William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Striguil, was a survivor. Born in the 1140s, he witnessed the loss of Normandy under King John, and set his seal to Magna Carta in 1215. Having served four kings, he became regent on the death of King John, and ruled England until his own death in 1219. At an age when most men of his day were long dead, he won two of the most important battles of the Middle Ages to confirm England’s separation from Europe and preserve Magna Carta’s revolutionary guarantees of personal freedom. Younger son of a minor baron distinguished chiefly for his brutal opportunism, William had gained celebrity on the tournament field, coming to symbolise the knightly qualities of prowess, loyalty, and wisdom. Time has laid his memory waste, but traces remain: ruined castles either side of the Channel; references in chronicles and government records; the Statute Book’s most ancient clauses; a battered effigy in the City of London. Most illuminating of all, the epic History of William Marshalsurvived six centuries of oblivion to provide an unparalleled portrait of the life of a feudal magnate. Its survival is typical of the Marshal’s good fortune. Without it none of the modern studies of William’s life could have been written; our understanding of his contribution to a crucial period of English history would be sadly diminished.


Medieval money was specified in three units, rather than the modern two:

Pounds (£)

Shillings (s) at twenty to the pound, worth 5 new pence each.

Pence (d) at twelve to the shilling, worth 0.42 new pence each.

Amounts were expressed using one or more of these as appropriate, e.g. £5 3s 7d (£5.18), or 2s 6d (12.5p), or 8d. All financial settlements required the physical transfer of hard cash. There was no paper money. The only coins were silver pennies, or deniers as theHistory calls them. Pounds and shillings were for accounting purposes only. Many transactions were denominated in marks, worth 13s 4d each (67p). The superior silver content of English pennies resulted in the one-to-four exchange rate between English money and the Angevin currency that the History often used.

For linear measurements I have used miles, yards, and feet, giving metric equivalents in parentheses. There are 1,760 yards to a mile (1.6km), and 3 feet to the yard (30.48cm and 0.9144m respectively).

English was not a written language during William’s lifetime. Most personal names have come down to us in Latin or French forms. King John’s contemporaries knew him as Jean Sans Terre, but it seems pedantic to call his father Henri II (sic). Cultural and political affiliations were fluid, compromising efforts to assign names according to their owner’s modern nationality. Many Normans and Poitevins were anglicised after the loss of Normandy in 1205, but still spoke French. I have, therefore, rendered personal names into their English forms throughout, hence Baldwin of Béthune and King Philip Augustus of France. Few people, other than William Marshal – named after his father’s occupation – had fixed surnames. Most were known from their place of origin, attached to their Christian names by ‘de’. I have generally rendered this as ‘of’. Complex forms such as ‘des’ I have left, as in William des Roches, while Hubert de Burgh is too well known to alter.

The political complexities of the First Barons’ War defy simple labelling of opposing sides. ‘Rebels’ is a fair description of the baronial opposition to King John until French intervention in the autumn of 1215, after which ‘Franco-rebel’ is more appropriate. Many sources speak of English (i.e. royalist) and French (i.e. rebel), in order to discredit the latter. The fleets at the battle of Sandwich were, however, unequivocally national. The Welsh referred to their English enemies throughout as French or Flemings.

I have, with one exception, avoided footnotes, identifying the sources of quotations in parentheses or in the text. Modern commentators are named with brief introductions, their works listed in the Select Bibliography. This has two sections. The first lists medieval sources by the English name under which they are commonly known, followed by the title under which they have been published. The second lists modern works by author, in the conventional manner. Translations are mine, which has allowed me to present quotations from the History as blank verse or prose as appropriate. Dr Gregory’s translation for the Anglo-Norman Text Society is of course definitive. Interpolations within quotes are shown by square brackets ‘[e.g.]’.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!