Success at court allowed William to transcend the world of the medieval warrior, to become one of medieval England’s most powerful barons and politicians — man of wealth and influence who medieval chroniclers chose to remember as the ‘greatest knight in the world’.
To have any hope of success as a knight in the violent and unpredictable world of the Middle Ages, it helped to be born with certain natural advantages. In the eleventh and twelfth century, when the knightly class was just coming into its own, aristocratic birth was not an essential prerequisite for all knights, but it certainly didn’t hurt to have rich parents. William Marshal was born the younger son of a minor Anglo-Norman noble with just enough family connections to pack William off, at the age of thirteen, to begin his knightly training in the northern-French castle of Tancarville.
The prestige and patronage that William Marshal enjoyed from birth might not have been particularly remarkable, but the physical qualities he inherited most certainly were. William seems to have been imbued with extraordinary strength and vitality. Contemporaries described him delivering shattering sword blows that resounded like a blacksmith’s hammer, while noting that he could simply shrug off the crushing attacks of his enemies. At a time when the average life expectancy was around forty-eight, William survived to the ripe old age of seventy-two, and was still fighting in the frontline of battle at the age of seventy.
William also had a rare ability to thrive both on the battlefield and within the rarefied atmosphere of the royal court — a viper’s nest of gossip, intrigue and duplicity, where a single misstep or ill-chosen word could threaten ruin. At court, it was impassive calm that earned one respect and advancement, but not surprisingly, many hot-blooded knights struggled to achieve the mannered control required. William proved capable of navigating this treacherous world, maintaining the outward appearance of composure in the face of provocative insults from rivals.
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