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The Illustrated Book of Knights
By JACK COGGINS
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1985 Jack Coggins
All rights reserved.
THE STORY of knights and knighthood and the Age of Chivalry is a curious blend of fact and fiction—of life as it really existed in the England and France of nearly a thousand years ago, and as it has been handed down to us through the creative imagination of poets and storytellers.
The fabulous Round Table of King Arthur—with Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawaine, Sir Galahad and all the rest of that glorious company—was pure fantasy and legend. On the other hand, the knights who followed King Richard of the Lion's Heart on his crusade into the Holy Land, and those who fought so gallantly with the Black Prince at the battle of Crecy, were very real and very brave men indeed.
This is the story of the knights—how they lived, and fought, and sometimes died.
AT THE BEGINNING of the Age of Chivalry there were no organized governments. Nobles and overlords each had their own tiny kingdoms, centered around a huge stone castle. They had their knights—who were the select group of fighting men, comparable to the officers of a modern army—and the foot soldiers and archers, who were the "privates."
Each noble also had his serfs, or peasants, who tilled his lands and kept his herds. In return for their work, the nobles and knights protected them. Knighthood legends grew out of this duty of the knights to protect the weak and the poor.
The nobles were almost constantly at war with each other, attacking the castles of their rivals to rob and loot, and in defense of their own properties. For this reason, the knights were trained primarily as fighting men, ready to protect the property of their lords from the frequent raids of neighboring lords and wandering bands.
AS TIME went on, groups of neighboring nobles banded together for mutual protection. The richest and strongest among them—the one who had the most knights and the largest army of foot soldiers—became "king," and the other nobles pledged their loyalty to him. But fighting continued as "kingdoms" went to war against each other.
At last, in the natural course of events, the various "kings" banded together or were conquered by their rivals, until each country had but one king. This was the beginning of organized national government and also of large-scale wars between countries, such as those that raged for a great many years between England and France.
MOST KNIGHTS were the sons of kings, princes, barons and other knights. They started their training for knighthood early in life, usually about the age of seven. While they were learning, they earned their keep as pages, running errands, caring for the knights' armor and waiting on table in the great hall of their master's castle. Meanwhile, they went to school. Here, instead of learning to read and write, which was not considered a proper occupation for knights, they learned to ride, to fight with wooden swords and lances, to wrestle and to run.
One of the favorite training exercises was riding at the quintain. This was a board with a hole in it, set on a stout post. One boy, carrying a wooden lance, sat on a wooden hobby horse with wheels. Other boys pulled the horse as fast as they could toward the target. If the rider was skillful, he placed the lance through the hole. If he missed, however, he was often thrown to the ground from the impact of lance against board.
THE TRAINING of a page went on until he was about fourteen years old. Then, if his teachers were satisfied that he might someday make a good knight, he was promoted to the rank of squire. He was assigned as the personal servant to a knight, caring for his master's armor, his war horse and his weapons. And now, instead of a wooden sword, he carried a real one with which he practiced every day.
The knights took great pride in the progress made by their squires, and taught them all they knew about the art of warfare. Sometimes, in battle, the squires formed a second line of defense behind the knights.
When a squire reached the age of twenty-one, he was ready to become a knight. But before he could win his spurs, which was a symbol of knighthood, he had to prove himself by some feat of bravery or skill at arms.
IN SPITE of their rugged life and love of fighting, the knights and nobles were religious in their own fashion. And the making of a knight was a solemn occasion. The squire spent the night before the ceremony praying in a church. In the morning, he bathed and put on a white robe. After a long sermon by the priest, the ceremony of knighting began.
Dressed in a new suit of armor, the squire knelt before his king or overlord. Drawing his sword, the king struck the young man lightly on the shoulder with its blade and proclaimed: "In the name of God, Saint Michael and Saint George, I dub thee knight!"
Sometimes, when he had performed some particularly brave deed in battle, a squire was rewarded by being knighted on the spot. It was a great honor to win a knight's spurs in this way. The new knight was addressed as "Sir," a squire was appointed to attend him, and he was allowed to choose his own insignia, or coat of arms.
This custom has come down to modern times. Soldiers who have distinguished themselves in action are often awarded commissions right on the battlefield.
THE KNIGHTS wore armor of heavy metal, but this battle dress was cumbersome and uncomfortable. During his leisure hours, however, the knight wore clothes of rich velvet, linen or silk, often trimmed with costly furs.
Most of this cloth had to be made at home, and the ladies of the knight's household learned to become skillful at spinning, weaving and sewing.
On these pages are pictured some of the modes of dress, showing the change in styles from the 12th through the 15th centuries. Laws regulated the type of clothing that could be worn by the different classes of people. Commoners were not allowed to dress as gaily as the knights and nobles, even if they could afford to do so.
During the 14th century, the toes of a knight's shoes were often very long; they curled up and were tied to his legs just under the knees. In the same period, it was against the law for a commoner to wear shoes that were more than six inches long in the toes.
A KNIGHT might travel long distances in time of war, but in more peaceful days he probably did not leave his own lands from one year's end to the next. Each lord's domain was self-sufficient, raising its own food and spinning its own wool. They were like little islands, cut off from each other by the dense woods and joined only by forest paths and rough cart tracks in the earth.
There were no newspapers in those days, and so the knights relied on the occasional travelers that came their way for news of the outside world. The forests were full of outlaws and robbers, so that travelers were rare. But wandering minstrels seemed to be able to come and go safely. The outlaws may have thought them too poor to be worth robbing.
These minstrels were, in effect, the books and newspapers of their time. They made up songs about great events and sang them on their travels. All of the old English legends, including Robin Hood, King Arthur, Roland and others, were handed down from one singing minstrel to the next, since there were few who could record these tales on paper and equally few who could read them.
JUST as the wandering minstrels traveled from castle to castle, so did the wandering entertainers—the jugglers, sword-swallowers, dwarfs, clowns and trainers of dancing bears. On festive occasions, like a wedding or the knighting of an eldest son, there would be an open house at the castle where serfs and villagers assembled in the courtyard to eat, drink and enjoy the free show. After the banquet, the strolling players would amuse the family and guests of the knight inside the great hall of the castle.
THERE were always great quantities of food at a banquet. Each course was carried to the table by a procession of servants and announced by a blaring of trumpets. One could see a peacock pie being served, complete with bright feathers and all. The meal was presided over by the steward, who supervised the servants and kitchen affairs. He used his heavy staff of office to prod any lazy serving man or to drive off the savage hounds that fought over scraps on the rush-strewn floor.
By our modern standards, the table manners of the knights and their ladies were crude. Forks were unknown. The food was cut up with the knife that each man wore in his belt, and eaten with the fingers. A wooden platter was shared by each pair of diners, and kept piled high with food by the attentive pages and squires.
In every castle, the jester, or clown, performed his antics and tricks to keep the nobles amused while they ate.
THE LIFE of the serfs—the common people who worked for the knights and nobles in return for protection—was a hard one. They had few rights and little personal freedom. In fact, they were little more than slaves. They were not allowed to carry weapons or to own land of their own. They could not leave their master's estate or get married without his permission. When children were born to the serfs, they too would one day owe an obligation to the noble.
The serfs lived in small, rough huts outside the castle walls. They were allowed to raise tiny gardens of their own which they tilled after their long day's work.
The lord of the castle held the power of life and death over his serfs. If he was kind and just, their life was endurable. But if he was harsh and cruel, then the life of the serf was miserable indeed.
Even though the serfs worked from sunup to sundown and had few privileges, they were still permitted occasional opportunities for entertainment.
When the overlord held a big feast in the castle, the serfs had their own celebration in the courtyard. When wandering minstrels and traveling entertainers came to the castle to perform for the noble and his court, they always put on a special performance for the commoners outside. At harvest time, the nobles gave them feasts, and then the serfs sang and danced to the music of drums and pipes.
At these celebrations, the serfs played rough games, such as wrestling and fighting with long, stout sticks called quarterstaves. In England, but nowhere else, they were allowed to shoot the bow and arrow. In fact, it was the British serfs who later became the skilled archers that helped to win many of England's battles.
MANY concepts of knighthood and the Age of Chivalry derive from the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. These tales are a part of English legend and folklore, and were handed down to modern poets and storytellers by the songs of the ancient wandering minstrels. It is thought by many, however, that Arthur actually lived, and that he was a noble or minor king of the Britons in the days of the Saxon invasions.
The Knights of the Round Table—Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, Sir Kay, Sir Tristram, Sir Gawaine, and the others—embodied all that was fine and good in the Age of Chivalry. They defended the weak and the poor. They fought and conquered those evil knights who sought to oppress good and gentle people. Their greatest mission in life was to find the Holy Grail, the sacred cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper.
King Arthur's knights gathered around a great round table, above which hung their swords and shields. When any damsel was in distress, she had only to send word to Arthur's castle at Camelot and a champion was hastily dispatched to right the wrong that was being done.
The fabled knights of King Arthur's Round Table may have never actually existed in fact. But they symbolized virtue and purity at a time in history when mankind was emerging from the savagery of the Dark Ages. Because of the good they reportedly did and the noble lessons that their legends teach, they have gained a significance, which, even as fanciful characters, has not been lessened.
THE STORY is told that once each year, on the feast of Saint Stephen, the knights of King Arthur's court changed places with their squires and pages. They waited on them at table; they cleaned their living quarters and took care of their clothes and weapons. The knights did this to show their meekness and humility.
On this one day of the year, the squires and pages enjoyed their new status though they may have paid heavily for it the next morning when the knights were their masters again.
ONE of the most romantic stories from the Age of Chivalry is the tale of how King Arthur proved his right to the English throne.
Arthur was the true son of King Uther Pendragon. But because there were so many lords and barons who wished to be king and who might do harm to the infant prince, the young Arthur was taken away at his father's death by Merlin the Magician and brought up as a common man.
When Arthur had grown to young manhood, Merlin called all these warring barons and nobles to a meeting in the churchyard of Saint Paul's. There, in a steel anvil, embedded in a huge block of stone, was a beautiful sword. Underneath were written these words:
Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil is rightly King of all England.
One by one, the nobles tugged and strained at the sword, but none could budge it even an inch from the sheath of steel and stone. Then Merlin called for the boy Arthur. The young prince put his hand to the sword's hilt, pulled it easily from the stone, and swung it above his head.
With that, all the nobles fell on their knees and proclaimed Arthur the true King of England.
EVERY knight carried a shield for protection painted with his own special design so that friends could recognize him in battle. These designs were handed down from father to son as family coats of arms.
In a large family, everyone could not carry the same coat of arms, so colored borders or other devices were added to the insignia by the family's different branches. Few knights could read or write, but they could recognize a relative in a crowd by his coat of arms.
When two noble families were joined in marriage, their coats of arms were combined, as illustrated below.
King Richard the Lion Hearted carried a red shield emblazoned with three golden lions. This became the royal insignia of England. The emblem of France was a lily, and the French king's arms was a blue shield covered by yellow lilies.
King Edward III of England claimed the crown of France. To dramatize this claim, he divided his coat of arms into four parts—he quartered the arms of France with those of England. The lilies remained on the English royal coat of arms for nearly four hundred years.
Below are three common armorial designs, or bearings. The one at left is called a cheeky; the wedge is called a pile; the diagonal stripe is a bend.
NEXT to fighting and practicing with their weapons, hunting was the knights' favorite sport. In those days, great forests covered much of the land and they abounded in wild animals of all kinds. Deer, wolves, bears, and that most dangerous game of all, the fierce wild boar with his razor-sharp tusks, were prevalent.
Almost every clear morning at sunrise, the castle courtyard would be filled with men, horses and dogs, all eager to be off to the hunt. Then, with a merry blasting of horns, they would thunder across the drawbridge and into the forest.
The knights used hawks, called falcons, to hunt small game in the woods and fields. Each castle had its trainer, or falconer, and he was one of the knight's most privileged servants.
The falcon was carried to the scene of the hunt on the knight's wrist, usually with a leather hood over the bird's head to keep it quiet until game was sighted. When a game bird broke from the thick cover, the hood was removed and the hawk flew after its prey. Circling high above the fleeing bird, the hawk swooped in a lightning dive, grasped the bird in its strong claws and carried it to the ground.
IN OCTOBER of 1066, an army of Norman and French knights, led by Duke William of Normandy, invaded England. They met the English, or Saxons, on the field of Hastings, defeated them, and went on to conquer all of England.
The principal reason for the Normans' victory was the fact that they were protected by heavy armor while most of the Saxons wore almost none.
THIS 11th century coat of mail, or hauberk, was made of heavy cloth or leather covered by flat iron rings or small metal plates that overlapped like shingles on a roof. The same kind of armor protected the legs and feet. The shield was made of wood, covered with heavy leather and strengthened with strips of iron. The sword was long and heavy.
As the years went by, skilled blacksmiths found ways to improve the armor worn by knights in battle. Instead of iron sewn to leather, they linked thousands of thin steel rings together to form a kind of metal cloth, called chain mail. Later, elbows, arms, knees, legs and chest were protected by heavy steel plate. Shoes and gauntlets were formed of strips of plate, hinged in such a way as to be flexible.
THE KNIGHTS built their homes primarily for safety, and not for comfort. The stronger they built them—the thicker and higher the walls—the safer they could feel.
The earliest of these great, stone castles were strong, square towers with protective ditches and walls around them. The towers were called keeps, and the ditches, usually filled with water, were moats.
Excerpted from The Illustrated Book of Knights by JACK COGGINS. Copyright © 1985 Jack Coggins. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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