How Kings do Business: Royal Betrayal in A Knight’s Tale
Before we begin, I want to state up front that this is a work of fiction. It isn’t the actual story – but I think you’ll agree with me, it would be awesome if it were. It isn’t even the story I think they intended, it’s just what I saw peering between the cracks. I’ve seen A Knight’s Tale literally hundreds of times, and it’s nice to see something new in it.
In the movie, we meet a few memorable noble figures. One is Adhemar, Count of Anjou. Another is Jocelyn, Princess of Navarre. Another is Edward, Black Prince f Wales and Crown Prince of England. Before I go on, lets unmask this rogue’s gallery.
Edward is easy. He’s a major historical figure in his own right. But he provides a bit of context and substantiation of one of the dates in the film. That date is 1370, the year of his return to England. He returned to England because of the Treaty of Bretigney, which temporarily ended the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. It ended with a major French defeat, and marked the height of England’s power within France.
As part of the treaty, certain French nobles agreed to enter ‘custodial care’ in England as collateral for France paying its debt to the victor. Among them was Louis I, Duke of Anjou. He is the closest and most reasonable historical facsimile to Adhemar, and there are a few good reasons to think that. First, in his lifetime he was known also as the Count of Anjou before being promoted by the King of France. Second, he is Duke at the time of the movie. Third, he has close dealings with Edward, the Black Prince, being his hostage. Now, hostage takes a little explaining here. Being a noble hostage in these times did not equate to being kept in a closet. It was expected that if your captor was honorable – and Edward was honorable – then you would be treated according to your station, which frequently meant the ability to move about and frequent travel with or in your captor’s entourage. We see exactly this in the movie.
Here is where the betrayal sets in. Historically, the Duke of Anjou escaped captivity and returned to France, only to be ordered on pain of dishonor to go back into custody and pay his debts. In order to pay those debts he needed money. Enter Jocelyn, the Princess of Navarre, presumably the daughter of King Charles II of Navarre. There is no solid historical analogue of her character in the historical record, but if we assume a little bit and pencil the rest in, a story starts to emerge. In 1369, just before the start of the movie, King Charles conspired with John V, Duke of Brittany to form a mutual defense treaty, effectively aligning himself with the French King by making an alliance with a noble who was both loyal to France and a direct traitor to the King of England. Jocelyn is Princess under these conditions and is a lovely jewel that, if captured, could be of great benefit to any man seeking an alliance with her father (yes, I know, this is fairly anti-feminist. It isn’t an unreasonable take on the attitudes of the day, though). Edward wants that alliance, but can’t have it himself because it would be an alliance with a traitor and that looks weak. Louis (Adhemar) wants that, because it will mean he can curry favor and perhaps leverage his freedom. And, of course, William wants that because he loves Jocelyn.
At one point, Adhemar says boastfully that he has “entered into negotiations with [Jocelyn’s] father” to make her his bride. It is possible that as quietly as it was said, someone in Edward’s entourage heard Adhemar saying that and reported it to him. This would have told Edward two useful things:
1. Adhemar plans to marry the Princess of Navarre and will try to use that as leverage to avoid paying his debt and/or secure his freedom.
2. That William also loves Jocelyn. If he didn’t, why would Adhemar have used that as a barb in the first place?
Knowing the second, Edward hatches a plan. First, Edward places Adhemar in command of the Free Companies. Then he sets him loose on France, in order to disrupt his alliance with King Charles by forcing him to fight Frenchmen. Because the Free Companies do not follow the codes of chivalry and honor, though, and because Adhemar allows them to pillage madly, he grows wealthy by feasting on the spoils of war. Thus, Edward has to disband the Free Companies, lest he lose his mercenary commander because he grows rich enough to buy his freedom. He recalls him to England, and there hatches his second treachery.
Over the summer, he’d been allowing Sir William Thatcher / Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein to grow more and more skilled and noteworthy at the joust. With each victory and tournament championship he got new armor, a new horse, new gear and new confidence. At just the moment he becomes “on a horse, with a lance, unbeatable” Edward disbands the Free Companies and goes to tournament, knowing that Adhemar will have to go with him and will naturally compete.
Adhemar proves canny and self-aware at this moment, because instead of fighting a superior opponent honorably on the jousting arena, he defeats him by exposing his secret fraud. He exposes that Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein is nothing but a commoner in disguise, nothing but a fraud. Rather than accepting defeat at this moment, Edward decides to move more openly and capitalize on an opportunity.
As William Thatcher is exposed, at this darkest moment, his old friend Edward comes as a friend. On the surface, Edward’s decision to knight William makes no sense. The dichotomy between nobility and commoner is one of the best forms of social control available to royalty in these times, so it would take a powerful inducement for him to set that aside. However, if we look more closely, we see exactly that.
By knighting William, Edward gains several things. One, he reactivates his best weapons against Adhemar’s growing prestige. Two, he enables William – now firmly an English noble, not a mere Flemish nobody – to have the credentials to marry Jocelyn, keeping her father from forming a more permanent alliance with John V and thus weakening English control of France. Three, he gains prestige for both himself and his court, confirming that the most valorous knight in the world is English (not Flemish; of London not Gelderland) and that he will himself be seen as progressive and merciful for helping a man in his darkest hour. So he benefits personally, financially (through Adhemar’s continued ransom payments), and politically. A win all around. So in a way, his decision was not only good strategy, it was inevitable.
Then, in a desperate last bid for power, Adhemar cheats. He breaks the code of the joust and tips his lance, then because of this he brings Sir Thatcher to deal to him the greatest disgrace – he defeats Adhemar while wearing no armor at all, showing him that he isn’t the least bit afraid of Adhemar’s power. That is a terrible strategic move on Sir Thatcher’s part, but it work out, punctuated by his screaming “William” – an exclamation which, like the choice to knight him in the first place, is both seemingly inexplicable and ultimately sensible in context.
Because, you see, with Edward’s help, this nobody-knight William defeated him. He was defeated by a name, a story, a boy. William.
It really makes a whole lot more sense, I think.