Edward III’s kingship fits into the same mould as that of his grandfather; but Edward III’s ambitions were grander and the éclat of his victories more spectacular, which made his impact even greater in sharpening English knighthood’s sense of its identity. The lure of a share in the honour and repute, as well as the spoils and ransoms won in the course of service, were powerful factors here. The foundation of the Order of the Garter, the original members of which were drawn principally from among those leading aristocratic captains who had been Edward’s companions in the field in his great victory at Crécy, was a brilliant stroke in glamorising military service. Edward’s associated promotion of the cult of St George and his adoption of George articulated eloquently the royal message that service of the crown was at the same time service of the common weal of the kingdom. This powerfully strengthened a perception which proved hard to shake after Edward’s time, that for England ‘the pursuit of external war was considered the foundation of good kingship and success in war the measure of God’s blessing on the kingdom’.
This conviction was once again reaffir med by the reopening of serious fighting in France by Henry V and by his signal triumph at Agincourt. Later, in the Yorkist age and beyond it, aggressive ‘werre outward’ continued to be seen by many as the surest way to national renewal after the disasters of Henry VI’s reign. But things had changed in the fifteenth century in one vital respect, and Saul’s analysis of that change is the elegant keynote of his concluding section, carrying his story down to its cut-off point of 1500. Henry V’s victories did not rekindle the readiness of English knights and gentlemen to undertake military service and seek a share in the glory and profits of successful campaigning in the way that Edward III’s victories had done. A shift was taking place in their role in national society and its dignity. The military trappings of chivalry – heraldic arms, commemoration in full armour on brasses and in the sepulchral sculpture of church monuments, crenellation of their homes – remained precious to the landed aristocracy, but were now prized primarily as visual expressions of their social standing and lineage and of their civil role in the kingdom’s government and magistracy rather than their military one. Theirs was becoming, as Saul puts it, a ‘new chivalry, harnessed not to knight errantry but to the service of the state’, and this new chivalry was distinguishable in its emphasis from the older, specifically military chivalry which he has made the central theme of his brilliant book. The skill and scholarship with which he has done so fully justify his claim at its opening that chivalry was a major factor throughout the narrative history of medieval England from before the time of Richard I to the aftermath of that of Edward III. Chivalry has often been neglected by historians in that story; Nigel Saul’s vivid and exciting study should make sure that it can never again be left out of the account. To order this book for £20, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW July 2011