Among them was Nicholas Sheldon
ONE OF THE GREAT SPECTACLES of the Middle Ages took place in Westminster Abbey over 700 years ago when 267 men were knighted, the largest mass knighting in medieval England.
It took place on 22nd May 1306 and was described by one contemporary chronicler as the “most splendid event since King Arthur was crowned at Caerleon”.
Foremost among the new knights was the man who would become King Edward II just over a year later, but at the time was Edward of Caernarvon, Prince of Wales, Duke of Aquitaine, Earl of Chester and Count of Ponthieu.
Then a month past his 22nd birthday, his father, Edward I, considered it was high time he was knighted and decided to use the occasion as a show of strength in his ongoing war against the self-declared King of the Scots, Robert the Bruce, in the so-called First War of Scottish Independence.
The King, nicknamed Edward Longshanks because he was unusually tall for his time, and also often referred to as “the Hammer of the Scots”, was by then nearly 67 and had just become a father again – for the 19th time.
A writ went out across the shires requiring “all who are not knights but wish to be” to come to London to be knighted.
Among the 267 to accept th sovereign invitation was Nicholas de Sheldon, son and heir of Sir Henry de Sheldon, who in due course arrived in London with his retinue.
The logistics of housing all these men required a great deal of preparation. Provisions in the form of wheat, oats, sheep, oxen and swine were purchased across five counties, many new utensils were bought for the king’s kitchen, and 50 carpenters were hired to build temporary structures at Westminster and elsewhere.
Most of the soon-to-be knights were housed at the church of the Knights Templar, the ‘New Temple’, where walls were levelled and fruit trees cut down to make space for the scores of tents and pavilions which would act as robing-rooms.
The King bore the enormous cost of all this, as well ensuring that all 267 men were suitably equipped for the occasion.
As was customary in knighting ceremonies, the men spent the night before the ceremony in vigil, in church – most of them at the New Temple, but a few in the Abbey church with Prince Edward.
The vigil was supposed to be spent in silent prayer and meditation, but in the Temple there was a great deal of talking, shouting and trumpet calls. They were all young men after all!
The following morning, Whit Sunday, Prince Edward was knighted by his father in a private ceremony in the chapel of Westminster Palace. The king touched his sword to his son’s shoulders, girded him with the belt and sword of knighthood, and the earls of Lincoln and Hereford fastened on his golden spurs. Then the royal party made their way to Westminster Abbey.
In the meantime, all the other prospective knights walked in procession through a huge, excited crowd from New Temple to the Abbey. So chaotic was the scene that great war horses were brought in to clear a path and restore order.
Finally, in front of the high altar, the men were called forward in pairs, made their vows of knighthood, and Prince Edward touched the sword to their shoulders and fastened on the belt, sword and spurs.
The banquet held afterwards in the Great Hall of Westminster Palace was equally splendid, with 80 minstrels hired for the occasion at a cost to the King of £130, a sum equivalent to more than three times the minimum annual income for knighthood.
The highlight of the feast came when a huge platter was carried into the hall bearing two swans and those present took vows on the swans. The King swore before God and the swans to avenge the murder of John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch and the desecration of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries by the Earl of Carrick, Robert Bruce, and his accomplices earlier in the year, and to fight the infidels in the Holy Land.
The newly-knighted Prince of Wales vowed to never sleep in the same place twice till he reached Scotland, in his attempt to help his father keep his vow. A year later his father died and he became Edward II, but his reign was littered with military failures until he was deposed in 1327.
By accepting the knighting, Sir Nicholas committed himself to marching with the King against the Scots in a campaign that culminated in the ignominious defeat of the English forces at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
How involved Nicholas became in Edward II’s many military adventures we can only speculate. What we do know is that Nicholas died around the time the king was deposed, a period of great instability across England.
Records of the Feast of the Swans are held by The National Archives, Kew. The records are in the Latin of the day but many translations and interpretations can be found through Google.
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