The History of Knighthood

The Rise of Knights

By the time of Charlemagne, mounted warriors had become the elite military units of the Franks and this innovation spread across Europe. Fighting from a horse was most glorious because the mounted man rode into battle, moved quickly, and trampled down lower-class enemies on foot. When cavalry faced cavalry, the charge at speed and resulting violent contact was exhilarating. Fighting while mounted was most prestigious because of the high cost of horses, weapons, and armor. Only wealthy individuals, or the retainers of the wealthy, could fight mounted.

Kings of the late Dark Ages had little money with which to pay for large contingents of expensive cavalry. Warriors were made vassals and given fiefs of land. They were expected to use their profits from the land to pay for horses and equipment. In most cases, vassals also supported groups of professional soldiers. At a time when central authority was weak and communications poor, the vassal, aided by his retainers, was responsible for law and order within the fief. In return for his fief, the vassal agreed to provide military service to his lord. In this way, high lords and kings were able to raise armies when desired. The elites of these armies were the mounted vassals.

As the Middle Ages progressed, the elite mounted warriors of western Europe became known as knights. A code of behavior evolved, called chivalry, which detailed how they should conduct themselves. They were obsessed with honor, both at war and at peace, although mainly when dealing with their peers, not the commoners and peasants who constituted the bulk of the population. Knights became the ruling class, controlling the land from which all wealth derived. The aristocrats were noble originally because of their status and prestige as the supreme warriors in a violent world. Later their status and prestige were based mainly on heredity, and the importance of being a warrior declined.


When first used, the term “chivalry” meant horsemanship. The warrior elite of the Middle Ages distinguished themselves from the peasants and clergy and each other by their skill as horsemen and warriors. Fast and strong horses, beautiful and efficient weapons, and well-made armor were the status symbols of the day.

By the twelfth century, chivalry had come to mean an entire way of life. The basic rules of the chivalric code were the following:

*  Protect women and the weak.
*  Champion justice against injustice and evil.
*  Love the homeland.
*  Defend the Church, even at the risk of death.

In practice, knights and aristocrats ignored the code of chivalry when it suited them. Feuds between nobles and fights over land took precedent over any code. The Germanic tribal custom that called for a chieftain’s property to be split among his sons, rather than pass to the eldest, often triggered wars among brothers for the spoils. An example of this was the conflict between Charlemagne’s grandsons. The Middle Ages were plagued with such civil wars in which the big losers were usually the peasants.

In the late Middle Ages, kings created orders of chivalry, which were exclusive organizations of high-ranking knights that swore allegiance to their king and each other. Becoming a member of chivalric order was extremely prestigious, marking a man as one of the most important of the realm. In 1347 during the Hundred Years War, Edward III of England founded the Order of the Garter, still in existence today. This order consisted of the 25 highest-ranking knights of England and was founded to ensure their loyalty to the king and dedication to victory in the war.

The Order of the Golden Fleece was established by Philip the Good of Burgundy in 1430 and became the richest and most powerful order in Europe. Louis XI of France established the Order of St. Michael to control his most important nobles. The Orders of Calatrava, Santiago, and Alcantara were founded to drive the Moors out of Spain. They were united under Ferdinand of Aragon, whose marriage to Isabella of Castile set the foundation for a single Spanish kingdom. He eventually became master of the three orders, although they remained separate.

Becoming a Knight

At the age of 7 or 8, boys of the noble class were sent to live with a great lord as a page. Pages learned basic social skills from the women of the lord’s household and began basic training in the use of weapons and horsemanship. Around the age of 14 the youth became a squire, a knight in training. Squires were assigned to a knight who continued the youth’s education. The squire was a general companion and servant to the knight. The duties of the squire included polishing armor and weapons (prone to rust), helping his knight dress and undress, looking after his belongings, and even sleeping across his doorway as a guard.

At tournaments and in battle, the squire assisted his knight as needed. He brought up replacement weapons and horses, treated wounds, brought a wounded knight out of danger, or made sure of a decent burial if needed. In many cases the squire went into battle with his knight and fought at his side. A knight avoided fighting a squire on the other side, if possible, seeking instead a knight of rank similar to or higher than his own. Squires, on the other hand, sought to engage enemy knights, seeking to gain glory by killing or capturing an enemy knight of high rank.

In addition to martial training, squires built up their strength through games, learned to at least read, if not write, and studied music, dancing, and singing.

By the age of 21, a squire was eligible to become a knight. Suitable candidates were “knighted” by a lord or other knight of high standing. The ceremony for becoming a knight was simple at first, usually being “dubbed” on the shoulder with a sword and then buckling on a sword belt. The ceremony grew more elaborate and the Church added to the rite. Candidates bathed, cut their hair close, and stayed up all night in a vigil of prayer. In the morning the candidate received the sword and spurs of a knight.

Knighthood was usually attainable only for those who possessed the land or income necessary to meet the responsibilities of the rank. Important lords and bishops could support a sizable contingent of knights, however, and many found employment in these circumstances. Squires who fought particularly well might also gain the recognition of a great lord during battle and be knighted on the field.


Mock battles between knights, called tournaments, began in the tenth century and were immediately condemned by the second Council of Letrán, under Pope Innocentius II, and the kings of Europe who objected to the injuries and deaths of knights in what they considered frivolous activity. Tournaments flourished, however, and became an integral part of a knight’s life.

Tournaments began as simple contests between individual knights but grew more elaborate through the centuries. They became important social events that would attract patrons and contestants from great distances. Special lists (tournament grounds) were erected with stands for spectators and pavilions for combatants. Knights continued to compete as individuals but also in teams. They dueled against each other using a variety of weapons and held mock mêlée battles with many knights on a side. Jousts, or tilts, involving two charging knights fighting with lances, became the premier event. Knights competed like modern-day athletes for prizes, prestige, and the eyes of the ladies who filled the stands.

So many men were being killed in tournaments by the thirteenth century, that leaders, including the pope, became alarmed. Sixty knights died in a 1240 tournament held in Cologne, for example. The pope wanted as many knights as possible to fight on the Crusades in the Holy Land, rather than be killed in tournaments. Weapons were blunted and rules attempted to reduce the incidence of injury, but serious and fatal injuries occurred. Henry II of France was mortally wounded, for example, in a joust at a tournament held to celebrate his daughter’s wedding.

Challenges were usually issued for a friendly contest, but grudges between two enemies might be settled in a fight to the death. Tournament losers were captured and paid a ransom to the victors in horses, weapons, and armor to obtain their release. Heralds kept track of tournament records, like modern baseball box scores. A low-ranking knight could amass wealth through prizes and attract a wealthy wife.

Military Orders

During the Crusades military orders of knights were created to support the Christian goals of the movement. They became the fiercest of the Crusaders and the most hated enemies of the Arabs. These orders carried on after the Crusades in Palestine ended in failure.

The first of these orders were the Knights of the Temple, or the Templars, founded in 1108 to protect the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The Templars wore a white surcoat supplanted with a red cross and took the same vows as a Benedictine monk-poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Templars were among the bravest defenders of the Holy Land. They were the last Crusaders to leave the Holy Land. In the following years they grew wealthy from donations and by lending money at interest, attracting the envy and distrust of kings. In 1307 King Philip IV of France accused them of many crimes, including heresy, arrested them, and confiscated their lands. Other European leaders followed his lead and the Templars were destroyed.

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Hospitallers, were set up originally to tend to sick and poor pilgrims visiting the Holy Sepulcher. They converted shortly into a military order. They wore a red surcoat with a white cross and also took the vows of St. Benedict. The Hospitallers set a high standard and did not allow their order to become rich and indolent. When forced out of the Holy Land following the surrender of their great castle, the Krak des Chevaliers, they retreated to the island of Rhodes, which they defended for many years. Driven from Rhodes by the Turks they took up residence on Malta.

The third great military order was the Teutonic Knights, founded in 1190 to protect German pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. Before the end of the Crusades they had turned their efforts toward converting the heathens in Prussia and in the Baltic States.


To distinguish knights on the battlefield, a system of badges called heraldry was developed. A special badge was designed for each nobleman to be shown on his shield, surcoat, flags, and seal. A surcoat decorated with a knight’s badge became known as a coat-of-arms and this term came to describe the badges themselves. An independent organization known as the College of Heralds designed the individual badges and ensured that each was unique. Badges were recorded by the heralds in special books under their care.

Coats-of-arms were handed down from one generation to the next and would be modified by marriage. Certain designs were reserved for royalty in different countries. By the late Middle Ages towns, guilds, and even prominent nonnoble townsmen were granted coats-of-arms.

On the battlefield, combatants used coats-of-arms to distinguish friend and foe and to choose a worthy opponent in a mêlée. Heralds made lists of knights about to fight based on their badges. Heralds were also considered neutrals and would act as intermediaries between two armies. In this manner they might pass messages between the defenders of a castle or town and its besiegers. After a battle, heralds identified the dead by their coats-of-arms.