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.

36 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

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  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!

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    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.

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      1. It would appear she died through grief and the toll it took on her body!
        SOOOO happy to have found your blog!!! Where can I view the(obtain )
        a copy of The History of William Marshall you mentioned.
        I too have bern pulled into this fascinating period of history through Elizabeth Chadwick. Can t get enough of her writing!

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  3. I have just finished reading “the Greatest Knight” by Elizabeth Chadwick. I found it fascinating. I had heard of William Marshal, but hadn’t studied him. I also find it interesting on how Prince Richard & Prince John have been portrayed. I know a lot of history is “romaticised”, but I’d always been led to believe the portrayal of Richard as a true & chivalrous prince (and later a chivalrous king) & John as a “monster”, but that’s not quite true, as Richard did have a temper & John could be quite magnanimous at times. I also found Isabel de Clare a fascinating woman. I was a little surprised that she had the “freedoms” that allowed her to make decisions in her own right, as it was a rarity in those day for women to have any power whatsoever, especially in politics. Eleanor of Aquitane was a very formidable lady, but her husband still had her locked up because her political manoeuvrings.

    Is there any possibility to read your thesis?
    I understand there isn’t, but having “discovered” William Marshal, I’d like to know more about him. I know there is a biography of sorts commissioned by one of Williams’s sons but i haven’t been able to find a copy of it.

    Thank you for a wonderful synopsis about William Marshal.

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    1. Hi Reet, glad you liked the post. William and Isabel are two of my favourite historical people to write about. I’ve actually written more about Isabel de Clare- you can find her in this post that was a series of medieval women and marriage alliances https://historicalragbag.com/2014/11/27/marriage-alliances-1180-1250-part-4-isabel-de-clare/
      If you want to know more about Marshal, David Crouch’s biography is by far the best and it’s a reasonably easy read too. This is the most recent edition https://www.routledge.com/William-Marshal/Crouch/p/book/9781138939332 your local library should be able to get you a copy if you don’t want to buy it. The biography you are talking about is the relatively contemporary biography the History of William Marshal and you’re right it was commissioned by his son. It’s a fascinating read, but can be hard to get hold of. The Anglo-Norman text society does sell copies http://www.anglo-norman-texts.net/?page_id=59 but if you are looking to just learn more about Marshal, I’d start with Crouch’s biography. There are other recent biographies, but Crouch’s is still the most comprehensive. I wrote my thesis (it’s an honours thesis) ten years ago now and there’s been a lot of new scholarship on Marshal since I wrote it, he’s become better known so more things have been written, so honestly there’s more up to date a comprehensive resources fairly easily available, the wiki page on his isn’t bad actually. Really glad you enjoyed the post and if you have a look through the rest of the blog you’ll find other things about Marshal too. I discovered him through Elizabeth Chadwick’s books as well, happy to answer other questions too. Ellen

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