English history is full of tales about famous, heroic knights. From the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table to the rebellious Harry Hotspur and Black Prince of Wales, there are enough chivalric stories to fill hundreds of books.
But the Chivalric Code was a real way of life for thousands of people over the course of the Middle Ages, and many of them lived awesome lives that are sadly forgotten now. Here, we’ve hunted down ten of the greatest knights you’ve probably never heard of.
10 Gilbert De Clare
In many ways, Gilbert de Clare was the archetypical English knight. A descendant of William the Conqueror and a relative of both the king of England and, by marriage, Robert the Bruce of Scotland, Gilbert was also the head of the powerful de Clare family. And at the age of 23, he already had several years of military service in Scotland under his belt.
It was only natural, then, that he was one of the leaders in Edward II’s doomed Scottish campaign in 1314, the one which ended in defeat at Bannockburn. Having been involved in a skirmish the day before the battle, de Clare was one of the generals who urged Edward to be more cautious. Outraged, Edward accused him of cowardice.
Eager to prove his courage to the king, de Clare led the charge against the Scots the next day. He was surrounded and separated from the main force and killed. His death was considered a tragedy by both sides; he was the first English earl to be killed in battle in nearly 50 years. Robert the Bruce personally stood vigil over his body in the aftermath and allowed Gilbert’s remains to be returned to the English.
Whether or not we think de Clare’s actions were brave or foolish, it is hard not to appreciate his commitment to the Chivalric Code and its requirement that knights show bravery in the face of adversity, and his death would have far-reaching consequences for the king when his lands ended up in the hands of the hated Despenser family.
9 Thomas Of Lancaster
Concerned about the king’s judgement and how susceptible he was to manipulation, Thomas of Lancaster was one of the key figures behind the Ordinances of 1311, which imposed severe restrictions on King Edward II’s authority, and was also involved in the execution of one of the king’s closest friends, Piers Gaveston, in 1312. Edward was easily swayed by those who impressed him, and Lancaster considered this a threat to the realm.
He rebelled in 1321 in protest against the power of the Despenser family, who many believed were controlling the king behind the scenes, but he was defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge. At his trial, which was judged by the Despensers, the king, and their allies, Lancaster was not allowed to speak in his own defense. He was beheaded at his own castle in Pontefract.
Lancaster had always been popular with the common folk for supporting the Ordinances, which they thought protected them from royal exploitation. A cult rose up around him following his death, and he became a saint. Edward II sent a group of armed guards to the church where his body lay to prevent people from making the pilgrimage to see him. The route obviously continued to be popular, however, as a riot broke out outside his tomb in 1323.
8 Henry Of Grosmont
Of all the knights on this list, Henry of Grosmont is probably the one we know most about—in terms of his personality, at least. Henry wrote a book, Livre de Seyntz Medicines, which tells us much about his everyday life.
Henry was the nephew of Thomas of Lancaster and was just as brave and stubborn. Henry was an avid jouster and obviously loved a thrill. He celebrated Christmas in 1341 by taking part in a joust without armor. Naturally, the contest resulted in two deaths and a serious injury—but Henry came out of it unscathed.
Later in life, his successes in France led to him being made lieutenant of Gascony, and he won key victories at battles with the French at Bergerac and Auberoche, which netted him enough money in ransoms to eclipse the king’s own annual income and made him one of the richest men in England.
But it is perhaps the insights into his daily life that make him so interesting: Henry was a self-confessed braggart who loved to talk about himself and thought he was great at dancing. He loved the smell of flowers, getting drunk, and reading “trivial” books—though he admits he didn’t learn how to read until later in life. And then there’s perhaps his most hilarious trait, one we can all sympathize with: He struggled to wake up early every day.
7 Andrew Harclay
Andrew Harclay was a knight for whom principle was everything. Like many others on this list, his life revolved around war, and he spent much of his life fighting the Scots on the border, especially after he was made sheriff of Cumberland in 1311. He led the defense against the Scots in 1313 and defeated Robert the Bruce outside Carlisle in 1315, halting Bruce’s counter-invasion that followed the disaster at Bannockburn. This stopped Bruce from rampaging through Northern England, and for it, Edward II lavished Andrew with money.
Despite his warm relationship with the king, he had been an ally of Thomas of Lancaster at court, and when he rebelled in 1321, Thomas must have expected Andrew to join him. Andrew and his army confronted Thomas at Boroughbridge in 1322; before the battle, Thomas asked Andrew to join his rebellion, but he refused. Remaining loyal to the king, Andrew defeated Thomas and captured him, which led to the latter’s trial and execution shortly after.
For this, Andrew was made earl of Carlisle, but the king’s favor was short-lived. Having fought on the border for many years, Andrew decided the war with the Scots could not be won. Seeking to protect his lands and people from further damage, he negotiated a peace with Robert the Bruce in the king’s name (but without his permission) in 1323. Edward was livid. Eager to show the upstart knight his place, the king had Andrew stripped of his symbols of knighthood by having his spurs sawed off and breaking his sword over his head. He was tried by a royal justice in his own castle of Carlisle and then hanged, drawn, and quartered. At his trial, he maintained his dignity, continuing to claim that he only acted in the best interests of his people and the country.
The king signed a 13-year truce with the Scots just three months later.
6 William De Warenne
William de Warenne began life as an arrogant man. Buoyed by the power of his father, he seems to have thought himself untouchable. He rarely attended his lord’s court and even mocked King Henry I behind his back, calling him “Stagfoot” because of his obsessive love of hunting. Needless to say, when he was caught trying to support an aborted rebellion, he was banished from the kingdom in 1101, his lands seized.
Though an intervention by his friend Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, got him his lands back, William seems to have learned his lesson, because he and the king slowly became friends. By 1110, William was one of the king’s closest confidantes, accompanying the royal court almost constantly. In 1119, when the king was at war with France, and many of his own lords had rebelled, William said to him: “There is nobody who can persuade me to treason [ . . . ] I and my kinsmen here and now place ourselves in mortal opposition to the king of France and are totally faithful to you.”
While there is no doubt that William gained from being the king’s friend, being granted a large tax exemption—the third-largest in the kingdom—the friendship was more than just political: William was by the king’s side when he died in 1135 and was one of just five men who escorted his body to Rouen in preparation for his burial.
5 Aymer De Valence
By the time Edward II was crowned, Aymer de Valence was one of the most experienced and respected members of the king’s court, having been one of the last king’s closest advisors. So when the court split in two over the situation around the king’s friend, Piers Gaveston, it was Aymer who held the middle ground. Torn between his loyalty to the king and the king’s failure to govern properly, Aymer seems to have been the linchpin of a middle party who tried to hold the kingdom together.
The situation worsened, however, and soon, people were calling for Piers to be banished—or worse. Knowing that Aymer was respected by both sides, the king chose him to escort Gaveston to York, where he would be tried. However, the journey took them close to the place where Aymer’s wife was staying, and he left Gaveston alone one night to visit her, trusting that Gaveston’s enemies would respect that he was under Aymer’s protection and leave him alone.
But they were not as honorable as Aymer expected, and they seized Piers. Accounts of Gaveston’s murder are graphic: He was driven from the house in his bedclothes and forced to march on foot ahead of the other knights, who shouted insults and blew horns. He was ultimately impaled with a sword and beheaded in the wilderness. His body was left by the side of the road.
This event had a massive impact on Aymer. Disgusted that the rebels had betrayed his honor and the knightly code, from that day on, he was a staunch supporter of Edward. He was a key advisor to the king even through the years of the Despensers, when nearly everyone abandoned Edward, and also seems to have acted as a kind of personal protector: He personally escorted the protesting king from the field of battle at the disaster of Bannockburn. In a time when both the king and his enemies resorted to violence to achieve their means, Aymer was a rock of morality, guided by his knightly principles and always doing what he believed to be right.
4 Roger De Mortimer
The Baronial War of 1264 to 1267 was a disastrous civil war in medieval England. Fueled by anti-Jewish sentiment, dissatisfaction with the king and his government, and famine, it tore England in two. And one of the most obvious supporters of the barons was Roger de Mortimer. Roger was due to inherit a large amount of land, but King Henry III was slow in processing the legalities, which pushed Roger onto the side of the rebels.
Roger never truly fit in with the rebels, either, however, especially after he lost a castle one of the rebel barons had trusted him to keep. He flipped sides several times throughout the war, destroying other lords’ estates and suffering the same in return. He found himself commanding a portion of the royal army at the pivotal Battle of Evesham (where he was supposedly the one who killed the chief rebel, Simon de Montfort) and from that point onward was firmly on the royal side. His ambition to punish the rebels and seize as much land from them as possible was extreme and brought him into conflict with Gilbert de Clare (an ancestor of the one mentioned above).
However, Roger seems to have regretted the damage the war did to the realm in later life. He was one of the three men trusted to govern the kingdom while King Edward returned from crusading. Their reign was marked by cooperation and peace, and Roger made serious efforts to make amends for the damage caused by the war. He and Gilbert de Clare buried the hatchet and even went on a yearlong tour together in Southern England, where they helped to reconstruct bridges destroyed by conflict.
3 Henry Percy
The Percy family were famous (or infamous) for their persistently independent, ambitious, and rebellious nature. The most well-known Percy, known as Hotspur, made Henry IV king and eventually rebelled against him. But Henry Percy, third Lord Percy, was different: He was a loyal, unambitious lord who did as he was asked and acted with honor in battle.
He fought in the Battle of Crecy in France, one of the most crucial battles in the Hundred Years’ War, at the age of 25. He remained in France until his father’s death in 1352, when he was made warden of the March and sent back home to guard the Scottish borders, as his father and grandfather had. Unlike them, however, he seems to have had little ambition for expanding his own lands at Scottish expense, and when he took part in the 1356 invasion of Scotland, his most significant achievement was in securing the Treaty of Berwick, which brought an end to the war in England’s favor. He followed Edward III’s orders to the letter and was successful in ending the Scottish war that had dragged on for decades.
It seems that his lack of personal ambition was not because he lacked military skill because by 1355, he was the marshal of the English army in France and took part in Edward’s campaign to capture Rheims in 1360. With his talent and his dedication to duty, he was in many ways the model of a high-class baron, serving in the king’s army when asked and policing the border in peacetime. His family’s chronicler said of him: “Content with the lordship left him by his father, he wished to obtain the lands or possessions of no one.” By 1362, the king’s opinion of Percy was so high that he gave Percy’s son, yet another Henry Percy, the authority to negotiate with the Scottish government on his behalf.
2 Thomas De Beauchamp
Thomas de Beauchamp was one of the founding knights of the Order of the Garter, the highest honor a medieval knight could aspire to, and was by all accounts a shrewd tactician and one of England’s greatest generals during the Hundred Years’ War.
He was part of the English campaigns in France, where he led the English center at the Battle of Crecy and was entrusted with personally looking after the prince of England, the Black Prince, on the battlefield. Edward III later paid Thomas 1,000 marks on the condition that he would serve the king in war whenever required, which tells us how great a warrior he was.
Many knights chose to retreat from the battlefield as they got older, but Thomas continued to relish combat. He accompanied the Black Prince at Poitiers in 1356 despite being older than 40, and it was said that he and William Montagu struggled like lions to see which one could spill the most French blood.
By the height of his career in 1369, the same year in which he would ultimately die of the Black Death, he didn’t even have to fight to defeat his enemies: The Duke of Burgundy, hearing that “the devil Warwick” was in the English army, retreated under the cover of darkness to avoid him!
1 Jean III De Grailly
Like de Beauchamp, de Grailly was present at the Battle of Poitiers, where he led the English cavalry. Seeing an opportunity in the way the battle was going, Jean led an attack around the side of the French army that resulted in the capture of the French king and many of his nobles. That’s quite a feat, especially since Jean was actually French himself!
He was captured by the French in 1364, who were anxious to keep him from commanding the English. At first, they refused to ransom him, and then the French king offered him considerable lands and titles to join his side. Jean accepted but swore loyalty to Edward III again soon after, abandoning his new titles.
He rejoined the English campaigns in France but was captured again in 1372. The French king once again offered him land and titles in exchange for his support, but he refused them, unwilling to break his oath to the king of England. He was said to have been so feared by the French that they kept him under close confinement in Paris. He remained in captivity until 1376, when, after hearing of the Black Prince’s death, he was said to have refused food and water, dying some days later.