Cult of Chivalry

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Chivalry was a European phenomenon and Scotland saw itself as an ancient kingdom on a par with France and England. Scots participated fully in the cosmopolitan chivalric culture of the age and the ruling classes consumed chivalric literature with much enthusiasm. While chivalry as a movement promoted the idea of western Christendom in Scotland it was subverted to the national cause.

Unlike England and the mythology of King Arthur Scots drew on their recent past for examples of courageous knights and heroic deeds. The mythology of chivalry in Scotland was largely developed by chroniclers such as Barbour who wrote an epic poem entitled The Bruce in the 1370's and Blind Harry who wrote about the exploits of William Wallace about a century later in the 1470's.

There are many stories about the chivalric honour and martial prowess of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. On the field of battle at Bannockburn an English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun, mounted on a heavy war horse, spotted an opportunity to attack the Scottish king and charged him. Bruce was on a riding horse and armed only with a battle axe, as the knight charged he stood his ground and at the last minute side stepped the charge and brought his axe down with great force splitting de Bohun's helmet and skull in two. Bruce reportedly summoned all his lords to his death bed and told them of his longing to go on a crusade and so when he died a band of Scottish knights under Sir James Douglas took his heart on crusade to Spain. Apparently at the sound of the advance Douglas mistook it for a general charge and he and his men galloped forward and were slain. The Black Douglas is said to have thrown his King's heart into the Muslim horde before he fell.

David II, the son of Robert the Bruce, loved jousting and attended tournaments in London held by Edward III as well holding his own in Scotland.

Chivalry was also very popular with the Stewart kings who often held tournaments and James IV was especially fond of the practice frequently taking part in jousting himself. In 1508 he held a three day tournament at Holyrood and personally overcame opponents from Denmark, France and England. He offered to fight the Earl of Surrey in hand to hand combat with the winner taking possession of Berwick but Surrey declined claiming he was not authorised. James IV was also keen to lead a great crusade against the Ottoman Turks but he never got the chance. The loyalty James' cult of honour demanded led to him leading one of the largest Scottish armies ever to invade England in 1513, an army which included nearly all the nobles of the realm which made his crushing defeat at Flodden all the more damaging. Again at Flodden James offered to fight the Earl of Surrey in hand-to-hand combat and again Surrey declined, it was partly his anger at this and desire to show off his prowess that saw James lead an ill-fated charge down the hill at his enemy.

Scottish Knights frequently fought on the continent and often participated in crusades in the Middle East, against the Moors in Spain and against the Turks in Europe. There are links between the Templars and Scotland although the story about templar knights fighting on the side of Bruce at Bannockburn is nonsense. In the early 15th century Scots fought with Teutonic Knights against the heathen Lithuanians. The Teutonic Order kept resident factors in Edinburgh and Linlithgow.

The cult of chivalry was very important in Scottish history. Knights were honour bound to serve the king and the commonweal (common good) and were expected to dispense justice and come forward in times of need for the defence of the realm. These ideals of martial prowess and the preservation of independence were inseparable from the chivalric code and served Scotland well over the years.