William Marshall: The Pinnacle of Masculine Achievement
A while ago I finished a translation of Beowulf. I’ve read other translations before but this one was better. Once I turned the last page Amazon suggested I read The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge. I did and I loved it.
There are many masculine lessons to be gleaned from the life of this incredible knight. We’ll review some of the most prominent lessons here.
The Early Years
When William was a boy of just five years old his father, a minor land baron, gave William to the king, King Stephen, as a hostage. This was common in medieval times to secure the loyalty of local barons. Even though the king had young William, John Marshall (his father) turned against the crown when the Angevin Empire (most of the British Isle, Normandy, and modern day Western France).
King Stephen was expected to kill young William. He even got close to doing so. If he didn’t, it could be seen as a sign of weakness. But in the end he couldn’t bring himself to kill the boy. He showed mercy and let William live.
At such a young age William Marshall faced death. He was as close to death as a boy could be. At this age it is likely that he either conquered the fear of death or accepted his mortal fate. Either way, throughout his life he would fight his foes without showing any fear of death, coming close to it many times.
The challenges boys face in youth determine how they react to challenges later in life. It affects their mindset, which is harder to alter later in life. By facing one of the greatest fears one can have so early in life and either conquering that fear or accepting mortality William Marshall developed a mindset that allowed him to take risks and thus earn great rewards.
Marshall eventually became a knight. In his first engagement as a knight he proved his martial prowess, yet other knights laughed at him. Why?
In his first engagement he fought well but took nothing to show for it. He took no rewards for himself. What Marshall learned then was that although material possessions brought no spiritual benefits they were necessary. A man must be able to provide for himself. Self-reliance is a requirement for manhood. But more importantly a man must be able to provide for a family. This is one of the key aspects of manhood discerned in Manhood in the Making.
This hard-fought lesson stuck with William throughout his life. Whenever his loyal service was rendered he was sure to secure rewards for himself. Whenever he fought in tournaments (which he won at an astonishing rate) he took much from his foes.
By accumulating these material goods Marshall was able to raise his status. First he went from just another knight serving his lord to gaining such prominence that he had his own knights in service of him (of course, he still served kings). As he gained prominence in this way his rewards for his service became greater and greater.
Eventually, when he was in the service of King Henry II and King Richard The Lionheart, he earned such large rewards for his loyal service that he gained the title of Earl. Thanks to an arranged marriage he gained large swaths of land in Ireland and Wales. These were in addition to large estates throughout England and Normandy.
Guardian of England
William Marshall survived the war-torn reign of King Richard The Lionheart and the dangerous, unpredictable, and ultimately incompetent reign of King John (who was popularized in Robin Hood tales). Thanks to King John’s horrible reign England was again separated by a civil war. Local barons offered the English crown to Prince Louis of the Capetian Dynasty (the enemy of the Angevin Dynasty).
King John proved unable to suppress the local barons he drove to revolt. Then he died. His son, King Henry III, was just a boy, but the rightful King of England. Very few prominent men in England supported the boy king but one of them was William Marshall.
At 70 years old Marshall lead the loyalists in battle against the incoming French Capetians and turn-coat English lords. Even at that age he donned his armor and fought valiantly. And more importantly, he won.
He kept the English crown on its rightful head, secured a peace agreement with the local barons (which would become the Magna Carta, one of the most important documents of the last 1,000 years), and secured his own dynasty to be passed down to his sons and loyal servants.
He took a huge risk in supporting the young king. Thanks to his competence as a leader, a martial tactician and strategist, and as a warrior (feared as one of the greatest for over 40 years) that risk paid off. His life was spent risking death to build a legacy worth having. During critical moments, when his loyalty was tested and he was tempted to abandon loyal service for quick material gains, he chose the path of honor every time. It was better to maintain his honor and trust in his own abilities to see him through bad situations than to accept easy gains. (You should remember this when you hit the gym.)
Easy come, easy go, he may have thought.
A Lifetime of Achievement
William Marshall faced death at five years old. He was the expendable son of an expendable English lord. Yet before his death he held the title of Regent to the English crown. Just a year before he died he battled the king’s enemies as the Guardian of the King and the English realm.
He did this by training so hard in the martial arts that he became one of the most formidable knights in all of Western Europe. He leveraged his skills on the battlefield to earn material gain and a reputation as a knight worthy of a king.
Not only were his martial skills so worthy but his reputation as a knight, for being a man of honor and chivalry, were also legendary. Even when his lords were defeated, the victors asked William Marshall to serve them so loyally, offering him large rewards in exchange for his service.
William Marshall’s demonstrates what can be achieved when you are the best at what you do, are in-demand, and a trust-worthy man of honor.