It’s another book review this week. The Middle Ages in 50 Objects is both a delight and a disappointment. The delight is in the illustrations. Some of the fifty objects are rather special and there is a full page photograph of each of them. The disappointment is in the text. Each item has a three page essay and these don’t always focus on the object. Many of them talk a bit about the item then go off at a tangent to talk about something (very) loosely connected with the object. Thus a painting of the flagellation of Christ leads to an extremely superficial look at the cult of flagellation during the Black Death, anti-Semitism, the Franciscans, Venice, the Fourth Crusade and trade in the Mediterranean.
When I bought the book, I didn’t realise that the objects were all in the Cleveland Museum of Art, so this should be viewed more as a catalogue than a book about medieval objects. ‘Medieval’ as a term is rather loosely used, as the books definition of medieval is a lot broader than most people would be happy with. Some of the objects date from the third century and some from the sixteenth century.
Although they’re all from one museum, the objects come from a variety of places and times. As well as items that you would expect to see from Europe, there are also Byzantine and Islamic objects from various periods.
The book is divided into four sections. The Holy And The Faithful is about religious artefacts, including a stunning twelfth-century reliquary. The Sinful And The Spectral is a bit of a hotchpotch of images of the Devil and evil sprits. Daily Life And Its Fictions includes coins, buttons, jugs and a lovely lion aquamanile. Death And Its Aftermath is another section that doesn’t really know what it’s about, but there are depictions of the Crucifixion and the death of the Virgin Mary as well as decorations from tombs.
Since the articles don’t go into any great depth, it’s a shame that there’s no bibliography to allow readers to follow up points that interest them. Whilst it’s probably better to see the book as an introduction to the Middle Ages, it’s a rather disjointed introduction and it doesn’t tell the reader where to go next. Some of the essays have quotes from writings that are, more or less, contemporaneous with the object and the sources are listed at the back of the book. It’s not always obvious, however, which source goes with which quotation.
Although I can’t say that I enjoyed the book with my whole heart, I did enjoy aspects of it. Some of the essays are quite enlightening about the objects depicted and some of them made me stop and think about how the objects had been made and used. The photographs of the objects are wonderful and some of the objects themselves are fascinating. My favourite section is definitely the one on daily life, since that’s the aspect of medieval history that really has my attention.
You will be able to tell from the number of pages that Desmond Seward’s A Brief History of the Hundred Years War really is brief. In his Trial by Battle, the first volume of his five volume history of the Hundred Years War, Jonathan Sumption takes 200 pages just to cover the causes of the war, so it’s fairly obvious that a book of this size isn’t going to help anyone understand why things happened. I still don’t really understand the political situation in France in the first half of the fifteenth century that allowed both sides in a civil war to ask for Henry V’s help, only for one side to assist him later in his goal to obtain the French crown. I do have a better idea of the battles and sieges of that period, though.
The book is a chronological telling of the events of the Hundred Years War, with the exception of the chapter in which Joan of Arc appears. As it must have seemed to the English and Burgundian armies at the time, she appears out of nowhere and Seward goes back in time to explain her arrival. In many ways this underlines Seward’s bias towards the French. Joan appeared as a kind of saviour figure outside the walls of Orleans, which was besieged by the English and the Burgundians.
I found this bias quite tiring, as the worst thing Seward (who was born in Paris) has to say about any French king, save Charles VII, is that he wasn’t a very good soldier (all of them except one) or that he had a taste for luxury. Charles VII, he says, was physically and mentally weak, and his confessors thought he was a heretic. Edward III, in comparison, was a womaniser who spent his senile last years drinking. Richard II became ‘insanely tyrannical’ and Henry V is compared to Napoleon and Hitler. English soldiers carried out atrocities, while French soldiers, presumably, behaved like perfect gentlemen. Seward also says that Roger Mortimer was ‘perhaps the nastiest man ever to rule England’. I’m fairly certain there would be more votes for John Lackland on that score.
The only Englishman for whom he has a good word is the Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s brother and regent for Henry VI in France, who ‘loved the French’. The French apparently loved him in return, but that’s possibly because there was order and, more or less, peace in the part of France that he controlled.
1978 was a long time ago and Seward includes a few things that contemporary historians would feel less able to be dogmatic about. He states confidently, for example, that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella were lovers and that the queen was carrying his child. He’s also happy to write that Edward II was killed by a red hot poker and that Isabella spent the rest of her life after Mortimer’s fall as a prisoner. I suspect there are similar bald statements about the fifteenth century part of the war, but I know a lot less about what was going on then to be able to know.
As you can tell, the book doesn’t have a huge amount to recommend it, other than the brevity which is mostly the reason for for its faults. It is easy to read, which is a plus and it does include all the major battles and a few of the sieges in the war. If you want something that you can read in a couple of days that will give you an idea of what happened during the Hundred Years War, this might be the book for you. If you want to understand why and how things happened, I’d recommend saving your pennies for Jonathan Sumption’s more comprehensive history of the war.
Last week we left Geoffroi de Charny about to join battle with the English near Poitiers. It was Monday, 19th September 1356. An army led by the king of France, Jean II, had been pursuing an English, Welsh and Gascon army led by Edward of Woodstock (better known now as the Black Prince) for some days.
For most of his career, de Charny had the good fortune not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn’t, for example, at the battle of Crécy, where so many French knights and nobles were killed or taken prisoner that Philippe VI couldn’t raise an army large enough to take on Edward III at the siege of Calais a few months later. De Charny gained his reputation in siege warfare, but he was probably disappointed not to have faced the English in battle. His chance had finally come.
That morning it looked as if he still might be denied the opportunity of fighting in a battle. The prevailing opinion in the French camp was that the English army was in no state to fight and would retreat at the first opportunity, which was probably what Edward of Woodstock intended. He was at the end of a summer’s campaign of raiding in south-west France. As with many campaigns in the Hundred Years War, the objective was to show that the king of France was unable to protect his subjects, the main duty of a medieval king, and to take some booty along the way. After two years of such raids, it was a point so well made that the king had to do something.
Jean II was able to put together an impressive army made up of knights of the Order of the Star, men from the duchies and kingdoms on the eastern borders of France who owed allegiance to the French king, a large Scottish retinue and some mercenaries. They were all well-rested and well-supplied. Their main difficulty had been finding the enemy in order to engage them.
Edward of Woodstock had been leading his men in raids for two summers. It was a relatively small army and their supplies were exhausted. There had been almost nothing to eat or drink on the day before the battle. They had been avoiding the larger French army for some days and were very tired. Although they had picked a good spot for the battle and had reinforced it, the plan was still to slip away before battle could be joined.
De Charny was entrusted with the Oriflamme, the French king’s battle standard. It was a huge honour and it had been put into his hands during a religious ceremony at the abbey of St. Denis. When it was carried into a battle it was a sign that no prisoners would be taken. This was meant to scare the opposition into surrender, as most nobles didn’t expect to die in battle, but to be taken prisoner for ransom, as had happened to de Charny himself, twice. On this day, however, he could look forward to the knights of France demonstrating all the aspects of chivalry that he had written about and defeating the English.
There really could be little doubt about the outcome. The English army was about 6, 000 men strong. The French army was twice the size. The scene was set for a great French victory, except …
Except Jean II was no strategist. He was a man of great personal bravery, but he didn’t really know what to do with an army. Despite all his advantages going into this particular battle, he wasn’t a leader of men. Even had his opponent not been the greatest soldier of his time, Jean II would have struggled.
Except he French knights had not learned what de Charny had tried to teach them. Personal glory was still their main motivation and they couldn’t work together under the king or even obey him. The English and the Gascons, on the other hand, had been fighting together as a unit for months, under a commander who knew what he was doing.
Except no one had worked out a proper strategy for dealing with the English and Welsh archers. They had played an important role in defeating the French at the battle of Crécy and 10 years later the French still had no plan for opposing them. The only thing they had really thought about and prepared for (at the last minute) was the English preference for fighting on foot, which they had learned from the Scots.
In the end, the English didn’t run away, but fought. All day de Charny was in the thick of the battle holding up the king’s standard. We can’t know if he saw or understood much of what was going on around him, but he probably died, the battle standard still in his hands, before Jean II was captured by the English. He certainly didn’t live to know that more than eighty members of the Order of the Star had been killed or that more than a quarter of the army had been taken prisoner. Over two and a half thousand men from the French army died. The day that should have demonstrated the renewal of French chivalry ended in its complete defeat.
Geoffroi de Charny literally wrote the book on chivalry. In fact, he wrote three. It’s not known, however, how much what he wrote reflected or influenced the behaviour and beliefs of fourteenth-century French knights.
Chivalry and knighthood underwent many changes in France during the fourteenth century, beginning with the destruction of the Templars during de Charny’s childhood at the beginning of the century. If the soldier monks couldn’t survive, what hope could there be for the ordinary knight?
As he grew up, it must have been obvious to de Charny that French knights were missing an essential element of chivalry: prowess. They were defeated by the English at Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346) and Calais (1347). They could no longer protect France even against one of the least powerful countries in Europe.
Loyalty to the king, another aspect of chivalry, had been undermined by the change of dynastic house. In 1328 the Capetians had died out, although Edward III was the nephew of the last three Capetian kings, and Philippe VI, a Valois, did not instil as much loyalty in his knights as his predecessors had done. This loss of loyalty contributed to Philippe’s inability to protect his kingdom against his counter-claimant to the French crown, Edward III. The knights in French armies were more interested in their personal glory and gain than in supporting their king.
Philippe’s son, Jean II, recognised the need for reform probably even before his father’s defeat at Crécy. This led him to create the Order of the Star in 1352, two years after he became king. As part of this reform, he asked de Charny to write about chivalry.
De Charny wrote three book: Demandes pour la joute, les tournois et la guerre, Le livre Charny, and Le livre de chevalerie. The first is a series of questions about jousts, tournaments and war. There are no answers, so it’s possibly a book intended to provoke discussion between knights or between squires and their teachers. The Livre Charny is in verse and is about the chivalrous life and the qualities required of a knight. The Livre de chevalerie is his most famous work and is an examination of what it means to be a knight and how a knight should behave.
All were probably dictated, possibly while de Charny was a prisoner in England in 1350 to 1351. They were written in French rather than Latin, so were not meant to be academic works, but accessible to knights. They’re not great works of literature, but they are interesting historically. There’s little evidence that they had much of a readership even in the fourteenth century, but they show what the man who was acknowledged as one of the most chivalrous men of his age thought about chivalry.
There was a constant tension between knights and clergy as to who had the higher calling. Medieval society was divided into three: those who prayed, those who fought and those who laboured. Publicly, everyone said that the clergy was the most important class, but there were obviously different private opinions. Being pious didn’t stop de Charny from being critical of the church, although he retracted a little by writing that people shouldn’t be critical. It’s obvious from his writing, however, that he clearly thought being a knight was a holy calling and that being a knight could be a form of martyrdom.
In his writing he emphasised how hard it was to be a knight. A knight had to train his body all the time and could not have an easy life. He also risked everything in battle. At the very least a knight could expect to be wounded or to break some bones while on campaign. De Charny also touched on the mental aspects of a knight seeing his friends wounded or killed.
When de Charny marched to battle near Poitiers in 1356, he must have thought that the future of French knighthood was bright. The king and his Order of the Star would encourage the chivalrous life and de Charny’s writings would give its members the guidance they needed. They had even sworn an oath not to run from battle. On that day they were going to fight a much smaller, exhausted English army that had been trying to avoid battle. De Charny had even been given the honour of carrying the king’s personal banner. It was going to be a good day for French chivalry.
These week we’re continuing with our look at aspects of the life of Geoffroi de Charny. Like most of his contemporaries, de Charny was very pious. In the 1340s he started planning the building of a church on his estate at Lirey. He wanted to have five clerics in the chapel who would pray and say masses for himself, his family, the king and the royal family. It was in relation to this church that the Shroud of Turin was first mentioned and De Charny was probably its first owner, if not the person the commissioned its creation. He’s certainly the first verifiable owner.
The first mention of it being in his possession was in a papal letter written not long after his death, when de Charny’s son had inherited the shroud. De Charny junior gave exhibitions of it to the public to no little scandal, since he gained financially from it. It’s possible that de Charny himself exhibited it around 1355 to 1356. The exhibitions were subject to an episcopal investigation at the time, led by Henri de Poitiers, the bishop of Troyes. It seems that the church was worried that the shroud was being passed off as a relic of Christ. Following the episcopal investigation, the family were told that they had to announce that the shroud was not a relic whenever they exhibited it. This doesn’t mean that it was created with the intention of deceiving people, but that people can convince themselves that something is a relic, even when it clearly isn’t.
A pilgrim badge has been found showing the shroud with the arms of de Charny and his second wife. They might, of course, be the arms of de Charny’s son, but the badge certainly shows that there were sufficient pilgrims wanting to see the shroud around the middle of the fourteenth century that it was worthwhile to have lead badges manufactured to sell to them as souvenirs.
This sounds trite, but in the days before photography, a badge was proof that someone had arrived at and returned from a recognised site of pilgrimage. This might be particularly useful if the pilgrimage was being carried out as an act of penance. It was also a way of recognising another pilgrim.
It’s possible that de Charny purchased the shroud while he was on crusade in 1345 to 1346, although unlikely due to the way in which the linen thread was spun. It’s more likely that it was made and painted at his or his wife’s request by an artist local to Lirey for an Easter service, in which a linen sheet representing Christ’s shroud was carried to the altar and laid on it ready for mass. This was a recorded part of the Easter liturgy in some places. Most scientific tests have dated the shroud to between 1260 and 1390. The width of the cloth is certainly standard for the fourteenth century loom. It would have been created as an icon, an aid to devotion, rather than a false relic, something deserving reverence of itself. It was only later that it was considered to be a relic.
I said last week that we’d look at Geoffroi de Charny’s attempt to take back Calais two years after it had surrendered to Edward III. Before we get to the story I wanted to set the scene a bit. There are four main characters in this story: de Charny, Edward III, Edward of Woodstock and Aimeric of Pavia. At the time de Charny was at least 43 years old, Edward III was 37 and Edward of Woodstock, his oldest son and heir, was 19. I have no idea how old Aimeric was. I include this detail to show what was expected of young heirs to kingdoms in the Middle Ages. Edward of Woodstock had already proved himself in battle at the age of 16 and was about to prove himself again.
The other important point is that in 1349 Europe was still in the grip of the Black Death. I can’t emphasise enough how little what we’ve gone through in the last few months has resembled the Black Death. I know that people have made the comparison, but even the number of deaths in the First World War combined with deaths from Spanish flu a hundred years ago don’t come close. During the three years of the Black Death, somewhere between a third and a half of the population of Europe died and they died horribly. Despite that and the fear in which people must have lived, life seems to have gone on fairly normally, as we shall see.
After a long siege, the French town of Calais had surrendered to the English in 1347. Most of those who lived in the town and survived the siege were allowed to leave and Edward III filled the town with English merchants and soldiers. It was incredibly useful for a king who was expecting to continue to wage war on French soil to have a port in France just over 30 miles from the English coast. This, of course, presented a huge problem to the French king. Fortunately, de Charny had a plan for getting Calais back which didn’t involve besieging it.
There are different versions of the story, mainly told by people who weren’t there, but we’ll look at the story as told by Geoffrey le Baker, an English chronicler. According to him, Aimeric Pavia, a Lombard mercenary, was the governor of Calais. De Charny bribed him to open the gates to let in some French soldiers. Aimeric was greedy, but not stupid, and he wrote to Edward III, explaining about the plot, obviously hoping to be in good standing with both sides.
Edward III wasn’t stupid either and he decided to go to Calais himself. He took his oldest son and a few other men. (Other versions say that the news reached the king on Christmas Eve and he took his household knights and the retinues of some of the lords who were celebrating Christmas with him.) Le Baker says that they entered the town secretly, which they might have done, but he also says that they managed to build a false wall behind which they hid and they also sawed through parts of the drawbridge so that it would collapse if a heavy stone were thrown down on it, all without anyone noticing, which seems unlikely.
On 31st December, De Charny went with fourteen men into the castle, through the gate opened by Aimeric, on the day before the raid was to take place. Their task was to check that everything was as it should be and to pay Aimeric part of his money. Despite checking the castle thoroughly, they noticed nothing wrong. Again, I’m not sure how fifteen Frenchmen could stroll around a castle held by an English garrison without someone noticing, but apparently they did.
The next morning they raised French standards around the castle and opened the gates. The English garrison attacked them, despite the efforts of those who were in on the plan to trap the French inside the castle.
By this point the king and his men had been in hiding for three days. One of them was hiding near the drawbridge and he dropped the huge stone onto it, trapping the soldiers inside the castle. They were swiftly defeated by the king and his men when they emerged from their hiding place.
The French forces who had remained outside retreated, realising that the plan had failed. The king took 16 of the men he had brought with him and 16 archers from Calais, who didn’t know him, and chased after the French.
He attacked a force of 800 men. When the French realised how few men were pursuing them, they turned and fought. The king revealed his identity to the archers and le Baker points out that he positioned his meagre forces wisely. He doesn’t say, for obvious reasons, how lacking in wisdom the king was to chase after the French with so few men.
The king and his men managed to kill or capture many of the French soldiers, but they were facing overwhelming odds and it was obvious that they were going to lose. In true Boys’ OwnAdventure style, however, Edward of Woodstock arrived with reinforcements just in time and rescued his father.
Le Baker tells us that 1,000 French knights with 600 men-at-arms and 3,000 foot soldiers had tried to take the castle. It would certainly have needed a large force, so perhaps it’s not an exaggeration. More than 200 French men-at-arms were killed and about 30 men were captured for ransom, Geoffroi de Charny and his son among them. Many French soldiers drowned in the marsh.
There are some incorrect details in le Baker’s account. Aimeric wasn’t the governor of Calais. During the siege of Calais he had been employed by the French. After the siege he changed sides and became master of the royal galleys and crossbowmen. In 1349 he was part of the English garrison at Calais and was in command of one of the gate-towers, which was why it was easy for him to let the French in.
As we learned last week, Aimeric enjoyed his bribe and the pension given to him by the king for a very short time before de Charny tortured and killed him. This whole episode wasn’t de Charny’s finest hour. Not only was he captured, but he was also wounded in his failed attempt to retake the town. Fortunately for him, the king who had provided soldiers to support his plan died while de Charny was a captive in England. The new king paid part of de Charny’s ransom. De Charny even managed to put a good gloss on the murder of Aimeric, since he made it clear that he was avenging an act of personal betrayal.
Next week we’ll have a look at another aspect of de Charny’s life.
I don’t very often write posts about famous or important people in the Middle Ages these days, but Geoffroi de Charny is worth looking at for many reasons, not least because he wrote a book about chivalry: Le Livre de Chevalerie. He also had the responsibility of carrying the Oriflamme, the King of France’s personal standard, and was the first owner that can be verified of the Shroud of Turin.
De Charny’s date of birth is not known, but his mother died in 1306. He was, therefore, probably born in the first few years of the fourteenth century. Although strictly speaking noble, he came from a junior branch of a junior branch of a great family. He had no land, no money and knew no one of any influence to help him. His first wife died after 1341 and his second wife was Jeanne de Vergy with whom he had two children. She brought him land and money, but, by that time, he had already come a long way by his own efforts.
The first major campaign he fought in was in 1337, at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. He fought first in Aquitaine, where Edward III was the duke. Later, when Edward III began creating alliances in the Low Countries, de Charny went to the north east of France, where he helped defend Tournai against the English and their allies. In 1341 Edward’s military interest moved to Brittany and de Charny was sent there, only to be captured and taken to England as a prisoner. He was released and allowed to return to France to find his ransom, which he did. By the following year he had been knighted.
Possibly bored by the lack of action once he was back in Brittany, de Charny joined a crusade against the Turks in Smyrna, arriving there in June 1346. He wasn’t terribly impressed by the experience, referring to it later as almost a martyrdom. He was probably back in France late in the summer of 1346 and was sent back to Aquitaine, thus missing the battle of Crécy in which much of the French army was killed in August. After they had defeated the French at Crécy, the English besieged Calais and Philippe VI sent for de Charny, who had a bit of a reputation for breaking sieges. De Charny went to Edward III, ostensibly to negotiate an end to the siege, but in reality to assess the English fortifications. What he saw made him advise Philippe VI against trying to break the siege, not that the king had any intention of throwing his newly-gathered army against the English. The French retreated and Calais eventually surrendered to the English.
The defeat of the French at Crécy and the loss of Calais led to changes in Philippe’s court and de Charny became a member of the king’s council. Since Philippe was not in a position to fight a war at the time (partly due to the unwillingness of the French to pay taxes for an army which had failed to protect them and partly to the Black Death) de Charny was entrusted with the task of negotiating truces. He was very successful in this diplomatic role. At the same time, however, he was behind an attempt to regain Calais by bribery at the end of 1349. He was betrayed and a small force led by Edward III and his son, Edward of Woodstock, defeated the men led by de Charny, who was taken prisoner again. Once more he found himself in England.
This time he couldn’t raise his own ransom, which would have been considerably higher than the sum he had paid in 1341. The new French king paid part of it, Philippe VI having died, and invited de Charny to be a member of the new order of chivalry that he founded in 1352. The Order of the Star was based on the Order of the Garter, created by Edward III in 1349 (or 1347 or 1348). There have only ever been 24 Garter knights at any one time and the order still exists today. Jean II originally intended to appoint over 500 knights and the Order of the Star fell apart after the French defeat at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, when 80 (possibly 90) of its members were killed and the king himself was taken prisoner by the English.
Once he had taken his revenge on the man who had betrayed him at Calais, decapitating him and quartering his body, de Charny wrote, probably at the request of the king, three books on chivalry. In 1347 and from 1355 until his death de Charny was the bearer of the Oriflamme, the personal standard of the King of France, which was a great honour. It was carried at the front of the French ranks in battle. Its bearer promised not to abandon it. It was an oath that de Charny kept. At the Battle of Poitiers he was killed and fell with the banner still in his hands.
Next week we’ll have a closer look at what happened in Calais in 1349, as it’s an interesting story.
Sources: The Book of Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charny trans. Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy The Origins of the Shroud of Turin in History Today November 2014 by Charles Freeman
Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent does not, as I’ve read in more than one place, begin on the last Sunday in November. Mostly it does, but occasionally it begins on the first Sunday in December. The crucial thing is that Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. Unlike Lent, the other great fasting period of the Middle Ages, it isn’t a set period. It varies in length from year to year.
For the people of the Middle Ages, Advent was a time of preparation for Christmas. It wasn’t Christmas itself, as many of my neighbours think, since Christmas trees and Christmas decorations are already appearing in these parts. Advent was, and is, the beginning of the church year and it was a serious time. It was such a serious time that people had to fast. Fasting meant abstaining from meat, not abstaining from food altogether. This showed them that this time was different from the rest of the year. It was a time for reflecting on the past and thinking about the future.
Advent wasn’t just about preparing for the baby in the manger; it was also about preparing for the second coming of Christ. Everyone in the Middle Ages was aware that Christ was coming again and would judge mankind. Most parish churches had a doom painting somewhere on their walls. Doom paintings showed what we would call the Last Judgement, when Christ judges everyone, living and dead, sending them to Heaven or Hell.
Doom paintings, such as the illustrations to this post, are quite frightening. They show the two different fates awaiting everyone, living or dead. Usually, those judged righteous are assisted to Heaven by angels, while demons with sharp teeth, claws and instruments of torture carry the unrighteous to Hell. I should think that seeing one of those every time you went to church, which would have been more than once a week, would have had a very salutary effect on your behaviour.
Last week we looked at heraldry, so it only seems right that we should look this week at the men whose role it was to be so thoroughly acquainted with the arms of knights from all over Europe that they could identify them on a crowded battlefield just from a banner like the ones in the picture above.
The role of the herald developed and changed over the course of the Middle Ages. Initially they were no more than minstrels who opened and closed the proceedings at a tournament, but over time they became the emissaries and spokesmen of kings.
Their only connection with the battlefield to begin with was the tournament. In their early days, though, this was not as remote a connection as it became later. Tournaments were originally very violent, involving large numbers of men fighting one another over huge swathes of countryside, and they could get out of control. The more sedate tournaments in enclosed spaces that were well-behaved enough to be viewed by women came much later.
Tournaments were associated with fairs and general entertainment, which meant music and minstrels. Heralds began as minstrels, starting and ending tournaments by sounding their trumpets, but they managed to turn their role into something far more substantial. This caused jealousy among the other minstrels, who said that the heralds were corrupt, which some of them undoubtedly were.
Tournaments were events that needed to be organised, taking months and even years of preparation. Heralds were an integral part of this. They planned the tournaments and knew how they were supposed to proceed. Once the arrangements were made, they took the invitations to the invited participants.
When the tournament started, the heralds introduced the knights who were going to take part, praising their skill and bravery. By the time that tournaments had become a spectator sport rather than a rehearsal for war, the spectators were interested in knowing who the participants were.
During the tournament, the heralds gave the command to start the jousts. They were also the tournament referees and recorded what happened during the course of the tournament. They judged, or helped to judge, who the winners were and awarded the prizes.
Under a statute of Edward I to prevent open warfare at tournaments, heralds and other tournament officials were not permitted to carry weapons. Servants of participating knights and the spectators were also prohibited from carrying arms. Tournaments had been banned in England altogether during the reign of Edward I’s father, Henry III, for fear of knights meeting together there with their retinues and fomenting revolution. It was all too possible that trained knights could turn their expertise on the king, taking their armed followers with them.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, heralds were advising on chivalric disputes arising from a tournament. By then, though, they had an important role elsewhere.
Since heralds could identify participants at a tournament from their arms, they were also useful on the battlefield. It was helpful to know who the knights on the other side were and whether they had reputations as good fighters or were men of little experience. A herald would know those details.
At the beginning of an engagement heralds were probably taking notes of who was in the opposing army by reference to their banners, which would have been visible while the two sides were waiting for the other to attack. It’s thought that one of their roles was to report the heroic deeds of knights in battle. This meant that they had to get close to the fiercest fighting, whilst not taking part. Even heralds could make mistakes, though, and the similarities in colour of the arms of some French knights led the English heralds at the battle of Crécy to declare that some knights had died, only to discover later that they had survived.
As it had in tournaments, the herald’s role increased on the battlefield. They eventually became officers of the crown and served as emissaries, spokesmen and diplomats. They had come a long way from being mere entertainers.
I mentioned a while ago that I’m reading The Canterbury Tales and there are many things in them that are worth writing about here. In the first tale, that of the knight, two young men are identified on a battlefield because they’re wearing devices on their clothing. Chaucer, who had fought (and been taken prisoner) in the Hundred Years War, would have known this detail. It’s probably not too fanciful to imagine that his own value as a prisoner was recognised due to the livery he was wearing when he was captured. He went to France in the retinue of Lionel of Antwerp, a son of Edward III, and it was the king himself who paid Chaucer’s ransom.
As armour developed and covered a knight’s body, including his face, identifying him in battle became more difficult. Devices were created so that those around the knight would know who he was, which was useful both for his own men and o for the knight who would be identified to the other side as someone worth capturing for ransom rather than killing. Devices were shown on shields, banners and surcoats (open-sided tunics worn over armour, as shown in the picture above). They were also appliquéd onto banners, for those who had the right to bear them.
Originally arms were very simple e.g. the three lions of England, the fleur-de-lys of France, the three leopards of Anjou. There were also chevrons, bends, crosses and eagles. They were made in bright colours: red, blue, white and yellow. For the king, gold, silver and silk would be used. Subtle differences in colour could lead to confusion, however.
When they were inherited by more than one son, the arms had to be changed to identify that son, so devices were quartered as sons took the devices of both their parents. Hence Edward III had three lions from his father as well as the fleur-de-lys from his mother, to show his claim to the French crown.
Heraldry was also useful in jousts so the audience would know who the competitors were. By the fourteenth century it was a sport and everyone liked to be able to identify the participants. Their identities were known because of what they were wearing, but also because the heralds would announce their names. The heralds at tournaments had to know how to identify foreign participants as well. It wasn’t just heralds who were supposed to be able to identify coats of arms, though. It was knowledge that every knight needed to have.
Arms were displayed everywhere: on silver, on the walls of halls, on embroidered vestments given to churches, on church windows, on church walls, on tombs and monuments. They appeared on the knight’s surcoat, his horse’s trappings and his shield. They were on tiles, wall paintings, seals, in manuscripts, on caskets, chests and plate. It was a way of showing that someone was a member of the elite.
In a battle, soldiers were identified by the arms of their lord. They were in small retinues, with each retinue leader answerable to a more important lord. It was vital for order that a coat of arms should not be used by more than one lord. At the beginning of fourteenth century notes and drawings started to be made about the arms being used so that the heralds could keep track of them.
Disputes about duplications of arms arose after the battle of Crécy at the siege of Calais. If the two knights bearing the same arms weren’t in the same army, it didn’t really matter if they had the same arms. Armies tended to be regional, so an army gathered to fight the Scots would come from the north and it wouldn’t matter if someone in Yorkshire had the same arms as someone in Hampshire, because they wouldn’t usually be called to serve together. There could only be confusion when both were fighting in the same army, which happened during Edward III’s war with France.
There was a court in fourteenth century specifically for trying cases of misappropriation of heraldic devices – the Court of Chivalry. It also dealt with questions about ransoms for men taken prisoner in France. In 1386 Geoffrey Chaucer was called before this court to give evidence in the dispute between Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor. They were cousins and Chaucer said that he had seen both using the same coat of arms at Rettel. This was near Rheims where Chaucer had gone as part of Lionel of Antwerp’s retinue in 1360 in Edward III’s campaign to be crowned king of France. It was also where Chaucer was taken prisoner. The case lasted from 1385 to 1390 and was decided in favour of Sir Richard. Of the two he was the most distinguished, having served Edward III with distinction on his French campaigns. He had also been Richard II’s chancellor.
It’s no wonder that, when he came to write his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer remembered how important a coat of arms could be. Sadly, the two knights in his tale didn’t enjoy the happy ending that Chaucer himself had.