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ALTHOUGH a part of common patterns of medieval civilization,

England regularly shows fascinating and instructive differences from

societies across the Channel. By the ‘age of chivalry’ one of the most significant

differences is the long-term growth of royal power. Real meaning infused the

widespread idea that the king of England was responsible for order and justice

in his realm; from an early date this royalist ideal appeared regularly in documents

by which officials remembered and acted.

Royal Ideology and Enforcement

Statements announcing the beginning of a king’s reign provide a rich source.

At his somewhat uncertain accession to the throne in 1100, Henry I trumpeted

his intention in terms of royal peace: ‘I establish my firm peace through my

entire realm and order it to be kept henceforth.’1 When Edward I acceded, on

his father’s death in 1272, his administrators unambiguously announced on his

behalf (since he was on crusade): ‘We are and will be prepared, by the authority

of God, to give full justice to each and every person in all cases and matters

concerning them against any others great or small.’2 Similarly, the administration

of Edward III, at the time of his father’s supposed abdication in 1327,

stated on behalf of the young king:

We command and firmly enjoin each and every one, on pain of disherison and loss of

life or members, not to break the peace of our said lord the king; for he is and shall be

ready to enforce right for each and every one of the said kingdom in all matters and

against all persons, both great and small. So if any one has some demand to make of

another, let him make it by means of [legal] action, without resorting to force of


1 Stubbs, Select Charters, 119. 2 Stubbs, Select Charters, 439.

3 Stephenson and Marcham, English Constitutional History, 205.

Such sentiments echo throughout the Dialogue of the Exchequer, by Richard

FitzNigel, the first administrative treatise written in Western European history

(c. 1179). Although the work is mainly concerned with the technical operation

of the royal exchequer, comments on the king’s role in keeping the peace surface

frequently. Of Henry II, the author says: ‘from the beginning of his rule

he gave his whole mind to crushing by all possible means those who rebelled

against peace and were “froward” ’.4 Rebelling against the king appears to this

official as rebellion against peace itself. Of the Assize of Clarendon, FitzNigel

says: ‘nobody must venture to oppose the king’s ordinance, made as it is in the

interest of peace’.5 He is sure royal power is sufficient to see that offenders will

be punished and quotes approvingly a rhetorical question first asked by Ovid

and picked up by more than one medieval writer: ‘Have you forgotten that

kings’ arms are long?’6

Preambles to statutes offer the carrot as well as the stick. Henry III

announced in the Statute of Marlborough (1267) his intention to ‘provide for

the better estate of his realm of England, and for the more speedy administration

of justice, as belongs to the office of a king’. Henry’s son, Edward I, likewise

announced in his Statute of Gloucester (1278) a fuller administration of

justice ‘as the good of the kingly office demands’. The first Statute of

Westminster (1285) worried over ‘the peace less kept and the laws less used, and

the offenders less punished than they ought to be, so that the people feared the

less to offend’. The king announced in the opening clause that the peace of the

Church and of the land will henceforth be guarded and that common right will

be done to all, rich and poor.7

When royal authority had been challenged, as in the mid-century baronial

wars of the reign of Henry III, the language recording a recovery of the royal

powers can become especially forceful and specific. The Dictum of Kenilworth

(1266) declared in its first clause:

the most noble prince Henry, illustrious king of England shall have, fully receive and

freely exercise his dominion, authority and royal power without impediment or contradiction

of any one, whereby, contrary to the approved rights and laws and long

established customs of the kingdom, the regal dignity might be offended; and that to

the same lord king and to his lawful mandates and precepts full obedience and humble

attention shall be given by all and singular the men of the same kingdom, both greater

and lesser. And all and singular shall through writs seek justice in the court of the lord

4 Johnson, ed., tr., Dialogus de Scaccario, 75. The text contains many passing references on the

royal duty of preserving the peace; e.g., p. 63.

5 Ibid., 101. See also p. 102 where the king is again identified with the interests of peace.

6 Ibid., 84. As we saw in Chapter 1, Suger also used this image.

7 Statutes of the Realm, I, 19, 45, 26.

king and shall be answerable for justice, as was accustomed to be done up to the time

of the recent disorders.

Clause 38 of this document is even more explicit about private quarrels. The

royal government asserts: ‘no one will take private revenge on account of the

disorders, nor will he procure or consent or tolerate that private revenge

should be taken. And if any one takes private revenge, let him be punished by

the court of the lord king.’8

The most revealing piece of evidence comes, however, from a simple phrase

which began to appear during the first quarter of the thirteenth century in

writs of trespass and in informal legal complaints asking the crown to provide

justice. One prospective plaintiff after another stated that some wrongdoer

had come ‘by force and arms and against the lord king’s peace (vi et armis et

contra pacem domini regis)’. Such litigants knew that these magic words would

bring their cases into the royal courts.9 The message had filtered through: the

king would maintain his peace throughout the realm; his governance would

supervise the use of arms within the realm.

Of course it was not really true; the king’s government could not do all that

it claimed. The phrase came sometimes to be used as a key to open courtroom

doors for cases that involved mere gentle fraud or illegal apple-picking, with

no edged weapons glinting in the sunlight.10 The point remains, however, that

royal claims became quite clearly recognized, even if only partially enforced.

Royauté within the realm of England meant sovereignty and a working monopoly

of the means of violence associated with war.

That the English crown was serious about sovereignty of this sort appears

in its efforts to control tournaments, to require licences for building castles,

and to outlaw any insular version of the continental practice of ‘private’ war.

For a time it succeeded in making England seem to the high-spirited and

chivalrous a dreary place without a good tournament circuit, as the oft-quoted

passages from the biography of William Marshal state explicitly.11 But the

maintenance of so hard a royal line was only temporary; by the fourteenth century

English kings were joining in and leading the sport rather than continuing

to prohibit so powerful a practice.12 Nevertheless, the English crown had

at least taken steps to regulate this simulacrum of war.13

The royal insistence on licences ‘to crenelate’—that is, to fortify—had more

long-range success. A staggering number of illicit or ‘adulterine’ castles were

pulled down, especially in the reign of Henry II; the policy of formal licences,

English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 109

8 Ibid., I, 12–17. 9 Harding, ‘Plaints and Bills’. 10 Ibid.

11 Meyer, ed., Histoire, II, ll. 1533–48. Cf. Barber and Barker, Tournaments, 19–26.

12 Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 199–211, and the sources cited there.

13 Keen, Nobles, Knights, 83–99. Cf. Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 199–211.

a recognition of the royal right to regulate, had become viable by the time of

Henry III.14

The policy against war within the realm—that is, open warlike violence or

even carrying offensive arms and riding with unfurled banners in full and joyous

expectation of combat—met with greater success still, except, of course,

for those times when an over-governed England erupted in civil war. With

that exception, however, the concept of the king’s peace had real content and

showed (within limitations inherent in medieval government) a genuine effort

to translate royal ideals into fact.15

Did English knights cooperate? Chivalric ideas, whatever qualifications

about royal control they embodied, did little to prevent English knighthood

from serving the crown regularly and loyally. If their military service is obvious,

they also gave essential and unpaid help in law and administration; they

sat on juries and inquests, on commissions of oyer and terminer, on commissions

of roads and dikes, or of array; they acted as tax assessors and collectors.

Some served as sheriffs, some as justices. Many of them eventually went to

Westminster to sit in Parliament as Knights of the Shire. This range of services

has been fully investigated in many historical studies.

Other facets of English knightly life, however, have been less often treated

and have sometimes been denied. Although English knighthood could not

claim a legal right of war within the realm, as in France, lords and knights

turned to formally illegal acts of violence, on any scale they could manage,

when the law did not serve or when the sense of urgency was simply too great.

The results for public order could look rather like those we have noted for


In late thirteenth-century England three particular witnesses—King

Edward I, the chronicler Pierre Langtoft, and the anonymous author of a

broadside poem—commented from their quite different vantage points that

the violence troubling the country seemed like the outbreak of war. Edward I

added, significantly, that this illicit warlike violence ‘flouted the lordship of the


Legal records show us that the knightly violence so prevalent in chivalric literature

was (in somewhat more prosaic form, but without loss of essential

enthusiasm) practised in everyday life, with serious consequences for public

order. Only very slowly, only with mixed success, could the crown declare

such action illegal; only more slowly still could the crown take effective action

actually to restrict knightly violence within the realm.

14 Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 211–25.

15 Ibid., 225–67. Waugh provides a good case study in ‘Profits of Violence’.

16 Sources and discussion in Kaeuper, ‘Law and Order’.

Of course, a search of records surviving from royal courts uncovers case

after case of some villager or townsman attacking another with varying degrees

of success and consequence; the margins of the parchment rolls are dotted

with the letter ‘s’ combined with a ligature, indicating that the accused was

hanged (suspendatur) after conviction. These unfortunates were assuredly of

sub-knightly status. In fact there can be no suggestion that court records on

either side of the Channel mainly document crown action against the knightly.

We need feel no surprise. The dockets of courts in most societies are surely

not filled with cases against those occupying the highest ranks in that society,

charging them with some form of behaviour that they stoutly maintain is licit.

Rather, we should take note that such cases appear at all in medieval royal

records. The crown gradually sought to define the warlike violence of the privileged

as illicit and to take steps against it. Chivalric literature records the obvious

sensitivities to such control.17

The Evidence of Literature

The particularities of medieval civilization in England produced not only a

unique royauté and chevalerie, they generated a literature written in three languages:

Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Middle English. This literary evidence

is complicated by questions about the groups or social levels that

enjoyed these stories about kings, knights, and yeomen.18

Understanding this issue of audience means again recognizing a unique feature

of medieval England: social structure was much more fluid, much less

rigidly hierarchical than that across the Channel. Lines of demarcation in the

upper social ranks tended to blur, producing more community of feeling

among all ranks of the privileged, from great lords through country knights

and squires (sometimes even a notch below) and not excluding the more

important mercantile layers.19 The pattern of landholding helps to explain this

characteristic of English society; even the great held estates scattered widely by

continental standards, where relatively compact territorial holdings were more

common. A lord or a lordling who held a single manor here, partial rights to

English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 111

17 See the evidence and interpretation in Harding, ‘Early Trailbaston Proceedings’; Kaeuper,

War, Justice, and Public Order, 184–268.

18 The theme of England’s differences is developed in Maddicott, ‘Why was England

Different?’ and in Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 315–47. The theme of audience is discussed

in Mehl, Middle English Romances, 2–13; Barron, English Medieval Romance; Crane, Insular

Romance; Green, Poets and Princepleasers; and Coss, ‘Cultural Diffusion’.

19 It is striking, for instance, to note the ease with which Sir John Clanvowe, a knight at the

court of Edward III and Richard II, used mercantile images in his treatise, ‘The Two Ways’: see

Scattergood, ed., Sir John Clanvowe, 60–1.

another there, and half a mill in another county would have a highly developed

interest in the royal role in peacekeeping and in the details of the emerging

common law. Kingship, the common law coming into being and into effect

through royal courts, a particular pattern of estates—all helped to make the

social and political context in England different from that on the other side of

the Channel.

It comes as no surprise, then, to find that the literature of this society

reflected and helped to generate and generalize this unusual degree of royal

capacity and social fluidity. These factors surely help to explain, in turn, why

there is less attention paid in English than in French literature to those troublesome,

talented men of modest social status who carried wands of office and

issued orders, no doubt in a voice just a bit too shrill. It certainly helps to

explain why English literature, unlike French romances, does not stress the

social and cultural separation of knights from everyone else.

The unusual qualities of the literature, however, have led some scholars to

suggest that romances were written in twelfth- and thirteenth-century

England for bourgeois audiences, or for even humbler groups raising tankards

in some tavern. Others have suggested, more convincingly, that the influence,

as so often in the Middle Ages, came from the top of society, but that it is here

mediated and diffused downward throughout privileged society generally by

unique features of English social, tenurial, and political life.20

If we step aside from the details of such discussions, the important fact

seems to be that there was not an exclusively chivalric literature in England on

the pattern we have just considered in France, a literature which reinforced a

strong sense of a caste or class of knights as different as they could imagine

themselves to be from the sub-knightly. To the contrary, in England a

‘knightly’ point of view must be considered within a broader consensus of

views informing the minds of those in the upper social layers, from substantial

village landowners up the scale to the very great. In short, we must ask what

privileged society in general—knights included—thought of the power of

kingship advancing so inexorably and of the framework of law that kings and

their advisers at least claimed to elaborate and enforce. Framing our questions

in these terms, the literature patronized can show us the ideas celebrated, the

questions debated.

This reading recalls another important historical fact: though kings and

knights had differing agendas, only their cooperation allowed the early construction

of something like sovereign power in England. Whatever quarrels

20 This is one of the themes of Crane, Insular Romance. For extended discussion of this issue in

a single romance, see Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, 17–19.

were writ large in tumults and civil wars, kings and knights found much common

ground, in concert with all other privileged groups in society.

The most famous tale from medieval Britain provides our best evidence.

The oldest surviving tale of Robin Hood, the Geste, merges the social ranks of

the knights with sturdy yeomen and places issues of law and justice firmly in

the foreground.21 Robin Hood is not a knight; the text pointedly calls him ‘a

gode yeman’. But he shows many qualities we associate with ideal knighthood.

His prowess is constantly displayed and is never in question. His loyalty, seen

in his steadfastness, contrasts with the Sheriff of Nottingham who breaks his

sworn word. Robin dispenses largesse with an open hand, never mind that the

wherewithal comes from others’ purses. The text shows—and comments on—

his courtesy time and again; he regularly removes his hood and drops to one

knee in the presence of those of more exalted rank. He is devoted to the

Blessed Virgin and will harm no company in which ladies are present. He

dines not only on the royal venison, but on swans, pheasants, and other fowl—

all elegant fare. In a faint parallel to King Arthur himself (who always delayed

dinner until he learned of some marvel or adventure), he will not sit down to

table before he has found some guest. His piety also requires him to hear three

masses before dining.

Moreover, one axis around which the story revolves is Robin’s aiding a

knight, Sir Richard atte Lee, who, if poor, is clearly the genuine article, much

admired. When Robin Hood, learning of his poverty, thinks out loud that his

entry into knighthood must have been recent, that he has been forced into the

rank (by ‘distraint of knighthood’) or has wasted his resources foolishly or

wickedly, Sir Richard answers stoutly:

‘I am none of those.’ sayd the knyght.

‘By God that made me;

An hundred wynter here before

Myn auncestres knyghtes have be.’22

It comes as no surprise that Sir Richard’s prowess, and that of his family, is

quickly asserted. Financial troubles arose because his son killed ‘a knyght of

Lancaster and a squyer bolde’ in a tournament; the financial drain of the effort

‘For to save hym in his right’—legal costs, bribes, or an out-of-court settlement,

we must assume—has devastated his resources. The father has matched

his son’s valour. Sir Richard has been a crusader and is considering it as an

honourable outlet should he lose his lands to the wicked Abbot of St Mary’s,

as he fears. Called a false knight by the Abbot, he bristles:

English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 113

21 Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood. 22 Ibid., fit 47.

‘Thou lyest,’ then sayd the gentyll knyght,

Abbot, in thy hall;

False knyght was I never. . . .

In ioustes and in tournement

Full ferre than have I be,

And put my selfe as ferre in press

As ony that ever I se.’23

He has endangered his body with the best, thrusting himself into the press of

opposing warriors in the most worshipful way. Who can justly call a man of

prowess false?26

Yet justice is far to seek, a state of affairs which has, of course, made Robin

and his men outlaws in the first place. The effective agents of the king in the

region, the sheriff of the county, and the ‘hye justyce of Englonde’ are false to

the core; the latter is even in the pay of Sir Richard’s dread enemy, the Abbot

of St Mary’s, and wears his livery, as he openly tells the knight: ‘I am holde

with the abbot, sayd the justyce, / Bothe with cloth and fee.’25 Robin Hood’s

largesse saves Sir Richard from ruin and their combined righteous violence

checks the sheriff and his men. Yet the only hope for a lasting solution, even

after Robin has put a clothyard shaft through the sheriff ’s body, rests with the

king himself, with ‘Edward our comly kynge’.26

Of course, once the king and the king of outlaws meet, in famous scenes of

disguise and game-playing, all goes well. The king, recognizing Robin’s qualities

and his unfeigned devotion, forgives all and takes him back to court.

Despite all local corruptions, the fountain of justice runs pure at the centre.

Good yeomen (marked by chivalric qualities), a good knight, a good king,

have brought right order back into the world.27

This concern for justice within several layers of society, coupled with an

abiding belief in the role of the king, also appears prominently in the body of

tales traditionally known as the Matter of England romances. These tales, written

in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, show a consistent fascination

with political arrangements and a concern for good royal governance

grounded in law. In no small measure they are stories about kingship.28

23 Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood, fits 114, 116.

24 For prowess linked to loyalty and other qualities, see the discussion in Chapter 7.

25 Knight and Ohlgren, Robin Hood, fit 107.

26 Ibid., fit 353.

27 This being an outlaw tale, Robin tires of court and goes back to the greenwood, and to his

murky end as a victim of the Prioress of Kirklees. Yet the sense of basic resolution of justice and

of peace between Robin and the king remains.

28 For general discussions see Barron, English Medieval Romance, 63–89, and Crane, Insular

Romance 1–92.

Order is secured by strong and wise kings: the theme appears indirectly, in

speeches by leading characters, or directly, in outright admonitions to the

audience. The author of Havelok the Dane, in a classic example that merits

extensive quotation, gives his audience an idyllic picture of the conditions

obtaining in a well-governed realm:

It was a king by are dawes,

That in his time were gode lawes

He dede maken and full well holden;

. . .

He lovede God with all his might,

And holy kirke and soth and right

. . .

Wreyeres and wrobberes made he falle

And hated hem so man doth galle;

Utlawes and theves made he binde,

Alle that he might finde,

And heye hengen on gallwe-tree;

For hem ne yede gold ne fee;

In that time a man that bore

Well fifty pund, I wot, or more,

Of red gold upon his back,

In a male white or black,

Ne funde he non that him missaide,

Ne with ivele on hond layde.

. . .

Thanne was Engelond at aise;

Michel was swich a king to praise

That held so Englond in grith!

(There was a king in former days who made and fully kept good laws. . . . With all his

might he loved God and Holy Church and truth and right. . . . Traitors and robbers he

brought low and hated them as much as gall; he bound all the thieves and outlaws he

could catch and hanged them high on gallows, taking no gold or goods [in bribes]; at

that time a man carrying fifty pounds of gold or more in a black or white bag on his

back found no one troubled him nor lay an evil hand on him. . . . Then was England at

ease; such a king should be much praised, who held England in peace.)29

This imagined flower of English kingship (‘Engelondes blome’, l. 63) so

loved right himself and so hated wrong in others that he did uncompromising

justice on anyone who dared trouble the fatherless, ‘Were it clerk or were it

English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 115

29 Sands, Middle English Verse Romances, ll. 27–30, 35–6, 39–50, 59–61; my translation. An interesting

argument for the importance of local legend in the origins of the text is given by Bradbury,

‘Traditional Origins’.

knight’ (l. 77). Any man who troubled widows, ‘Were he nevre knight so

strong’ (l. 80), was soon fettered and jailed. Whoever shamed virgins swiftly

suffered castration.

The references to knights catch our eye, and they continue. The king himself

was ‘the beste knight at nede / That evere mighte riden on stede / Or

wepne wagge or folk ut lede’ (or bear weapons or lead folk out to war).30 Yet

his licit mastery over other knights is explicitly and fulsomely praised:

Of knight ne havede he nevere drede

That he ne sprong forth so sparke of glede,

And lete him knawe of his hand-dede

Hu he couthe with wepne spede;

And other he refte him hors or wede,

Or made him sone handes sprede

And ‘Loverd merci! loude grede.’

(He feared no knight, so that he could spring forth like a spark from the coals and make

him know the strength of his hand and how he handled weapons; he either deprived

the knight of horse or harness or made him cry out loudly, with hands outspread [in

submission], ‘Mercy, Lord!’)31

In these passages royal correction of wrong serves to stabilize medieval

English society. Yet many Anglo-Norman and Middle English poems dealing

with kingship stress the other side of the coin and show instead the dangers

of strong kings distorting the framework of the law as they blatantly

effect their private will rather than communal good. In these tales, the hero,

not the king, embodies this common good even as he pursues his own private

ambition; only his triumph will bring back ideal stability and the good

old law.32

Yet the hero usually becomes king himself, in the process reinforcing the

valid and essential role of kingship: only let the right man wear the gold

crown. Havelok’s right could scarcely be in doubt: he emits a marvellous light

while sleeping and bears a glowing birthmark in the shape of a cross on his

right shoulder.33

30 Sands, Middle English Verse Romances, ll. 87–99. The poem similarly praises Birkabein, King

of Denmark, as ‘A riche king and swithe stark. / . . . He havede many knight and swain; / He was

fair man and wight, / Of body he was the beste knight / That evere mighte leded ut here / Or stede

onne ride or handlen spere.’ (ll. 341–470)

31 Ibid., ll. 90–7; my translation. The importance of hands as agents of prowess (or of submission)

is noteworthy. See the discussion in Chapter 7.

32 A more complex and much darker view appears in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, written in

the late fourteenth century. See Brock, ed., Alliterative Morte Arthure. A good introductory sample

of scholarly opinion appears in Göller, Alliterative Morte Arthure.

33 Sands, Verse Romances, ll. 586–610.

Villains often hold the throne at the start of the tales, however, and they can

use the powerful and characteristic English machinery of government to

flatten all opposition. Early in Havelok, on the death of good king Athelwold,

the throne is seized by Earl Goodrich (intended, perhaps, to evoke memories

of the historical Earl Godwin and his son Harold late in Edward the

Confessor’s reign). He puts trusted knights into key castles, and requires oaths

of loyalty from ‘erles, baruns, lef and loth, / Of knightes, cherles, free and

thewe’. The administrative apparatus is then oiled and set in motion to transmit

his will from the centre out into the green countryside:

Justises dede he maken newe

All Engelond to faren thorw

Fro Dovere into Rokesborw.

Schireves he sette, bedels, and greives,

Grith-sergeans with long gleives,

To yemen wilde wodes and pathes

Fro wicke men, that wolde don scathes,

And forto haven alle at his cry,

At his wille, at hise mercy,

That non durste been him again,

Erl ne barun, knight ne swain.

(He made new justices to ride through all England from Dover to Roxbourgh. He

established sheriffs, beadles and stewards, peace serjeants with long swords to control

wild woods and roads against evil men who would do harm, and to have all at his word,

at his will, at his mercy, that none dare be against him, earl, baron, knight, or servant.)34

Here is the problem in a nutshell: a king who provides justices, sheriffs, peacekeepers,

an entire force against ‘wicke men’, is himself one of the wicked. In

effect, the plot reinforces the point, for Denmark, which also figures largely in

the tale, represents a kingdom ruled by a wicked regent, Godard. It requires a

remarkable hero to right matters on both sides of the seas, as Havelok does, in

the end killing the wicked regent and burning Goodrich on earth as he was

undoubtedly expected to burn in eternity.

The king may in other tales be legitimate and of good will, but badly

informed or ill-served by local officials and corrupted law in the countryside.

In the mid-fourteenth-century Tale of Gamelyn, for example, a hero whose

birth puts him just at the margins of knightly status can only recover his landed

heritage by three heroic displays of violence, finally overwhelming his evil

brother John, who can manipulate the local agents of royal administration and

English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 117

34 Ibid., ll. 263–73; my translation.

justice. In the process, the tale manages to hint at some complexities of attitude

regarding the violence so integral to its story.35

Yet a belief in licit violence carried out by the right people and rewarded in

the end by the highest authority was surely the overwhelming sentiment. The

parallels with tales in which bold Robin Hood, outlaw and vanquisher of the

sheriff, receives the king’s forgiveness, friendship, and royal office are obvious

and informative.

Thus the message of all of these texts is clear: a proper king is good; his law

properly enforced is good for society as a whole. This is the advice to his

daughter put into the mouth of the Roman Emperor in William of Palerne:

bi ti lif, as tou me lovest dere,

tt never te pore porayle be piled for ty sake,

ne taxed to taliage; but tentyfli tou help

tat al ts lond be lad in lawe as it ouyt

tan wol al te pore puple preie for te yerne.

(on your life, as you love me, you will never rob the poor for your own ends, nor tallage

them, but attentively see to it that all this land be led in law as it should be; then

all the common people will gladly pray for you.)36

Yet violent self-help, a show of prowess carried out even against local royal

officials and law, is licit, even praiseworthy, whenever the king or the law does

not merit obedience. If the English framework of powerful kingship and common

law was widely approved; that is, its operation and especially its personnel

needed occasional adjustment carried out with sword, staff, noose, or


Matter of England romances and Robin Hood tales have shown a basic

respect for kingship and royal law, a reserved sphere of licit violence despite

the king’s law or its agents, and worries over the balance between recourse to

courts and outright brutality. The same pattern emerges clearly from the

Arthurian tradition in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

(c. 1136, Latin), refashioned especially in Wace’s Roman de Brut (1155, French)

and Lawman’s Brut (c. 1199–1225, Middle English).

Each book sings the praises of wise kings who provide good laws and secure

order. One imagined king after another works this causal sequence, culminating

in the great Arthur, of whom Geoffrey says ‘[he] fostered justice and peace,

the maintenance of the laws and decent behaviour in all matters throughout

his kingdom’. Constantine, according to Geoffrey, ‘maintained justice among

his people, moderated the rapacity of footpads, put an end to the oppressive

35 Text and analysis in Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood. Cf. Kaeuper, ‘Tale of Gamelyn’.

36 Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, ll. 5123–6; cf. this theme in ll. 1311–15, 1371, 5238–49, 5475–84.

behaviour of local tyrants and did his utmost to foster peace everywhere’.37

Wace pictures Arthur, in conquered France, spending nine fruitful years

putting down the proud (mainte orguillus home) and restraining felons.38

Writing about actual historical time in his Roman de Rou, he pictures Anglo-

Saxon courtiers similarly stressing kingship in the maintenance of peace and

justice.39 Lawman is even more enthusiastically positive.40 Of the dawn of

British kingship under Dunwallo he notes,

[He] was the first man whom they put a golden crown on,

Here within Britain since Brutus’s men came here.

He made such a peace, he made such a truce,

And laws which were good and [long] afterwards stood;

He established a settlement and with oaths he secured it,

So that each peasant at his plough had peace like the king himself.44

Lawman links proud and competitive knighthood with disorder. One early

king, he says, disliked his knights because they kept desiring war. Another king

lost his good fortune when all his noble earls and all his great barons fomented

unrest: ‘they refused altogether to keep the king’s peace’—a phrase echoing the

pax domini regis from the legal language of Lawman’s own day, of course. The

succeeding ruler then

settled the land, he worked for peacefulness,

He established strong laws; he was stern with the foolish

But he loved those people whose lives were law-abiding;

Every single good man he honoured with property;

He enforced peace and truce upon pain of limb and life.42

Lawman’s most striking passage about knights and order comes in his explanation

of the origin of the Round Table. Before its construction, Arthur’s midwinter

feast had been disrupted by quarrels over precedence: blows were

struck, loaves of bread and even goblets full of wine flew through the air as

missiles; knight seized knight by the throat. Arthur retired to his chamber to

think of a solution and the knights got their hands on the carving knives; severed

heads hit the floor amidst ‘an enormous blood-shed, consternation in the

English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 119

37 Thorpe, tr, Geoffrey of Monmouth, 124, 132. Local tyrants appear more than once in the writing

of this period. See the comments of Suger on tyrants in Chapter 1 above.

38 Arnold, ed., Brut de Wace, II, 532–3: ‘Es nuef anz que il France tint / Mainte merveille le

avint, / Maint orguillus home danta / E meint felun amesura.’

39 Holden, ed., Rou de Wace, II, 100–1.

40 Allen notes that Lawman’s contribution to the story creates ‘a picture of “merry Britain”

where law and order create a world in which populations thrive and society achieves stability and

security’. Lawman, Brut, xxiii.

41 Ibid., ll. 2121–6. 42 Ibid., ll. 1311 ff; 1391 ff; 1403 ff.

court’. A stern and kingly Arthur ordered justice done on all offenders (and

even on their female relatives). All must swear to take no revenge, to take part

in no future brawls. Weeks later he introduced his solution: a Round Table

which could seat 1,600 knights, so that none should have precedence over

another. The craftsman who has made it assures Arthur, ‘you never need be

afraid in all the wide world / That ever any proud knight would at your table

start a fight.’43 The Round Table came into being as both a sign of the unity

between king and knights and a means to stop disruptive knightly violence.

The poet who wrote the Life of William Marshal at one point complains that

his world is being spoiled by the decay of chivalry, meaning the very reforms

praised by Lawman; what worries him is a shift away from prowess and

largesse and a commitment to mere courtroom litigation:

But now the high lords have imprisoned chivalry for us; by their lethargy and because

of greed, largesse is thrown into prison. And the knights errant and the tourneyers have

been transformed into courtroom litigants.44

This image of chivalry wrongly imprisoned and prowess confined to the courtroom

contrasts strongly with Lawman’s praise of Arthurian royalism suppressing

knightly violence in his own house. The gold of chivalry has been

transmuted into lead, so it seems.45 This sentiment anticipates by four centuries

a seventeenth-century complaint that the country was so well governed

there was ‘no employment for heroickal spirits’.46

Yet if Marshal began life as a knight errant, hurrying from England to the

continent, where knighthood was less restrained, he ended his career as regent

of England and chief prop to the crown in a time of crisis. Alongside complaint

against royal restrictions on chivalry, we must set the broad course of

William’s life to illuminate the complex pattern of chivalry, literature, and

kingship we have found in England.

43 Allen, tr., Lawman, Brut, 11367 ff.

44 My translation, from Meyer, ed., Histoire, I, ll. 2686–92:

Mais or nos ront mise en prison

Chevalerie le halt home:

Par perece qui les asome

E par conseil de coveitise

Nos ront largesse en prison mise,

E l’esrer e le torneir

Si sunt torné al plaidier

45 Lawman is, of course, no pacifist; he waxes enthusiastic for the right kind of violence, at the

right time, by the right people.

46 Quoted in Benson, Malory’s Morte Darthur, 177.