Wiliam Marshall: The Greatest Knight in History

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Podcast Transcript

The middle ages didn’t have sports like we have today, but they did have competitions. 

These competitions were tournaments between knights where they demonstrated their martial prowess. 

During this period, there was one knight who stood out amongst all the rest. 

He never lost a match and rose to a level where he was the king of England in all but name.

Learn more about William Marshall, and greatest knight in history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

One of the defining characteristics of medieval Europe would be the system of knights and knighthood. 

Knights were, for the most part, an institution for the aristocratic or upper class. Knights were the elite warriors in any kingdom, or at least they were supposed to be.

Becoming a knight was a process that took years and a significant amount of money. A boy would start around the age of seven to ten as a page, where they would begin to become comfortable with horses and weapons. 

Around the age of 14, they might advance to the rank of squire. A squire would personally attend to a knight, study chivalry and war, and work on improving their fighting and riding skills. 

If all went well, sometime around the age of 18, they would be dubbed a knight. The ceremony was religious in nature and emphasized the knight’s humility, loyalty, and chivalry.

When knighthoods were first created, they could come from any class of society, over time, they became a class of their own, with new knights being the sons of knights. 

Knights weren’t just about training and skill. It also required money. A knight needed a horse, at least one set of armor, as well as weapons. These things were not cheap. 

When they weren’t out fighting actual wars, knights would often compete in what was known as tournaments. Tournaments were basically mock battles where knights could display their combat abilities outside of actual combat and with a crowd of onlookers.

The competitions would usually fall into one of two categories. One would be a joust, with knights on horseback charging at each other with long lances. The other, and usually the more popular event, was commonly called a melee. 

Every tournament could have its own set of rules. Melees could be in teams, or they could be solo affairs. They could take place in an enclosed area, or they could be enormous affairs situated between two villages. 

Tournaments could be big money, assuming you did well. Prizes would be offered by those hosting the tournament, and sometimes there would even be winner take all competitions where you would have to put up your armor and horse as an entry fee.

It was in this world of 12th-century tournaments that one man in particular really shined. Some call him the greatest knight in history. He was the medieval equivalent of Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi, Lewis Hamilton, Barry Bonds, and Aaron Rodgers, all wrapped up into one.

William Marshall. 

William was born in the year 1146 in what was probably Newbury, England, about midway between London and Bristol. 

He was the fourth son of a rather minor baron, so his prospects at birth were rather limited. 

One story which is told about him as a child indicates just how low his prospects were. His father’s castle was being besieged by King Stephen, who was in the middle of a civil war with the Empress Matilda. Stephen took the young William, only six years old, as a hostage to ensure that Williams’s father would honor his promise to surrender the castle.

Instead, William’s father fortified the castle and notified Empress Matilda. When King Stephen returned, he threatened to hang the six-year-old William in front of the castle in retaliation. 

His father told Stephen to go ahead and hang him because “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!”

Thankfully for William, he wasn’t executed but rather taken back to the royal court to be educated, which was something he could never have hoped to do if he hadn’t been taken hostage. 

His father’s fortunes began to wane, and at the age of 12, he was taken to live with his mother’s cousin, William de Tancarville, in Normandy.  It was here that he began his training to become a knight.

He grew up to become quite large, developed a reputation for having a huge appetite, and was given the nickname “greedy guts.”

 He became a knight at the age of 20.

His first major action was to fight for king Henry II in Normandy, which was being invaded by Flanders.  The fighting didn’t go so well for him as he didn’t make any money from booty or ransoming other knights, and he, in fact, lost his horse.

Being the fourth son, he had no lands or property, so he had to make his own way in the world. His father died soon after he became a knight, leaving him nothing.

He moved his attention to what would be the thing he excelled at, tournaments. 

He was sponsored in his first tournament by William de Tancarville, the man who trained him. 

In 1167, he entered a tournament in the town of Le Mans and did far better than expected. He won the melee. With the ransom put up by the other knights he captured, he now possessed four horses. He entered and won several other tournaments that year as well, significantly increasing his wealth.

The next year he entered his uncle’s service, the Earl of Salisbury. He was assigned to guard the queen, Elanor of Aquitaine, while she was touring her lands in the French Aquitaine. While guarding her, he was ambushed by a Flemish knight named Guy de Lusignan, who captured William. 

The queen was so impressed by his bravery, and the tales of his tournament exploits that she paid for his ransom.

He remained in the service of the Queen for the next two years, continuing to compete in tournaments and winning.

In 1170, he was given an important job by king Henry II. He was given the job of tutor-in-arms to Henry’s son, who was known as Henry the Young King. 

Young Henry was crowned king while his father was still alive and subsequently led a revolt against him in 1173 and 1174. The revolt didn’t go well, and when it was over, Young Henry and William received permission from Henry II to travel around Europe, entering tournaments. 

The two of them cleaned up with the legend of William Marshall growing with every competition. 

William was eventually accused of adultery with Youn Henry’s wife, an accusation he was later cleared of. 

Young Henry died in 1183, and on his deathbed, he made William fulfill his vow to go and fight in the holy land, which he did for two years.

On his return in 1185, Williams pledged his allegiance to Henry II and supported him in the revolt against his son Richard the Lionheart. 

In return, Henry II granted William an estate in Cartmel in Cumbria, in northwest England.

In 1189, while fighting against Richard, William actually met him in single combat on the battlefield. William managed to dismount him from his horse, supposedly being the only person to have ever done so. He could have easily killed Richard but instead killed his horse just to prove a point. 

Later that year, Henry II died, and Richard became king. When William met Richard as king, Richard didn’t punish him but rather realized he was too valuable not to have in his service. 

He honored the agreement of his father to give William the hand of Isabel de Clare as well as her lands. William at this time was 43, and Isabel was 17. He also became the 1st Earl of Pembroke. Together they had five boys and five girls, and thousands of descents who are still around today.

William Marshall, the penniless fourth son of a minor baron, was now one of the richest men in England. 

When King Richard left to go on crusade in 1190, William was one of the men who was put on the regency council to run the country while the king was away.

While Richard was gone in 1197, at age 50, William led a group to relieve a besieged French castle. He literally climbed the walls of the castle and then defeated the marshall of the castle in one-on-one combat in a single blow. 

When King Richard died in 1199, he offered his loyalty to his brother, King John. 

John wasn’t the most popular king, and he faced an uprising from his barons. They eventually forced him to sign the Magna Carta, but one of the only nobles to stay loyal to King John was William Marshall. 

Before John died in 1216, William was one of the only people left who he still trusted, so he made him the protector and regent for his son, Henry III. 

As Henry III was only nine years old when he became king, William Marshall was the de facto ruler of England. 

At the age of 70, a very advanced age for the 13th century, he led English forces at the Battle of Lincoln, defeating a French army and fighting on the front lines. 

Finally, in 1219, he passed away at the age of 72. On his deathbed, he kept a promise he made in the Holy Land and became invested in the Knights Templar. He was buried in the Templar Church in London, and his grave can still be seen there today. 

According to legend, he never lost a tournament in his life. By his own estimate, he took over 500 knights’ ransom. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed him to be the greatest knight in history. 

There was a 19,000-line poem written about his exploits titled l’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal. It is one of the few biographies from this period about someone who wasn’t a king.

William Marshall was one of medieval European history’s greatest rags to riches stories. He went from being penniless to becoming the richest man in England and the de facto ruler of the country before his death. 

Despite all of his accomplishments, his 16-year career as a knight competing in tournaments is the legacy he is most remembered for and the basis of his claim to fame for being the greatest knight in history.


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener MaxGravy, over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. He writes:

Excellent, brilliant, essential!

What a fantastic podcast! I only recently found this show and am very grateful. I’m working my way through the back catalog. So much great knowledge, do accessible. Bravo to the team who produces these. I did find one discrepancy. In episode 527-Moon Rocks. Gary mentions the “touch rock” at the Smithsonian. There is another at the Nasa Space Center in Houston. I have touched it many times. They also have the largest collection of moon rocks visible to the public.

Thanks, Maximum Gravy!  I stand corrected on the location of moon rocks you can touch. It makes total sense that they would have one at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I was just unaware of it as it is one of the only NASA centers I haven’t personally visited. 

As for the team that produces the show…..you’re talking to him. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.