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22.08.25 Hefferan, The Household Knights of Edward III

22.08.25 Hefferan, The Household Knights of Edward III

In examining the composition, duties, and rewards of the household knights of Edward III, Matthew Hefferan offers a significant, though limited, contribution to our understanding of late medieval English kingship. The book is in four parts. Part I examines “The Knightly Household,” with a focus on the mechanics of retaining and recruiting. Part II concerns “Household Knights at War” with discussion of raising funds and enjoining combat, diplomacy, and defense. Part III concerns “Household Knights and Politics” and Part IV covers “The Rewards of Service.” These parts correspond to the four main research questions of the book, which are how and why the household knights were retained, who was chosen to serve, what functions they performed and how they were compensated for their service. In each of these categories, Hefferan provides ample--and often fascinating--detail that both illuminates a well-studied period of time through a new lens. However, the study is limited in three interconnected ways: because the scope of the study is restricted to “household knights” defined quite literally to mean only the two upper tiers of the military branch of the king’s household, and because the study largely ends at 1360 (when of course the retaining of “household knights” as so defined ended), the pool of evidence presented is too limited to provide the justification for Hefferan’s attempted comprehensive interpretation of Edward III as a shrewd political operator and skillful military leader. Were we to look at the fuller picture of the king’s military household, including how and why yeomen and esquires were recruited and retained, for instance, and how these roles changed when they were folded into the larger domestic household post-1360--or indeed if we were to look past 1360 at what happened to the household bannerets and simple household knights once they were no longer “needed” for their military service, the same conclusion could not be sustained.

Through his focus on the two upper tiers of the membership (i.e., the knights banneret and, below them, the simple [or bachelor] household knights), Hefferan builds a case that this group formed a self-conscious coterie of men who served the king in ways that exceeded a purely military purpose. In addition to their role on the battlefield, these knights, Hefferan shows, served a political function by sitting in parliament (as peers of the realm in the case of the knights banneret, and among the Commons in the case of the simple household knights). They also served the king symbolically, representing him in diplomatic efforts abroad and local government issues domestically. In short, “they were broadly used as a means of extending royal influence from the household outwards into the structures of national and local governance, as well into royal armies” (25). These men served as emissaries of the king in missions to France, Ireland, and Scotland, and raised important funds (and often contributed their own) for warfare; but they also served in smaller, less heralded contexts such as serving on local judicial commissions in disputes in which the king’s interest was at stake. The household knights during their heyday also contributed to court culture: Hefferan cites Thomas Gray’s account (from the Scalacronica) noting that William Montagu and the king led a “‘jolly life’” together during the 1330s, replete with “‘jousts and tournaments, and feasting [with] ladies’” (197). The tournament lists from the 1330s and 1340s--including the records from the feasts associated with Edward’s 1344 establishment of a “round table”--bear out this claim, as does the fact that fully nine of the founding twenty-four members of the Order of the Garter were household knights in 1348. The household knights thus participated prominently in the “stream of magnificent courtly spectacles” (199) that came to be central to Edward’s reign by the mid-1350s.

One of the more interesting aspects of Hefferan’s analysis is the extent to which the “strong collective sentiment” (30), or even an “esprit de corps” (31), that existed among the household knights during the 1340s and 1350s compares to what would emerge as the “royal affinity” of later years. Hefferan offers detailed analysis that shows how the collective identity of the household knights did not rise to the level of the affinity, but traces the similarities so thoroughly that his suggestion of something like a “proto-royal affinity” (34) is warranted. Hefferan demonstrates how carefully Edward cultivated his household knights in a way that would not disrupt his relationships with his nobles and other important constituencies. As one might expect, the relationships between the king and his household knights were mutually beneficial, with plenty of evidence of benefits in excess of their compensation accruing to the knights’ material and social standing as a result of their association with Edward and with each other. Because such a members’ club tended to reward the same men over and again, however, it is difficult to say (with Hefferan) that it was their position as household knights per se that caused their elevation.

In any case, the close bonds that existed between the men of the king’s household retinue did not survive the changes that occurred after 1360, when the king’s household was merged with the queen’s and an extended period of peace with France disrupted the model of retaining that had existed for years. During the 1360s, the concept of the “chamber knight” emerged to essentially replace the household knight; whereas before the term “chamber knight” referred to one specifically attached to the king’s “most personal office” (37), now the term milites camera Regis replaced both banerettis hospicii Regis andmilites hospicii Regis. It was “during the 1360s that the long-established household knight ceased to be retained for good” (37). As Hefferan notes, “the move from household knights to chamber knights stripped the household of the top two ranks of its military arm” and thus there were fewer men “who could be relied upon to extend royal authority into England’s localities or lead its armies” (39). The question remains, then, that if this core of veterans and society men were so closely bonded, what activities or outlets replaced the vacuum created by the end of the tradition? Hefferan devotes a very small section (199-202) to “Chamber Knights and Politics, c. 1360-1377,” which acknowledges “Edward’s increasing domesticity and personal seclusion” (200), but otherwise does not fold this substantial chunk of Edward’s reign into his thesis.

The book is at its best in the attention paid to granular details: we learn a lot about certain aspects of a relatively small number of men, what functions they performed and what compensations they received for their service. Anyone doing research on these particular individuals will be rewarded by a wealth of data. The main flaw of the book is its seeming desire to participate in the recent historiographical resuscitation of the reputation of Edward III. Without weighing in on the merits or demerits of the “unfailingly upward trajectory” (11) of Edward’s reputation since the 1990s, it is enough to observe its motivating presence in claims such as “Edward used his household knights to complement the popular, informal and consensual style of government that he expertly cultivated” (202); or, notwithstanding the “miscalculation” of the parliamentary crisis of 1340-1341, “on the whole Edward was able to integrate these men ably into the ideals of good kingship in the fourteenth century” (202). A more plausibly nuanced interpretation, based on the data presented in the book (and with knowledge of the data it does not examine) might be that Edward did indeed use his household knights effectively during the 1330s through 1350s, but that this strategic usage faltered after 1360 along with the king’s power more generally as he lingered through the end of his life and reign. Only if we exclude a large section of time, with its countervailing evidence, could it be said to be true that Edward was a king who “had a firm grasp on what he wanted, what was expected of him, and who was willing to evolve to achieve both” (265).