Top 10 (plus one) Knights in European History


6. Godfrey of Bouillon (1060-1100, French)

Godfrey of Bouillon

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)

Sir Galahad

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)

Jean Le Maingre Bouciault

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.

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  2. Geoffrey Tobin on

    There are many contenders for this title, but I humbly submit Count Alan Rufus (c. 1040-1093), a male-line descendant of the famous Counts of Vannes in Brittany.

    Alan’s feats include orchestrating the feints and cavalry charges that won the day at Hastings, and saving the prone William the Conqueror’s life from Harold’s brother Gyrth (for which he was awarded 28 manors that had been Gyrth’s, the same number that the King took for himself). The Conqueror’s chaplain William of Poitiers didn’t mention this, because (1) he was in Normandy at the time, (2) his purpose was to inflate the king’s ego, and (3) he hated Bretons.

    In every rebellion that wracked Norman England, Alan loyally supported the King and won many victories against the English, his fellow Bretons and Normans alike.

    At the commencement of the Siege of Sainte Suzanne in about 1083 during the campaign to reconquer Maine, King William became distracted by important matters elsewhere and left Alan with orders to continue the siege with some 200 troops of the royal household against 300 defenders in the impregnable castle. Alan’s men were beset by ambitious knights from all over France (“from Aquitaine to Burgundy”) who rushed to Sainte Suzanne to prove their mettle. Disgracefully, King William left his most loyal soldiers to fend for themselves in this impossible situation for three (3) years!

    After many of William’s best knights had perished, the siege was resolved diplomatically. Alan returned to England, where he was one of the prime movers behind the Domesday survey – his name appears prominently on every surviving document to do with it – except Exeter Domesday where Alan was likely a Commissioner. The Great Domesday Book was written by a scribe employed by William de St-Calais, the Bishop of Durham, who was one of Alan’s tenants.

    Alan firmly excluded Normans from his lands in northern England, and before William’s last expedition against France, he brought the King up to York to apologise in person for the harm the Normans had done in 1068, 1069, 1070 and 1080.

    After William II succeeded to the throne of England, Alan persuaded him to bring the royal court to York to witness the foundation of St Mary’s Abbey, which he had devised as a gesture of goodwill to the English and a statement of Norman remorse. Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the most rapacious of Normans, reacted by leading most of the Norman barons, including all of the strongest and richest ones, in a nationwide revolt to depose the King in favour of his brother Robert “Curthose”, Duke of Normandy. They ravaged the royal estates and soon had the King bottled up near London. Alan responded by sweeping through the eastern counties, defeating baron after baron until he reached the king. He then advised the king to call on the English to rise up, in return for better laws and reduced, fairer taxes (similar to the ones that Alan had already instituted on his own lands). William II was not popular with the Bishops, but Alan was, so the English church also answered the call. After a series of hard battles and sieges, and the capture of a fleet from Normandy, the rebels were all defeated, and Alan emerged as the most powerful man in England. Despite the obvious advantages in taking all the rebels’ lands, Alan urged clemency and the reinstatement of all except Bishop Odo, whose death sentence was commuted to exile for life.

    St-Calais had abandoned the royal army in its bleakest hour, to defend his own lands, so when the dust settled Alan was sent up to arrest him. At court, however, Alan, true to his other vocation as an eminent lawyer, defended the St-Calais’s right to a fair trial and warned William II not to intimidate witnesses, otherwise “I would believe myself obliged to cease all service to the King”. After months of deliberation, William II finally agreed to Alan escorting St-Calais to Southampton to take ship for exile in Normandy. This was a clever idea, because St-Calais contended with Bishop Odo for influence, thus confounding Duke Robert’s plans.

    St-Calais did so well that William II invaded Normandy in 1091 and restored him to his previous titles and lands. For Alan excelled at diplomacy as well as military tactics and strategy.

    Alan founded the great medieval port of Boston in Lincolnshire, from which Boston in Massachusetts was founded.

    Alan died on 4 August 1093, perhaps in the London conflagration of that summer. The Roman road from London to York, Ermine Street – ermine being the symbol of Brittany – is named literally in his honour: the vast collection of estates collectively known as the Honour of Brittany. His Breton name was “Alan ar-Rouz”, so he is remembered in the motto of the Dukes of Richmond, “I flourish in the rose”, and also in the coat-of-arms of the University of Cambridge which bears a cross of ermine . It’s from Cambridge that Harvard University was founded.

    Several of the other contenders for “greatest knight” owe Alan a great debt. For example William Marshal was trained and knighted by William de Tancarville, a grandson of Count Stephen, who was Alan’s youngest brother and heir to his estates.

  3. Thormod Morrisson on

    I find it hard to believe that Robert the Bruce is not in this list, as he was recognised even by his enemies as ‘the foremost knight in Christendom.’

  4. Zawisza Czarny z Garbowa (Zawisza the Black of Garbów, also known as the Black Knight; c. 1379 in Stary Garbów, Poland – 1428 in Golubac, Serbian Despotate), Sulima Coat of Arms, was a Polish knight and nobleman. He served as a soldier and diplomat under the Polish king W?adys?aw II and Hungarian-Bohemian king Sigismund of Luxembourg. During his life, he was regarded as a model of knightly virtues and was renowned for winning multiple tournaments. His nickname is due to his black hair and his custom-made, black armor, which is kept at the Jasna Góra Monastery.

  5. Instead of mentioning fictional characters, you could have filled out this list with at least two of the Sires DeCoucy, Enguerrand the III and Raoul the I

  6. Your information on Richard the Lionheart is wayyyyyy off.
    He was king when he left on the crusade
    He was captured and ransomed for an astronomical fortune by Leopold
    He returned to England as King. But died not long after, as others pointed out after being shot by a crossbow bolt during the siege of a relatively minor castle in Northern France (most of which was occupied by the English at the time).

    This is all very common knowledge.

    I’m baffled where you go the idea he went on crusade due to fear or his father or the dying in captivity part!

  7. Just a little correction and some information. The Chevalier Bayard name was Pierre Terail. He was born in 1476 and was killed in battle in 1524. He fought in many battles and was considered to be among the most ‘Truly Chivalrous’ of Knights. He was so well renowned that the King of France, request that he receive his own Knighthood from this most gallant Knight. He was known as ‘The Knight without Fear and above Reproach.’ However, he himself preferred the more humble title of simply, Le bon Chevalier or ‘The Good Knight.’

  8. In my opinion, one of the greatest Knights who ever lived was ‘The Chevalier Bayard, (Pierre Turrail). He did not make your list. He was a real Knight and was considered to be one of the last ‘True Knights.’ If you do just a little bit of reaearch on his life, I think that you will find it as fascinating as I did. As far as I am concerned, he ranks right up there with ‘ Sir William Marshal.’

  9. You omitted the greatest knight of all–Jean Parisot de la Valette who in 15 65 as Grand Master of the Kingts Hospitaller sucessfully fought off the Turkish siege of Malta against a force of almost 50,000 with about 6,000, many of whom were civilians. Valletta the capital of Malta is named for him. Valette was 70 years at the time.

    • They do that all of the time. He could have filled out the list with actual people instead of tossing in fictional ones.

  10. I have to say, this article wasa extremely well written…a nice change of pace on the Internet. I ran across it while suring. Very interesting.

    I thought the Lionheart died from a crossbow wound too?

    Dr. Ostryzniuk, if you read this, can you clear that up?

    • I’m not the man you requested, but it is WELL hystorically documented he died from a (arrow/crossbow?) to the chest while surveying a besiged fort. He was well known to “lead from the front” and frequently surveyed the front of sieges to moralize his men. On his death beath, he pardoned the peasant who shot him from execution, who was later killed anyway. This is all easily googled and documented. I really enjoyed this article, but the bewilderingly innaccurate information for Richard has forced me to now question all I read on these awesome sites lol

  11. Richard the Lionheart died in battle due to an arrow from an average peasant… he did NOT die a captive…

    • A child nonetheless! Also, he was extremely reckless and not at all that honorable.