A statue of an armoured knight of the Middle Ages
- For the chess piece, see knight (chess).
In former times, a knight was a warrior or nobleman; today a knight is a person who has been given a royal recognition. In the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth nations the knight is styled Sir. The female styling is usually Dame.
Although the roots of the word knight are connected to the Old English cniht, meaning page boy, or simply boy, or Dutch and German Knecht, or servant, the ideas of knighthood are arguably more closely tied to the Roman equites (see esquire). While a knight was the servant of The Crown and of God he was also very often a wealthy junior nobleman.
During the middle ages, the term knight referred to a mounted and armoured soldier. Originally, knights were warriors on horse-back, but the title became increasingly connected to nobility and social status, most likely because of the cost of equipping oneself in the cavalry. Knighthood eventually became a formal title bestowed on those noblemen trained for active war duty. At the beginning of the knight’s history, horsed soldiers were not so important in war; instead, foot soldiers were the main fighting force in all northern European armies. Later, as invaders kept attacking the lands that the Roman Empire had, until recently, occupied, the knight became more and more important in obtaining victory. One of the reasons being that the invading armies had cavalry (mounted troops) and the northern European foot soldiers found it increasingly difficult to maneuver against their superior foes; as a result, knights were greatly needed in battle, and the knights in shining armor that we keep in mind today were born.
Knighthood and the Feudal system
Knighthood was closely connected with the feudal system. Originating largely in what later became known as France, this was a social organisation in which warfare and the protection of the common people became the specialised skill of a select group. Instead of having them paid in cash — which everyone, even the monarch, were short on — they were paid in land. These rather extensive pieces of land were the fiefs. Though a fief did not have to be land — it could be any payment — it is generally thought of as the land that the knights were given as payment for service to the king. The knights were economically supported by peasants who worked to produce food and ideologically supported by the contemporary church.
Sometimes these knights were the noble themselves and sometimes men they hired, because noblemen were disinclined or unable to fight. 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 internal threats to the nation or in defensive and offensive wars against other nations.
As time went by, monarchs began to prefer standing (permanent) armies because they could be used for longer periods of time, were more professional and were generally more loyal; partly because those noblemen who were themselves knights, or who sent knights to fight, were prone to use the monarch's dependancy on their resources to manipulate him. This move from knights to standing armies had two important outcomes: the regular payment of "scutage" to monarchs by noblemen (a money payment instead of actually going to fight as a knight) 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 art and sport.
Originally, knighthood could be bestowed on a man by any knight, but it was generally considered prestigious to be dubbed knight by the hand of a monarch or royalty; the monarch eventually acquired the exclusive right to confer knighthoods. 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 — either to a liege lord or to a military order.
Knight in war harness, after a miniature in a psalter written and illuminated under Louis le Gros.
Rules of conduct
A knight was to follow a strict set of rules of conduct. The ideals of knighthood were the Knightly Virtues; the code to which they were nominally sworn was that of chivalry, although this was more often true in troubadours' romances than in reality. These codes were largely propagated by the Church – the original knights were little more than unruly warriors. The Church promoted the ideals of chivalry, with arguable success, in an attempt to transform them into warriors for Christianity, the protectors of society. These idealized rules were observed more in the breach than in practice. A knight often fought with a shield and a sword.
Changes in military tactics, such as the successful use of the longbow against the French cavalry in the battles of Crécy and Agincourt lessened the importance of the cavalry. However, the true end of the knight was brought about by the use of gunpowder and guns.
In times of peace throughout the later Middle Ages and as late as the end of the 16th century, the role of the knight was promoted and extolled through highly stylized tournaments that bore little resemblance to the bloody warfare in which the "typical knight" had once participated. Early tournaments were actually very similar to war. They originally included many participants battling each other at once in a chaotic mock war, though they later evolved to the popular, one-on-one jousting known in modern popular culture.
When even the tournaments went out of fashion, knighthood became less and less tied to warfare, and increasingly indicated social status.
Knighthoods are still issued in:
Presumably there are other monarchies 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 call himself 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 officially styled Heather, Lady McCartney, not Lady Paul McCartney or Lady Heather McCartney.