The Lollard Knights

Ellie Monks

A coat of arms can be like striking gold.

When it comes to medieval history, a time from which written records are thin on the ground, a coat of arms can be like striking gold. A noblewoman would often add her new husband’s family coat of arms to her own which is known as ‘impaling'. The best examples of this are the coats of arms of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary I of England after their marriages to Francis II of France and Phillip II of Spain respectively – even though looking at them can feel like looking into a kaleidoscope. Of course, marriage as we would recognise it today was legally restricted to being between a man and a woman in the medieval period. This is what makes a pair of shields found on a tomb in the Arap mosque in Istanbul so interesting. Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe are buried in the mosque in a joint tomb. Whilst to many that is strange enough, what adds to the mystery is how their shields are not only leaning towards each other but are exactly the same. The shields are both impaled like a betrothed couple would appear and, even more curiously, the helmets are positioned in a way that implies the two are kissing. The pair, who were known to a part of the ‘Lollard knights’ who resided at the court of Richard II in the late fourteenth century, travelled to Tunis wanting to take part in a crusade put together by the Duke of Bourbon. Unfortunately, Clanvowe died in the fighting. According to a chronicler, Neville became so inconsolable that he refused to eat and as a result died himself only two days later. Such inconsolable grief alongside the impaled shields could suggest that they considered themselves to be married as we would recognise today. This could be more likely than people realise, but there is room for doubt. The idea of soldiers finding physical comfort with each other is often suggested throughout the history of warfare, but given the amount of emotion which is attributed to Neville means that the story of the two knights reads as something closer to an actual relationship. This is interesting considering how such relationships were viewed not only in medieval society but by the sect of Christianity that the two knights were members of.
The Lollard Knights
A Medieval Knight

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‘Sodomy’ was a word used for many kinds of sins including adultery, rebels, pride, and lust, it is now mostly connected to same-sex relations.

The authorities of the medieval period, both ecclesiastical and governmental, are often found to be worrying about that particular type of sodomy more than the others. The second Norman king William Rufus has always been suspected of being gay, having never married and filling his court with pretty men instead much to the Archbishop Anslem’s despair. In some cases, this is hardly surprising as men socialise with each other more than they would with women due to the militaristic nature of medieval society. Two men could take oaths to create lasting bonds and if they did, they may have been referred to as ‘wed-brethren’, which historians like Peter Ackroyd have suggested could have been seen as similar to a traditional wedding than just mere friendship. However, a problem with this theory is the fact that they were Lollards. Lollardy was a type of proto-Protestantism which also rejected viewing the communion as literally consuming Christ and preferred a vernacular Bible. What the Lollards also believed was that sodomy was akin to idolatry, that is the worship of idols instead of God, because they were being physically intimate (maybe) for something other than having children. Despite this belief, it may be that Sir William and Sir John were able to balance their Lollard beliefs with their relationship. Writing the Bible in the vernacular was something that attracted many at the time. Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester and uncle to Richard II, owned an English bible and no one has ever accused him of being a Lollard. It could have been that people picked specific parts of the Lollard ways they wanted to follow. There’s precious little to completely confirm whether or not Neville and Clanvowe were in a relationship similar to marriage. But considering that neither of them married nor had families on top of being in their fifties when they died, it’s more likely they were intimately devoted to each other. This could have been made more acceptable because they were not heirs to any great estate or because they were viewed as ‘wed-brethren’ and their relationship was seen as completely platonic to those around them.
Ancestry UK
The Lollard Knights

Ellie Monks

Ellie Monks is a historian and history blogger from the north west of England. She gained a BA (Hons.) at the University of Winchester in 2018 and got her MA at Bangor University (in Wales) over the academic year 2019-2020, writing her dissertation over the first two lockdowns in Britain. Currently, Ellie owns and runs the history blog Historians Edge and it’s attached Instagram @historiansedge where she discusses gender, social history and has recently written a series about Henry V.
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