Knights in Shining Armour: The Surprising Origins of Chivalry | History Hit

Knights in Shining Armour: The Surprising Origins of Chivalry

'King Arthur' by Charles Ernest Butler, 1903.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Charles Ernest Butler

When we refer to chivalry, images of knights in shining armour, damsels in distress and fights to defend a lady’s honour spring to mind.

But knights weren’t always so respected. After 1066 in Britain, for example, knights were feared for wreaking violence and devastation across the country. It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that the image of the chivalrous knight grew popular, when kings and military rulers cultivated a new image for their warriors as gallant men of loyalty, honour and bravery.

Even then, our idea of ‘chivalry’ and the heroic ‘knight in shining armour’ has become confused by idealistic depictions in romantic literature and popular culture. The reality of knights in the Middle Ages is far more complicated: they weren’t always loyal to their rulers and their codes of conduct weren’t always adhered to.

Here’s how European elites of the Middle Ages, and centuries of fiction, have rebranded late medieval mounted warriors as courteous and honest, as chivalrous ‘knights in shining armour’.

Knights were violent and feared

Knights as we imagine them – armoured, mounted warriors from elite backgrounds – initially emerged in England during the Norman conquest in 1066. However, they were not always regarded as honourable figures, and instead were reviled for looting, pillaging and raping on their violent expeditions. This tumultuous time in English history was punctuated with routine military violence, and as a result, knights were a symbol of misery and death.

In order to protect their interests, warring lords needed to control their disorganised and erratic armies. So, chivalric codes developed between 1170 and 1220, such as bravery in battle and loyalty to one’s lord, were the result of practical needs. This was especially relevant against the backdrop of the Crusades, a series of military expeditions beginning in the late 11th century that were organised by western European Christians in an effort to counter the spread of Islam.

In the 12th century, the literature of medieval romance became increasingly popular and a sophisticated culture of courtly behaviour between men and women changed the idealised image of a knight forever.

A ‘good’ knight wasn’t just an effective soldier

The popular ideal of a good knight was not measured by his military prowess alone, but his restraint, respect and integrity. This included being inspired by the love of a lady – who was often blessed with virtues and out of reach: to achieve great battle victories.

The image of the knight transcended that of an effective and brave warrior and battle strategist. Instead, the honest, kind behaviour of the knight was immortalised into literature. It became a long-standing and instantly recognisable trope in itself.

The qualities of a good knight were popularly demonstrated through jousting, which remained the primary example of a knightly display of martial skill up until the Renaissance.

‘God Speed’ by English artist Edmund Leighton, 1900: depicting an armoured knight departing for war and leaving his beloved.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Sotheby's Sale catalogue

Kings consolidated the chivalric image

The image of the gallant knight was further consolidated and elevated with the reigns of Kings Henry II (1154–89) and Richard the Lionheart (1189–99). As celebrated warriors who kept elaborate courts, the ideal knights were courtiers, sportsmen, musicians and poets, able to play the games of courtly love.

It has been variously debated whether knights themselves actually read or absorbed these stories of chivalric duty written by clergymen or poets. It seems that knights were both seen as, and regarded by themselves as being, honourable.

But knights did not necessarily follow religious leaders’ orders, and instead developed their own sense of duty and morality. An example of this is during the Fourth Crusade, which was ordered by Pope Innocent III in 1202 to overthrow Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers. Instead, the holy knights ended up sacking the Christian city of Constantinople.

One rule for one and one for another

It is also worth remembering that codified behaviour towards women was, in practice, reserved for ladies in court, particularly those who were of the highest rank and therefore untouchable, such as the queen. For a king, this behaviour worked as a means of servitude and order which was then reinforced through romanticised notions. In other words, chivalry wasn’t used so much as a means of respecting women, but for instilling values of obedience and reverence towards the king in a strictly feudal society.

Chivalric codes were reserved for the noble classes that knights themselves belonged to, and weren’t truly rooted in a universal respect for all, particularly the poor. This is further reinforced with chivalric codes not being mentioned in medieval texts which recorded events such as the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries, which were brutal, laid waste to the countryside and witnessed extensive raping and pillaging.

The enduring legacy of chivalry

Photo of Robert Goulet as Lancelot and Julie Andrews as Guenevere from Camelot, 1961.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Photo by Friedman-Abeles, New York.

The medieval and romanticised notion of chivalry as we know it has left its blueprint upon our cultural consciousness. The idea of the passionate lovers who can never be and the heroic but ultimately ill-fated battle to achieve happiness is an oft-repeated trope.

It’s in part through the romanticised notion of chivalric codes that we derive stories like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Eilhart von Oberge’s Tristan and Isolde, Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot and Guinevere and Chaucer’s Troilus & Criseyde. 

Today, people lament the ‘death of chivalry’. However, it has been argued that our current understanding of chivalry actually bears very little resemblance to that which would have been recognised by knights in the Middle Ages. Instead, the term was co-opted by European neo-romantics in the late 19th century who used the word to define ideal male behaviour.

However we might describe chivalry today, it is clear that its existence is rooted in practicality and elitism, rather than a desire for better treatment for all.

Historian Matt Lewis delves deep into the history of the Arthurian legend.
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Lucy Davidson