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When Knighthood Was in Flower


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In no other country than England is it possible to witness to-day a ceremony such as those which from time to time fill Westminster Abbey or St. George's Chapel at Windsor with the atmosphere of the Age of Chivalry. Nowhere else is the memory of the past so reverently treasured. Nowhere is the same trouble taken to stage elaborate and picturesque pageants modelled on what are supposed to have been the processions and procedure of the Orders of Knighthood in a remote past.

Yet there was nothing particularly English about these Orders. The whole system of Chivalry was an importation from abroad. It was imported during a period when, to quote Professor Pollard's History of England, the English people were serfs to foreigners who ruled then and owned the land. Even the language "went underground and became the patois of peasants." For nearly 250 years after the Norman Conquest the English were "submerged," and it was precisely during those two and a half centuries that knighthood was in flower.

It was an outcrop of the Feudal System and the English liked it as little as they liked Feudalism. What they thought of the Templars, for instance, and how the Templars (or some of them) treated the English, we can learn from "Ivanhoe." Sir Walter Scott built his romance on sound historical foundations. Not all knights of the Temple were as blackguardly as Brian de Bois-Guilbert. Not all Tribunals, Grand Masters, Preceptors, were so ready to parody justice and to prostitute the powers held by them as those who condemned Rebecca to the stake. But in general the picture is a true one in its large outlines. The Templars were hated in England, and they gave good cause for the feeling against them. They represented the dominant foreigner; they treated the English as an inferior race.

Yet the Order of the Temple deserves to be remembered gratefully even by the English. To it we owe the Temple, that fascinating warren of courts and walks and alleys which enshrines some of the ancient peace of London's riverside, some of the charm and dignity of ages which built "for keeps," much of the romantic colour of the past. Here, as in Paris, the Templars had a quarter to themselves. To this day, if you wish to enter the Temple after dark, you must knock and have a stout door opened to you. Nor will you be admitted unless you can satisfy the door-keeper that you have a good reason for being there. That is a relic of the Templars' privilege. They walled their quarter round, they even fortified it. They were careful about letting people in. Other settlements of the Order in England were at Temple Bruer in Lincolnshire and Temple Newson in Yorkshire. These names persist still.

In Paris also the memory of the Templars is kept alive by the Rue du Temple. In this city they did a widespread banking business. That sounds odd when one recollects that the Abbot of Jervaulx spoke of them as "half monks, half soldiers." And it came about in an odd way. Deeming them trustworthy, and seeing that they had dwellings more secure than most were in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, kings deposited with the Templars their revenues for safety. The Templars, having among them men of quick intelligence, saw that they could do better with these deposits than lock them away in chests. They became moneylenders; they also bought land and sold it again profitably. The Temple in Paris is described as having been the centre of the world's money market. So far did the ideals of the Order sink from those which moved the founders of it, nine French knights in Palestine, to spend their lives in protecting pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre from Saracen attacks.

These nine were soon joined by others, and before long a fraternity was formed. The brothers, whose quarters were hard by the Temple in Jerusalem, took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience to their chosen superiors. They were to kiss no woman, to hunt no animal save the lion, to possess nothing but their armour and their swords. Over their armour they wore a white girdle and a white linen mantle with an eight-pointed red cross on the left shoulder. That is the origin of our Red Cross: we shall see presently how it came to be a symbol of succour to the wounded on the battlefield.

Scott, for some reason, brought Bois-Guilbert on to the scene wearing a scarlet mantle with a white cross. When he dressed for supper at the house of Cedric, his "long robe" was "of spotless white." The novelist was surely wrong in putting a black velvet cross on the white one.

Within less than eighty years of its foundation the Order had 20,000 members (not counting the servant brothers), and had departed entirely from its original Rule. The Pope became head of the Templars, which caused some grumbling among powerful bishops who wished to have the Order under their discipline. Not grumbling alone, either; intrigue as well. The Order was becoming so wealthy, it had gained such vast and widespread influence. Envy and jealousy were roused in many hearts. Grave charges were made against the Templars. They were accused of holding heretical doctrine and ridiculing the Christian faith. They were denounced for practising gross and habitual immorality.

For a while Popes refused to listen to their accusers. At last a king of France, Philip the Fair, who had designs on the Templars' treasure, bullied a Pope, Clement the Fifth, into setting up a court of inquiry. The result was unfavourable to the Templars; their Order was dissolved. After the custom of the age many of the more prominent members were tortured in the hope of extracting confessions from them. The Grand Master gave way under this hideous questioning and admitted many of the counts in the indictment to be true. Then he withdrew his confession and denied all the charges. This happened several times until in the end he found courage to persist in his denial and was burnt at the stake. Before he died he protested his innocence, and thrilled the spectators of his agony by calling solemnly upon his persecutors, the Pope and the king, to meet him before the judgment seat of God within a year. Before twelve months had passed both Clement and Philip were dead. Both had already found reason to regret what they had done. The king of France got very little of the property of the Templars. The Pope tried to salve his conscience and made an enemy of the king by handing most of it over to the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem.

This had been founded during the First Crusade. It was then a nursing brotherhood which established a hospital for those who had been wounded by the infidels, or who fell sick under the burning sun and the strangeness of their surroundings in Palestine.

This Order adopted as one of its emblems the Red Cross of the Templars which thus became associated with assistance to those who fell in battle. But the Knights of St. John did not remain a nursing order very long. Their organization became in course of time military; as soon as that happened it began to acquire great wealth and to devote all its energies to increasing its power.

It is not easy for us to understand the rapid rise and influence of these orders of knights, nor why they were so disliked and distrusted by the clergy, especially the bishops. The reason lay in the privileges which the Orders managed to coax or to screw out of monarchs and popes. Bishops were then princes; they ruled over their sees in the feudal manner, treating them as their private estates and demanding service from all their tenants. In return they gave protection to all who lived under their jurisdiction and did their bidding. They had almost unlimited power and they sought to extend it as widely as possible. It angered them that large bodies of knights should place themselves outside it and should acknowledge only the headship of the Holy Father.

Further, it was this exemption from obedience to the bishops which drew so many knights into the Orders. They saw opportunities of rising in the world, of becoming rich. They were willing enough to take vows which they saw broken every day. The Order of Saint John demanded of its members that they should live sparely, "because our Lord's poor, whose servants we are, go naked and sordid, and it is a disgrace to the servant to be proud when his master is humble." Words, words, words! No doubt there could be found many simple kindly Knights of Saint John who kept in memory the object for which their society was established, who lived according to its Rule, who went about doing good. But the Grand Masters, Priors, Grand Almoners, and -other high officials flew at higher game. Their object was to make their Order more important.

For several centuries they succeeded, it became very important indeed. When the infidels drove the Christians out of Palestine and the Order lost its palace in Jerusalem, it was given the island of Cyprus for its home. That was in 1291. Before twenty years had gone by the Knights of Saint John were hiring pirates to seize for them the island of Rhodes to which they then transferred their headquarters. One service they did for Europe which was reckoned to be of the highest value. They kept back the Turks. So vast were their revenues, so large their naval force, that they were able to carry on war and for many years to prevent the enemies of Christendom from over-running other countries as the Moors had over-run Spain.

They did much, too, to civilise those among whom they lived. They were generous patrons of the arts especially the art of architecture. They left many splendid buildings which have not entirely disappeared to-day. In the island of Malta, to which they moved in 1530, there is much to be seen which is beautiful as well as solid. In London the fine old Gateway of their Priory at Clerkenwell still stands to be admired. That is all which remains of their English headquarters. After Henry the Eighth had confiscated their possessions in England, as he confiscated those of all the Orders, a great noble pulled down the priory and had the materials carried to the Strand where he built Somerset House. But that was not by any means the end of the Order of Saint John in this country.

Centuries after this act of vandalism had demolished its home came a revival of the society for its original and entirely laudable intent. Once more it flourished. Now it has probably more English members than it ever had in the days of its greatest power. They seek neither wealth nor influence; their activities are concerned with first-aid to the victims of accident, with ambulance work, with the nursing of the sick. Once more the old gateway belongs to the Order. Once more there are Knights of Justice and Knights of Grace-that is to say, members who have justified their entry and others who are admitted as a favour. There are Ladies of Grace also. Along the lines on which it was founded the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem is doing more for the relief of suffering than it ever did in the past. At the same time it is entirely free from the scandals and extravagances which lowered its fame and brought it down from its mighty position in the medieval world.

Of the Orders which were founded in England, not on semi-religious principles, not for any purpose of serving humanity or God, but simply to gratify pride and love of ostentation in monarchs and their courts, that of the Garter is the most renowned. What was its origin no one knows. It is said that Richard the First made his soldiers wear garters at the siege of Acre, so that they might know one another in the heat of battle. It is said that Edward the Third gave the signal for the fight to begin at Crecy by sending his garter to the troops in the foremost position. Another story connects the institution of the Order with the accidental dropping of her garter by a lady.

All we know for certain is that in 1348 the Prince of Wales presented garters to 24 knights who were members of the Order, a proceeding quite in accordance with the particular customs of chivalry which prevailed in that age.

Badges of every description were then worn as signs of dedication. They might show that their wearers were dedicated to good works, or to a national cause (as Welsh Fluelen wore his leek), or to a lady. The Knights of the Garter were banded together for mutual help and companionship; perhaps also for the purpose of maintaining persecuted Right against tyrannical Might. There were many such sodalities in the times of the chivalrous centuries.

Much has been written in defence and in derogation of chivalry. There are many who, knowing little or nothing about it, regret that "the age of chivalry is dead." Others with slightly more knowledge, denounce it as a crude manifestation of the class war. It was a system which, like most systems, had both good and bad in it. It was neither so noble and pure as its admirers imagine, nor so evil and degrading as detractors would have us believe. Freeman, the historian, described it as being animated by "above all things a class spirit," but there existed many knights and squires and pages, we may be sure, who gave it a wider meaning, who did truly and honourably bear in mind the vows they had taken to "defend the right," to suffer no extortion, to protect "Maidens, Widows and Orphans in their Rights."

The word chivalry is French, but knight is of Saxon derivation. The Saxon cnith became knight in English and knecht in German. The idea at the back of chivalry and of the Orders of Knighthood came into being at the time of the Crusades. The rush to the East to free the Holy Places from Saracen yoke suggested that the duty of all true gentlemen, all true servants of Christ, was to ride abroad redressing human, wrongs. That ideal was divertingly parodied in "Don Quixote," and ended by being laughed at. But it had a fine spirit in it, spite of all its fantastic excesses.

The training for knighthood began at an early age, between seven and eight. Boys belonging to families of high station were then made pages to some noble, as the boy, Jack Falstaff, became page in the household of Sir Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk; or, if they were specially favoured, to a king or queen. There are still royal pages at the British Court, just as there are in Britain "knights bachelor" and "bannerets," which latter word has been corrupted into "baronets." The "bannerets" were so called because they were entitled to banners, while the knights bachelor could only carry pennons such as lancers, the cavalry-men in the British regiments, have at the end of their lances.

After the page had served for eight years, he became a "squire" to some knight whom he attended in the capacity of armour-bearer, messenger, and general "fag." Now he was given a sword after it had been laid on the altar and blessed. Now he could devote himself to a lady-love. Now he was expected to exercise his body and quicken his intelligence by taking part in games of much skill and great daring (another striking aspect of chivalry which survives in England still).

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Pictures for When Knighthood Was in Flower

A Garter Stall Plate
A Garter Stall Plate >>>>
Tomb of the Black Prince, Canterbury Cathedral
Tomb of the Black Prince, Canterbury Cathedral >>>>
Chapel of the Order of S. Michael and S. George, S. Pauls Cathedral
Chapel of the Order of S. Michael and S. George, S. Pauls Cathedral >>>>
The Order of the Bath: King George V at Westminster Abbey
The Order of the Bath: King George V at Westminster Abbey >>>>
Chapter Hall of S. John's Gatehouse, Headquarters of S. John's Ambulance
Chapter Hall of S. John's Gatehouse, Headquarters of S. John's Ambulance >>>>
The Chapter Hall, S. John's Gate: and the Council Room
The Chapter Hall, S. John's Gate: and the Council Room >>>>
Gate and Gatehouse of S. John's Priory
Gate and Gatehouse of S. John's Priory >>>>
Knights Templars in the Temple Church and Inner Temple Hall
Knights Templars in the Temple Church and Inner Temple Hall >>>>
Knights Templars in the Temple Church and Inner Temple Hall
Knights Templars in the Temple Church and Inner Temple Hall >>>>
The Round Church in the Temple: Monuments of the Knights Templars
The Round Church in the Temple: Monuments of the Knights Templars >>>>
Arundel Castle, Sussex: a Monument to the Age of Chivalry
Arundel Castle, Sussex: a Monument to the Age of Chivalry >>>>

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