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A Man of His Word (England’s Greatest Knight - 3/3)

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

When you are impeccable with your word, you are more likely to fight for it. In doing so, you will earn the trust of others and flourish in life.

For the last two weeks, we have followed the life of William Marshal. He led a cavalry charge at age 70 (Part 1) and overcame a tough childhood to become a knight at age 20 (Part 2). In our final instalment this week, we see how he went from age 20 to 70 and became not only the greatest knight who ever lived, but a man who remained impeccable with his word till the end.*

The Social Climb (for a Knight like William)

1. Serve Patron and Receive Education

2. Protect Patron

3. Gain Glory

4. Acquire Wealth

5. Become a Patron

After being dismissed by his lord, young William was left without a patron, income, job, or warhorse. He had to start anew. And for an aggressive and poor knight like William, all roads led to the medieval tournament.

So let’s journey back to this time of kings and castles, and into the one arena historian Barbara Tuchman calls, “the most exciting, expensive, ruinous, and delightful activity of the noble class” -- the tournament.

Steps 3 and 4: Gain Glory and Acquire Wealth

As a young and destitute knight, William was hungry for an opportunity to show his martial prowess, gain glory, wealth, and a powerful patron to serve. Around the time of William’s dismissal, word spread across Normandy that a tournament would soon be held near Le Mans. When he learned about his old retinue (team of knights) registering for the tournament, William convinced his former lord to take him back (temporarily) for the tournament, perhaps because the lord knew William could increase his chances for success. So with a less-than-stellar and loaned warhorse, William entered the tournament.

Riding towards an open field north of Le Mans, William would have journeyed along a narrow dirt road packed with every demographic known to the medieval world. Besides the hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of competing knights, squires, and lords descending on the fairgrounds of tents, stables, and makeshift shops, every sort of looter, schemer, freebooter, gambler, and for the lack of a better term, “groupie,” would have been there to separate the proud nobles from their heavy purses. Like a plane descending into Las Vegas, the rabble’s mood would have been jolly, festive, and above all, desperate.

Arriving on site, William and his retinue would have met up with the host’s representatives and found suitable living quarters. Rifling through the crowds while clutching their purses from pickpockets, the knights would have heard the percussion, pipes, and strings of festive music beneath the hearty shouts with old acquaintances and the warm introductions with new ones. Parading themselves around, William and his fellow knights – like all young men out on the town -- would have been downright giddy with excitement. Returning to their tent with wine, cheese, bread and a few distasteful stories, they’d gather together and plot their strategy for the next day’s fight.

Unlike later tournaments in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries (as depicted in the movie, A Knight’s Tale), the tournaments of William’s time were not controlled jousting, they were more like controlled battles where hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of knights would just straight up fight.

Historian and modern Marshal biographer Thomas Asbridge described these tournaments as “chaotic affairs, tantamount to large-scale war games, played out by teams of mounted knights across great swathes of territory.” Typically fought on a single day, there were two main teams, each consisting of retinues (teams of knights) from major and minor lords across Europe. From the start, the two sides crashed into one another for a large melee, and for the remainder of the day, small skirmishes and ambushes broke out over miles of countryside and through the occasional village. With no spectators other than your fellow knights, the status you gained was from stories retold by other knights you fought with and against.

The goal of any tournament was glory and profit. So here’s how it worked: A retinue of knights (or multiple retinues on the same side) would ambush or attack the opposition with the goal of capturing and ransoming the knight(s) back to his lord or family for payment. These payments often included the captive’s warhorse, arms, and armor – all incredibly expensive items.

In many ways, the medieval tournament was the NFL combine of its day. It’s how poor knights like William became rich knights, and how prominent lords found better knights for their retinues.

While the fighting in tournaments was supposedly “controlled,” it was also full contact and there’s no evidence that knights blunted their weapons. So despite their armor, many knights suffered wounds, broken bones, and occasionally, death.

As William and his fellow knights lined up on either end of a large field, they itched for a fight. Armored up with edged weapons in hand, while saddled atop burly 1500-pound warhorses, each retinue carried a colorful banner identifying their lord and patron. As the sun rose above the trees and the horns blasted, metallic men spurred their snarling beasts into action. Like Hell’s Angels, they roared forward with wild eyes on the attack. And within this “spectacle of blurred color and deafening noise” was William’s future. Glory, money, and patronage all lay ahead.

Smashing into a wall of mounted, shielded men, William’s thick 6-foot frame and heavy armor absorbed blow after blow. While his sword strikes, wrote a chronicler, “hammered like a woodcutter on oak trees.” After the initial charge and melee, William and his retinue broke free in pursuit of the opposition. Catching up to an opposing knight, William is said to have battered him off his horse and to the ground with the stump of his already broken lance. This man became William’s first tournament prisoner. There would be many more in the years to come.

As the mini-battles continued across fields, through woods, and over streams, William eventually captured the prize of the day: a wealthy lord named Philip of Valognes. In a daring move, William rode up behind Philip and grabbed the bridle of Philip’s mount. William’s bold move, writes Asbridge, “was devilishly difficult to pull off, but [it] gave Marshal effective control over his adversary’s horse, enabling him to drag Philip away from the tournament.” Once immobilized, Philip yielded and promised to pay a hefty ransom.

As night fell over their tent city, William had, according to Asbridge, already set himself “on the path to financial security.” Besides the cash ransoms he collected for the knights he captured, he also came away with four warhorses. To better understand the expense of a medieval warhorse, consider this: it would take a blacksmith 3,000 workdays to purchase one, and one warhorse was worth 4,000 sheep. In our modern context, William had become a millionaire overnight – and he was just getting started.

Step 5: Become a Patron

For the next five decades, William climbed the feudal ladder like nobody’s business. Over a twenty-year span on the tournament circuit, he claimed to have captured more than 500 knights, ransoming all of them, while collecting (and reselling) hundreds of warhorses, weapons, and suits of armor. In short, William made a fortune.

And that was just the tournaments. As far as patrons go, William also catapulted himself to the top. On the tournament field, he caught the eye of numerous lords, all wanting him for their retinues. Eventually, William found himself in Aquitaine (southwest France), hand-selected to lead Queen Eleanor’s bodyguard. After that, he went on to serve in the retinues of five English kings – Eleanor’s husband (Henry II), her eldest son (Henry the Young King), her middle son (Richard the Lionheart), her youngest son (King John) and finally, her grandson (Henry III).

According to Asbridge, William’s “well-earned reputation for unfailing fidelity” is what ultimately caused the English monarchs to recognize his true value. William had the reputation for being trustworthy and not telling a king what he wanted to hear, but what he needed to hear. Due to his faithful service and never breaking his word, William was eventually promoted to the rank of Earl, a true patron with a retinue of a hundred knights, plus lands and castles in Ireland, England, Wales, and France. Reflecting on William’s incredible rise, Asbridge writes, “he had gone from being a penniless knight… to an esteemed warrior serving Europe’s most powerful dynasty.”

In the final years of William’s life, however, his work and fealty would be put to the ultimate test.

The Barbarian Way: Impeccable with His Word

As one king died and was replaced by the next, William continued to serve and protect them. By 1215, William was 68 years old and a powerful force in war, property, and politics. King John sat on the English throne with his 7-year-old son, the future King Henry III, in line to succeed him.

King John was not a good man. His strong-arm approach to his own nobility became his downfall. Summarily executing some, exiling others, and taxing many more into bankruptcy, John managed to alienate most of his powerful nobles. As his domestic situation went on life-support, his foreign policy was already dead and gone. Not only had the pope excommunicated him from the church, John managed to lose nearly all of England’s lands in France including Normandy, Anjou, and Maine. Weakened and isolated by his own malice and stupidity, two-thirds of England’s nobles were now in revolt, including the powerful barons. The time was ripe to fire King John.

As John’s allies scattered like rats from a burning ship, he called on the one noble loyal and strong enough to save him. In an conciliatory tone, the desperate King summoned William, now the Earl of Pembroke. “With his coffers all but empty and his reputation in tatters,” writes Asbridge, “King John was too weak to simply ignore or overthrow the emerging baronial faction.”

Yet, despite John’s desperate position and revolting conduct, William remained loyal and helped save him through some astute diplomacy. Bringing together the factions of John’s splintering realm, William helped broker the Magna Carta -- what many now consider the first constitution in European history. This treaty helped rebalance the power between John and his barons and would eventually “change the nature of kingship in England,” according to Asbridge. That said, John looked at the document the same way Hitler looked at the Munich Pact: as a meaningless scrap of paper.

And after working a series of back deals with the pope, the pontiff declared the Magna Carta “null and void” in exchange for John becoming Rome’s pseudo-vassal. And so it goes… the powerful seek more power and King John was back to his old ways. As a result, the second civil war in William’s lifetime had begun.

As the civil war raged, John launched a brutal campaign across swaths of the rebel-held English countryside. Ever clever, the barons quickly allied themselves with the French King, Phillip II, and his son Prince Louis. By 1216, the French prince had landed with an army and the English barons declared him “King of England.”

Nearly broke and with a rapidly shrinking army, John was headed for ruin. Even his own knights and family turned against him. The collapse of England’s Plantagenet dynasty seemed inevitable. Yet John could still count on William. Despite their often “troubled and tempestuous” relationship, Asbridge writes, England’s greatest knight “refused to forsake his royal master.”

Why? By all measures, William had backed the loser in this fight. Protecting John put him at risk of losing all he had worked for over the last 50 years. But if he didn’t back John, all he stood for during that time – serving and protecting his patrons – would have been a lie. William’s idea of himself, his character, mattered more to him than his material possessions. His mission as a knight was “to protect”; this mission defined him more than any castle, warhorse, or tournament victory. To an English knight like William steeped in the principles of chivalry, a man’s word was his ultimate worth. He would defend it at all costs.

Fortunately for William (and England), nature relieved him of his unfortunate duty when John caught a fever and died. When close to death, John is reported to have said, “my son will never govern these lands of mine with the help of anyone but William Marshal.” Thus, William became “guardian of the realm” and the 9-year-old King Henry III’s “lord and protector.” William was now the effective ruler of England. He had come a long way and reached the apex of his social climb.

Following John’s death, William found himself in another perilous position. More than half the realm now belonged to the rebellious barons and their French allies, including London. The monarchy was virtually bankrupt, and a 9-year-old kid sat on the throne. At this point, Asbridge writes, “the stakes set before William Marshal could not have been higher.”

Militarily weak with an anemic army, but never shy for another bold move, William drafted a second edition of the Magna Carta, this one even more generous to the nobles than the first. This version guaranteed trial by jury, property rights for the nobles, and prevented the church from declaring the document “null and void.” Through this new olive branch, plus the word of William, more barons began shifting their allegiance back to the new king, realizing they would be better off serving him (and William) than the French prince who had already begun alienating them. From that point forward, William followed through on his word, and according to historian Dan Jones, went “on to lead the war effort that removed French troops from English soil and reunited the realm under the new young king’s rule.”

Two years later, and (finally) lying on his deathbed, William summoned the boy king. “I beg the lord god,” he told Henry III, “[that] you grow up to be a worthy man. And if… you followed in the footsteps of some wicked ancestor, and that your wish was to be like him, then I pray God does not give you long to live.” In short, be a good man or die. “Amen,” Henry replied. With his duties complete, and the realm at peace, the great William Marshal died in his sleep.


William’s self-reliance, moral courage, and fierce sense of honor catapulted him to positions of power, eventually influencing King John and his son, Henry III, to sign two versions of the Magna Carta. Through his sense of duty to protect those whom he swore an oath, William helped plant the seeds for freedom loving people in the centuries to come.

When we place our good word ahead of our job or possessions, we are igniting the barbarian inside, harnessing our deepest courage, and doing what William did again and again: backing our words with action.

By drafting the Magna Carta and being impeccable with his word, William bent the arc of western history towards representative government and freedom. He laid the first bricks on the foundation of English liberty -- bricks that John Locke, James Madison, Edmond Burke, Frederick Douglas, and George Orwell would build upon.

Thanks William for laying that foundation and showing us the way. The barbarian way.


*To learn more about being “Impeccable with Your Word,” I recommend The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.


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