Relevant History welcomes Los Angeles native and award-winning author Jeri Westerson, who writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir novels. Her brooding protagonist is Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London, running into thieves, kings, poets, and religious relics. When not writing, Jeri dabbles in gourmet cooking, drinks fine wines, eats cheap chocolate, and swoons over anything British. You can read more about Jeri’s books, watch a series book trailer, find discussion guides, and read Crispin’s blog on Jeri’s website.
Once you’re knighted it’s permanent, right? Not necessarily so.
Under what circumstances would someone lose their knighthood? By the time my fifth book, Blood Lance, is set, my protagonist Crispin Guest had been degraded for about ten years and living with the consequences. He did commit a fairly heinous offense, that of treason, but for a very good cause.
Most often, when a knight or lord was handed the treason card, the lords didn’t bother degrading him. The knight in question would simply be executed in a most foul manner. In the words of the Scarecrow in the movie The Wizard of Oz, “They tore off my arms and threw them over there! And then they tore off my legs and threw them over there!” You get the picture. Crispin was lucky
enough to have a person in a pretty high place speak up for him and so he didn’t lose his life; only his wealth, lands, title and a smidgeon of his self-respect.
Because degradation of knighthood is such a rare event, there are only two recorded cases. The first was during the English War of the Roses where the Lancastrians went up against the Yorkists. In a rebellion against the Yorkist King Edward IV, Sir Ralph Grey allowed the Lancastrians to hold several fortresses in Scotland. Even when many other castles were taken, Grey held Bamborough. But after a siege, they surrendered it in June 1464. Grey was sentenced by the Constable of England to be degraded. His coat of arms was torn from his back and another with his arms reversed was put in its place. And then the Constable declared, “Then, Sir Ralph Grey, this shall be thy penance—thou shalt go upon thy feet to the town’s end, and there thou shalt be laid down and drawn to a scaffold made for thee, and thou shalt have thy head smitten off they body; thy body to be buried in the friary, thy head where it may please the king.”
As the Tinman would say, “That’s you all over.”
It was a little different in 1621. This time, it wasn’t a case of treason, but one of old-fashioned graft. Sir Giles Mompesson and Sir Francis Mitchell were tried before the House of Lords for the political offence of “exercising harsh monopolies over the licensing of inns and the manufacture of gold and silver thread.” Doesn’t sound horrible when put that way, but essentially, Mompesson dishonored the very notion of knighthood with his activities. Apparently, he was the go-to person for licensing inns, and he was supposed to be overseeing the manufacture of gold and silver thread and imprison those manufacturing said thread without a license. Instead, he ran a good trade in extortion on the goldsmiths of London and pulled a few fast ones conning taverns into putting up guests overnight and then fining them for running an inn without a license!
Mompesson was tried by the House of Commons, which referred it to the House of Lords where he was sentenced to quite a unique punishment. Not only was he to pay a £10,000 fine and lose his knighthood, but to show his full degradation, he was to be secured behind a horse and walk down the Strand in London with his face in the horse’s anus. And then be imprisoned for life. And in case that wasn’t enough, a few days later they came back with banishment for life.
This is what happened to Mitchell, as reported by the College of Arms: “Sir Francis’s sword and gilt spurs, being the ornaments of Knighthood, were taken from him, broken and defaced, thus indicating that the reputation he held thereby, together with the honourable title of Knight, should be no more used. One of the Knight Marshal’s men…cut the belt whereby the culprit’s sword hung, and so let it fall to the ground. Next the spurs were hewn off his heels and thrown, one one way, the other the other. After that, the Marshal’s attendant drew Mitchell’s sword from the scabbard and broke it over his head, doing with the fragments as with the spurs.” (Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster King of Arms.)
Mompesson was banished and allowed to return to get his affairs in order and then banished again, but the slippery Mompesson managed to get back into the country and stay, retiring in Wiltshire till his death. Mitchell was imprisoned.
Crispin took his degradation very hard, and he still has a tough time reconciling his life on the Shambles of London to the resplendent life he used to have at court. But, of course, this only makes him a better detective, for unlike Mompesson, he took his honor very seriously and never more so than in the latest novel Blood Lance, where he is obliged to uphold the honor of an old friend, find a religious relic, and bring a murderer to justice.
A big thanks to Jeri Westerson. She’ll give away the audiobook version of Blood Lance or a signed hardcover copy of Blood Lance (winner’s choice) to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Sunday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available within the U.S. only.
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