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10 Great Knights of England: A Journey of Chivalry and Valor

Image of an effigy of Sir William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, one of the many great knights of England, at the Temple Church in London, England

When we think of medieval history, the knights of England often come to the forefront, their armor glinting in our imaginations like the chivalric ideals they upheld.

These warriors were formidable fighters, pillars of social structure, and the epitome of bravery, skill, and service to the crown.

From the Crusades to the pivotal battles of the 100 Years’ War, English knights had a significant impact, shaping the course of history and leaving legacies that endure today.

Ten knights of England listed below due to their level of service to the crown, combat prowess, and lasting contributions to the realm:

  • Sir William Marshal (1146–1219)
  • Sir John Chandos (1320–1369)
  • Edward, the Black Prince (1330–1376)
  • Sir Henry Percy, “Hotspur” (1364–1403)
  • Sir John Hawkwood (c. 1320–1394)
  • Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199)
  • Sir Walter Manny (1310–1372)
  • Sir Thomas Malory (1415–1471)
  • Sir James Douglas, “Black Douglas” (1286–1330)
  • Sir John Talbot (1384–1453)

But who were these knights, really? What made them so remarkable that their tales of valor have been passed down through the annals of time?

Whether they were leading armies into battle, participating in legendary tournaments, or serving as trusted advisors to kings, each knight had his own story to tell.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the lives and deeds of the ten greatest knights of England, unearthing the men behind the metal and the legends that have captured our collective imagination for centuries.

Brief Histories of 10 Top Knights of England

Kicking off our list of great knights of England is none other than Sir William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Pembroke.

A man whose reputation for loyalty, military brilliance, and diplomatic finesse set the gold standard for knighthood, Marshal served five extraordinary English kings throughout his lifetime.

His influence spanned decades, elevating him from a landless knight to a position of immense power as the regent of England.

Marshal’s illustrious career is a testament to the pinnacle of knighthood, making him the ideal figure to lead our list.

Image of the coat of arms of one of the great knights of England, William Marshal
The coat of arms of the 1st Earl of Pembroke, Sir William Marshal

1. Sir William Marshal (1146–1219)

Early Life and Background

William Marshal was born in 1146 to a minor noble family, but he would become one of England’s most important knights.

His father, John Marshal, served King Stephen but switched allegiances to Empress Matilda during the Anarchy.

William was used as a hostage by King Stephen and nearly faced execution as a child, an experience that toughened him for the challenges ahead.

Campaigns and Battles

From tournaments to real combat, Marshal’s prowess was unmatchable.

He first made a name for himself in the tournaments of Northern France, winning fame and fortune.

His skills were not limited to jousting; he played crucial roles in battles such as the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, where he led a charge that broke the enemy lines and turned the tide of the war.

Kings Served

Marshal’s loyalty spanned the reigns of five English monarchs: Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, King John, and Henry III.

Under Henry II, he served as a tutor-in-arms to the king’s son Henry and later became a trusted advisor.

Under King John, despite a complicated relationship, he was named Marshal of England. After King John’s death, he served as the protector of the realm for young Henry III.

Accomplishments and Impacts

William Marshal’s impact reached far beyond his military exploits; he was instrumental in reissuing the Magna Carta in 1217, laying the groundwork for constitutional governance in England.

His statesmanship and commitment to the crown helped to stabilize England during tumultuous times.

Even after his death in 1219, Marshal’s legacy lived on through his family and his contributions to the realm, solidifying his place as one of the most impactful knights of England.

2. Sir John Chandos (1320–1369)

Early Life and Background

Sir John Chandos was born around 1320 into an English noble family with military traditions.

His early life was steeped in the values and disciplines that prepared him for knighthood, and he would later become one of the most respected knights of England.

While not as universally famous as some of his contemporaries, Chandos had a knack for military strategy that would make him indispensable to the English crown.

Campaigns and Battles

Sir John Chandos gained prominence for his military service during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France.

He was an advisor to Edward, the Black Prince, and played a critical role in the English victory at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.

His tactical acumen and chivalric valor in battle made him a model knight and a terror to his enemies.

Kings Served

Chandos served primarily under King Edward III and his son, Edward the Black Prince.

His advisory role to the Black Prince speaks volumes about the trust placed in him.

Chandos was a founding member of the Order of the Garter, England’s highest order of knighthood, which reflects his standing among the nobility and his closeness to the royal family.

Accomplishments and Impacts

The contributions of Sir John Chandos went beyond the battlefield.

He was known for his sense of chivalry and fair play, which earned him admiration even from his enemies.

His tactical ingenuity at battles like Poitiers helped shape military strategy for years.

Even after his untimely death in 1369, his ideals and military strategies continued to influence the knights of England and the conduct of the Hundred Years’ War.

3. Edward, the Black Prince (1330–1376)

Early Life and Background

Born in 1330, Edward of Woodstock, commonly known as the Black Prince, was the eldest son of King Edward III.

From a young age, he was exposed to the arts of war and chivalry, setting the stage for his eventual status as one of the most notable knights of England.

His epithet, “the Black Prince,” is believed to have been derived from the color of his armor, although the origin is not definitively known.

Campaigns and Battles

Edward gained fame for his role in the Hundred Years’ War, particularly in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers.

The Battle of Crécy in 1346 was a decisive victory for the English and showcased Edward’s tactical brilliance.

At Poitiers in 1356, Edward’s forces captured the French King John II, further solidifying his reputation for military excellence.

Kings Served

As the eldest son of King Edward III, Edward the Black Prince was heir apparent to the English throne but predeceased his father.

While he never ruled as king, his military endeavors were in service to his father’s reign.

Edward was also the Prince of Wales, a title giving him governance over the Welsh territories, and the Duke of Cornwall, the first English Duke.

Accomplishments and Impacts

Beyond his battlefield triumphs, Edward was instrumental in establishing the Order of the Garter, one of the most prestigious orders of chivalry.

He was known for his knightly virtues, which contributed to the romanticized notion of chivalry in the medieval era.

Although he never ascended to the throne due to his untimely death in 1376, his impact on military strategy and the chivalric code had a lasting influence on the knights of England and the country’s military history.

4. Sir Henry Percy, “Hotspur” (1364–1403)

Early Life and Background

Born in 1364, Sir Henry Percy, better known as “Hotspur,” was a member of the powerful Percy family of Northumberland.

His nickname, “Hotspur,” was a testament to his fiery temperament and eagerness for battle.

From an early age, he was exposed to military campaigns and knightly duties, setting the stage for his inclusion among the ranks of the celebrated knights of England.

Campaigns and Battles

Hotspur’s military career was notably active in the Anglo-Scottish wars, where he earned a reputation for his aggressive and effective tactics.

However, he is perhaps best known for his role in the rebellion against King Henry IV.

The Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 was a defining moment for Hotspur; despite his valiant efforts, he was defeated and killed, but his bravery in the battle has become legendary.

Kings Served

Hotspur initially served under King Richard II before the latter was deposed.

His allegiance then switched to Henry IV, although this relationship soured due to political tensions and the perceived mistreatment of his family.

This ultimately led to his participation in a rebellion against Henry IV, which culminated in the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Accomplishments and Impacts

Though he died young, Hotspur left an indelible mark on English history and the chivalric tradition.

His military skills were exceptional, and he became a symbol of both chivalry and rebellion.

He has been immortalized in literature, most notably in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” and remains one of the knights of England whose life and exploits continue to fascinate historians and the public alike.

5. Sir John Hawkwood (c. 1320–1394)

Early Life and Background

Born around 1320, Sir John Hawkwood was an English mercenary who achieved great renown not just among the knights of England but also on the European continent.

The son of a tanner, Hawkwood rose from humble beginnings to become a knight and a celebrated military leader.

His early life served as a grounding force, sharpening his skills for the life of a mercenary that awaited him.

Campaigns and Battles

Unlike many of his contemporaries who fought in the Hundred Years’ War, Hawkwood is perhaps best known for his service as a mercenary in Italy.

He led the White Company, a band of mercenaries known for their discipline and effectiveness in battle.

Fighting for various Italian city-states like Florence and Milan, Hawkwood gained a reputation for his military tactics and innovative strategies.

Kings Served

Although Hawkwood primarily fought as a mercenary in the employ of various Italian states, he initially served under Edward III in France.

His services were so well-regarded that he was knighted for his contributions.

However, his freelance work in Italy brought him most of his fame and fortune, making him an atypical yet significant figure among the knights of England.

Accomplishments and Impacts

Sir John Hawkwood’s military theories and tactics had a lasting influence on European mercenary and irregular warfare.

Though he was not bound to a single king or country, his contributions to military strategy made him a studied figure for generations to come.

His legacy also includes a portrait attributed to the artist Paolo Uccello, which hangs in Florence’s Cathedral, serving as a testament to his impact far beyond England’s borders.

6. Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199)

Early Life and Background

Born in 1157, Richard I of England, commonly known as Richard the Lionheart, was the third son of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Raised in a family where military prowess was highly valued, Richard would go on to epitomize the ideal of the medieval warrior-king and earn his place among the most storied knights of England.

Campaigns and Battles

Richard the Lionheart is perhaps best known for his role in the Third Crusade, where he earned his nickname for his courage and fighting skills.

Despite failing to recapture Jerusalem, Richard won several significant battles, including the Battle of Arsuf, and his military strategies during the campaign are still studied today.

His performance on the battlefield made him a legendary figure in Christian and Muslim traditions.

Kings Served

As King of England himself from 1189 until his death in 1199, Richard primarily served his own reign, although his interests often lay outside England.

In fact, Richard spent very little time in England, delegating the governance to others while he pursued military campaigns.

Despite this, his reign significantly impacted the knights and nobles who served under him, inspiring them with his vision of chivalry and military glory.

Accomplishments and Impacts

Richard the Lionheart’s legacy is a subject of debate among historians, as he spent little time governing England, but his contributions to military strategy and the chivalric code are undeniable.

He was a gifted military tactician whose methods have been studied for centuries.

Moreover, his life and exploits have been romanticized in legend and literature, cementing his status as one of the iconic knights of England.

7. Sir Walter Manny (1310–1372)

Early Life and Background

Born in 1310, Sir Walter Manny was of Hainault origin and moved to England to serve Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III.

Through his loyalty and martial prowess, he quickly became a prominent figure among the knights of England.

Manny’s early life prepared him well for his military and chivalric responsibilities in the Hundred Years’ War.

Campaigns and Battles

Sir Walter Manny made his name during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France.

He is particularly noted for his role in the Siege of Calais (1346-1347), where he led several daring raids and displayed remarkable bravery.

His valor during this and other campaigns established him as one of England’s most capable military leaders.

Kings Served

Sir Walter Manny was a close confidant and trusted knight of King Edward III.

His loyalty was unwavering, and the king highly valued his military advice.

Over the years, he also served under Edward, the Black Prince, during campaigns in France, further ingraining his importance within the English royal circle.

Accomplishments and Impacts

Beyond his military achievements, Sir Walter Manny was known for his acts of chivalry and kindness, which helped shape the ideal of knighthood during his time.

He founded the Charterhouse monastery in London, which became an influential Carthusian institution.

Manny’s lasting impact lies not only in his martial contributions but also in the ethical and chivalric standards he helped to instill among the knights of England.

8. Sir Thomas Malory (1415–1471)

Early Life and Background

Sir Thomas Malory was born around 1415 into a family of country gentry.

Despite a life fraught with political turbulence and criminal accusations, Malory found solace and purpose in literature.

Though not a typical knight in terms of martial achievements, he secured his place among the revered knights of England through his pen, making an indelible impact on the Arthurian legend.

Literary Achievements

Unlike many other knights of England, Malory’s contributions were not on the battlefield but on the written page.

He is best known as the author of “Le Morte d’Arthur,” a compilation of Arthurian legends and one of the most enduring works of English literature.

This seminal work has influenced countless adaptations and interpretations of the Arthurian mythos, from Tennyson’s poems to modern films.

Kings Served

Malory lived during the Wars of the Roses, a tumultuous period in English history.

Although records are somewhat unclear, it’s believed he fought for the Lancastrian cause.

His relationship with the ruling powers was complicated; he spent considerable time in prison for various charges, including robbery and insurrection.

It is believed that he wrote much of “Le Morte d’Arthur” while incarcerated.

Accomplishments and Impacts

Sir Thomas Malory’s legacy may not be one of battlefield glory, but his impact on English literature and culture is profound.

His work compiled and modernized Arthurian legend, making it accessible for generations to come.

Through “Le Morte d’Arthur,” Malory helped shape the ideals of chivalry and heroism associated with the knights of England and indeed, knights everywhere.

9. Sir James Douglas, “Black Douglas” (1286–1330)

Early Life and Background

Born in 1286, Sir James Douglas, often referred to as “Black Douglas,” was a Scottish knight who would also earn respect and recognition among the knights of England.

He hailed from a noble family that had lost its lands due to political machinations.

This early adversity would serve to shape Douglas into a cunning and fearless warrior, deeply committed to the cause of Scottish independence.

Campaigns and Battles

Though primarily a figure in the Scottish Wars of Independence, Sir James Douglas’s reputation spread south of the border.

He was a close friend and lieutenant to Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, and played pivotal roles in battles such as Bannockburn in 1314.

His guerilla tactics and the audacious raids he led into northern England made him both feared and respected, earning him the nickname “Black Douglas.”

Kings Served

Sir James Douglas was a loyal follower of Robert the Bruce and served him with distinction throughout his reign.

Although a Scottish knight, his military prowess was so renowned that he was respected and considered an exemplary warrior even among the knights of England.

It’s said that English mothers would use his name to frighten their children into obedience, such was the fear and awe he inspired.

Accomplishments and Impacts

Beyond his military exploits, Sir James Douglas had a lasting impact on the chivalric ideals of his time.

Though a fearsome warrior, he was known for his chivalry, magnanimity, and strict honor code.

His life and deeds have been immortalized in ballads, stories, and historical accounts, making him one of the iconic knights not just of Scotland but also among those celebrated in the broader context of British history.

10. Sir John Talbot (1384–1453)

Early Life and Background

Born in 1384, Sir John Talbot was a prominent English military commander during the Hundred Years’ War.

Originating from a noble family in Shropshire, he displayed a natural aptitude for warfare from a young age.

As he grew older, Talbot would carve out a reputation for ferocity and bravery, joining the ranks of the most esteemed knights of England.

Campaigns and Battles

Sir John Talbot was renowned for his role in the Hundred Years’ War, particularly during the Lancastrian phase.

One of his most notable engagements was against the French forces led by Joan of Arc.

Despite experiencing both victories and defeats, his valor and audacity in battle were unimpeachable, often being cited as the epitome of English chivalry during the war.

Kings Served

Talbot served under King Henry V and later his son, Henry VI, holding various titles including the Earl of Shrewsbury.

His loyalty to the Lancastrian cause was unwavering, and he was one of the key commanders trying to hold onto English territories in France.

Even as the Lancastrian grip on France weakened, Talbot remained steadfast in their military endeavors.

Accomplishments and Impacts

Beyond his military achievements, Sir John Talbot left an enduring mark on the perception of being a knight.

Known for his fearlessness and martial skill, he symbolized English resistance in France during the Hundred Years’ War.

Though he ultimately fell in battle at Castillon in 1453, his legacy has been immortalized through historical accounts, plays, and legends, solidifying his place among the iconic knights of England.

Wrap-up: Knights of England

In the annals of history, the knights of England have left an indelible mark, not just on the battlefield but also in shaping chivalric and ethical ideals.

From Sir William Marshal’s loyalty to Sir Thomas Malory’s literary contributions, each of these knights has added a unique layer to the rich tapestry of England’s past.

They served kings, led troops into battle, and even crafted the stories that have become the cornerstone of Arthurian legend.

Their exploits have been immortalized in history books, romanticized in plays, and celebrated in modern media, making them eternal figures of fascination and study.

As we look back on the lives and contributions of these ten great knights, we’re reminded that knighthood is not just about martial prowess but also about character, leadership, and a commitment to higher ideals.

The Knights of England represent a diverse and complex set of individuals, each of whom has left an impact that resonates today.

Whether serving in the Hundred Years’ War, aiding in establishing legal documents like the Magna Carta, or capturing the imagination of generations through literature, these knights embody the multifaceted nature of heroism.

Their legacies continue to inspire, educating us about the complexities and virtues that define knighthood.

For more on other great warriors of history, this time on the other side of the world in Japan, check out my article 10 Legendary Samurai Warriors Who Shaped Japanese History!

FAQs: Knights of England

1. How did knights from medieval England differ from their counterparts in continental Europe during the same era?

English knights and their counterparts in continental Europe during the Middle Ages had much in common, but geography, culture, and historical events also shaped distinct differences.

Both followed the code of chivalry, emphasizing virtues like bravery, loyalty, and courtesy, and both typically underwent similar processes for attaining knighthood—starting as pages, moving on to squires, and finally being dubbed as knights.

However, there were some notable differences:

Training and Combat Style:

English knights were often trained in specific forms of combat suited to the geography and conditions of the British Isles.

For example, English longbowmen were highly effective and became a cornerstone of English military strategy.

On the other hand, continental knights often focused more on heavy cavalry charges and were more likely to participate in jousting tournaments, which were less common in England until later in the medieval period.

Feudal Structure:

The feudal systems of England and continental Europe had similarities, but the specific obligations and relationships between vassals and lords could vary.

English common law also provided a different legal framework that affected land ownership, inheritance, and other feudal relationships.

Military Campaigns:

English knights had a different scope of action, often involved in wars in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, in addition to campaigns in continental Europe like the Hundred Years’ War.

Continental knights might serve in various conflicts, including the Reconquista in Spain or the Crusades in the Holy Land.

Cultural Influence:

Anglo-Saxon traditions and the Normans heavily influenced Knighthood in England after the conquest of 1066, while continental knighthood was shaped by a broader range of influences, including Roman traditions and various regional and ethnic customs.

Chivalric Orders:

Both English and continental knights could be members of chivalric orders, but these were often tied to specific nations or rulers.

For instance, the Order of the Garter was a distinctly English institution, while the Order of the Golden Fleece was associated with the Duchy of Burgundy.

In summary, while English knights shared many similarities with their continental counterparts, including their social roles, the code of chivalry, and martial prowess, they were also shaped by England’s unique geographical, historical, and cultural contexts.

2. How did one become a knight in the Middle Ages?

In the Middle Ages, the path to becoming a knight was a structured and rigorous process that usually began in childhood.

Typically born into a noble family, a young boy would start his journey at around the age of 7 by becoming a page.

In this role, he would live in the household of a lord or a knight, learning basic etiquette, horsemanship, and initial combat skills.

At around 14, the page would graduate to the position of a squire, serving directly under a knight as an apprentice of sorts.

As a squire, he would be responsible for tasks like caring for the knight’s horse, maintaining weapons and armor, and even accompanying the knight into battle to gain firsthand experience.

Upon reaching the age of 18 to 21, if the squire had proven his skill and moral character, he would be eligible to become a knight through a formal ceremony called “dubbing.”

During this ceremony, the young man would kneel before a lord or another knight, who would tap him on the shoulder with a sword, conferring upon him the title and responsibilities of knighthood.

This process could vary slightly depending on regional customs and the era, but the core elements remained largely consistent throughout medieval Europe.

3. How did William Marshal’s relationship with the Plantagenet kings shape his career and elevate his status in medieval English society?

William Marshal’s relationship with the Plantagenet kings shaped his remarkable career and elevated his status in medieval English society.

Initially serving under King Henry II, Marshal gained favor and trust by proving his loyalty and martial prowess, which paved the way for continued service under Henry II’s sons, including Richard the Lionheart and King John.

His close ties to the royal family gave him unparalleled opportunities to demonstrate his warrior and diplomat skills, making him one of the most influential knights in England.

After Richard’s death, Marshal’s loyalty to King John extended to a pivotal role in reissuing the Magna Carta, a defining moment that had lasting implications for English law and governance.

By the end of his life, Marshal had gone from being a landless knight to a powerful earl and regent of England, largely owing to his complex but beneficial relationships with the Plantagenet kings.

References: Knights of England