Knight is the English term for a social position originating in the Middle Ages. In the Commonwealth of Nations, knighthood is a non-heritable form of gentry. Elsewhere, the Spanish Caballero (related to "chivalry"), the Italian Cavaliere, the French "Chevalier", the German Ritter (related to the English word "Rider" and the Swedish word Riddare and the Norwegian and Danish word "ridder"), or the Polish Kawaler (for Modern Era knighthoods or Rycerz for medieval knighthoods) are commonly used in Continental Europe. Outside the British Commonwealth, the title is respected but may carry less significance, and thus may or may not appear, for example, in the mass media and other publications.
There are technically differing levels of knighthood (see Order of the British Empire), but in practice these are even more symbolic than the title itself today and thus only express the greatness of the recipient's achievements in the eyes of the Crown.
The British legend of King Arthur, popularised throughout Europe in the Middle Ages by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain") written in the 1130s, and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur) written in 1485, were important in defining the ideal of chivalry which is essential to the European ideal of the knight as an elite warrior sworn to uphold the values of faith, loyalty, courage and honour such as Knights Templar.
The word knight itself, is descended from the Old English cniht (meaning a boy, youth or servant). Variants of the word are common in the West Germanic languages and thus exist in Old Frisian as kniucht, Dutch as knecht, Middle High German as kneht (boy, youth, lad) and German Knecht (servant, bondsman, vassal). The word's use as "military follower of the king" is from c.1100.
knighthood is descended from the Old English cnihthad meaning the 'period between childhood and manhood' and sense of "rank or dignity of a knight" is from c.1300.
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 started occurring 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, who were a mix of free and unfree men. In the century or so following Charlemagne’s death, his newly enforced 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.
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. However, from 1350 onwards the knights themselves more frequently dismounted for battle. 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, 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. Medieval Britain placed great importance on an individual’s status in society. Popular among this society were the knights, those that fought for kings and feudal lords and died for them. Eldest sons comprised of this class in society because of the inheritance passed on to them while the younger sons entered the church or became landless knights.
Several methods were used to become a knight. The first method “involved the King or tenant-in-chief conferring the title, known as ‘dubbing’”. The second method “had stronger religious undertones”. The future knight did things such as keeping vigil, “taking a purifying bath, heard Mass and had his spur put on”. The third method called for the future knight to read a service called “Benedicto Novi Militis”. There was, however, another method called apprenticeship wherein the individual is taken as a servant and was taught the manners and skills to be a knight.
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).
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 not order his subjects to become knights, and dispensed 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 gold chain or golden spurs as a sign of their status (references exist to a white belt in the context of the knighting ceremony or "accolade", but it is unknown if this symbolism was carried beyond that). Moreover, knights would usually swear allegiance to a superior in the feudal pyramid — either to a liege lord or to a military order. Knights who did not do so are known as knights errant.
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 honor. 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. Similarly the hereditary lords of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth when assembled would often call themselves The Equestrian Order (for their notorious admiration for ancient Rome after which they modelled their realm) although they were legally separate and elevated in privilege above the scartabelli (lower nobility) and knights created by their kings (the equites aurati) who would not automatically qualify into such assemblies.
The knight owned a land that his tenants maintained while he was away fighting for the king. In exchange for the land’s maintenance, the knight promised protection to its tenants and those living in the land, which consisted of villeins, cottars and peasant farmers. Because the life of a knight was short, inheritance was hereditary. In most cases, the eldest sons received the inheritance unless the younger sons made it clear that the eldest was capable of supporting himself. Such conditions were applicable to different areas, as rules for inheritance varied in different places. Despite these rules, sons that did not receive inheritance usually moved to towns, or worked for the lands of their brother.
While infantry abandoned their cheap mass-produced armour in the late 16th century, good armour continued to be worn by horsemen. Even in the Napoleonic wars many heavy cavalry divisions, including the French Cuirassiers, wore steel helmets and breastplates.
Early firearms revolutionised siege warfare but made little impact on the field. Modern trials using 15th century handguns demonstrate that they were hard to fire and were unable to penetrate 2mm steel plate at 30 yards. Firearms improved over the centuries, but by the early nineteenth century muskets had an accuracy of 40-75% (depending on make) at 100 yards; at 200 yards it was only 25-37%. In battle they were effective at 50-100 yards when fired in volley. Loading was slow, producing a musket fire rate of between three and five rounds a minute. This offered little defence against charging cavalry, when an infantry division’s only defence was to form square, a manoeuvre which demanded firm discipline and tight formation to maintain the protective wall of bayonets to hold off the charge. A slightest break in formation left the men at mercy of the cavalry. Thus, even against firearms, the armoured knight would remain effective.
It seems likely that changing army structures and economic factors led to the decline of knights, rather than any obsolescence in their effectiveness. By the sixteenth century, the concept of a combined-arms professional army (with improved, trained infantry tactics) first developed by the Swiss had spread throughout Europe. The rise in professional armies, with its emphasis on training and paid contracts - rather than ransom and pillaging which reimbursed knights in the past - and the high costs involved in outfitting and maintaining knights’ armour and horses led many of the traditional knightly classes to abandon their profession.
From roughly 1560, purely honorific orders were established, designed as a way 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:
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 British musician Elton John, for example, is a Knight Bachelor, thus entitled to be called Sir Elton. The female equivalent is a Dame.
In the British honours system the knightly style of Sir is accompanied by 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 DBE 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 ex-wife was formally styled Lady McCartney (rather than Lady Paul McCartney or Lady Heather McCartney). The style Dame Heather McCartney could be used for the wife of a knight; however, this style is largely archaic and is only used in the most formal of documents, or where the wife is a Dame in her own right (such as Dame Norma Major, who was knighted six years before her husband Sir John Major was knighted). The husbands of Dames have no honorific; hence Dame Norma's husband remained The Rt Hon John Major until he received his own knighthood.
Since the reign of Edward VII a clerk in holy orders in the Church of England or in another Anglican Church has not normally received the accolade on being appointed to a degree of knighthood. He receives the insignia of his honour and may place the appropriate letters after his name or title but he may not be called Sir and consequently his wife may not be called Lady. The Rt Revd the Hon Sir Paul Reeves did receive the accolade and is correctly called Sir but it is not clear how this situation arose. Ministers of other Christian Churches are entitled to receive the accolade. For example, His Eminence Sir Norman Cardinal Gilroy did receive the accolade on his appointment as Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1969. A knight who is subsequently ordained does not lose his title. A famous example of this situation was The Revd Sir Derek Pattinson, who was ordained just a year after he was appointed Knight Bachelor, apparently somewhat to the consternation of officials at Buckingham Palace. A woman clerk in holy orders may be appointed a Dame in exactly the same way as any other woman since there are no military connotations attached to the honour. A clerk in holy orders who is a baronet is entitled to use the title Sir.
Outside the British honours system it is usually considered improper to address a knighted person as 'Sir' or 'Dame'. Some countries, however, historically did have equivalent honorifics for knights, such as Cavaliere in Italy (e.g. Cavaliere Benito Mussolini), and Ritter in Germany and Austro-Hungarian Empire (e.g. Georg Ritter von Trapp'').
State Knighthoods in the Netherlands are issued in three orders, the Order of William, the Order of the Netherlands Lion, and the Order of Orange Nassau. Additionally there remain a few hereditary knights in The Netherlands.
In France, among other orders are the Légion d'Honneur, the Ordre National du Mérite, the Ordre des Palmes académiques and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The lowest of the ranks conferred by these orders is Chevalier, meaning Knight.
In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the monarchs tried to establish chivalric orders but the hereditary lords who controlled the Union did not agree and managed to ban such assemblies. They feared the King would use Orders to gain support for absolutist goals and to make formal distinctions among the peerage which could lead to its legal breakup into two separate classes the King would later play one against the other and eventually limit the legal privileges of hereditary nobility. But finally in 1705 King August II managed to establish the Order of the White Eagle which remains Poland's most prestigious order of that kind. The head of state (now the President as the acting Grand Master) confers knighthoods of the Order to distinguished citizens, foreign monarchs and other heads of state. The Order has its Chapter. There were no particular honorifics that would accompany a knight's name as historically all (or at least by far most) its members would be royals or hereditary lords anyway. So today, a knight is simply referred to as "Name Surname, knight of the White Eagle (Order)".
Within the British honours system, and some members of the Commonwealth of Nations, the following rankings (or similar rank structures) exist, of which only the two highest ranks are considered knights:
Consequently to the fact of being not an order of chivalry but an order of merits, some republican orders have created new ranks: e.g. Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
It seems likely that the above "Palatine" hereditary knighthoods, created under the Earl of Desmond, were in some respects modeled on an archaic form of knighthood mentioned in the Chronicles of Jean Froissart (c.1337-c.1405). In Book IV, Ch. 64, we find the tale of four Irish kings being prepared to receive English knighthood. Initially, they seem dismissive of the idea, stating that they were knights already, explaining that "in Ireland, a king makes his son a knight, and should the child have lost his father, then the nearest relation." This was to take place at the age of seven years.
While "warrior orders" or "warrior clans" were described in ancient Ireland in the theoretical service of the High King or Provincial Kings, there is no evidence to support the survival of any such orders into the historical period. However, Gaelic Irish knighthood, in its archaic and hereditary context designating the untitled martial nobility, was clearly practiced well into the 14th century.