Dr Hefferan’s new book is the first extended look at Edward III’s household knights, their activities, roles, background and service. But as the author explains below, of most importance are the men themselves.
I was very pleased with myself a year or so into researching this book when I was able to look at my shiny new database containing the names of 284 men who served as household knights under Edward III. I remember thinking to myself ‘well, that’s the hard part done, now I just need to find out who these men were and what they did’. That was (if memory serves) sometime in the summer of 2015. It turns out that I was wrong: the hard part very much still lay ahead.
Indeed, my new book is, at its core, about people. Yes, it covers big themes such as politics and warfare, but it is the individuals involved that for me make this period interesting. The problem that historians of the Middle Ages face, however, is that individual lives (other than those at the very top of society) can be very hard to piece together. This was certainly the case for many of the household knights that I was studying. For most knights, I was able to find dates for births, marriages and deaths, as well as some information about their families. Service on military campaigns and government commissions was also relatively straightforward to uncover in the majority of cases, and it was this information that formed the basis of much of the book. But getting beyond that, into what some of these men were truly like, has been much more difficult.
There are some I like to think I have a good handle on. Walter Mauny, for instance, who first came to England with Philippa of Hainault in the 1320s, and went on to be one of Europe’s most respected military captains, seems to have been an out-and-out warrior. In my mind, I see him as a bit of a brute: brash, loud and bellicose. He was certainly more than happy to massacre the population of the town of Cadzand on the Dutch coast in 1337 without much provocation. Others, like William Montagu, who was the king’s closest companions in the 1330s, I picture more favourably. He was a keen tournament champion and I imagine him to be a tall, engaging figure who would be have been good company.
Others have remained more obscure. Peter de Brewes is a perfect example. He was knighted on the day of the battle of Crécy and served as a household knight thereafter until the king’s death in 1377. He and Edward thus spent over thirty years together. But he has left virtually no trace in the records, beyond a few mentions in government and legal documents. I always ask my new undergraduate students on their first day who from the past they would most like to meet. I think Peter would be my choice, just to find out what he was like, and hear the stories he could have told.
Overall, then, while I have done all I can in the book to illuminate these knights, and the part they played in Edward’s reign, the personalities of some of them remain elusive. But that, I suppose, is just the nature of doing medieval history.
This guest post was written by Matthew Hefferan, Teaching Associate in Medieval and Early Modern History at the University of Nottingham.