Date of Award
Master of Arts
Throughout the corpus of medieval literature, especially fourteenth-century romance, chivalry plays a significant role as a social construct for gauging both successful and disastrous kingship. For kings like Henry II, Richard I, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, and Edward IV, the literature of the time offers insights on the difficulties of chivalry and kingship in representation and practice. Production of vernacular chivalric romance literature evolved considerably in the thirteenth and fourteenth-centuries in England. Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Knight’s Tale, and the anonymous Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure offer a stinging critique of chivalry potentially aimed at Richard II, branded a tyrant by his enemies. Highlighting both the flaws in kingship and knighthood, Chaucer’s tale reveals the consequences of picking and choosing which parts of the chivalric code to follow. Nearly one hundred years later, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur (c. 1471) and the fifteenth-century ballad A Gest of Robin Hood follow the failures and triumphs of kings and their supposedly chivalric knights.
The unrest of Richard II’s rocky reign in England from 1377 until his deposition in 1399 echoes in the Knight’s Tale and several other contemporary romances. The later Gest of Robin Hood similarly responds to the civil strife of the Wars of the Roses. The Gest looks back at the reign of Edward III as a period of “good law” corrupted by greedy officials and churchmen. The knights in this literature are a negative reflection of failed kingship through their often violent, or irrational behavior. Thomas Walsingham, chronicler of Richard’s reign, describes knights rendered useless on the battlefield because of their involvement with women. Chaucer’s Palamon and Arcite fit Walsingham’s description, finding themselves in dire circumstances as they abandon their loyalties for a woman. Similarly, the only knight in the Gest is unable to defend himself, by no fault of his own, and this deficiency leads to his capture by the sheriff, a corrupt official of the king. Robin Hood’s tempers his outlawry with chivalry when he aids the knight, a common theme in the ballad tradition recounting the tales of the outlaw where he behaves more like a noble than brigand. The Gest offers insight into the effects of both strong and corrupt kingship, juxtaposing noble officials alongside Robin Hood.
These relationships between knight and king can be read alongside literature written by knights defining ideal chivalric behavior such as Geoffroi De Charny’s A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry of fourteenth century, and the thirteenth-century Book of the Order of Chivalry written by Ramon Lull. For English kings the literature of the time offered insights on the difficulties of chivalry and kingship in representation and practice. Literature operates as speculum regis—mirrors to princes. Works like the Knight’s Tale, the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, Malory’s Morte Darthur, and the Gest of Robyn Hode critique the fractious behavior kings and their knights.
Bressin, Leta, "Flawed Knighthood and Kingship in the Medieval Literary Tradition" (2016). Theses & Honors Papers. 376.