Can you name the top ten medieval knights? After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 455 AD, Western Europe fell into chaos as different powers fought to fill the power vacuum left behind. Much of Roman science and art was forgotten as various regions struggled to survive.
By 500 AD, Western Europe entered the Medieval Period: a time of near-constant warfare wherein small territories were ruled by feudal warlords. Few maintained a permanent military force; the closest they had were the medieval knights.
Besides their martial skills, knights also had to have sufficient wealth to maintain horses, armour, weaponry, and a support staff — all of which were expensive. As such, most were the sons of minor nobility who were not entitled to inherit estates, but who had a right to some form of financial compensation.
Knights could add to their wealth by serving a lord. In return, they were provided for and could even be granted lands which they would administer on behalf of their employers.
Although we associate them today with a chivalric code of honour, loyalty, and saving those in distress, these ideas are largely a modern myth; many knights were mercenaries, loyal only to those who served their interests.
Since the title of knight was not conferred or transferrable, but had to be earned, it was one of the few ways by which people could move up the stratified medieval hierarchy. As such, nobles and commoners could earn the title. The following are among the best known knights of the Medieval Period.
1) “El Cid” Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (1043 — 1099)
El Cid means “the master,” and typifies what knights were really like. Though considered today to be a national hero in Spain, Rodrigo actually switched sides often — sometimes fighting for the Christians and sometimes fighting for the Moors. In 1094, he captured the kingdom of Valencia and became its ruler. Rather than expel its Muslims, however, he allowed them the same rights as his Christian subjects.
2) Godfrey of Bouillon (1060 — 1100)
Godfrey was a minor French noble who answered the pope’s call for a Crusade against the Muslims. He was so charismatic that some 40,000 men followed him. Despite these numbers, he was the first to arrive in Palestine, capturing Jerusalem in 1099. After slaughtering most of its populace, he set himself up as its king. He then went on to conquer the rest of the region.
3) Richard the Lionheart (1157 — 1199)
Though a king, Richard spent more time on the battlefield than he did actually ruling, and despite his brutality, even his enemies admired him. He rebelled against his father, Henry II, and was made a knight by Louis VII. He got as far as the gates of Jerusalem, and when the city returned to Muslim hands, he negotiated with Saladin to let Christians back in.
4) William Marshal (1147 — 1219)
William typifies modern ideas of what a knight should be. He was trained in France, where he rose to fame by winning many tournaments. In battle, he held losing knights and their families captive in exchange for ransom, earning him great wealth; though he was known for his mercy and leniency. He also joined the Crusades and was rewarded with estates upon his return.
5) Alexander Nevsky (1220 — 1263)
The Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Vladimir is a Russian national hero for defeating the Swedes in 1240. In 1242, he repelled a German invasion at the Battle of the Ice. Though he failed to repel the Mongols to the east, he managed to negotiate concessions for his people. When he died, he became canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church and remains a saint.
6) Edward the Black Prince (1330 — 1376)
Edward of Woodstock was the Prince of Wales who became the Black Prince after wearing black armor at the Battle of Crecy (which occurred during the Hundred Years’ War). He also fought at the Battle of Poitiers and later helped restore Peter of Castile to the throne of Spain. He was supposed to succeed his father, Edward III of England, but died before his own father did.
7) William Wallace (1272 — 1305)
William was the leading figure of the Wars of Scottish Independence, rising to prominence after killing the English sheriff of Lanark in 1297. On 11 September 1297, he and Andrew Moray defeated a much bigger English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The following year, he was defeated at the Battle of Falkirk, and in 1305, he was captured and later executed in London. The 1995 movie, “Braveheart,” though highly inaccurate, was based on his life.
8) Bertrand du Guesclin (1320 — 1380)
Bertrand successfully defended the French city of Rennes against the English in 1364. He then fought against Charles II of Navarre, whom he also defeated, but his luck ran out at the Battle of Auray, where he was captured by the English. France bought his freedom and sent him against Peter of Castile. Bertrand was captured again, ransomed once more, and went on to recapture much of France from English hands.
9) Sir Henry Percy (1364 — 1403)
A hot-tempered man, he was aptly nicknamed the “Hotspur.” A knight usually began his training at around 8 years of age and finished at around 21. In Henry’s case, he was knighted in 1377 at the age of 13 by King Richard II. He then joined his king in battle against the Scotts and then the French. He would later turn on Richard, however, and be killed in 1403 at the Battle of Shrewsbury.
10) Jean le Maingre Bouciault (1366 — 1421)
He fought against the Spanish and the English during the Hundred Years War. By the 1390s, he rose to greater fame by defeating others at tournaments and getting rich. He later turned his back on that to travel and write poetry, becoming so famous that Philip VI appointed him the Marshal of France.