We’ve decided to tell William Marshal’s fascinating story over two weeks – tune in next Monday for part II, the latter part of Marshal’s life, when the connections of Marshal to London are more fully spelt out …

A knight who served five English kings and rose to become a significant force in late 12th and early 13th century England, William Marshal was one of the towering figures of his time and seen by many as a paragon of what a knight could be.

Marshal – who died 800 years ago last May, was born in about 1147, the second son from the second marriage of a minor noble, John Marshal, during the 15 year conflict between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda.

Marshal had ascended to become Marshal to the King in the court of King Henry I but during the subsequent conflict which erupted after the king’s death in 1135 had, like many, attempted to exploit the situation for his own benefit (he is said to have initially supported Stephen but was, however, among the Empress’ forces during a battle at Wherwall in 1141, during which he lost an eye and suffered significant injuries after the lead roof of a church melted onto him).

Late in King Stephen’s reign, he personally attracted the ire of the King upon himself by building a new fortified outpost, Newbury Castle, to the west of London, leading the king to marshal his forces against him. Marshal apparently begged for a truce ahead of the surrender of the castle and it was here that William enters the story, offered up as a hostage for his father.

But John Marshal decided, having handed over the boy, that he would not surrender and abandoned William to his fate. Stephen, angered at the deception, ordered the boy William to the gallows but, in what was a seminal moment in William’s childhood, the king relented and Marshal was spared – the story goes that it was William’s innocence which stayed the King’s hand.

King Stephen eventually won the day – although John Marshal escaped, leaving his son with the King. William was to remain a captive for more than a year – only after peace was agreed between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in 1153 was he to return to his family.

Little else is known of Marshal’s early childhood but in around 1160, at the age of about 13, he went to live in the household of William of Tancarville in Normandy – a distant relative – to acquire skill at arms in order to become a knight. He was knighted at the age of about 20 by Tancarville and was soon involved in fighting to protect Normandy’s borders but shortly after that, found his time under Tancarville’s patronage at an end (although the exact reasons why he was let go are unclear).

Rather than returning to his family in England, the penniless Marshal instead spent the next year or so travelling Europe on the tournament circuit to try and make some money and indeed had some success before he did eventually return to England and enter the house of his uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury. When Patrick and his men were called up to campaign with King Henry II in south-western France in early 1168, William was among his men.

In April, William was with the Earl serving as a guard for King Henry II’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, when they were attacked. The Queen hastened to safety while Patrick and his men held back the attackers but during the fighting, the earl was killed while Marshal, despite his skill, was eventually run through the thigh was lance and taken prisoner.

Recovering from his wound, Queen Eleanor eventually paid a ransom for his release and he was subsequently offered a place in her retinue in what was to his first post in a long life of royal service. After just a couple of years in the Queen’s service, her husband, King Henry II, appointed William as tutor-in-arms to his son and heir, Henry “the Young King” who had already been crowned at Westminster Abbey despite his father still holding the reigns of power.

When Henry rebelled against his father in 1173, William remained among his men, and, after an uneasy peace between the Young King and King Henry II was restored, William was with the young Henry when he spent three years on the tournament circuit from 1176 to about 1179. The Young King and his men saw considerable success in tournaments before William branched out on his own, his skill with weaponry bringing him both fame and wealth in his own right to the degree that by the early 1180s, he was regarded as one of Europe’s greatest knights.

With thanks to Thomas Asbridge’s The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones

An effigy believed to be that of William Marshal in the Temple Church, London. PICTURE: Michael Wal  (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

A relic of the early medieval age, the late 12th century Temple Church in the City of London is a marvel in its own right, its circular nave modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (for more on its history, see our earlier entry here). But it’s inside the round church – once based inside property that formed the London headquarters of the Templar Knights – that we are concerned with in this piece – for there can be found are series of remarkable effigies of knights which date from the 13th century.

There are nine effigies in all (and one grave cover) and, having survived the Great Fire of 1666, most of them were damaged during World War II when, in a bombing raid on 10th May, 1941, the roof was set alight and came crashing down on top of them. They have since been repaired, using as much of the original material as possible, and still make an imposing sight redolent with the history they depict.

Pre-eminent (at least in his lifetime) among those depicted is William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Pembroke (1146 -1219) and an advisor of kings including King Henry II, King Richard ‘the Lionheart’ and King John who was named Regent during the infancy of King Henry III.

One of the most influential men of his age (described by early thirteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, as the “greatest knight who ever lived”), he lies in the southern group of effigies near his sons William, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (1190-1231) and Gilbert, the 4th Earl of Pembroke (1194-1241). (The 3rd Earl of Pembroke, Richard, was the second son of William – he died after being captured during fighting in Ireland and was buried in Kilkenny). Another of this group is believed t0 depict Robert, Lord de Ros, one of the 25 barons to guarantee the observance of the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215.

The only identified effigy in the northern group is that of Geoffrey de Mandeville, the 1st Earl of Essex and a man known for the cruelties he inflicted during the troubled reign of King Stephen (he shifted his allegiances between King Stephen and his rival, the Empress Matilda several times), particularly in the eastern counties where he seized Ramsey Abbey near Peterborough to use as his base.

Interestingly, none of the men named was a Templar but are believed to have been benefactors of the Templar Knights. Some of those shown are cross-legged but whether this denotes a crusader or not remains a matter of debate.

WHERE: Off Fleet Street and down Inner Temple Lane (nearest tube station is Temple); WHEN: Check website for times; COST: £4 (free to under 18s, seniors); WEBSITE: www.templechurch.com.

Now famed for its shopping and proximity to museums, the former village of Knightsbridge takes its name from a bridge which once spanned the Westbourne River (a river now located underground which flows from Hampstead down through Sloane Square to enter the Thames at Chelsea) and linked the village of Kensington with London.

While the origins of the bridge’s name remain shrouded in mystery (the bridge itself reportedly stood at what is today Albert Gate), the anecdotal stories which might explain it include a tale that two knights once fought here and another which attributes the name to the fact that the area was thought so unsafe that to come without a knight was considered foolhardy. Indeed the name Knightsbridge was once synonymous with highwayman and robbers waiting to plunder passersby.

While the name is apparently not mentioned in the Doomsday Book, by the 13th century it is listed as a manor belonging to the monks at Westminster Abbey (this was apparently a gift from King Edward I – in fact some accounts have the area also recorded as King’s Bridge, Kyngesbrigg). One of the key events which the area apparently hosted was the meeting of Empress Matilda with representatives of London’s citizens in 1141 during her ongoing fight for supremacy with King Stephen.

The area remained relatively rural – and as a village in its own right – until the late 18th century when the area finally became joined to the ever-expanding metropolis.

These days Knightsbridge is little more than a road and a strip of highly developed land to the south (Westminster City Council’s Knightsbridge conservation area, which contains more than 275 listed buildings, runs as far east as Queen’s Gate) but it does boast some very high end shopping – think Harrods (pictured), founded in 1824 and opened on the current site almost 30 years later, and Harvey Nichols, founded in 1813.

There’s also some very grand late Victorian residential real estate (much of which is owned by the the Duke of Westminster and Earl Cadogan), which, along with new developments, have made Knightsbridge one of the highest price property markets in London (and indeed, the world).

The eastern end of Knightsbridge – Westminster Council include Royal Albert Hall in its Knightsbridge Conservation Zone – runs into the museum district of South Kensington, home to some of London’s best museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National History Museum.

PICTURE: Wikipedia