When we evoke the Middle Ages, images of fortified castles, mighty kings, and great knights in armor immediately come to mind. In the collective imagination, knights, whether real or fictitious, represent superheroes of the Middle Ages. They jousted in their shiny armor, wearing a token of their damsel’s love. Kings, lords, and popes granted the title of knighthood to men appointed to serve as mounted warriors. At first, a simple function, knighthood became a lower nobility title during the High Middle Ages. Along with the development of chivalry in literature, medieval knights became more than simple warriors. The chivalry ideal implied following a code of conduct, serving one’s lord and king, showing bravery, being pious, and sometimes rescuing the damsel in distress.
Legacy Of Medieval Knights
Knights still fascinate today. Countless tales, novels, and movies exalt these fearless warriors with an impeccable moral. We will not evoke legendary knights such as the famous King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. Instead, read along to discover more about great medieval knights who really existed. Sometimes history blends with the legend. The knight’s impressive achievements have been told and written for centuries, with added embellishments. Yet, it does not diminish their remarkable feats.
1. Rodrigo Díaz De Vivar: Also Known As El Cid Campeador
Perhaps you do not know this famous knight by his birth name, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, but by his nickname, El Cid or El Campeador. Díaz distinguished himself during the Reconquista: the Christian reconquest of lands ruled by Arab-Berber populations in the Iberic peninsula.
Rodrigo was born around 1043. He grew up in the village of Vivar, near Burgos, in the Kingdom of Castile, in today’s Spain. Rodrigo was part of the lower nobility and a knight at Sancho II’s service, King of Castile. A brave and skillful fighter, the knight became one of the king’s captains. Rodrigo earned the nickname El Campeador which means, in Old Spanish, the “Master of the battlefield.” For several years, Rodrigo served Sancho II, and later the king’s brother and former rival, Alfonso VI.
Rodrigo’s life took an unexpected turn in 1081 when he angered Alfonso, who banned him from the kingdom. The knight put his sword, named Tizona, to the service of al-Mu’taman Billah, ruler of the Taifa of Zaragoza (North-East Spanish territories), joining Alfonso’s enemies. During this time with the Moors, Rodrigo got another moniker, El Cid. It is an adaptation of the word سيد, meaning “the Lord” in Arabic. El Cid reintegrated Alfonso VI’s army a few years later, but the king banned him again in 1088.
El Cid is known for his military achievements but also his legendary tragic love story with Jimena Díaz. Jimena Díaz did exist; she was king Alfonso VI’s niece. She married El Cid around 1074-76. The knight’s legend inspired many authors, including medieval Spanish priest Tomás Antonio Sánchez or French tragedian Pierre Corneille. The latter played a significant part in El Cid’s fame. In 1637, Corneille created the famous play, Le Cid. El Cid’s legend inspired Corneille to imagine the tragic love story of a noblewoman and the knight who killed her father.
From his death in 1099 onwards, El Cid’s legend grew, and the medieval knight soon became one of the Spanish nation’s heroes.
2. Godfrey Of Bouillon: The First Crusader
Godfrey of Bouillon represents the ideal medieval knight defending Christianity’s interests. He is the perfect representation of the dauntless, pious knight. Though a historical character, the story told about Godfrey of Bouillon heightened the knight’s noble qualities, making him the archetype of crusaders. Crusaders had to be driven by faith only, be fearless, and trust their mission’s merit.
Godfrey (or Godefroy in French) of Bouillon was probably born around 1058 in a noble family. His father, Eustace II, Count of Boulogne, had powerful connections and fought alongside William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England. As a second son, Godfrey of Bouillon was not destined to inherit his father’s title and lands. His uncle, Godfrey VI, also known as the Hunchback, oversaw his military education. As he was the Duke of Lower Lorraine and had no heirs, Godfrey VI bequeathed young Godfrey his lands and title. He became the ruler of a vast duchy, made of rich lands and spreading over a large part of what is now Belgium. Godfrey took the name after one of his estates, Bouillon castle (Southern Belgium).
In 1095, Pope Urban II urged rulers and nobles to fight for the Holy Land, threatened by Islamic Seljuk Empire. The pope’s plea led to the First Crusade. Few noblemen decided to fight for Jerusalem, the Holy City. Godfrey of Bouillon was one of them. He gave up his lands and castle to lead the First Crusade.
After a three-year journey full of dangers, Godfrey and his men reached Jerusalem in June 1099. Thanks to war machines and daring knights, the Holy City did not resist long. Godfrey of Bouillon was the first to climb the fortified walls and enter the city of Jerusalem. Witnesses of the time, such as Tancred Prince of Galilee, reported his remarkable feat. The knight’s righteous conduct and his combat skills impressed; he even cut an enemy in two. As the leading figure of the first crusade, Godfrey was chosen to be the first King of Jerusalem. Putting his faith forward, Godfrey refused the crown and preferred to become Protector of the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Jesus. He considered the Holy Land as part of the Church, and he could only be its governor.
Godfrey of Bouillon died only a year after the conquest of Jerusalem. The cause of death is unclear; some think he ate a poisoned apple or suffered from a fever. Upon his death, Godfrey of Bouillon immediately joined the legend and was remembered as one of the greatest medieval knights.
3. William Marshal: England’s Greatest Medieval Knight
William Marshal is known as England’s greatest knight. Born in a lower nobility family, William became a great and loyal warrior who served five Kings of England. William Marshal is one of the greatest heroes of the Middle Ages and in British history.
Born around 1146, William Marshal began his training as a knight at the age of twelve. He carried his career on as a knight-errant, as described in chivalric literature. He traveled from place to place in search of adventures or tournaments. Marshal soon became a famous knight, and chroniclers recounted his numerous victories, spreading the tale of the chivalrous medieval knight.
After several years as a knight-errant, William served Henry II, and the four following kings of England. In gratitude for his devoted service to the kingdom, the king arranged the knight’s wedding with Isabel de Clare, one of the wealthiest heiresses, granting him lands and a large fortune. In 1215, Marshal helped king John make peace with rebellious barons, leading to the Magna Carta‘s establishment. The knight even endorsed the role of protector of young King Henry III and regent of the nation. William Marshal died aged 72, incredibly old for the Middle Ages.
4. William Wallace: The Famous Scottish Knight
You surely already have heard the name of this great Scottish knight: William Wallace. His military achievements and rebellion against the English inspired many literary works and a famous movie of the 90s.
Born in Scotland around 1270, we do not know much about William’s early life. Unlike other knights, he was even an outlaw for having killed William Heselrig, the English sheriff of Lanark. Wallace acted to avenge Marion Braidfute’s murder, who was Wallace’s assumed wife. The attack at Lanark, in May 1297, marked the beginning of William Wallace’s involvement in the First War of Scottish Independence.
Several Lords, including Robert the Bruce, the future King of Scots, joined Wallace’s rebellion. Only three months later, in August 1297, William Wallace and his allies besieged the city of Dundee, in the east of Scotland.
In Stirling, the tough knight demonstrated his military skills. William Wallace and esquire Andrew Moray won the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11, 1297. Though vastly outnumbered, Wallace and his army defeated the English troops. Their tactic consisted of letting the English soldiers cross the narrow bridge of Stirling, leaving the Scotts the time to fight them in smaller groups. Today, Sterling hosts several monuments to celebrate Wallace’s glory.
After this great victory, Wallace endorsed the role of “Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland.” However, he occupied this function only for a few years. In 1305, John de Menteith, another Scottish knight, betrayed Wallace by turning him over to the English. William Wallace was tried and tortured, elevating the great knight to martyrdom. The knight represents a hero of the Scottish nation.
5. Robert The Bruce: The Knight Who Became King Of Scotland
Another great Scottish knight, comrade-in-arms with William Wallace, was Robert the Bruce. At first an ally of Edward I, King of England, Robert changed sides and fought against the English. Ultimately, Robert the Bruce became King of Scotland.
Bruce was the grandson of the 5th Lord of Annandale. Robert’s grandfather had been one of the claimants for Scotland’s crown in the 1290s. Edward I, King of England, had been asked to arbitrate Scotland’s granting to one of the claimants. Yet, Edward seized the opportunity to gain control over Scotland by declaring the overlordship over Scotland.
In 1297, Robert the Bruce joined William Wallace’s rebellion against King Edward and took over the role of “Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland” after Wallace’s resignation. He occupied the position alongside John Comyn; a rival Robert murdered a few years later. Upon his father’s death, Robert claimed his rights to the throne. Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scots on March 25, 1306. He ruled over Scotland until he died in 1329.
Though having suffered several defeats on the battlefield against the English troops, he never gave up. According to the legend, while hiding in a cave after the murder of John Comyn, Robert noticed a spider spinning a web. Time and time again, the insect tried to anchor the web to the cave’s walls and failed. The spider finally succeeded, and Robert the Bruce saw that as an omen and decided never to give up the fight. Alongside William Wallace, Robert the Bruce is another hero of the Scottish nation.
6. Richard The Lionheart: Middle Ages Warrior King
Richard the Lionheart is famous for his role in the legend of Robin Hood. Though this story is fictional, Richard the Lionheart is a Middle Ages historical figure who lived in the second half of the 12th century.
Son of Henry II, Richard I was king of England between 1189 and 1199. He earned the nickname “The Lionheart” (Richard Cœur de Lion, as known by the Normans) because of his military skills and reputation as a great knight. At the age of sixteen, he already led his own army and achieved military successes. Richard the Lionheart was one of the Third Crusade leaders, opposing Christian rulers, and Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty.
Despite being the King of England, Richard spent most of his life abroad. He lived for several years in the Duchy of Aquitaine, France, where he probably learned to speak French. After becoming king, he devoted his time to fight for the glory of England and Christianity. Richard the Lionheart died on a battlefield in France, hit by a crossbow to the shoulder. The knight’s remains were buried in France: his body next to his father’s tomb, at Fontevraud Abbey, Anjou, his bowels in the castle of Châlus-Chabrol, while his heart rests in Rouen’s cathedral, Normandy. The custom of “dilaceratio corporis,” the division of the heart, bowels, and bones in different burial places, was common practice for the burial of knights or crusaders, who died far away from their homeland.
Richard the Lionheart’s military achievements and bravery inspired many storytellers and troubadours. While he was still alive, chroniclers sang the praises of the fearless medieval knight. Richard encouraged troubadour and artists and was supposedly a poet himself.
7. Bertrand Du Guesclin: The Eagle Of Brittany
Bertrand du Guesclin certainly is one of France’s greatest knights. Du Guesclin played a significant role during the Hundred Years’ War, opposing England and France’s ruling families for over a century. This period represents the peak of chivalry in the Middle Ages and the start of its downfall.
Born around 1320, Bertrand du Guesclin was the first son of a Breton nobleman, Robert II du Guesclin. Far from the romantic image of the handsome knight, Bertrand had an unattractive physique. Johannes Cuvelier, a troubadour of the second half of the 14th century, described de Guesclin as “the ugliest child” of the region. Young Bertrand, unloved, proved his worthiness to his parents when a fortune teller predicted a glorious future for the quarrelsome child.
Bertrand’s rough and strong figure proved to be an advantage in combat. He quickly showed good fighting skills. When another knight, Alacres de Marès, conferred knighthood to Bertrand, the latter chose the motto: “courage grants what beauty denies.” After many victories in tournaments, du Guesclin took part in the Hundred Years’ War by serving Charles of Blois, the French crown’s ally. Charles of Blois was fighting against Jean de Montfort, loyal to the King of England.
De Guesclin fought for several years in Paimpont Forest. This large forest located in Brittany is also known as Brocéliande, the enchanted forest mentioned in King Arthur’s legend. The English feared de Guesclin and nicknamed him “The Black Dog of Brocéliande.” In 1370, Charles V, King of France, appointed the knight “Constable of France.” He occupied the prestigious position of Commander in Chief of the King’s Army. Bertrand du Guesclin led the king’s army until he died in 1380.
8. Joan Of Arc: Medieval Knight, Martyr, And Saint
The only woman among the greatest and toughest medieval knights, Joan of Arc represents one of the greatest French history heroines. The young woman who wore the armor just as any other knight also took part in the Hundred Years’ War. She led the French army to a great victory and allowed for Charles VII’s coronation in Reims.
Born in a family of farmers around 1412, Joan claimed to hear voices and have visions, in which she identified several saints: Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine, and Saint Michael the Archangel. These voices asked her to be pious, free the kingdom of France from invaders, and help the Dauphin, the King of France’s successor, take the throne.
Guided by these holy visions, Joan of Arc left her hometown, Domrémy. Along the way, she helped several lords and gained popularity for her talents as a healer. The charismatic illiterate girl could count on Robert de Baudricourt, a nobleman, who helped her meet Charles VII, Dauphin of France.
Joan of Arc led the future King of France’s army, while the English controlled most French territories. Though very short, her service to the future king was effective. Thanks to her determination and faith, she achieved several military victories, including the relief of Orléans in 1429, when she earned her nickname “The Maid of Orléans.”
In 1430, she was made a prisoner and handed over to the English. Joan of Arc was tried for heresy and cross-dressing. After an unfair trial, the judges sentenced her to execution by burning. Joan of Arc soon became a heroine for the Roman Catholic Church. The pope canonized the Maid of Orléans in 1920. Like other great and tough knights, she showed essential qualities such as faith, strength, and bravery. Their achievements inspired tales and songs, which told the historical and legendary stories of these great medieval knights.