For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England 1066-1500 by Nigel Saul

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For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England 1066-1500 by Nigel Saul

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An examination of the world of medieval chivalry, showing its role in history as well as its influence on literature, religion and architecture.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: June 2012
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 9781845951894

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Chivalry, Saul tells us in the opening sentences of the preface, is associated first and foremost with the estate of knighthood and with fighting on horseback. In this book he aims to present an account of English aristocratic society in the Middle Ages, from the Norman conquest to the first years of the Tudor dynasty, which puts chivalry centre-stage.

The arrival of chivalry in England, in the sense of fighting on horseback (hence the name – chevalier being French for knight and cheval, horse), came with the Normans in 1066. Prior to the battle of Hastings, the English had always fought on foot, as certain scenes from the Bayeux tapestry, crude on an artistic level though it may be, clearly demonstrates. At the risk of sounding slightly trivial, perhaps they learnt their lesson in defeat – the Normans did it better, in that they were clearly a superior fighting force. It must also be noted that they introduced chivalry as a kind of etiquette. Prior to the invasion, the English had dealt with rebels by murder, execution or mutilation without compassion. After the Normans arrived, the punishment was more magnanimous - generally forfeiture and imprisonment, or even allowing the guilty to flee abroad, rather than death.

Over the next two centuries, it developed into a civilising concept, even a way of life. It was harnessed as needed by some Kings in particular, notably Richard I, the great crusader and absentee from England for much of his short reign, as a means of defending Christendom against the infidel. Edward I required more knights to make up an effective fighting force against the Scots, as did his grandson Edward III in the Hundred Years’ War against France. The latter monarch s also credited with the nationalisation of chivalry, by establishing the Order of the Garter. However, chivalric conventions were liable to break down when some of the less humane victorious Kings, or their commanders, exacted the most vicious punishments possible on the defeated enemy. Those who fought for Simon de Montfort against Henry III, or the Scottish leader William Wallace, had no mercy shown to them in the campaign of butchery or hanging, disembowelling and being beheaded on capture.

Yet it was more than just a code of conduct, or even a Geneva Convention long before its time. It had its impact on literature, as seen in the twelfth century when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ gave rise to the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The sovereign of very early days, who had previously been regarded as British, possibly Welsh, now became an English hero. Some three hundred years later, Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ was used to perpetuate, or even revive, the Arthurian myth, to be usefully exploited by contemporary sovereigns, especially in their conflicts with France. Architecture also became part of the pattern. Castles were an important part of the concept, and were not just built for defensive purposes but also erected with an eye to taste and the importance of creating something of artistic beauty.

Medieval society gradually became a thing of the past during the reign of Henry VII, who proclaimed himself chivalric leader of the realm, and with it the medieval conventions gradually went into abeyance. The symbolic tournaments of medieval times continued throughout Elizabethan England and into the reign of Charles I, but were gone by the Civil War, never to return. Nevertheless, as the concluding chapter shows, one trace of it survives and is still celebrated annually. This is the annual gathering of the Order of the Garter, with a procession and service in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, as its centrepiece. Rich in pomp and pageantry, it is an interesting acknowledgement of our heritage. So in its own way is the building of Castle Drogo near Exeter, the creation of tea merchant Julius Drewe. Designed and completed during the early years of the twentieth century, its unique status as England’s newest castle will probably be safe for perpetuity.

I found this a fascinating read. Many medieval histories have taken the strictly chronological approach, marked by the signposts of different reigns and wars. Saul brings the era alive by taking a slightly different approach. Moreover, as the choice of colour plates shows, there are still many surviving artefacts from the age of chivalry to be seen throughout Britain, such as castles, stained glass windows, and the thirteenth century round table which still hangs in the hall of Winchester Castle.

If this book appeals thenyou might also enjoy:

Tower by Nigel Jones
The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

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