Despite having fathered more than twenty children, when King Henry I of England died in 1135, he left no surviving legitimate sons. He bequeathed his kingdom to his daughter Matilda, but common citizenry and powerful nobles alike rejected her in favor of Henry's nephew, Stephen of Blois, who was crowned King in 1135. However, Matilda had her supporters, and a civil war called the Anarchy broke out between the two factions.
One of Stephen's knights, Sir John Marshal, deserted his service and sided with Matilda. He forged an alliance with Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, by abandoning his wife and marrying Patrick's sister Sybilla instead. In 1152, Sir John found himself within Newbury Castle, about 65 miles west of London in the county of Berkshire, when forces commanded by King Stephen himself began to lay siege. The conflict did not go well for Sir John, and he and the King signed a truce with the stipulation that Sir John was to plead with Matilda in order that she might allow the castle to surrender, for the knight lacked the authority to do so without her blessing. As assurance that Sir John would comply with the terms of the truce, and as was the custom of the day, King Stephen accepted John's fourth son William as a hostage. William, then about six years old, stayed in the King's personal tent, where the two of them periodically sat on the floor and played games of chance, which King Stephen consistently let little William win.
Sir John, however, had no intentions of surrendering the castle. During the break in hostilities, he filled the keep to capacity with men and supplies, a gross violation of another clause of the truce, and then informed the King that he would not surrender after all. King Stephen was infuriated by the betrayal, and the King, heeding the advice of his aides, sent Sir John an angry message, threatening to publicly hang the boy if Sir John did not cease his actions. Sir John, apparently caring more for the castle than for the fourth of his six sons, essentially dared the King to carry through on his threat, replying "I have both the hammer and the forge to make more, and better, sons!"
Stephen's advisers told him that he must then carry through with the threat. Begrudgingly, but still angry over Sir John's violations, King Stephen ordered that the young boy would have to be killed as custom dictated. On the way to the execution, little William asked to play with the shiny, bright javelin of one of his escorting soldiers. When they approached the catapult with which William's body was to be hurled back at his father's forces, the cheerful boy said that the bucket was just his size, and asked if he could swing from its ropes. King Stephen could no longer bear the thought of killing the boy, and personally lifted young William up in his arms and carried him back to his tent. On the way, the King chastised his advisers, saying that "one would have a heart of iron to see such a child perish."
William stayed with King Stephen for another two months, during which time they played a game of toy soldiers, using plantains as stand-ins for dueling knights; William was quite pleased with his repeated victories over the King. Stephen and Matilda forged a truce in 1153 in which Stephen continued as King, but upon his death the title would pass to Matilda's heir; with the war over, the King returned William to his father, and Newbury Castle remained unconquered.
King Stephen died only a year later in 1154, and Matilda's son Henry ascended to become King Henry II of England, during whose time Newbury Castle was disassembled so thoroughly that its very location is no longer certain to anyone. Sir John Marshal fell out of favor with the court, and William cut ties with him before his 20th birthday.
Despite the fact that landless fourth sons of disgraced, brutish soldiers usually amounted to very little in feudal England, William sought his fortune in France, and earned his knighted there in 1166. Sponsored, and at one point ransomed, by Eleanor of Aquitaine, he grew to be known without hyperbole as the greatest knight that ever lived, winning tournament after tournament and defeating more than 500 knights during his career. Sir William served Henry II as a military captain, went on Crusade, and married the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke. After Henry II's death, he served King Richard I (whom he had once unhorsed) and later King John, supporting him even in the face of rebellion, promoting as a compromise the Magna Carta, which may not have otherwise existed. After John's death, William served as Regent for the nine-year-old King Henry III and personally leading the Royal Army to victory in a charge at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, despite being over 70 years old at the time. Sir William Marshal died in 1219.
In Sir John's time, their shared surname had meant "stable keeper", and if not for his son whose life he devalued, it likely still would. Sir William Marshal's many achievements imprinted so securely on English culture that his name itself led to the current meaning of the word "Marshal", as the commander of a military force.
Sources and Links:
William Marshal in the Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, as presented in Wikisource.
William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry by Georges Duby and Richard Howard, Random House, 1987.
The History of the Ancient Town and Borough in Newbury in the County of Berks by Walter Money, Parker and Co., 1887.
William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England by Sidney Painter, University of Toronto Press, 1933.
Image of William Marshal unhorsing Richard I is by Deviant Art user dashinvaine.
Photo of Pembroke Castle by Athena's Pix.
"The Siege of Newbury Castle, 1152" © 2015 by James Husband.