Welcome to Episode #52 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

An armoured knight defending the honor of the monarchy were real people in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the portrayal of them on stage reflects what was going on around the real 16th century audience. Here to help us sort out the legend from the fact surrounding knights in early modern England is our guest, Scott Farrell.

Scott is the founder and director of Chivalry Today, and he has more than 30 years of experience in the fields of arms, armor, and medieval military history. Scott has given lectures and demonstrations for a wide variety of groups with an interest in medieval history, armor, castles, knighthood, and the code of chivalry, including: The San Diego Shakespeare Society, The San Diego Historical Society, among many others.

Scott joins us today to share with us the history of knighthood in Shakespeare’s England, and what we need to know about that history when we encounter a knight inside Shakespeare’s plays. 

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Scott Farell is the founder and director of Chivalry Today, and he has more than 30 years of experience in the fields of arms, armor, and medieval military history. He has been involved with independent study programs at the Royal Armories at Leeds, and with Cadw (the department of the Welsh government in charge of preserving castles and other historical monuments).

With a college degree in English literature, Scott is also an avid reader and student of folklore and Arthurian legend. In addition, Scott studied theatrical performance at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, and periodically works as one of the teaching artists (school performers) with San Diego’s Intrepid Shakespeare Company. He has worked with the San Diego City and County Library Systems as part of the annual Summer Reading Program since 2006.

Scott is a professional journalist and author, and his articles on medieval history and the ideals of chivalry have appeared in many print and on-line publications, including Renaissance Magazine, Military History Quarterly, Civil War Times, Chivalry Sports, Tournaments Illuminated, Men Today, and Police Magazine. His chapter “Sir Aristotle and the Code of Chivalry” is included in the book Martial Arts And Philosophy (Open Court Books, 2010). *affiliate link*

He is the voice of the podcast, Chivalry Today,  and the instructor of many classes and workshops offered on swords, chivalry, and the life of a knight. Learn more, and connect with Scott, at ChivalryToday.com

In this episode, I’ll be asking Scott about :

  • Were real knights, like we think of from King Arthur legends and such, active during Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1, Shakespeare mentions “knight s of the Garter were of noble birth”  and specifically mentions the Noble Order of St. George. Can you explain what the distinction is for a knight to be of noble order? 

  • What is a knight of the Garter?

    …. and more!

He, true knight
No lesser of her honour confident 
Than I did truly find her,


Cymbeline, V.5

Heroes of the Elizabethan age : stirring records of the intrepid bravery and boundless resources of the men of Queen Elizabeth’s reign” from the book by Edward Gilliat (1841-1914) Published in London. Submitted to the Public Domain by Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. Archival Image. Source

Elizabethan Knights

Knights in Shakespeare’s England were a real station in society, appointed to their position by the Queen for acts of note, valour, or significance. Because knights under Queen Elizabeth were primarily warriors to fight for England, they often came from a variety of backgrounds and were not always of noble birth. In the order of things, knights were considered the bottom rung of the upper classes. 

Knights were allowed by appointment or election to sit in the House of Commons. There were several different kinds of ranks among the knights themselves, with the most basic being the Knight Bachelor. That term applies to a knight who is undistinguished in his knighthood. An ordinary knight was a Knight Bachelor. 

Knight Banneret was a title given to a knight who had accomplished great deeds of valour on the battlefield in front of the monarch. Battlefield promotion would allow the knight to remove the tails on his pennon, turning it into an official banner. Once permitted a banner, the knight was required to lead a band of men who were loyal to this banner. who distinguished himself on the battlefield in front of his monarch. During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, there were only three knights who accomplished this distinction. 

Highest among knights were the Knights of the Garter, who outranked any other knight. In 1558, there were no more than 600 knights in England. Under James I, the rank of Baronet would be created. This was a knight who could assume the position as a result of inheritance. James I established this hereditary knighthood scheme as a way to generate money for the crown.

The adventurous knight shall use his foil and target.


Hamlet, II.2

George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland by George Perfect Harding, after Nicholas Hilliard watercolour, early 19th century, based on a work of circa 1590, Bequeathed by Henry Callcott Brunning, 1908 NPG 1492(c). Source.

George Clifford


“George, the 13th Lord Clifford and 3rd Earl of Cumberland, was a pirate whose 3 expeditions were backed by Queen Elizabeth. Although he plundered many Spanish ships, he managed to deplete the Clifford estates (restored later by his brother Lord Francis). He was Elizabeth’s champion at jousts and wore her glove on his helmet. He died in 1605.” (Source)

His ancestor, Thomas, the 8th Lord Clifford, has several speeches in Shakespeare’s “Henry the VI” part III. “According to Shakespeare’s, Henry VI, Part 3 following Hall’s Chronicle and Holinshed’s Chronicles, it was Thomas Clifford’s son and heir, John Clifford, 9th Baron de Clifford, who slew, in cold blood after the Battle of Wakefield, the young Edmund, Earl of Rutland, son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York, cutting off his head and sending it crowned with paper to Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, although later authorities state that Lord Rutland had been slain during the battle.” (Source)

This painting of “the Queen’s Champion” George Clifford shows him in a knight’s regalia, ready for a joust, and in his hat, he’s carrying Elizabeth’s jeweled glove, a sign of his lady’s favor.

Dian no queen of virgins, that 
would suffer her poor knight surprised, without 
rescue in the first assault or ransom afterward. 


Alls Well That Ends Well, I.3

“Old England – a pictorial museum of regal, ecclesiastical, baronial, municipal, and popular antiquities (1845)” by Charles Knight (1791-1873) Submitted to the public domain by Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. Archival Image. Source

Knight’s Weapons 

 The knight’s sword is popularly remembered, but the Elizabethan Knight would also have employed axes, quarterstaff, lance, and crossbow.

In battle, these weapons would defend and attack to help the knight achieve victory in the fray. Back home, practice with these weapons often took the form of sporting events where armored men, dogs, and horses, would display their skills and prowess through sport. 

The two main types of sport were the joust and the melee. One was done on horseback, while the other was fought on foot. 

Henry VIII even had large open jousting areas in his palace, made available for the purpose of hosting such tournaments, being very fond of sports personally.  

Photo taken at a Templar site in Cornwall, England by Simon Brighton, and submitted to the public domain by same. Source

 Knights were not exempt from the sumptuary laws, and neither did they go around constantly clad in metal armour. They would wear day clothes and like everything else in England, exactly what those cloths could be made from was meticulously determined by sumptuary laws. 

The 1597 Proclamation declared that only earls could wear clothes with gold, or purple silk. No one under the degree of knight was allowed silk ‘netherstocks’, which were long stockings like hose, or velvet outer garments. A knight’s eldest son could wear velvet doublets and hose, but his younger brothers were not allowed.

I know this face full well: 
A gallant knight he was…


Henry IV Part 1, V.3

Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England c. 1601. Queen Elizabeth I preceded by the Knights of the Garter. From left: Edmund Sheffield, later Earl of Mulgrave; Thomas Howard, Lord howard of Effingham and Lord Admiral; George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland; George Carey, Lord Hunsten; unknown knight, possibly Robert Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex; and Gilbert Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, carrying the Sword of State. In the foreground is Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester, Master of the Horse. Of the four men carrying the canopy only the one in white on the far right has been identified: Worcester’s eldest son, Lord Herbert. Source: Strong, Roy. Gloriana. Thames and Hudson, 1987, pp. 154-5. Source

Knights Jousting 1561. “Münster’s sights and views– some examples from different editions (many with modern hand-coloring)” Public Domain. Source


 In Elizabethan England, jousting was an extremely popular sport. People of all classes would gather to see the exhibition. For knights, jousting came in two main methods of competition. A “joust a plaisance”, was a tournament held in a series of elimination rounds. It would last several days and an ultimate winner would be determined by a bracket style win/loss setup, where every knight in the competition would “run the lists” (means to run at each other with the lance, that we think of as ‘jousting’) with each opponent a total of three times. 

The second method was a Pas d’armes (passage of arms), which is when a knight would challenge any and all comers. He would issue a formal proclamation that he would take on anyone that dared challenge him in a particular battle, at a specific time and place.  

Shakespeare’s Place in History

A timeline showing Shakespeare’s life, when he wrote his plays, and what was going on in England.

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Chivalry Maurice Keen

The Knight and Chivalry Richard barber

Chivlary and violence in medieval europe richard 

emailed book he sent, french

Make sure you link to his book, too

the once and future king by th white


These are affiliate links, every purchase supports the show. 

Scott did not officially recommend this title, but he has written a chapter in it called ““Sir Aristotle and the Code of Chivalry” that you might find interesting if you enjoy this topic, or admire Scott’s work.

This book was not specifically recommended during the episode, but Scott has a chapter inside this book titled “A Cape And A Code” 

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