In many ways, knights were the celebrities of the Middle Ages. Revered for their prowess on the battlefield and respected as leaders, the most famous knights became iconic figures who exemplified crucial medieval values like chivalry, heroism and valour. These were figures who inspired armies and rallied the masses, earning a place in popular folklore in the process.
William the Marshal
Not many knights can claim to have served four consecutive English kings. None could have done so as well as William the Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. He is known for his military strength and his wise royal counsel.
By the age of 24, William had proven himself both a brave and capable knight, and in 1170 he became the guardian of Prince Henry, the eldest son of King Henry II.
Even after the young prince’s death, William continued to service Henry II. He fought alongside him in France, and served him loyally until Henry’s death in 1189.
While his king, Richard I, was off on crusade and then held hostage in Germany, William defended his throne. He helped drive William Longchamp into exile and prevented Richard’s younger brother Prince John from taking the crown.
After the death of Richard I, he then helped John to succeed his brother peacefully.
During his fight against the barons, William helped to counsel King John. He was an effective leader, and well respected. Before his death, John appointed Marshal protector of his nine-year-old son, the future Henry III, as well as regent of the kingdom during Henry’s minority.
This was a wise move on John’s behalf: Marshal was committed to ensuring the stability of the kingdom: he was victorious against a French invasion at Lincoln in 1217, and re-issued Magna Carta in the same year in an attempt to keep the peace between the crown and the barons.
There’s a very good chance you’ve heard of King Arthur, the legendary King of Camelot, and his Knights of the Round Table. His standing as perhaps the most famous knight in the world owes much to folklore of course, but Arthur is believed to be an actual historic figure who probably lived in the 5th of 6th century and led a resistance movement against invaders from Northern Europe.
Sadly, many of the details familiar from the myths and legends surrounding his story, much of which derives from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s imaginative History of the Kings of Britain in the 12th century, aren’t supported by evidence.
So we can’t confirm the existence of a magical sword called Excalibur. Sorry.
Richard the Lionheart
Richard I succeeded his father Henry II to become King of England in 1189 but spent only ten months of his decade-long reign in the country. The majority of his time on the throne was spent fighting abroad, most famously in the Third Crusade, where he earned a reputation as a brave and fierce knight and military leader.
Despite numerous famous victories in the Holy Land, Richard was unable to recapture Jerusalem. On his return to England he was captured by the Duke of Austria, who handed him over to the emperor Henry VI who held him for a huge ransom.
Richard spent less than a year of his reign in England, and showed little interest in his kingdom and its welfare: it was simply a source of funding for his crusading expeditions.
Richard spent the final years of his life doing what he most loved, fighting, and was mortally wounded by a crossbow bolt while besieging the castle at Chalus in France.
Edward the Black Prince
Likely named because he favoured black armour, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, won fame on at the Battle of Crecy, a key battle in the Hundred years War’. Edward led the vanguard despite his tender years – he was just 16-years-old.
He rose to fame as one of the original Knights of the Garter and won his most celebrated victory at the Battle of Poitiers (1356), before travelling to Spain where he a series of famous victories restored Peter of Castile to his throne. He also fought in Aquitaine before returning to London in 1371.
Despite his fame Edward never became king. He succumbed to a particularly violent bout of dysentry in 1376 – an ailment which had plagued him for many years. His only remaining son, Richard, became heir apparent to the crown, eventually succeeding his grandfather Edward III in 1377.
John of Gaunt
Despite inciting his son’s accession to the throne in Shakespeare, the real John of Gaunt was much more of a political peacemaker.
His main military experience came during the Hundred Years’ War, where he led troops as a commander in France from 1367-1374.
In 1371, John married Constance of Castile. He tried to exploit his wife’s claim to the kingdoms of Castile and Leon following their marriage: John travelled to Spain in 1386, but failed miserably and renounced his claim.
Following the death of his father, Edward III, John was an extremely influential figure during the minority of his nephew, the new King Richard II, and made significant efforts at keeping the peace between the crown and a group of rebellious nobles, led by the Earl of Gloucester and Henry Bolingbroke, John’s son and heir.
One of the wealthiest and most powerful men of his time, John of Gaunt died in 1399: he is widely regarded by many as the ‘father’ of English kings: descendants from his line ruled England solidly until the Wars of the Roses, and his great-granddaughter was Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor.
Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy
Widely known as Harry Hotspur, Percy’s fame owes much to his inclusion in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and, indirectly, to the football club Tottenham Hotspur, which derives its name from the 14th century’s most revered knight.
Hotspur was a member of the powerful Percy family and built his formidable reputation as a fighter from a young age, patrolling the Scottish borders with his father the Earl of Northumberland. He was knighted at just 13 and fought in his first battle a year later.
Hotspur played a significant part in the deposition of Richard II and the ascent to the throne of his replacement Henry IV, before falling out with the new King and taking up arms in rebellion. He died leading his rebel army into battle against royal forces at Shrewsbury at what some would deem the height of his fame. Although the new king Henry wept over his friend’s body, he had Percy posthumously declared a traitor and had his lands forfeited to the crown.
Joan of Arc
At the age of 18, Joan of Arc, the daughter of a poor tenant farmer, Jacques d’ Arc, led the French to a famous victory against the English at Orleans.
Her unlikely ascent to the role of military leader was driven by mystical visions which compelled her to seek an audience with the future Charles VII who, convinced of her holy destiny to expel the English and reclaim France, granted her a horse and armour.
She joined with French forces at the siege of Orleans where, after a long, hard battle they routed the English. It was a decisive victory that led to Charles being crowned King of France on July 18, 1429. Joan was at his side throughout the coronation.
The following year she was captured during a Burgundian assault at Compiègne and tried by a pro-English church court on the charges of witchcraft, heresy and dressing like a man. She was burned at the stake on the morning of May 30, 1431.
A posthumous retrial, ordered by Charles VII in 1456 and supported by Pope Callixtus III, found Joan to be innocent of all charges and declared her a martyr. 500 years later, she was canonised as a Roman Catholic Saint.