he knight in shining armor and the damsel in distress are two of the Middle Age’s most enduring clichés. Through his strength, his devotion and his undying love, the knight finds a way to rescue his lady from peril, winning her heart and reinforcing his reputation as a great knight along the way. Such is the stuff of fantasy. But, since fantasy and history rarely go hand-in-hand, we should ask what historically constituted a great knight?

To be a knight, in the most basic sense, was to be a man of aristocratic standing, wealthy enough to fight as a heavy cavalryman when called upon, and initiated into a chivalric circle through having been “dubbed”. To be the perfect knight demanded more than that. Certain military attributes were required: being a brave and able fighter, willing to serve one’s liege honorably and loyally, and being a protector of the weak.

To achieve chivalric greatness, a knight also had to aspire to—and indeed realize—some more abstract ideas. Unfaltering religious piety was important. And while it was difficult when it came to Christian knights having to fight Christian knights, there were always various papal-sanctioned Crusades that provided an outlet. The best knights also participated in tournaments and jousts (and won them too, ideally) and engaged in the rituals of courtly love.

Despite the dozens of works defining what it meant to be the perfect knight, there was, in reality, no such thing; no one man could fill all these criteria. However, the Middle Ages were saturated with knights who can be considered great. Here are 9 of them.

Knight Tales: The 9 Greatest Knights of the Middle Ages
Contemporary illustration of the Battle of Poitiers. Geoffrey de Charny is depicted holding the Oriflamme of St. Denis (the red banner on the left). Wikipedia

Geoffrey de Charny (1300 – 1356)

When it comes to chivalric perfection, few ever came closer than Geoffrey de Charny. Even during his own lifetime, people were calling him “the true and perfect knight”, and his military achievements, unwavering loyalty to French crown and fighting prowess all marked him out for the title. However, there could be another reason he fits so well into the definition of the perfect knight: as the author of three works on what it meant to chivalric, it’s a definition he helped create.

Geoffrey de Charny—not to be confused with the Knight Templar of the same name who was burned at the stake in 1307—lived, and ultimately died, by the sword. After first seeing action in Gascony in 1337, he served a series of French kings fighting the English in Tornai, Brittany, and Calais. He also participated in a crusade against the Turks (though it was ultimately unsuccessful) led by Humbert II of Viennois in 1345. He suffered defeats during his career, but it was his victories he was recognized for, earning him his initiation into John the Good’s Order of the Star.

Geoffrey de Charny fought his last battle at the Battle of Poitiers between the English and the French in 1356. The battle is described in some detail by the French chronicler Froissart (who also gives us much of our information about the Black Death and the Hundred Years War in general). Charny had been entrusted as the standard-bearer of the red silken Oriflamme of St. Denis, the king’s sacred standard. Naturally, the standard was an effective rallying point; according to legend, Charlemagne had borne it to the Holy Land. It also inspired fierce fighting, as its very presence on the battlefield signaled that no quarter was to be given.

The Oriflamme was also, however, a valuable prize, and for this reason, often drew the heaviest—and bloodiest—of the fighting. So it was Poitiers, when its 55-year old bearer abandoned any hope of surrender (still an honorable option under the chivalric code) and fought to the death. Along with most of the flower French knights, Charny was ultimately cut down, completely surrounded by English soldiers, the Oriflamme still in his hand. In defining what made the perfect knight, Geoffrey de Charny had once written that “he who achieves more is more worthy.” Judging himself by his own standard, it’s hard to think of any worthier.

 

Knight Tales: The 9 Greatest Knights of the Middle Ages
Effigy of William Marshal. Get History

William Marshal (1147 – 1219)

Most of what we know about William Marshal comes from his biography, which was commissioned by his son and executors in the mid-1220s. He was born to very minor nobility, and after his father’s failed rebellion against King Stephen, the young William was given to the king as a hostage. Favored by Stephen, he eventually made his way into the house of William de Tancarville of Normandy. As a teenager, William developed a reputation as a lazy, self-indulgent glutton. But as he approached his twenties, he began to demonstrate his phenomenal fighting prowess.

He entered his first tournament (a very violent kind of mock battle) in 1166, coming up against fought against forty “finely-equipped” knights, including the King of Scotland and his retinue. Surpassing all expectations, the young William came out victorious. This furthered more than just his knightly reputation as a warrior as anything won during the tournament became the property of the victor. So although Marshal had begun the day as a relatively under-equipped warrior, by the end of he found himself in possession of four fine packhorses as well as a heap of weaponry and armor.

William Marshal also played a pivotal role in the politics of the time. He served under five Angevin kings. William knighted the first one, Henry II, himself. But despite their shared passion for all things chivalric, William soon found himself expelled from court, accused of seducing the young Henry’s wife. While in exile he fought in numerous tournaments and in the mid-1180s even embarked on a Crusade to the Holy Land, something we know remarkably little about other than that he linked up with the Order of the Knights Templar. Upon returning from the Crusade, the 40-year-old William married an 18-year-old heiress. It proved a successful, loving marriage, however, and established William as the Earl of Pembroke.

As well as being Earl of Pembroke, William was now also Regent of the Realm. He went on to fight in this capacity under Richard I (the Lionheart) who he had once almost killed in battle, and after Richard’s death under King John I. John was despised by the English barons, and after their rebellion was ultimately forced to sign the famous Magna Carta in 1215. But despite this, William remained loyal to him; so much so that John’s last words were allegedly about William’s unfailing, loyal service. William Marshal fought his last battle for Henry III against the English rebels and the French at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. Aged 70, he led the charge himself and won the royal forces the battle. William, by this stage recognized as one of the greatest knights to have ever lived, died just two years later.

Don Pero Ni̱o (c. 1378 Р1453)

Most of what we know about Don Pero Niño comes from the mid-fifteenth century chronicle El Victorial. As a historical source, the chronicle is far from impartial. Written by Gutierre Diaz de Gamez—the man who was Pero Niño’s standard-bearer for almost 50 years—it portrays the Spanish privateer much in the mould of the great chivalric knight (and the previous man on this list) William Marshal, with its lengthy list of Pero Niño’s chivalric feats. But exaggerated or not, it tells us the story of a man who totally dedicated his life to warfare, and bore the scars to prove it.

Pero Niño was raised in the Spanish Royal Household and had his first experience of battle aged just 15. Over the course of his long career, he would fight against the Portuguese, the North African Muslims, and—for the most part—the English, carrying out constant raids along the south coast of England and Jersey. Although one of his weapons of choice was the crossbow, when not at sea, he would often show off his talents with the lance as a formidable jouster, earning such celebrity status that he managed to successfully woo the widow of a recently deceased admiral of France.

Even for the standards of the time, Don Pero Niño was as hard as nails. In 1403, while skirmishing near Tunis, he was wounded in the leg. His comrades carried him back to their ships, but he outright refused to abandon the expedition. The choice nearly cost him his life: by the time he and his men made it back to Spain his wound had began to fester. Carrying a high fever, Don Pero Niño was slipping in and out of consciousness, and the surgeons accepted that there was only one way they might save him: by amputating his leg.

Don Pero Niño, however, refused. Instead, he asked that they cauterized the wound, singing the flesh with a white-hot iron. The surgeon agreed, but at the last moment refused to perform the procedure, not wanting to inflict the degree of pain they knew it would cause. But Pero Niño, by now a master of inflicting and sustaining physical pain, grabbed the iron from him and applied it to himself, rubbing it up and down the length of his leg. He spent the later years of his life (apart from the brief interlude of being exiled) serving the Spanish monarchy, and died at a remarkably old age for a knight who had lived so rashly.

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