Sir William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1146 – 14 May 1219), also called William the Marshal (Guillaume le Maréchal), was an Anglo-Norman soldier and statesman. He was described as the "greatest knight that ever lived" by Stephen Langton. He served four kings — Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John and Henry III — and rose from obscurity to become a regent of England for the last of the four, and so, one of the most powerful men in Europe. Before him, the hereditary title of "Marshal" designated head of household security for the king of England; by the time he died, people throughout Europe (not just England) referred to him simply as "the Marshal".
His father John Marshal had originally been a supporter of King Stephen when he took the throne in 1136. But the collapse of England into civil war in 1139 (often referred to as The Anarchy) persuaded John to switch sides. The civil war was between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, both of whom claimed to be legitimate successor to Henry I of England. According to William's biographer, when King Stephen besieged Newbury Castle in 1152, Stephen used the young William as a hostage to ensure that John kept a promise to surrender the castle. John however, used the time allotted to reinforce the castle and alert Matilda's forces. When Stephen ordered John to surrender immediately or watch as he hanged William in front of the castle, John replied that he go ahead, saying "I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!" Fortunately for the child, Stephen could not bring himself to hang young William.
As a younger son of a minor nobleman, William had no lands or fortune to inherit, and had to make his own way in life. Around the age of twelve, when his father's career was faltering, he was sent to Normandy to be brought up in the household of William de Tancarville, a great magnate and cousin of young William's mother. Here he began his training as a knight. He was knighted in 1166 on campaign in Upper Normandy, then being invaded from Flanders. His first experience of warfare was not a great success. He failed to take advantage of the knights he had managed to overcome in the street skirmish at Neufchâtel-en-Bray. In 1167 he was taken by William de Tancarville to his first tournament where he found his true métier. Quitting the Tancarville household he then served in the household of his mother's brother, Patrick, Earl of Salisbury. In 1168 his uncle was killed in an ambush by Guy de Lusignan. William was injured and captured in the same skirmish, but was ransomed by Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was apparently impressed by tales of his bravery. Thereafter he found he could make a good living out of winning tournaments. At that time tournaments were dangerous, often deadly, staged battles, not the jousting contests that would come later, and money and valuable prizes could be won by capturing and ransoming opponents, their horses and armour. His record is legendary: on his deathbed he recalled besting 500 knights during his tourneying career.
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