The Household Knights of Edward III
Warfare, Politics and Kingship in Fourteenth-Century England
Dr Hefferan, thank you for taking part in the Medieval Herald. Before we dive into the world of household knights would you please tell us something of your studies and career to date?
Of course – it is kind of you to have me. Although I am originally from Cambridgeshire, my academic life to date has been spent in Nottingham. I read for my undergraduate degree at Nottingham Trent University, which was a wonderful experience. When I first arrived at NTU I was not sure university was going to be right for me, but by the end of my second year I was set on doing a PhD, and I have the fantastic staff at Trent to thank for that.
I did consider staying at NTU for my postgraduate degrees, working on the Crusades, but in the end the call of late medieval England was too strong for me and I made to move across the city to the University of Nottingham, where I have been ever since. I was very fortunate that, having completed my MA and PhD at Nottingham, I was kept on as a full-time Teaching Associate in the department – a job I absolutely love. Even in these difficult times, I make a point of remembering that I am paid to talk and think about history all day. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Your book’s subject is a fascinating one: household knights. What defines the role and position of a household knight?
What distinguished a household knight from the rest of the knighthood was that they received special robes and fees from the king’s household twice a year, at Easter and Michaelmas. These robes would have been worn with pride, and to be granted them was a real privilege (although one household knight did request to be paid in wine instead!). There were actually two ranks of household knight: an upper rank of household bannerets, and a lower ranks of simple household knights. While these ranks performed broadly similar roles, the bannerets did have greater responsibility and, as such, were paid at twice the rate of the simple knights.
A lot was expected of them in return. They were to be at the beck and call of the king: they attended his court, accompanied him to war, and undertook any number of jobs that the king needed doing – from raising troops to combatting smuggling. It was a full-time job for most.
In practice, of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as I make it sound here. Some household knights were clearly honorific appointments, often the sons of foreign rulers come to Edward’s court to learn from the king. Other knights were referred to as household knight even though it had been many years since they last received robes and fees. Clearly, there was plenty of flexibility in the system.
While their military role seems natural their political duties might surprise some. How much political power could they wield?
I was very conscious when writing the book that I wanted to give a rounded view of what being a household knight entailed. This meant moving beyond just their military roles, which is, as you say, where most historians see them operating. I was very pleased to find that many household knights were also key political players. This was particularly true in the 1330s, when Edward was still finding his feet as king: household knights such as William Montagu and William Clinton were unparalleled in their influence during this period. Thinking about it, this makes perfect sense. These were the men that the king spent most of his time with: they ate together, hunted together and travelled together. It is natural, then, that their opinions should have mattered to Edward. Of course, we shouldn’t get too carried away. Household knights were just one piece in a large and complicated political landscape, and Edward was (for the most part) careful to ensure that the titled nobility still retained primacy as his advisors. Similarly, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that some household knights were out and out military men, with little interest in politics. Even so, I can’t imagine many of those below the baronage held as much political power as household knights did.
It sounds like a position of great cachet but huge responsibility too. Could it be something of a poisoned chalice?
I always feel that it was what you made of it. For some knights, such as William Clinton and John Beauchamp, both younger sons of knightly families in Warwickshire, it gave them the chance to rise to the very top. Clinton even became earl of Huntingdon. The secret for these two was hard work. Both men held just about every administrative position going, serving as admirals, wardens of the Cinque Ports and so on. I think that this highlights just how much of a commitment household service was.
For others, the influence that came with the position was too much. The household knight John Molyns, for instance, spent much of the 1330s terrorising the people of Buckinghamshire, where he was accused of various murders, thefts and systematic intimidation. Clearly he thought his royal connection would protect him from the law, and for a long time it did. It was only after Molyns was accused of stealing money from the crown that he finally got his comeuppance! But it goes to show that this was not a responsibility to be taken lightly.
How were they selected and how many did Edward III have in his service at any one time?
Because household knights were retained on an annual basis, the size and composition of the knightly household could change dramatically from year to year. In terms of numbers, warfare was the main determining factor. In years where large-scale military campaigning was planned, many new household knights were recruited to swell the size of the king’s own military retinue. In 1346, for instance, the year of the Crécy campaign, Edward retained a whopping 96 household knights. By contrast, in years of relative peace a much smaller number of knights were kept on the books, perhaps no more than 30 at any one time. That said, it was important to make sure that the knightly household didn’t get too small: the size of the royal household was important to the prestige of the crown.
As for how they were selected, it was getting noticed that mattered. The easiest way in was to be related to a serving or former household knight, and a number of strong familial networks existed among the household knights. Distinguishing oneself at war or on the tournament ground was also a great way of catching the king’s eye, and many of those who were the first in their families to serve as a household knight built up impressive chivalric reputations prior to joining the household.
Who do you think were the most successful of Edward’s knights?
Good question! There were several household knights who served in the 1330s and 1340s who did extremely well for themselves. William Montagu, William Clinton, William Bohun and Robert Ufford were all raised to earldoms in 1337 after a decade in the household. Walter Mauny and Reginald Cobham also stand out. Both came from relatively humble beginnings and went on to feature among the most respected military leaders of their generation and, in the case of Cobham, a Knight of the Garter. That said, as impressive as these achievements were, I have always had rather a soft spot for some of the unsung heroes. Peter de Brewes is a great example. He was knighted at the battle of Crécy in 1346 and thereafter served continuously as a household knight until the king’s death in 1377. No household knight served for longer in the fourteenth century, and I made a point of talking about him on the very first page of the book.
What drew you to the subject and why Edward III in particular?
It was Chris Given-Wilson’s book about the royal household and king’s affinity in the last years of the fourteenth century that first led me to household knights. The final chapter is all about royal retaining, especially under Richard II and Henry IV, and it just fascinated me that there was this small, select group of individuals who were so close to the centre of power, despite not being the greatest nobles in the land.
Once I finished reading the book I was keen to learn more about these royal knights under Edward III, as I have always had a real love for Edward’s reign. To me, it feels like this perfect moment when the best of the medieval period, with all its grandeur and excitement, is still very much there to see, but the world which we know today was also starting to come into focus (particularly with the emergence of more defined national polities and parliaments). I can’t think of another period that is so firmly connected to both its past and future. Of course, when I found that not much had been written about the household knights under Edward, I decided to try and rectify that – hence this book!
As it is, the household knights have been the perfect topic for me. Because they were involved in such a range of activities, I have been able to dabble in everything from military leadership on the Crécy campaign, to how they attempted to stop people stealing the king’s swans from the Thames.
Can you give us some idea of how you went about your research and roughly how long has it taken you?
There were two big phases to the research. First, I had to try and find out who the household knights actually were. Fortunately, lists were kept each year of the recipients of household robes and fees, about half of which have survived to us and are in The National Archives, so I was able to create a huge database of names from this. Second, I needed to work out what these men did, what functions they performed. This was a very lengthy process as I had to cover so much ground… 284 individuals over fifty years results in a lot of trawling through documents. But, it has all been worth it in the end.
Overall, I think it took about eight years from start to finish. This doesn’t sound too long, but during this time I married my wife and together we had three children, so it feels like longer!
Will you continue to research the household knights or do you have other plans now?
I am still trying to decide. For the time being, I think I want to move on to something new. I kept a document on my phone while I was working on the household knights, which I filled with ideas for future articles and books. There is a lot on this list, and it should keep me going for the next twenty years or so! But I think it is inevitable I will keep coming back to the household knights. They almost feel like friends now, so I will make sure I pop back and visit them from time to time.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?
Given I have been locked down with three young children, I have not had as much time to work on things as I would like. But, I still managed to get bits and pieces done. In a strange way, lockdown was actually good for me as a researcher as it forced me out of my comfort zone a little. I ended up looking back over some sources that had been sitting neglected on my computer for the last few years and, inevitably, I noticed all sorts of things I had previously overlooked. This will hopefully result in a couple of new articles. It also gave me a chance to brush up on my rather rusty Latin!
by Matthew Hefferan
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Dr MATTHEW HEFFERAN is a Teaching Associate in Medieval and Early Modern History at the University of Nottingham.