When you think of knights, you might envision King Arthur, Sir Lancelot or the Black Knight. We often think of heroic knights in shining armor fighting each other with swords or riding their horses on noble quests. Our images of knights have been influenced over centuries by romance authors (like T.H. White and Sir Walter Scott) and by movies like "Ivanhoe," "Excalibur," "A Knight's Tale," "Camelot" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." But what were knights really like? Did they slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress? What were battles and tournaments like? Did they woo ladies at court? Did they live in castles?
Medieval knights were, first and foremost, warriors. They trained for military service from a young age -- in fact, the word "knight" derives from "cniht," an old Anglo-Saxon term for "boy." Knights arose in the eighth century under the feudal system instituted by the French emperor Charlemagne.
Knights were most noted for fighting on horseback, but they also battled on foot. Heavy cavalry of mounted knights with lances and swords broke the lines of many medieval armies -- they were considered an important advantage in battle. The use of knights in warfare became increasingly popular throughout the Middle Ages, and knights were integral to armies throughout Europe. However, with the introduction and increasing use of gunpowder and firearms in the 16th century, the skills of knights became obsolete for warfare. Knighthood eventually became more of a ceremonial honor than an actual military profession.
In this article, we'll examine the lives of knights. We'll look at what they did, how they trained, how they became knights and what their roles in society were. We will also examine what knights do today, how people can become knights and how you can learn the knightly arts.
Knights and Feudal Society
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe had no countries. Numerous tribes fought for domination over territories, but there were no central governments or national armies. The Frankish tribes established control over vast territories, and one Frankish king, Charlemagne (Charles the Great) ruled a large chunk of Europe -- from northern Spain and Italy through France, Germany and Poland. To control such a large territory, Charlemagne instituted a feudal system of government. In feudalism, the king owned all of the land.
The king granted fiefs (portions of land) to nobles (lords or barons) in return for loyalty, protection and service. The king could also grant fiefs to vassals (knights) in exchange for military service. Many knights were professional warriors who served in the lord's army. In return, the lord provided the knight with lodging, food, armor, weapons, horses and money. Peasants, or serfs, farmed the land and provided the vassal or lord with wealth in the form of food and products. The peasants were bound to the land, so it was in the vassal's interest to protect them from invaders. Fiefs -- and the obligation to serve the king -- were inherited by the eldest son of the ruling nobleman.
Feudalism allowed large territories to be governed in the absence of a central government. Each lord or vassal raised an army to defend his fief and to serve the king as needed. One drawback to this system was that the nobles were very powerful because they controlled the armies. In fact, nobles often warred amongst themselves over territories.
Feudalism did offer a means for a person to advance himself within society through military service and knighthood. Knights were members of the gentry in that they held a place in society above the peasants, but they weren't necessarily members of the noble ruling classes or royalty. Knighthood was not an inherited position -- it had to be earned. So, it was an appealing means for a younger son of a lord to advance himself. A knight could make a fortune either by a grant of land from a king or by being a paid professional in service to a lord.
The path to knighthood started when a boy was very young -- official training usually began around age 7 . In the next section, we'll learn about how boys became knights.
Becoming a Knight
The boys who trained to be knights were generally the sons of knights or lords. (In some cases, the sons of commoners could train for knighthood -- as in the movie "A Knight's Tale.") These children were cared for by the women of the castle until they turned 7, when they were placed in the house of another lord or knight. There, they were bestowed with the title of page. Huntsmen and falconers taught them how to hunt, and priests or chaplains taught them religion, reading and writing. Pages learned to fight by imitating knights and practiced combat with each other using wooden swords and lances.
When a page turned 14, he could become an esquire (or, more simply, squire). In a religious ceremony, the new squire took a consecrated sword from a bishop or priest and swore to use it for religious and honorable purposes. After this ceremony, the squire took his place in his lord's household and attended to his duties. There were different squires for specific duties.
- The squire of the body was the personal servant of a knight or his lady.
- The squire of the chamber, or chamberlain, attended to the rooms of the castle.
- The carving squire, or table squire, carved the meat and attended to the banquet tables.
- The squire of the wines managed the wine cellar.
- The squire of the pantry stocked and kept track of household goods in the pantry.
- The squire of arms cleaned and maintained the armor and swords.
- The squire of honor assisted the lord in all ceremonies and feasts.
During this period of squiring, the would-be knight learned to serve and mastered the intricacies of social behavior and chivalry.
Besides carrying out their duties in the lord's household, squires learned the martial arts of being a knight. They learned how to handle horses and continued practicing with wooden swords and lances -- sometimes with the knights themselves. They wore chain-mail armor to get used to its weight (and sometimes even danced in hauberks, or chain-mail shirts). As they got older, they exercised and trained in full armor. Squires would also assist the knights in combat, at tournaments and in travel to foreign lands (carrying and cleaning armor, taking care of the knight's horses, packing baggage).
Upon turning 21, a squire was ready to be knighted.
The Knighting Ceremony
Squires were usually invested as knights during one of the great feasts or holidays, like Christmas or Easter. Sometimes the ceremony took place on another special occasion, such as the wedding of a noble or royal. The king, nobles, knights and clergy or the squire's father (if he were a knight) could confer knighthood.
The knighting ceremony usually involved a ritual bath on the eve of the ceremony (the would-be knight usually dressed in white). Then an all-night prayer vigil would begin, sometimes with the squire's arms on the altar. The kneeling squire would swear an oath, which included some of the following points:
- He would always defend a lady.
- He would speak only the truth.
- He would be loyal to his lord.
- He would be devoted to the church.
- He would be charitable and defend the poor and helpless.
- He would be brave.
- When on a quest, he would remove his armor and arms only while sleeping.
- He would never avoid dangerous paths out of fear.
- He would be on time for any engagement of arms, like a battle or tournament.
- Upon returning to his home or lord's court from an adventure, he would always tell of his escapades.
- If taken prisoner, he would give up his arms and horse to his opponent and not fight the opponent again without the opponent's consent.
- He would fight only one-on-one against an opponent.
Then the master of the ceremony would dub the new knight on the shoulders with a sword. The knight would then dress in armor, receive his sword, mount his horse and participate in some martial games to demonstrate his skills as part of the celebration.
In times of war, a squire who had demonstrated exceptional bravery in battle could be knighted on the battlefield by another knight.
With knighthood came several privileges. Knights obtained the title "sir." They could own land, hire soldiers to defend it and dispense justice over the soldiers and those living on the land. They -- and their horses -- could wear armor in battle (armor was expensive, so only knights could afford it). During feasts, banquets and dinners, knights had places at the high table, where lords and royals ate. They could also bear arms inside a church because they were defenders of God and the church.
In times of war, knights were called to arms by their lords or by the king. They led foot soldiers and archers into battle, much like modern officers do with enlisted men. During peacetime, knights managed their estates, dispensed justice, trained for battle and participated in tournaments. We'll learn about tournaments on the next page.
In peacetime, knights often demonstrated their martial skills in tournaments, which usually took place on the grounds of a castle. Medieval tournaments were a major spectator sport -- much like large sporting events today. In early tournaments, many knights fought in an apparent free-for-all called a melee. The melee looked very much like a real battle. The knights assembled in a large group, and a judge or marshal would signal for the fight to begin. Each knight would fight another, the victor would move on to another opponent, and the last knight standing was the winner. The church disliked melees, and even tournaments, because many knights were injured or killed.
The most popular, and romanticized, competition in tournaments was the joust. In an area of the grounds called the lists, two knights on horseback would charge each other. Each knight held a wooden lance with a blunted tip. Each would try to break his lance on the body or head of his opponent or try to knock his opponent off his horse. They received points for breaking a lance (the number of points depended upon what part of the opponent's body was struck), and there were usually anywhere from one to three charges in a round.
Even though the weapons were blunted, many knights were injured or killed in jousts. King Henry II of France was killed in a joust in 1559 when a broken lance penetrated the visor of his helmet.
The winner of the joust moved on in the competition and could challenge other knights. The loser had to turn his armor and horse over to the victor. Usually, the victor would then sell the armor and horse back to the loser. In this way, knights could amass a fortune (or lose one) in tournaments. One knight, Ulrich Von Lichtenstein, made a great career from tournaments throughout Europe and wrote about his adventures. (You may recall that Heath Ledger's character impersonated Sir Ulrich in the movie "A Knight's Tale").
Armor and Weapons
Throughout the Middle Ages, the armor used by knights varied. Knights in the early Middle Ages, using technology from the Romans, wore leather armor. Leather was very expensive, but it could be easily shaped and hardened by boiling in water or oil. It was effective in stopping sword cuts but was vulnerable to thrusts and arrows.
Throughout the Middle Ages, knights wore chain mail (again, technology borrowed from the Romans). Chain mail consisted of small, interwoven steel rings. The ends of the rings could be close to one another (butted mail) or affixed with a metal rivet (riveted mail). Chain mail was relatively easy to make, cheaper than later forms of armor and relatively effective in stopping a slice from a weapon. However, it was vulnerable to pointed weapons.
As blacksmiths and armorers improved their metalworking skills, they developed plate armor in the latter half of the Middle Ages. The plates provided protection and ease of movement (knights wore chain mail underneath to protect open areas called gussets (in underarms and at joints). Each plate covered a different area and had a specific name, as shown in the drawing. Plate armor was effective against cuts and thrusts, but it was expensive. Also, contrary to popular belief, armored knights could move in plate armor -- they could mount and dismount from a horse and get up if knocked down. But eventually, when firearms came into use, plate armor became ineffective.
Knights do exist today, even though they don't wear chain mail or fight on horseback. So what do they do -- and what does someone have to do nowadays to become one? Find out on the next page.
Orders of Knights
Some knights belonged to groups, or orders. Each order served a different purpose.
Knights Templar: This order of military monks provided protection for pilgrims traveling in the Holy Land during the Crusades. The Templars amassed great wealth and power but were eventually accused of heresy and destroyed by the church.
Knights Hospitallers (also Knights of St. John of the Hospital): Founded to care for sick pilgrims, this group thrived throughout the Holy Land and fought against the Muslims. The knights eventually left the Holy Land for Malta, but the order exists today in the original purpose of caring for the sick.
Teutonic Knights: Like the Hospitallers, the Teutonic knights were a German order that cared for pilgrims in the Holy Land. From there, they moved to Prussia, Poland and Russia. Today, it's a charitable group that operates clinics.
Order of the Garter: Inspired by Arthurian legends, King Edward III of England established the Order of the Garter in 1346. The order is basically an elite group of knights that today consists of royalty and members appointed by the sovereign of Great Britain.
As we mentioned earlier, the military aspects of knighthood faded with the increased use of firearms and gunpowder. Armor couldn't protect knights from gunshots, and firearms didn't require the skills and training that armed combat with swords and lances did. Today, knighthood stands in two categories: It's an honor bestowed by royalty for a (not always military) service, and a rank within one of the European martial arts.
Several orders of knights from medieval times still exist today as service orders (like the Knights Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights). But most of us know knighthood as an honor bestowed in the United Kingdom by the queen or members of the royal family in recognition for some great social contribution. For example, musicians Paul McCartney, Elton John and Bono have been knighted. A committee selects candidates for knighthood and presents them to the queen for knighting. Unlike knights of old, these honorary knights require no military service.
European martial arts
There are many schools in North America and Europe for the study of the martial arts of the medieval knights. Several "fight manuals" from medieval times still exist, and schools use them to develop training curricula. In many schools, an instructor can confer knighthood upon a student after a period of study and testing (much like students of the Asian martial arts earn black belts). Often, students from these schools and programs get together, dress in armor and compete in the knightly arts among themselves or for demonstrations at various Renaissance and medieval fairs.
To learn more about knights, look through the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- A History and Mythos of the Knights Templar. http://www.templarhistory.com/
- Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts. http://www.aemma.org
- Association of Renaissance Martial Arts. http://www.thearma.org/default.htm
- Baker, A. "The Knight", John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003
- Barnes, I. "The Historical Atlas of Knights & Castles", Chartwell Books, Inc., 2007
- Channel 4, A Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval Britain. http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/H/history/guide12/index.html
- Chicago Swordplay Guild. http://www.chicagoswordplayguild.com/c/
- Crouch, D. "Tournament", Hambledon and Continuum, 2005
- European Medieval Arts of Arms. http://www.emaaknights.com
- Feudalism and Knights. http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/feudalism-and-knights.htm
- Gies, F. "The Knight in History", Harper & Row Publishers, 1984
- Gravett, C. "Eyewitness: Knight", DK Publishing, Inc., 2004
- Higgins Armory Sword Guild. http://www.higginssword.org/index.html#menu
- Hopkins, A. "A Chronicle History of Knights", Barnes & Noble Books, 2004
- Jones, T., and A. Ereira. "Terry Jones' Medieval Lives", BBC Books, 2004
- Knight Life. http://historymedren.about.com/library/blknighttoc.htm
- Knighthood and Orders of Chivalry. http://www.heraldica.org/topics/orders/
- Knights and Armor. http://www.knightsandarmor.com/
- LaCroix, P., and W.C. Meller. "The Medieval Warrior", BCL Press, 2002
- Learner.org - Middle Ages. http://www.learner.org/interactives/middleages/
- Mid-Atlantic Society for Historic Swordsmanship. http://www.mashs.org/
- Minnesota State University eMuseum, The Knight's Realm. http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/history/middleages/knight.html
- PBS. "Warrior Challenge - Knights." http://www.pbs.org/wnet/warriorchallenge/knights/index.html
- Schola St. George. http://www.chronique.com/Library/Fighting/schola.htm
- Society for Creative Anachronism. http://www.sca.org/
- Stubbs, William, Feudalism: a General Overview. http://history-world.org/feudalism.htm
- Tattershall School of Defence. http://www.tattershall.org/
- The Middle Ages.net. http://www.themiddleages.net/
- The Monarchy Today, Knighthoods. http://www.thedukeofyork.org/output/Page4877.asp
- Von Liechtenstein, U. (translated by J.W. Thomas). "The Service of Ladies", Boydell Press, 2004
- Women Knights in the Middle Ages. http://www.heraldica.org/topics/orders/wom-kn.htm