Strongbow’s Son-in-Law

If Isabel was being prepared for marriage to someone worthy of inheriting her vast estates, most of which were held only in the king’s name, then the king had the difficult task of finding such a man.

Nothing is known about those, if any, he might have considered before settling on the man he chose only weeks before his death. Subsequent history suggests that it was a good choice. So who was this paragon?

The second son of a minor noble he had at the age of 5 been offered by his father to King Stephen as a hostage at the siege of Newbury. At 12 he was sent to France, to the household of a cousin where he was trained as a knight. It was Henry II’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who spotted his prowess in knightly combat and at the age of 24 he was appointed as head of the military household of their eldest son, the young Prince Henry, who had just been crowned in a ceremony to which Arch-Bishop Becket objected. He spent the next 13 years leading the Prince’s team on the tournament circuits of Europe.

Alex Ferguson or Andy Murray?

It is in this role of manager of one of the most successful teams in the medieval sport that William has been described as “the Alex Ferguson of his day”. I prefer to think of him more as an Andy Murray since a significant element of these contests took the form of single combat, in a series of heats leading up to a final, in which the winner took the prize. On his deathbed William is said to have recalled up to 500 winning contests.

In 1173, encouraged by their mother, Prince Henry and his younger brothers staged a rebellion against his father. Naturally William fought for the Prince. It was for this rebellion that Isabel’s father, Strongbow, and de Lacy were recalled from Ireland. The king forgave his sons and William continued in his position until the prince’s death in 1183. William then sought and received permission to take the young prince’s cross to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage which lasted until 1185. As his reward he was given Cartmel castle.

With the castle came the wardship of Heloise of Lancaster and it can be adduced that the king expected William to marry her. William, it seems, had other ideas and the king then offered him the hand of Dionisia of Chateauroux in return for helping him to put down a rebellion in Berry. It was during this campaign that the king’s heir, Richard, sided with Philip II of France. William, who could have killed Richard, killed his horse instead.

Henry now decided that William was indeed worthy of taking Isabel and her lands in Ireland, Wales and France. When the king died shortly afterwards, Richard confirmed the offer. Isabel and William were married in August 1189. He was 43 and she 17. They went on to have 10 children. One of the daughters married a De Braose and a son married the daughter of the 2nd Earl of Hereford. Each of the sons died before producing off-spring so the many land-holdings passed to the daughters’ descendants, including the Mortimers.

William has been called ‘The Greatest Knight’. Among several books about him, by far the most realistic and thoroughly researched is the two-volume series by Elizabeth Chadwick, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion.

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