Did Any Medieval Knight Ever Actually Rescue a Damsel in Distress?
Some of the first stories humans ever deemed worthy of writing down inevitably included tales of a man or men rushing to the aid of some damsel in distress, from Perseus rescuing Andromeda, to the Achaeans assembling to go rescue, or at least reclaim, Helen. As the centuries passed, this basic theme has never gone out of style, even still popular among men and women alike in more modern stories. But no era in history is more strongly associated with men rushing off to aid women than Medieval times, when dashing knights, positively glowing with nobility and Christian virtue, would rush to the aid of fair maidens at the drop of a hat. But in recorded history, has there ever been a well documented case of a knight actually rescuing a damsel in distress?
Well, to be completely honest, despite the best and extremely lengthy efforts of our quite experienced team researching this to try to find one single definitively known instance of that supposed bastion of chivalry- the medieval knight- rescuing a woman in peril… We couldn’t find one, with one possible exception we’ll get to in a bit.
That’s not to say we didn’t read countless stories of purported instances of knights doing this very thing, just that even the ones claimed to have actually happened all had all the tell-tale earmarks of just being a romanticized story someone came up with at some point to describe the supposed chivalrous knights of medieval times and various examples of the courtly love concept that was so associated.
In fact, in one instance, we even have an example of a knight whose own wife was stolen and not just raped by another man, but ultimately forcibly made said man’s wife. This one comes from Froissart’s Chronicles. How accurate this story is is a matter of debate, but in a nutshell, one Sir John de Carongne’s wife, Eleanor, caught the eye of the King of Portugal resulting in said King lusting after her and then going ahead and abducting her and having his way with her. Apparently he was so enamored even then, that he married and later had a daughter with her. There is no mention of her knightly husband doing anything about this, though the author implies he was still alive throughout.
On that note, looking at various instances of kidnapped women, we figured surely at least one kidnapped woman of noble birth in history had some officially knighted individual dash off to save her, right? She’s literally surrounded by these sorts of men, some of whom would be relations and presumably interested in her safety and well-being.
Well, it turns out while woman of wealth and nobility were shockingly often abducted throughout Medieval times, it doesn’t seem as if they could rely on knights to come to their rescue, or often anyone at all. In cases where something was done, rather than rushing off swords drawn, it would seem, as would be more likely today, resolving the kidnappings was almost always done through negotiations with the kidnapper or through the court systems and the law, or both.
More specifically, during Medieval times in the Western world, women of means, whether of the nobility or otherwise in possession of not inconsiderable valuables, were in particular danger from a random guy coming along and kidnapping and forcibly marrying her. This might be done by simply raping her, and thus consummating the union, or in some cases to make it all more official, finding a willing priest to marry the couple against the woman’s wishes and then raping her to seal the deal.
It turns out widows were particularly susceptible here, with the majority of the known cases of this sort of thing being such women. As to why widows were so often the target, should a man attempt to do this to a wealthy person’s daughter, with the paterfamilias still alive, said father could simply disinherit his daughter, thus profiting the kidnapper nothing. Wealthy widows, on the other hand, would see their fortune more or less transferred to their new husband, or at least the management of it. And as there was nothing inherently illegal about a guy forcibly marrying a woman in this way, it was occasionally a thing, which we know definitively about, unlike many of the tales of knights rescuing damsels in distress, because of court records.
That said, it is likely that many of the women subjected to this did not take the matter to court, particularly those of lower station, perhaps biasing the sample set. But some did, even among the poor. For example, we have the case of Matilda Fuller who was assaulted by one William Wlips. Wlips, the parson he worked for as a servant, and four unknown men broke into Fuller’s home and under threat of killing her, made her promise to marry Wlips. Once she agreed, Wlips raped her to consummate the marriage. When Fuller later complained to the authorities about the abduction and forced marriage, Wlips was found guilty of doing this, but was not punished in any way by the courts, with nothing known of what happened to Fuller after.
In yet another case, one Mary de Medefeld was assaulted, briefly managed to avoid being kidnapped by holding on for dear life to a tree, and eventually found herself locked in the basement of one Geoffrey Sandcroft’s bother’s house, with Geoffrey frequently trying to rape her to seal his marriage to her. No knights, or anyone else, ever came to her rescue. She did it herself. For five straight days she screamed her head off and fought tooth and nail anytime Geoffrey approached. Ultimately, her would-be groom got tired of trying to consummate the marriage, gave up and let her go.
Moving on to nobility, the countess of Lincoln and Silisbury, Alice de Lacy, was abducted not once, but several times. The first time she was actually still married. In this case, she was abducted by, ironically enough, a group of knights pledge to the Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne.
You might think surely her noble husband, Earl Thomas of Lancaster, would come to her rescue. And, indeed, he did go to war with Warenne over the matter. The problem is for our search, there is no record of him even so much as asking for his wife back at any point in the ordeal. The two men simply loathed each other and it was a great excuse for a fight. Getting his wife back doesn’t seem to have been a priority.
Later, Earl Thomas was executed for treason. After that, Alice’s lands were mostly taken by the King by force, by means of imprisoning her and threatening to have her executed until she made a deal to give them up of her own free will to make it legal.
Even after she was released, however, she was still more or less under house arrest until she agreed to give up other of her lands and pay a massive twenty thousand pound indemnity. Incidentally, her former kidnapper, John de Warenne, was given a grant for many of her estates as long as he lived.
At no point did any knight come to her aid.
That said, now 42 at this point, she married a knight and baron by the name of Eubulus le Strange, apparently a union of love, with her husband never bothering to claim any of her remaining property or even the title due him by marrying her. His surviving letters also paint a picture of a very happy and loving couple.
Unfortunately for her, while her years with him were not just happy because of having a loving husband, but also seeing events transpire to get some of her estates back, le Strange died about 12 years into their marriage while out campaigning, leaving her a wealthy widow.
Not a safe way to be in Medieval times.
Whether out of love for her deceased husband or simply trying to protect herself, she then officially made a vow of chastity in mourning for her lost husband, something the more pious would respect lest they suffer the wrath of the church and potentially the King.
However, apparently not everyone cared, as not long after, Baron Hugh de Freyne kidnapped her, as described in Michael Prestwich’s The Three Edwards:
He entered the castle with the complicity of some of her servants, and seized her in the hall. She was permitted to go up to her chamber to collect her things together, and when she came down was placed firmly on horseback. Only then did she realize the gravity of her situation, and she promptly fell off in an attempt to escape. She was put back, with a groom mounted behind her to hold her on, and led off to Somerton Castle. There, according to the record, Hugh raped her in breach of the king’s peace.
To add insult to injury, as a result of getting kidnapped and raped, Alice was chastised by the pope for breaking her vow of chastity…
Lucky for Alice, her new husband died within a year and she once again re-affirmed her vow of chastity and styled herself “Countess of Lincoln and Widow of Eubulus Lestrange”
Of course, being an incredibly wealthy widow was still not a safe bet, official vow of chastity or not, and two years later she found herself kidnapped again, this time by a group led by her late beloved husband’s nephew and heir and her own half-brother. This time they didn’t want marriage, however, just for her to give up some of her estates to them, which she ultimately did and was let go.
In another case in the 15th century one Margery Mallefant was married to Sir Thomas Mallefant when she was kidnapped and forced to marry another. You might think her knight of a husband would come to her rescue, but unfortunately for her, and us looking for a case of a knight rescuing a damsel in distress, Sir Thomas was dead at the time, Margery just didn’t know it at first.
You see, Sir Thomas was off in London when he went the way of his ancestors, while Margery was at their home in Pembrokeshire. When Sir Thomas died, his former close friend Lewis Leyson was sent to fetch Margery by her mother, Jane Asteley. Interestingly, afraid of sending just any man to do the job, Jane specifically inquired of Lewis’ marital status to make sure she wasn’t sending an unmarried man to fetch her wealthy, widowed daughter, given the risk that would be involved in that. Lewis, who was trusted because of his close friendship with the late Sir Thomas, simply lied and said he was married.
Once he found Margery, he kidnapped her, imprisoned her, informed her her husband was dead, and told her he he would kill her unless she married him. She declined the offer, but he found a minister to perform a ceremony anyway and then raped her.
In this case, Margery was having none of it and at her first opportunity, she fled and petitioned the courts to have her marriage to Lewis rescinded. The outcome of this trial isn’t well documented, but from later records when she was going by the moniker “Widow of Thomas Mallefant” it is presumed she actually managed to win the court case.
In yet another case, this one giving us some hope of a knight coming to the rescue of the damsel, one Joan Beaumont was kidnapped by 40 men and forced to marry Edward Lancaster with once again the formula being a priest willing to perform a ceremony and rape thereafter.
In this case, however, Beaumont was already engaged to Charles Nowell who, rather than specifically coming to her rescue sword drawn, instead petitioned parliament, not just to fix the situation with his fiance, but also to fix it for all noble women by passing laws to protect said ladies from being forcibly made to marry in this way.
As to what happened after in this case, the British national archives while detailing the petition itself don’t seem to mention how the case turned out as far as we could fine. That said, other records seem to indicate Joan married Charles Nowell in 1452, so we’re guessing this one had a happy ending.
This case is noteworthy in our search, however, in that Beaumont’s former husband, Henry Beaumont, was a knight before he died. Further, her son, also Henry Beaumont, also was a knight and he was a joint petitioner with Charles Nowell on the matter. So, while not exactly a knight rushing to rescue a damsel in distress in the way typically depicted in stories, it was a knight writing a very sternly worded letter to Parliament to help a damsel, in this case his mother… We’ll leave it to you to decide whether petitioning Parliament to have a woman’s forced marriage annulled constitutes a damsel in distress being rescued by a knight.
Moving on, we do know not all such supposed kidnapping and forced marriage cases were actually forced, even though claimed to be. In an era where a girl’s opinion of who she might marry may or may not be given credence to by her family, some young ladies who had a strong preference found a way around the problem via scheming with their lover to have him kidnap her and supposedly forcibly marry her in this fashion. The deed done, while the prospective family could still see the girl disinherited, in these cases it would seem the union was more about love, not profit, so the happy couple presumably didn’t care.
As an example of this, we have the 1356 court case of Thomas Mott who apparently kidnapped and raped one Joan Coggeshale of London. Her guardian, Henry le Galeys, who had been pledged to protect Joan’s chastity after she was sent to a convent, took the matter to court. In this case, the jury decided, to quote, “Thomas abducted the same Joan with her assent and her permission.”
So in some sense, had Thomas been a knight, this may have counted as rescuing a damsel in distress directly given what life was like at convents for such ladies. However, sadly for our quest to find a well documented case of a knight rescuing a woman, Thomas was not a knight.
Incidentally, on the note of consensual faux kidnappings, funny enough, laws were put in place to curb this practice long before the ones stopping the practice of kidnapping and marrying unwilling women…
And if you’re wondering about stealing another man’s wife and then forcibly marrying her, while there are such stories as the supposed case of the aforementioned King of Portugal, for mere mortals, this doesn’t really seem to have been a thing intentionally done as there was little profit in it in these types of cases, outside of things like ransom. And doing this came with considerable and well defined legal risk. As noted in our article The Surprisingly Recent Time British Husbands Sold Their Wives at Market, the women in these cases were considered more or less property in the eyes of the law, and thus if you stole another man’s wife, you stole his property and could be legally punished for the the theft. This is in large part why wives in Britain were sold at auction going all the way into the early 20th century. With no other good way of divorce, such an auction was seen by commoners to be a way to sell your property- your wife- to another man, and thus at least the common folk considered it a way to get a divorce. This wasn’t actually a legal divorce at all, but for a couple centuries there, the authorities chose to just ignore the practice and let the plebeians do as they wished, particularly as in the vast majority of these cases it would seem all parties involved were happy and willing participants.
In any event, going back to the original question of knights rescuing damsels, it turns out the whole chivalric code was more like loose and varying “guidelines” instituted by the Church to try to reign in the knights going around terrorizing everyone. As far as actual documented history, rather than the legends and fairy tales, this wasn’t very effective. And even in the mythology of it, we have such references as Andreas Capellanus, who more or less popularized the idea of “courtly love” in the 12th century, noting knights should feel free to do what they wished with any peasant women they encountered, but should act respectfully towards noble women.
From this, perhaps it’s not surprising there don’t seem to be well documented cases of knights actually rescuing women.
All that said, during the late medieval period, these knightly individuals were raised on romanticized stories like that of King Arthur and his knights. So surely some of them tried to mimic certain chivalrous stories of these legendary figures, right? Just one knight is all we need here.
This all culminated in our one hope of actually finding a credible story of a knight rescuing a damsel in distress, swords drawn and ready for a fight- the order Emprise de l’Escu vert à la Dame Blanche, which was established in 1399 by one time marshal of France and governor of Genoa, Sir Jean II Le Maingre.
Why is The Emprise de l’Escu vert à la Dame Blanche special here? This was an order comprising 13 knights dedicated to defending women’s honor and their estates. In short, Le Maingre had become distressed at the many noble women telling him of ways in which they were being ill-used or threatened by those in power and entreating him, as a noble knight, to help them.
Thus, he formed the aforementioned chivalrous order of knights, and then, on April 11, 1399, sent out a letter to be read throughout France of his order’s willingness to drop whatever they were doing at the time and come to the aid of those women in need of it, fighting any oppressors encountered in the process if needs be. Of course, only noble women counted here, and as far as we can tell from Le Maingre’s extensive documented career after, he never once dropped what he was doing to travel around France helping anyone.
As with their leader, we couldn’t find any well documented stories of these knights fulfilling their pledge. But, at the least given this was literally the point of forming this band of knights, and it was formed in response to requests from ladies of privileged petitioning the knights (so we know petitions happened), and they well broadcast their intent to help noble women in distress… I mean, at some point they probably helped at least one woman, right?
But to sum up, while there are countless stories of Medieval knights rescuing damsels in distress, finding one that can be definitively shown to have actually happened seems an effort in futility, though we’re happy to be proven wrong here as we’re sure it must have happened at least once…
Although, if you spend much time reading about the better documented exploits of the medieval knights around this time… Well, let’s just say, it’s probably far more likely that should a verifiable story of a woman and a knight actually come up, that the woman probably needed rescued FROM the knight if anything, especially if the woman was from a family of lesser station than the knight themselves, which was true for most women, or the woman was independently wealthy and unmarried.
As 18th and 19th century historian Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi aptly sums up of the myth of the chivalrous knight,
The more closely we look into history, the more clearly shall we perceive that the system of chivalry is an invention almost entirely poetical… It is always represented as distant from us both in time and place, and whilst the contemporary historians give us a clear, detailed, and complete account of the vices of the court and the great, of the ferocity or corruption of the nobles, and of the servility of the people, we are astonished to find the poets, after a long lapse of time, adorning the very same ages with the most splendid fictions of grace, virtue, and loyalty. The romance writers of the twelfth century placed the age of chivalry in the time of Charlemagne. The period when these writers existed, is the time pointed out by Francis I. At the present day , we imagine we can still see chivalry flourishing in the persons of Du Guesclin and Bayard, under Charles V and Francis I. But when we come to examine either the one period or the other, although we find in each some heroic spirits, we are forced to confess that it is necessary to antedate the age of chivalry, at least three or four centuries before any period of authentic history.
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- King Arthur and His Knights
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- Jean II Le Maingre
- Damsel in Distress
- Henry Beaumont
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- Eleanor of Aquitaine
- Alice de Lacy
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