William Marshal and Isabel de Clare

I wrote my honours thesis on William Marshal. He was a 12th century English knight who rose from the fourth son of an important but relatively low ranking baron to become Regent of England.  A truly remarkable epic poem was written about him. It is one of the earliest, non classical, biographies of a non royal lay person. It is worth noting that all comments from The History of William Marshal must be taken with a grain of salt, as it is an essentially hagiographic piece that most likely exaggerates for dramatic effect, especially in speeches. An example is the famous “hammer and anvils” comment, the controversy on which is explained here.

This being said The History of William Marshal is a great read and well worth having a look if you can get your hands on a copy. Even if everything can’t be taken entirely at face value it still provides a wonderful outlook on what was considered important and what wasn’t in the time period and on the ups and downs of Marshal’s life.

http://www.anglo-norman-texts.net/?page_id=59

This blog will by no means be exclusively about Marshal or his wife Isabel de Clare. They are, however, both going to appear relatively often so I thought it was worth offering a brief précis of their life together. I wrote this originally, in a slightly different form, for Friends of Faux Romance.

http://tesshealy.blogspot.com.au/p/friends-of-faux-romance.html

So thanks to Tess Healy for letting me reprint it.

Medieval marriage for the nobility was about politics.

Even in such barren soil love did sometimes grow. Such was the case of the marriage of William Marshal c.1147-1219 and Isabel de Clare c.1172-1220. He was one of the greatest fighters of his age, a fourth son who had risen to serve at the right hand of kings. She was the greatest heiress of her time and gave William everything his age required of a man of power: land, an Earldom, money and a fecund wife. William was in his early forties when he was given the approximately eighteen-year-old Isabel in marriage by Richard the Lionheart. They had never set eyes on each other before William collected her to take her to their wedding.

Even with this desolate beginning it seemed that love and even more unlikely real respect evolved. Isabel gave William ten children who all survived into adulthood, a rarity in times of such high childhood mortality. Isabel though was no average noble wife to be ploughed and then abandoned; she traveled extensively with her husband. He also respected the fact that she was the source of his power. She was often a signatory to his writs and he went so far as to declare to his men “as we well know; I have no claim to anything here save through her.[1]” Which was an extraordinary admission to survive the decay of time, which almost always reduces women to grey shadows drifting on the sidelines.

Isabel and William were married for thirty years and when William lay dying in 1219 he had Isabel and their five daughters to sing to him and their five sons to comfort him. As a final gesture of piety William took Templar vows on his deathbed, which meant that he and Isabel could no longer physically touch. Moments before he took the vows William said to Isabel

“Fair Lady kiss me now, for you will never be able to do again.’ She stepped forward and kissed him, and both of them wept.” [2]

When William died Isabel was inconsolable and “it was observed that [Isabel] could not walk without danger of coming to grief, for her heart, body, her head and limbs had suffered from her exertions, her weeping and her vigils.”[3]

She only survived him by 12 months and their Earldom disintegrated as all their sons died childless.

[1] History of William Marshal, Volume II, pp. 177-179.

[2] History of William Marshal, Volume II, pp. 420-421.

[3] History of William Marshal, Volume II, pp. 452-453.

26 thoughts on “William Marshal and Isabel de Clare

  1. have read many books of fiction and non-fiction about The Marshal and all were extremely interesting and enjoyable – he would be on of the persons of the past who I would invite to dinner as I am sure he would make for a interesting conversationalist

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My favourite author it Elizabeth Chadwick and I find William one of the most interesting characters in history.
    I wonder if there is any record of what caused the death of his wife isabel?
    If only a film could be made about this wonderful mans life!

    Like

    1. Hi Kelly. I found Marshal through Elizabeth Chadwick too. He’s such a fascinating person. As far as I know, sadly, there isn’t any record of how Isabel died. She was reasonably old by medieval standards though. Even though she was at least twenty years younger than Marshal that still puts her probably in her early fifties. Also she’d born ten children, which can’t have been easy on the body.

      Like

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