12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind

Khalid Elhassan - December 3, 2017

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
Ruins of the Assassins mountain stronghold at Alamout. Atlas Obscura

The Old Man of the Mountain

Sheik Hassan al Sabah (1034 – 1124), who became known as “The Old Man of the Mountain”, was a shadowy Islamic scholar who led a radical Shiite faction, the Nizari Ismailis, and founded the Assassins cult. Although despised as heretics by most Muslims, few in numbers, and geographically dispersed, the Assassins punched above their weight and wielded considerable power in the Middle East by terrorizing the region for generations. In 1090, he seized Alamout Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia, and from that base expanded to establish a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria – earning him the nickname Old Man of the Mountain, a title passed on to his successors.

He adopted an innovative recruitment strategy, whereby he convinced recruits that he held the keys to paradise. Prospects would be summoned to an Assassin fortress, and there they would be housed in bare cells and attend daily religious lectures, during which it would gradually be hinted that the Sheik held the keys to paradise. Then, one day a promising recruit would be drugged with hashish, earning the group the Arabic name “Hashashin” – a word that was rendered into “Assassins” by various Europeans.

When the recruit came to, high on hash, he found himself amidst beautifully landscaped gardens, with clear streams meandering between rows of vines heavy with grapes, and trees ripe with fruit. Lambs and tame deer frolicked about; peacocks wandered around, ruffling and spreading their plumes; and brightly colored birds flew above, filling the air with their song. Amidst the stunning surroundings were stunningly beautiful women to seduce the recruit and satisfy all his desires.

Plying the youth with wine, keeping him high on hash, and feeding him mouth watering delicacies, the temptresses would convince the besotted young man that he was in paradise, and that his seductresses were the houris promised those who made it into heaven. Then, after days of delights and heavenly pleasures, the young man would be drugged senseless once more, and removed from the gardens.

Awoken back in his bare cell, he would be told that he had been in paradise, sent there by the grace of the Old Man of the Mountain, who held the keys to heaven. The recruit would then be told that he could return to paradise, provided he died while killing the Sheik’s enemies. It was extremely effective: suicide squads of horny young fanatics, high on hash and desperate to die while killing the cult’s enemies, descended from the Assassins’ mountain holdfasts to terrorize the Middle East.

Their first victim of note was Nizam al Mulk, a Grand Vizier who dominated the Seljuk Empire for 20 years before the Assassins got him in 1092. During their centuries of operations, the cult’s suicide squads killed numerous sultans, viziers, generals, Crusader higher ups including a King of Jerusalem, and at least two Caliphs. In his youth, king Edward I of England was grievously wounded and barely survived an attack from an Assassin while on Crusade.

An early practitioner of “propaganda of the deed”, the Sheik had his Assassins murder their victims in as dramatic and public a manner as possible – particularly targets who had enveloped themselves in heavy layers of protective security. By public killings in front of as many horrified witnesses as possible, the Sheik advertised his cult’s reach, and struck fear into the hearts of leading men by fostering the perception that those targeted by the Assassins were dead men walking, no matter the precautions taken. The Sheik’s cult survived him, with his successors adopting the title of Old Man of the Mountain, for nearly two centuries, until they were done in by the Mongols.

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
Saladin. Deviant Art


One of the Islamic world’s greatest heroes, Salah al Din Yusuf ibn Ayub, better known in the West as Saladin (1138 – 1193), was a Kurdish Sunni Muslim who rose to become sultan of Egypt and Syria, and founder of the Ayubid Dynasty. From that platform, he warred with the Crusaders, halted their tide, then rolled back their conquests by recapturing Jerusalem.

In his youth, Saladin was more inclined to become a scholar than a soldier. As a young man, however, he joined the staff of his uncle, a general in service to a Turkish ruler of northern Syria. In that capacity, he took part in a three-way struggle between the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Shiite Fatimids in Egypt, and the Sunni Turks in Syria, which ended with the Turks seizing Egypt to prevent its capture by the Crusaders.

At age 31, Saladin was appointed military commander of Egypt, and vizier to its figurehead Fatimid Caliph. In 1171 he abolished the Shiite Fatimid Caliphate and restored Egypt to Sunni Islam. Following his nominal Turkish overlord’s death in Syria in 1174, Saladin moved in with an army and extended his rule there as well. From 1174 to 1186, he consolidated his rule and with a combination of diplomacy and military force, united Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. Then, he turned his attention to the Crusaders.

At the Battle of Hatin in 1187, Saladin maneuvered the combined armies of the Crusaders states so they were cut off from water, then fell upon and destroyed them. The Crusader defeat was so crushing, and their losses so heavy, that within three months Saladin had recaptured the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as Acre, Sidon, Beirut, Nazareth, Nablus, Caesaria, and Ascalon.

The Crusaders were reduced to only three cities, but Saladin’s failure to reduce them to zero when he had the opportunity, particularly the failure to capture Tyre, would cost him dearly when Tyre became the springboard for new Crusades. The Third Crusade, led by kings Richard the Lionheart of England and Philip II of France, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa, inflicted heavy losses upon Saladin, although it failed in to recapture Jerusalem. However, the Third Crusade stabilized the Crusader positions in their coastal enclaves, and ensured a continued, albeit greatly diminished, Crusader presence for decades to come.

Nonetheless, the Crusader presence had been placed on the path to eventual doom, and reduced to enclaves hugging the Eastern Mediterranean coast which were recaptured by the Muslims, one after the other. The Third Crusade finally ended with a treaty in 1192 between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, which recognized Crusader control of the Palestinian coast between Jaffa and Tyre, and allowed Christians to travel to Jerusalem as unarmed pilgrims. Not long after the treaty and Richard’s departure, Saladin caught a fever and died in March of 1193.

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
Head effigy from the tomb of William Marshal. Pintrest

William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke

William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219), was one of the most prominent knights of Medieval England, who served four English monarchs – Henry II, Richard I, John I, and Henry III – as a soldier, statesman, advisor, marshal, and regent. Due to his tireless efforts, he saved the Plantagenet dynasty from destruction, allowing its continuation for centuries to come.

William Marshal was born in 1147 to a minor noble who served in king Stephen’s court. During a civil war between the king and a rival claimant, the empress Matilda, William’s father switched his allegiance to Matilda, but was besieged by the king and forced to surrender, handing over his son William as hostage. William’s father reneged, however, and when the king threatened to kill the child, his father responded that he still had the “hammer and anvil” with which to forge more and better sons. Fortunately, the king could not bring himself to execute a child, so William was kept a prisoner until the civil war ended.

Stephen was succeeded by Henry II, during whose reign William came of age, and after demonstrating his prowess, he was made guardian to Prince Henry, the king’s eldest son. The prince died young, however, so William returned to the king’s side and fought with him in France until the monarch died in 1189. After the new king, Richard I the Lionheart, ascended the throne, William married a wealthy heiress and became earl of Pembroke, with vast estates.

When king Richard went Crusading in 1190, he appointed William to the council of regents. Richard was captured on the way back from the Crusades, and when his younger brother John tried to usurp the throne, William joined other barons in fighting him. He eventually reconciled with John, and helped him ascend the throne peacefully after Richard’s death in 1199.

By 1213, he was king John’s closest advisor, and remained loyal to him during the baronial rebellion that forced the king into signing the Magna Carta in 1215. John died during a civil with his barons, who had invited Louis of France to be their king. Designated regent of John’s minor son, Henry III, William Marshal defeated the barons and Louis of France, and in his last significant act, compelled them to sign a peace in 1217 that restored peace to the realm.

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
Edmund Ironside. Wikimedia

Edmund Ironside

Edmund II, better known as Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016) was king of England from April 23rd to November 30th, 1016. The son of one of England’s worst kings, the weak Ethelred the Unready, Edmund was a vast improvement over his father and made of sterner stuff. He earned the surname “Ironside” for his staunch resistance to a massive invasion led by the Danish king Canute.

Beginning in 991, Edmund’s father, Ethelred the Unready, sought to get the Danish Vikings then occupying northern England to stop their incessant raids into his kingdom by buying them off with tribute known as the Danegeld, or “Danish gold”. That only emboldened the Danes, who took the gold, demanded more, and kept on raiding. Finally, after bankrupting his kingdom and beggaring its people to pay the Danegeld, an exasperated Ethelred ordered a massacre of all Danes in his domain in 1002.

The Danes responded with a massive invasion, led by their king Sweyn Forkbeard, who conquered England in 1013 and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died the following year, at which point Ethelred returned. With Edmund playing a leading role, Sweyn’s son, Canute, was chased out of England in 1014. Canute returned the following year at the head of a large Danish army which pillaged much of England, but crown prince Edmund mounted a fierce resistance which stymied the Dane. When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, by now known as “Ironside” because of his staunch resistance, succeeded him as Edmund II.

His reign proved brief, however. Seven months after he was crowned, on the night of November 30th, 1016, Edmund Ironside went to the privy to answer a call of nature, but unbeknownst to him, an assassin was waiting in the cesspit for the royal posterior to show up. When Edmund sat down, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger, and leaving the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels, made his escape. Unfortunately for Edmund, his side might have been iron, but his bottom was not.

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
Statue of Al Mutanabbi. Pintrest

Al Mutanabbi

Abu al Tayib Ahmad ibn Hussayn, better known as Al Mutanabbi (915 – 965) was the poetic voice of Medieval Arab chivalry and the most influential and prominent Arab poet. Most of his work dealt with chivalric and knightly themes, usually in the form of odes to patrons. However, he was also an egomaniac who managed to turn a significant portion of his panegyrics into odes to himself, his talent, his chivalry, and his courage.

From early on, he exhibited a precocious talent for verse that won him a scholarship. During his childhood, the Qarmatians, a heretical cult that combined Zoroastrianism and Islam, began despoiling the Middle East, and he joined them in his teens. Claiming to be a Nabi, or prophet, at age 17 he led a Qarmatian uprising in Syria. The rebellion was suppressed and its teenaged leader was captured and imprisoned until he recanted two years later. The Nabi claim earned him the derisory nickname Al Mutanabbi, or “would-be prophet”, by which he is known to history.

After he was set free in 935, he became a wandering poet, touring the region’s courts and composing poems in praise of rulers and powerful men in exchange for patronage. Poems praising patrons in exchange for patronage have a long history that cuts across cultures. From ancient Sumer through ancient Greece and Persia, and among the Anglo Saxons, Arabs, Vikings and others, bards and poets sang and recited for their supper. But when they sought richer fare, the surest ticket was to compose something that flattered a wealthy and powerful figure.

Al Mutanabbi was often handsomely rewarded with gifts of cash, but his greatest hope was to get appointed a governor. However, while impressive as a poet, but did not impress as a potential governor: his personality was prickly, and his pride was often off putting. Such traits, combined with the dramatics frequently accompanying creative genius, gave his patrons pause, and his ambitions of ruling a province were never fulfilled.

When not praising, Al Mutanabbi had a propensity to compose devastating verse to insult those who rubbed him wrong – typically rival courtiers competing for a patron’s attention, but sometimes patrons who failed to reward Al Mutanabbi as richly as he thought he deserved. Such insulting poetry got him killed in 965, when one of the victims of his verse waylaid him near Baghdad. Outnumbered, he sought to flee, but when the pursuers derisively recited some of Al Mutanabbi’s bold lines boasting of his prowess, chivalry, and courage, the poet was shamed into turning around to live up to his verse, and was killed in the ensuing fight.

My artistry can be seen by the blind – and my words can be heard by the deaf,
The steed, the night, and the desert know me – and the sword, spear, paper and pen.

Al Mutanabbi.

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
Edward II. Behind the Curtain

Edward II

Edward II of England (1284 – 1327) was the anti-knight and the opposite of the chivalric ideal, who stood in jarring contrast to his father Edward I, one of England’s greatest monarchs. A weak and flighty king, Edward II raised favorites who misgoverned the kingdom in his name, and compounded the problem by doing little to counter the perception that those favorites were his gay lovers. Poor government and perceived effeteness in a homophobic age were a toxic mix, which earned Edward the contempt of his barons and subjects, and brought him to grief in the end.

Early in his reign, Edward II enraged his barons by making an earl out of Piers Gaveston, a frivolous favorite and his rumored lover. The barons demanded that the king banish Gaveston and assent to a document limiting royal power over appointments and finances. Edward caved in and banished Gaveston, but soon thereafter allowed him to return, only for the exasperated barons to seize and execute the royal favorite.

In 1314, Edward led an army into Scotland, but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn, losing at a stroke all the hard-won gains his father had made with years of great effort and expense to assert English control of Scotland. Humiliated, he was unable to resist his magnates when they formed a baronial committee that sidelined the king and ruled the realm. It lasted until Edward found another favorite and rumored lover, Hugh Despenser, and raised him. As with Gaveston, the barons demanded that Edward banish Despenser, but this time the king fought back, and with the Despenser family’s support, defeated the barons and regained his authority in 1322.

However, his public displays of affection for Hugh Despenser humiliated and alienated Edward’s queen, Isabella. While on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1325, she became the mistress of Roger Mortimer, an exiled baronial opponent of the king. In 1326, the couple invaded England, executed the Despensers, deposed Edward II, and replaced him with his 14 year old son, who was crowned Edward III in January, 1327, with Mortimer as regent.

That April, Mortimer heard of plots to rescue the deposed king, so had him relocated to a more secure site, and reports of fresh plots to free Edward caused Mortimer to order him moved to various locations during the spring and summer of 1327. Eventually, the fear that one of the numerous plots might finally succeed led Mortimer to decide on ending the problem once and for all, and putting Edward II beyond rescue, by having him killed.

Not wishing to leave marks of murder on the body, and contemptuous of Edward and his perceived effeminacy and homosexuality, his killers did him in by holding him down and shoving a red hot poker up his rectum to burn his bowels from the inside. Another version has it that a tube was first inserted in his rectum, then a red hot metal bolt was dropped down the tube into his bowels.

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
Robert the Bruce. Ancient Pages

Robert the Bruce

Robert I of Scotland, commonly known as Robert the Bruce (1274 – 1329), King of Scots from 1306 until his death, led Scotland in the First War of Scottish Independence from England. He won a decisive victory against king Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, which secured Scottish independence for centuries thereafter.

The Bruce family were Anglo-Normans who came to Scotland in the 1100s, and became related by marriage to the native Scottish royal family. When the Scottish throne was left vacant in 1290, Robert the Bruce’s grandfather claimed it, but king Edward I of England declared himself feudal overlord of Scotland and awarded its crown to John de Balliol.

When Balliol was overthrown in 1296, Bruce and his grandfather supported Edward I when he invaded Scotland to assert his authority, hoping to gain the crown after Balliol’s fall. They were disappointed, however, when Edward proceeded to crown himself King of Scots. In 1297, Bruce raised a rebellion, but it failed. In the meantime, Scottish rebel and Guardian of Scotland, William Wallace, of Braveheart fame, had won a stunning victory against the English at Stirling Bridge. Rather than join Wallace, Bruce kept a low profile while waiting to see the English reaction.

In 1298, Wallace was defeated at the Battle of Falkirk, after which Bruce and John Comyn replaced him as Guardians of Scotland. The duo soon fell out, however and went their separate ways. Bruce continued the fight for a while, but eventually submitted to Edward I, hoping for recognition of his claim to the Scottish throne, but to no avail.

In 1306, Bruce murdered Comyn in a church, then rushed to crown himself king. He was excommunicated and declared an outlaw, and Scotland was plunged into civil war. He was defeated in battle and forced to flee, hiding in the wilds of western Scotland and on islands off Ireland. Changing tactics, he launched a guerrilla campaign, and discovered that he excelled in that style of fighting.

Aided by the death of the formidable Edward I and his succession by the inept Edward II, Bruce racked up a series of small victories, and by 1308 had seized Aberdeen and ruled the north of Scotland. From that base, he gradually expanded his territory, until finally, in 1314, he seized Edinburgh. The unwarlike Edward II was forced to react, and did so by leading a large English army to invade Scotland. Bruce chose his ground carefully, and at Bannockburn, near Stirling, he destroyed the invaders.

He spent most of the rest of his reign consolidating his control over Scotland. In 1318, he captured Berwick from the English, and in the years after Bannockburn, he conducted damaging raids into England to compel recognition of his position. Finally, after the deposition of Edward II in 1327, the regency government of Edward III signed the peace Treaty of Northampton in 1328, recognizing Robert the Bruce as King of Scots, and abandoning all English claims to overlordship.

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
Edward, the Black Prince, paying his respects to the corpse of king John the Blind of Bohemia after the Battle of Crecy. Imgur

The Black Prince

Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, known to history as the Black Prince (1330 – 1376), was the son and heir apparent of England’s warrior king, Edward III. A chip off the old block, the Black Prince proved himself a brilliant military leader and one of the greatest commanders of the Hundred Years War, playing a prominent role in his father’s great victory at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, and winning a brilliant victory on his own at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.

Born in Woodstock in 1330, Edward’s father made him Earl of Chester in 1333, Duke of Cornwall in 1337, and Prince of Wales in 1343. From an early age, Edward took after his father in his tastes for all things martial, and in 1346, he accompanied him on his Crecy Campaign. At the Battle of Crecy that August, the 16 year old prince was put in charge of the English vanguard, and the teenaged commander distinguished himself. When the prince’s force was hard pressed and reinforcements were requested, king Edward III responded: “I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help. Let the boy win his spurs“. Win his spurs he did, and during the fighting, the Black Prince’s forces killed king John of Bohemia.

In 1355, he was put in charge of Gascony and ordered to lead a grand Chevauchee – a burning and pillaging raid – to despoil French possessions in Aquitaine, which he successfully carried out. The following year, he led another Chevauchee, but was cornered and outflanked by a larger army led by king John II of France. The Black Prince offered peace terms, but when the French insisted that he surrender himself as the price for acceptance, he balked. The result was the Battle of Poitiers on September 19th, 1356, a stunning English victory in which the Black Prince distinguished himself by personally leading a charge that caught the French off guard and routed their larger army. The Black Prince captured the French king, his son, and much of the French nobility.

He is supposed to have earned the nickname Black Prince because of the color of his armor. However, an alternative explanation has it that the nickname is owed to the cruelty he inflicted upon the French during the war. The latter explanation is possible, for the Black Prince’s first act of independent command upon arriving in France in 1346 was to ride through Cotentin, ravaging and burning as he went. He also led chevauchees to ravage enemy lands – raids whose very raison d’etre was to terrorize and weaken the French with acts of cruelty.

The blackest stain upon his reputation, however, was his sack of Limoges in 1370. That year, the bishop of Limoges, a friend of the prince and the godfather of his son, betrayed him by defecting to the French, opening the city gates, and allowing them to garrison the town. That enraged Edward, who responded by marching on Limoges, storming the town, and massacring its inhabitants. As described by the chronicler Jean Froissart: “It was a most melancholy business – for all ranks, ages and sexes cast themselves on their knees before the prince, begging for mercy; but he was so inflamed with passion and revenge that he listened to none, but all were put to the sword. Upwards of 3,000 men, women and children were put to death that day“.

The Black Prince was created Prince of Aquitaine in 1362, but while brilliant as a military mind and battlefield commander, his governance proved a failure. His court was extravagant, he imposed heavy taxes upon his subjects, his administration failed to foster loyalty to English rule, he did not get on well with bishops, and his French nobles were hostile.

It all came to a head in 1367 when he undertook to restore Peter the Cruel of Castile to his throne. Although he won a brilliant battlefield victory, the campaign ruined his health and finances, and bankrupted Aquitaine. By 1369, his principality was in open revolt, and he could not afford to pay troops to put it down. He returned to England sick and broken in 1371, and devolved Aquitaine to his father in 1372. In ill health, he then faded into the background until his death in 1376.

12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times that Will Blow Your Mind
Sir Henry Percy. Light and Lenses

Sir Harry Hotspur

Sir Henry Percy, commonly known as Sir Harry Hotspur, or just Hotspur (1364 – 1403), was an English nobleman and commander who distinguished himself fighting against the Scots, and led successive rebellions against king Henry IV of England. He was immortalized by William Shakespeare, who made him a prominent character in his play, Henry IV.

The eldest son of Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, Sir Henry Percy was knighted by king Edward III in 1377 along with future kings Richard II and Henry IV. He earned the nickname Hotspur from his Scottish enemies because of his diligence in patrolling the border between England and Scotland, and “[a]s a tribute to his speed in advance and readiness to attack“. In recognition of his military service in Scotland, as well as France, where he was sent in 1386, king Richard II made Hotspur a Knight of the Garter in 1388, and showered him with royal favors in the form of grants and appointments.

Despite Richard II’s largess, Hotspur and his father played a key role in helping Henry Bolingbrook, the future king Henry IV, to overthrow king Richard II in 1399 and replace him on the throne. Henry IV lavishly rewarded Hotspur and his father with titles, lands, and offices, but the Percys grew discontented with the new king after he failed to pay monies owed them for defending the border the Scotland, as well as other slights, real and imagined.

In 1403, the Percys rebelled and sought to depose Henry IV, with Hotspur raising an army in Cheshire while his father raised another in Northumberland. However, the king intercepted Hotspur near Shrewsbury before he could join forces with his father, and in the ensuing Battle of Shrewsbury, Hotspur was killed. King Henry was reported to have wept upon seeing Hotspur’s body, and he ordered it buried with honors. However, when rumors started circulating that Hotspur was still alive, the king put them to a rest by having his corpse exhumed and displayed at the Shrewsbury marketplace. He then had Hotspur’s head severed and displayed on a pike on York’s main city gate, while his body was quartered, with the pieces displayed around England.