‘The Kings’ Guard’: William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke – the real-life Barristan Selmy


‘Truth is stranger than fiction’. It’s an often-quoted cliché but one that frequently proves accurate. Real history can be more shocking, surprising, and entertaining than fiction.

Ser Barristan Selmy, the Kingsguard commander who defected to Daenerys, appears to be like an idealised staple character of medieval literature. Selmy was a renowned knight who was an exceptional jouster in his youth; he was a loyal member of the Kingsguard to four kings and a figure who continued to be a force to be reckoned with well into his old age.

After Joffrey jettisons the loyal Kingsgaurd commander for being too old, Selmy seeks out Daenerys Targaryen. © HBO.

After Joffrey jettisons the loyal Kingsgaurd commander for being too old, Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) seeks out Daenerys Targaryen. © HBO.

Indeed, some cynical readers/viewers may be sceptical of the idea that, after being dismissed by Joffrey on the grounds of old age, Ser Barristan became a distinguished member of Daenerys Targaryen’s ‘Queensguard’ by providing both wise council and demonstrating considerable prowess in combat.


Barristan Selmy with Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). © HBO.

Ser Barristan’s story mirrors the even more exceptional life of William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1147-1219) who rose from obscurity to serve four Kings of England, became one of the most powerful men in Europe and was eulogised by Archbishop Stephen Langton as “the best knight that ever lived”[1].


William Marshal’s effigy at Temple Church, England. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Born the younger son of a minor Anglo-Norman nobleman, William had few prospects since he would not inherit any of his father’s lands or wealth. Worse, his father, John Marshal, had little regard for William. During The Anarchy (the  war of succession between the named successor, Empress Matilda,  and the man who beat her to the crown, King Stephen), William’s father declared for Matilda in 1139.  In 1152, King Stephen besieged Newbury Castle and held  the young William hostage to ensure that John Marshal surrendered. However, upon hearing that his son would either be hanged or catapulted at the castle unless he surrendered, John declared: “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons”[2]. Fortunately, according to William’s biographer, Stephen could not bring himself to harm the young boy.


A close up of William Marshal’s face (on his effigy). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As his father’s fortunes faltered, William was sent to Normandy to be raised in the household of the great magnate William de Tancarville (a cousin of William’s mother). Following his move to Normandy, William spent a brief spell in Upper Normandy fighting against Flanders. This led to his knighthood in 1166 and his capture in 1168. Upon hearing of his imprisonment, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine herself  ransomed him: she had heard tales of the young knight’s bravery. After his release the young knight sought out his fortune as a tournament fighter. Unlike the jousting contests of later centuries, twelfth-century tournaments were often dangerous and deadly arranged battles in which victors could make a considerable fortune from prizes awarded by the organisers (as well as by capturing and ransoming opponents!). William’s tournament record was legendary: he supposedly unhorsed over 500 knights during his career and is believed to have been the only man ever to have unhorsed Richard, duke of Poitou (who would later become the legendary Richard I ‘The Lionheart’ of England).

By the time of Richard’s revolt against his father, Henry II, in 1189, William had been one of Henry’s most loyal and trusted captains for four years. While covering Henry’s retreat from Le Mans to Chinon, William unhorsed Richard in a skirmish and could have killed the prince but killed his horse instead to prove his point.


This HBO wallpaper shows Barristan’s observation to Ned about the battle of the Trident. Ned’s reply reveals Barristan’s skill as a warrior: “I’m glad we never met on the field, Ser Barristan…  My father once told me you were the best he’d ever seen. Never knew the man to be wrong about matters of combat.”  © HBO.

Similar to how Barristan Selmy was retained as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard following Robert Baratheon’s victory over the Targaryens, Marshal’s former adversary, the newly-crowned Richard I, welcomed him back to the English Court.The king clearly saw the value of the knight’s legendary military prowess and loyalty to the English crown. These traits were particularly valued by the Lionheart as he departed on the Third Crusade in 1190 and appointed the loyal Marshal to the Council of the Regency in his absence. The King’s faith was clearly rewarded as William took up arms against Prince John, when the King’s brother attempted to launch a rebellion with the assistance of Philip II of France. Once again, the Marshal’s loyalty was greatly rewarded as Richard allowed him to succeed his brother to the hereditary Marshalship of England and he was appointed the custodian of Rouen and the royal treasury during the Interregnum[3].


William Hurt played William Marshal in the movie “Robin Hood.” © Universal Pictures, 2010.

Following Richard I’s death on campaign in 1199, William backed Prince John’s claim to the English crown against the supporters of Arthur of Brittany (the teenage son of John’s older brother, Geoffrey) and he was heavily engaged in the defence of Normandy against Philip II’s armies . Following the 1203 loss of Normandy to the French, William paid homage to Philip to  to secure his Norman lands within the duchy. This led William and John to argue publicly and be openly hostile to each other for four years. In the following five years, John had the Marshal humiliated at Court and allowed his justiciar in Ireland to raid and pillage William’s lands in Leinster. Nonetheless, even before John took him back into royal favour in 1213, Marshal loyally supported John against his barons (a struggle that led to Magna Carta in 1215). Indeed, William was one of the few earls who sided with John in the First Barons’ War (1215-17) and it was the Marshal who John trusted on his deathbed to ensure his son succeeded as Henry III in 1216.


The Four Kings served by William Marshal: (l-r) Henry II (1154-89); Richard I (1189-99), John (1199-1216), Henry III (1216-72).

By 1216 the 69-year old William Marshal was the elder statesman of England — and although he had already lived longer than the vast majority of his contemporaries, his finest hour was yet to come. Following the death of King John, the King’s Council named Marshal as Regent of the Kingdom and Protector of the nine-year old Henry III. In spite of his age, Marshal rigorously pursued the war against the rebel English barons and their French allies under Prince Louis (who the barons had declared King of England following John’s death). The next year,  the seventy-year old Marshal personally led the English army against the French army of Thomas, Comte du Perche and won a spectacular victory at the Second Battle of Lincoln. This led to the Treaty of Lambeth, ended the Barons’ War and nullified Louis’s pretensions for the English throne.


The Second Battle of Lincoln as depicted in Matthew Paris (1240–1253) (From: Chronica Majora, volume II, folio 51v (55v)).

Compromise and self-restraint characterized  William Marshal’s regency.  He attempted to secure peace and stability for the young Henry III by reissuing Magna Carta to show the barons that the Crown intended to honour its promises. The Angevin Royal Dynasty founded by Henry II probably wouldn’t have survived the turbulent rule of King John without the presence and prestige of William Marshal: rebel barons and French noblemen alike trusted his word above that of any King or Royal Official.

In March 1219 William’s health began failing: he died on 14th May at the age of seventy-two. In his lifetime he had risen from obscurity, lived an adventurous life worthy of fiction, become the most powerful man in England and ensured the survival of a royal line which continues to this day. In short, he was the greatest knight who ever lived: the tournament champion, the loyal soldier, the pragmatic politician, the Regent of England, ‘The Marshal’.


[1] Sidney Painter, William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron and Regent of England, (1933), p. 289.

[2] Paul Meyer, L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal (Paris: Société de l’histoire de France, 1891–1901)

[3] Kingsford, Charles Lethbridge (1885–1900). “Marshal, William (d.1219)“. Dictionary of National Biography. London.

Tom Pert

Tom Pert is working on a PhD in medieval history at the University of Oxford. He recently completed a Masters Degree in Renaissance, Reformation and Early Modern Studies at the University of Birmingham (UK) focusing on 16th-17th Century Court Politics and the English Civil War. He has sworn a secret allegiance to House Lannister.


  • Reply October 16, 2014


    What a superb article A brilliant comparison of these two figures. Many thanks, Tom! Thanks also to Jamie for always featuring fascinating writers and topics.
    I simply don’t have the time to comment extensively, but I always read and them.

    Each May, we visit the Temple Church in London to pay our own small homage to The Greatest Knight That Ever Lived.

    • Reply October 16, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Thanks for your kind words. I completely agree. This is a fantastic article; I’m lucky to have received it. It is lovely that you go to Temple Church to pay homage to William Marshal. I knew a little about him, but I wasn’t aware untll I read this article that he was practically a king at various points.

  • Reply October 16, 2014


    Sadly a bit too far into the past for common knowledge.

  • Reply October 16, 2014

    M.E. Lawrence

    Great article! And it made me remember the ballad Maddy Prior and Tim Hart used to sing about Eleanor of Aquitaine and her supposed affair with William Marshal–an unlikely event, but a lovely song:


    • Reply October 16, 2014

      Watcher on the Couch

      Oh yes, M.E., especially as Queen Eleanor outlived her husband by quite some years. I’ll post a proper comment about the article when I feel up to it as I am the proverbial “cream-crackered” (very, very, tired) after a horrible day with stress over a lost (but now found fortunately) cat.

  • Reply October 17, 2014


    Kudos for spotting the character in Robin Hood. That’s something I only noticed on my most recent watch. His character seems to be one of a number of ‘old protector’-type characters. I’m also thinking of Jeremy Iron’s ‘Tiberius’ in Kingdom of Heaven. To borrow a quote from Hunter Thompson, these were apparently ‘old hacks who wanted nothing more than to live out their days in peace before a bunch of lunatics ripped the world in half’. I doubt we’ve seen the last of them.

  • Reply October 18, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I concur with other commenters. This is interesting. I knew something of Sir William Marshall but not in great detail and had not thought of him as an inspiration for Ser Barristan. William Marshall featured in Alfred Duggan’s “Brood of Vipers” about the Angevin family, which I always considered to be a historical novel but Wikipedia states that it is in non-fiction. I think Mr Duggan said the Marshall died at 80 so he gave him a few extra years. Ser Barristan made me think of the “verray parfit gentil knight” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”. I’ve always tended to write Marshall with two ‘l’s but my own real life name is one that can be spelled more than one way. This is slightly off-topic, but has it ever been established what exactly happened to Prince Arthur? My understanding is that King John is strongly suspected of being implicated in his death but I am not an expert and I don’t know that the suspicion was ever proven.

    A case of a person who was loyal not losing out because of that loyalty (show Arya says that loyalty killed Ned) is encouraging. I see there are, now that Tom has pointed them out, numerous similarities between the Marshall and Ser Barristan, though didn’t William Marshall marry an heiress whereas Ser Barristan always stayed sinfle. (I presume Tom’s ‘secret’ oath to the Lannisters is tongue in cheek, at least as far as the hidden part is concerned, as he has ‘outed’ his secret oath at least to the readers of this blog).

    • Reply November 6, 2014


      Hi Watcher
      Sorry for the (very) late reply! It is very difficult to say what happened to Arthur – all we know is that he disappeared in 1203 and his sister remained imprisoned throughout John’s and Henry III’s reign. It echoes the Princes in the Tower of 1483 where the nominated heir to the throne vanished and is believed by many to have been murdered by a ‘wicked uncle’. Ralph of Coggeshall was a contemporary chronicler who wrote that John had the prince murdered but as he was a Cistercian abbot at the time of John’s dispute with Pope Innocent III (leading to his excommunication between 1209-13) and he was loyal to John’s opponents (the Mandeville family) it is not surprising that he was hostile to John. In short (sorry for waffling on) it is likely that John had the prince murdered or allowed him to die but we will never know for sure.

      And yes, my admiration for the Lannisters is now no longer a secret – I have got used to the reaction people make when I tell them that overall they are my favourite House in the books and tv series!


  • Reply October 18, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Edit above “single” not “sinfle”.

  • Reply October 18, 2014

    Elizabeth Chadwick

    Excellent article – enjoyed it thank you.
    I’ve written two bestselling novels about The Marshal – The Greatest |Knight and The Scarlet Lion, also one about his father John of the notorious Anvils and Hammers speech – A Place Beyond Courage.
    In so doing I’ve researched their lives extensively. There is now an English translation of the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal which should be available on enquiry from the Anglo Norman Text Socity. David Crouch has written the most up to date full biography of the Marshal and there is an excellent one concerning his military career published by Osprey William Marshal: The Knight Who Saved England by Richard Brooks. There’s another biography coming out in December too by Thomas Asbridge. I have an article on my blog about William Marshal, his father and the whole Anvils and Hammers speech here: What you see on the surface is not always what’s underneath. http://livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/anvils-and-hammers-why-john-fitzgilbert.html
    Also a biography of William on my website: http://elizabethchadwick.com/william-marshal/
    p.s. I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan!

    Elizabeth Chadwick

    • Reply October 18, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Oh wow! Thanks for sharing Elizabeth. I can’t wait to check out these links and your novels.

    • Reply November 6, 2014


      Hi Elizabeth
      Sorry for the very late reply! Thank you for your kind words about the article – I am very flattered that an expert on The Marshal enjoyed it! I certainly look forward to reading your novels about him!

      To the best of your knowledge is there any truth in the story that he won a tournament in his youth but was absent at the prize-giving and he was found in a nearby blacksmiths with his head on the anvil trying to beat his helmet back into shape so he could remove it? I have heard this story several times and have never been able to discover if it was true or not.

      Thank you for recommending these books (especially the translation of the ‘Histoire’) – I am admittedly not an expert on William as my main area of study is the English Civil War (having written dissertations on Nottingham in the conflict and court politics of the period) but I am always looking to expand my knowledge of this fascinating character!



  • Reply November 6, 2014


    Wow! This is a really good article! I’ve been reading up on William Marshal for awhile now since finding out he is my grandfather on both my mom and my dad’s side of the family. I feel very lucky to have him for my ancestor. He was an amazing man in every way. I’ve read Elizabeth Chadwick’s series of books on William Marshal and his family. Weirdly enough, I’m related to him through most of his daughters but it’s his daughter Maud/Matilda who is focused on in one of Elizabeth Chadwick’s books. She is known as Mahelt in the book. I HIGHLY recommend her books. They are wonderful. She has also written books on some of my other grandparents as well and I’ve enjoyed every single one. She really brings them to life! Tom, thanks for such an interesting and informative article on Gramps!

    • Reply March 31, 2016


      Oh, your grandfather? So you are 800 years old?

      He is most likely of no relation to you. People who make such claims base it on the most questionable of evidence.

      • Reply April 13, 2016

        Jamie Adair

        Well, I don’t know about that. It depends on how good the genealogist was.

  • […] Barristan Selmy & William Marshal | History Behind Game of Thrones   […]

  • […] (accessed June, 2015). Forum for Historygot.com, http://history-behind-game-of-thrones.com/the-anarchy/barristan-selmy (accessed June, 2015). Institute of Historical Research, University of London, School of Advanced […]

  • […] Ser Barristan Selmy, el bravo, el comandante de la guardia real, no podía inspirarse en otro que no fuera William Marshal, el más grande de los caballeros. […]

  • Reply April 13, 2016


    I suppose it is possible that Kim is thinking of the word ‘ancestor’ or ‘forefather’. In the UK ‘grandfather’ is one’s Mum’s or Dad’s dad – ‘forefather’ is the word meaning much the same as ‘ancestor’, but I have typed some schoolgirl howlers in my times when I am cream-crackered (rhyming slang for kn——–d meaning – in this sense – very, very tired). And on another blog (and on another name) I mentioned that in my Spanish for the oldsters [not that it’s called that] class where the homework was to write a recipe in Spanish I put “Cocinar los hijos” – cook the kids/boys/sons rather than “Cocinar los higos” – cook the figs. Not that I have ever gone Hannibal when cooking.

  • Reply April 13, 2016


    I guess “in my times” for ‘in my time’ in my previous post is a typo if not a schoolgirl howler!

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