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