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Literature / Knight's Fee

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Never bring a knife to a sword fight.
“An old world has passed and a new world stepped into its place in the last hundred years. And what this new, untouched century holds for men, God, He knows. But I think that before it is half spent, there will be no more talk of Saxon and Norman, but only of English.”

Knight’s Fee is a Young Adult Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff published in 1960.

Randal, a half-Saxon bastard, is raised as a squire by the d’Aguillons, lords of a feudal manor a generation after the Norman Conquest. As the Conqueror’s sons Red William, Duke Robert, and Henry of Coutances war for control of England and Normandy, Randal earns a home for himself in the manor of Dean alongside his foster-brother Bevis d’Aguillon.


Knight's Fee contains examples of:

  • The Ace: Bevis, for Randal.
    "He had never, after the first baffled and rebellious days when he stole the red amber, envied Bevis his foster brother for the things he had, only for the things he was; he envied him for being the sort of person who did not run away from things."
  • Animal Motifs: Randal grows up in the kennel of Arundel Castle; even he likens himself to a hound. The Montgomery brothers resemble birds of prey.
    Herluin: He has lived so long with hounds that along with most of their faults he has learned the hound's chief virtue of faithfulness.
  • Artistic License – Geography: The manor of Dean is situated fairly precisely – a coombe in the South Downs on the west bank of the river a few miles downstream from Bramber Castle. There just isn’t actually a village called Dean there.
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  • Artistic License – History: The d’Aguillons were a real Sussex family, but Sir Everard and Bevis never existed. The real William de Braose died several years earlier than the novel requires.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Randal's stated reason for Undying Loyalty to Herluin and to Everard d’Aguillon. It's also the reason Sir Everard's Saxon villeins have come to love their Norman overlord.
    Sir Everard: Randal–do you love me then?
    Randal: If you take a half-starved dung-hill whelp and bring it up to be your hunting dog and hearth companion, you're likely to find that the silly brute loves you!
  • The Berserker: Randal loses it Saxon-style when Bevis goes down at Tenchebrai.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The conflict between the king of England and duke of Normandy culminates in the Battle of Tenchebrai (Tinchebray) in 1106, when Randal and Bevis stand in the front ranks of the experimental English phalanx against the Norman cavalry.
  • Bittersweet Ending: At the Battle of Tenchebrai, King Henry the ends the threat to England from Normandy and Randal earns a knighthood he never expected to, but it comes at the sacrifice of Bevis, who dies of wounds he took in the battle.
  • Blackmail: The d'Aguillons have no legal recourse to keep Sir Thiebaut de Coucy from asking the king for the tenure of Dean, so Randal threatens to expose him as a conspirator in the Mowbray Revolt.
  • Buried Treasure: The sole reason Thiebaut de Coucy is interested in acquiring Dean is because of a legend about the fabulous riches buried with a heathen king in the mound on Bramble Hill.
  • Cain and Abel and Seth: William the Conqueror’s first and second sons Duke Robert of Normandy and King William of England struggle for full control of their divided inheritance while their younger brother Henry of Coutances struggles to keep a foothold.
    Laef Thorkelson: Na na, you cannot blame the young one for the times that he has joined whichever brother offers the best chance for his sword, against the third, since whenever they make common cause it is to turn against him. Munin and Hugin! What a brood of wolves, these sons of the old Conqueror! Brother ready to tear brother’s throat at a word!
  • Canine Companion: Everybody’s got one.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: Though the political events in the background are Based on a True Story, the focus of the novel is on Randal’s Character Development over twelve years as he outgrows his abusive childhood into a man capable of a knight’s service.
  • Continuity Nod: The prehistoric, left-handed hand-ax Lewin the shepherd shows to Randal is implied to have belonged to Drem One-Arm of Warrior Scarlet, written two years earlier. Ancret calls Bramble Hill by its old name "the Hill of Gathering", also used in Warrior Scarlet.
    "He had an extraordinary sense of kinship with the unknown man who had first closed his fingers over that strange weapon, who had perhaps seen the wolves leaping about the lambing folds as he, Randal, had almost seen them for an instant tonight; an extra-ordinary feeling of oneness with Dean, of some living bond running back through the blue, living flint, making him part of other men and sheep and wolves, and they a part of him."
  • Cool Old Guy: Sir Everard, Laef Thorkelson, William de Braose.
  • Cool Old Lady: The Norman peasant crone Randal meets on the eve of Tenchebrai fight is completely blasée about the outcome of the battle and also has the temerity to hit on a man young enough to be her grandson.
  • Cowardly Lion: Despite lifelong habits of cowardice, Randal brings himself to make an enemy of de Coucy.
    "He was coldly afraid. He had always been afraid of things and people. Men had put that fear into him with many kicks when he was so small that it had become a part of him."
  • Dark-Skinned Blond: Randal's distinctive colouring shows his half-Saxon, half-Breton mixed ancestry and contrasts with his Norman Foil Bevis's Raven Hair, Ivory Skin.
  • Dawn of an Era: Fighting against Normandy is slowly knitting the Saxons and Anglo-Normans into the English.
    Sir Everard: Did I not once say to you that the time will come when there will be no more Norman or Saxon, but only English? … Already we begin, a little, a very little, to be one people.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Bevis, hacked and trampled at Tenchebrai, dies quietly of his injuries hours later in Randal’s arms.
  • Distinguishing Mark: Randal knifes the disguised de Coucy’s face to prove his identity later. Years afterward he recognizes him on the battlefield of Tenchebrai by the marks.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Randal feels horribly betrayed when he overhears Sybilla say that Bevis only befriended him after seeing he'd had A Taste of the Lash.
    Randal: I never asked you to be sorry for me and— and kind to me because of my back! I don’t mind my back—I don’t mind being beaten.
  • Evil Chancellor: Red William's despotic unpopularity also extends to his fundraising right-hand-man Ranulf Flambard, the Bishop of Durham (local representative, Thiebaut de Coucy.)
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Creeping as is his wont through Arundel bailey at night, Randal happens to overhear Hugh Goch and Thiebaut de Coucy on the water stair discussing plans for the Mowbray Revolt.
  • Feudal Overlord: The Norman system of land tenure means that the entire country belongs to the king, and everybody else only “holds” their possessions for their liege-lord, who can take them away at will. Randal starts out as the property of Hugh Goch, who loses him to Herluin, who gives him to Sir Everard, who holds Dean and everybody who lives there from de Braose of Bramber.
  • Field Promotion: Randal finally accepts knighthood after the battle of Tenchebrai, at Bevis's Last Request.
    "So little ceremony needed, in the end, to make a knight; no ceremonial arming, no vigil—oh, but he had kept his vigil, a year and a half ago—nothing but Bevis’s spent hand falling on his shoulder in the accolade. “Sir Randal of Dean.”"
  • Fiery Redhead: "Red" King William II; the Montgomery brothers, Hugh Goch and Robert de Bellême; and Gisella.
    "Hugh Montgomery, whom the Welsh called Hugh Goch–Hugh the Red–from the colour of his hair and perhaps for other reasons also."
  • For Want of a Nail: Randal's life changes course entirely because he accidentally dropped a fig off the battlements of Arundel Castle...onto the lord of Arundel Castle.
    Herluin: What a thing is life, that it can be changed by moving a few carved ivory pieces on a chequered board—or even by dropping half a fig on a horse’s nose, eh, Imp?
  • Friendship Trinket: Bevis divides his precious lump of red amber in two for Randal, and they wear their halves around their necks thereafter. Randal exchanges them when he buries Bevis.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Moments after awarding Randal the tenure of his beloved home, Philip de Braose offers him the choice of keeping it or ransoming Herluin, to whom he owes that home in the first place. Randal is honour-bound to give up Dean.
    "A few moments ago, he had thought that he had nothing more to lose; now he knew that he had, and he must give it."
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Randal and Bevis plan to spend the rest of their lives as squire and knight.
    Philip de Braose: God forbid that I should part Roland and Oliver!
  • Historical Domain Character: William the Conqueror’s sons Red William, Duke Robert and Henry of Coutances; the Montgomery brothers, Hugh Goch and Robert de Bellême; and the de Braose family, William, Philip, and Aanor, among others who are mentioned, were all real people.
  • History Repeats: The battle of Tenchebrai between the king of England and the duke of Normandy takes place forty years to the day after the Battle of Hastings, with the English knights dismounted to face the Norman cavalry as King Harold's Saxons faced William the Conqueror.
  • Home Sweet Home: Randal falls semi-unwillingly in Love at First Sight with the small, peaceful manor of Dean.
    "It was as though something in Randal much deeper and older than his ten years, said softly and with certainty, “Yes, this is home.”
  • Human Sacrifice: Amidst the millennial fears swirling around the year 1100, King William, a supposed pagan, dies in a suspicious Hunting "Accident" in the New Forest.
    "Red William had belonged to the Old Faith, scarcely paying even lip service to the faith of Christ, all men knew that; and he had red hair, even as the man under the oak tree of Ancret’s dream. Red, the colour of fire, of blood, of sacrifice. Was it not always a red-haired man who died for the life of the people?"
  • I Owe You My Life: While Randal doesn’t quite owe his continued existence to Herluin’s interference with Hugh Goch, he does owe him for the fact that his life didn’t suck. He considers it a debt of honour he has to repay when Philip de Braose holds Herluin for ransom at Tenchebrai.
  • Identical Grandson: Sir Everard and Bevis.
    Le Savage: Splendour of God! It is d’Aguillon.
    Reynfrey: Aye, ’tis d’Aguillon. Did you never see before that the boy was somewhat like his grand-sire?
  • In Harmony with Nature: Ancret the wise woman lives in the woods, makes herbal medicines, sees the future, has an uncanny knack for camouflage, and claims to come from an ancient British race who watch conquerors come and go "like a little wind through the bramble bushes."
  • In the Blood: Ancret sees great significance in the return of Randal’s Breton race to Britain:
    Ancret: The Saxons drove out your kind, many and many of your kind that fled across the narrow seas and took refuge in the place they called Brittany; but when the Saxons’ time was done, the old blood came flowing back, at the heels of Count Alain of Brittany, to Hastings over the chalk yonder, on the day that Harold died...Aye, the old blood runs strong, and comes into its own again; you should know that, you that Sir Everard brought home on his saddle bow.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Sir Everard survives getting stabbed in the lung, but develops an infection that finishes him off two years later.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Sir Everard's Norse friend Laef Thorkelson, with whom he made a voyage to the far north. He sails in to exposit about Duke Robert's crusade.
  • Karmic Death: Lewin, a Saxon, notes Hugh Goch’s death by an arrow to the eye echoes that of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings against Montgomery père.
  • Knight In Shining Armour: Sir Everard and Bevis d’Aguillon embody the novel’s ideal of knighthood: brave; kind; Reasonable Authority Figures to their villeins; and honourable even toward their enemies. Bevis is surrounded by knightly references: his own name is taken from a hero of medieval legends, his dog Joyeuse is named after Charlemagne’s sword, and his horse Durandal after Roland’s.
  • Knighting: Bevis undergoes a formal knighting when he comes of age – an overnight solo vigil in chapel; a ceremonial arming; and a public oath of fealty to his liege-lord Philip de Braose. Because they're a little codependent, Randal secretly sits a vigil of his own all night outside the chapel.
  • The Lady's Favour: Gisella gives Randal a sprig of rosemary before his first campaign, which he tucks away with his lump of amber. He passes it to Bevis after Tenchebrai.
  • Lost Him in a Card Game: Herluin wins Randal off Hugh Goch in a game of chess. Because Smart People Play Chess.
  • Maybe Ever After: Randal and Gisella's prospective Fourth Date Marriage.
  • Misery Builds Character: Averted – the neglect and abuse of Randal's early childhood is what has made him fearful, mistrustful, and sticky-fingered. At best it's given him a certain insight into the uglier side of life.
    Bevis: I’m rising two years older than you, but sometimes you make me feel like a babe in swaddling bands, Randal.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Gisella is first introduced punching Perrin the dog-boy in the face. Randal embarrasses her by pointing out that he can't hit his superiors back, so she mocks him for taking a servant's side and slaps him too.
  • The Old Gods: Dean's casually Christian villagers dance around an ancient grave-mound on All Hallows' Eve and generally stray back to pagan sacrifices whenever they feel like Christ might not be getting the job done.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Philip de Braose and Lady Aanor end up pretty happy.
  • Physical Scars, Psychological Scars: Randal's upbringing in the kennel leaves him Covered in Scars and slightly stunted in character.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Ancret the wise-woman's prophetic dreams and the random old woman Randal meets in the woods on the eve of Tenchebrai are uncannily accurate about future developments.
  • Rescue Romance: Randal rescues Gisella from the midst of a dog fight the second time they meet. She's extra impressed because she'd slapped and insulted him the first time.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Randal’s friend Gisella, while not a flat character, does not strictly speaking have much to do with the plot or the other main characters.
  • Secret Test of Character: After Tenchebrai, Randal's liege-lord Philip de Braose gives him the Sadistic Choice of holding Dean or ransoming the captive Herluin. Randal chooses his debt to Herluin. De Braose then remarks that he'd like to have a liegeman who's faithful to the point of stupidity, and gives him both. Naturally he wins Randal's Undying Loyalty on the spot.
  • Shout-Out: Rife with influences from Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies.
    • The theme of knitting Norman and Saxon into one English people is anticipated by de Aquila:
    In God's good time, which because of my sins I shall not live to see, there will be neither Saxon nor Norman in England. . . In fifty years there will be neither Norman nor Saxon, but all English.
    • Sir Richard Dalyngridge takes seisin for his new manor, as Randal does metaphorically for Dean.
    • Both Randal’s and Sir Richard’s horses are named Swallow.
    • Herluin is named after the abbot of Bec (a real person), where both Hugh and Richard Dalyngridge, and Herluin and Richard d’Aguillon, went to school together.
    • Sir Everard’s voyage with Laef Thorkelson is probably inspired by Sir Richard and Hugh’s with Witta the Norse trader in “The Knights of the Joyous Venture”.
    • De Coucy’s interest in Dean’s Buried Treasure is similar to Fulke's scheme in "Old Men at Pevensey".
    • Saxon villeins debate "the Custom of the Manor" in both "Young Men at the Manor" and Knight's Fee.
    • "Knight’s Fee", although a legal term, is perhaps partly a Literary Allusion Title to themes encapsulated in "Young Men at the Manor":
    Sir Richard: What service shall I pay?
    De Aquila: Knight's fee, boy, knight's fee!
  • Sibling Team: The Montgomery brothers, Hugh Goch and Robert de Bellême, maintain a Villainous Friendship:
    Guardsman: They were devils then and they’re devils now, but they don’t turn their devilry against each other. If ’tis true as they say, that de Bellême rides in with his brother today, then I’d say more like they’re planning to turn it against—someone else.
  • Signs of the End Times: There is a widespread fear during the year 1100 that there won’t be a 1101.
    "Strange things happened; omens and marvels. Last winter there had been strange lights in the northern sky; now a calf with two heads was born up at Durrington."
  • Signature Scent: Randal identifies Thiebaut de Coucy as the conspirator from the water stair by his voice and the musk he wears.
  • Sissy Villain: De Coucy wears a musk that reminds Randal of a noblewoman and has "a smooth voice with a trace of a lisp, so smooth that there was about it an odd suggestion of hairlessness."
  • Slice of Life: In the middle of the novel, between leaving Arundel and campaigning in Normandy, Randal and Bevis grow up amidst everyday life at Dean and Bramber while great events play out in the distance.
  • The Squire: Randal to Sir Everard and Bevis.
    Randal: I don’t at all mind that I shall never be more than a squire, you know—so long as I’m your squire, that is. I shall like being your squire—and I’ll be the truest squire to you that ever knight had to carry his shield for him.
  • Unable To Support A Knight: Randal plans to refuse knighthood because he has no land to support a knight's feudal obligations, or, incidentally, a knight's daughter like Gisella.
  • Undying Loyalty: Randal conceives a dog-like devotion to Bevis, Sir Everard, Dean, Herluin, and finally Philip de Braose. Herluin sticks by Robert de Bellême for obscure reasons of his own.
    "If the Lord of Bramber knew that in that instant he had gained for life a liege man who would follow him into Hell fire to bring him a cup of water if he were damned and thirsting, he showed no sign of doing so; but every other man there saw it plainly enough."
  • Witch Hunt: In one of the story's unlikelier twists, de Coucy dons a Paper-Thin Disguise to incite a mob with Torches and Pitchforks against Ancret and the manor as a cover for attacking Randal.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Hugh Goch, foremost among many in Randal’s life at Arundel.
  • Youngest Child Wins: When we first hear of Henry of Coutances, he's barely hanging on to one measly castle at Domfront while his older brothers squabble over England and Normandy. As the novel closes, Henry I of England has just won Normandy at the Battle of Tenchebrai.
  • 0% Approval Rating: King William II is widely unpopular among his Barons, which is probably why he ended up dead in his deer park in the middle of a hunting party.