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THE YEAR: 1278. THE PLACE: open country near Le Hem, in Picardy. A court is assembled; the field is laid out for a tournament and splendidly bedecked ladies are watching from a platform. At their centre is a queen, none other than King Arthur’s wife, the lady Guinevere. Alongside her is an even more surprising figure: the Lady of Courtesy.

A herald in full finery has proclaimed that Queen Guinevere requires all who want to pursue love in arms to appear before her; and before they can join her court they must joust. Now seven identically dressed knights appear and surrender themselves to the queen, saying they have been defeated by the knight with a lion. The knight in question then arrives with his lion and seven damsels, Guinevere’s ladies, whom he has rescued from the seven knights in a week-long quest.

The drama of the knight errant, riding around the countryside in shining armour rescuing damsels in distress, was being played out as courtly theatre – by real knights. Was chivalry ever anything more than an entertainment? Was anyone ever motivated by such pure and noble sentiments that they set off every morning looking for distressed damsels and dragons in need of killing? How did they make a living?

How did the lives of the knights play-acting at Le Hem relate to the kind of chivalric story they were performing?

The reality of knighthood – like reality for all people living medieval lives – was in a constant state of flux throughout the Middle Ages. Concepts of knighthood changed and the perception of what knights were, and what they should be doing, also changed. The only thing that remained constant was that the idea of chivalry was never what we mean by the word today.

Behind the fantasy is a story of violence: of the desire of young men to experience, and get rich and famous through, its practice; and the attempts of society to construct a context in which that violence could be channelled or contained.

It was an effort that was doomed to failure. By the end of the Middle Ages writers looked back and lamented that the golden age of chivalry had passed. In 1385 a French monk wrote:

. . . these days all wars are directed against the poor labouring people and against their goods and chattels. I do not call that war, but . . . pillage and robbery . . . warfare does not follow the rules of chivalry or of the ancient custom of noble warriors who upheld justice, the widow, the orphan and the poor . . . And for these reasons the knights of to-day have not the glory and the praise of the old champions of former times . . .

Tree of Battles

But had the golden age of chivalry ever existed at all?


Anglo-Saxon knights did not fight on horseback. But Europe’s nobility did and after the Norman conquest in England the word ‘knight’ was also understood to mean a horse-warrior.

William the Conqueror rewarded his victorious followers with grants of the land they had just conquered. They did not own the land – the ownership was still in William’s hot and sticky hands. Every one of those whom he rewarded simply held their land directly or indirectly from him, and the price they paid was military service. His immediate companions became hereditary ‘tenants-in-chief’; eight of them held half the land in England. They were obliged to provide a total of about 5000 warriors when called on by the king, and these warriors were men ‘enfoeffed’ as their sub-tenants.

Sub-tenants held their land as a ‘knight’s fee’ and had to serve on campaign under their feudal superior for a fixed term each year. A knight was ‘dubbed’ – made into a knight – by being presented with his weapon and baring his neck to his feudal superior, who declined to behead him and instead briefly rested a sword on his shoulder. As in the rest of western Europe, the knights formed a military caste, whose rights of lordship were paid for with the duty of military service. They were required to finance the cost of the horses, armour and entourage for that service, conventionally understood to be for forty days a year. William’s particular contribution to the practice of feudalism was to ensure that all landholders swore fealty directly to him, rather than just to their immediate overlord. This put the King of England directly at the head of all the military tenants of the land.

It took two more generations for ‘knighthood’ to signify the profession of arms. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says when William wanted to dub his son Henry a chevalier, horse-warrior, in 1085 he made him a ridere. Henry’s coronation charter speaks of tenants holding land not as knights but ‘per loricam’, as wearers of chain mail.

This was a kingdom designed as a machine for war, its warriors sustained by the obligatory service of the peasantry.

The main thing knights had to have in common was the ability to fight. They were warriors first and foremost, and violence was, for them, a way of life. They listened to stories of exciting brutality, a genre that continued for centuries in tales like the thirteenth-century romance Havelok the Dane:

There might men well see boys all beaten

And the ribs broken in their sides

And Havelock on them well avenged.

He broke their arms, he broke their knees,

He broke their shanks, he broke their thighs.

He made the blood come running down

To the feet right from the crown;

For there was not a head he spared

The ability to beat another man to a pulp or cut him to bloody pieces was not only a requirement of knighthood – it was one of its ideals. Richard the Lionheart, for example, was celebrated amongst the knightly class for his ability to chop his victims’ skulls down to the teeth. For everyone who was not a knight, this was a bit of a problem. How could you control these dangerous young men – especially now they were in charge? How could you channel their testosterone culture into areas that were less destructive to society? The answer that emerged was to try to invent a code of behaviour by which the knightly class must govern themselves – or, rather, to adapt the code of behaviour that the knights themselves were already developing.

Men on horseback, chevaliers, now dominated much of Europe. And the code of conduct of these men – and indeed their whole culture – became known as ‘chivalry’.

The snag was that chivalry meant different things to different people.


Knights themselves had no doubts what chivalry meant. It meant learning how to fight, making money, and winning fame and honour. For Anglo-Norman knights of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the perfect role-model was William Marshal. He was the first medieval layman (other than a king) to be the subject of a biography, which was completed some seven years after his death in 1219. Unlike the biographies of saints, it was not in Latin but in French, to be understood by men like himself.

William became hardened to the perils of battle at the ripe old age of five. His father, John the Marshal, had rebelled against King Stephen in 1152, and the king had laid siege to his castle. During the siege William’s father handed him over as a hostage. Stephen had no scruples about using five-year-old hostages, and at one point put the boy into a siege catapult and threatened to shoot him over the castle walls, unless John the Marshal gave himself up.

William’s father is reported to have shouted back that he didn’t give a hoot about the boy since he possessed ‘the hammer and the anvils to make more and better sons’. William clearly knew what it was to have a tender, loving man as a father. Stephen, his bluff called, let the boy live.

John died when William was about 16, and didn’t leave him a penny. William was thus faced with the familiar dilemma of every younger son from a landed English family: join the Church or learn to become a knight.

We do not know how long William struggled with his problem, but the time could probably have been measured in seconds rather than hours. He had a cousin in the town of Tancarville in Normandy who ran a sort of military academy. The prospect of free tuition and board and lodging was too good to resist. William removed to Normandy and spent the next three years training for the military life. Horsemanship, handling weapons, getting fit, learning how to kill and make money – it was all part of the soldier’s calling.

William was eventually dubbed a knight by his cousin, and was at last equipped to earn a bit of ready cash. The neat thing was that he didn’t even have to go to war to do this. There was plenty of money to be made on the tournament circuit.

He teamed up with a business partner, Roger de Caugie, and together they embarked on the tourneying circuit, agreeing to split the proceeds between them. They were spectacularly successful. In one ten-month period the Marshal-Caugie team captured and put to ransom 103 knights. This was, of course, education in the school of hard knocks – after one tournament William’s helmet was so battered he couldn’t take it off. He was awarded the prize but no-one could find him. Eventually he was discovered with his head on the blacksmith’s anvil having the dents hammered out of his helmet, and there a woman of noble birth presented him with his prize: a wondrous fish – a pike over 6 feet long!

William Marshal didn’t just get rich; he also achieved that other aim of chivalry: fame. In fact, he went about this quite methodically and employed a servant by the name of Henry Norreis to go around promoting his celebrity. Indeed, it has been suggested that William’s biography itself was all part of what became a family programme of self-aggrandizement. The cost of the biography was underwritten by William’s eldest son, and the author (a certain ‘John’) ‘might well have been one of those heralds-of-arms who arranged the jousts on the tournament grounds, identified the protagonists by their insignia, and by singing their exploits boosted the reputation of the champions.’*1 William’s own skill at self-promotion was clearly considerable. Like many a young knight he caught the attention of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was generous enough to ransom him when he was captured and imprisoned by a nobleman who had killed his uncle. William then served Eleanor’s husband, Henry II.

His biographer stresses first and foremost William’s dedication to ‘prowess’, skill and courage in fighting. Secondly he emphasizes William’s loyalty – dutifully serving Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, King John and the child-king Henry III.

As a young man William did the proper knightly thing and went on crusade, during which he somehow managed to greatly magnify his reputation – even though in July 1187, about two months before William came back from Palestine, Saladin destroyed the entire fighting force of the kingdom of Jerusalem.

He then returned to Henry’s service, and his loyalty certainly paid off. The king rewarded him with the hand of Isabelle de Clare, the most eligible heiress in the country with oodles of land and her very own castle! William generously took it over for her – nowadays it’s called Chepstow.

The landless William had become a man of property. It was every knight’s dream come true. He was famous as a warrior and was one of the richest men in England. At his funeral, the archbishop of Canterbury himself described him as ‘the best knight in the world’. Fame, money and God’s approval – chivalry could not get better than that if you were a knight.

However, we must never forget that what medieval knights meant by chivalry was not what we might mean. For them, the key thing was that it ennobled the cult of violence that they pursued. Chivalry introduced an etiquette for violent contact between knights that is reflected in the stories they loved to listen to in the twelfth century.

In one of these, Yvain, there is a description of a set-to between two knights:

Never were there two knights so intent upon each other’s death . . . they drive the sword-point at the face . . . both are possessed of such courage that one would not for aught retreat afoot before his adversary until he had wounded him to death.

But the tale stresses that this was honourable, elegant murderous violence:

They were very honourable in not trying or deigning to strike or harm their steeds in any way; but they sat astride their steeds without putting foot to earth, which made the fight more elegant. At last my lord Yvain crushed the helmet of the knight . . . Beneath his kerchief his head was split to the very brains.

Elegant indeed.

Knights saw chivalry in terms of fighting, gaining honour and getting rich. But there were others who were trying to define the concept of chivalry in their own interests.


There was obviously a bit of a contradiction between the demands of Christianity and a knight’s job – which was based on professional killing. Meekness, turning the other cheek, regarding killing as a sin, weren’t really subjects that were taken very seriously at knight school. This was a problem at the very heart of feudal life.

At first the Church had seen its role as one of simple restraint. In 1023 it declared it would not give warriors its protection if they fought during Lent. In 1027 a council at Toulouges, in south-west France, imposed a general truce on Sundays. Soon the Truce of God was extended to run from Thursday morning to Monday morning. Then the Church added the more important saint’s days and Advent to its list. And at a church council in Narbonne in 1054 it was declared that ‘no Christian should kill another Christian, for whoever kills a Christian undoubtedly sheds the blood of Christ’.

William the Conqueror had invaded England with the blessing of the Pope, and flying a Papal banner, but was obliged to do penance for the sin of killing people at the Battle of Hastings.

For knights, this raised the obvious question: ‘Well, given that killing is what we do, who should we be killing, then?’

The Church had the sensible idea of diverting their energies. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade and reversed centuries of Christian doctrine by announcing that it was fine for violent young men to butcher people, so long as the victims were folk of whom the Church disapproved (more specifically, those of whom the pope disapproved). Hitherto knights had had to do penance for those whom they killed in battle. But crusading was now defined as a penance in itself: a knight could save his soul by slaughter.

Crusaders, the supposed defenders of pilgrims, scourge of the heathen Saracens, were the Church’s own warriors. In this context the Christian knight needed to show very little restraint, and all over Europe warriors committed themselves to crusading with enthusiasm. They flocked to the cause, and at the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 they were able to boast of wading in ‘infidel’ blood up to their knees. It is true that there were limits to the permissible violence, even on crusade, but these were at the outer limits of savagery – some knights who took part in the First Crusade did have to seek papal forgiveness for eating the bodies of their enemies. It was granted.

Christian chivalry – fighting at the behest of the Church – became a system of sanctified slaughter. The pope’s enemies, after all, were not restricted to Muslims in faraway lands. Popes had enemies all over the place, and they were prepared to hurl crusades against them whenever this looked like a practical proposition.

When Pope Innocent III declared a crusade against the ‘heretics’ of the Languedoc in 1208 he handed out their lands to men from northern France; all they had to do was take them. Simon de Montfort was granted control of the area encompassing Carcassonne, Albi and Béziers, and set about slaughtering its inhabitants. He and his troops butchered around 18,000 people in Béziers without a second thought. When soldiers asked the pope’s representative at the slaughter whether they should separate believers from heretics he told them not to bother: when the souls of the slaughtered came to be judged, ‘God will know his own’.

Christian chivalry was not particularly lovely but it was the Church’s attempt to harness the destructive power of knight-hood, to advance its own ends and at the same time introduce a more benign code of behaviour amongst the warrior class.

In 1276, the Catalan knight-turned-ecclesiastic-and-philosopher, Ramon Lull, laid down some ethical guidelines for knights in his Book on the Order of Chivalry. It’s a curious list.

The first duty of the proper chivalric knight, according to Lull, is to defend ‘the Holy Catholic Faith’. His second is to maintain and defend his temporal lord. His third duty (more surprisingly) is to go hunting, give lavish dinners and fight in tournaments: ‘Knights ought to take horses to joust and to go tourneying, to hold open table and to hunt at harts, at bores and other wild beasts.’*2

Rather more ominously, the knight’s fourth duty, according to Lull, is to scare the peasantry into working the land: ‘For because of the dread that the common people have of the knights, they labour and cultivate the earth, for fear lest they be destroyed.’ Slightly contrarily, his next duty is to defend ‘women, widows and orphans and diseased men and the weak’ and ‘those that labour the land’. He should found cities and punish thieves and robbers, and should avoid swearing . . .

For Lull, even the knight’s equipment was full of religious significance. The sword is made in the semblance of the cross to signify that ‘our lord vanquished death upon the cross’. The spear is truth, the helmet is the dread of shame, the coat of mail represents his defence against vice. His leg harness is to keep his feet on the straight and narrow, his spurs signify diligence and swiftness. The gorget that protects his throat represents obedience, the mace: strength, the dagger: trust in God, and so on and so forth.

The Church provided knights with a religious vocabulary for violence and, at the same time, imported knightly terms into its own usage: ‘Soldiers of Christ’ could mean either knights or monks.

It also did its best to take over the ceremonies of knighthood – in particular, the ritual involved in dubbing a knight. A fourteenth-century book describing the ceremonies to be performed by a bishop records the form the Church would have liked this to take. The would-be knight is bathed in rose water on the eve of his knighthood. He spends the night in vigil in a church and hears Mass the next morning. The priest then gives him the collée (the light blow on the shoulder that ‘dubs’ him knight). The only role allowed the laity in all this is that a nobleman gives the knight his spurs.

But in general this was wishful thinking on the part of the Church – how it would have liked to run things. The ceremony of dubbing a knight remained predominantly non-religious. Lords were not going to give up the power of creating their own followers, and dubbing remained a secular event with enough sacerdotal overtones to provide religious legitimatization – but not enough to allow for priestly control.

In the long run, knights took from the Church what they needed to justify themselves and their way of life, without letting the Church take over in the way it would have liked.


Royalty also wanted to control chivalry. Kings and princes naturally wanted to harness the aggressive instincts of knights to further their own interests. If the Church encouraged these men to wrap their violent way of life in robes of piety, the king provided them with robes of an altogether more tangible variety.

The Arthurian fantasy that was acted out at Le Hem (as interval entertainment between jousts) was a deliberate response to the revival of an Arthurian cult at the court of Edward I – it had been expected that the English king and some of his knights would attend, but they failed to show up. In the account of what happened, the Lady of Courtesy specifically associated the heroes of Camelot with English knights, and with King Edward.*3

Romantic fantasy was a useful way of ensuring men’s allegiance. Once the Norman helmet (an iron hat with a nose covering) had given way to one that covered the full face, knighthood could easily be turned into a dressing-up game, and royalty played on that.

Nowadays we recognize famous people by their faces because we have seen countless pictures of them. But back in the Middle Ages you would not know what anyone looked like unless you had met them. Most people living in the twelfth century would have had as little idea of what Richard the Lionheart looked like as we have now. They would have had even less idea when his head was inside a bucket with eye-slits.

So the rich and famous needed a way of announcing who they were. That is why they had coats of arms.

Going into battle with your coat of arms emblazoned on your shield, your surcoat and your horse cloth, and with a crest on your helmet that would identify you in the thick of the fighting, was a kind of dare. A well-marked knight was fighting for his family honour as well for his own life: if he ran away everyone would know. But the fact that he could be recognized was also a potential life-saver. His coat of arms and equipment signalled that he was wealthy and therefore worth keeping alive in order to be held hostage.

One mercenary captain took this to its logical extreme. It’s said that Sir Robert Knolles used to ride into battle with an inscription on his helmet that read: ‘Whoever captures Sir Robert Knolles will gain 100,000 moutons.’ (The mouton d’or was a gold coin worth one-third of a pound of silver.)

But coats of arms and other heraldic symbols also had a ceremonial side, and lent themselves to pageantry at tournaments. Arthurian themes, fictitious but well known from the romances of the time, provided a wonderful way of identifying chivalric valour with loyalty to the king, and the English Crown latched on to this with enthusiasm.

St George’s Chapel, in Windsor, is the physical architecture of Chivalry. This magnificent Gothic building is hung with the banners of the knights of the Order of the Garter. This is the highest order of Chivalry in England, a reincarnation of knights of the Round Table, dedicated to St George the dragon slayer. The Order of the Garter is a true medieval chivalric invention.

The top of a ‘Round Table’, supposedly Arthur’s, had hung in Windsor Castle since the time of Edward I – it now hangs in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. It seems that Edward III had a new version constructed, and built the Round Tower at Windsor to house it. In 1344 he held a tournament after which the knights feasted around the table, the first of a series of Round Table gatherings in the castle. Between October 1347 and the end of 1348, following military successes in the Hundred Years War with France, Edward held a further series of tournaments, and in June 1348 the first ceremony of the Order of the Garter was held at Windsor. The castle was to be the new Camelot.

On 10 August 1348, while the Black Death ravaged England, the 26 founder knights, including Edward III and his son the Black Prince, filed into St George’s Chapel in pairs for their first investiture. The lines parted as they sat themselves opposite each other, the king and 12 knights on one side and the prince and 12 knights on the other. They faced each other as two opposing tournament teams, the very soul of Christian chivalry at the royal court.

This was chivalry as pure pageantry. Nowhere in the code of the Order of the Garter was there anything about protecting the weak or vulnerable.

In 1356, after the Battle of Poitiers, the Black Prince hosted a banquet of his own. He was 26 years old. The guest of honour was his most important prisoner, the King of France. Jean Froissart, a contemporary chronicler, described the scene:

The same day of the battle at night the prince made a supper in his lodging to the French king and to the most part of the great lords that were prisoners . . . the prince served before the king as humbly as he could, and would not sit at the king’s board for any desire that the king could make, but he said he was not sufficient to sit at the table with so great a prince as the king was. But then he said to the king: . . . ‘sir, methinks ye ought to rejoice, though the day be not as ye would have had it, for this day ye have won the high renown of prowess and have passed this day in valiantness all other of your party. Sir, I say not this to mock you, for all that be on our party, that saw every man’s deeds, are plainly accorded by true sentence to give you the prize.’*4

The Chronicles of Froissart

That was royal chivalry in action – the honour due to a man was related to his rank. Fourteen years later, at Limoges, the Black Prince provided an object lesson in what that meant.


In 1370, Limoges was a border town, on the uncertain frontier between the King of England’s possessions and the lands of the King of France. It was an old town, with Roman roots; its bridge was ancient, but its cathedral was new, a tribute to the town’s wealth. That wealth was based on the secret skills of its artisans, who produced fabulous enamelled objects that could not be imitated anywhere else in the world.

Enamel is a thin layer of coloured glass that has been melted and fused on to a metal surface. Normally, small enamel panels were surrounded by copper wire to prevent the golds, deep blues, rich reds and profound greens from running into each other, and to hold each piece of enamel in place as the underlying metal expanded and contracted. Otherwise, as the piece warmed and cooled over the course of a day, the enamel would simply fall off. But in Limoges, uniquely, artisans had discovered how to produce enamel that expanded at the same rate as copper, and could butt different enamels against each other. This produced work of astonishing clarity and detail. The enamels were enormously prized throughout Europe, and small enamelled Limoges coffers were precisely the equivalent of the Fabergé Easter eggs that later delighted nineteenth-century Europe.

The enamel works were factories that employed a dozen or more experts in a range of highly skilled crafts. Each one was the home of the rather wealthy family who directed and controlled the work. It was also, of course, a showroom and shop. This part of the building was impressive and elegant as customers for Limoges enamels came from all over Europe, and were themselves wealthy connoisseurs. The works were in vigorous competition with each other and, although most pieces were unsigned, those in the know would have had little problem identifying the work of individual masters.

The factories were down by the river Charente as its strongly acid water was used to purify the coloured glass before it was laid in place for fusing. They were sheltered within a strong city wall and the town citadel towered over them.


The English territory of Aquitaine expanded and contracted with the changing fortunes of war. In 1369, the French king, Charles V, announced that he was confiscating it. When his forces reached Limoges and besieged it, its bishop decided it was clear which way the wind was blowing and surrendered. The Black Prince, the ruler of Aquitaine, was enraged. He marched to Limoges bent on revenge, and arrived outside its walls with 1200 knights, squires and men carrying long lances, 1000 archers and 1000 foot soldiers.

The prince was not a man to mess with. He was now 40 years old, and was one of the most experienced and capable warriors in Europe. His father had knighted him when he was 15, just before the Battle of Crécy and, according to legend, he had dressed in black armour for the battle. This seems to be why he was known as the Black Prince. He had spent his time since then engaged in war in France on King Edward’s behalf, devoting himself in the few years of peace to the war-sport of tournament.

The prince was a sick man, who had to travel in a litter, but he still knew how to conduct a war. The bishop of Limoges, pressed by the frightened businessmen of the town, realized he had made a serious mistake in surrendering, but control was no longer in his hands. Limoges was now ruled by Charles’s men, from the citadel.

Sir John de Villemur, Sir Hugo de la Roche and Roger de Beaufort, who commanded in it, did all they could to comfort them by saying, ‘Gentlemen, do not be alarmed: we are sufficiently strong to hold out against the army of the prince: he cannot take us by assault, nor greatly hurt us, for we are well supplied with artillery.’ (Froissart)

The siege was a pretty thing, seen from a distance. The besieging army, with its coloured tents and attractive banners, was commanded by knights in literally shining armour, astride horses caparisoned in the heraldic symbols of their riders. With nothing to do all day except wait, the knights spent their time practising their skills, engaging in play-fights or happily plundering and burning the farms that dotted the charming Limousin countryside.

The white stone walls of the town and citadel were topped with wooden roofs, from which fluttered the pennants of the defending knights. This attractive scene was unspoiled by the smallest taint of blood, because the real struggle was being fought underground. The Black Prince had a team of miners digging under the city walls. Eventually they were ready and, setting the mines on fire, they brought a large part of the walls crashing down. In a few minutes, Limoges was wide open.


The three commanders of the citadel realized that the game was over and there followed a series of scenes that epitomize the very essence of late fourteenth-century chivalry. Knowing they were about to engage in a famous battle, their first concern was that only two of them had actually been dubbed knights. Sir John de Villemur immediately proposed that they should knight Roger de Beaufort (who was a mere gentleman). He replied, ‘Sir, I have not as yet distinguished myself sufficiently for that honour, but I thank you for your good opinion in suggesting it to me.’

There was no time to continue this elegant discussion, as it was time to fight.

What mattered to Froissart, the chronicler of these scenes, was how the three principal characters acquitted themselves in single combat against suitable opponents under the rules of chivalry:

The Duke of Lancaster was engaged for a long time with Sir John de Villemur, who was a hardy knight, strong and well made. The Earl of Cambridge singled out Sir Hugo de la Roche, and the Earl of Pembroke Roger de Beaufort, who was but a simple esquire. These three Frenchmen did many valorous deeds of arms, as all allowed, and ill did it betide those who approached too near.

The Prince, coming that way in his carriage, looked on the combat with great pleasure, and enjoyed it so much that his heart was softened and his anger appeased. After the combat had lasted a considerable time, the Frenchmen, with one accord, viewing their swords, said, ‘My lords, we are yours: you have vanquished us: therefore act according to the law of arms.’ ‘By God,’ replied the duke of Lancaster, ‘Sir John, we do not intend otherwise, and we accept you for our prisoners.’ Thus, as I have been informed, were these three knights taken.

The Chronicles of Froissart

Roger, in Froissart’s eyes, was now a knight after all. This was the classic chivalric encounter: war as combat, to be admired and enjoyed.


All was gentility and chivalry, unless you happened to be outside the charmed circle of men in armour. The Black Prince’s orders had been simple and brutal, as reported by Froissart:

You would then have seen pillagers, active to do mischief, running through the town, slaying men, women, and children, according to their orders. It was a most melancholy business; for all ranks, ages and sexes cast themselves on their knees before the prince, begging for mercy; but he was so inflamed with passion and revenge that he listened to none, but all were put to the sword, wherever they could be found, even those who were not guilty: for I know not why the poor were not spared, who could not have had any part in this treason; but they suffered for it, and indeed more than those who had been the leaders of the treachery.

There was not that day in the city of Limoges any heart so hardened, or that had any sense of religion, who did not deeply bewail the unfortunate events passing before their eyes; for upwards of three thousand men, women and children were put to death that day. God have mercy on their souls! for they were veritable martyrs.

The Chronicles of Froissart

The whole town was pillaged, burnt, and totally destroyed.

Froissart listed many other instances of the Black Prince’s savagery, from his ‘right good beginning’ burning and ravaging in northern France as a teenager, through the slaughter of women and children at Mont Giscar the year before Crécy to the systematic looting and killing of people whose crime was to be ‘good, simple, and ignorant of war’, but nothing so moved him to pity as the slaughter at Limoges. Perhaps it was because he understood what was being destroyed. Froissart was a high-level courtier, a man of education and taste, who knew that what was being lost was not just human life. The Black Prince was eliminating the brilliant colours of Limoges, killing the master craftsmen and skilled artisans along with their wives and children, and looting and destroying their factories.

One of the great treasures of the world was wiped away.

Limoges did eventually recover, and went on to achieve perhaps even greater heights of artistry in other crafts. But the expertise that had produced the brilliant, jewel-like enamels of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was gone, the keepers of its secrets dead, and that work was not seen again.

Froissart did not regard the Black Prince as barbarous, or as a criminal. On the contrary, he described him as ‘the perfect root of all honour and nobleness, of wisdom, valour and largesse’. The prince was a man who played out the role of chivalric hero, and if we see an incomprehensible contradiction here it is because we have developed our own unhistorical idea of chivalry.

Froissart’s view of chivalry was the one held by the court, not the religious one.

Edward III set up a court of chivalry to deal with chivalric disputes. But it’s no good thinking of knights on trial for failing to open the drawbridge for a damsel or for slaughtering the poor and weak.

The main preoccupation of the court was money – knights squabbling over the loot from some unfortunate town, or arguing over how to split the profits of ransom, or claiming to own the rights to a particular prisoner. The other major concern was quarrels about who owned the rights to a particular coat of arms.

The court of chivalry was simply another way in which the king tried to exert some sort of control over the business of warfare.


Edward III may have been busy helping to glamorize chivalry, but this does not mean he used it as the basis for war. Elegance was for romances and for tournaments. But battles had to be won, and knights in armour were vulnerable to inelegant new weapons.

By the fourteenth century it was shatteringly expensive to get a knight on to the battlefield. Since Roman times the standard piece of fighting kit had been the chain-mail coat, but developments in missile technology had brought a new kind of arrow that could pass through mail. So knights started wearing heavier armour – like a coat of metal plates. Then a crossbow was developed that could penetrate the plates, and so on. As the kit become more expensive it took more land to sustain a knight, so the link between landholding and military duty began to collapse.

In fact, within 100 years of the Norman Conquest people were opting out of the system in serious numbers. As the age of the Conquest came to an end, fewer and fewer landholders saw themselves as warriors. Widows could and did inherit their husband’s estates, young men turned into old men and, anyway, there were a lot better things to do with your money than spend it on elaborate handmade armour just so that you could go and be frightened to death by some professional lout. The system of land tenure by military service began to give way to money payments, and it soon became common for the holder of a knight’s fee to fail to get himself knighted. (Knighthood in England was never hereditary.)

The Battle of Crécy, where the Black Prince had begun his military career, was no chivalric battlefield tournament. By 1346, the English had lost interest in chivalry as a military occupation.

They were massively outnumbered, and the French had assumed that the knights on both sides would battle it out on horseback, and that the smaller English force would be overwhelmed, ransomed and go home ruined. But the English were playing by a new rule-book. When they arrived at the battlefield most of the knights got off their horses. This wasn’t at all what they were supposed to do. But then they weren’t planning to go through the usual chivalric routine. They were relying on the support of their non-noble longbowmen.

The English longbow (as it is now called) was not a noble weapon, and it was not wielded by rich young men whose kit cost the equivalent of a Ferrari. Thousands of French noblemen charged in full pageantry. In the first five minutes, the English loosed more than 3000 arrows. The flower of French chivalry was cut down by archers on sixpence a day.

The French lost over 5000 men; the English a few hundred. Using archers to shift the balance of power in a battle was not in itself new; what was new was the sheer scale on which the English employed them. If armies of the future were going to behave like this, the mounted knight was pretty much out of business.

And something else was eating away at the shaky (perhaps even non-existent) edifice of chivalry: the feudal host was itself being replaced by a modern regular army consisting of professional soldiers.


The feudal levy of landed knights had never been the sole military force used by kings. They relied at least as much on the military forces of their own household and, from the twelfth century, on landless knights who needed to be paid. Henry I, for example, could only call on a levy of some 5000 knights from the whole country, and hired bands of 1000 knights at a time. The coins used to pay them, called solidi, gave rise to the English word ‘soldiers’. At the time when Lull’s handbook on Christian chivalry was becoming widely translated and imitated, the military significance of the feudal knight was fading into history.

The armies of kings became professionalized, mercenary forces; more and more, courtly knights stayed home jousting prettily at court and feasting with other members of their orders of chivalry, and paid a tax instead of performing their military duty. Increasingly on the battlefield, knights were paid professionals who preferred to do the business against men who were poorly equipped and untrained. When Edward III landed in France in 1337, at the start of the Hundred Years War, his army included only about 1500 feudal knights. The rest, whether armoured men on horseback or pikemen on foot, were paid wages.

This new class of professional soldier did not live off his estates, for he had none; war was how he made his living. If the king would not employ him, someone else must. Nobody had envisaged the disaster this was to bring on Europe.

In 1360 Edward signed a peace treaty – the treaty of Brétigny – with the French. It was the kind of thing kings had done countless times before, but this time there was a difference. Lots of the English (and many of the French) had no homes to go to. Some had been fighting in France for up to 20 years. They might have captured a nice chateau, and there they were living like lords – why should they go back to England where, as like as not, they’d end up in jail or slaving for someone else?

The result was that France and Italy were infested by hard men in hard armour, hired to do other men’s dirty work.

They started with freelance pillaging in northern France. Edward sent royal officers to try to force his men to stop, but he had no power to bring them under control. Gradually English mercenaries, together with men from other countries, started forming themselves into freelance armies, which eventually coalesced into a single force that was reckoned to be 16,000 strong – bigger than Edward’s own army!

The mercenaries called themselves free companies. They were bands of robbers on a nightmare scale, who swept down through France causing havoc and destruction. And there seemed to be no way of stopping them. Every attempt to crush them backfired. Mankind had opened a Pandora’s box, and civilization itself had broken down.

Eventually the free companies descended on Avignon, which in those days happened to be the residence of the pope. (The papacy had moved there fifty years earlier; Rome had been a violent and dangerous city for a Pope who was, unusually, a Frenchman.) They burnt the surrounding countryside and threatened to attack God’s representative on earth unless he handed over a spiritually uplifting sum of money.

The pope tried to organize a crusade against them but, as the free companies had no land for crusaders to seize, his warriors would have to rely on him for payment. However, paying crusaders with anything other than indulgences was not on the pope’s agenda – so most of them packed up and went home. In fact, quite a few of the crusaders joined the companies. The pope had just made his problem worse. In the end, he paid the mercenaries 100,000 florins and also threw in a general pardon for all the sins they had committed so far.

Having successfully bought off the marauders, he persuaded the majority of them to move on into Italy, which was full of career opportunities for mercenary soldiers with nowhere to go.

‘Italy’ in those days consisted of a lot of city-states like Pisa, Milan, Rome, Florence and Mantua – each one almost a mini-nation in itself. For several centuries they had been at each other’s throats in the time-honoured manner of neighbours. Their citizens, however, hadn’t been all that attracted to fighting, and had got into the habit of employing mercenary companies to fight for them.

Italy had thus become the cradle of mercenary warfare. And once the free companies moved on from Avignon the north Italians found that employing mercenary companies was no longer a matter of choice – they either paid up or paid with their lives.

The mercenaries came from all over Europe, but now a sizeable proportion of them were Englishmen. One contemporary Italian chronicler, Pietro Azario, recorded how ‘some men imprisoned themselves in their own dungeons and locked themselves up at night when they [the English] rode forth . . .’*5

Of all the English soldiers who arrived in Italy none was to make a greater impression than Sir John Hawkwood – Giovanni Acuto, the Italians called him – ‘Sharp John’. He soon established himself as leader of one of the companies, the White Company. The younger son of a well-to-do Essex tanner, he had made his way up through the ranks during the Hundred Years War.

In Italy he established his own mercenary company, and for 40 years he made a good living offering his services to whomever would pay for them, often using intimidation to gain employment: ‘You had better employ my army now it’s here on your border, otherwise I can’t guarantee it won’t do a lot of damage.’ It was the old protection racket writ large.

Another contemporary Italian chronicler, Matteo Villani, left a vivid account of the kind of men Hawkwood was leading:

These people, all young, and for the most part born and raised during the long wars between the French and the English, hot and wilful, used to slaughter and rapine, were skilled in the use of cold steel, and had no thought for their own safety.*6

This was the army of the future. It was numbered in ‘lances’, each lance consisting of a knight on a charger, sheathed in iron and steel from head to foot, a squire, also on a charger but less heavily armed, and a page on a palfrey. There were 1000 teams of ‘lances’, so called because their principal weapon was a long and heavy lance. This required two men to wield it and was used only on foot, in a mass formation. The teams also carried heavy swords and daggers, and bows slung across their backs.

They were backed up by infantry, who were armed with longbows and carried swords and daggers, and also some light ladders that could be fixed together to scale towers. They were tough and disciplined professionals, five lances to a company, five companies to a troop, and were commanded by effective officers.

They specialized in surprise night raids on towns, when they would massacre the men, rape the women, carry off whatever was worth taking and burn the rest.

This was not in any sense chivalric warfare; it was a job. Hawkwood did not fight for glory or honour. He was simply a down-to-earth businessman – whose business happened to be war. There is a story that two friars once greeted him with the usual ‘May God grant you peace’. Whereupon Sir John retorted: ‘May God take from you your alms.’ When the friars asked why, he replied: ‘Why not? You come to me and say that God should let me die of hunger. Don’t you know that I live by war, and peace would destroy me?’


In 1377 Sir John Hawkwood was under contract to Cardinal Roberto, Count of Geneva, when the citizens of Cesena killed some of his soldiers. Roberto offered them an amnesty if they would surrender their arms, which the citizens did, foolishly trusting the word of a cardinal-priest of the order of the ‘Holy Apostles’.

Then Cardinal Roberto summoned Hawkwood from nearby Faenza, where he’d been busy coordinating the rape of all the female inhabitants, and told him to go to Cesena and kill everyone. To do Sir John justice, it is reported that he protested this was not really playing the game, but the cardinal said he wanted ‘justice’, and by ‘justice’ he meant ‘blood and more blood’. The resulting massacre shocked Europe.

Hawkwood’s troop ‘burned and slaughtered all the town. The river was coloured with blood. And among the smoking ruins, the rapes, the killings was a pitiful episode. Twenty-four friars were killed in front of the main altar, together with the congregation.’ According to hostile chroniclers, as many as 8000 people died. Up to 16,000 fled and Hawkwood, ‘not to be held entirely infamous, sent about a thousand of the women to Rimini’.*7

Every building was destroyed and the town was completely rebuilt following the destruction. Only a few pieces of the original walls survive.

But the action did no harm to Hawkwood’s reputation. Maybe it even helped by showing how carefully he carried out orders. Over the next 20 years he continued to flourish. He bought castles and property in Italy and estates in England. For the last 15 years of his life he was under more or less permanent contract to the city of Florence, and before he died in 1395 the city promised him a magnificent marble tomb in the great cathedral – the Duomo – in the heart of Florence.

However, the Florentines were businessmen and they never lost their business sense. When the King of England requested that Hawkwood’s body be returned to his native land, they felt there were better things to do with their cash than build an empty tomb, so they got an artist to paint a picture of what the tomb would have looked like if they had built it.

The non-aristocratic son of a tanner had become virtually a nobleman, by turning warfare into a business. Meanwhile, chivalry developed as a game of social status, ever further removed from the reality of war. And the knights of England became country gentlemen, the backbone of county administration.

Chivalry was a fantasy, used to put a respectable gloss on the horrors of war. It would be hard to argue that Norman knights were more violent or bloodthirsty than other warriors throughout human history, or that chivalric knights like William Marshal or the Black Prince were less bloodthirsty than mercenary captains like Sir John Hawkwood. But in the fourteenth century people felt something had changed with the commercialization of warfare.

The chivalrous knight in shining armour never really did exist. All that rescuing damsels and helping the weak was just wishful thinking – a construct of the medieval mind, taken up with enthusiasm by the Victorians and passed on to Hollywood film-makers of today.

But maybe we are better off without chivalry. Its fine ideals were all too often used to perpetuate war – which is what those who live by war want. Francho Sacchetti, one of Hawkwood’s contemporaries, said of him: ‘He managed his affairs so well that there was little peace in Italy in his time.’*8 And it is still true that those who promote war are usually those who stand to benefit from it – be they arms manufacturers, politicians or knights in shining armour.

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