Chivalry and the Perfect Knight

Chivalry and the Perfect Knight

The medieval court of England (and, indeed, all the courts of Europe) sailed on the Seas of Chivalry. Chivalry was the doctrine or, one might say, the ideology of the court and of the warrior class that (with the clerics) dominated medieval society.

That society was in theory composed of three classes: the military defenders or belletors, the educated clergy or oratores, and commoners or imbelle vulguso, the “unwarlike masses,” i.e., everyone else.

The military, or knightly, class evolved out of pre-Christian warbands. The martial attributes of pagan warriors were combined with Christian virtues. Together they created a new cultural order that defined the values of their society in terms of military skill, personal honor and religious piety.

So potent was this combination that the coveted role of knighthood spread from its origins among the mounted soldiers of France in the early twelfth century. Soon it came to encompass the nobility of European nations, as kings, dukes and earls came to desire the status of the knightly elite. They elevated their chivalric idealism to define the age. Through a cycle of tournaments, literary romances, errant quests, wars and crusades, they established a medieval culture based on the values of Chivalry.


Flower Chivalry

Women in Chivalry

One might wonder how women fit in this hyper-masculine pattern? The answer is, “Not well at all.”

The Age of Chivalry was patriarchal in the extreme. Women were dependent on their fathers or husbands for their legal identity. If they were heiresses they were shifted along with the ownership of property from one generation to the next. Knights and nobles were bound by their moral code to respect, defend and honor all women. In practice, of course, it was mostly highborn ladies who were thought to be worth the effort.

The code of Chivalry also required that ladies who “adorned” the court be examples of restrained virtue, their prescribed appeal to noble men being a contradictory blend of erotic attraction and austere spiritual purity. The appeal of such a fantasy was in part due to marriage being almost inevitably for economic and dynastic rather than emotional reasons. However, as is always the case, the prescriptive rules didn’t alter human nature!

There were strong and effective women, especially at this level of society, who often made their way against the headwinds of custom to carve out powerful roles for themselves. For example, we see the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine stand up for her sons against her equally formidable husband Henry II. Isabelle of France, wife of Edward II, and Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, both led armies (albeit in the names of their sons). Both were criticized for breaking the rules of acceptable feminine conduct.

The Virtues of Chivalry

What else characterized this enveloping martial culture?

The virtues that Chivalry espoused included prowess (skill in battle), courtesy (respectful behavior), personal honor, loyalty to one’s lord and to Chivalry itself, hardiness and perseverance against all odds, generosity, and an independence of spirit. A knight was also pledged to defend the weak, the poor and womankind against aggression, and to be a defender of the Christian faith.

A knight endowed with heavenly virtues

A knight endowed with heavenly virtues. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

A knight was a man in a thousand, singled out by his proven ability and dedication to these chivalric ideals. Through arduous training in horsemanship and the exercise of arms, he sought both martial celebrity and spiritual salvation – providing he survived the highly dangerous demands of his calling.

Knighthood was not only a perilous but also an expensive undertaking. The aspiring knight needed a costly horse or horses, elaborate clothing, increasingly complex armor and weapons, and a bevy of supporters to maintain him in the round of encounters in war or on the field of honor in tournaments and jousts. In either situation, he could lose his freedom (and be held to ransom), his equipment and his life through defeat in armed contest. If he was successful in his ambition, he was dubbed a knight by some powerful lord, to whom he paid fealty and promised loyalty.

Over time, noble lineage and worldly wealth became just as – or even more – important than prowess. The path to knighthood was closed off to all but the most select few. Chivalry rules!

Training in Chivalry

It wasn’t entirely about the art of war. Part of the necessary training in Chivalry was the mastery of not just the practical martial arts but also the underlying philosophy of the order. There were several ways of learning this. One, you could read a book. Yes, there were handbooks for young men on how to be a knight!

One of the best known of these books was Ramon Lull’s The Book of the Order of Chivalry, written circa 1276. Originally written in Catalan, it was then translated into French, which gained it a large international audience. It was copied repeatedly over the course of two hundred years. It was among the first books printed in England by William Caxton. He published an English translation with a dedication to King Richard III in 1484.

A more practical method of training in chivalry was through instruction from a master. To be placed in the household of a great knight was an honor and a career step forward for an eager and ambitious young squire.

A young man could also learn Chivalry by studying the best examples of knightly behavior in both the lives of exemplary knights such as William Marshal or Bertrand du Guesclin, as well as from the mythology of Chivalry found in the great epic romances about King Arthur, Charlemagne, Roland, Alexander the Great and Roman heroes.

Chivalry’s Perfect Knight: William Marshal

Although the term “Chivalry” didn’t appear until 1292, the chivalric code reached England with the Normans. And it is in the reign of the first Plantagenet, Henry II, that we find one of Chivalry’s greatest early exemplars: William Marshal (c. 1145-1219).

Because of a unique and lengthy poetical biography composed in his honor, William’s career is known in great detail – and what a career it was! His life reads almost like a contemporary romance novel.

Born the younger son of a minor baron, he was given by his father at age five as a hostage to King Stephen, and almost lost his life when the situation soured. At the last minute, he was spared from execution by the king.

In about 1160, the ambitious young William entered the court of William de Tancarville in Normandy where he learned the knightly arts of horsemanship, armed combat, hawking and hunting. He became known not only for his prowess but also his appetite at meals.

Noble father and son

Noble boys were sent by their fathers to the households of great lords to learn the arts of Chivalry. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

William Marshal was knighted and given his sword (but little else) by de Tancarville in 1167. He won a second-rate horse in a tournament and began a career as a lowly knight-errant, winning many martial contests to little reward.

William Marshal and the Plantagenets

William Marshal then joined the mesnie or household of his uncle Earl Patrick of Salisbury. While the Earl and his retinue were accompanying Eleanor of Aquitaine through Poitiers, they were attacked. The Earl was killed while defending Queen Eleanor. Marshal, who had manfully attacked his uncle’s murderers, was taken captive. Freed through the intercession of the Queen, who then accepted him into her household, he entered the royal court of Henry II. In recognition of his military prowess, Marshal became the tutor of Henry’s son, Henry “the Young King.”

This apparent honor, however, initiated a succession of conflicting loyalties that kept him in trouble over many years. Loyalty was a principal commandment in Chivalry, and William always maintained personal loyalty to whomever he owed primarily fealty – but not necessarily to other earlier pledges. This steadfastness unfortunately embroiled him in the rancorous quarrels of the Plantagenet royalty.

Henry II was beset by the rebellion of his disgruntled sons Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John – and Queen Eleanor, who supported her sons against her husband. Being of the king’s household, but owing fealty first to the Young King (whom he himself had dubbed a knight), William found himself in the middle of a perilous family struggle.

After the rebellion failed (and Eleanor was imprisoned by Henry for her role), the peace and pardons of 1174 resulted in William and the Young King leaving England to seek glory and reward in French tournaments, Henry II having forbidden tournaments in England. Although William acquitted himself amazingly well in hundreds of contests, he failed to save any of the winnings he received (the losing knights paid ransoms and forfeited armor and horses). Instead, he spent his winnings lavishly in the chivalric virtue of largesse.

A knight unhorses another

William Marshal made an international reputation on the tournament circuit. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

William Marshal made an international reputation on the tournament circuit. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

It didn’t help that he was also accused of an alleged adulterous relationship with Margaret, the Young King’s wife, as his renown had gained him enemies at court who spread the rumor of her infidelity.

Despite his fame and ability as a knight, William was unable to secure the real basis of a successful knight – lands and properties whose rents supported the extravagant chivalrous lifestyle. Young King Henry died before his father, leaving William in the unenviable position of being seized by his lord’s unpaid mercenaries and left in the service of an aggrieved but supportive Henry II.

William honorably fulfilled the Young King’s unmet pledge to undertake a crusade to Syria, where he met and was impressed by the Templars. He returned to Europe in 1187 no better off than before.

William got on the wrong side of the Plantagenet struggle again in 1189 when Richard, in league with Philip of France, challenged his father yet again. William and Richard met in battle near Le Mans, Richard being in pursuit of his father’s forces. William attacked, but Richard, for some reason being unarmed, shouted to William that to kill him thus would be “an evil deed.” True to his chivalric ideals, William left Richard unharmed, instead killing his horse. A month later, Henry II died and William was obliged to bury his king. This of course now made Richard king of England, placing William once more in a difficult position.

In testament to his ability and his known quality of absolutely steadfast loyalty to his primary lord, Richard chose to forgive William (after teasing him a bit). He also fulfilled his father’s promise to give William the hand in marriage of the rich heiress, Isabel of Striguil.

The match, a happy and loving one, not only brought William ten children but also over sixty-five fiefs (including about 25% of Ireland) and the financial security he had so long sought.

It wasn’t the end of William’s problems with the Plantagenets.

Marshal had worked in behalf of the king’s younger brother and heir, Prince John, before Richard’s death and was ennobled by the new king as the Earl of Pembroke. His residual loyalty to the French king, Philip, however, put him in back in the fealty bind. John predictably took offence, made William’s son a hostage, and tried to get some champion to challenge the aging William to combat. No one, however, would take on the honored Earl. Despite provocation, William Marshal never betrayed the alternately ungrateful and dependent King John.

John died in 1216, and William became regent for John’s very young son Henry III, whom he also dubbed a knight (at age 9). A French challenge to the succession occurred even before King John’s death when young prince Louis invaded England. The English and French forces met in May 1217 at the siege of Lincoln. Although William was about 70 years old, he was determined to meet this challenge personally. He went into battle and achieved a victory, marred only by the accidental death of the French commander (and William’s cousin) Thomas of Perche. Prince Louis fled to London and, following the French fleet’s defeat in the sea battle off Sandwich, surrendered and was allowed to return to France. Although roundly criticized for this leniency, William was once again honoring the code of Chivalry.

The old Earl fell ill early in 1219, and lingered for months attended by his friend Baldwin de Bethune and his squire John of Earley. He followed the conventions of a “good chivalric death,” making provision for his children and relinquishing all of his earthly belongings before passing away on May 14, 1219. William Marshal was buried, as he had requested, among the Templars in their church in London.

William Marshal's Effigy

William Marshal’s effigy in Temple Church, London.

William Marshal became a model of knighthood and was internationally celebrated for years as an example of true Chivalry, in both its positive and less admirable aspects.

Tournaments: Good or Bad?

The grip of the code of Chivalry on the courts of Europe reached its peak during the Plantagenet years, both in noble conduct and in the art and literature of the time.

It wasn’t universally admired, however. The Church was opposed to the violence of the tournament, and the warlike aspect of the culture in general. Because early tournaments were violent and bloody affairs, with relatively few deaths but much loss through wounds and broken limbs, Pope Innocent II banned the popular war games in 1130 as contrary to the Church’s “Peace and Truce of God.” The battles could easily get out of hand, and move into towns where innocent people were wounded or had their property damaged and stolen. The church and convent of Boston were burnt down, with a good part of the town, in 1288 after a tourney in which squires and soldiers dressed as Arthurian clerics.

Tournaments were also banned by secular monarchs as wasteful of manpower and as a source of plots hatched during the gatherings of factious nobles. Henry II forbade tournaments in England, as did John and Henry III. Even kings such as Richard I and Edward I, who enjoyed them, worked to control the contests with restrictions on locations and new rules for safer combat, as mêlées gave way to more orderly jousting. The problem was that, despite their negative aspects, the dangerous war games were an invaluable way to train knights and soldiers, and to inculcate the virtues of Chivalry. The opposition of the Church, which in part was an effort to reserve martial resources for the Crusades, ran up against the need for trained knights to undertake holy wars. Eventually, in 1316, Pope John XXII lifted the ban.

Tournaments, which involved general mêlées or mock (yet bloody) battles between teams of knights, and jousts, in which pairs of knights engaged in a mounted attack on one another, were not only popular among the knights themselves. They were also popular with courtly spectators who witnessed the fights from the safety of temporary bleachers. Originally the audience was mostly men-only, but increasingly women attended as well – especially after the contests became more structured and less dangerous – to see their champions take on the opposition. Some women allegedly even became actively involved in the spectacle. Women were also, of course, known to actively defend their family castles when their menfolk were absent.

Chivalry & Courtly Love

During the 12th century, as Chivalry set new standards for knights, another trend was setting new standards for their ladies. A new concept, known as “Courtly Love” was introduced by the troubadours. It is a concept that is difficult for modern men and women to understand. It’s lingering effects, however, still influence western culture. It placed noble women on pedestals of “honor” and required knights to idealistically and platonically worship them from afar. In its most dramatic (and literary) manifestations, young men would adore the unattainable lady, often older and married, and would undergo absolute agonies of unrequited desire, jealousy and despair. In its more light-hearted and romantic moments, a knight would seek some noble lady’s token, perhaps a scarf, to wear attached to his armor as he fought in the lists.

Its most revolutionary aspect was in promoting love, not as mere physical passion, but as an emotion that could exist between a man and a woman, one that was valuable for its own sake.

“Courtly Love” was a popular form of entertainment, and it is difficult to know just how seriously it was taken. As C.S. Lewis noted in The Allegory of Love (1936), its defining themes were “Humility, Courtesy, Adultery and the Religion of Love.” An odd combination indeed and, perhaps, one that could only exist in the world of literature and semi-fantasy!

“Courtly love” did, however, lay the groundwork for the “polite” precedence of womanhood that has long been a defining characteristic of European culture. It is now seen as paternalistic, but there was indeed a time when “Chivalry” towards women was a step forward!

During the days of the Plantagenets, the concept of “Courtly Love” may in some small way have helped create emotional bonds in noble and royal marriages, which were almost inevitably matters of dynastic ambition and political necessity. It did start a change in attitude. By the days of Henry VIII, a monarch could actively look for love and companionship in his marriage. (Of course, look where THAT got Henry’s unfortunate wives!)

A knight and fair lady - Jugend, 1897

A romantic ideal – castle, knight and lady fair. Jugend, 1897.

“Courtly Love” is not dead. It is once again a popular form of entertainment. Novels, movies and television series featuring the doomed romances of Arthur and Guinevere, or Tristan and Isolde, abound. And who among us can honestly deny, when the word “romance” is mentioned, that our vision is of a castle, a knight, and a lady fair?