The Nine Worthies Revisited

by Deirdre O’Siodhachain (Terry Sheehan)

This article originally appeared in The Oak #8. It has been revised and dated April 8, 2023.

A roasted peacock dressed with its feathers is served at a banquet, miniature of a manuscript of The Romance of Alexander the Great (“The Vows of the Peacock”). Mid-15th c. Le Livre des conquêtes et faits d’Alexandre, Paris, musée du Petit-Palais, folio 86 recto Retrieved from

In the early fourteenth century, a Frenchman by the name of Jean de Longuyon described nine worthies (neuf preux) in his Voeux du Paon (Vows of the Peacock, c. 1312). The description of the heroes is both a diversion to build tension in the scene and an exercise to elevate the qualities of Porus (a king of India), as an opponent during the battle with Alexander in the first part of the long poem.

The anonymous poet of the Parlement of the Thre Ages [sic] (~mid-1300’s) used the same set of Worthies, liberally borrowing from de Longuyon’s work, but embellished the pseudo-history with additional matter for some of the worthies. The poem is a discussion of the nature of the three stages of a man’s life; youth, maturity, and old age. The description of the Worthies comes as the speaker laments the passage of time that has cooled his passions and caused him to leave behind knightly endeavors. The narrator speaks of the sort of hero who achieved greatly and hopes to die with his renown intact.

The similarities and contrasts in these roughly contemporary views on what constitutes an apex in chivalric conduct is instructive as to the idealized qualities for which a knight should strive. These are mythic figures who could capture the popular imagination and enshrine the identity of the nobility as above common humanity.

The myth-making of exemplars of chivalry coincided with the declining importance of the mounted knight in battle. Warfare had changed with the growing efficacy of infantry and use of irregular tactics. The Battle of Courtrai (1302), Battle of Loudon Hill (1311), Battle of Bannockburn (1314), and Battle of Morgarten (1315) were all examples of supposedly inferior forces imposing a resounding defeat on armies organized along traditional feudal lines. The warrior class needed to bolster its identity as an elite and justify its place in the world. The rise of the chivalric romance served that function under the guise of entertainment.

One of the Oxford English Dictonary’s definitions of “worthy” is: “2. a. Of persons, as a term of indefinite commendation. In early use chiefly implying distinguished rank or valor. Now rare, the adj. as applied to persons having chiefly a moral signification (see II); exc. in phrase good men and true (now arch.), and predicatively in comparative expressions, as good as, good enough for, too good for.” (, retrieved April 8, 2023). In a sense, all chivalric literature is about a worthy or worthies. In this instance, the Nine Worthies are the hero’s heroes. No one individually is a perfect expression of all knighthood, but there are several archetypes that can be considered as epitomes of chivalry, each an expression of the ideal. It requires the proper combination of circumstances to allow the hero to shine forth and take up his destined place as a leader of noble society.

If one reviews the list of virtues that contemporaries found necessary to be considered a knight – courtesy, loyalty, prowess, hardiness, largess, and frankness as enumerated by Maurice Keen (Chivalry, p. 2) – the Nine Worthies seem to meet the standard. If we add the accepted principle of service to country and church, it is possible to understand why and how the Nine Worthies became as popular an emblem of knighthood as they did.

While the stories vary in details, there are certain commonalities.

  • All are of what could be considered of noble estate, whether by birth or achievement. With the exception of Hector of Troy and Judas Maccabeus, all became rulers of their people. In Hector’s case, however, his descendants are founders of royal houses. For Judas Maccabeus, he is perhaps the personification of the younger son who serves the ruling house loyally.
  • All are destined for greatness that will be destroyed by jealous rivals or a moral failing.
  • All faced challenges to their leadership from forces internal or external, or both.
  • All strive against great odds, and many succeed due to God’s favor as a reward for their piety, or serve to further God’s will on Earth.
  • All prove their personal prowess in battle. The literary tests of the hero are three: one against an equal, one against an army, and one against the supernatural. In no case in the two sources are all three met by any one Worthy, but the Worthies as a group demonstrate how to meet each of the challenges.

The Worthies were:

  • From pagan times: Hector, son of Priam of Troy; Julius Caesar; and Alexander the Great.
  • From Old Testament times: Joshua, conqueror of Canaan; David, King of Israel; and Judas Maccabeus.
  • From New Testament times: Arthur Pendragon; Charlemagne; and Godfrey of Bouillon.

The breaking down into triads and historical periods form the sort of symmetry pleasing to a society that looked for hierarchy and order.

As individuals, each displayed some outstanding quality of chivalry, which, in combination with their historical context, made them exemplars of knighthood. It is notable that for members of the medieval knightly class, there was the assumption that knighthood was an institution dating back to ancient times. There was no consciousness that it might be inappropriate to fit all heroes into contemporary molds. The result of this was that the Worthies were viewed as being of the same chivalric continuum as their admirers. The heroic nature of the Worthies was felt in a deeply personal and immediate sense; they might have been princes at some distant court whose deeds caused their fame to spread throughout Europe.

It was also acceptable to use the selected non-Christians as examples of chivalric virtue. The pagans predated the arrival of the Savior and therefore could not be classed as heretics. The Jewish heroes appeared in the Old Testament and could be considered as part of God’s plan for man’s salvation. The heroes of Christian times needed no apology or explanation.

The Pagans:

De Longuyon’s choice of the three Worthies of pagan times indicates at least a minimal familiarity with classical literature. At the time the Vows was written, there was an increasing interest in and demand for romances based on classical literature, or romanticized histories. This is inclusive of what is known as the matter of Greece which was based on classical literature of Greece and Rome.

The Iliad of Homer, even if not directly known as a poetic work, was a source of fine tales of knightly combat and courtly love. The reason that Hector of Troy was chosen as a Worthy rather than the victorious Achilles is fairly simple; Achilles left no children and had no surviving family. Hector, on the other hand, had family who were purported to have fled to Europe after the sack of Troy and found some of the ruling houses there. And there was no question as to the valor or prowess of Hector.

The Vows names Hector as the defender of Troy, he who “took charge of the city, and in the sorties launched at his instigation he slew nineteen kings in hand-to-hand combat – and I believe, more than a hundred emirs and counts – before he was treacherously killed by Achilles”. The Parlement echoes these ideas and contributes some of its own. Hector – called Sir Ector – is characterized as first in the conflict and eager for renown. The deaths of 99 kings “with crowns” are his personal victories. The only reason Hector died was because Achilles “undid his works with wiles.” The loss of this hero weakens the defense of the city and leads to the utter destruction of Troy.

Julius Caesar was remembered for his generalship and expansion of the Roman territories. While he did not himself become Emperor of Rome, his nephew did. As a general he displayed the kind of courage, determination, and success greatly admired in the medieval world. The Parlement calls him Sir Sezere and attributes to him the construction of the “true tower of London” and Dover castle. In particular, this section of the poem devotes itself to the lands and cities which Caesar brought under Roman domination. The Vows notes Caesar as the conqueror of Britain, as victor in the power struggles in the Mediterranean. Thus we have the image of the conqueror as builder and bringer of civilization, and pacifier of internal rebellions.

Alexander the Great was known as a world conqueror, but he was also famed for his generosity with the spoils of his conquests. Largess was considered a great virtue in a king, and Alexander made his generals client kings and his men rich. The Parlement deals extensively with Sir Alysaunder who “all the world won, … Orient to Ercules bounds,” i.e. from the Middle East to the Pillars of Hercules. The poet devotes great attention to Alexander’s knights, whose nobility and prowess is a positive reflection on Alexander’s quality as a king and general. Here is another Worthy who falls to treachery. Alexander is poisoned after conquering the city of Babylon. His section of the poem ends with praise for leaving twelve kingdoms to be bequeathed to his various knights. Note that one of the recurring themes in chivalric literature is the presence of dussypers (a form of the French douze peers, or 12 peers). This is an echo from the 11th century chanson de geste known as the Song of Roland, in which Roland and his eleven companions are introduced. After that time, any literary hero-king worth his salt had to have dussypers or a similar following at his command.

An interesting footnote to the examination of the Pagan Worthies is how each died. Hector perished due to Achilles’ “wiles”, and Alexander was poisoned by Cassander, son of the regent of Macedonia. The manner of Caesar’s death is not mentioned, but authors of the time would surely have been aware that he was assassinated by members of the Roman Senate.

Doubtless the topic of regicide was potentially a sensitive one. Both sources are forthcoming about the poisoning of Alexander, but that may not have been as delicate an issue as the stabbing of a kingly figure in a public place by his closest associates. The betrayal of Caesar had its counterparts in contemporary society. No courtly audience would like a reminder of the undercurrents in ousting or killing an anointed king. For example, Albert I of Germany was assassinated in 1308. The deposition and murder of Edward II of England in September 1327 was not long past for the author of the Parlement. These were rare acts, but regicide was in living memory – and a possible threat – in the princely courts of the late 13th and early 14th century.

In any event, the Pagan Worthies as a group rose high in renown and were brought low only by false friends or cunning enemies. There is a subtle implication that their deaths were deserved because they were not Christian.

Jewish (Old Testament) Worthies:

The world of the Old Testament provided the foundation for the appearance of the Savior, and in many ways its stories were viewed as foreshadowing the coming of Christ. However, it is not possible to ignore the prevalence of antisemitism in medieval culture. The Parlement of the Thre Ages names the Pagan and Christian heroes as knights, but does not so identify the Jews. Of the total 302 lines in the poem that address the subject of the Worthies, only 33 of them discuss the doings of the Jewish Worthies. Judging from the brevity of the section on the heroes of the Old Law, the author was not comfortable in dealing with these matters. The Vows gives more equal attention to the Worthies, but those of the Old Testament are again given slightly fewer lines.

Joshua, son of Nun, conquered Canaan because he was obedient to God. His harsh discipline was a model for all generals. His faithfulness to God’s commands was rewarded by the success of his invading force that subjugated the lands promised to the ten tribes by God. In both sources, his slaying of heathens and defeat of the ungodly is emphasized. In the Parlement, Joshua is twice said to pray to “Jhesus” [sic]. In the Vows, he is praised for “devout prayer and his courage alike he parted the waters of the Jordan so that the Jews he led could cross quite dry and unhindered”. His piety is essential to his success. Joshua’s worth is proven by his victory over “kings and kingdomes twelve” [sic]. This is also a sign of God’s approval. The Parlement goes on to praise the repute that he gained from these events.

In the Parlement, David, King of Israel, is admired for his skill at playing the harp, prowess as a warrior, and as founder of the line of kings that would eventually bear Jesus Christ. David was the chosen of God, having been raised up from being a shepherd to lead the armies of Israel to victory over their enemies and establish a single kingdom of Israel. One of the most important concepts associated with knighthood was that of the inherent nobility of a true knight, whether by lineage or nature. King David represented the just and divine recognition of the truly noble.

The poet of the Parlement devotes little attention to David beyond noting that he was lifted from obscurity to become king by God’s will. The outward sign of this was the defeat of the giant Goliath. However, the poet of the Thre Ages gives to David the only criticism he makes against any of the Worthies. David’s offense was breaking the feudal bond by sending his general Uriah into battle to die in order that David might enjoy his widow, Bethsabee. It was important enough to mention in addition to David’s qualities. Whether the reference is meant as an illustration of the evil effects of lust or the overwhelming power of courtly love cannot be known. The Vows does not refer to these events, but does say, “We all must surely, boldly agree that he was a holy sinner!”

Judas Maccabeus was third of five brothers and the leader of an organized rebellion against the religious restrictions placed upon Israel under Roman occupation. He was the general who gained victory despite great opposition and helped restore the Temple to a state of purity. Medieval knights were expected to defend the true faith in a similar manner. Here is a strong foreshadowing – and therefore justification – of the Crusades that continued to be preached across Europe, although by then the fervor for retaking the Holy Land had faded. Instead, knights were more likely to take up the cross to fight closer to home, such as driving the Moors out of Spain. In the Parlement, Judas receives a scant five lines, but his role as conqueror of Judea is emphasized. The Vows also gives him limited attention, but emphasizes his courage in the face of overwhelming odds and defeat of Apollonius, Antiochus, and Nicanor –  three names associated with the suppression of Jewish worship.

The Jewish Worthies are men who were favored by God to overcome tremendous challenges and who persevered against seemingly hopeless conditions. The Parlement sums them up as “doughty doers”.

Christian (New Testament) Worthies:

The three Christian members of the Worthies reflect the expectations for the character and deeds of a medieval king. It is significant to note that all these kings fought to establish their nations against opposition and defeated heathen armies (i.e., Picts for Arthur, Saracens for Charlemagne and Godfrey). They are bringers of order in the barbaric chaos of existence.

Arthur of Britain was regarded as an historical figure in the Middle Ages and his exploits were a significant point of reference on the conduct of knighthood. His career as king was based on the inherent nobility of his nature which was confirmed by signs both magical (pagan) and spiritual (Christian). His court sponsored the best knights in the world and was the source of justice and prosperity in the kingdom. Most of the secular medieval orders of knighthood owe a direct debt to the Arthurian legends – also called the Matter of Britain – for their organization.

Arthur and his knights were held to be the exemplar of all chivalric virtues. His court was the center of manners and learning, his round table bound in true brotherhood, lesser kings owed him allegiance, he showed the free and open bearing correct in a knight’s conduct, was strong and enduring on the quest, generous to those around him, and unquestioned in his personal ability on the fighting field having won the necessary combats to establish his rule.

Charlemagne was legendary because of the peace and stability his conquests brought to a Europe emerging from the Dark Ages. His rule was synonymous with the rise of the first truly European civilization in recorded history. In being crowned by the Pope, Charlemagne used the power of the church to increase his own by linking his authority with God. In many respects, the reign of Charlemagne was regarded as a prime example of wisdom and lawgiving.

The Parlement makes much of Charlemagne’s crusades against the heathen in Spain. Historically, Europe was in danger from the encroaching Saracen hordes and Charles was the only ruler able to stem the tide. The poem says “Saladin the Sultan he slew with his hand,” (line 533). Obviously, this is not historically accurate. Nor is the presence of the twelve peers, the greatest of whom was Roland. But it is true that Charlemagne’s military prowess halted the Saracen advance from Iberia. It is no surprise that years of his empire led to myth-making around them that resulted in the literature known as the Matter of France.

Godfrey of Bouillon was the first, and possibly most successful, of the Crusader kings who tried to reestablish the holy lands as a place safe for Christians to live and to visit on pilgrimage. Considering the idea of raising a crusade to free the Holy Land was still being brought up with some seriousness by the Church two hundred years after the first attempt in the early 12th century, it is no surprise to find Godfrey’s name was included. His striving to win God’s land was a noble ambition with potential practical rewards medieval knights – especially the landless ones  –  could wholeheartedly admire. The poet of the Parlement says “and with the worship of the world he went to his end”. The emphasis on good repute in the knightly classes needed an example closer in time and culture than more remote figures. A knight could climb socially largely on the basis of reputation, if it could be made and maintained. To hold the good opinion of the world was no small accomplishment.

The careers of the three Christian Worthies had a strong element of the crusading spirit, but also a step beyond just personal prowess and ambition to provide law and civilization, and security for the church within their territories.


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