Reading Marks 800th Anniversary of ‘The Greatest Knight that ever Lived’

William Marshal
William Marshal

READING is playing tribute to the ‘greatest knight that ever lived’ this month, on the 800th anniversary of the death of William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke on 14th May.

Whilst his name is not as widely recognised now, William Marshal, who lived in Reading during the late 12th and early 13th Centuries, was one of the most important and powerful English knights of the Middle Ages, with immense estates in England, Wales, Ireland and Normandy.

Reading Museum, in partnership with local groups, is marking the historic anniversary of Marshal’s death on Saturday 11th May and during the May half term.

For those with an interest in local history, there will be an afternoon talk (3pm – 4pm, booking essential) on William Marshal by Dr Elizabeth Matthew, of the University of Reading. The talk is part of the popular continuing series of public lectures relating to the Abbey Quarter organised as part of the Reading Abbey Revealed project. Find out more at

The Friends of Caversham Court Gardens have a ‘pop-up’ William Marshal exhibition at the Reading Abbey Gateway from 10am to 3pm, which will provide another opportunity to visit the newly restored medieval gateway.

Saturday 11th May is also the Forbury Fiesta (the launch event for Reading’s Children’s Festival) where other royal characters from Reading’s past will be making an appearance, including Empress Matilda and Queen Elizabeth I.

During May half term, on Tuesday 28th May, the Museum is running ‘The Greatest Knight!’ family workshops. Children will be inspired to decorate their own signature helmet and shield (1-hour sessions starting at 10am, 11.15am, 1pm & 2.15pm, booking via the museum

Caversham and District Residents Association is also offering an evening talk on “The life of William Marshal” by Tom Asbridge, author of “The Greatest Knight” on Tuesday 11th  June  7.30pm – 9.30pm at Thameside School, Harley Rd, Caversham. The association is fundraising towards a permanent memorial to Marshal on Caversham Bridge. Find out more at

Cllr Sarah Hacker, Reading’s Lead Member for Culture, Heritage and Recreation, said: “William Marshal is a significant figure in Reading’s history and it is fitting we play tribute to ‘the greatest knight that ever lived’ on the 800th anniversary of his death. Come along to the pop up exhibition at the Abbey Gateway or to the fascinating talk on offer at Reading Museum on 11th May or from Tom Asbridge on 11th June and find out more about Marshal’s illustrious past.”

William Marshal, who was born around 1147, served five English kings and was Lord Protector and regent of the kingdom during the reign of Henry III and was a man greatly admired and regarded as the epitome of knighthood, chivalry and honour.

He was lord of Caversham Park Estate, which was known as ‘Caversham Manor’. It was here he chose to end his days and Caversham is said to have been one of his favourite places.

After Marshal died on 14th May 1219, his body lay in state at Reading Abbey until it was transported for burial at the Temple church in London. The Abbey is famous as the burial place of King Henry I, but many other royals were also buried at this favoured royal abbey.



5 fascinating facts about William Marshal

1.         He married into money: William was in his mid 40s when he married his wife, Isabel, who was just 17. She was a royal ward and King Henry II arranged their marriage. As a younger son, Marshal had not inherited his father’s land or wealth. This was remedied when Marshal married Isabel, the daughter of the wealthy Earl of Pembroke. Isabel inherited Caversham Manor from her father. William and Isabel had ten children together: five boys and five girls.

2.         He was held hostage as a child: Due to his father’s support of Empress Matilda during the period known as The Anarchy, the young Marshal was taken hostage by Matilda’s rival King Stephen. Stephen’s forces threatened to kill the boy if his father, John Marshal, did not surrender Newbury Castle, which was under siege. He was finally released when peace was restored with the Treaty of Wallingford in 1153.

3.         He became a Knight Templar on his deathbed: Marshal spent two years in the Holy Land on crusades. On his deathbed he fulfilled a crusade promise to become a Knight Templar and so was later buried at the Temple Church in London, where people can still see his effigy in stone today.

4.         He was a legendary tournament champion: In his youth, after he was knighted in 1166, Marshal served under Eleanor of Aquitaine. He bested 500 men over the course of his tournament career and became a legendary champion, competing in violent staged battles for prize money and fame.

5.         He fought and almost killed Richard the Lionheart: Henry II and his younger son Richard had a turbulent relationship, including Richard opposing his father and fighting for the French king, Philip II. In a skirmish between Henry and Philip’s forces, Marshal (fighting for Henry II) unseated the young Richard and had the opportunity to finish the future king. Marshal instead chose clemency, and claimed to be only man to have ever bested Richard in combat.


Read the guest Blog all about William Marshal on Reading Museum’s website: 



Victoria Nickless

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