Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knollys, Robert
KNOLLYS or KNOLLES, Sir ROBERT (d. 1407), military commander, was a native of Cheshire. Walsingham calls him ‘pauper mediocrisque valletus’ (Hist. Angl. i. 286), and Malverne says that he was sprung ‘quasi de infimo genere’ (ap. Higden, viii. 372); but, despite such expressions, Knolles was probably of honourable parentage. On 1 May 1354 the estate of Lea was entailed on Hugh, David, and Robert, sons of Richard (it should be David) de Calvylegh, while in the inquisition held on the death of Mabel de Calvylegh in 1361, ‘Robert Knollus chivaler’ is included in the entail with Hugh and David de Calveley [see Calveley, Sir Hugh], and may therefore possibly be their brother (Ormerod, Cheshire, ii. 764, 768, ed. Helsby). Lysons, on the other hand, makes Knolles the son of Richard Knolles by Eva de Calveley, and nephew, not brother, of Sir Hugh (Lysons, Cheshire, p. 543). That there was some special connection between Calveley and Knolles seems to be proved by the appearance of Knolles's arms on Calveley's tomb, while Calveley's arms appear with those of Knolles at Sculthorpe, Norfolk; the arms of Sir Hugh Browe, whom we know to have been a cousin of Knolles, also appear on Calveley's tomb. No contemporary authority, however, mentions the two men as relatives. The date of Knolles's birth is uncertain; Fuller conjectures that it was at least as early as 1317, but it may well have been some years later. Jehan le Bel strangely asserts that Knolles was a German, and says that he had been a tailor (ii. 216).
Knolles's first military service was in Brittany, where he served with Calveley and Walter Hewett under Sir Thomas Dagworth at the siege of La Roche d'Orient, in July 1346 (Otterbourne, p. 136, ed. Hearne). He was already a knight in 1351, when he took part in the famous ‘Combat of the Thirty,’ on which occasion he was one of the survivors who were made prisoners (see the poem ‘Combat des Trente,’ ap. Froissart, xiv. 301–20, ed. Buchon). Knolles was soon released, and, remaining in Brittany, acquired great renown as a soldier. Jehan le Bel says that Knolles, Renault de Cervole, and Ruffin were the first leaders of the ‘Companies,’ i.e. of free lances and freebooters (ii. 216; cf. Froissart, iv. 186). Knolles was with Walter de Bentley when he defeated Guy de Nesle at Mouron on 14 Aug. 1352 (Geoffrey le Baker, p. 120, ed. Thompson). Previously to 10 July 1355 he was in charge of Fougeray and other castles in Brittany; he appears to have paid two thousand florins for their custody (Fœdera, iii. 307, 312, 622). When in 1356 Henry of Lancaster made a raid into Normandy in support of Philip of Navarre and Godfrey de Harcourt, Knolles came to his aid from Carentoir with three hundred men-at-arms and five hundred archers. The expedition started on 22 June and ravaged Normandy up to the walls of Rouen. Knolles displayed his valour in a successful skirmish at the end of the raid, in the middle of July (Froissart, iv. 186–9, and lxx; Avesbury, pp. 463–5, Rolls Ser.) He then went to besiege Domfront, and in September attempted to join the Prince of Wales in Poitou, but found the Loire so strongly guarded that he had to return (Chron. des Quatre Valois, pp. 45–6). In 1357 he served under Henry of Lancaster when he besieged Du Guesclin at Rennes, and at the end of June he and Sir James Pipe defeated the French before Honfleur (Barnes, Hist. of Edward III, p. 531).
Next year Knolles was plundering in Normandy at the head of a numerous body known as the ‘Great Company,’ to whom his remarkable skill insured abundant booty; he is said to have received for his own share a hundred thousand crowns (Walsingham, Hist. Angl. i. 286; Froissart, v. 95). Eventually he established himself in the valley of the Loire, made himself master of forty castles, and ravaged all the country from Tonnerre to Vezelay and Nevers to Orleans. The suburbs of Orleans were sacked and burnt, while at Ancenis, on the Loire, the people were so frightened at the terror of his name that many threw themselves into the river. Knolles declared that he fought neither for the king of England nor for Charles of Navarre, but for himself alone, and displayed on his devices the legend—
Qui Robert Canolle prendera,
Cent mille moutons gagnera.
In October 1358 he captured the castle of Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, and on 10 March 1359 the town of Auxerre, which he sacked and held till 30 April, exacting an enormous ransom. Froissart wrongly states that he was with Philip of Navarre before St. Valery in April (ib. v. 144–7; cf. p. xlvii). On 2 May he captured Châtillon-sur-Loing, and a little later made a great raid through Berri into Auvergne, boasting that he would ride to Avignon and plunder the pope (Benedict XIII); Knighton states that he actually came within twelve leagues of the city, and caused great alarm (col. 2619). When the French of Auvergne and Rouergue came out to oppose him, Knolles eluded them by a stratagem, and retired into the Limousin. His ravages during these raids were so terrible that the charred gables which marked his route were called ‘Knolles's mitres.’ A contemporary epigram has been preserved:—
O Roberte Knollis, per te fit Francia mollis,
Ense tuo tollis prædas, dans vulnera collis.
On his return Knighton says that he sent to England to say that all the towns and castles which he had captured were at the king's disposal. Edward III, who was much pleased at his success, seems to have rewarded him by pardoning his informal proceedings, and it was probably to this that the commons referred in 1376, when they petitioned that Sir John Hawkwood [q. v.] might receive a pardon in like terms to the one granted to Knolles (Knighton, col. 2620; Barnes, p. 563; Rot. Parl. ii. 372 b). According to Knighton, Knolles was captured about Michaelmas in an ambush, but was rescued by his comrade, Hannekin François. He served with Lancaster at the siege of Dinan, where he vainly endeavoured to arrange the quarrel between Du Guesclin and Thomas de Canterbury (Cuvélier, i. 82–94). Thence he was summoned to join Edward III in the campaign which immediately preceded the peace of Bretigny (ib. i. 97). There is, however, no record of Knolles's share in it, and he was in Brittany in April 1360, when his wife joined him with a reinforcement (Fœdera, iii. 480). M. Luce does not think Knolles took part in the expedition; it is certain that he defeated and took prisoner Bertrand du Guesclin at Pas d'Evran in Brittany, near the end of 1359 (Hist. de B. du Guesclin, pp. 311–12).
The struggle between the partisans of John de Montfort and Charles de Blois continued in spite of the peace, and Knolles remained in Brittany to support the former (cf. Fœdera, iii. 653, 662, 697). In 1363 he was at the siege of Bécherel (Chron. du Guesclin, p. 14, Panth. Littéraire), and next year was with Louis of Navarre in Auvergne, where they plundered the Bourbonnais and all the country between the Loire and Allier. In September 1364 he was with De Montfort at the siege of Auray in high command. When Du Guesclin and Charles de Blois advanced to the rescue, Knolles supported Oliver de Clisson in advising an attack, and in the battle of 29 Sept. was joined with Sir Walter Hewett and Sir Richard Burlegh in command of the first division. Charles de Blois was defeated and slain, Du Guesclin captured, and John de Montfort secured in possession of the duchy, a result largely due to the valour of Knolles, who took prisoner the Count of Auxerre (Froissart, vi. 150–5; Cuvélier, i. 201–33). As a reward John de Montfort bestowed on Knolles, in 1365, the lands of Derval and Rougé, together with two thousand ‘livres de rente’ in the land of Conq (Luce, vi. p. lxvi), whence Knolles is sometimes called Sire de Derval. Early in 1367 Knolles joined the Black Prince in his Spanish expedition with a chosen band of the ‘Great Company’ (Walsingham i. 303). He crossed the pass of Roncevaux with the third battle on 17 Feb., and joined Sir Thomas Felton [q. v.] in his reconnoitre and capture of Navaretta in Alava (LUCE, vii. p. vii). He was still with Felton in his successful skirmish against Henry of Trastamare, but was not present at his defeat a few days after. Froissart alludes to Knolles as one of those who were taken prisoners on that occasion (vii. 303), but Knolles was certainly present at the battle of Najara, 3 April, when he came to the support of Chandos on the left wing, and by his valour contributed largely to the victory (Walsingham, i. 304; Wright, Pol. Songs, i. 95, 108). On 2 May we hear of Knolles at Burgos (Fœdera, iii. 825). He returned with the prince to France, and soon after went back to Brittany.
When in 1369 the war broke out anew in Aquitaine, Knolles equipped a small force, and, embarking at Conq in April, landed at Rochelle and joined the Prince of Wales at Angoulême. The prince received him warmly, made him master of his household, and entrusted him with the command of a strong force. Knolles's first exploit was to induce Perducas d'Albret to rejoin the English; the free companies under other leaders then evacuated Cahors and fortified the priory of Duravel, where Knolles besieged them. Chandos came to join him, but the priory was so strongly fortified, and the weather so bad, that they had to raise the siege. Domme was next besieged for fifteen days without success, but after sending for reinforcements they captured Gramat, Fons, Rocamadour, and Villefranche. In July Chandos was recalled, and Knolles, refusing to remain without him, returned to Angoulême. He then went to Poitou and served with the Earls of Cambridge and Pembroke at the capture of Roche-sur-Yon. In January 1370 he was at Angoulême, and took part in the operations for the relief of Belleperche. In March he returned to Derval (Froissart, vii. 139–50, 215, 370).
Knolles had scarcely been at Derval a month when he was summoned to England, and, landing at St. Michael's Mount, rode to Windsor (ib. vii. 220). The French were contemplating an invasion of Wales, and Edward III had therefore decided on two counter expeditions to France. One of these was to land at Calais, and Knolles had been chosen as its commander. After three months spent in preparation, the expedition, consisting of fifteen hundred men-at-arms and four thousand archers, sailed from Dover early in July (Fœdera, iii. 892, 894, 895–8; many references to the preparations will be found in Brantingham, Issue Rolls, see index, s. v. ‘Knolles’). Leaving Calais about 22 July, Knolles marched to Terouenne, which was too strong for attack; Arras, where he sacked the suburbs; and so through Artois into Picardy and Vermandois. The English supported themselves by plunder, and the country people fled before them into the fortresses. Knolles, whose policy was to do as much damage as possible, did not attempt any sieges, and contented himself with the exaction of heavy ransoms. He vainly offered battle before Noyon, and, after crossing the Oise and Aisne, made a demonstration before Rheims. Thence he directed his steps by the valley of the Marne and Seine towards Paris, in the hope that he might induce the French to fight. On 22 Sept. he encamped near Athis-Mons and Ablon, and on the 24th drew up in order of battle between Villejuif and Paris. But though the English army was so near that the smoke of the burning villages was visible from Paris, Charles V would not permit the French to offer battle. On the 25th the English marched off towards Normandy, and on the 29th sacked St. Gervais de Seez. Knolles was much hampered by dissensions in his army. The young nobles thought it a slight to be under the orders of one whom they regarded as an adventurer. Sir John de Menstreworth stirred up this feeling by calling Knolles ‘the old brigand’ (vetus vispilio), and eventually a considerable portion of the army broke away from its leader under Grandson and Menstreworth. Knolles thereupon decided to withdraw to Brittany; he marched by Chartres and Chateaudun, and spent November in subduing various small places in the valley of the Loire (Luce, viii. p. iv, note 4; the account given by Froissart is inaccurate). Meantime Bertrand du Guesclin had been hastily summoned back from Aquitaine, and was marching in pursuit. Knolles, who was now in the marches of Brittany, determined to give battle. He summoned Sir Hugh de Calveley from St. Maur-sur-Loire, and ordered Grandson to rejoin him. Grandson was on his way when he was totally defeated by Du Guesclin at Pont Vallain on 4 Dec. (ib. viii. p. vi). Further action was now impossible, and the English dispersed to the neighbouring fortresses, Knolles going to his own castle of Derval (Froissart, vii. 223–45, viii. 1–4; Walsingham, i. 310; Cuvélier, ii. 123–4, 145–50, 185).
Although the expedition had ended disastrously, it had not been ineffectual; the invasion of Wales was averted, and the recall of Du Guesclin had relieved the English in Aquitaine. Menstreworth, however, on his return made the partial failure the ground of an accusation, and Knolles felt it necessary to send home two squires to represent his case. Sir Alan Buxhull [q. v.] also supported his late commander, and Knolles was fully acquitted on the ground that his ill-success was due to the pride and disobedience of his followers. Menstreworth fled over sea, and in 1377 was captured and executed as a traitor. Walsingham, however, adds that Edward III withdrew many presents which he had bestowed on Knolles (cf. Blomefield, vi. 282), and that Knolles could not return to England till he had purchased the royal favour by a large sum of money (Walsingham, i. 310). This is confirmed by the articles of accusation against William, fourth lord Latimer [q. v.] in 1377, which charged him with having embezzled four-fifths of a fine of ten thousand marks sent to the king by Knolles (Chron. Angliæ, p. 78).
Knolles remained some years in Brittany to support John de Montfort. By 1373 Charles V had won over to the French side all the barons of the duchy except Knolles, and when John de Montfort went to England in that year he left Knolles as his lieutenant. Knolles went to Brest, leaving Derval in charge of his cousin, Sir Hugh Browe. In the summer Du Guesclin laid siege to Derval and Oliver de Clisson to Brest. Browe, soon reduced to extremities, gave hostages for the surrender of the castle if not relieved by a sufficient force within forty days; the time seems to have been afterwards prolonged. Knolles learnt of his straits through a spy, and by promising to surrender Brest if not relieved within one month by a force which could fight the French, induced De Clisson to raise the siege on 9 July. Knolles left Brest, and succeeded in entering Derval with a small following. When he arrived at Derval, Knolles disavowed the action of his lieutenant, Browe, and declared the agreement for the capitulation void. Thereupon Louis, duke of Anjou, who was now in command of the French, had Browe's hostages executed on 30 Sept. Knolles at once retaliated by beheading an equal number of prisoners, and throwing their bodies over the castle walls. These acts of cruelty seem to have been regarded as indefensible, but Knolles gained his object, for the French raised the siege of Derval (Froissart, viii. 123–48, 158–60, and M. Luce's notes on pp. lxxx and xciii; Chron. du Duc Louis de Bourbon, pp. 45, 47).
Knolles appears to have returned to England, and, probably towards the end of 1374, was sent with an expedition to Aquitaine; but after recapturing a number of places from the French, and among them Niort, he came home without securing any permanent advantage (ib. p. 74; Eulog. Hist. iii. 339). On 28 Nov. 1376 he was one of the conservators of the truce with France (Fœdera, iii. 1066). In 1377 he was one of the commanders of the fleet who were sent to attack the Spaniards at Sluys (Walsingham, i. 344). Next year he was again captain of Brest, and while there defeated the Bretons (ib. i. 365; Fœdera, iii. pt. iii. p. 77). In April he left Brest for England, and at Whitsuntide was with the Earl of Arundel when he attacked the French outside Harfleur (Chron. des Quatre Valois, p. 263). He then joined the Duke of Lancaster at the siege of St. Malo, and in company with Sir Hugh Browe plundered the neighbouring country. In 1379 Knolles was with John de Montfort in London, and in July returned with him to Vannes (Froissart, vii. 275–6, ed. Buchon). Next year Knolles took part in the great expedition under Thomas, earl of Buckingham [see Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester], which, landing at Calais early in July, marched through Artois, Vermandois, and Champagne, and eventually descended the valley of the Loire to Brittany. When near Vendôme Knolles's detachment had a skirmish, in which Knolles defeated the French leader, the Sire de Mauvoisin, and with his own hand took him prisoner. Buckingham established himself at Rennes, but John de Montfort was already wavering, and it was only after a mission in which Knolles took part that matters were for the time arranged. At the end of October the English laid siege to Nantes; Knolles was stationed with Thomas Percy at St. Nicholas's Gate, and his valour alone saved the English from defeat on 12 Nov. John de Montfort was negotiating with the French, and did not act heartily with his English allies, who were thus compelled to raise the siege on 2 Jan. 1381. Buckingham retired to Vannes, and Knolles went with Sir Hugh Calveley to Quimper Corentin, whence they probably returned with Buckingham to England in the following April (ib. vii. 316–428; Walsingham, i. 444–5).
At the time of Wat Tyler's rebellion in July 1381 Knolles was residing in London, and guarded his treasure with 120 companions ready armed. After the murder of the archbishop in the Tower, the citizens put themselves under the leadership of Knolles. Knolles rode out with the king to Smithfield. When Richard asked him whether Tyler's followers should be massacred, he replied, ‘No, my lord; many of these poor wretches are here against their will;’ then, turning to the crowd, he bade them disperse on pain of death if found in the city after night. This is the account given in the ‘Eulogium Historiarum’ (iii. 353–4). Froissart transposes the parts taken by the king and Knolles, and says the latter was angry because Richard would not permit him to adopt violent measures (viii. 36, 55–7, ed. Buchon). The Londoners rewarded Knolles's services with the freedom of their city, and the king by the grant of the manor of St. Pancras to him and his wife (Blomefield, vi. 174). The Monk of St.-Denys asserts that Knolles shared in the Flemish expedition of Henry Despenser [q. v.], bishop of Norwich, in 1383, and represents him as playing the part at Bergues which Froissart more correctly ascribes to Sir Hugh de Calveley (Chron. Rel. de St.-Denys, i. 258, 270, 272, Documents Inédits, &c.; Froissart, viii. 442–4, ed. Buchon). Probably the remainder of his long life was spent in quiet retirement either in London or at his manorhouse at Sculthorpe, Norfolk. In 1384 there was a serious riot in London under one John Comerton; by Knolles's advice one of the ringleaders was beheaded, and the movement subsided. On 18 Aug. 1389 Knolles had license to go to Rome on a matter of conscience (Fœdera, iii. pt. iv. p. 46). The ‘regal wealth’ (Walsingham, i. 286) which he had amassed in the wars enabled him to acquire large estates, chiefly in Norfolk, but also in Wiltshire, Kent, and London (Cal. Inq. p. m. ii. 305; Hasted, Hist. of Kent, ii. 674; Rot. Parl. iii. 258 b). He frequently assisted Richard II by loans on the security of jewels and plate (Blomefield, vi. 176). His munificence was notable. In 1380 he joined with Sir John Hawkwood and Calveley in the foundation of an English hospital at Rome (Harl. MS. 2111, f. 100 b). In 1388, together with John de Cobham, he rebuilt and endowed the bridge and chantry at Rochester; the bridge was destroyed in 1856 (Eulog. Hist. iii. 367; Rot. Parl. iii. 289 b; Hasted, Hist. of Kent, ii. 17–18). In London he was a liberal benefactor to the house of the Carmelites at Whitefriars, and in Norfolk he rebuilt the churches of Sculthorpe and Harpley; but his chief foundation was a college and hospital for a master, six priests, and thirteen poor men and women, at Pontefract, which was known as ‘Knolles' Almeshouse.’ The college was endowed with 180l. a year, from land chiefly in London and Norfolk; it was dissolved at the Reformation, but the almshouse, revived in 1563, still exists (Blomefield, vi. 21, 276; Cal. Rot. Pat. pp. 211, 220; Rot. Parl. v. 135, 306; Leland, Itinerary, i. 43; Dugdale, Monasticon, vi. 713–14).
Knolles died at Sculthorpe 15 Aug. 1407, and was buried at Whitefriars, London (Weever, Funerall Monuments, p. 436; Coll. Top. et Gen. viii. 321). His two wills in French and Latin, and dated 21 Oct. 1399 and 20 May 1404 respectively, are now extant at Lambeth. No mention is made of any children (Herald and Genealogist, viii. 289). As a soldier he must be placed among the most eminent of his age; Froissart speaks of him as ‘the most able and skilful man of arms in all the companies,’ and says that he was chosen for the command in 1370 on account of his great skill and knowledge in handling and governing an army (iv. 186, vii. 223). His partial ill-success on that occasion was due to prejudices which he could scarcely have controlled, and he seems to have possessed some of the qualities of a true general as distinguished from a merely skilful soldier. In his own time and country he was scarcely less renowned than Hawkwood, whom he might have rivalled permanently but for his loyalty to his sovereign and his native land—a characteristic specially mentioned by Froissart (vii. 139). To Cuvélier he is ‘Robert Canole qui moult greva Françoiz tous les jours de sa vie’ … ‘qui ne prise Françoiz deux deniers seulement’ (i. 101, ii. 163). The Chandos herald calls him ‘a man of few words’ (ed. Coxe, l. 2725).
Knolles was married to his wife Constantia before 1360 (Fœdera, iii. 480). Leland says that she was a native of Pontefract and ‘a woman of mene birth and sometime of a dissolute lyvyng before marriage’ (Itinerary, i. 43). But her arms, ‘argent a fess dancette between three pards' faces sable,’ are those of the Yorkshire family of Beverley, to which she perhaps belonged (Coll. Top. et Gen. viii. 321). Dying a few days after her husband, she was buried by his side. Sir Robert left no legitimate male heirs, and it is very doubtful whether he was even, as some have supposed, the father of Emme or Margaret Knolles who married John Babington of Aldrington, Devon (Herald and Genealogist, v. 296; Blomefield, vi. 175). Sir Robert's name most usually appears in contemporary English writers as Knolles, but Knollis, Knowles, and Knollys also occur. French writers usually call him Canolles or Canole. The common statement that he was a knight of the Garter is not substantiated (Anstis, Register of the Order of the Garter, ii. 30–2).