on him in Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch, and, long story short, he’s tough as shit. This guy was gigantic, wielded a massive two-handed greatsword, and used to disguise himself as an anonymous knight, enter tournaments, and beat the shit out of everyone just for fun because he didn’t like it when they took it easy on him because they knew he was king. One time he got a debilitating case of malaria and still took potshots at his enemies with a crossbow from his sickbed because even a 105 temperature wasn’t going to keep him from killing his foes. Another time he launched a one-man amphibious attack on a coastal fortress by stripping off his leg armor so he could run through waist-deep water. He was quite possibly one of the toughest men in European history.
But on a rainy afternoon in Normandy, charging at the head of a formation of heavily-armored Norman knights, Richard the Lionheart found himself face-to-face with the steely-eyed gaze of Sir William Marshal.
Lionheart attacked. Marshal parried, disarmed him, and threw him from his horse. Before Lionheart could get up, there was a sword point two inches from his eyes.
William Marshal took one look at Richard, gave him a badass “do ya feel lucky punk” Eastwood stare, then wheeled, beheaded Lionheart’s horse, and rode away, leaving the rebellious Prince laid out on the battlefield, hurt but alive.
But the story doesn’t end there. Just two days after this battle, King Henry II of England died of unrelated causes. The Throne of England passed to the next legitimate heir, which was – you guessed it – Richard the Lionheart.
He immediately called for Sir William Marshal. Marshal proudly stood before the new King.
Richard the Lionheart told him he was hereby Sir William Marshal, First Earl of Pembroke. He bestowed his worthy adversary land, wealth, and a bride – an incredibly wealthy countess named Isabel de Claire who was one of the richest noblewomen in the land. She was also 17, and he was 43, but that’s pretty normal for the Middle Ages and they seem to have been pretty happy together in so much as medieval history takes the time to talk about that sort of thing.
It helps that they had some of the same hobbies, I guess – in 1208 a rival Irish lord attacked the Marshals’ lands with a small army while William was out fighting in France. Isabel gritted her teeth, grabbed a sword, organized the household guard, and crushed the invaders mercilessly.
When Richard left for the Third Crusade in 1190, William Marshal was one of a few high-ranking nobles left behind to run shit while the King was gone. He managed the day-to-day operations of the Kingdom, oversaw the war in France, and when Richard was captured by Germans William was a big part of the Robin Hood resistance that stood strong and fought against Richard’s mega-historical-asshole brother John illegally seizing power.
Richard the Lionheart died in 1199, passing the crown to King John, and William Marshal was a good loyal knight and went along with it because those are the rules when you’re a knight. John, of course, super fucking sucks. Known as “Lackland” and “Softsword”, John was weak, misguided, and a super mega asshole to everyone, and before long he was excommunicated by the Church and like 90% of the English nobility was ready to burn him at the stake. William himself was hot-and-cold with John, but when King John was on his deathbed in 1216 he asked William Marshal to be regent for John’s young son Henry. Naturally, William agreed, and when King Henry III was coronated, William Marshal was basically the Hand of the King.
Unfortunately, the Nobles still weren’t happy, and they attacked against the king. Worse yet, they had enlisted the help of the French King, who arrived on the coast of England with a huge-ass motherfucking army.
William Marshal went on the offensive. He attacked. Personally.
When the French Army and the rebellious barons took the field at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, the first thing they saw was the figure of 70 year-old legendary warrior William Motherfucking Marshal charging head-on towards them, an inspired army of ultra-pumped English knights riding hard behind him. Marshall’s attack smashed into the French lines, battering them back, and it didn’t stop until the Barons surrendered and the French were driven out of England.
William wisely pardoned the Barons, telling them it was all good in the hood as long as they recognized Henry III as the King and stopped trying to put French Kings on the Throne of England. They agreed. Henry’s grandson ended up being Edward Longshanks, the bad guy in Braveheart. His great-great grandson won the Battle of Crecy in the Hundred Years’ War. Basically, this kid’s descendents would run shit in England for the next 250 years, and if it wasn’t for William Marshal the would have been sliced and diced like goose liver pate and everyone in England (and by extension America) might possibly be speaking French today.
Two years after the war, William Marshal, First Earl of Pembroke, fell sick. The greatest knight in English history passed away exactly 796 years ago yesterday, dying on May 14, 1219 at the age of 72. Upon hearing the news of his death, even his long-time enemy, the King of France, said that Marshal had been a great man, and a worthy adversary.