It was Edmund Burke, in his `Reflections on the Revolution in France' of 1790, who wrote that `the age of chivalry is gone'; but even he may have spoken too soon, for there was a revival of interest in it in the nineteenth century (see Tennyson's `Idylls of the King'), and the family of every British soldier killed in the First World War received a commemorative plaque, recording that their loved one had died `For Freedom and for Honour'.
Professor Saul's history of chivalry in England may be read as a companion to Maurice Keen's `Chivalry', to which Saul pays fulsome tribute. It is a very comprehensive treatment of the subject, less detailed than Keen's work in relation to chivalric culture, but fuller when it comes to the effect of chivalry on society. It is also, of course, much more up to date, containing the fruit of copious recent research on many topics. For example, it discusses the theory that castles were as much the product of changes in artistic and architectural taste, as they were of the need for defence.
Chivalry was originally concerned with horses, as the word suggests; and the author begins by reminding us that it was imported into England after 1066, since the Normans fought on horseback, while the Anglo-Saxons fought on foot. In the twelfth century, the activities of the individual knights were central, and Saul tells how William Marshal became an elder statesman, though he had started life as a poor knight and tournament champion. It is rather as if a professional wrestler were to become Prime Minister nowadays.
It was in the twelfth century that Geoffrey of Monmouth's `History of the Kings of Britain' first appeared, and the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table was born. If he existed at all, Arthur had originally been British or Welsh; but as a result of Geoffrey's work, he now become an English hero. The Second Crusade (1145-49), championed by St Bernard of Clairvaux, coincided with the foundation of the Knights Templar. The Third Crusade (1189-92) saw what might be regarded as the apogee of heroic chivalry, and the career of King Richard the Lionheart.
In the thirteenth century, the number of English knights declined; but the monarchy succeeded in exploiting chivalry as never before. Edward I was regarded as a `new Richard'. He again went crusading and it was he who gave a significant boost to the cult of Arthur, when he allegedly discovered the King's body in Glastonbury. In the fourteenth century, Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, modelled on the Round Table, and promoted St George as the patron saint of England. In the fifteenth, Sir Thomas Malory's `Morte d'Arthur' again perpetuated the myth of Arthur, while Henry V and Edward IV each promoted the cult of chivalry, using it to heighten the prestige of the monarchy and create propaganda for the interminable war between the English and French Crowns.
There may not be much that is new here to the specialist, but given the inevitable tendency to write about individual centuries, periods or reigns, it is refreshing to read how Saul manages to link Richard I and Edward I, Edward I and Edward III and Henry V and Edward IV, over a period of almost 300 years.
When did chivalry finally decline and die out? Saul shows how it was, like Charles II, an unconscionable time a-dying. It survived the pacific inclinations of Richard II and Henry VI, and it is arguable that, despite the demilitarisation of society after the Hundred Years War, and the arrival of modern methods of warfare, it did not expire until the French Revolution; or even until the bloody battles of the First World War in France and Flanders.