The historian Yuval Noah Harari writes:
...in medieval Europe the nobility believed in both Christianity and chivalry. A typical nobleman went to church in the morning, and listened as the priest held forth on the lives of the saints. 'Vanity of vanities,' said the priest,'all is vanity. Riches, lust and honour are dangerous temptations. You must rise above them, and follow in Christ's footsteps. Be meek like Him, avoid violence and extravagance, and if attacked – just turn the other cheek.' Returning home in a meek and pensive mood, the nobleman would change into his best silks and go to a banquet in his lord's castle. There the wine flowed like water, the minstrel sang of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the guess exchanged dirty jokes and bloody war tales. 'It is better to die,' declared the barons, 'than to live in shame. If someone questions your honour, only blood can wipe out the insult. And what is better in life than to see your enemies flee before you, and their pretty daughters tremble at your feet.
Wikipedia writes of a "code of chivalry ... that evolved after the end of the crusades partly from an idealization of the historical knights fighting in the Holy Land, partly from ideals of courtly love." It lists Ten Commandments of chivalry:
1. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and thou shalt observe all its directions.
2. Thou shalt defend the Church.
3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
4. Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
5. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
6. Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
8. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
9. Thou shalt be generous and give largesse to everyone.
10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.
The way of the world continued much as before. There was the There was the Hundred Years' War, said to have started in 1337 – and off-again, on-again war that was to be recorded as three wars ending in 1453. It began as that great cause of trouble across the centuries: a succession issue. England's King Edward III pursued his belief that he should be the one to inherit the throne vacated by Charles IV, who left no direct descendant to carry on the Capet dynastic line in what today is France. Edward went to war against Philippe VI of France, who had won the throne instead.
It was a war fought by men who had earned their knighthood trained on horseback from early childhood. But knights on horseback were becoming an anachronism. Feudalism was in decline as kings were gaining power over nobles and kings were taking charge of war-making and violence. Edward III supported the trappings of chivalry. Heraldry, tournaments, banquets, courtly love and the writing of epic romances flourished during his reign. But in the place of knights, mercenaries were being hired. Edward's military was armed with the longbow, with arrows that hit effectively at a range of 250 to 300 yards. Ten arrows could be shot per minute, faster and with greater range than the crossbow being used by the French, and, like the crossbow, arrows shot from a longbow could pierce chain link armor.
As historian Max Boot writes in War Made New:
English longbow men and Swiss pikemen proved to be more than a match for cumbersome heavy cavalry, the pikemen winning their first notable victory at Laupen in 1339."
In the 1300s firearms were being used, but firearms were not yet very effective, and English nobles saw killing men with gunpowder and shot as cowardice. According to the fourteenth-century Italian scholar, Petrarch, anyone captured by a noble who had been using such weaponry might have his hands cut off and his eyes poked out.
At the Battle of Crécy, in 1346, Edward’s army of 12,000, including 7,000 archers, against a French army of 36,000, devasted France’s armored knights on horseback and foot soldiers with crossbows. Ten years later, at Poitiers, the British massacred the French again, the French knights and their horses falling in heaps.
The war picked up again in the early 1400s. England's King Henry V (r 1413-22) resumed the war in part as a distraction from social tensions within England. There was the Battle of Agincourt in northern France and another slaughter of French knights by England's archers. In a single day, France's nobility was decimated. France's king from 1422, Charles VII, would create France's first standing professional army – rather than an army organized by feudalism. No longer needed in battle, the knights would take refuge in the tournaments that were merely staged pageantry.
The real war continued and gave the world the story of Joan of Arc – a side story briefly told here about her tragedy, about the supernatural and society rather than changing warfare causing social changes. Joan was the illiterate daughter of prominent farming family. She is said to have heard voices. In 1429, Joan persuaded her king, Charles VII, to support her effort at relieving the city of Orléans, then being besieged by the English. She knew little of warfare, but she believed that if the French soldiers with her would not swear or visit prostitutes they would win.
Joan became a prisoner of the English, who, suffering from attacks by forces under Joan's command had come to see her as a witch and as an agent of the devil. Wishing to have her discredited before she was executed, the English turned her over to ecclesiastic authorities – the Inquisition – at the French town of Rouen, then under English rule. The Inquisition pondered the question whether Joan's visions were genuine or delusions of the devil. The British wanted her executed and were displeased when it appeared that she would be allowed to recant. In her cell, Joan was given a dress as a part of her recantation. But Joan was found back in her usual men's garb. Her recantation a failure, Joan was charged with sorcery (witchcraft) and burned to death in the marketplace at Rouen.
After Joan's death, the war continued in desultory fashion as before. England lost its alliance with its ally on the continent, Burgundy (today a part of France). The insistence on total victory had dissipated.
Both countries welcomed peace. In more than a century of bloodshed, England's monarchy had won nothing. It withdrew from its territory on the continued except for Calais, on the channel coast. With the end of war, in October 1453, there was a revival of trade and an end to economic depression.
There was also another succession problem brewing, producing what was to be known as the War of the Roses – a series of wars for control of the throne of England fought between rival branches of the royal family: the House of Lancaster against the House of York. (Today Britain's monarchy belongs to the House of Windsor.) Richard III of the House of York was defeated in 1485. For some this year marks the end of the Middle Ages.
The victor took the throne as Henry VII. The House of Lancaster had become the House of Tudor. He married into the York family. It cannot be said that English royalty lived happily ever after. Other civil wars lay ahead (also issues of who was to rule), but bloody conflicts between opposing armies of English royal families was over.
Henry VIII ascended England's throne in 1509. Him military campaigns were in France and Scotland. His court has been described as "infused by martial and chivalric values," and chivalric values has been described as one of principal mainsprings of England's aristocracy. Henry ate big, married six times and sent two of is wives to their executions. He used the magnificence of tournaments and displays of knightly prowess not as preparation for warfare but as propaganda to woo his subjects.
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Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.