Knights of Christ by Jan van Eyck

So much for the ideals of chivalry. It is now time to come to the difficult question of their influence on the conduct of the war. Exponents of chivalric theory saw warfare as a series of equal engagements conducted in such a manner as to test and show the prowess of the individual knightly participants. As late as the sixteenth century it was normal to propose the settlement of wars by individual combat. Such schemes were never effective, although the elaborate plan to resolve the Sicilian dispute by a personal combat at Bordeaux between Charles of Anjou and Peter III of Aragon (1283) was not entirely insincere and came somewhere near to fruition. Similar proposals were sometimes made for contests between small teams representative of the two sides; thus marshal Boucicaut suggested during the siege of al-Mahdiya (1390) a combat of one, or 10, or 20, or 40 representatives of the king of Tunis and of the crusaders, who were to advance on each other from the two sides of a closed field. This view of warfare also entailed the elimination of any form of unjust advantage which might vitiate the verdict of battle as a test of military prowess. It was by some considered unfair to set ambushes or even to make use of side-roads in campaigning. A head-on clash was the most impartial trial, and during the English siege of Calais (1346–7) William of Hainault suggested that a truce should take effect for three days while a bridge was built which would conveniently enable the English and French armies to meet in battle.

The chivalric virtue of ‘courtesy’ implied kind treatment of knightly prisoners of war, and the well-known passage in which Froissart describes the Black Prince’s generosity towards the French nobles after Poitiers shows that this could be effective in practice:

That evening the prince of Wales gave a supper in his lodging to the French king, his son Philip, and the most part of the counts and barons that were prisoners. The prince seated king John, the lord James of Bourbon, the lord John d’Artois, the count of Tancarville, the count of Étampes, the count of Dammartin, the count of Joinville and the lord of Parthenay, at one high table … and other lords, knights, and squires, at other tables; and the prince always served the king … very humbly, and would not sit at the king’s table, although he requested him: he said he was not qualified to sit at the table with so great a prince as the king was. Then he said to the king: ‘Sir, for God’s sake, make no bad cheer, though your will was not accomplished this day; for, Sir, the king my father will certainly bestow on you as much honour and friendship as he can, and will agree with you so reasonably, that you shall ever after be friends. And, Sir, I think you ought to rejoice, though the battle be not as you wish, for you have this day gained the high renown of prowess, and have surpassed all others on your side, in valour. Sir, I say this not to mock you, for all our party, who saw every man’s deeds, agree in this, and give you the palm and chaplet.’

Therewith the Frenchmen whispered among themselves, that the prince had spoken nobly, and that most probably he would prove a noble man, if God preserved his life, to persevere in such good fortune.

The Black Prince’s courtesy was of course assisted by his fluency in French, which remained the first language of the English court, and was in a sense the international language of chivalry. Moreover, this generous treatment of fellow aristocrats in the hour of victory should not be taken as a typical occasion. The Black Prince and the English nobles would naturally have felt generous after gaining a decisive victory which put the French kingdom at their mercy and promised to win fortunes for many of them in ransom money; yet the very fact that many went to war to seek financial gain rather than glory was incompatible with chivalric ideals. Treatment of the non-noble classes was quite another matter. The Black Prince himself was responsible for the sack of Limoges in 1370, when the city was burnt and more than 3,000 of its people put to death. Infantry taken in battle were entitled to none of the consideration granted to the nobility and no ransom could be expected for them; they were often slaughtered rather than being suffered to become a burden on the victor’s food resources.

In so far as it affected warfare, then, the chivalrous outlook detracted from the efficient conduct of war; its emphasis was on the manner of accomplishment rather than the thing accomplished, on glory rather than ‘results’. To be chivalrous was to be unbusiness-like in the matter of achieving victory, and thus to be handicapped. We have seen that the French met defeat in the three great actions of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt at least in part because they employed the conventional chivalric mode of attack, the cavalry charge, against armies whose strength lay in a non-noble weapon, the longbow. Does it follow from this that the English won their victories because they were more sceptical of the noble mirage of chivalry and, specifically, were less inhibited by chivalric notions of warfare?

Certainly the English were unashamed to proclaim the unaristocratic longbow as their characteristic weapon. By Edward I’s Statute of Winchester (1285) it became an obligatory weapon for English foot-soldiers and Edward III made compulsory the holding of archery contests on holidays. The great folk hero of later medieval England, Robin Hood, was a renowned archer with the longbow, a man who could ‘slice the wand’ again and again from a range of many hundred yards:

I was com[p]ted the best archere

That was in mery Englonde.

If the English archery and tactical combination of archers with other arms suggest a professional approach to war which contrasts with French dilettantism, the explanation of this must be sought in the constant wars of the English with their Celtic neighbours, from whom, indeed, the use of the longbow had been learnt. Frequent campaigning in difficult terrain against the Welsh and Scots compelled the English to give much thought to strategy, tactics, weapons and the other problems of war; the consequences of military conservatism for them would have been expensive and humiliating and there was constant need for inventiveness. Throughout the 80 years of war the English had their eyes on the serious proposition of gaining the French kingdom rather than the pageantry of chivalric pomp: it is symbolic of this that Henry V, when he married Princess Catherine in June 1420, refused to hold any tournament but instead hurried off his knights to besiege Sens.

The French had indeed had opportunities to learn the dangers involved in launching knights against well-disciplined infantry—as witness their defeat by the Flemish in 1302 at Courtrai—but the lesson had not been learnt. In all the three major engagements the French cavalry was unleashed in a courageous but rash charge, and such tactics were not confined to their wars with the English. It was the French and Burgundian element which insisted on a headlong assault against the Turks at Nicopolis in 1396, despite the warnings of the king of Hungary who was accustomed to warfare against the Ottomans and refused to commit his own troops to mass suicide. Du Guesclin was able to show that successes could be won if only battle was not made the occasion of an undisciplined display of valour, but in opposition to him was a strong and respected tradition which reasserted itself at Agincourt. Such a tradition is exemplified by the reported refusal of the French to accept the services at Agincourt of 6,000 archers offered by the city of Paris: ‘what need have we of these shop-keepers?’ they proudly enquired, and it was suggested that the principles of knightly honour would be contravened if the French army thus came to outnumber the English. It is not altogether just to adopt Froissart, who was a native of Valenciennes in Hainault and spent several years at the English court, as the characteristic representative of the French chivalric attitude to war, yet nowhere outside his pages are these campaigns depicted in such chivalrous colours as a series of knightly deeds in which the nobles of the contending sides were joined by a common devotion to valorous and ‘courteous’ enterprise. For Froissart, who set out to describe feats of arms and wondrous deeds as an encouragement to valour, the bowmen who actually won the decisive battles were an insignificant rabble of boors. Yet Froissart’s stupid snobbery must not blind one to the nobler side of chivalry, the side that is seen in king Jean’s decision to return voluntarily to imprisonment in England when his hostage absconded.

A difficult question remains to be answered. Should the French reliance on cavalry and preference for bravery over tactics be ascribed to mere military conservatism, or is this anachronistic emphasis on the aristocratic arm symptomatic of a more profound difference between the two countries? Did the French suffer merely from bad generalship or was their exaggerated respect for the horse-soldier and contempt for the infantryman indicative of a more hierarchical society? Certainly the English governing class was more content to recruit assistance in war from the lower ranks, and co-operation in war would in turn tend to foster a stronger feeling of community. It may well be that for England, like Switzerland, an unusual reliance on infantry had consequences for social and political structure (more developed representative institutions, greater potential for revolt) that were not present in France. But if the question of differences in social structure is answerable, it is certainly not through sources such as those that have been under discussion. Froissart, and others mentioned here, give the chivalric, aristocratic viewpoint, mostly in literary form. The social realities cannot be measured in this way. Even military realities are more complex. The persistent myth that the three famous English victories demonstrated the superiority of longbow infantry over cavalry may be congenial to a particular brand of English national sentiment, but it is an oversimplification. For one thing, as has been seen, position and timing played even more determinant roles in the battles than weaponry. For another, the English archers, too, ‘remained firmly grounded in a military context that was dominated by horseback-riding aristocrats’. Chivalric accounts, with their natural interest in glamourising the role of cavalry, do not tell us much about the close co-operation between mounted and foot soldiery that is in evidence on both sides and over a long period. Finally the subsequent history of warfare should make us wary of exaggerating the significance of these battles. The appearance of the longbow was quickly met by better protective armour and more flexible tactics, and the role of the cavalry as shock troops capable of breaking formations persisted long into the era of gunpowder. The French military revival of the mid-fifteenth century, is a reminder of how rapidly the balance of fortunes could change.

A case could be made for the statement that the war was embarked on in a spirit of chivalry on both sides and that this view of warfare prevailed for a whole generation—until the Peace of Brétigny or perhaps the death of Edward III (1377) —to perish thereafter except in its disastrous revival by the French at Agincourt. King Edward, the founder of the Order of the Garter, was the very soul of chivalry and would have been puzzled at the argument that the English waged war less chivalrously because they relied to a greater extent on archery. For Froissart the great days of knightly feats of arms ended with this phase of the war, and when he returned to England in 1395 he found that there were Englishmen who shared his point of view and asked:

What has become of the great ventures [entreprises], the valiant men, the fine battles and the fine conquests? Where are the knights of England now, to accomplish such things? In those days the English were feared, and spoken of everywhere. Since good King Edward’s death things have gone from bad to worse … and now King Richard of Bordeaux only seeks rest and pleasures.

It must be remembered, of course, that the sentimental Froissart was then an elderly man who would easily fall prey to nostalgia.

By the time that Richard II ruled England (1377–99) the French had begun to reflect on the causes of their defeats. Honoré Bouvet’s Arbre des Batailles (issued in 1387) is a practical handbook on war, not a treatise on chivalry and honour; it advocates defensive tactics in battle and suggests that the French should make more use of their peasantry, who are accustomed to a rigorous life. By the middle of the following century such views were commonplace, and similar warnings against indisciplined impetuosity and advice in favour of reliance on infantry and defensive warfare are to be found in Jean Juvénal des Ursins’ ‘Remonstrances’ (1453) and Jean de Buell’s Le Juvencel. The latter work (c.1466) went directly against chivalric doctrine by forbidding any form of fraternisation with the enemy: the author makes his hero reject a suggestion from the enemy commander that 12 knights from each side should pick out a convenient and impartial site for battle, on the ground that ‘there is a common saying, and it is thought to be a very old one, that one should never do anything on the enemy’s initiative’.

In the 1370s an anonymous author presented to Charles V of France a weighty book of advice in the form of a dialogue entitled Somnium Viridarii or Dream in the Pleasuregarden (better known under its French title as Le songe du vergier, quiparle de la disputacion du clerc et du chevalier). The cleric who is a participant in this dialogue remarks sarcastically that ‘The knights of our day have foot-battles and cavalry engagements painted on the walls of their rooms, so that through their eyes they may take delight in imaginary battles, which they would not dare to witness as members of an army, or even to be present at in person’. This suggestion that there was now a strong vicarious element in chivalry, that its reality was a thing of the past, contains much truth. Every such ideal must look back to a golden past that can never have existed in reality, but it is particularly true of chivalry that the less of it there was the more it was talked about and the more strenuous were the attempts to revive it. Characteristic of this late, formalised, self-conscious chivalry is the highly organised and pedantic pageantry of heraldry, with its learned glorification of noble descent, and such chivalric foundations as Edward III’s Order of the Garter (c.1348) and Philip the Good of Burgundy’s Order of the Golden Fleece (1430). The Golden Fleece was inaugurated by Duke Philip

from the great love we bear to the noble order of chivalry, whose honour and prosperity are our only concern, to the end that the true Catholic Faith, the Faith of Holy Church, our Mother, as well as the peace and welfare of the realm may be defended, preserved and maintained to the glory and praise of Almighty God our Creator and Saviour, in honour of His glorious Mother, the Virgin Mary, and of our Lord, St Andrew, Apostle and Martyr, and for the furtherance of virtue and good manners.

Membership of this order was restricted to 24 (later 30) noble knights. Four officers and a chancellor, secretary and treasurer served under the master and sovereign, who was always the reigning duke. Naturally France was most prolific of these orders. Among the French foundations may be mentioned King Jean’s Order of the Star (1352), whose 300 members took an oath never to flee in battie (and which ceased to exist after only one year when more than a quarter of the knights were killed in a single engagement), and Boucicaut’s Order of the White Lady, founded in 1398 for the defence of ladies and maidens in distress.

William Caxton, in the epilogue to his translation of Lull’s Order of Chivalry, expressed his conviction that chivalry was decadent in his day:

O ye Knights of England, where is the custom and usage of noble chivalry that was used in those days? What do ye now but go to the baths and play at dice? And some not well advised, use not honest and good rule, against all order of knighthood. Leave this, leave it! and read the noble volumes of Saint Graal, of Launcelot, of Galahad, of Tristram, of Perseforest, of Perceval, of Gawain, and many more. There shall ye see manhood, courtesy, and gendeness. And look in latter days at the noble acts since the Conquest, as in King Richard’s days Coeur de Lion, Edward the First and Third and his noble sons, Sir Robert Knolles, Sir John Hawkwood, Sir John Chandos and Sir Walter Manny; read Froissart, and also behold that victorious and noble King Harry the Fifth and the captains under him, his noble brethren, the Earls of Salisbury, Montagu, and many others whose names shine gloriously by their virtuous noblesse and acts that they did in the honour of the order of chivalry. Alas! What do ye but sleep and take ease, and are all disordered from chivalry?

Not all Caxton’s heroes, it will be noted, came from the distant past. It has already been suggested that attempts were made in their own lifetime to raise on to a chivalric pedestal such figures as marshal Boucicaut (1366–1421) and Jacques de Lalaing (1421–53), the latter of whom was denied a knightly end in that he was killed by a cannon ball. In the following century the same treatment was accorded to Bayard, the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche who met his death from arquebus fire in Lombardy in 1524. In Bayard’s day the emperor Maximilian strove hard to revive chivalry, writing a verse autobiography (1517) in which his adventures in the tourney and chase were recounted in the tradition of chivalrous literature, and assisting in the preparation of Der Weiszönig, a similar work on his father Frederick III and himself. Throughout the sixteenth century, jousting, though it had lost much of its utility as a form of military training, remained the aristocradc sportpar excellence. King Henry II of France was killed jousting in 1559 and in the half century after this the English court fêted its queen in the annual accession-day tilts.

The brief account given here of the splendours and miseries of chivalric warfare has no claim to constitute a description of the phenomenon ‘Chivalry’. Almost nothing has been said of chivalry and ‘courtoisie’ as literary genres—or one should perhaps say as a literary Zeitgeist witnessing to a Zeitgeist general among the classes of society who read or were read to. Th e Adventures of Don Quixote, that ‘light and mir ror of all knightly chivalry’ (1604–14), bears witness to the fact that the valour of knights and their ‘courtesy’ to ladies remained the favourite topic of Europe’s fiction readers long after the armoured knight had ceased to be the characteristic figure of the battlefield. Don Quixote, it will be remembered, ‘filled his mind with all that he read in his books, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, torments and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that to his mind no history in the world was more authentic’. And so it came about that Don Quixote repaired his ancestor’s rusty armour and fitted it with a pasteboard visor because ‘he thought it fit and proper, both in order to increase his renown and to serve the state, to turn knight errant and travel through the world with horse and armour in search of adventures, following in every way the practice of the knights errant he had read of, redressing all manner of wrongs and exposing himself to changes and dangers, by the overcoming of which he might win eternal honour and renown’.

Don Quixate is not merely a satire on chivalry but also the great prose poem of the sunset of chivalry. In Elizabeth I’s England, Cervantes’ contemporary Edmund Spenser was writing in his Faerie Queen of another ‘gentle knight’, ‘for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt’. As in architecture there was no clear break between the last of ‘true’ Gothic and the beginning of the Gothic revival, so in literature there was no interruption between this prolongation of medieval romance and the Romantic revival of medieval taste as witnessed in the ballad collections of Bishop Percy and J. G. Herder and the European popularity of Macpherson’s Ossian and Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Even today international law enshrines the chivalric notion of warfare in the clauses of the Geneva Convention which govern the treatment of prisoners of war. The terms of these provide that ‘other ranks’ who are captured may be forced to work for the imprisoning power, but it is illegal to compel officers to work; they are the heirs of the nobles who dined with the Black Prince after Poitiers.


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