The end of hostilities is not the same as the restoration of peace. The Dauphin’s departure ensured England’s dynastic continuity, but left many other problems. Country and government were impoverished, royal administration at a standstill, the ruling elite divided. For the last eighteen months of his life, William sought to revive government and restore national unity, his greatest and least known public service. But he was lost too soon: to the country’s continuing detriment malice overpowered prowess.


William’s peace-time regency was inevitably an anti-climax. The History says little about the period. Record evidence, however, suggests a punishing work rate. Paul Meyer’s reconstruction of the regent’s movements, in his 1890s edition of the History, reveals that William visited sixty-three locations in twenty-two counties during the year from October 1217. William of Newburgh’s continuator might think: ‘Pharaoh having been defeated and the enemies fled, truth and peace was restored in our land’, but much remained to be done.

Demobilised knights promptly revived the tournament circuit, ‘an outlet for the relics of discord’, thought Anonymous of Béthune. In government, their erstwhile champion banned them, ‘until the state of peace of the kingdom … has been made firmer’. Politics had come full circle. Central administration had collapsed, as in Stephen’s reign. The Court of King’s Bench had not sat since 1209. No regular taxation had been collected since 1214. Devoid of money and troops, the government struggled to regain control of royal castles, despite the History’s assertion that William installed his own castellans as soon as Louis had gone. The recovery of Carlisle from the Scots was a rare success, exchanged for the Earldom of Huntingdon, traditionally held by the Scottish royal family. Reluctance to supplant John’s appointees until his heir came of age reinforced practical obstacles to the reassertion of royal power. William’s colleagues were torn between their curialist urges to restore the king’s government, and a baronial instinct to hang onto royal assets acquired during the civil war. William feathered his own nest, dividing the Berkshire estates of Lincoln’s most notable casualty with the Earl of Salisbury. The Earls of Chester, Derby, and Aumale never sealed the Treaty of Kingston, suggesting disagreement between Northern royalists and the southerners who made the agreement, many of them recently defected rebels. At the heart of the regency lay tension between William, Peter des Roches, and Hubert de Burgh.

A second reissue of Magna Carta in the autumn of 1217 provided a degree of common ground between curialists and magnates. Sealed by William and the legate, it was in principle a temporary grant, because non-royal. However, it claimed to be in perpetuum, and in practice became so. The charter’s second reissue reflected its evolution from political wish list to practical tool of government. With coffers to be filled, restraints on the Crown’s ability to raise revenue were dropped. A new clause ordering the demolition of private castles built during the war reflected problems similar to those Henry II had faced after the Anarchy. The most abiding change was separation of the vexed issues of Forest Law into a lesser document, or Little Charter, the parent document acquiring the title of Great Charter by which it is still known. Limits on royal exploitation of forests and fresh curbs on sheriffs further diminished royal authority, a political victory for militarily defeated rebels.

The Marshal’s most pressing concern was lack of money. In November 1217, he wrote to the Pope, excusing his inability to pay the 1,000 marks tribute that John had promised. Georges Duby, the distinguished French medievalist, thought that William lacked financial acumen, but the Marshal was well aware of the economic realities behind political power. The History saw the failure of the Young King’s Revolt in 1174 in strictly financial terms:

… when the money runs out,
pride declines and falls:
Whoever rises through great wealth
By poverty is reduced to shame.

Long before he had lands or rents of his own William was a man of credit. When funds were wanting to pay the Young King’s tournament debts, the anxious merchants turned to the Marshal for reassurance. As a landlord, he founded markets to supplement his feudal revenues, and even had a lighthouse built at Hook Head to guide ships to his settlement at New Ross.

Even before the Dauphin left England, William initiated inquiries into debts owing to the Crown and lands gone astray in the civil war. The Great Council at Westminster in October granted a scutage of 2 marks on every knight’s fee to pay the indemnity. Only three-eighths was ever collected, the most prominent defaulters being Peter des Roches and Fawkes of Bréauté. William took a close interest in its collection. He supervised the tallaging (levying of tax) of royal estates, and sought feudal aids from Ireland. He lent money and pledged his own lands to meet the indemnity. His most important step was to reintroduce the Exchequer in November to supervise revenue collection. New chequered cloths, thirteenth-century adding machines, were bought to assist the judges’ calculations. William himself presided over proceedings in January 1218, evidence of concern if not expertise.

The regent’s last significant administrative act was to announce the first judicial visitation of the new reign on 4 November 1218. It was an appropriate measure for an erstwhile servant of Henry II, the father of England’s judicial system. Groups of itinerant justices would tour the counties to administer oaths of loyalty, clear the legal backlog, review sheriffs’ judicial activities, and collect outstanding revenue. Bringing government to the localities, they asserted royal rights, settled property disputes, and prosecuted burglars and builders of illegal castles. Documentary evidence leaves no doubt of William’s central role, clarifying instructions and deciding appeals. A symptom of the return to normality was the appearance of ex-rebels, such as the Earl of Arundel, on the judges’ bench, and successful cases brought against royalist grandees by erstwhile traitors such as Gilbert of Ghent: ‘in this year peace returned and was established in England, and the justices … went through all England after Christmas, reviving the laws and causing them to be observed’ (Waverley).

The History says nothing of these mundane matters, to the detriment of William’s reputation as a man of affairs. Instead it details an episode hardly mentioned elsewhere but indicative of his problems as a Marcher lord and the regency’s factional undercurrents. In accordance with the Treaty of Kingston Llewelyn of Gwynedd laid down his arms and did homage to Henry III. His cousin, Morgan ap Hywel, the last Welsh lord in South Wales, refused to make peace, however. He had taken advantage of the Marshal’s distractions elsewhere to seize Caerleon-upon-Usk, which William’s father-inlaw had taken half a century before. When Llewelyn called on his supporters to cease hostilities, Morgan refused to comply, declaring his intention of fighting on as long as the Marshal held a foot of his land. William’s bailiff, John of Earley, summoned friends and retainers to storm Caerleon, an incident confirmed by Welsh sources. Ten of William’s better class of tenants were killed in a single day’s fighting, whether in an ambush or during the assault is unclear.

The conflict dragged on into March 1218, when a parliament was summoned to Worcester to resolve the issue. Llewelyn appealed to the king to return Caerleon to Morgan, supported by William’s usual opponents, the Earl of Chester and Peter des Roches. Llewelyn was well briefed, appealing to the ‘form of peace’ agreed at Kingston, by which everyone should have his land as he had done before the war. Rather than defend his bailiff’s action in retaking Caerleon, William sought counsel of his men, asking their opinion and allowing the ‘best at speaking’ to present the agreed Marshal position. The History claims that William was inclined to compromise. His men were not. Morgan had chosen to ignore the truce, killing William’s knights and other people, burning twenty-two churches and devastating the land, for which he had been excommunicated. All of this the Marshal’s spokesman offered to prove, implicitly by combat. Perhaps unsurprisingly the assembly found in William’s favour, leaving him in possession of Caerleon Castle and its appurtenances. The History’s chronology is confused, and the final discussions probably took place at Westminster, but like the regency debates at Gloucester, the episode illustrates the subtleties of a lord’s relations with his men; the collective nature of medieval decision-making; the desire of men to cloak their actions in legality, however dubious.

Faced with obstruction and hostility from his closest colleagues, William made little progress in regaining control of the government’s key military assets: its castles. Most were held by King John’s castellans, who lived by plundering the neighbourhood, cheerfully anticipating a further decade of extortion before Henry III came of age. The one case in which William took action was Newark. Too minor for the History, the episode provides a low-key epilogue to a military career reaching back over five decades. Newark Castle belonged to the Bishop of Lincoln, but was held for the Crown during the civil war. King John died there. Its castellan Robert of Gaugi, not to be confused with William’s jousting partner of the 1170s, refused to return it when the war moved away following Lincoln. Robert’s flagrant defiance combined with the bishop’s offer of 100 marks to stiffen William’s determination. He ordered thirty miners to muster at Stamford, and left London on 8 July 1218 with the king and what Roger of Wendover styled a large army. Government records list just twenty-four knights, although some of them, such as John Marshal, were themselves magnates with their own retinues. There was also the bishop’s own following, perhaps thirty knights. One of the latter was killed and others wounded as they charged into town to stop the defenders firing the houses to deprive besiegers of cover. William waited four days (10–22 July) while siege engines were set up around the castle, presumably on the south-eastern side away from the River Trent, and then withdrew to Nottingham. Meanwhile Robert’s friends negotiated the castle’s surrender in return for £100 compensation for its warlike stores, and everyone went home.

Newark was unusual. William generally left the problem of evicting John’s castellans to his successors. Not until 1224 would Hubert de Burgh feel strong enough to tackle Fawkes of Bréauté, the greatest alien castellan of them all, demolishing his stronghold at Bedford, hanging its garrison, and driving its owner into exile. William’s administration was a work in progress. It takes more than a few months to heal the scars of a civil war that has been decades in the making. Fiscal recovery depended on economic revival, which only began in the 1220s. Nevertheless, William built a measure of acceptance of royal government through patronage and consultation. His numerous daughters were employed building bridges to ex-rebels, dissident royalists, and fellow Marchers. Isabel married Gilbert of Clare, Earl of Gloucester, a Marshal prisoner from Lincoln. Her sister Sybil married a son of Earl Ferrars, one of Chester’s associates. Eve married a grandson of the same William of Braose that King John had destroyed.

The restraint that inhibited eviction of John’s castellans saved the bitterness that characterised the Second Barons’ War in the 1260s. As usual William was lucky. The Dauphin’s supporters had never fought the king in person, mitigating the severity of their treason. Later in his reign, Henry III was much beaten with swords and maces at the battle of Lewes, a provocation not unrelated to the subsequent slaughter of 200 rebel knights at Evesham, a grim contrast to the bloodless pursuit following Lincoln. The Treaty of Kingston’s clause reinstating the territorial status quo forestalled the emergence of a dispossessed faction intent on fomenting disorder like that which marked the reign of King Stephen. Direct evidence of William’s personal responsibility for these positive aspects of his rule is inevitably hard to find. When his men occupied a manor claimed by Fawkes of Bréauté in June 1217, however, the latter swallowed what he would not have taken from anyone else: ‘Against William Marshal,’ he wrote, ‘I should hate to do or start anything by which the accusation of greed or shame might be laid against me’. William’s chairmanship saw none of the factional violence that disfigured Henry III’s later minority, with the exile of Fawkes and the enforced departure of Peter des Roches on Crusade.


William celebrated his last New Year at Marlborough, the scene of his childhood. Returning to Westminster in January 1219, he fell ill towards Candlemas (2 February). Doctors came from various quarters, to no avail. William rode through his pain to the Tower, staying there until Lent attended by the countess, while his condition worsened. He discussed his will, comforted his entourage, and began to make confession weekly – suggesting that he had been less assiduous before. In mid-March, William decided to leave town. London was too shut in, aggravating his symptoms. If he had to die, he preferred to do so at home. He was placed in a boat, the countess in another, and rowed gently upstream to his manor at Caversham, across the Thames from Reading. King and administration followed, lodging in Reading Abbey, while William ran the government from his sickbed.

The History devotes more than a tenth of its lines to the passing of its hero. A step-by-step evocation of how a medieval layman should face death, it provides unique insights into the Marshal’s surrender of power. The chronology is sometimes confused, but the sequence of events is logical, its accuracy vouched for by the presence of John of Earley, the younger William, and John Marshal. As befitted the rearguard commander of Frétéval, there would be a phased withdrawal from government, world, and family. There would be no disgraceful scenes of last-minute despair or repentance such as had disfigured the death of the Old and Young Kings. Everything would be dignified and according to plan.

The regent’s flow of instructions faltered the week before Easter, a royal council assembling at William’s bedside on Easter Monday (8 April). The king was present, as were Hubert de Burgh and Pandulf the new legate. An experienced papal diplomat, Pandulf had won King John’s gratitude by ending the Interdict in 1213, and replaced Guala in September 1218. William started by rendering an account of his record in office. Chosen baillie on John’s death, he had served the new king loyally, defending his land when it was difficult to do so. He would serve him still, had God granted him strength, but that was not His will. It was necessary to choose someone else to defend Henry and his realm. When Peter des Roches pushed forward, claiming that the king’s person had been entrusted to him, William cut him short. Peter was forgetting how the bishop and Earl of Chester had begged him with tears in their eyes to be guardian and master of both king and realm. It was well known that William had received both king and kingdom. If he had placed Henry in Peter’s hands, it was because a child could not travel. Racked with pain, William asked the company to withdraw while he sought advice from his son and family. The restricted electorate reflects the individual nature of the Marshal’s authority. He alone could hand it on.

Early next morning William spoke with ‘those in whom he had most trust’, his son and wife, John Marshal and others. There was no people like the English, he said, with such a variety of opinions, echoing the Barnwell annalist’s comments on English inconstancy. If William entrusted the king to any one of them, the others would all resent it. In his perplexity William turned to an external actor, the Pope as represented by the legate: ‘If the land is not defended by the Apostolic See … then I do not know who will defend it.’ Later commentators, from Matthew Paris to Protestant Victorians, lamented England’s subjection to papal authority, but in the circumstances the Marshal’s choice was sound. Nobody else stood above the hurly-burly as the Pope did. The only magnate of comparable stature to William, the Earl of Chester, had departed on Crusade the previous summer. Lacking a suitable replacement, William abolished himself, displaying a self-denial rare in politics. Defying the medieval predilection for making every office hereditary, there was no suggestion of the younger Marshal replacing his father.

When king and legate returned, William raised himself on his side, and taking the boy’s hand, announced his decision to place him in the keeping of God, the Pope, and the legate. He prayed that Henry would grow up a worthy ruler, hoping that God would cut his life short if he took after any felon ancestre. If the admonition does more than reflect the History’s uncompromising antipathy towards King John, it was the nearest William ever came to revealing his true feelings about his late sovereign. When the poem referred to the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem, felon roi was the epithet it saved for King Herod. Only a few were present in William’s sickroom to witness the transfer of authority. Most of the magnates were assembled at Reading Abbey. Surprised by fresh pains, William sent John Marshal to ensure that the younger Marshal carried out his intentions correctly. When Bishop Peter laid hands on the boy king’s head, seeking to assert his own pre-eminence, the younger William faced him down. Taking Henry’s hand in the sight of everyone, he presented him to the legate, who received public charge of the king as he had already done in private. Rarely can a peaceful transfer of power have taken so physical a form, with competing factions laying hands on the king’s sacred person. If Peter was disappointed of supreme power, his effective position was unaltered. Pandulf assumed Guala’s overall directing role. The bishop retained his guardianship of the king, suggesting that the History’s squabbling owed more to the conflicts of the 1220s than the supposed differences of the 1210s. Administration reverted to Hubert de Burgh. The regent would have no single successor.

William summoned his people again next day. Live or die, the passage of power was a great relief. It was time to complete his will and take care of his soul, for his body was once more en aventure. Feudal custom determined the division of William’s lands. After Isabel’s death, William the younger would have all her inheritance of Leinster, Pembroke, and Striguil; Richard received the estates either side of the Channel granted by his royal namesake; Walter received Goodrich, a royal castle acquired as compensation for losses in Normandy. Gilbert was in holy orders, but Ansel, the youngest son and not yet a knight, had no great prospects. The old Marshal thought that Ansel might prosper through his own efforts, as he himself had done, but John of Earley spoke up for the lad, ensuring him £140 a year – enough to keep him in horse shoes. Four of the Marshal’s daughters were safely married, but William was concerned for Joan, the youngest and still single. She should have land worth £30 plus 200 marks a year to keep her until her elder brother found her a husband. As was usual with great families, the distribution avoided patrimonial fragmentation, compensating middle sons from lands acquired in the testator’s lifetime, but casting younger sons adrift. William observed the custom while taking care of his youngest, for whom he expressed more affection than his father ever did for him.

Relieved of family responsibilities, William took thought for his vassals on the Marches, sending John of Earley, or the latter’s son and namesake, to check any rash enterprises there. William’s mind was still on his own departure, however. While at Chepstow, John was to recover two silk cloths kept there, and hasten back, as his lord’s condition was worsening. William had brought the cloths from Outremer, thirty years before, to cover his coffin. Faded without, they were fine within, a luxurious reminder of the exotic world beyond the Mediterranean. When his son asked where William should be laid, the Marshal sprung another surprise. While in Outremer he had vowed his body to the Knights Templar. It was time to make that promise good. In return for burial in the Temple Church in London, William granted the order his manor of Upledon in Herefordshire. Aimery of St Maur, Master of the Temple, a witness to Magna Carta, and an old friend from another Wiltshire family, was summoned to William’s bedside. Before the countess and their daughters, William sent for a white Templar cloak made secretly the previous year, perhaps when the first signs of illness had appeared. Once he put it on, William would become a monk, divorced from the secular world and female company. For the last time he kissed his bel’amie, the countess, who had to be helped from the room with her weeping daughters. As William spread the cloak around him, Aimery assured him that he had done well to relinquish the earthly ties dividing him from God. No other knight had received such honour in this world, for his prowess, good sense, and loyalty. Now he could be certain of God’s grace: ‘Worthy you have been; and worthily you will depart.’ Aimery himself departed for London to make the necessary arrangements.

William was now as secure as he might be from material and spiritual danger. He had been under constant guard for some time. Troubled by his father’s suffering, William the younger had instituted a round-the-clock vigil by three knights. Medical understanding was rudimentary, but care unstinting. The young Marshal shared nights with John of Earley and Thomas Basset. Women were excluded. The burden of nursing the Marshal fell upon his closest male associates. William hung on grimly after Brother Aimery’s departure, scarcely able to eat or drink, his heart failing and natural functions stopped for want of nourishment. For the last fortnight, his carers fed him white bread crumbled between their hands, and moisserons, thin gruel or perhaps mushrooms. His constant pain unrelieved by opiates, William’s mind remained clear. When the knight, in whose arms he rested, sought his opinion of the ecclesiastical view that restitution must precede forgiveness, William rejected any such notion. The clergy would shave the laity too closely. He himself had captured 500 knights. He could hardly return their arms, destriers, and harness. He could only surrender himself to God, repenting the things he had done. Either the clerical argument was false, or no-one could be saved. A chaplain who proposed selling eighty scarlet fur-lined robes for charity received short shrift. They were for William’s knights at Pentecost. He would see them receive their livery one last time, as once he had received his.

Even the Marshal could not indefinitely resist ‘greedy death who devours everything’. Death had no truck with ransoms: ‘she takes no account of kings, nor dukes, nor earls … rich and poor are all hers’. The day before he died, William hardly slept. He hallucinated, seeing two men in white on either hand. John of Earley suggested that they were heavenly companions sent to put William on the right road. He long regretted not asking who the Marshal thought they were. That night William was worse. Next morning, Tuesday 14 May, he appeared to be sleeping quietly. Disturbed around midday, he spoke to John of Earley and tried to turn over, when he was seized by his death agony. ‘Quick, John,’ he cried, ‘open the doors and windows; call my son here and the countess and knights, for I am surely dying; I can bide no longer.’ Fainting, William recovered enough to scold John for not sprinkling his face with rose-water to rouse him to say farewell. ‘Never,’ he said to the man who once held his horses and prisoners in battle, ‘have I seen you at such a loss.’

When the countess and young Marshal approached, William spoke for the last time, pale from his final struggle: ’I am dying. I commend you to God. I can stay with you no longer. I cannot defend myself from death.’ The younger William took his father from John of Earley, a crucifix held before them. A succession of high-ranking ecclesiastics appeared with impeccable timing: the Abbot of Notley in Buckinghamshire, who had granted William the spiritual privileges of his order, and the Abbot of Reading bearing news that the legate had seen the Marshal in a vision. Greatly alarmed, Pandulf absolved William of all his confessed sins, by virtue of the powers delegated to him. Unable to speak, William joined his hands and bowed while the abbots pronounced the absolution. And so at last the Marshal died, still adoring the cross, his weeping followers consoled by the thought that he was surely with God and his friends in Paradise, for his death had been as exemplary as his life. He certainly made a better end than his royal masters, dying in bed not on an ash-strewn chapel floor; not cursing his sons, but in the bosom of his family and friends.

William’s last journey down the Thames Valley, sewn up inside his coffin within a bull’s hide packed with salt, lasted nearly a week. Even in death he provided a symbol of national reconciliation, the four earls who joined the cortège representing both sides of the civil war. After lying at Westminster Abbey, William reached his final resting place on 20 May, the second anniversary of Lincoln. The Temple in William’s day occupied a pleasant suburb between the Cities of London and Westminster. The nave was circular, like the Holy Sepulchre Church he had seen in Jerusalem on the site of Christ’s death and resurrection. Burial in such a place was a rare privilege. Nearby rested the entrails of St Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, whom William and his friend Baldwin of Béthune once sought to protect from the wrath of Richard the Lionheart.

Stephen Langton, with whom William had ridden between King John and his rebellious barons, delivered the eulogy. The best knight of their day was the mirror of our common fate, just so much earth. After the funeral, celebrated by a throng of lay and ecclesiastical notables, William’s executors put more distance between the Marshal and his erstwhile lords, distributing the alms that Henry II and John had signally failed to provide: meat and drink, robes and shoes. So numerous were the poor, the wake was held at Westminster for want of space in the city. Afterwards, there were no more pence or loaves, and just three robes.

The Marshal’s final eulogy came, not from an English source, but from his French opponents, the arbiters of chivalric excellence. Unlike the History’s previous anecdotes of French courtly life, there is a potential witness: William’s second son, Richard Marshal. Absent from the deathbed, he is known to have been attending Philip Augustus in July 1219. Receiving news of William’s death during dinner, the king kept silence, waiting until Richard had finished eating. After the tablecloths had been removed, Philip asked William des Barres whether he had heard of the interment of the Marshal, who was so loyal a prud’homme, so valiant and wise. It was a great pity, thought William, himself one of the great exponents of chivalry, for in our time there was never a better knight anywhere, who better knew how to bear himself in arms, or did so to better effect. Not to be outdone in praise, Philip thought the Marshal the most loyal man he had ever known. A Norman knight, perhaps a veteran of Bouvines, added that William was the wisest knight of the age, wisdom joining prowess and loyalty to complete the moral trinity that had featured in Aimery of St Maur’s bedside tribute.


William has been accused of leaving only a semblance of peace. Is his personal reputation, founded largely on the History’s biased testimony, any more solid? ‘Finest knight’ was a popular cliché, applied to Richard I and Saer of Quincy among others. TheHistoryplays with the image continually. One of the Lusignan cut-throats who dragged William across Poitou in the 1160s confided to a sympathetic lady witness that there was nul meillor chevalier – no better knight. After William broke with the Young King at Christmas 1182, a witness to the Ressons tournament told Baldwin de Béthune his friend was ‘one of the worthiest knights to be found in the whole world’. William’s final eulogy was pronounced by William des Barres, himself another ‘finest knight’.

The positive view that History promotes of its hero proves little, but more than one independent witness conveys a similar appreciation. Eleanor of Aquitaine, an excellent judge of men, ransomed her protector and set him on the road to greatness. Henry II chose him, the younger son of a disreputable baronial backwoodsman, as tutor-in-arms to the crown prince. William’s leading role at Richard I’s coronation confirms the esteem in which that chivalric monarch held him. On John’s accession, the Marshal was among those sent to England to hold the kingdom. From the late 1160s to the rupture of 1205, William was almost continuously in royal employment. Ecclesiastical sources noted his passing with little comment, although the barest notice from them indicates considerable celebrity. Thomas Wykes was an exception. A civil servant writing half a century after William’s death, Thomas remembered him as ‘a most valiant knight, renowned throughout the whole world’. Nearly a century after his death, the Marshal features alongside King Arthur in the chivalric Song of Caerlaverock, written for Sir Robert Clifford, a descendant of William’s Marcher neighbours. Perhaps most telling, William’s colleague Guala described him spontaneously as ‘like gold tested in a furnace’.

Negative comments come mainly from Henry III and his echo Matthew Paris. The king preferred music and architecture to tournaments, and may have grown tired of an inexhaustible succession of troublesome Earls Marshal. Disenchanted with his foreign policy inheritance, Henry turned against the man who preserved his throne, complaining to William’s third son Walter of the easy terms granted to the Dauphin. Paris went further, magnifying hearsay anecdotes from the French court into a full-blown accusation of treason. Written years after the event, the allegation says more about Matthew’s character than that of his victim. When William’s body was relocated in 1240, it was natural for Paris to ascribe its decayed condition to moral corruption rather than inefficient embalming.

Modern assessments reflect the ambiguities of their subject. Some critics have swallowed the chivalric legend in its crudest form. Georges Duby dismissed William’s thoughts as few and brief, his brain too small to restrain the natural vigour of his tireless physique. King John’s biographer, Ralph V. Turner, viewed William as an illiterate with no interest in administration. Even the admiring Sidney Painter thought William’s strategy non-existent and his tactics simplistic. Any battle was better than none, as long as he could get at his enemy and hew him down. Such caricatures are contradicted by the evidence. David Carpenter, the most recent historian of Henry III’s minority, sees William as the ideal choice in 1216, blending calculation with knightly vigour. The resolute exploitation of the Dauphin’s division of his forces in May 1217 was no isolated flash of genius, as the earlier stroke at Rye suggests. William was more than just a man of action, however. The repository of half a century of Angevin tradition, he knew more about royal courts and feudal custom than anybody. He had picked his way through the quagmire of courtly politics for decades, inevitably coming to resemble the courtly dissembler Matthew Paris condemned.

The History’s account of William’s actions in 1194 illustrates his potential for deviousness. Caught with a foot in both camps when Richard returned from Germany, William faced accusations of ‘planting vines’, hedging his bets by reserving homage for his Irish estates to the rebellious Prince John, titular Lord of Ireland. The Marshal claimed that he was bound to defend John’s position in Ireland, just as he had defended Richard’s in England. Richard accepted William’s feudal logic-chopping; John was less forbearing in similar circumstances in 1205. Nevertheless, the Marshal’s trimming achieved its objective, the preservation of a territorial conglomerate spanning Ireland, Normandy and the Welsh Marches, a microcosm of the Angevin Empire itself.

William’s unswerving pursuit of personal advantage is well attested, from his refusal to pay increased taxes demanded from his shrievalty of Gloucester in 1199, to the secretive acquisition of the de la Perche estates, an abuse of office that Painter found inexcusable. The History confirms a shrewdness verging on disregard for other people’s property, on and off the tournament field. It was a huge joke to trick the anxious people of Rouen out of a slap-up dinner in exchange for protection against a non-existent French army. Intercepting a runaway monk eloping with the daughter of friends, William thought nothing of confiscating the money which the couple meant to lend out at interest. In his defence, William could blame a savagely competitive society. Cast adrift by his family he had to make his own way. Initially naïve, he had learnt his lesson at Drincourt, and ruthlessly gathered the fruits of success. The Marshal’s acquisitiveness, however, never excited the same hostility as office-holders in later reigns, the Despensers under Edward II, John of Gaunt under Richard II, or the Duke of Somerset under Henry VI.

On the military front, William is frequently accused of excessive caution. His restraining hand may have prevented King John taking decisive action against his enemies in Normandy or before Magna Carta, and was seen as contributing to John’s paralysis at Stonar in May 1216. He failed to stem Llewelyn’s advance, and drifted through the winter of 1216–17. Contemporary and modern critics have condemned William’s failure to assault London after Lincoln. Similar prudence appears at a personal level in William’s deliberate response to the Young King’s urgent summons in 1183, when he carefully obtained safe-conducts from both French and Angevin courts before answering his lord’s appeal. We should assume, however, that William had a more informed view of the odds than we do. He spent most of his career fighting superior numbers, from Drincourt via Le Mans to Lincoln. Royalist forces were insufficient to besiege a great city like London. The Marshal expelled the invaders and preserved the dynasty, but lacked the resources to recover Normandy or end the war. His successors were no more successful. The Angevin-Capetian feud dragged on ingloriously until 1259 and the Treaty of Paris.

Lincoln and Sandwich had wider consequences than simply ensuring that the Angevins not the Capetians would rule England. Dynastic separation from the continent reinforced a burgeoning sense of national unity that forms one of the History’s recurrent themes. William de Tancarville’s jibe that England was a poor country for knights errant reflected a Norman arrogance that was increasingly resented beyond the Channel. The History’s English sources readily attributed William’s unpopularity at the Young King’s court to Anglo-Norman rivalry, the plotters resenting their being over-shadowed by an Englishman. The Marshal’s household got their own back, mocking the Normans’ decline: once they were grain, now they were chaff. No lord had done them any good since Richard’s death. If William tolerated Norman pretensions to strike the first blow at Lincoln, his younger associates probably rejoiced when that honour was accorded to the Earl of Chester. The History’s stories of French ribauds, boasting in their cups of English inferiority, reflect a rising tide of xenophobia revealed by monastic chroniclers less insular than Matthew Paris.

William’s victory was no foregone conclusion. The battle of Muret in 1213 confirmed French predominance in the Languedoc until today. It suggests what might have happened had Lincoln gone the other way, forcing William to carry out his promise to retreat from one island to another bearing Henry III on his shoulders. The River Loire was as significant a political and linguistic boundary in the twelfth century as the English Channel. This did not prevent northern French Crusaders, among them the Dauphin as Louis VIII, stamping out Languedoc’s legal autonomy and distinctive culture. French invasion plans in 1213 had the stated aim of uniting the French and English thrones. Philip Augustus and his successors had both the appetite and the capacity for game-changing conquest.

The comparison with Languedoc may be misleading. Southern France was less united than England. Its leaders were excommunicated heretics, ripe for dispossession. The Anglo-Norman nobility, on the other hand, were thoroughly entrenched. A new language, Middle English, was emerging from the mixture of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon or Old English. Among themselves, however, the elite spoke French well into the fourteenth century, especially at court. Baronial calls for English self-government and the expulsion of aliens co-existed with repeated appeals to foreign leaders, first the Dauphin, later the younger Simon de Montfort. Had the Dauphin won in 1217, he would have needed to reward significant numbers of his French followers with English estates, with unpredictable consequences for England’s emergent cultural unity. The Scots and Welsh would have expected their reward. Could Louis have resisted the permanent transfer of Northumberland, Westmorland, and Cumberland to his Scottish ally, moving the border south from the Tweed to the Tyne and Morecambe Bay?

Increased isolation from the continent following Louis’s defeat clearly reinforced English insularity after 1217. Politics continued down the well-established track of opposition to the Crown, unlike France where a weaker monarchy was perceived as the guardian of the poor against over-powerful magnates. The myth of St Louis, the Dauphin’s pious successor, dispensing justice under a tree provides a stark contrast to the erratic despotism of King John that had made Magna Carta necessary. The Dauphin confirmed the charter, but the royalists under William’s leadership made it their own, reflecting a common thirst for the liberties it embodied. Reissued twice by the Marshal, a definitive version was forced upon Henry III in 1225 in exchange for cash to defend Poitou against the French.

Magna Carta remains one of three iconic English historical documents, alongside Domesday Book and the Bayeux Tapestry. Several of its provisions remain on the Statute Book. Most notable are chapter 39 which forbids the imprisonment, dispossession, outlawry, or exile of any free man, except by ‘lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land’, and chapter 40 which forbids the denial, delay, or sale of justice. As the thirteenth century continued, the charter gathered authority to become the touchstone of good governance. Copies were kept in the counties for ready reference. No king ever dared sell justice again. The final reissue was sealed by that most assertive monarch Edward I in 1297. Magna Carta by then was inextricably linked with ideas of representative government and trial by jury, as ‘parliament’ acquired a broader context than the History’s simple meaning of a ‘parley’, and juries started assessing evidence for themselves. The sixteenth-century humanist Polydore Vergil saw 1297 as the moment the English achieved the ultimate liberty of not being taxed without consultation. A century later, Magna Carta began a new career as opponents of Stuart absolutism used it to attack royal monopolies, prerogative courts, and forced loans.

Puritan emigrants took Magna Carta’s ideas to North America, where chapter 39 of the 1216 charter found its way into the Fifth Amendment of the United States constitution. Victorian historians saw the charter as England’s first national event uniting all free men, a symbol of thirteenth-century social and cultural progress. Despite modern attempts to debunk it as a barons’ charter, a good thing for everyone except the common people, Magna Carta remains a talisman of liberty. The US Supreme Court has referred to it when considering the plight of Guantanamo Bay detainees. Activists in orange boiler suits have brandished copies of chapters 39 and 40 outside Parliament when protesting the same issue. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, cited Magna Carta at Strasbourg in January 2012 as evidence of Great Britain’s long-standing commitment to human rights (sic), and has proposed that key quotations should appear in the Citizenship Test. A New York auctioneer has described a copy of the 1297 reissue as ‘the birth certificate of freedom’.

Magna Carta’s celebrity has outlived that of its guardian; others have usurped his central role. Stephen Langton is credited with framing the charter; Peter des Roches with masterminding victory at Lincoln; Guala with clinching the deal at Kingston. Langton, however, spent the crucial years in exile, having failed to impose the charter on either king or rebels. Des Roches found the chink in Lincoln’s defences, but it was the Marshal who led the decisive charge. As for the decision to march on Lincoln, Roger of Wendover confirms William’s leadership. Monastic accounts like the Merton Chronicle name Guala rather than William at Kingston, but the History and Anonymous of Béthune demonstrate the latter’s control of the negotiations. Three months earlier, Guala’s intransigence had wrecked the June peace talks, exposing the country to a third summer of civil war. As Paul Meyer commented, William was the enemy of unnecessary rigour. If he deprived the eloping couple of their usurious capital, he also prevented his companions despoiling them of their horses and other goods. The Marshal’s peace of reconciliation, accompanied by positive steps to re-establish legal and financial order, steered a careful course between a relapse into the anarchy of his childhood, and the ultra-royalist reaction that Bishop Peter might have preferred.

Ecclesiastical obfuscation of the laity’s political role is common in medieval narratives. Preservation of William’s memory was the task of his descendants, whose efforts gave us the History. The fruit of William and Isabel’s union, however, withered on the bough. Not one of their five sons left an heir. Baronial lineages typically lasted six generations; the Marshals managed only three. Matthew Paris ascribed this to an ancient quarrel between the Marshal and the Irish Bishop of Fearns, whose curse hung over William’s deathbed. Today we might seek medical or social causes. Restriction of marriage to the elder sons of aristocratic families was a dangerous strategy, preserving their patrimony at the risk of physical extinction.

William the Younger was betrothed to Baldwin of Béthune’s daughter, but the lady fell an early victim to gluttonous death. He did not remarry until 1224, dying without issue in 1231. Besides marrying late, aristocratic youth diced with death in tournaments, revolts, and border disputes. All Henry II’s adult sons died violently or on campaign. The fifteen years following the younger Marshal’s death swept away his male siblings. Richard died of wounds suffered during a battle with Peter des Roches’s Poitevins, deserted by his own knights. Gilbert forsook holy orders to claim his inheritance, and was dragged to death by an unmanageable horse at Hertford, its reins allegedly cut through. The last two Marshals died within weeks of each other late in 1245; Ansel not yet forty. The husbands of William’s daughters divided his estates: the modern Dukes of Norfolk inherit the title of Earl Marshal through Matilda, the eldest, named after the queen empress for whom the first John Marshal fought and bled. Memories of William’s part in the stirring events of King John’s reign had faded by Tudor times. Shakespeare’s play King John makes no mention of Magna Carta or Lincoln. The Earl of Pembroke plays a minor role, eclipsed by Hubert de Burgh and the fictional Bastard Faulconbridge. Grant’sBritish Battles by Land and Sea, a monument of Victorian popular military history, ignores Lincoln entirely and credits ‘Dover’ to the justiciar.

King John’s short action-packed reign dominates the early thirteenth-century narrative. The loss of Normandy, the Interdict, above all his outsize wickedness make far better material for tragedy or for morality play than the interminable reign of his bumbling successor. William’s brief regency falls between the two. Regents are rarely memorable. Few recall the Duke of Bedford’s seventeen-year stewardship after Henry V’s premature death, or the Lords Protector of Edward VI’s brief reign. The regnal focus of standard historiography does not help. Volume III of the Oxford History of England ends with John’s death, leaving volume IV – like William – to pick up the pieces. The issue, abrogation, and multiple reissue of Magna Carta does not help, entangling the casual reader in a plethora of dates and renumbered clauses.

A civil war in which the reactionary defenders of English liberties called on the ancestral enemy for assistance sits uncomfortably within a national myth that presents English history as a triumphant progress towards constitutional government and imperial greatness. The conflict’s moral ambiguity permeates William’s career. Committed by his knightly calling to defending the Church and the disarmed population, he consorted with despoilers of cathedrals like the Young King and Fawkes of Bréauté. No wonder William jumped at Guala’s offer of remission and forgiveness of his sins. A longing for the clear-cut choices of the tournament field may have inspired William’s repeated appeals to trial by combat. Alternatively, he may have calculated upon the networks of interest and friendship he had built up to keep him safe. The supreme decision to march on Lincoln may have stemmed from an overwhelming urge to end the uncertainties of civil war, or from deeper strategic calculation. William lived long enough to play and reprise a variety of roles. He was at one level the finest knight– li proz, li franz e li lealz as Philip Augustus described him – defending his lord in tournament and war, doing great deeds and undertaking great journeys. He was also the subtle prud’homme, combining the simplicity and deviousness of all great commanders. Able to appeal to the humble sergeants and crossbowmen who led the way at Lincoln, he could also weave a wide flung net of naval, land, and guerrilla forces to ensnare the Dauphin at Winchelsea.

Lincoln presents a similar combination of knightly audacity with strategic subtlety, first with the turning movement via Torksey, then with the double break-in through the castle and West Gate. A small-scale military masterpiece, Lincoln’s dynastic and constitutional consequences make it England’s most important battle between Hastings and the Armada’s defeat in 1588. Simon de Montfort’s triumph at Lewes in 1264 was reversed a year later at Evesham. Better known encounters at Towton and Bosworth merely set a new military adventurer on the throne. After Lincoln William faced the very modern challenge of restoring peace to a war-torn country with a shattered economy, a task effected with none of the bloody purges that terminated England’s later medieval conflicts. The 6,000 lines that the History devotes to William’s tournament career were the distant reflection of a celebrity that was just a memory, a distraction from his true achievement.

Older than Winston Churchill was when he became Prime Minister in 1940, William rallied a country on the brink of defeat at an age when most men of his day had difficulty walking, let alone leading a cavalry charge. Other national heroes appear hollow by comparison: Drake was a slave trader; Lords Nelson and Montgomery lacked political sense. Cromwell, who won greater victories than William and restored peace after a longer civil war, remains tainted by the smouldering antagonisms of his day and the falsehoods of his enemies. Where Churchill liked to pose as a soldier, William was the real thing. He better resembles the Duke of Wellington, another military leader turned politician, a man whom even his enemies might respect. The closest comparison might be ‘Honest George Monck’, the Parliamentarian general who bloodlessly restored the monarchy after Cromwell’s death, reconciled veterans of both sides, and oversaw royal government until his death.

William’s physical memorial lies off the beaten track, just south of Fleet Street down Inner Temple Lane in London’s legal quarter. The exact site of his burial is lost, but his effigy lies to the left of the Temple Church’s modern entrance in the south face of the nave, flanked by those of his sons and five other knights. His feet rest on a dog – the symbol of loyalty. Nearly destroyed by German incendiary bombs, the effigy lacks its nose, the chain mail hood and clipped moustache suggesting a British soldier of the Great War, in a balaclava helmet. Unlike more celebrated rivals, William is safe indoors, spared the indignities of London weather and bird life. Surrounded by the quiet beauty of the Temple, the earl lies where he chose, within earshot of a liturgy sung in the vernacular whose birth he witnessed – a worthy setting for the knight who saved England.

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