The image of the knight holds a particular fascination in the modern imagination as the embodiment of the independent warrior, privileged member of society, romantic adventurer, backbone of medieval armies, and a station notionally accessible by the lowest classes through dutiful service and hard work. He is at once the hero and the underdog, with knighthood as a reward for valor. The connection between past and present is unbroken by the ongoing practice of knighthood, as least in the United Kingdom, which remains the source of great European stories about medieval knighthood.
For the purpose of this list, I use the conventional era delineations made by contemporary historians for the Middle Ages. I searched for great knights starting from the death rattle of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century and ending with the military revolution of the 16th century, which signified the rise of national armies and the decline of ranks of knights as the physical and moral core of European field armies. This list does not restrict itself to genuine historical figures, since the fictional creations of knighthood greatly impacted the theory and practice of chivalry and knighthood. To assess the greatness of medieval knights, I use several criteria: fame, historical impact, reflection of chivalric virtues.
The 7 knightly virtues: courage, justice, mercy, generosity, faith, nobility, hope
The order of knighthood started out as a military ethos, whereby a man-at-arms would pledge his sword and loyalty to a lord of higher standing in exchange for land, protection and privileges. The service element was paramount, since in the absence of central authority and rule of law, and in lands deprived of large urban centers, a warrior community bound by oaths of fealty was the most effective means of social cohesion. A knight had to show prowess by deeds of arms. A knight had to demonstrate fidelity to his lord. A knight had to be companionable to illustrate that he was a man of character who could command the allegiance of friends and followers. A great knight also had to foster not only a reputation of near invulnerability, but he also had to leave behind a legacy of greatness, a myth and legend of his deeds.
I omit kings from the list, with one exception, which I explain. In exchange, I offer an eleventh great knight. While kings were knights, they were rulers first, which meant that they had other duties. Also, picking kings is too easy.
11. Ulrich von Liechtenstein (1200-1278, German)
Best knight-making trait: narcissism
I include this lesser known fellow as my #11 for two reasons: I needed a knight from Germany to balance the others and his name was used disingenuously in a historical rom-com starring the guy who played The Joker. I am doing Ulrich an injustice, for he was in fact an exemplary knight in the Western chivalric tradition. He started off as a nobody from impoverished minor nobility in an obscure part of Germany, rising from court page and squire in a respectable household to full knight with a landed estate. Through pluck and perseverance, as well as a strong sword-hand, he made his money and won his spurs at tournaments – a lot of them, which was an established method of social advancement for up-and-coming knights. So far, so standard. However, Ulrich successfully promoted himself as a great tournament figure also, and with his famous name and buckets of money was able to quickly move up the social ladder, even though he never distinguished himself in actual battle or married especially well.
His true distinction that gets Ulrich on this list, however, lies in his place as a specifically German knight, since Ulrich was a master of the uniquely Germanic form of traditional song and lyric called the Minnesang. The minnesingers were similar to the troubadours in France and bards in England, singing about courtly love and great deeds of prowess. Ulrich won additional fame for writing a cycle of Minnesand called “Service of the Lady” (it’s just one word in German), which brought the hero all the way round to King Arthur and the Round Table, suggesting that Ulrich was well-read as well as creative. And in true knightly fashion he pushed his luck to the limit, as Ulrich was arrogant enough to claim that all the great stories he was writing were not only true, including the wooing of many women and the breaking of 307 lances in a tournament, they were also all done by himself! He was a living legend, but died quietly on his estate and ultimately had little direct impact on the politics of the day. Therefore, while he serves as an excellent introduction to knighthood and chivalry, he will have to bring up the rear on the list of greatest knights of all time.
10. Don Quixote (c.1600, Spanish)
Best knight-making trait: self-delusion, or persistence
Oh sure, I’m pushing the limits here with the era of Don Quixote, but what is worse is that even within Cervantes’ creation he was not a true knight at all. Well, that might be why Don Quixote is #10 on the list, but I argue for inclusion based on its literary impact and brutal sarcasm about the whole institution of chivalry. No one comes off well in this novel, and being a knight is partly a dream or fantasy anyway, so I will use that weak argument to buttress my claim. Culture is in the mind, people! And so…
… narrated by a Moorish chronicler, the novel shows Quixote as a deluded old man so obsessed by the idea of chivalry that he sets out in search of adventure, since he has become bored by home. The story resembles that of El Cid, the great genuine Spanish knight, not surprisingly, with the horse, damsel in distress, the setting and rollicking adventure in the dusty Andalusian countryside. The jokes come fast and furious: he is dubbed a knight by an innkeeper, saves a peasant boy, mistakes a milkmaid for a great lady, has a duplicitous squire to serve him, and suffers for his quest. Like many knights, he is not concerned with money, picks fights all the time, and meets all sorts of characters. In the end, Quixote recovers his sanity and renounces is previous life, as it is clear that chivalry is dead and the world no longer respects and honorable knight. He then dies.
The form of the novel departs from the medieval conventions of the romance, which is also part of the joke, although reading it is nothing less than torture. You’re welcome.
9. Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376, English, sort of)
Best knight-making trait: winning great battles
Edward gets the nod for only #9 because he was born into privilege at the height of chivalric culture, which made his ascendency to great knight status a bit too easy. As the eldest son of King Edward III, who founded the highest English chivalric prize, the Order of the Garter, and, therefore, Prince of Wales, Edward had big-time warrior written all over him. He was strong and determined, of course, and was fortunate to win his spurs fighting his father’s wars in France, which was no mean feat since the French were more numerous, wealthier, better trained, and better equipped than the English as a whole. Against the odds, he led his father’s armies and won crushing victories that are amongst the most famous of the Middle Ages – Crècy and Poitiers, for which he was justly celebrated in his own day. For this, King Edward made the young Edward the first Knight of the Garter.
Off the battlefield he grew famous for his personal life, marrying Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, who made their court one of the most brilliant in Europe, thereby glorifying the prince and burnishing his credentials as a well-rounded knight. Edward displayed many of the virtues of chivalry, including piety and generosity, as he treated the captured King John of France very well after Poitiers, although he thought nothing of liquidating the rank and file of his defeated army. In fact, he displayed all the arrogance of his station too, lording it over the common folk and showing more concern for his own standing and that of England.
Edward was a great student of war, and it was because of his pragmatism and innovative in tactics, as opposed to the French knights’ adherence to traditional strategies, that allowed him to become a successful military leader. And like a true knight, he soon felt that France and England were too small for him, and that he had to make his fame elsewhere, so to that end he intrigued and campaigned abroad in Spain, although he ultimately failed to have his way there. On the negative side, the Black Prince never took the cross to fight the infidel, unlike several other exemplary knights on this list, did not pen verses, and spent little time engaged in courtly love.
A side note: The ‘black’ in Black Prince could have come from several sources, including armor color, spirit, mother’s ancestry, and/or temper.
8. Jacques de Molay (1244-1314, French)
Best knight-making trait: leading the greatest crusading order
Jacques de Molay was the last grand master of the Templars, and until about ten years ago that would not have been enough to make him a candidate for great knight status, but because a certain piece of pulp fiction, his ashes have been stirred up enough to form a cloud of fascination. So, what made Jacques a great knight? Of course, being elected CEO of the most powerful crusading order in Christendom merits some attention, so he must have displayed certain traits of knighthood, since they were so vital to the ethos of the Templars. Jacques started life on the well-trodden path to knighthood, winning his spurs in battle at the age of 21, but to celebrate this achievement the young Jacques went on crusade to the Holy Land. However, this was late in the day for the crusading movement, so all he could do was follow the crusaders’ retreat to Cyprus after the fall of Acre in 1291 instead of skewering Muslims. But this played into the career of Molay, because it was in Cyprus that his reputation as a respected and pious knight led him to be elected Grand Master of the Templars, who were now based on the island.
It was a grand master that Molay displayed his true prowess, not as a warlord or lady-killer, but as an able administrator and effective promoter of all things Templar. This is why Molay can only be offered sixth place on the list. He inaugurated reforms in the order that made it more business-like, established a network of Templar branches throughout Europe, where they engaged in the less than knightly business of usury and trade, and solicited attempts for a new crusade amongst the monarchs of Europe. The culmination of these efforts was an assault against the Mamelukes of Egypt in 1300, but the Templar bridgehead was not supported, and so was lost.
Tired of always losing in war, Molay had the Templars win in banking, after re-establishing the order in France, it began to so dominate the economy that the order aroused the worry and suspicion of the king, Philip IV. Another in the regular cycle of struggles for the French throne was all the excuse Philip needed to take out his rival. Molay foolishly backed the wrong pretender, and so he was arrested in Paris in 1307 not only for treason, but as a convenient means of liquidating the royal debts, since Philip took all the Templar money too. The wily Jacques was not about to relinquish power so easily, however, and so he defended his independence as a knight and swore devotion to the Church to the very end.
Pope Clement V actually exonerated Molay in 1308, since his guilt was based on nasty rumors and hearsay, but the document was suppressed. Bad luck. He died a martyr’s death by being burned at the stake for heresy and other crimes. His and his order’s names live on as a band of mysterious knights gone bad, and with buried treasure to boot. They might also have had something to do with the last Scion, but – ooh! – we’re out of time.
7. Chaucer’s knight (c.1400, English)
Best knight-making trait: being a walking stereotype, but one based on a real knight
The late medieval image of the knight as a man out of step with the times yet greatly respected comes from Geoffrey Chaucer, the late 14th century English writer. His knight’s tale (the knight has no name apparently) was written to reflect and to a lesser degree mock the traditional virtues of chivalry, such as honor, good conduct, courtly love, and piety. He makes it to #7 on the list because he is a walking stereotype very much living the great virtues of knighthood. The character also was based on the author’s own memory of the mercenary John Hawkwood, who was ennobled but originally of yeoman stock in Essex.
The knight’s tale itself mixes classical references with lessons in chivalry, like negotiating the perils of brotherly discord or hopeless love, although in the end Fate intervenes to allow a happy ending. The knight himself is pleasant but colorless, suggesting his diminished role in English society, or that he is simply an ideal. He is widely traveled and has become famous through deeds of arms; however, he is now pious and at the end of his career, so he wants to pay homage to the Lord by trekking to Canterbury. And it’s a nice trek, through the Fair Maid of Kent’s lands. I cannot place him any higher because he was not a true flesh and blood knight, but because Don Quixote had his origins in him (#10), Chaucer’s knight has to be ranked higher than the old Spanish guy.