Chivalry and the Battle of Evesham

How to reconcile a movement such as chivalry, which has given its name to gentle, lordly and courtly conduct, with the brutal realities of a thirteenth century battlefield?

There were attempts to limit the scope and bitterness of war by developing theories such as the ‘Just War’.  The development of the theory of just war seems to have followed the growth of monarchical power because only a ‘prince’ was able to declare a Just War (which sounds a little like making him the judge of his own case).  However you define the word ‘prince’ (and there was a great deal of confusion and dispute) the definition invalidated baronial opposition by force.  So Earl Simon’s revolt was not ‘just war’ whereas Edward’s suppression of that revolt was.   In reality the idea of Just War did little to limit war between princes (both of whom might have persuaded themselves of the righteousness of their cause) neither of whom would cast themselves in the role of aggressor and both of whom were fighting the Just War.  Something similar happens today; war is not prevented but both sides have clear scripts for their propaganda.

During the High Middle Ages the rules of war became clearer although they were often no more than rationalisations of the way things were, accepting current practice.  We need to understand these conventions in order to be able to judge Edward’s actions at Evesham.  There was an undoubted sense of what was honourable conduct and this was part of the code of chivalry.  There were atrocities and the code was broken but these incidents were regarded as scandals and were commented on harshly.  This was a great comfort to the victims.

The Roman church held a central place in society and the thoughts and actions of lords and knights, as well as the common people, were greatly influenced by the framework of moral authority that it created and maintained and from which few were exempt.  The Church’s tacit support for Simon de Montfort’s rebellion might seem surprising to modern minds that associate the Church with peace and reconciliation.  The support of leading churchmen and moralists such as Grosseteste was a tribute to Earl Simon’s patronage and moral standing.  The Church’s hold on the consciousness of the entire community is hard to imagine in these godless times; however military men, in particular, always liked to remain in God’s good books.  Fighting men would try to hear mass or make confession before going onto the battlefield;  failing that, the cross-guard of a sword had to serve as a makeshift cross for a personal devotion.

The idea of laws and conventions of war dates from ancient times but, in the medieval west, it was strengthened by the doctrines of the Church, whose preachings against the horrors of war seem to have had some influence.  Even though the diffusion of Christian values in a military society has been held to have resulted in lower casualties in battle we should not give too much weight to the Church’s influence.  Among the knightly classes the anticipation of a hefty ransom was probably a stronger incentive to mercy than any Christian precept, and knights had a community of self-interest.   The senior combatants, the elite cavalry, were landowners who, with scattered holdings, were frequently neighbours or related by marriage to those on the opposite side.  And the victor of today may be tomorrow’s defeated, so informed self interest and self preservation inclined men to extended the courtesy of surrender and ransom, at least in their own class.

The complexity of landed relationships cut across political allegiances and Edward’s ‘no quarter’ order at Evesham seems to have been largely ignored.  It resolved itself into a matter of who surrendered to whom; neighbours on opposite sides would accept the surrender of one another, although there were exceptions.  However, this did not excuse Edward from the contemporary opprobrium of having given the order.

Knights were depicted in contemporary literature as paragons of matchless courage and ideal morality.  However, knights reacted in combat in much the way that men will in any age.  They might have felt braver than others because they were well armoured.  They provided mutual support and encouragement by advancing in close formation and peer pressure (to coin a phrase) reinforced ideals of honour, courage, loyalty and steadfastness.  But courage was a volatile commodity and could evaporate in the fever of an infectious panic.

On the other hand the infantry on the losing side had no ransom value or family connections to protect them so they usually came off badly in retreat.   Fighting between cavalry and infantry was frequently bloody.  The knights – and even the non-knightly cavalry – lived in a chivalric world where laws and conventions limited war and a beaten enemy could usually expect to surrender and be ransomed.  Infantry were protected by no such laws and had no ransom value.   When mounted troops broke infantry they did not scruple to ride the fugitives down and massacre them.  The days when the cry was: ‘save the commons; kill the nobles’ belong to the wars of York and Lancaster.  Knights naturally expected that they would not receive chivalric treatment from commoners and were careful to surrender to their own class.  The ignominy of capture by an inferior often set defeated knights looking for an equal to surrender to.

The confident and arrogant nobility were often led to disaster by that arrogance.  The sense of honour that remained in some commanders made them, on occasion, abandon a favourable position to fight on a ‘level field’ or to scorn a flank attack or ambush in favour of a head-on attack.  Does this explain Earl Simon’s apparent decision to ride up a steep hill with a numerically superior enemy poised at the top rather than investigate the possibility of outflanking Edward’s position, escaping to the high ground at Bengeworth astride the road to London or barricading his force behind the stout walls of Evesham Abbey to await reinforcements?

Battle tried the relationship between idealistic chivalry and harsh military reality.  On one hand some modern scholars [Huizinga and Kilgour] have argued that knights and their commanders left their chivalric aspirations behind them when they ventured onto the battlefield.  Their thesis is that chivalry was a peacetime fantasy with negligible influence on the conduct of military operations.  It was useful for rallying the troops, for inspiring speeches before battle was joined, and it helped to reconcile the warrior to the church, but it was forgotten as soon as it threatened to interfere with winning the battle.  On the other hand there has been a growing consensus among scholars in recent years that this view is unhelpfully cynical, pointing to instances where fighting men of the knightly classes adhered to the tenets of chivalry even when it was inconvenient to do so and other occasions, where excessive dedication to the ideals of chivalry provoked warriors into rash and foolish actions.  The rules were sometimes bent, occasionally broken in the heat of battle but there was a general agreement that chivalry remained the central pillar of military honour.  Nevertheless, combatants in the middle ages seem never to have fully resolved the tension between their desire to fight chivalrously and the need to win.  For them war was a way of life and the warrior caste drew their identity from their shared culture.  The basis of that culture was chivalry so any deviation from the norms of chivalry in pursuit of victory was likely to taint the victor.

Ethical considerations had a limited influence on the conduct of the war but, when great issues were at stake, horrific conduct was common and treason could always be held up as the justification for a massacre.  It was not unknown for one party to an agreement to break his word but even when he had an excuse – for example that the oath did not count because the other party belonged to a different religion – this could be disapproved of.  On the other hand, looting a town that had been taken by storm and massacring its population was accepted conduct.

Throughout his military career Edward was rarely merciful to defeated enemies.  His severity could be justified by the situation – possibly, arguably – but it was hardly chivalric and certainly not Christian.  If the Labordiere manuscript is accurate then Edward had little confidence in his knights’ willingness to transcend that code.  So much so that he formed his ‘death squad’ of a dozen men he could trust to do his bidding, led by a man with a profound grudge against Earl Simon: Roger Mortimer.  It was less the lack of justification then the sheer savagery of the atrocity that earned the disapproval of the monastic chroniclers.  Certainly the continuator of Matthew Paris thought that when the victorious royalists beheaded and dismembered Earl Simon’s corpse, they were breaking the knightly code and fitting their souls for purgatory.