The Magna Carta and William Marshal in Wales

William Marshal by John Evan Thomas © Palace of Westminster Collection WOA S67

William Marshal by John Evan Thomas © Palace of Westminster Collection WOA S67

In 2015, the Magna Carta will be commemorated throughout the world as it marks 800 years since that infamous meeting in Runnymede between King John and his Barons to seal ‘Magna Carta’ or the Great Charter. This was one of several charters issued with the aim to bring an end to the unrest between the monarchy and the nobles of the country. It is now considered to be one of the cornerstones of democracy and was used for the basis for the constitution of the United States of America and South Africa.

One of the chief negotiators in bringing the parties together that day was William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, later dubbed the ‘greatest knight who ever lived’ by the archbishop Stephen Langton. It was the same William Marshal who was appointed Regent of England the following year when John died and who immediately re-issued it after John had refused to adhere to the terms in the 1215 charter almost before the ink was dry following the intervention of Pope Innocent III who declared it had been sealed under duress.

William Marshal’s rise to prominence as one of the most powerful men of his time can be seen across Wales as he made his mark on the landscape through the fortification and development of castles and towns. This can be followed through these web pages and as a trail across the country linking important historic sites connected with the Marshal and his family.

Born in 1147, William rose from obscurity as the fourth son of the King’s marshal John fitzGilbert, (the name Marshal is a job title which became a surname), to become a tournament celebrity in his own lifetime. Marshal was held hostage as a young boy of five by King Stephen,  but went on to serve four anointed kings – Henry the Younger (eldest son of Henry II who died before taking the throne in his own right), Richard I, John and Henry III, for whom he acted as Regent.

It is necessary to acknowledge that most of his power and wealth came about through his marriage to Isabel de Clare, heir to the lands in Pembroke and Striguil (now Chepstow). The marriage also brought about the acquisition of land in Ireland through Isobel’s mother Aoife MacMurchada, daughter of Dermot, King of Leinster.

Little was known about Marshal’s life until the discovery of a manuscript at an auction in 1861 entitled, ‘L'Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal’ - the History of William Marshal - which was written, by the request of his son William the Younger, shortly after his death. It documents William’s life in great detail and has formed the basis of many historical books, both fact and fiction about this man who epitomised the chivalrous knight.

His character has appeared in numerous films including ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1968) and more recently in ‘Robin Hood’ (2010) where his character was played by William Hurt.

He is buried in the Temple Church in London together with two of his sons, William the Younger and Gilbert where their effigies can be seen to this day.

Following the trail

Plan your visit to the Welsh castles and abbeys that have a connection to William Marshal using the online map and our PDF download (below).

The trail includes the following sites:

Other sites in Wales which have a link to the Marshals are:

Pill Priory, Pembrokeshire where William Marshal was a great benefactor.  

Caerleon Castle - taken into custody by William Marshal's bailiff in 1217. (Custody is defined as holding the castle or land at the King’s pleasure and was not actual ownership)

Across the Welsh border, visitors may be interested in visiting Goodrich Castle (in the care of English Heritage)