Friday, March 14, 2014

William Marshal in the Holy Land

by Helena P. Schrader

William Marshal has gone down in English history as one of the most famous non-royal heroes of the Middle Ages. He was famed even in his lifetime as one of the greatest knights of a knightly age and a “flower of chivalry.”

 Marshal loved and excelled at tournaments, depicted here in a 13th century German manuscript.

His story is better than fiction. Indeed, if his biography were not so well documented, it would be easy to dismiss the stories about him as pure invention. But William Marshal really existed, and he really rose by merit alone from being a landless knight to regent of England. Even his wife, through whom he became a magnate of the realm, was won by his prowess and loyalty, for he was granted the rich heiress by the dying Henry II as a reward for his decades of service to the Plantagenets; the grant was confirmed by Richard I to secure Marshal’s loyalty in the future. But in addition to being a paragon of chivalry, Marshal was typical of his generation in that he was also a faithful son of the Holy Catholic Church. On his deathbed he renounced the world and took vows as a monk, a Templar monk. He was buried in the Temple in London.

Tomb of a Knight in the Temple of London, sometimes identified as William Marshal

He also went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Because Marshal was such a famous knight and powerful figure at the time of his death, we are lucky to have a long eulogy in the form of a poem or song that was commissioned by his eldest son and intended to record his life for posterity. The poem is nineteen thousand nine hundred and fourteen verses long, and it is a remarkable document in itself, both lively and evocative.  Perhaps even more astonishing, the poem identifies sources and distinguishes between hear-say and verifiable fact, points out when sources are contradictory, and recounts many events first hand, stating explicitly “this I have seen” in many places. The latter suggests that the author was an intimate of William Marshal, or at least a trusted member of his household. This document, otherwise so rich in detail, however, tells us almost nothing about Marshal’s stay in the Holy Land.

What we do know is that William Marshal was bequeathed the crusader cross – the vow to go to Jerusalem and pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – by his liege, Henry the Young King. Henry had taken crusader vows sometime in 1182 or 1183 – which did not stop him from sacking churches and monasteries to pay his mercenaries. William Marshal appears to have been a witness – if not a participant – in the sack of Rocamadour, where the Young King stole the sword of Roland and much other treasure.  Returning from this disgraceful act, the Young King fell abruptly ill. In a high fever and fearing for his soul (at last), he sent messengers to his father begging for forgiveness, and turned over his mantle with the crusader cross to William Marshal.  He begged Marshal to fulfil his vow in his stead, then lay on a bed of ashes with a noose around his neck and died. It was June 11, 1183.

 According to Marshal’s biographer, William spent “two years” in Syria, serving the King of Jerusalem, doing great deeds of arms and winning the respect of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. However, he was back in Europe by 1187, months before the devastating Battle of Hattin, and he brought with him two white, silk shrouds for his own burial.  He also returned having vowed to join the Knights Templar before his own death. These are the only known facts we have about William Marshal in the Holy Land, but even these facts are intriguing. 

Marshall most probably reached the Holy Land, travelling by either land or sea, in the spring of 1184. If he spent two years there he departed at the latest in the autumn of 1186.

The Crusader Kingdoms were defended by a network of castles such as this: Krak de Chevalliers

Those two years were years of dramatic change in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the one hand, the Muslims, which had long been bitterly divided between the Sunnis loyal to the Caliph of Baghdad and the Shiites of the Fatimid Caliphate, had been united under the strong and charismatic leadership of the Kurdish leader Salah ad-Din.  Saladin, as he is known in western writings, had called for jihad, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was more threatened than it had been since the early years of its existence. At the same time, the Kingdom was weakened from within because the king, Baldwin IV, was suffering from leprosy and slowly dying. His heir was a young boy, the son of his sister Sibylla, by her first husband.

Not long after William Marshal arrived in Jerusalem a delegation headed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Grand Masters of the Templars and Hospitallers was dispatched by King Baldwin to the West. The delegation carried with it the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the keys to the Tower of David: effectively the symbolic keys to the kingdom. The three men sought first the aid of Philip II of France and then Henry II of England, begging the later to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, turn his Western lands over to his adult and capable heirs, and take up the cause of Christendom by defending the Holy Land. If he would not do that, the delegation pleaded, then he should send one of his sons in his stead.  One has to wonder if it was pure coincidence of timing, or if William Marshal, who knew the Plantagenets so well, had not recommended – or at least encouraged – the appeal.

Meanwhile, Baldwin IV, in anticipation of his death, made his vassals vow an oath with regard to the succession.  If his nephew did not live to manhood and sire heirs of his own, they were to send to the Kings of France and England and to the Pope, who were then to jointly name a successor. Baldwin IV expressly excluded his sister Sybilla and her second husband from the succession.  

In the summer 1185, in the midst of Marshal’s stay in the Holy Land, Baldwin IV died.  His nephew was crowned Baldwin V, and the High Court of Jerusalem chose Raymond of Tripoli, an able and experienced man, as his regent. Tripoli immediately secured a new truce with Salah ad-Din.

Baldwin V, however, was sickly, and in August 1185, with Marshal still in the Holy Land, he died. The regent and the High Court of Jerusalem met in Tiberius to deal with the interregnum, but the dead king’s mother and her husband staged a coup. Sibylla had herself crowned Queen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and placed a second crown on her husband’s head as her consort. Her second husband was a certain Guy de Lusignan, the younger son of a Poitivin baron and possibly an accomplice in the murder of Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, William Marshal’s uncle.

The murder of Patrick of Salisbury had been a highly significant episode in William Marshal’s young life. As a landless knight in his uncle’s entourage, he had been escorting Queen Eleanor through her own territories, when they were attacked by the Lusignan brothers, then in rebellion against her. Accounts vary on which of the Lusignans was present (there were four brothers: Hugh, Geoffrey, Aimery and Guy), but there is no disagreement on how the Earl of Salisbury was killed.  Namely, he was pierced from behind by a lance; he was neither armored nor defending himself.  This was clearly an “unchivalrous” act, a despicable crime, that outraged the young William Marshal.  William himself was severely wounded in the encounter, taken captive, and ill-treated by the Lusignans.

Given this history, it is hard to imagine that William Marshal was partial to Guy de Lusignan, whether he had been personally responsible for the Earl of Salisbury’s murder or not.  (Indeed, it may have been his opposition to Guy de Lusignan that inspired him to suggest the above mission to Henry II – assuming he had anything to do with it.) Furthermore, Sibylla and Guy’s coup preempted the rights of Henry II, Marshal’s liege, who should have been involved in naming the next King of Jerusalem.  Marshal must have been appalled by their behavior, and it would probably have reinforced his dislike for the Lusignans. Since Marshal appears to have left the Holy Land not long after Lusignan’s usurpation of the throne, it is probably fair to postulate that it was Lusignan’s rise to power that induced Marshal to quit The Holy Land.

This hypothesis is supported by the fact that William appears to have spent his years in the Holy Land as one of the many secular knights who temporarily served with the Templars.  These knights did not take the final vows of poverty and chastity, but for the period of the voluntary service, submitted themselves to the discipline and Rule of the Knights Templar.  Indeed, in William’s case we know that he vowed to join the Temple at a later date – as he eventually did. The timing, however, is significant. The Grand Master of the Templars, who had been sent to plead with Henry II to come to the Holy Land died during his mission and was replaced by a man who supported Guy de Lusignan.  So Marshal’s decision not to take his final vows and stay with the Templars in their hour of need, may have had to do with his unwillingness to serve Guy de Lusignan, leaving it to his deathbed to finally join the Templars.

An illustration from Matthew Paris’ “Greater Chronicle” depicting Knights Templar.

We will never know, but Marshal’s very silence to his household and family about this episode in his life suggests that he left the Holy Land with a bitter taste in his mouth – or opinions he felt he should best keep to himself.

Biographies of William Marshal available today include:

·         William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron and Regent of England, by Sidney Painter, 1933.
·         William Marshal, Flower of Chivalry, George Duby, 1985.
·         William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, by David Crouch, 2002.
·         William Marshal Earl of Pembroke, by Catherine Armstrong, 2007

Recommended works of historical fiction featuring William Marshal:

·         Christian Balling’s Champion is delightful, but it only covers a tiny slice of Marshal’s life. 
·         Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion are well-researched and well-written tributes to William Marshal.

Helena Schrader is writing a series of ten novels set in the Age of Chivalry. For more information, visit her website: or watch the video teaser Tales of Chivlary. She also has a blog devoted to the crusader kingdoms:
One of these novels is set against the backdrop of the destruction of the Templars in the early 12th century:

The English Templar
An English knight en route to Cyprus is caught up in the mass arrest of French Templars on the night of Friday October 13, 1307. Tortured until he confesses to crimes he did not commit, he wants only to die, but fate puts him in the hands of two people determined to keep him alive – and resist the injustice of the French King.  A novel of faith, fortitude, and the power of love set against the backdrop of one of the most appalling instances of state terrorism in Western European history.


  1. Great post, Helena! This was always my favourite period in medieval studies. I always found it surprising that such a fantastic figure as William Marshall was so often just a mention in the background. I guess it is just indicative of a 'big age' with 'big names' - Henry, Eleanor, Richard, John… Thank you for reacquainting me with the period!

  2. As someone with an amateur's interest in the period, I found this post really interesting. I had no knowledge of William Marshall before reading this, so thank you for introducing me to his fascinating history :)


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