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In the Middle Ages, a knight was an aristocrat who was capable of providing for himself the equipment required to act as a cavalryman. In the High and Late Middle Ages, knights formed the heavy cavalry units of many medieval armies. In later times, mostly in the United Kingdom, the term referred to people who received an honorary, non-hereditary title of Sir (men) or Dame (women) from the crown.
The word knight derives from Old English cniht, meaning 'page boy' or 'servant' (as is still the case in the cognate Dutch knecht and German Knecht for servant), or simply 'boy'. Knighthood, as Old English cnihthad, had the meaning of adolescence, i.e. the period between childhood and adulthood. The sense of (adult) lieutenant of a king or other superior was in existence at least as early as 1100, although there are signs of it as early as Alfred's Orosius.
In this respect English differs from most other European languages, where the equivalent word emphasizes the status and prosperity of war horse ownership. Linguistically, the association of horse ownership with social status extends at least as far as Ancient Greece, where many aristocratic names incorporated the Greek word for 'horse', like Hipparchus and Xanthippe; the character Pheidippides in Aristophanes' Clouds has his grandfather's name with hipp- inserted to sound more aristocratic. Similarly, the Greek ἱππεύς (hippeus) is commonly translated 'knight', at least in its sense of the highest of the four Athenian social classes, the ones who could afford to maintain a warhorse in the state service. A survival is the modern given name Philip, whose etymology means lover of horses.
An Equestrian (Latin eques, plural equites) was a member of the second highest social class in the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. This class is often translated as 'knight'; the medieval knight, however, was called miles in Latin, (which in Classical Latin meant "soldier", normally infantry), until the Renaissance revival of eques. In the later Roman Empire, the classical Latin equus for 'horse' was replaced in common parlance by Vulgar Latin caballus, derived from Gaulish caballos (Delamare 2003 p.96), thus giving French cheval (keval), Italian cavallo, and (borrowed from French) English cavalry. This formed the basis for the word 'knight' among the European Romance languages: Spanish caballero, French chevalier, Portuguese cavaleiro, etc. In German, the literal meaning of Ritter is rider; and likewise for the Dutch title Ridder.
Origins of European Knighthood
Knighthood as known in Europe was characterized by two elements, feudalism and service as a mounted combatant. Both arose under the reign of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, from which the knighthood of the Middle Ages can be seen to have had its genesis.
Some portions of the armies of Germanic tribes (and super-tribes, such as the Suebi) which occupied Europe from the third century had always been mounted, and sometimes such cavalry in fact composed large majorities, such as in the armies of the Ostrogoths. However, it was the Franks who came to dominate Western and Central Europe after the fall of Rome in the West, and they generally fielded armies composed of large masses of infantry, with an infantry elite, the comitatus, which often rode to battle on horseback rather than marching on foot. Riding to battle had two key advantages: it relieved fatigue, particularly when the elite soldiers wore armour (as was increasingly the case in the centuries after the fall of Rome in the West); and it gave the soldiers more mobility, to react to the raids of the enemy, particularly the invasions of Muslim armies which occurred starting in the seventh century. So it was that the armies of the Frankish ruler and warlord Charles Martel, which defeated the Umayyad Arab invasions at the Battle of Tours in 732, were still largely infantry armies, the elites riding to battle but dismounting to fight in order to provide a hard core for the levy of the infantry warbands.
As the eighth century progressed into the Carolingian Age, however, the Franks were generally on the attack, and larger numbers of warriors took to their horses to ride with the Emperor in his wide-ranging campaigns of conquest. At about this time the Franks increasingly remained on horseback to fight on the battlefield as true cavalry rather than as mounted infantry, and would continue to do for centuries thereafter. Although in some nations the knight returned to foot combat in the fourteenth century, the association of the knight with mounted combat with a spear, and later a lance, remained a strong one.
These mobile mounted warriors made Charlemagne’s far-flung conquests possible, and to secure their service he rewarded them with grants of land called benefices. These were given to the captains directly by the emperor to reward their efforts in the conquests, and they in turn were to grant benefices to their warrior contingents. The period of chaos in the ninth and tenth centuries, between the fall of the Carolingian central authority and the rise of separate Western and Eastern Frankish kingdoms (later to become France and Germany, respectively), only entrenched this newly-landed warrior class. This was because governing power, and defense against Viking, Magyar and Saracen attack, became the local responsibility of these new hereditary local lords and their demesnes.
These mobile mounted warriors made Charlemagne’s far-flung conquests possible, and to secure their service he rewarded them with grants of land called benefices. These were given to the captains directly by the emperor to reward their efforts in the conquests, and they in turn were to grant benefices to their warrior contingents. In the century or so following Charlemagne’s death, his newly enfoeffed warrior class grew stronger still, and Charles the Bald declared their fiefs to be hereditary. The period of chaos in the ninth and tenth centuries, between the fall of the Carolingian central authority and the rise of separate Western and Eastern Frankish kingdoms (later to become France and Germany, respectively), only entrenched this newly-landed warrior class. This was because governing power, and defense against Viking, Magyar and Saracen attack, became an essentially local affair which revolved around these new hereditary local lords and their demesnes.
The resulting hereditary, landed class of mounted elite warriors, the knights, were increasingly seen as the only true soldiers of Europe, hence the exclusive use of miles for them.
Most of these earliest knights were freemen, but some of the ancient Germanic comitatus troops appear to have been unfree. Possible evidence of this is the survival, perhaps via the Carolingian elite Scara bodyguards, of unfree knighthood in Germany until the thirteenth century. These unfree knights were called ministeriales and dominated the institution of German knighthood. Ministeriales composed the vast majority of knightly soldiers in all German armies until the late thirteenth century, when the term ministerialis became functionally irrelevant, the ministerales having merged into the knighthood at large.
The medieval institution
In the early Middle Ages the term knight designated a professional fighting man in the emerging feudal system. Some were as poor as the peasant class. However, over time, as this class of fighter became more prominent in post-Carolingian France, they became wealthier and began to hold and inherit land. Eventually, on the Continent of Europe, only those men could be knighted whose fathers or grandfathers had been knights; and the knightly families became known as the nobility. (In the British Isles, "nobility" is more restricted, to the Peerage.)
From the 12th century, the concept continued being tied to cavalry, mounted and armoured soldiers. Because of the cost of equipping oneself in the cavalry, the term became associated with wealth and social status, and eventually knighthood became a formal title. Significantly the nobility, who at this time were also expected to be leaders in times of war, responded to this new class by becoming members of it. Nobles had their sons trained as gentlemen and as professional fighters in the household of another noble. When the young man had completed his training he was ready to become a knight, and would be honoured as such in a ceremony known as "dubbing" (knighting) from the French "adoubement". It was expected that all young men of noble birth be knights and often take oaths swearing allegiance, chastity, protection of other Christians, and respect of the laws laid down by their forebears, though this varied from period to period and on the rank of the individual.
From the time of Henry III of England, a knight bachelor was a member of the lower nobility, preceded by the knight banneret, a commander of ten or more lances who could lead his men under his own banner, but who did not have the rank of baron or earl. The knights bachelor did not wear any insignia until 1296.
The concept, together with the notion of chivalry came to full bloom during the thirteenth century, the apogee in the power and influence of the mounted knight on the battlefield, particularly in France, whose knighthood had the most redoubtable battlefield reputation. However, as the fourteenth century dawned, the importance of heavy cavalry was reduced by improved pikemen and longbow tactics. This was a bitter lesson for the nobility, learned throughout the 14th century at battles like those of Crécy, Bannockburn and Laupen. The English introduced foot service for the knight in the early Hundred Years War, to support their longbowmen and to combat the depleted French knights whose charge managed to reach the English lines through the deadly hail of longbow arrows. This tactic spelled disaster for the formerly unstoppable French cavalry charge, and the French knights soon followed suit in dismounting for combat, fighting primarily on foot from roughly 1350 to 1430. However, as their victories increased in the later Hundred Years War, the French took to increased mounted action -- the Battle of Formigny was finally won with a French cavalry charge. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the chess piece was named in this period of increased mounted service, around 1440.)
The French knight, now known as a man-at-arms (gendarme) would fight mounted through the Italian Wars and beyond, and the knights of other nations would follow his lead. They became increasingly professional, paid warriors (a trend which actually started in the Hundred Years War) and, after suffering setbacks due to the new technology of firearms, progressively evolved, abandoning the lance, then the armour, of the medieval warrior. Eventually mounted service no longer required knighthood, but the cavalry always contained large numbers of aristocrats, even into the twentieth century, carrying on the tradition of mounted service by the knight.
Becoming a knight
The process of training for knighthood began before adolescence, inside the prospective knight’s own home, where he was taught courtesy and appropriate manners. Around the age of 7 years, he would be sent away to train and serve at a grander household as a page. Here, he would serve as a kind of waiter and personal servant, entertaining and serving food to his elders. A page was usually the son of a vassal, who sent him to his or another lord’s castle to become a page. For seven years a page was cared for by the women of the house, who instructed him in comportment, courtesy, cleanliness, and religion. He would learn basic hunting and falconry, and also various battle skills such as taking care of, preparing, and riding horses, as well as use of weapons and armour.
A page became a squire when he turned 14 years of age, being assigned or picked by a knight to become his personal aide. This allowed the squire to observe his master while he was in battle, in order to learn from his techniques. He also acted as a personal servant to the knight, taking care of his master’s equipment and horse. This was to uphold the knight’s code that promoted generosity, courtesy, compassion, and most importantly, loyalty. The knight acted as a tutor and taught the squire all he needed to know to become a knight. As the squire grew older, he was expected to follow his master into battle, and attend to his master if the knight fell in battle. Some squires became knights for performing an outstanding deed on the battlefield, but most were knighted by their lord when their training was judged to be complete.
A squire could hope to become a knight when he was about 18 to 21 years old. Once the squire had established sufficient mastery of the required skills, he was dubbed a knight. In the early period, the procedure began with the squire praying into the night, known as vigil. He was then bathed, and in the morning he was dressed in a white shirt, gold tunic, purple cloak, and was knighted by his king or lord. As the Middle Ages progressed, the process changed. The squire was made to vow that he would obey the regulations of chivalry, and never flee from battle. A squire could also be knighted on the battlefield, in which a lord simply performed the accolade, i.e. struck him on the shoulder saying “Be thou a knight”.
The night before his knighting ceremony, the squire would take a cleansing bath, fast, make confession, and pray to God all night in the chapel, readying himself for his life as a knight. Then he would go through the knighting ceremony the following day. Knights followed the code of chivalry, which promoted honour, honesty, respect to God, and other knightly virtues. Knights served their lords and were paid in land, because money was scarce.
In various traditions, knighthood was reserved for people with a minimum of noble quarters (as in many orders of chivalry), or knighthood became essentially a low degree of nobility, sometimes even conferred as a hereditary title below the peerage.
Meanwhile kings strove, as an expression of absolutism, to monopolize the right to confer knighthood, even as an individual honour. Not only was this often successful, once established, this prerogative of the Head of State was even transferred to the successors of dynasties in republican regimes, such as the British Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.
Knighthood as a purely formal title bestowed by the British monarch unrelated to military service was established in the 16th century. (However, military knights remained among the Knights of Malta until 1798.) The British title of baronet was established by James I of England in 1611 as an inheritable knighthood, ranking below Baron (the lowest Peerage title).
European knighthood became an aristocracy, rather then a profession, because of Charlemagne's benefices. In the century or so following Charlemagne’s death, his newly enfiefed warrior class grew stronger still, and Charles the Bald declared their fiefs to be hereditary. On the other hand, it came to be law and custom that a man could not be knighted unless he was descended from knights. The resulting hereditary, landed class of mounted elite warriors, the knights, were increasingly seen as the only true soldiers of Europe; which explains the use of miles.
Most knights, in most places, secured good and honourable terms from their lords; in French, lands held by military service were the original freeholds (franc-fiefs). Lords did, however, have unfree servants, and made knights out of them sometimes; in Germany, around 1200, the juridically unfree knights became so common that the word "serving-man" (Dienstmann, ministerialis) was appropriated to them: The line between freedom and unfreedom was not as sharp in the Middle Ages as in modern times (or classical antiquity); their lords had a property right over these German knights, but their relationship was closer to that of vassalage elsewhere than to the bondage of serfs. As knighthood became ever more of a rank, and eventually a legally recognized nobility, the tension between unfree and knightly status became intolerable, and unfree knighthood was abolished, both in Germany and elsewhere.
Knighthood and the Feudal system
Originally, any knight could make a knight; although there was greater honour in being knighted by more prestigious knights. There was an instance of three knights of Beauvais who needed a fourth knight to witness their contract; so they knighted a passing peasant and made him witness. Unfortunately, knighting serfs was already illegal there, and they were mulcted of a heavy fine.
Once eligibility for knighthood became a monopoly of the nobles, or knightly class, they actually assumed knighthood less and less often. It added little to the honour they already had; dubbing had become a fashionable and expensive ceremony; and knighthood required much equipment, and burdensome duties.
The king, however, could order his subjects to become knights, and dispense with the laws against knighting the ignoble. So knights were most often made by the king, or his deputies; in the late Middle Ages, sovereigns began to forbid their subjects to make knights, as they forbade them other military preparations.
By about the late 13th century, partly in conjunction with the focus on courtly behavior, a code of conduct and uniformity of dress for knights began to evolve. Knights were eligible to wear a white belt and golden spurs as signs of their status. Moreover, knights were also required to swear allegiance to a superior in the feudal pyramid — either to a liege lord or to a military order.
In theory, knights were the warrior class defending the people of feudal Christianity and bound by a code of chivalry. Chivalry, like the samurai’s bushido, was a set of customs that governed the knights' behavior, but was perhaps less scrupulously observed. Knights served mightier lords, usually as vassals, or were hired by them. Some had their own castles, while others joined a military order or a crusade. In reality, rules were often bent or blatantly broken by knights as well as their masters, for power, goods or honour. So-called robber knights or robber barons even turned to organized crime, some based in a castle.
In times of war or national disorder the monarch would typically call all the knights together to do their annual service of fighting. This could be against threats to the nation or in defensive and offensive wars against other nations. Sometimes the knights responding to the call were the nobles themselves, and sometimes these men were hired by nobles to fight in their stead; some noblemen were disinclined or unable to fight.
As time went by, monarchs began to prefer standing (permanent) armies led by officers rather than knights, because they could be used for longer periods of time, were more professional and were generally more loyal. This was partly because those noblemen who were themselves knights, or who sent knights to fight, were prone to use the monarch's dependency on their resources to manipulate him. This move from knights to standing armies had two important outcomes: the implementation of a regular payment of "scutage" to monarchs by noblemen (a money payment instead of active military service) which would strengthen the concept and practice of taxation; and a general decrease in military discipline in knights, who became more interested in their country estates and chivalric pursuits, including their roles as courtiers.
The Knights of Malta also dropped their traditional role of heavy cavalry as they moved from one island fortress to another across the Mediterranean Sea. Instead they became skilled in Naval warfare and engaged in frequent sea battles with the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary Pirates until nearly the end of the 18th century.
In some countries, knighthood was merged into the nobility, remaining only as a low or genetic noble title; thus the aristocratic estate's chambers in the diets of the realms of Sweden and Finland were each called House of knights.
Hereditary knighthoods in Great Britain
There are traces of the Continental system of hereditary knighthood in British usage, however. There were three hereditary knighthoods in the Kingdom of Ireland:
- Knight of Glin, the Black Knight, (Fitzgerald of Limerick)
- Knight of Kerry, the Green Knight, (Fitzgerald of Kerry)
- The White Knight, (FitzGibbon), now extinct.
Malta was a British possession, and the crown recognizes Maltese hereditary knighthoods.
In war, the chivalrous knight was idealized as brave in battle, loyal to his king and God, and willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Towards his fellow Christians and countrymen, the knight was to be merciful, humble, and courteous. Towards noble ladies above all, the knight was to be gracious and gentle.
- Knights Hospitaller, founded during the First Crusade, 1099 to present.
- Order of Saint Lazarus established ca. 1100, abolished 1830.
- Knights Templar, founded 1118, disbanded 1307.
- Teutonic knights, founded ca. 1190, ruling Prussia until 1525.
After the Crusades, the military orders became idealized and romanticized, resulting in the late medieval notion of chivalry, as reflected in the Arthurian romances of the time. The creation of chivalric orders was fashionable among the noblesse in the 14th and 15th centuries, as remains reflected in contemporary honours systems, and the term order itself, notably the Order of Saint George, founded by Charles I of Hungary in 1325/6, Order of the Dragon founded by Serbian knight Milos Obilic in 1385,the Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III of England in ca. 1348, the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded by Philip III, Duke of Burgundy in 1430, and the Order of St Michel, founded by Louis XI of France in 1469.
From roughly 1560, purely honorific orders were established, to confer prestige and distinction, unrelated to military service or chivalry in the more narrow sense. Such orders were particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, and knighthood continues to be conferred in various countries:
- The UK and some Commonwealth of Nations countries;
- Most European countries, such as The Netherlands (see below).
- The Holy See — see external link  Papal Orders.
There are other monarchies and also republics that also follow the practice. Modern knighthoods are typically awarded in recognition for services rendered to society, services which are no longer necessarily martial in nature. The musician Elton John, for example, is entitled to be called Sir Elton. The female equivalent is a Dame.
Accompanying the title is the given name, and optionally the surname. So, Elton John may be called Sir Elton or Sir Elton John, but never Sir John. Similarly, actress Judi Dench D.B.E. may be addressed as Dame Judi or Dame Judi Dench, but never Dame Dench. Wives of knights, however, are entitled to the honorific "Lady" before their husband's surname. Thus Sir Paul McCartney's wife is styled Lady McCartney, rather than Lady Paul McCartney or Lady Heather McCartney. The style Dame Heather McCartney could be used; however, this style is largely archaic and is only used in the most formal of documents.
State Knighthoods in the Netherlands are issued in three orders, the Order of William, the Order of the Dutch Lion, and the Order of Orange Nassau. Additionally there remain a few hereditary knights in The Netherlands.
- Keen, Maurice (1984). Chivalry. Yale University Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN 0-300-10767-6.
- whole section from Bloch, esp. p.337ff; Arnold, 17-21, 25, 51
- Bloch, p. 322-3