Nigel Saul states his aim in this book as the illumination of ‘the relationship between chivalry and the main political, military, social and artistic currents’ of the changing times over the period 1066–1500. It is an entirely original project, and in his hands it proves illuminating indeed.
Saul’s book is built around a series of narrative chapters, interspersed with thematic discussions of particular topics highlighted within them. In this narration, kingship and kings, as leaders of the martial-minded aristocracy, naturally loom large. Three kings in particular attract his special attention: Richard I, hero of the Crusades, patron of the tournament, and stout defender of the Norman and Angevin inheritance in France; Edward I, crusader, conqueror of Wales, and Hammer of the Scots; and Edward III, victor of Crécy, founder of the Order of the Garter, and devotee of St George, whom he adopted as patron saint of England and her celestial sponsor in war. The reigns of these three kings, their victories and their skill in projecting themselves as generous chivalrous leaders, provide the main benchmarks.
The twelfth century was an important period in the history of chivalry. From humble beginnings as a professional soldier, valued for his skill in the art of fighting from the saddle (of which the pre-Conquest English had no experience), the knight (chevalier) had, by Richard I’s time, come to be perceived, and to perceive himself, as much more than that – as a member of an ‘order’ in Christian society; the basis of his status was to bear arms to defend the clergy and the tillers of the soil. A mystique, a nascent culture of chivalry, had gathered about this order and its military. Among the features that Saul particularly stresses here are the development of a common rite of admission to this order – the dubbing ceremony – which fostered the sense of identity between knights rich and poor, blue-blooded and of new stock; a taste for the new literature of Arthurian romance and its stories of knightly adventure; and the development of ‘a language of visual symbolism’, heraldry, which identified knights as martial persons of aristocratic birth and status. This was the version of English knighthood that responded enthusiastically to Richard I’s leadership and military achievements, so enthusiastically indeed as to stamp his career as a model for English kingship that his successors needed to emulate if they were to succeed as rulers of England.
The chapter that chronologically follows this one, as its title ‘Knighthood Transformed, 1204–90’ implies, is an important one. The long and relatively peaceful reign of Henry III saw a sharp drop in the number of dubbed knights in England available for military service. After John’s loss of the continental lands, the need for knights’ military service had slumped, but the main cause of the drop seems to have been the rising cost of a more opulent style of knightly living. The interest in heraldry and knights’ pride in family arms – and therefore in lineage – is just one symptom of an increased appetite for displays of rank and status, and many poorer knightly families ceased to seek admission to knighthood. Among those that did continue to do so, the perception of their social role was at the same time developing. The scope and intensity of royal government was expanding rapidly in the thirteenth century, and locally landed knights constituted the group that was relied on to fill such offices as coroner, escheator, and keeper of the peace, and to serve alongside professional lawyers on legal commissions in their shires. They were becoming partners of the king and the greater lords not just in war and martial enterprises but in the government of the kingdom – members of a civil as well as a military aristocracy.
The wars and the martial ambitions of Edward I renewed the royal need for substantial numbers of knights to serve, which even for a richer knighthood had become distinctly costly. One important inducement through which Edward hoped to increase enthusiasm was payment for service beyond the kingdom’s borders, funded by parliamentary grants of taxation. What counted most in Edward’s success in remilitarising English knighthood, Saul argues convincingly, was the king’s public cultivation and celebration of the country’s military traditions. He did this by staging great tournaments at which the knights of his household and the retinues of the great lords could win glory and repute among their fellows; by ceremonious mass dubbings at his court; and by his well-publicised cultivation of the history and example of Arthur as a heroic patron of chivalry and a model for English chivalric kingship. The large number of knights that he was able to raise for his major campaigns in France and Scotland testifies to the spectacular success of these efforts to reinvigorate the knights’ sense of belonging to an elite group, the prime social role of which was the military service of the king and the kingdom.
Edward III’s kingship fits into the same mould as that of his grandfather; but Edward III’s ambitions were grander and the éclat of his victories more spectacular, which made his impact even greater in sharpening English knighthood’s sense of its identity. The lure of a share in the honour and repute, as well as the spoils and ransoms won in the course of service, were powerful factors here. The foundation of the Order of the Garter, the original members of which were drawn principally from among those leading aristocratic captains who had been Edward’s companions in the field in his great victory at Crécy, was a brilliant stroke in glamorising military service. Edward’s associated promotion of the cult of St George and his adoption of George articulated eloquently the royal message that service of the crown was at the same time service of the common weal of the kingdom. This powerfully strengthened a perception which proved hard to shake after Edward’s time, that for England ‘the pursuit of external war was considered the foundation of good kingship and success in war the measure of God’s blessing on the kingdom’.
This conviction was once again reaffirmed by the reopening of serious fighting in France by Henry V and by his signal triumph at Agincourt. Later, in the Yorkist age and beyond it, aggressive ‘werre outward’ continued to be seen by many as the surest way to national renewal after the disasters of Henry VI’s reign. But things had changed in the fifteenth century in one vital respect, and Saul’s analysis of that change is the elegant keynote of his concluding section, carrying his story down to its cut-off point of 1500. Henry V’s victories did not rekindle the readiness of English knights and gentlemen to undertake military service and seek a share in the glory and profits of successful campaigning in the way that Edward III’s victories had done. A shift was taking place in their role in national society and its dignity. The military trappings of chivalry – heraldic arms, commemoration in full armour on brasses and in the sepulchral sculpture of church monuments, crenellation of their homes – remained precious to the landed aristocracy, but were now prized primarily as visual expressions of their social standing and lineage and of their civil role in the kingdom’s government and magistracy rather than their military one. Theirs was becoming, as Saul puts it, a ‘new chivalry, harnessed not to knight errantry but to the service of the state’, and this new chivalry was distinguishable in its emphasis from the older, specifically military chivalry which he has made the central theme of his brilliant book. The skill and scholarship with which he has done so fully justify his claim at its opening that chivalry was a major factor throughout the narrative history of medieval England from before the time of Richard I to the aftermath of that of Edward III. Chivalry has often been neglected by historians in that story; Nigel Saul’s vivid and exciting study should make sure that it can never again be left out of the account.