Updated: Aug 27
Through the fires of neglect, rejection, and poverty, a young William Marshal forged himself into a self-reliant man of action.
Last week, I introduced the ultimate man of action, William Marshal. Besides leading a cavalry charge at age 70, Marshal packed a dozen lifetimes into one. He drafted the Magna Carta, protected five kings, and rose from being the fourth son of a minor noble to becoming an English Earl with lands in Ireland, Wales, England, and France. This week, however, I want to show how William got there. Like all successful people I know, he had the attribute most important for success: self-reliance. But no one just acquires self-reliance, it’s forged inside a furnace of adversity. And from an early age, William felt the heat.
A Tough Childhood
Born in 1147, during an exceptionally violent era known as “the Anarchy,” William got his first taste of combat at age 5. As two factions fought a brutal eighteen year civil war for the English crown, William's father, John Marshal, found himself on the opposite side of the ruling monarch, King Stephen. When Stephen’s army laid siege to John’s small castle (or garrison), John negotiated a brief truce by handing his 5-year-old son over to the king as collateral with the ultimate promise to surrender. Except John had no intention to surrender. He simply used the truce to buy himself enough time to reinforce his garrison. In response to John’s deceit, Stephen chose to execute the boy. When John learned of his son’s impending execution, he would not budge. Instead, he told Stephen that “he still had the anvils and hammers to forge even finer ones.” In other words, go ahead and kill my young son, I’ll just make more. Never to be one-upped in the evil department, King Stephen invoked his own version of Dr. Evil by attempting to devise the most sinister way to kill young William. First, he ordered the boy hanged just beyond the garrison walls, so John could watch his son die. Next, he ordered the 5-year-old to lead a frontal assault on the garrison, ensuring certain death. Finally, Stephen struck evil gold when he ordered his men to load William into a catapult, fling him through the air, and splatter his tiny body against the castle wall. When young William learned of his fate, he leapt into the catapult’s sling and began rocking back and forth on it like a playground swing. Admiring the boy’s pluck, Stephen canceled the execution and kept William around as his mini-me sidekick. From that point on, William realized he could rely on himself. He could save his own life, and maybe even improve upon it. He also knew he could never trust his old man.
Eventually giving up the siege, King Stephen retreated. A year later, the civil war ended, and Stephen returned William to his father. A few years after that, John sent William away for good, shipping his son to a cousin’s castle in Normandy, where the boy would train to become a knight. But to succeed, William would need to learn the rules of the game he was about to enter.
Feudal Europe: Rules of the Game
There were no countries in 12th Century Europe, just kingdoms, realms, and shifting alliances between the ruling elite. The social glue keeping this nebulous world together was feudalism, a caste system of patronage, where you gave some and got some in return -- and where you always knew your place. According to historian Dan Jones, feudalism was a “pyramid-shaped system of social organization, in which lords [or patrons] granted land to their vassals in exchange for formal promises of military service, and the vassals then subcontracted it to poorer men in return for further service, either in the form of military assistance [knights and mercenaries] or agricultural labor [peasants and serfs].”
That said, the rules of the game for a future knight like William Marshal meant this: He’d serve his immediate lord, a minor noble who in turn served the Duke of Normandy who in turn served the King of England. In return for his service, William’s lord would provide him with food, shelter, training, education, and hopefully one day, land -- so William could build his own small castle and collect taxes from his own peasant tenants with some revenue going to his lord (who gave him the land) and even more going to himself.
If you’re thinking feudalism sounds a lot like the mafia, you’re right – that’s exactly what it was like. Whether peasant, noble, or knight, in feudal Europe you served the man and not the law or country. The country (or nation-state) would not exist for another 500 years.
So as a vassal to his lord, young William began his climb up the social ladder of feudalism. That climb would require loads of self-reliance, including a strong body, sharp mind, and above all, courage.
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
1. Serve Patron and Receive Education
As an 8-year-old “page,” William served his lord through a series of chores; he cleaned stables, poured wine, and did other menial tasks. In return for his service, William learned the manners and practices of noble life, including chess, dancing, poetry, falconry, and the expectations of chivalry -- a code of conduct guiding a knight’s moral behavior.
As a teenage “squire,” things turned martial, and William served a specific knight within his lord’s retinue (i.e. those “retained” for military service). He maintained the knight’s armor, weapons, gear and horses, while also accompanying that knight on campaign and maybe even in battle. In return for his service, William learned to wield a sword, mace, and battle axe. He learned to move in full armor, charge his horse, and pierce stationary targets with an 18-foot lance. He also sparred with other squires and knights, gaining the muscle memory, endurance, and ferocity needed for hand-to-hand combat.
Until he turned 20, William’s world was a cross between the refinements of Eton Prep and brutality of the Spartan Agoge. Through it all, he trained like hell to become the warrior archetype, or what the French called a “preudhomme” -- translated as the “best kind of man.”
2. Protect Patron
Standing 6 feet tall with a powerful build at age 20, William finally took the knee, bowed in fealty to his lord, and joined his lord’s retinue of mounted shock troops and trained killers. William was now Sir William, an English Knight. But one question still remained. How would he perform in actual combat? The answer could make or break a medieval knight’s reputation.
As William reached manhood, “the Anarchy” in England had ended. King Stephen was dead, and Henry II sat on the English throne. With stability in England, Henry II set his eyes on expanding his territories in France. As the great-grandson of William the Conqueror and husband to Queen Eleanor (the French king’s ex-wife), Henry already had lands across the Channel, including Normandy, Brittany, and Aquitaine. So when the inevitable border dispute erupted between a portion of Normandy and Flanders, William’s lord ordered his retinue of knights to drive the Fleming knights from his lands. Sir William Marshal would be put to the test.
Spotting a gaggle of Flemish knights near a village bridge in northeast Normandy, William and his fellow knights charged. Passing by a blur of street-lined homes and shops, Sir William spurred his warhorse on... gaining speed... lowering his lance..., he exploded through the gaggle and “right into the fray,” according to a chronicler. Upon the cacophonic crash of iron and wood, he splintered his lance on the rumbling armored mass, breaking it two.
With muscle memory after years of training, William drew his sword and hammered the enemy “like a blacksmith on iron” according to the medieval source. Through a series of “violent blows,” he and his fellow knights drove the Flemings from the field. Due to his rugged physique and sheer aggression, William’s biographer noted decades later that he fought, not with flashy technique, but through a brutish physicality that would serve him well for the next 50 years of combat.
Despite his battlefield vigor, however, William soon fell out of favor with his lord. The sources don’t tell us why, just that he had. Maybe the other knights became jealous of this new upstart, who knows... But what we do know is that William was dismissed. He was back to square one: a man without an inheritance or patron.
William fell to what we fear most in life: destitution. Being fired, having no income, and wondering “what the hell am I gonna do now?” is an "all is lost" moment. To overcome this, we must be self-reliant.
Self-reliance comes after years of hard work and overcoming adversity. It’s a tight-fisted belief that you cannot be defeated, that no matter what happens, no one can take away your will to fight nor can they steal your talent. Your heart and ability forever belongs to you; it's the return on the investment you've made in yourself.
William Marshal had made such investments. He had escaped execution three times, overcome his father’s neglect, trained like a demon, become an English Knight, and driven his enemies from the field. And though he was penniless and without shelter, he was still a man of action. When William walked out of that castle and into the fog, historian, Thomas Asbridge writes, “he was a professional warrior without the most fundamental tool of his trade” -- a warhorse. But he kept his vigor, held his tenacity, and never stopped believing in himself.
William had two options at this point. He could take the easy road back to England and seek a position in the household of his older brother, who by now had inherited his father’s estate. And though he’d live in his brother’s shadow, he’d have food, shelter, and income. He’d survive. Or… he could take the hard road and blaze his own trail – never easy in this world of patrons and vassals. But if he could do it, he would not only survive, he would thrive.
We’ve all been at this fork in the road. It’s human nature to take the safe and easy road. But what if we don’t? What if we do what we’re drawn to do? What if we trust ourselves enough to overcome our fears and anxieties through our own ability and action? William listened to the barbarian inside whisper “you can do it” and he took the hard road. Battle-tested, hard-working, and educated, William Marshal bet on himself. He’d climb that social ladder or die trying.
Without a dime, he sold his last item of value – a cloak he received at his knighting ceremony – and bought a packhorse to carry his arms and armor. But where would he go and what would he do? At the time, there were no wars to fight nor crusades to join. How could a broke, out-of-work knight without a patron create opportunities for himself?
William decided to enter the one arena where performance matters most: competition. Sir William Marshall would step into the sporting spectacle of his age: the medieval tournament, a place where “a workless noble,” historian Barbara Tuchman writes, could gain “honor, status, and if he was lucky, gain.”
Through the tournament circuit, William would Gain Glory (Step-3), Acquire Wealth (Step-4), and one day, Become a Patron (Step-5). He would show his self-reliance in this arena, and European history would never be the same.
Stay tuned for our final installment, Part-3 on William Marshal. Next week, we’ll enter the medieval tournament. Amidst the festival of minstrels, mystics, poets, prostitutes and pickpockets, and the wondering eyes of lords, ladies, knights, and bishops, our wayward knight, Sir William Marshal, would find the one thing he needed most: opportunity.
Till then, stay Barbarian.