Writing the previous post about chivalry got me musing about an alternative model of knightly service, in which the knight’s “lady” was more of an active taskmistress and tormentor than a passive recipient of adoration and protection. What would that look like, and how would it play out? Read on for a quick fictional sketch.
The knight had removed his helmet but was otherwise in full armour when he walked into the throne room of a high lady of the realm, accompanied by a squire who was hardly more than a boy. The lady received the knight courteously, before various servants and assembled lesser nobles, and listened without saying a great deal as he explained that he wished to offer his sword to her in appreciation of her beauty, grace and wisdom. Eventually, however, she decided it was high time to warn him about what being in her service would entail.
“If you swear your oath to me, sir knight, I will require from you not only devotion but also humility and obedience. I will not send you into battle lightly, but when I do you must fight and kill for me with the utmost courage. Otherwise, your sword will remain in its sheath, no matter how provoked you may feel. If I command you to undertake long journeys through the perilous wilderness, it will be for my own purposes, which I may not fully reveal to you. If I find fault and choose to punish, you must bear it manfully and without complaint. If I set you to any task, however menial, dirty or degrading, I will expect you to bend to it with alacrity. My courtiers know well that I am a woman of strong appetites, which extend to watching men writhe in my torture chambers, and you will be at my disposal in both the dungeon and the bedroom.”
The knight flushed red, not angered but certainly confused and disconcerted. “With due respect, my lady, do you desire a knight or a slave?” he asked finally.
“I would not ask a slave to fight my battles and defend my castle, just as I would not ask an ordinary soldier to toil in my fields or submit his body to my lusts. To do all of those things is the place of a knight, or at least of any knight who wears my favour on his lance. Do not think that you are the first man to dream of offering me his sword. The others merely took to their heels when they heard what I intended to ask of them, and if you do the same I will not hold it against you.”
The knight thought for a long moment, while the servants and courtiers exchanged nudges and whispers. When he spoke, however, his voice was firm and clear. “I will not take to my heels, my lady. My sword is yours, if you will have it, and I will serve you in any manner you might require.”
She nodded slowly and turned to the squire, who could not help flinching slightly when her sea-grey eyes suddenly bored into his. “And you?” she asked. “I will not try to make a plaything of you, except perhaps if you choose to pledge your own sword to me after you win your knightly spurs. If you wish to be a squire in my household, however, you must obey me and assist your master in every aspect of his service, whether that might mean polishing his armour or helping him prepare for a night stretched out in my bed.”
“I will be honoured to obey you and assist him in every way, my lady,” the squire replied, though he trembled a little as he spoke.
“Very well.” She turned away to murmur something to a nearby servant, a dark-haired young woman in a blue robe. The servant favoured both knight and squire with an enigmatic smile, then slipped from the throne room.
“Your first duty,” the lady of the castle told the squire, “will be to help your master out of his armour.”
The court watched in silence, for the most part, as the squire went about the long and awkward business of relieving the knight of his coat of steel. A few minutes later, however, the knight stood before the lady in nothing more than his doublet, stockings and breeches.
“Well done,” she told the squire approvingly. “Now you may help your master out of his clothing.”
“Before all your court, my lady?” the knight exclaimed in shock.
“Indeed. I want them to see you swear your oath naked as the day you were born. Do not protest again, or I shall be displeased.”
A murmur of excitement slowly rose among the courtiers as the knight stripped, handing each garment to the squire to be folded and set aside.
“Kneel, both of you,” the lady told them calmly when the knight was nude. As they sank to their knees she seemed to look beyond them to catch the eye of someone on the other side of the throne room. They glanced cautiously in that direction, and saw that the servant in blue had returned with three powerfully built figures clad and masked in dark leather. One of them was clearly a woman, and in her hands she carried a bundle of glittering metal.
“Sir knight,” the lady said in a loud, clear voice, reclaiming their attention. “Will you serve me loyally, obey my commands, submit to whatever agonies and indignities I might choose to inflict, and defend my person, household and honour even to the death?”
“I will, my lady,” he replied simply.
“I thank you, good sir.” She turned again to the squire. “Will you obey me, and strive to help your master fulfill his duties in my service?”
“I will, my lady,” the squire affirmed, though the words came out in a breathy squeak.
“Thank you, boy.” She looked beyond them again, but only a little beyond, and the knight realised with a thrill of fear that the three newcomers had closed in behind him.
“Clap my knight in irons,” she told them.
The knight had been warned not to protest, so he forced himself to remain silent and unresisting as the two leather-clad men roughly seized his arms and the woman deftly applied heavy steel chains to his nude body. Manacles closed firmly around his wrists and ankles, and a collar embraced his neck.
“Your master will spend the first few weeks of his service in the dungeons,” the lady informed the squire, “partly for my enjoyment and partly to begin a rigorous higher education in the knightly virtues of obedience, endurance and humility. He will find that my guards and I are stern and demanding tutors. If you wish, you may share his confinement and some of its lesser hardships, and be of what little help to him you can. However, I will not force you, and you may choose instead to be put to work in my vegetable garden until your master emerges.”
“My place is by his side, my lady,” the squire insisted, trembling now like a leaf in the wind.
“An honourable choice,” she remarked approvingly, but an instant later her eyes flicked away. “Seize the boy,” she commanded in a very different tone, and the words had hardly left her mouth when one of the masked men took the squire in a tight grip and hauled him to his feet. “Lock him in the cell across from his master’s,” the lady continued. “He need not be stripped or chained, for the moment, but do not be unduly gentle with him.”
“Aye, my lady,” the huge man holding the squire replied in a voice like the scraping of iron on stone. His hands clamped down a little harder on the squire’s arms.
The lady waved a hand, dismissing guards and captives alike. “Take them to the dungeons to await my pleasure.”
The voices of the courtiers faded in the ears of the knight and squire as they stumbled towards the dark stairway that led down to the dungeons, the knight chained and the squire firmly held by a man far larger and stronger than himself. As they crossed the threshold the chill air of the dungeons wafted up into their faces, welcoming them into captivity. Tears welled up in the squire’s eyes, and even the knight – already a veteran of countless battles – blanched in abject fear.