Updated: Aug 27
At 5, he escaped execution. At 70, he led a cavalry attack. Throughout his incredible life, William Marshal did the one thing we must all do to flourish: He Kept Moving.
The passing of Queen Elizabeth II and ascension of Charles III got me thinking about English history. As a boy, I’d explore the local library like an archaeologist, squeezing through the scaffolding of books, and always ending my journey at the medieval history section. Sitting cross-legged on the floor I’d turn to illustrations of kings and queens, castles and dungeons, battles and tournaments. With wide eyes, I felt connected to this thousand-year “middle age” of history, starting when the Goths sacked Rome and ending when the Turks smashed Constantinople.
The great Barbara Tuchman offers this bit of wonder about life in Europe during these Middle Ages.
“[It was] a world in which movement was limited to the speed of man or horse, news and public announcements were communicated by the human voice, and light ended for most people with the setting of the sun. At dusk, horns were blown or bells rung to sound curfew or “cover fires,” after which work was prohibited because a workman could not see to perform creditably. The rich could prolong time by torchlight and candles, but for others night was as dark as nature intended, and stillness surrounded a traveler after dark.”
As we peel the centuries back and journey though the smoke to a time when nations did not exist and armored men rode beneath the banners of feudal lords, I always find myself drawn to the armored men of this age. So today I’m going to discuss my favorite among them. His name is William Marshall and he’s arguably the most accomplished knight who ever lived.
A good reminder: the mission at The Barbarian in You is inspiration. Through tales from history, we can awaken the barbarian inside by inspiring ourselves to live with a bit more Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship. History reminds us to stay connected to the earth, stay connected to each other, and stay connected to movement. We evolved as nomadic creatures, and in many ways, we still are. Just ask my dad. He’s 77 and continues to run, hike, and ski – and be happy! Astonished by his energy, people often ask, “Mac, what’s your secret?” He always responds, “Just keep moving!” And let me tell you, William Marshal moved like nobody’s business.
For six decades through the 12th and 13th Century, this man of action, born the fourth son of a minor noble, rose on his own merits and eventually protected five English kings, won dozens of tournaments, drafted the Magna Carta, and fought in battles and skirmishers from Ireland to Jerusalem. Always on the move, Marshal capped off his life with one of the great final acts in history. At 70-years-old – despite his scars, burns, aches, and pains -- he mounted his warhorse one final time, unsheathed his sword, and led a medieval cavalry charge against a besieging enemy force.
As I’ll show in this 3-part series, William Marshal began, lived, and ended his life with movement. Though I prefer to start at the beginning, every story needs to start with action. So I’ll start at the end, when the old man charged his way into history.
Guardian of the Realm
On May 20, 1217, with gray hair and creases across his bristled face, William Marshal led 406 knights, 317 crossbowmen, and an assortment of engineers and foot soldiers to the city walls of Lincoln, a strategic crossroads in the English midlands.
They arrived in Lincoln because two years before, in the final year of King John’s life – probably the most hated king in English history -- the country had fractured into civil war. Many of England’s barons (senior nobility) revolted against John and had allied themselves with the French king’s son, Prince Louis, who the barons declared the new King of England. By 1217, however, King John was dead and his 9-year-old son, Henry III, took the perilous and disputed throne. As the young king’s “lord and protector,” William Marshal became the de facto ruler of England, swearing to defeat the defiant barons while driving Louis and his French army into the Channel.
As the civil war waged, Prince Louis’ Anglo-French army broke into the city’s walls of Lincoln and began laying siege to its citadel and cathedral. Marshal’s plan was to attack Louis’ army inside the city walls and break the siege. This would be close-quarters urban combat with edged weapons. A brutal fight was coming.
Staged in his attack position, Marshal donned his padded tunic, a chain mail hood, plus additional chain mail around his torso, arms, and legs, and a leather belt snug around his waist to keep it all in place. After attaching a broad sword to his right hip, he fastened an inverted triangular shield to his upper left arm. Weighed down by 50 pounds, Marshal climbed atop his muscular war horse and shouted to his men, “the road that lies ahead must be freed with iron and steel!” And he rode off, amped for war, gritting for a fight. Moments later, according to sources, one of his men (probably a teenage Squire) galloped up to him, and likely said something like, “my lord, you forgot this,” and handed William his helmet.
With his steel bucket of a helmet now on with the visor down, William launched his attack. Beneath the cover of hundreds of crossbow volleys on elevated enemy positions, Marshal galloped his steed beneath the city’s ramparts and towards its northwest gate where his engineers had just created a breach. Barreling into the city and turning south towards the citadel and cathedral, Marshal gripped his reigns, unsheathed his sword, and leaned into his galloping horse as his fellow knights lowered their 18-foot lances towards the besieging enemy. As the earth shook from hundreds of 1500 pound warhorses and their mounted knights, just think what this would look like, sound like, and oh my god, feel like if they were coming for you.
According to historian Dan Jones, when a knight lowered his lance, he became “the medieval equivalent of a guided missile.” Upon direct impact, Jones writes, a charging knight delivered the same force as a round fired from a 20th Century military service rifle.
Breathing hard into their metal helmets and eyeing the enemy through the slits of their visors, William and his men raced towards them while mounted on the medieval equivalent of a tank. As they rumbled on, the countdown to mayhem began: 3 … calling to God, 2… gritting their teeth, 1… bracing for impact…
Blasting thru the French battle line like a 2,000 pound torpedo, the 70-year-old Marshal “plunged into the very thick of the enemy,” according to chroniclers, smashing his way through armor, blades, and bones. Hacking like a madman until he was “three spear links” into the melee, he pushed his horse through the sparks, dents, and screams… Five hundred men trapped in tight spaces… hacking and hammering on all sides… swings… bangs… grunts... dirt… blood… roars… Marshal kept driving his beast forward.
At 70, William fought for his life in the most physically desperate arena imaginable: close quarters medieval combat amidst a cacophony of sounds equal to five hundred metal baseball bats battering anvils as teeth cracked, bones snapped, and men battered each other without mercy. Amidst this wall of sonic fury, William blocked blows from axes, maces, and swords. Arrows whizzed by his face. And still, he fought on and kept moving.
Plowing his horse through an iron forest of serrated branches, he suddenly couldn't hear… “Bang! Bang! Bang!” Out of nowhere an enemy knight hammered William’s skull with “three shuddering blows.” Wavering on his mount, dizzy and sick, his pupils dilated from head trauma, his ears pierced with pain; yet, the old man fought on, he kept going. When another enemy knight shattered his lance into the body of Marshal’s friend, Marshal somehow rode up, head still ringing, raised his sword and sledged-hammered it down on the knight’s shoulder, battering him like a blacksmith until the wounded man “crawled to a nearby house.”
Now with the upper hand, Marshal and his knights hoisted their banners, regrouped, and pressed the attack against the Anglo-French enemy’s final stand beneath the shadow of Lincoln’s gothic cathedral. As the French Commander dug into his stirrups and his foot soldiers staggered their feet in the dirt, bracing for the attack and screaming to their God, one of Marshal’s knights -- his sword raised and elbow cocked back -- charged into the French line, thrusting his sword through the enemy commander’s visor, through his eye, through his brain, and out the other end of his skull until he had skewered the man’s head like a shish kabob. At that moment, with the enemy commander withering and soon dead, the battle became a route. Marshal and his men rode down hundreds of fleeing soldiers, killing the commons and seizing the nobles for ransom.
And so ended “one of the most decisive battles in English history,” according to historian David Carpenter. Despite his old scars, aching joints, battered limbs, and throbbing back from sixty years in the saddle and fifty years of combat, William Marshal and his armored men had won the day.
Had Marshal not been victorious, it’s likely the Capetian (French) King would have replaced the Plantagenet (English) King. Had that occurred, no one today would be mourning Queen Elizabeth II because she would have never existed. Nor would English common law exist as buttressed by William’s second edition of the Magna Carta. And that means our own Constitution might not exist, derived in large parts from the Magna Carta (trial by jury, etc.).
Yes, William Marshal and his knights were brutal men, and that’s because they lived at a time when war was constant, 1% of murders were solved, and leaving your village after nightfall meant certain death from lurking highwaymen who'd cut your throat for a few coins. The dog-eat-dog world of medieval England was no place for soft men and women. To survive and thrive, one needed brutality and brains -- and William Marshal had both in spades.
Stay tuned for Part-2 on England's Greatest Knight, when we explore William’s rise from obscurity to tournament champion and bodyguard for Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Till then, barbarians… If you’re “middle-aged” like me and feeling all those aches and pains, do what Mac Hinman does and what William Marshal did 800 years before him -- just keep moving!