6. Godfrey of Bouillon (1060-1100, French)
Best knight-making trait: being the first and best damn crusading knight
Godfrey of Bouillon was originally a nobody, in the sense that he was merely the second son of a minor French count, but it was in fact because of this weak social position that he was able to start his career as a great and famous knight, and I am not even talking about his crusading adventures yet. His family was able to finagle the Duchy of Lorraine for him, which was no small feat, yet instead of defending this wealthy and strategic territory to the last, he showed virtue as a knight by bowing to the wish of the Holy Roman Emperor to exchange the Duchy of Lorraine for a lesser bit of land. Humility and fidelity are knightly virtues, of course, but like so many others on this list he could easily have struck an independent course.
Well, in truth Godfrey did strike an independent course after he was seduced by the calls of Pope Urban II in 1095 for knights to liberate Palestine from the Muslims. So, despite all his family and the Emperor had done for him, Godfrey decided to mortgage and sell all his lands to buy an army for the First Crusade. He was so charismatic, in fact, that his two brothers accompanied him, much to the sadness of their mother. Some chronicles say that he gathered as many as 40,000 men-at-arms for his crusade, which is a huge number for the times, and marched the lot from Lorraine through Hungary to Constantinople. Godfrey gets kudos for being one of the first Frankish knights to reach the Holy Land, and he did quite well for while, helping to define what it was to be a crusader.
Along with bravery and piety, one knightly virtue of Godfrey that sticks out is perseverance. While other crusaders were wimping out because they were hungry, thirsty or homesick, he stayed until the very end. Godfrey’s crowning achievement, literally, was leading the storming of Jerusalem in 1099 and being elected first ruler of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Of course, he and his crusading host had to murder most of the inhabitants, Muslim, Jew and Christian alike, to secure the city, but that did not seem to blemish the good knight’s reputation at the time.
Godfrey then let the newly minted title go to his head, in true knightly fashion, conquering most of Palestine in 1100 and was even able to have his brother Baldwin crowned King of Jerusalem upon his death, thereby establishing a dynasty. One good turn deserved another, considering the old Lorraine situation. Godfrey also possessed the physical attributes of a knight, thus establishing the ideal form – he was tall, strong, well-built, and bearded (the fashion would change, I concede). Godfrey of Bouillon was a trail-blazer, which gives him a well-deserved sixth place on the list.
5. Sir Galahad (5th century, Welsh)
Best knight-making trait: anointed by God to be the greatest knight
Talk about pressure. Galahad was quite literally born for greatness, as his destiny (ascribed by Merlin, I believe) was to become the greatest knight as chosen by God. Sure, we’re talking fictional people here, but the Arthurian heroic cycle was such rich cultural currency that it dominated over all other ballads, and eventually crossed the English Channel to serve as a leading source for some of the most popular chansons de geste in France. That King Arthur and his band of knights are still famous today is testimony to the powerful legacy of those stories. As such, the respective Knights of the Round Table became the earliest archetypes of the ideal knight, or rather various types of ideal knights.
Getting back to Galahad, although he appeared later in the cycle, he was indeed one of the great knights of the round table, as the son of Lancelot, one of the three achievers of the holy grail, and possessed some of the most highly valued virtues of a knight. Galahad was so special that he is knighted by papa-Lancelot himself and is seated in the Siege Perilous, which means that he is the man designated to find the Holy Grail. Lucky him. For added measure he does the sword-in-the-stone trick and is proclaimed by King Arthur himself as the greatest knight. Because he was not real, he cannot rise any higher on this list, but because of his cultural relevance, past and present, and because he satisfies most of the virtues of a medieval knight, he reaches #5.
Galahad mostly quests alone, does chivalrous things, like saving damsels in distress and rescuing fellow knights. He is pious and merciful, but not without character, and he is in all the right places at all the right times, making him the keystone in the arch of the Round Table and he who holds the fate of England in his hands. He gets taken up in the Rapture after a visit by Joseph of Arimathea and seeing the Holy Grail, which is pretty cool, since achieving the Holy Grail is just about the wickedest thing a knight could do. Ultimately, Galahad mirrors and redeems Arthur after the Battle of Tintagel, which is a pretty sweet task, considering that Arthur was the greatest of all English kings.
4. Jean Le Maingre Bouciault (1366-1421, French/Breton)
Best knight-making trait: taking his career as high as it could go
Boucicaut climbed the ladder of knighthood in a classic way, starting off as a page in the court of a great nobleman, being knighted on the eve of a great battle, taking the cross, this time against the eastern European pagans for the Teutonic Order and in Spain, before fighting the English in the Hundred Years War. In 1390, Boucicaut took what was assuredly the most effective and impressive path to becoming a famous knight by dominating the regional fighting tournaments and defeating all comers. This way he not only earned serious cash and got in some good fighting practice, but his tournament victories made his name, which opened the way to higher social circles.
Then, in true knightly fashion, just as he was about to dominate his order, Boucicaut turned his back on all that and became a knight errant, traveling widely and writing poetry in defense of chivalry, as any respectable knight should. The virtue of piety took hold of him again, and when he came back to France his reputation was so sterling that King Philip VI made him Marshal of France, which was about as high as you could go as a knight, short of seizing the throne.
He had the prowess, experience and fortitude of a great leader of men in battle. He was appointed and anointed by the king of France himself in a major cathedral, giving him a sacred aura. Boucicaut was always at the right place at the right time. He fought and was captured at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, ransomed and eventually founded a chivalric order based on courtly love, and he commanded the vanguard at the defeat at Agincourt in 1415, was again captured, but died in Yorkshire as a prisoner. All that – top of the class, anointed by the king, fighting the infidel, contributing to courtly culture, becoming very famous for good things – makes Boucicaut an easy #4 on this list.