Bretonnian Knighthood

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Photo by: Kirill_M

After nine years of “it’s going to happen” one of my players who got me back into WFRP all those years ago started his own campaign. And we get to play knights! In Bretonnia!

We created the character (naturally taking the advantage of the magnificent Expanded Character Module by Dave Graffam) and discussed a little about what’s to come. The GM asked us all to write a little something about our characters’ background and I set out to work.

I haven’t actually read the Knights of the Grail in almost ten years. I might have leafed through it on an occasion but now I wanted to get the facts right with my Knight Errant from Parravon. Aaand naturally this was where the problems started.

All players of Warhammer know that it is about exaggerated mockery of the actual history. And most players know that Bretonnia is about chivalric knights in shining armour – like those in Arthurian legends. But what got me off-guard was the description of the Knight Errant:

Knights of the Empire start their careers following after some other knight, acting as nothing more than a servant. What else would you expect from a nation who has forgotten the true meaning of chivalry, the true meaning of honour, and the true meaning of courage?

In Bretonnia, knights start off riding their own trail, as they set off on their errantry tour. Bretonnian knights learn from the best school there is: genuine experience. At the start of their tour, they don’t have any genuine experience, but most make up the deficit with their enthusiasm.

Wait, what?

So young boys are set on a warhorse, given a suit of armour and a lance and sent of to their own adventures? No training, no time acting as a squire, no nothing? Just “keep yourself alive lad and kill some orcs for the Lady?”

As it turns out our GM had different plans and he was a bit shocked by this. Even though he has been reading stuff about Bretonnia on and off for all those nine years. “That makes absolutely no sense!” was the summary of his words.

On the other hand I have to (naturally agree) but on the other hand it got me thinking the pure ingenuity of this kind of behaviour.

Warning – This post contains some spoilers and racial doctrine about the evolution of Bretonnians. You can blame the fairies for that.

The whole realm of Bretonnia is based on the Cult of the Lady orchestrated by the Wood Elves. They want the Bretonnians to act as a natural buffer against the forces of chaos and are keeping them in excellent check with all the child-stealing and whatnot. On that premises we could actually see the point of this kind of knighthood.

At least according to the maps there are very few cities in Bretonnia. Lore as written dictates that all nobles must be able to prove their noble heritage for five generations prior to their own. Considering both facts this would mean that there are quite many nobles living in tightly backed cities where politics might play a much bigger role that the actual chivalric code.

BUT as it is each noble is supposed to send their sons on a knightly tour. If we accept the fact there should be no exceptions to this (that is there should be some exceptions to this when such a character is needed for the story) we should be willing to make a few assumptions.

1st – All Bretonnian noble men have done this (or are about to). This means it is a part of their heritage as long as they can remember because they must be able to prove this. In a land as wrapped in weird customs and codes as Bretonnia this one actually makes sense.

2nd – If the noble fathers know what their offspring is supposed to do they have (at least) three options: a) Train their sons to survive the tour (most likely), b) bribe their son into a care of an older knight that protects them during this tour (very warhammerish), or c) send their son into Empire.

3rd – If and when all noble men are sent on an errant tour this means that the “breeding stock” (so to speak) of Bretonnian nobles is of excellent quality. Sending a young boy out in the wild in the world of Warhammer is pure lunacy but if the boy return it is a sure thing that he will be a knight worthy of the Realm. And when he gets sons only the strongest of them will return. There is no denying that this sounds pretty much as another Elven plot that is clearly working.

4th – Most likely a lot of these young knight errants die on their tour. This means that a noble must keep on producing more sons to get an heir or his house will loose whatever title and/or land they hold to another family. I actually visioned this in very Warhammerish way where the nobles of Bretonnia are in fact dying out as their lands are getting more and more dangerous and their sons won’t return from their errantry. This makes the whole idea of Bretonnian chivalry more suitable to the Old World and in line with the overall feeling of doom and gloom.

I have always liked Bretonnia with its strange Arthurian vibe but it has not been that warhammerish to me. With this single idea of Bretonnian nobles living their whole lives in the fear of loosing their sons on errantry tour it gains a new and heightened sense of danger and deepness. Sure the peasants have no rights in Bretonnia and are to be oppressed but that is only the way of nature. When only the strongest of Bretonnian noble boys reach adulthood and are able to produce sons of their own they will naturally see their serfs as inferiors

12 thoughts on “Bretonnian Knighthood

  1. The idea that the Wood Elves are running a ‘breeding program’ to produce better ‘red shirt chaos-greenskin-undead fodder’ is an appealing one. Elves with any knowledge of husbandry, comparing lifespans, could easily look at humans as something akin to dogs – well if you breed them right in 3-4 generations you might have something useful.

    The asrai and asur elves both really have the same attitude to humans, the asrai are simply more aggressive about putting it into full practice – being closer to their chosen experiment they can intervene constantly unlike the asur who may help the Empire and create the College System but don’t stick around to manage the system.

    Personally, I like the idea the asrai are far more sophisticated than most give them credit for given their lifestyle.

    Surviving knights easily could have 8-14 kids each with more and more surviving as the program continues (if successful).

    There could be “personal guides” etc. (grail damsels) on quests to help likely candidates survive, giving each knight a feeling of ‘specialness’.

  2. One of the first things I learned about Bretonnia was the errantry system. I am very surprised that your GM can read about Bretonnia for several years without reading about it.
    Apart from that, I would like to point something out. In this post, you wrote that, to be considered a noble, a person has to trace noble heritage back five generations. Knights of the Grail mentions the following:
    “First, unless all your ancestors are noble, you are not a noble” (p. 23)
    Wherefrom do you have your information about the 5 generations?
    My true name is Emil, i bought some WFRP 2nd edition books from you, but my group usually refers to me as Loremaster (No arrogance intended).

  3. PS: Very interesting musings about reasons for the system, as well as its effects. An interesting read.

  4. Emil – Can’t for the life in me remember where it says about five generations. But I’m fairly certain it is in there. If not it is just fluff we came up with. And I’m most certain that we all knew about Errantry. We just had not realised how it began (no official word on training or being a squire).
    Rob – Precisely. This was what I was going for. I can easily believe that there was no such idea behind the fluff while it was written but as it is up to us to use it I think this is a great opportunity that should not be missed.

  5. Hey, I’m that poor GM who didn’t remember that errantry detail in the book. I was very well aware that there is no military training in Bretonnia but it was a really big surprise that there are not squires at all. They just basically kick their sons out with a sword and a horse. I really didn’t remember this (and you rellay cannot say that I’ve spent several years reading this one book! Come on, guys! :D)

    The fact about the 5 generations is in Chapter I, on Social Structure: “A noble is someone who can show that all his ancestors for five generations were nobles.”

    I’d like to also point out a couple of things:
    First, not all of the noble boys go on riding all around the world. There are more than a few that really don’t fit to the description ‘knight’ since they stay in big towns, maybe in a court of their parents or a relative. They may even carry a sword but might not know how to use it (since they really cannot get the experience and – as pointed out – are not taught).

    Secondly, the speculation about the ‘breeding’ of quality noble men is even more funnier since the pinnacle of Bretonnian knights are the Knights of the Grail, who usually stay put around their Chappels, very rarely get married and probably live a very chaste life.

  6. What a surprise! Again we have a book which contradicts itself. So Knights of the Grail states that, if you can trace noble lineage back 5 generations, then you are a noble (p. 11), and yet you “also” have to be able to trace it back to the very beginning of your family (p. 23).
    I guess we can just choose whichever one we prefer. After all, one of the first lines in the book is “Use what you like and ignore what you don’t” (p. 3)

  7. True enough. This might get complicated as the discussion has leaked over to Strike-to-Stun also buuuuuut anyway:

    “The breeding program” (I think) is not the whole picture. It is just something that is naturally happening and what the Wood Elves are going for. The fact that the pinnacle of knighthood are the Grail Knights means little. One could argue that those who reach the Grail have already had children (as it is impossible for them to reach the chalice without Wood Elves making it possible). It could also be argued that since the Grail Knights draw out Grail Pilgrims from the “peasant stock” it might be that these peasant have children while “their” knight is sitting in the Grail Chapel and thus make improve the genepool of common folk.

    As for “not all men become knights” I too think that this is true. However KotG says (p.11) that “All male nobles are expected to become knights, and the overwhelming majority do do.” Again if we are going with the “facts as written” this would mean that the families whose sons do not pursue the chivalric virtues are seen lesser or might even lose face.

    This ties in nicely with the rise of the merchant class. I would deem it impossible for the major Bretonnian port (L’Anguille for example) to stay without any foreign influence – that from Empire or even from Sea Elves. It goes within the reason that in these bigger cities noble could go without Errantry tour without it being a big bent on their standing. And aren’t we given the impression that the merchant class is raising precisely in these port cities? I could even assume that some of the noble families are seeing the future. Well not the actual future as everything is destroyed in few years, thanks to Games Workshop. But the future where they can profit more from the alliance with the merchant families than from old chivalric code.

    And what would be a better way to lure them from the Lady to Chaos?

  8. Ah. Missen Emil’s post, sorry.

    Yeah. There is no doubt that the books will contradict themselves. I faced this problem while creating the background for my knight. I gather that since every noble must be able to prove their lineage for five generations the genealogy is a REALLY big thing in Bretonnia. Think it this way. My knight proves that his great-great-great-grandfather was noble. That same great-great-great-grandfather would have also needed to prove this. So I think all noble house must have a highly organized and detailed ways to track their lineage. (As a sidenote – what happens when someone burns them all?)

    If we are to accept this it means that each noble house can track its lineage back to the original knights of Gilles le Breton. But where they all nobles?

    I made a shortcut with my own character, created “a first of the house Beaumont” and said that Grail Damsels had declared him to be a noble and were willing to vouch for his lineage. Not perfect but as they are the closest to organized law/church/whatever Bretonnia has I think it will have to do.

  9. doc_cthulhu, you write that
    “(…) it is impossible for them to reach the chalice without the Wood Elves making it possible”
    Is that official fluff or your own musings?
    The Lady herself chooses when to allow knights to find the Grail. The Lady must be some kind of goddess, as she has the power to grant blessings to all Bretonnian knights, at least as long as they are within the borders of Bretonnia and, according to game mechanics, also those beyond the borders. It is highly unlikely that the wood elves possess such power; even Ariel.

  10. Ah, but this goes beyond speculation as it is revealed in the End Times campaign books (for Fantasy Battle) that Lady of the Lake is the Goddess Lileath (Fortune, Dreams and Prophecies).

    Also my reasoning on this is based on the deduction that if the Grail Damsels work for the Lady to follow the actions of the Knights of the Realm they must be in some way linked to who get the visions to start the Grail Quest. And if the Grail Quest is set upon a knight by a force it goes within reason that the same force either allows them to find the Grail or not.

    In this case we could compare the Quest to the “actual” Grail Quest in Arthurian legends where only Galahad actually found the Grail even though many were searching for it. He found it only because of his purity and because he was so allowed by god.

  11. Okay, that explains it. I have not yet have the dubious honor of reading the End Times.

  12. Yeah. On the other hand they are perfect way to sum up the storylines. But on the other hand they pretty much fail to do it. It’s nice to have some official answers to questions that have been left lingering for years, though.

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