Chivalry during the Reign of King Edward III

During the Middle Ages there was a period of change in which different groups struggled and vied for more power and control. Among the three orders that formed the hierarchical structure of medieval society, the first two orders (the nobility and clergy) often attempted to increase power at the other's expense. By the twelfth century, the nobility and clergy created various institutions and reforms to increase the power and control that they could administer. Complex and often conflicting principles and ideals could join together to form ideologies that represented different medieval beliefs and standards, many of which often played a major role in medieval society. For the members of the medieval nobility, the code of chivalry was such an ideology. Today, the idea of chivalry might conjure an image of a powerful and virtuous knight defending a lady, displaying both prowess in battle as well as honor and compassion. Yet, this image of chivalry might be very different than the actual chivalric practices during the days of medieval warriors on horseback. What did chivalry and the concepts of chivalry actually mean during this time period, and what role did it play in the affairs of the time? To learn the answer to this question, the actual roles and meanings of different chivalric concepts during the Middle Ages need to be examined. The reign of King Edward III in England around the middle of the fourteenth century provides many examples and much evidence that can be used for such an examination. An analysis and interpretation of Froissart's Chronicles provides both primary source evidence and an account of the occurrences of this time period. As a result, it is possible to learn of what it meant to be chivalrous and the important role that chivalry played during the reign of King Edward III.

It is important to first try and gain an understanding of the origin of the concepts of chivalry that were present during the time of Edward III. The precedence for chivalry consisted of Biblical, Greco-Roman, and even Germanic influences (Herlihy 281-2). Chivalry "maintained [these] older traditions of manliness", but it also developed its own qualities; there was the idea that fighting and killing "could be a blessed and religiously meritorious act" as well as the idea that the knight should be skilled in the "art of acting courteously...[and] conducting himself well" in almost any given situation (Herlihy 282). The heroic precedence of the past had been built upon, infusing heroism and valor with two seemingly very different qualities. Why had this infusion come about?

First, there is the religious aspect that was introduced into chivalry. There was an attempt made by reforming clergy members to at least in some ways integrate religion into fighting during the 11th century (Herlihy 282). Reforms continued into later times as well. According to David Herlihy, "violence was a major and recognized plague in Western society", and that the church, which needed reform, also needed "stabilization and pacification of society" (Herlihy 282). This violence continued to be present and to play a major role in society during the reign of Edward III; much of what Froissart writes about Edward's reign has to do with war and fighting. It seems that the religious aspect of chivalry was introduced as an attempt to curb violence and fighting. This religious element was thus an attempt to shed fighting and war in at least a slightly different light. Despite this, however, since there was still so much fighting during Edward's reign, both in war and in tournaments, the attempt does not seem to have worked very well.

Also, there is the courteous aspect of chivalry. This component of chivalry seems to be a result of chivalry's association with noble birth and nobility. The nobility wanted to set itself apart from others. For example, with the rise of the burghers, or the merchant class, that "challenged [the nobles'] position," the nobility looked for ways to justify its position in society (Herlihy 285). In the case of courteousness as well as etiquette, the nobility set up a standard for how to act. Even though the new working class may have acquired the "power of money", there were many factors that could separate them from the nobility, and for this reason, chivalry "had the function of providing to...[the nobility] a justification for its privileges and position" (Herlihy 285). Because of this, among other factors, chivalry acted as a cohesive force for the "acutely rank-conscious" nobility during the reign of Edward III in England (Waugh 129). Chivalrous nobles lived by an ideal that they felt set them in a place above the reach of the rest of medieval society.

Between the warlike, religious, and courteous aspects of chivalry, there were many inherent contradictions within the ideals of chivalry. Even though these contradictions existed, it seems as if they were often ignored. In his work, Froissart would often mention the chivalrous acts that Edward III and other nobles would perform in a positive light, but yet he would often ignore the negative and contradictory aspects of these chivalrous (yet violent) actions. For example, in his description of the siege of La Reole, Froissart writes that the "town's-people suffered greatly", but he does not speak negatively of those attacking the town (Froissart 49). In this, just as in other descriptions of Froissart, the ferocity of warfare and any negative effects it may have do not seem to be attributed to chivalry, even when it was chivalric knights who were contributing to the death and destruction that took place. Even though the realities of war are recognized, it is as if they are attributed to some other causes other than those that could be committed by chivalric knights. Even though such contradictions and deviations from the ideal exist, the concept of chivalry was still very important to the nobility of Edward's time. Edward III was true to his time period, a period during which "war still had a certain lusty innocence" (Packe 65). In many ways it was chivalry itself that described this innocence. Without paying much attention to the realities of war, chivalry provided a code and an ideal for the warrior to aspire.

There are also specific examples of Edward III's use of chivalry during his rule. A good example of this is the important role chivalry played in Edward's tournaments. Although he does not seem to specifically mention tournaments, Froissart does mention the "feast of the order of the Knights of the Blue Garter [that] was to be celebrated at Windsor every year, on St. George's day" (Froissart, 49). Yet, annual tournaments were held "on the feast of St George...every year...[and] set a model for chivalric practice" (Waugh 130). Even though no tournament was mentioned in Froissart's account, there was also an annual tournament held at the feast of the Knights of the Blue Garter (or Order of the Garter). Tournaments such as this one were a characteristic of Edward's reign; tournaments had not been as popular, however, during other recent English king's reigns (Laing 61). What was the reasoning behind this? During the reigns of Edward II and Henry III (two of Edward III's predecessors), tournaments had been banned, and such banning became "associated with a weak king and rebellious nobility" (Vale 60). Thus, it would seem advantageous for Edward to avoid being associated with the weak kings of the recent past, and also to perhaps try to find a way to exert influence over the nobility through the tournament. Besides these reasons, however, Edward III had other reasons not to ban but instead to actually support tournaments. Edward had his "own ability and aptitude for the exercise [of the tournament]" that would make tournaments even more advantageous (Vale 60). Why would Edward wish to get rid of an institution in which it seems to have excelled?

It would make sense for Edward to wish to maintain and not prohibit an institution in which he was able to perform at so well. Edward's tournaments produced a "glorification of chivalry...[that] mirrored his pursuit of war" (Waugh 191). Since Edward was able to able to do well in tournaments that glorified chivalry, it makes sense that these tournaments added to his own personal glory as well. Edward was able to understand the benefits that chivalrous tournaments could bring him, and he "used chivalry to glorify himself" and his wars through his encouragement of tournaments, as well as his own (and even his sons') participation in them (Waugh 130). Edward was thus able to use the role that chivalry played in his tournaments to better his own position and serve his own purposes.

Edward III's establishment of the Order of the Garter is another demonstration of how chivalry played a very important role during his reign. Froissart writes that Edward wanted to establish an order, which would be called the "Knights of the Blue Garter" (Froissart 48). Politically, Edward III used the Order of the Garter to help him stabilize his political situation. At war with France, one of Edward III's main purposes for the order was in an attempt at "galvanizing aristocratic support behind the war" (Collins 1). Such a great amount of fighting and warfare must have required that Edward gain as much support as possible. Edward III thus formed an alliance with the nobility, and not only did the order act as a symbol of this alliance, but it helped him to "play on the chivalric pretensions of the nobility and use membership of the order as a supplement to other more costly forms of patronage" (Ormrod 19). This seems to suggest that chivalry during this period was used as a scale in which to measure a noble, and the chivalric value of the knight was probably greatly perceived; an individual's membership in such an order would help to better others' perception of that individual and raise the knight up on the scale. Thus, Edward III would be able to aid his nobles in their quest for greater glory just by placing them in his chivalric order, even if they (as individuals) were not necessarily models of chivalry. Essentially, Edward III was able to make political gains off of chivalry because the nobility of his time was so desirous of being called chivalrous.

Edward III was also able to spread the political influence of the chivalric order (and in effect his own influence) further in other ways. According to Juliet Vale, the order was an institution which was to "provide a perpetual memorial to the justification of his own kingly claims and also to create a prestigious chivalric elite comprising representatives of every section of society that could aspire to inclusion" and making them claim further loyalty to himself, as head of the order (Vale 91). Established families within the English nobility, allies from abroad, as well as those close to the king were all included of members of the order (Vale 91). Thus, even though there were few members within the order and membership within it was rather exclusive, Edward III's choices of those to include within the order helped him to spread its influence further and better tie its members together directly under himself. Edward also used his knowledge of tournaments to further seal his bond with members of the order, creating two tournament teams by exploiting "existing allegiances and groupings of the kind which...governed tournament team structure...[and] which bound the tournament team together" (Vale 91) and then placing this structure under his own authority. It seems that Edward was able to take his knowledge of the tournament and its workings to build a stronger allegiance structure within his order to serve his own political purposes.

The chivalric Order of the Garter also served Edward III in less political purposes. This institution is tied to the tournaments being held by Edward during this period. The order was conceived as a "celebration of the deeds of arms of the English knighthood" such as tournaments and battles in war (Collins 1). Juliet Vale notes "participation at Crécy is the most immediately striking factor among the first knights of the Garter" (Vale 87). Many of the charter members of the order were participants at the Battle of Crécy and, because of this, it is possible that the "first use of the Garter device was as a badge for the celebrated French campaign" (Collins 10). Thus, the concept for the Order of the Garter may have originated from a rewards process in which Edward honored his men for their valor in battle, and since the Order of the Garter was founded as a chivalric order, this would seem somehow fitting. Another less political purpose that the order satisfied was that of its members, Edward included, to participate in chivalric competition. Returning once more to tournaments, there were two groups, one formed around Edward himself and the other around the Black Prince, and Edward seems to have wanted to form two teams with an "overall balance" in which "age and experience seem very carefully matched in the two sides" (Vale 88). This strongly suggests that his choices for membership in the order were "influenced by the need to compose two fairly matched tournament teams" (Vale 88). This means that Edward's interest in tournaments was even applied in the make-up of the membership of the Order of the Garter.

Chivalry also played a role in Edward III's reign in other ways. Before the establishment of the Order of the Garter, there are references to Edward's attempt to recreate a round table of knights similar to the one formed in the legends of King Arthur. Froissart writes that Edward wished to "rebuild and embellish the great castle of Windsor...[from] whence so many knights had issued forth, and had displayed their prowess over the whole world" (Froissart 48). This seems to be an attempt on Edward's part to make strong references to the past. Hugh E. Collins points out the chivalric initiative's "strong literary influence" (Collins 7), the purpose of which seems to be an "attempt to project and glorify the Plantagenet king's reign through association with King Arthur" (Collins 8). Thus, Edward was attempting to glorify himself and make his rule more prestigious by attempting to establish ties with King Arthur. And since knights and nobles were attempting to win a reputation for themselves, this could have worked especially well. This was an attempt to weave "Arthurian romance and chivalry...into the realities of war" through the establishment of another round table (Waugh 18). Thus, not only was Edward III utilizing the chivalry of the present, but he was also utilizing the perceived legacy of chivalry in the past. In the end, however, this "ambitious Arthurian project was stillborn...fading out within a year of its inception" (Collins 8). Even though the attempt at establishing another round table failed, Edward was attempting to gain more authority by tying himself and his vassals to the legacies and especially the chivalry of the past, and would try once again with the establishment of the Order of the Garter. Between the attempt at re-establishing a round table and his foundation of the Order of the Garter, Edward gained a reputation as a "chivalric hero" (Waugh 18). Perhaps, because of this, the failed establishment of the round table was not without worth.

One last example of the role that chivalry played during the reign of Edward III is that of women and their chivalric role during this period. Associated with chivalry were "romantic love" and "courtly love" in which men were supposed to act courteously in their romantic affairs with women according to certain codes of behavior (Laing 38). This romantic love was derived from certain "key elements...of feudal society" which evolved from the relationship between a vassal and his lord; the male lover acted in many ways as the "vassal of his lady" (Laing 38). Froissart provides evidence of a breaking from this code when he writes of the Countess of Salisbury and Edward III. According to Froissart, the countess was "one of the most beautiful and virtuous women" in the kingdom (Froissart 45). Unfortunately for Edward, however, he was "struck by her charms and beauty", and when he told the countess of his feelings, she responded that she could not "believe that so noble and gallant a prince as [Edward] would think to dishonour [her] or [her] husband," and she then proceeded to rebuke Edward for his actions (Froissart 45). Edward had acted in a way unbefitting a lord toward his vassal's wife, and his actions also seem to have other rules of courteousness and etiquette. According to the chivalric ideal, there were certain ways to treat a lady, especially a lady of the stature of the countess.

Contemporaries considered chivalry very well defined by certain individuals that they considered to be chivalrous. Edward III himself represented what it meant to be chivalrous during this time period. In order to be chivalrous, it is necessary to be victorious in battle. Froissart provides evidence of this when he writes of how Edward had "successfully laid siege to Vannes, Nantes, and Dinant" (Froissart 48). Edward was successful in these and many other conquests, all of which contributed to his necessary military prowess. In fact, when Froissart describes one such victory, he contributes a great deal to a very chivalric image of Edward. Froissart writes of the taking of Calais and states that although "a strong and valiant knight...twice struck the king down to his knees...[he was] at last overpowered" after which he surrendered his sword and his honor to Edward, who had "fought most nobly" (Froissart 60). In this one-on-one combat, Edward was able to prove himself more valiant after besting his opponent. The image of Edward defeating his opponent in such a fight might bring to mind the clash between two chivalric knights fighting in single combat. Participation in scenes such as these contributed greatly to the personal chivalry of King Edward III. Edward's association with chivalry grew during his reign and became such that he was "internationally recognized"; Edward was a man of very great "chivalric fame" in England, as well as in France (Waugh 233). It would make sense that Edward would have needed to greatly represent the ideal of chivalry in order to gain such a reputation.

This is why there are still further accomplishments of Edward III, unmentioned by Froissart, that factor into his great reputation as a chivalrous leader. Edward used his "dramatic instinct" to cultivate a "heroic image" (Packe 136). Instinct helped Edward to create such a powerful image in which he associated himself with others that shared the same values that he did; he formed a "chivalrous elite" (Packe 136). This elite was composed of the same groups of people mentioned before (members of the Order of the Garter, for example). The unifying factor among them all was their "joy in battle", whether "feats of arms...[that were] real or make-believe" (Packe 136). Victories in battle and war provided the real feats of arms, and tournaments provided the make-believe ones. Basically, between the two it would seem that Edward would have been able to constantly maintain his reputation. Just the attempt to establish another round table and the successful establishment of the Order of the Garter (both previously mentioned) provide Edward with ties to the past and the chivalrous King Arthur. Juliet Vale suggests that Edward "grasped [the] potential value of this identity [with King Arthur]" and some of his chivalric reputation can actually be "ascribed to its astute exploitation" (Vale 24). Edward knew how to create ties to the past as well as how to use them for his own purposes. By creating these strong ties with the legend of a great chivalric hero, Edward was able to in some ways increase his own reputation.

Accounts of Edward, Prince of Wales, who was Edward III's son, also provide a great deal of evidence as to it meant to be chivalrous during this time period. Edward, Prince of Wales (also referred to as the Black Prince or Edward of Woodstock) was considered to be a model of chivalry. Because of his feats of skill, the Black Prince was a "model for all knights" (Waugh 129). This statement alone says a great deal about the Black Prince's reputation. According to Froissart, soon after the battle of Crécy, Edward III addressed his son and told him that he was "worthy to be a sovereign" because of his gallant actions (Froissart 58). Gallantry, which is considered to be a chivalric concept, thus seems to have endowed the Black Prince with kingliness. After being honored by his father, the Black Prince then proceeded to "[bow] very low, giving all honour to the king" (Froissart, 58). This act of giving honor to his father demonstrates modesty and the honoring of one's lord, both of which are chivalrous actions. Even with his success in battle, the Black Prince also knew how to act with both dignity and honor. The Black Prince always thought of "loyalty noble deeds, valour and goodness" (Waugh 129). Again, each of these concepts is associated with chivalry. Froissart's view, as well as other views, however, may only illustrate the ideal of chivalry, and not the accompanying realities that went along with it.

While Edward, the Black Prince exhibits many chivalric characteristics that contributed to the meaning of chivalry during this period, he also illustrates some of the ironies and contradictions found within chivalry as an ideal. For example, in order to "indulge their chivalric fantasies...[and to] secure foreign titles and territories" the Black Prince and his brothers wished to reopen war with France (Ormrod 25). The Black Prince wished for war, which would bring death to others, to procure his own interests. To be as glorious in battle as Froissart describes, it is necessary to be involved in battle. And along with these battles came actions that contradicted and essentially defied the ideals of chivalry. The Black Prince "sacked Limoges and massacred most of its inhabitants" because of its betrayal (Waugh 129). Although this action may have been necessary in the war in which the Black Prince was fighting, this still does not follow the ideal of chivalry. Thus, even though contemporaries such as Froissart and others may have pictured the Black Prince as the model chivalric knight, there are also many realities and factors that played a role in his actions. To be chivalrous and uphold chivalrous ideals, the Black Prince went to war, and committed some actions that were not so chivalrous. The Black Prince was a representation of chivalric ideals, but he was also a representation of the contradictions that were a part of chivalry.

Overall, however, perhaps the reason that the Black Prince represents chivalry so well for this time period is because, at the time, his contemporaries thought him to be such a good exemplar of chivalry. In his description of the Black Prince's death, Froissart describes him as "the flower of English knighthood" (Froissart 133). This not only conveys a great deal of respect, but by describing the Black Prince in such a way, Froissart conveys the idea that the Black Prince is the best of what English knighthood had to offer, including its chivalric ideals. Froissart also notes that one of the funeral services of the Black Prince was postponed so that it could be "performed with greater pomp and magnificence when Parliament assembled" (Froissart 133). The ceremony held in Paris was "performed with great magnificence...[and was] attended by many prelates and barons of the realm...solemnized in a manner suitable to [the Black Prince's] birth and merits" (Froissart 133). Froissart's description of these services illustrates the great respect that contemporaries of the Black Prince seem to have had for him. Michael Packe states, "the quite exceptional respect in which the prince was held, despite all his faults, suggests that...he was seen to represent more than did most of his peers the combination...[that] chivalry was supposed to instill even though in practice it frequently failed to do so", which again supports the Black Prince's model representation of chivalry during his time (Packe 294). Even though the ideals of chivalry were sometimes contradictory, and even though the Black Prince was not a perfect man, he was still able to better represent the concept of chivalry and what it meant to be chivalrous better than anyone else at the time.

Chivalry played an important role during the reign of Edward III. By definition and in practice chivalry is not without its contradictions, but Edward found ways of incorporating many of its different concepts and ideals into his rule of England. He held tournaments, attempted to re-establish the round table, and successfully established the Order of the Garter, and both he and his son exemplified the ideal of chivalry in many ways, both possessing a very chivalrous reputation. Chivalry was the ideal through which the members of the nobility during this period tried to see themselves, and is for this reason very important. Chivalry held an important place in the interactions that took place among the different classes of medieval society, which makes it key to a more complete understanding of medieval civilization.


Works Cited

  • Collins, Hugh E. L. The Order of the Garter 1348-1461. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

  • Froissart, Sir John. The Chronicles of England, France, Spain. London: George Routledge and Sons, Limited.

  • Herlihy, David. The History of Feudalism. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1970.

  • Laing, Lloyd and Jennifer. Medieval Britain. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

  • Ormrod, W. M. The Reign of Edward III. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

  • Packe, Michael. King Edward III. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.

  • Vale, Juliet. Edward III and Chivalry. Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1982.

  • Waugh, Scott L. England in the Reign of Edward III. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.