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Philip J. Caudrey: Military Society and the Court of Chivalry in the Age of the Hundred Years War (reviewed by Christopher Allmand)

This interesting book is about heraldic identity which is ‘undeniably military’ In character and use. Several themes stand out. One is the use made by the crown, in the broad period running from the battle of Crecy (1346) to the early years of Richard II’s reign (the 1380s), to exercise a measure of control over an increasingly militarised gentry (the leading players in this story) through the establishment of the Court of Chivalry with authority and powers to regulate disputes regarding the use of heraldic arms through judgments based on the civil (i.e. Roman) law and an ill-defined law of arms. The author accepts Maurice Keen’s view that these records constitute ‘one of many sources enabling the historian to assess the closely overlapping subjects of military careerism, chivalric culture and heraldic identity in later medieval England.’  Since heraldic arms constituted an essential part of military culture which could be used to advantage, it was important that their use be properly regulated, and kept within legal bounds. Inevitably, this led to disputes, whose surviving legal records have left us important evidence concerning three cases (Scrope v.GrosvenorLovel v. Morley, and Grey v. Hastings), in which witnesses testified where they saw particular arms being carried, and (sometimes) by whom, suggesting that a knowledge of heraldic arms, and who had a right to bear them, was an integral part of gentry culture in these years. 

What of the broader context into which this knowledge should be placed? What may the historian learn from following these cases regarding the individuals involved, and the world, local, national, and international which they inhabited? Drawing on a variety of sources, the author develops the theme of military ‘careerism’ (which involved ‘semi-regular’ rather than ‘full-time’ soldiering) built up by many in the victorious years of Edward III’s reign, a ‘careerism’ which depended considerably upon bonds of friendship and association founded on the practice of arms, supported by the vibrant martial culture characteristic of the period. Many, particularly middle to low ranking gentry who generally appear as fodder in historians’ lists and statistics, achieved their moments of personal glory when the legal process demanded that they testify in court regarding the companies in which they had served, and those moments in their careers which had taken them to distant fields of conflict. Many such were well travelled (in areas around the Baltic or the eastern Mediterranean, for example), reminding us how war could extend men’s knowledge and experience of the wider world.  

Heraldry, and the importance attached to it by men of the day, created significant bonds between men both at ‘local’ (e.g.county) and at ‘national’ level. To support his case, the Yorkshireman Richard, Lord Scrope (who numbered John of Gaunt among his friends) could depend upon a veritable network of older Lancastrian veterans, who had supported Gaunt with their service, both domestic and military. Not surprisingly, when the time came for his legal dispute with the Cheshire knight, Robert Grosvenor, to be heard, Scrope was able draw upon a wide network of witnesses from all over the country to testify on his behalf. On the other hand, those who supported Lord Morley in Lovel v. Morley came from a narrower geographical base and included far fewer knights, than Scrope had been able to turn to for support.  

The author stresses how marriages between ‘military’ families helped to bring the actively military class together, and then to keep it united. The right of a family or individual to preserve its/his honour through the use of particular heraldic arms, available to no other, had to be defended before a court, since a breach of this practice might be construed as an attack upon the honour of the individual or that of his family. In a military society, ancestry and reputation were of great importance, and had to be defended. Families and generations were united by stories and traditions of exploits passed on from one age to the next. Perhaps as an outcome of that education and upbringing, a practical knowledge of heraldry may have been more prevalent than we may think. Anecdotes, to be found in the Court’s legal records, of what may appear to us as reflecting the remarkable skill of men, grown to maturity surrounded by the symbols of chivalric culture, to recognize, even in the heat and disorder of battle a particular family’s heraldic coat, constitutes important evidence of the influence which chivalric practices and symbols could have upon men brought up to respect their values.  

Dr Caudrey has written an excellent book (all the better for not being too long) which many should read to their advantage. His knowledge and use of important evidence found outside the Court’s records adds to the value of his work. These court hearings have much to tell us about English military society in mid-and late-14th-century England, about those who went to war, their attitudes to conflict and what may have motivated them to participate. Above all, the reader is left with no lingering doubt that chivalry was very much a living force among certain groups of English society in the second half of the 14th century, the age (is it surprising?) which witnessed the outstanding successes of English arms in France and elsewhere.  This is a carefully assembled study, full of varied interest. It deserves a place as a significant contribution to the history, mainly the military and social sort, of late medieval England.