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Top 5 English Medieval Knights

“Knighthood lies above eternity; it doesn’t live off fame, but rather deeds.” – Dejan Stojanovic

The knight was a disciplined and well-trained professional soldier. Was he also chivalrous? The knight’s code of honor cannot be under estimated and was of great importance, but so was his quest for financial rewards. Capture of an opposing knight, whether in a tournament or on the battlefield, meant lucrative gains from ransom and booty in the form of expensive armor and warhorses. A medieval military was a man who renounced everything good that life can give in favor of the common good. The Middle Ages was considered to be one of the most combative times in history. It produced the largest number of great warriors, men of enormous courage, an era that most glorified courage. 

5. Sir John Hawkwood


Hawkwood was born in Sible Hedingham around 1320. In 1338, when Hawkwood was 18, King Edward III took up arms to enforce his claim to the French throne, thus starting the 100 years war. Hawkwood joined his feudal lord, the Earl of Oxford, as an archer. He distinguished himself at the famous battles of Crecy in 1346 and at the battle of Poitiers ten years later. He was then knighted for his part in the victory.

In 1360, Hawkwood was with King Edward in France in an unsuccessful siege of Paris. Edward and the Black Prince sailed back to England but Hawkwood and many of the soldiers who found themselves suddenly unemployed stayed in France. As a result of the war, vast areas of France had been pillaged following the peace and the men-at-arms left behind continued terrorizing the countryside in spite of an order that they should leave At the end of the year, John Hawkwood and his mercenaries were threatening the Pope who by then had withdrawn his court to Avignon. The Pope eventually paid them off, and Hawkwood, at the Pope’s instigation, left France to do battle with the Visconti, the rulers of Milan.

Hawkwood became leader of the White Company in 1363 and very soon proved a master of pillage, blackmail and duplicity. Over the next 30 years he fought both for and against the Pope, Florence, Milan, Pisa, Siena and Perugia. He extracted huge sums from all of them and such was his military reputation that he never lacked for clients ready to hire him.

Hawkwood eventually reached a truce with the Visconti and tranferred his services to Pisa. Over the next thirty years, his allegiance changed with bewildering frequency as he fought for and against Milan, Pisa, Florence, Perugia, Siena and the Papacy. His influence became so great that he was involved in arranging the marriage of Edward III’s third son , the Duke of Clarence, to the daughter of the Duke of Milan. Hawkwood received further recognition when he married the daughter of the duke of Milan’s brother. Hawkwood was 57 and she was 17.

Hawkwood, to quote Morant, the Essex historian, “continued to the last, General of the Florentines, whom he served with such happy success, that he may well be stiled (sic) the founder or establisher of their Republic.” This renowned knight, bestowed with honor and riches, died at Florence, in 1394.

4. Henry “Hotspur” Percy


Henry Percy, son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, is better known by the name given to him by his enemies due to the eagerness with which he would ride into battle: Harry ‘Hotspur’. The year and place of his birth are unknown.He may have been born in Northumberland or Yorkshire, in either 1364 or 1366.

In 1377, Harry Hotspur was knighted and would have been a teenager, if not younger.  Hotspur witnessed his first combat as a child, accompanying his father in France, and led his first siege at Berwick in 1378. There is a story that Harry once met a soothsayer, who told him he would lose his sword in Berwick and die thereafter. This prophecy did apparently come true, but not in a way that Hotspur could have predicted.

Conflict and battle were intertwined with Hotspur throughout his life. He battled the Scots on the Borders, Welsh rebels in Wales and made trouble in Calais with his brother Sir Ralph Percy.

His most famous battle against the Scots was at Otterburn in 1388. The Earl of Douglas attacked England’s border regions and took Newcastle. Hotspur and a force of soldiers rode to meet them and a skirmish ensued which may have included hand-to-hand fighting between Hotspur and Douglas. Douglas captured Hotspur’s pennant before riding west to join the rest of the Scottish army. Hotspur was ordered to wait for reinforcements, but disregarded thrm and pursued Douglas anyway. When he reached the Scottish camp, he attacked and Douglas was killed. However, Hotspur was captured and eventually released.

Hotspur later led a campaign for King Henry IV to defeat famous Welsh rebel, Owain Glyndwr. However, Hotspur’s soldiers were not being paid. When Hotspur’s letters to Henry IV asking to rectify this were not answered to his satisfaction (the Crown claimed to be short of funds), he returned to Northumberland and Scottish border warfare.

When Hotspur took prisoners for ransom, Henry IV demanded that the ransom money should go to him instead of Harry, which led Hotspur to London to confront the king. The result of their altercation (which reportedly ended with the king slapping Hotspur across the face and drawing a dagger on him – ‘not here, but in the field!’ is said to have been Hotspur’s reply) was a full-blown rebellion led by Hotspur against Henry IV.

At the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, Henry IVI and his men had stayed in a small hamlet the night before, and due to the quick arrival of the king’s son, the Prince of Wales (Henry V), Hotspur rushed into battle not fully prepared, and apparently left his sword behind on the morning of the battle. The name of the hamlet was Berwick; the soothsayer, it seems, had been right after all. Hotspur’s head was displayed on the walls of York as a warning to other potential rebels.

Interesting side note: The King’s son, the future warrior King Henry V, was shot just below the eye with an arrow that almost killed him while fighting with his father at Shrewsbury. 

3. Black Prince

Black Prince at the Battle of Crecy
Black Prince at the Battle of Crecy

Prince Edward, the eldest son of King Edward III was born on the June 15, 1330 and was created Prince of Wales in 1343.  At sixteen he played a leading part in the fighting at Crécy; at twenty-six he captured the king of France at Poitiers; and eleven years later he restored Pedro of Castile to his throne at the battle of Najera.

At the Battle of Crécy, King Edward gave him command of the van, with the counsel and assistance of the Earl of Warwick and Sir John Chandos. The Prince’s division was in the front of the rest of the army and would take the brunt of the French attack. The French attack was staggering and the knights around the young prince were frightened for his safety. One of them, Sir Thomas of Norwich, was sent back to Edward to ask him to come to the aid of the prince.

“Sir Thomas,” said the king, “is my son dead or unhorsed, or so wounded that he cannot help himself?”

“Not so, my lord, thank God; but he is fighting against great odds, and is like to have need of your help.”

“Sir Thomas,” replied the king, “return to them who sent you, and tell them from me not to send for me, whatever chance befall them, so long as my son is alive, and tell them that I bid them let the lad win his spurs; for I wish, if God so desire, that the day should be his, and the honor thereof remain to him and to those to whom I have given him in charge.”  In the battle, the Black Prince deployed his forces brilliantly; though only 16, he fought sword to sword and his courage never wavered. At the end of the battle, Edward III stood before his son and proclaimed, “You are worthy to be king.”  The Black Prince fought fiercely and was a major reason for this English victory. By 1350, the Black Prince had gained a reputation as the most courageous and chivalrous knight in Europe. It seemed that England had a worthy successor to Edward III.

In 1355, the war between England and France again intensified. The Black Prince landed in Bordeaux at the head of English forces numbering some 6,000. Finally, in June 1356, French forces numbering 16,000 attacked the English at the city of Poitiers.The Battle of Poitiers was the Black Prince’s finest hour. Standing at the head of his troops, urging them on when they despaired in the face of the vast French army, he fought with an inspiring ferocity. By the end of the battle, having lost only 60 knights, the English had slain 2,500 French knights and 5,000 ordinary soldiers; they had also captured 2,000 French knights, including John The Good, the King of France.

n 1367, Don Enrique of Castille rebelled against his half-brother Don Pedro, seizing the throne of the Spanish kingdom. Because of the English alliance with Don Pedro, the Black Prince led an army across the Pyrenees and attacked the forces of Don Enrique. At first, the expedition went badly. Finally, at the city of Najera near the Castillian capital of Burgos, the Black Prince devastated the forces of Don Enrique, who lost some 5,000 troops while the English lost about 100.

The Black Prince was named feudal lord of Aquitaine in 1362. By January 1369, however, the Black Prince was dying of dysentery which he had contracted on the Spanish campaign. As a result, the war in Aquitaine went badly for the English because the Black Prince was too ill to command his armies. He died in 1376 at the age of 45.

He was never to become a king. His father, Edward III, would die a year later in 1377. His father and son would be kings. The Black Princes’ son Richard II would be crowned King of England the same year.

2. Richard the Lionheart


Richard I, born on September 6 , 1157, was the third son of Henry II. He rebelled against his father twice before he became King of England in 1189. He only spent six months of his reign in England and spoke only French. He also had to fight off an attempt by his brother John to steal his crown.

From an early age he showed significant political and military ability, becoming noted for his chivalry and courage as he fought to control the rebellious nobles of his own territory. Richard was said to be 6′ 5″ tall with long arms suited to wielding a sword. Richard acquired a reputation as a leader and warrior becoming known as Richard ‘The Lion Heart’. His experience in warfare came from controlling rebellions in Poitou in the 1170s and against his father, Henry II, in 1183. In 1189 Henry II died and Richard the Lionheart succeeded him as King of England, Duke of Normandy, and Count of Anjou. He set out on The Third Crusade in 1191 and engaged in the siege of Acre. 

When King Richard arrived at Acre with 8,000 men he took control of the siege to take the city. The English King’s arrival was a major turning point, and under his watchful eye siege operations quickened. A climax of sorts came when Acre’s Maledicta Tower was finally collapsed. Acre’s Maledicta Tower was a huge pile of masonry that dwarfed the Crusaders who gathered at its base trying to bring it down. They pried out stones with picks and bare hands, all the while subjected to arrow fire from above. The work was so hazardous that King Richard offered a reward of two, three and then finally four gold coins for each stone removed. To set an example, Lionheart himself joined the work, manhandling masonry while arrows zipped by his massive frame. Muslim archers even hung from their feet to get a better shot at the them. Acre fell in July 1191, about a month after Richard’s arrival. The Muslims at Acre accepted all of the Christian terms of surrender.

After Acre, Richard decided to march south to Jaffa. Saladin and his army to shadowed the Crusaders, marching on a parallel route to them. The sultan was biding his time, waiting to strike. It was a brutal march through the desert and many of Richard’s troops suffered severe sunstroke. One night at one of their campsites, they found themselves confronted with a new host of enemies. One campsite was alive with “swarms of tarantulas and stinging worms” that crawled under tunics and over legs and inflicted painful bites. In sheer desperation, the men began to raise a clamor by beating on pots, kettles, shields and anything else that could make a noise. The noise seemed to work, driving the spiders away and allowing the Crusaders to get a few hours of rest.

Saladin was unable to goad Richard into a premature attack, so he decided to risk a full-scale battle. The risk was a big one because Richard was by now the greatest military commander of his generation.The Sultan decided he would attack on a coastal plain about two miles wide just north of the town of Arsuf. With approximately 14,000 men, Richard defeated Saladin’s force of 30,000. Drawing his great sword, the King of England led his English and Normans into the fight. The knights had their lances couched under their arms, impaling victims as soon as contact was made. If a lance was shattered, they switched to their swords for close fighting. Fueled by adrenaline and prodigious strength, Richard’s sword did terrible damage. The King’s sword hacked off arms at a single swipe and sliced deeply into torsos as if chain mail were woolen cloth. One chronicler said Richard’s blade chopped  heads “in two from their helmets to their teeth; others lost heads, arms, and other limbs, lopped off at a single blow.” Saladin’s force was utterly routed and had to flee the field.

Richard went on to Jaffa were he seized the city. Saladin regrouped his army and let an assault on Richard and his men. Saladin’s attack was so sudden that Richard’s men did not even have time to properly dress themselves. The king himself and many others had to advance barelegged to battle, some even without underpants. The King, with his small contingent of men, again defeated Saladin’s force after a vicious and bloody fight.

On the return journey Richard was shipwrecked and taken prisoner by Duke Leopold of Austria, whom he had insulted gravely in the early part of the crusade. He was imprisoned in the castle of Durrenstein and held for over a year. England was forced to pay a huge ransom of a hundred and fifty thousand marks for his release.

In 1199, a horde of Roman treasure was discovered by a peasant, near Limoges, and was delivered to his lord, Archard of Chalus. Richard, as overlord, claimed the find as his and when it was not received he besieged Chalus. While Richard was walking around the castle directing the siege, an archer fired a crossbow bolt at him from the castle. The arrow hit him in his left shoulder and while attempting to pull it out, the shaft broke, leaving the iron head in his flesh. A  surgeon eventually succeeded in removing the arrow but made the wound worse and gangrene set in.

The archer was brought before Richard, who forgave him, stating “Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day.” He gave orders that he was to be set free and given a hundred shillings. Richard died in on April 6, 1199. One of Richard’s captains sent the archer to Richard’s youngest sister, Joanna, who had him flayed alive and torn apart by horses.

Richard was a military mastermind, and politically astute in many ways; yet incredibly foolish in others. and unwilling to give way to public opinion. He was capable of great humility as well as great arrogance. He was admired by his rival Saladin and respected by the Emperor Henry, but hated by many who had been his friends, especially King Philip of France. He was often careless of his own safety. The wound which killed him need not have been inflicted at all if he had been properly armored.

1. William Marshall


William Marshal was born in 1147 and lived from the reign of King Stephen through to Henry III. He was born during the anarchy of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda and died after the First Baron’s War and the establishment in 1215 of the Magna Carta. He served five Angevin kings and is arguably responsible for saving the Plantagenet dynasty which would endure for another 250 years.

In his early years, William made a name for himself in tournament competitions. Tournaments in the twelfth century taught men how to fight and prepared them for war. The aim was to capture and ransom your opponent. William excelled at this and became very well known for his performances. He was with his uncle, Earl Patrick of Salisbury, in France, helping put down a rebellion by the de Lusignan family when they were ambushed and his uncle murdered. In a fit of rage, William fought many of his attackers but was taken prisoner. Although badly injured, he survived. Eleanor of Aquitaine ransomed him and sent him to her husband, England’s Henry II, and, more importantly, the household of their 13-year-old son, Henry, the heir apparent.

William was charged with teaching the young Henry the chivalric ways of knighthood. William was so well respected that it was he who knighted the young king-to-be. It was around this time that William made enemies at court. They spread rumors that he had been sleeping with the wife of Henry the young. He refuted the claims but was kicked out of court. Without anyone to serve, William went back to the tournaments and was offered lucrative contracts by powerful men. It was his ability in tournaments that made him desirable. By 1183 Henry II was in another quarrel with his son, and William decided to rejoin the court. He asked permission from Henry to join his son against him, and, surprisingly, Henry allowed it. The king may have hoped that William would use his influence to stop his son’s revolt. However, in 1183, Henry the young King, aged 28, died.

Henry II continued to keep William in his household. He quickly promoted William through his personal ranks into one of his most important advisers. Henry arranged for him to marry a wealthy heiress, Isabel de Clare, who had a vast amount of land in southern Wales and Ireland. He was now the Earl of Pembroke and one of the richest and most powerful men in the western world.

Towards the end of Henry II’s reign, his son, Richard the Lionheart, rebelled against him. While William was helping Henry retreat to safety, he charged at the heir to the throne, Richard, killing his horse from under him. This could have easily gone wrong for William – not only could he have killed the king’s eldest son, he had now attacked the future king, the man he would have to serve and obey to keep his new found status. William could have killed the prince but killed his horse instead, to make that point clear. He is said to have been the only man ever to unhorse Richard.

When Henry died in 1189, William’s friends feared for his safety, The new king, Richard I confronted him about almost killing him. The marshal replied that he did not try to kill him and had struck precisely where he meant to. Fortunately for William, Richard favored loyalty and needed it while he was away on crusade. William helped run the kingdom and oppose the king’s brother, John, who was trying to take the crown for himself. Up until now, William had been a famous knight, a loyal servant, and a medieval police officer among other things. It was during John’s reign however that William’s fortunes rose even higher.

When John became king after Richard’s death, William’s power began to make John suspicious of him. John was harsh towards his barons and began to isolate himself from everyone. King John lost Normandy in 1204 and then was excommunicated by Pope Innocent III. Turmoil ruled the day. William spent most of these years with his family in Ireland. After years of harsh treatment by John and being called a traitor, William Marshal was one of the only men who came to King John’s aid in 1211 when problems with the barons escalated.

King John had no choice but to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. He soon went back on the charter causing a civil war. The rebels invited the Dauphine, Louis, to England to take the throne for himself. In 1216, having lost ground in England, King John died. William Marshal stayed loyal until the end, and, according to the History, John’s final words were of William and his loyal service. William was almost a neutral baron during this period; he never rebelled against his anointed king, but had never identified himself with John’s harsh policies. It was William who King John trusted on his deathbed to make sure John’s nine-year-old son Henry would get the throne. He also took responsibility for the king’s funeral and burial.

The Dauphine Louis and the rebels had control over most of England by this time. He successfully gained the support of many neutral and rebellious barons and led the charge for the King against the rebels and French at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. At the age of 70. The English won the battle and the civil war was won with a victory at sea, sealed by a treaty. On 24 May 1219, aged 72, and at the peak of his career, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent of England, died.

At William Marshal’s eulogy, the Archbishop of Canterbury called him the greatest knight who had ever lived. While his final enemy, Philip II of France, also praised him. He was practically illiterate; and without being able to read and write either French or Latin, the languages of the courts, he still rose to the pinnacle of power. Historians also agree that if William had joined the rebellious barons, King John could easily have lost his throne, and English history would look very different today.



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Rick Mac
Student and author of History. The study of History is the beginning of wisdom.

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