The Magazine

On Their Honor

The thriving of the medieval cult of chivalry.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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It was this new standard, Saul argues, that transformed medieval English warfare and culture. The knight became more than a mere warrior; he was “an idealized figure,” Saul writes, who “was given a role to perform in a divinely ordered hierarchy, that of protecting the other two orders of society, the clergy and the labouring classes. He was invested with nobility, good fortune and charisma.”

A body of literature comprising romances, poetry, and histories focused on knighthood and its virtues quickly arose. It included not just the stories of King Arthur and his Round Table embodying chivalric ideals of courage, humility, and graciousness, but also quasi-legendary chronicles of the new Norman baronial dynasties that had established a more recent foothold in England. The crusader-king Richard the Lion-Hearted, appearing as the living embodiment of knightly heroism in the service of religious faith, became an English folk hero. The new art of heraldry centered on the colorful visual display of the symbols of bravery and honor that every knightly family sought to advertise. The tournaments in which knights regularly jousted on horseback weren’t mere pageantry for impressing the ladies; they were the practical means by which the knights honed and perfected the skills that served them in battle. 

By this route chivalry, which had originated as a practical military code, developed into a code of manners defining a civil elite no longer composed of men exclusively of military experience, but embracing lawyers, civil servants and others who sought respectability in the partial embrace of aristocratic culture.

In other words, chivalric values became democratized. That process was helped by the fact that knights who held land but possessed no titles of nobility were not entitled to sit in the House of Lords. Such knights were relegated to the House of Commons, where they shared the benches with prosperous and socially ambitious urban burgesses who aspired to possess their own coats of arms and elite statuses—and thus identified with the knights and their culture. 

Over the longer run, however, the social bifurcation of the titled nobility and the mere knights proved to be deleterious to the latter. By the beginning of the 13th century, large numbers of the landed gentry had decided that the time, expense, and training knighthood entailed wasn’t worth the relatively small payoff in social prestige. The number of landholders shirking formal knighthood and its duties became so critical that, in 1224, Henry III, concerned about shrinking numbers of cavalry, issued a writ ordering everyone holding property worth a certain amount to take up the knightly rank willy-nilly. 

Henry’s son, Edward I, aggressively promoted a renewal of English knighthood with a cult of King Arthur that starred Edward himself. He commissioned a massive replica of Arthur’s Round Table for Winchester Castle and staged elaborate tournaments and dubbing ceremonies all over England. Most significant, as far as the knights were concerned, Edward began paying them for military service, and, as might be expected, their ranks swelled significantly. They coalesced into a formidable and highly efficient fighting force and created their own powerful dynasties of professional soldiers.

At the same time, Edward and his successors systematically undermined the ethical code by which victorious knights treated their defeated fellow knights with respect. Edward had ambitions to rule all of Britain, and he devoted much of his reign to successfully bringing Wales to heel and to somewhat less successful campaigns in Scotland. Those who resisted he treated not as honorable enemies but as rebels and traitors; that is, as common criminals deserving of the most gruesome forms of execution. The Scottish warrior and landholder William Wallace was not the only Celt of knightly, even princely, rank to be hanged, drawn, and quartered for standing in the way of Edward’s aims. The tactics of warfare itself devolved from clashes between trained armies to the routine burning and pillaging of towns and the massacre of civilians. Losing combatants were often put to the sword rather than taken prisoner.