Knights arrived in England with William the Conqueror in the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Anglo-Saxons saw how they followed their lords and used their word for a serving youth: ‘cniht’.
The knights with mail coats of interlinked iron rings, long shields and conical helmets with nose-guards, who rode from earth and timber castles to hold the countryside, usually fought from horseback.
During the 12th century their charge with levelled lances was a feared method of attack. They were involved in the civil wars of Stephen’s reign (1135-54), in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and in Normandy but when King John lost the latter in 1204 barons had to choose whether to live in England.
The school of hard knocks
The son of a knight would be trained, often in the castle of a relative or even the king, first as a young page, learning manners. When about 14 years old he became a squire apprenticed to a knight, learning to wear armour and use weapons, ride warhorses and to carve at table. He accompanied the knight to battle or joust, helping him to arm, and pulling him from the press if wounded.
When around the age of 21, the youth was knighted. However, from the 13th century the costs of equipment and the knighting ceremony and peacetime knightly burdens such as attending shire courts and eventually parliament, meant some chose to remain squires all their lives. Because knights were needed to lead troops, in the 13th and 14th centuries kings sometimes forced eligible squires to be knighted, known as ‘distraint’.
The church became increasingly involved in knighting, initially blessing the sword. By the 14th century, the new knight might keep vigil at the altar and perhaps be dressed in symbolically coloured clothing. He was expected to uphold the church, defend the weak and respect women.
‘A verray parfit gentil knyght’
Chivalry, originally referring to horsemanship had, by the later 12th century, come to embrace respect for ladies, thanks to the emergence of the troubadours in Provence singing of courtly love, which then spread north.
Into this came the romance tales of King Arthur. In practice it was often very different: some excellent men upheld the highest values of chivalry but some were mercenaries, or gave in to blood lust, or simply lost control of their followers.
From mail to plate
The Norman mail coat and shield eventually shortened and by 1200 some helmets fully covered the head. The interlinked iron rings were flexible to crushing blows and could be pierced, hence by the later 13th century solid plates were sometimes added to the limbs and over the chest. This increased through the 14th century.
By 1400 a knight was completely enclosed in an articulated steel suit. It weighed about 25kgs and hardly inconvenienced a fit man but was hot to wear. Thrusting swords became more popular, to penetrate the joints; as plate armour reduced the need for a shield and knights increasingly fought on foot, they often also carried two-hand staff weapons such as halberds or pollaxes.
The colourful heraldry that grew up from the 12th century to identify a man in armour might be displayed on an embroidered surcoat of various form or a pennon, or on a banner if a knight was of higher rank.
The road to fame and fortune
Even the king was a knight but many new knights were landless, knights bachelor. The easiest route for a young man to gain wealth was to marry an heiress and daughters were bartered for family aggrandisement or alliance. The eldest son would one day hope to inherit the family estates but younger sons would either have to go into the church or find a lord who might reward their service, when they could also hope to profit from ransoms or spoils in war.
The tournament offered a chance of finding a lord or making money and winning fame, especially in the 12th century where two opposing teams of knights fought to capture opponents for ransom. If a knight could also win renown, so much the better, sometimes fighting to fulfil an oath or perhaps joining a crusade.
Household and landed knights
The king and his lords had around them their familia, household knights kept at their expense, ready at a moment’s notice and often close to their lord. They carried out a variety of jobs: ferrying prisoners, bringing up infantry or workmen or overseeing castles. They were especially valuable in conquered or turbulent regions such as the borders with Wales or Scotland. The royal familia formed the backbone of the army and numerically equalled feudal contingents.
The feudal system meant that knights could hold land in return for (usually 40 days) service in war and service in peace, such as castle guard and escort duties. Some commuted military service for a money payment called scutage (literally ‘shield money’) with which the lord or king could hire paid soldiers. By the 13th century it was becoming obvious that this feudal service was inconvenient for longer campaigns, such as in Wales, Scotland or on the continent.
In 1277 and 1282, Edward I took some retainers into pay after their 40-day feudal service, for periods of 40 days at a time. The crown also had more money available and contracts became the usual form of recruitment from the 14th century onwards, household knights and squires now also being retained by indenture.
The changing face of warfare
In the 13th century knights fought each other in the rebellion against King John, including sieges at Rochester and Dover, and baronial wars between Henry III and Simon de Monfort; in 1277 Edward I launched them against the Welsh but they were hampered by the rugged terrain and longbows.
Having built castles to subdue Wales, Edward turned to Scotland but without missile support the mounted knights impaled themselves on the schiltrons of long spears, perhaps most spectacularly at Bannockburn under his son in 1314.
As kings realised the power of longbows, knights were now increasingly dismounted with flanks of archers, often awaiting the enemy who were weakened with arrows. Such tactics were used on the Scots and then with great success in France during the Hundred Years War, by Edward III especially at Crécy and Poitiers and Henry V at Agincourt.
When the English were driven out in 1453 the Yorkists and Lancastrians fell to blows over the crown in the Wars of the Roses from 1455 until Stoke Field in 1487. Old scores were settled, few taken for ransom and great lords fielded private armies.
After the Black Death of 1347-51 English society had changed and even some of free peasant background were able to become knights. Latterly many were content to stay on their manors and leave the fighting to professionals, despite stirring tales of chivalry such as Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur.
Armour gave little protection against improved gunpowder and lances could not penetrate pike formations. Knights often made up relatively few of the numbers in an army and were increasingly there as officers. They were transforming into the cultured Renaissance gentleman.
Christopher Gravett is a former Senior Curator at the Royal Armouries, Tower of London, and a recognized authority on the arms, armour and warfare of the medieval world. His book The Medieval Knight is published by Osprey Publishing.