Top 10 (plus one) Knights in European History

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3. Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199, English, sort of)

Richard the Lionheart

Best knight-making trait: defending the faith

Normally I would not include a king on this list, but if I had to choose one, it would be Richard I of England, for the reason that not only did he display the virtues of a medieval knight in outstanding fashion, he spent far more time playing one than actually ruling his kingdom. He was respected by peer and enemy alike, devoted time to crusading as an ideal as opposed to simple conquest. He was in the saddle from early youth and successfully led men-at-arms of all nations, inspiring love and devotion in the ranks. He is one of few kings to be referred to by his epithet – Lionheart, which reflects his prowess and passion as a knight rather than any justice or majesty as a king.

However, going against him to some degree is his provenance, since unlike some of the other great knights of the age, he was not a self-made knight. Quite the opposite, as Richard was the son of the most famous couple of the times: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. However, he rebelled against his lord and father, which falls among the attributes of a knight errant, although it was bad form from a chivalric point of view. He consciously accepted and practiced most of the values of chivalry, from writing poetry, which was one of the key lessons for a well-rounded knight, and was physically prepossessing, being very tall, so he looked every inch a knight. Richard spent most of his time in France, in the heart of the medieval knighthood, and it was there that he rebelled against his father in 1174, lost, begged forgiveness, and was made a knight by France’s Louis VII just to annoy his rival Henry II. During his suppression of the French barons, Richard acquired his epithet and enjoyed great battlefield success.

Bored by constant victory, in fear of his father and inspired by the piety of the age, he forsook attaining titles and thrones and instead took that cross to fight on the Third Crusade. He renounced his wickedness and spent loads of money on a crusader army – generosity of silver and spirit – in an extreme expression of the chivalric virtue of defending the faith. Under the asset column of the chivalric virtue of defending women, Richard occupied the Kingdom Sicily for the sake of his sister, who was being cheated out of her inheritance. In contemporary chronicles, Richard the Lionheart was said to be more concerned with victory than conquest and was generally a bad king. He won Cyprus to defend his own army and then gave it to the Knights Templar, which made him famous and proves his knightly spirit rather than any kingly wisdom. After their victory over the Muslims at Acre, he quarreled with King Philip of France and Leopold of Austria, defeated the most successful military leader of the Muslims, Saladin, and negotiated the previously blocked access of pilgrims to Jerusalem in 1192.

Sadly, owing to his arrogance and recklessness, Richard was captured and imprisoned by Leopold, whom he had insulted at Acre, refused to show proper deference to the Emperor, and was defiant to the end, which was a slow death in prison. In the meantime, he wrote songs and letters to his sister. Richard built great castles to his tastes, while supernatural events were attributed to his projects. Add this up and we get #3 on the list.

2. El Cid, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043-1099, Spanish)

El Cid, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar

Best knight-making trait: fierce independence

Starting with his nickname, El Cid roughly translated means ‘the master’, which is enough to get a knight into just about any court on either side of the Christian-Muslim divide, which, not surprisingly, ‘the master’ did. He fails on the loyalty aspect of the virtues of knighthood, but El Cid more than made up for this with superior battlefield skills, so much so that even his own king forgave him in the end for constantly switching sides. He was a champion, literally, which was another one of his nicknames, and emerged at the main field commander of the monarch of the most powerful of the numerous Christian Spanish kingdoms.

As testament to the contemporary belief of El Cid as the embodiment of Spanish chivalry, minstrels composed ballads about him and his deeds in battle and in defending the church. He became a popular hero as well, which was unusual for a knight, since the nobility had a habit of ruthlessly exploiting the peasants who actually did all the work of the nobility’s estates.


The young Rodrigo started off with relatively humble origins. His family was close to the court in Castile, but mainly as parchment-pushers and regular old knights. However, young Rodrigo was able to make his mark in the best way: by defeating an Aragonese knight in one-on-one combat in front of his peers. He then fought in a few of the battles with the Moors, who ruled southern Spain, and demonstrated his prowess so well that he was steadily promoted. Then he got arrogant, which was in the best tradition of knighthood, and took it upon himself to attack whomever he pleased, whether King Alfonso liked it or not. So, the king exiled him for disobedience and stripped El Cid of his titles. Did ‘the master’ beg forgiveness? Did the champion abase himself and pay homage to his lord, as he should have? No, Rodrigo went rogue and become an independent knight for hire. While El Cid’s name is synonymous with victory over the Moors in Spain, in truth he offered his service to Spanish and Moor alike, eventually commanding as Master of Armies in Zaragoza.

After several years of successfully leading Moorish forces against Christians, other Moors and Berbers, Alfonso of Castile recalled the greatest knight in the land just because he was so damned good! By this time, you would think that having the top king in the land begging you to return to court would be the crowning achievement of a knight. However, El Cid essentially told the king that he could create his own kingdom and so not have to bother with homage and fealty and the like. So, in the 1090s El Cid strove to carve out a personal fiefdom with a private army of knights, besieging Valencia and eventually taking the city, albeit technically in the name of King Alfonso. The Moors asked for the city back, but El Cid had trouble answering on account of his having died suddenly, so his clever wife, who was very devoted to her husband, realized that even in death El Cid could command an army, so she propped up his corpse on the walls of Valencia to inspire the troops under siege.

El Cid was famous for the other essential attributes of a knight: his horse and his sword. Babieca the warhorse has her own legends, while his great Cordoba steel sword, Tizona, is famous for its strength. El Cid was no dummy either. He read as much as he could about warfare, including works by Latin and Greek authors. He married well to a beautiful woman and ensured that his daughters married into Spanish royalty.

1. William Marshal (1146-1219, English)

William Marshal

Best knight-making trait: serious ass-kicking at tournaments

William Marshal is the greatest knight of the middle ages because he satisfied all the virtues of knighthood despite the odds against him. He was immensely skillful with all sorts of arms; was loyal to his lord; defended the faith gallantly; won the favor of a great woman; was the most famous knight of his times and thereafter; was respected, diplomatic and merciful. He made his mark kicking the steel pants of all comers at the many tournaments held during his day, and that didn’t mean he won crummy trophies; no, he literally kicked ass and took names – so that he could ransom those defeated knights with their families. Aside from actual battle, the tournament was the one place a knight could enjoy combat, be seen by his betters, and display his prowess. And with the money William bought better arms and land, on top of gaining prestige.

Sent at a young age to a relative in France for learnin’, as was custom, the young William quickly mastered the martial skills needed by a knight of the high Middle Ages. His reputation as a man amongst men spread, and he found favor with the most remarkable woman of the day, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who ransomed him at one point, and found his way into the court of the English King Henry II as companion and minder of his eldest son, Henry the Younger. He then found the time to manage tournaments, fight in rebellions, go on Crusade, and ultimately be rewarded with large estates in England by the hand of King Henry himself. In fact, he was such a man’s knight that it all went to his head, and he founded his own army of knights, attracting the fear and jealousy of the king himself. Yet despite this bold and reckless move, he was able to hold his place and even found time to marry well, the 17-year old daughter of the Earl of Pembroke – at the age of 43. Don’t frown – he was very young at heart!

He served Richard the Lionheart as marshal and regent during his long absence from England, and not only added to his own estates, he found time to improve them as well. The only serious blemish on William’s record occurred, not surprisingly, during his service with the sad King John of Robin Hood fame, when he decided to pay homage to the king of France, which was understandable. But John hated everybody, so William had to flee to Ireland, returning only after paying homage to his ‘first’ king. Then, like a true knight by showing fidelity to his lord, William led the royal army in the final barons’ war in England, which reinforced the authority of the king and made him even more rich and famous. When the Archbishop of Canterbury says that you are the greatest knight of all time, which he did, the odds are that you are.

He was again made regent for the young King Henry III upon John’s death. Even at the age of 70, such was his physical and moral strength that he was able to lead the royal army against France and dictate the terms of peace. He reissued the Magna Carta, even though the barons were defeated, organized a successor regency and ensured the orderly transition of his own estates to his sons. He had the prestige to keep the king on the throne and was one of few knights to have a biography commissioned in his honor soon after his death. Bill is #1!

Evan Ostryzniuk is the author of the historical novel Of Faith and Fidelity: Geoffrey Hotspur and the War for St. Peter’s Throne (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2011). He has a PhD from Cambridge University and can be found at: www.evanostryzniuk.com


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21 Comments

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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.