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Guest Article: How Does a Man Become a Knight?

Today it is my pleasure to welcome Andrew Fraser to The Turnip of Terror for the inaugural monthly Guest segment.

How Does a Man Become a Knight?

by Andrew Fraser

It is often through popular depictions we have a sense that the knight is a person of high nobility, a member of the landed aristocracy and the warrior caste.  As with all things medieval this is not always true, the medieval period is multi-faceted and complex.  How someone became a knight and who was entering into knighthood is something I will look into here.

During the late medieval period the feudal system softened, there was more exchange between the tight caste structures imposed during the early and high medieval.  The wealthy mercantile middle class sought to emulate the noble elites and to join them politically.  This led to a greater social exchange, one of these was the entrance of the merchant into the ranks of the knight.

This next section will take some shortcuts here for the sake of brevity and speak in overall terms. The aristocracy made up the warrior caste in numbers, they were eligible to bear arms; meaning that they could have their own heraldry.

They trained from youth in the arts of war and participated in war, took part in deeds of arms, studied chivalry and knightly conduct.  It is this group of people that is commonly referred to as men at arms, although this term is loosely defined and used to refer to many different groups during the medieval period.

The hierarchy and organisation of the military system of feudal Europe was such that only the most wealthy could be inducted into this elite group, a knight had to maintain themselves, their equipment, their lands, and the men at arms that served them. This required wealth.  A poor knight could not maintain these obligations for long.

The social structure of Medieval Europe also favoured the aristocracy as knights, recognition and fame ensured your induction into the ranks of knighthood, far be it for an unknown man with no connections to a knight to be granted the honour of knighthood, but instead, the well-known sons and brothers of lords and kings making a name for themselves in the field of valour.

De Charny, who famously wrote on the subject of knighthood, said that a Man at Arms of worth should strive to be like Judas Maccabeus

“He was wise in all his deeds, he was a man of worth who led a holy life, he was strong, skillful, and unrelenting in effort and endurance; he was handsome above all others, and without arrogance; he was full of prowess, bold, valiant, and a great fighter, taking part in the finest, greatest, and fiercest battles and the most perilous adventures there ever were, and in the end he died in a holy way in battle, like a saint in paradise.”

Such high standards to live up to, yet De Charny was the Bearer of the Oriflamme the sacred banner of the King of France.  Knight and writer of the precepts of the Order of the Star, commission by John II of France in response to the Order of the Garter.  He had high standards of what a perfect knight should be, and how they should conduct themselves.

Many a young knight was found fit on the tourney field.  We can look to the story of Du Guesclin, which may be somewhat mythologised, who upon entering into the tournament under anonymity, defeated his estranged father and was made a knight for displaying his skill and valour.

Then you find examples of others who win their honours through skill at war.  Sir John Chandos, Knight of the Garter. Chandos was knighted for his efforts in the battle of Sluys having gained great honour in battle in the Hundred years war.

Like Du Guesclin, Chandos was hailed as one of the true knights of his age. It is in dispute whether the English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood, was knighted or if he assumed the title himself.  Famed for his skill in battle and his cunning as a General, this demonstrates at least to the casual eye how by the 14th century the structure and the tradition of knighthood had begun to blur. Hawkwood was not in anyway, outside of his excellent military skills, the embodiment of chivalry laid out by De Charney.

It is also during the early 14th century we see the entrance of the merchant classes into the aristocracy and the knightly classes.  Either through marriage, or the donation of large sums of money, the merchant classes were able to secure the necessary clout and political favour to have this great title bestowed on themselves or their sons. 

In the 14th and 15th centuries we see the rise of the merchant nobles’ families, keen to secure more power, bought and married into nobility. It is during this time, the exchange of status from the rich aristocracy into poor mercantile families can be viewed in just a few generations.

With the rich landowners becoming merchants or worse, poor farmers themselves, and the merchants the richest landlords in the county it was not uncommon for an aristocrat to sell off an honour or two to stave off poverty. During times of war, it would not be uncommon for the king to borrow large sums of money from merchant families and to award an honour or two when repayment is needed.

But not all merchants bought their knighthoods, some were able to earn the title (though that was even rarer.) Sir William Walworth, Mayor of London, famed for slaying Wat Tyler and effectively ending the peasant’s revolt, was a merchant and a member of the fishmonger’s guild before being awarded his honours of knighthood.

It is questionable if Sir Walworth lived up to De Charney’s opinions of how a knight should be, I am sure that as a merchant and politician he most likely would not demonstrate any of the required attributes.  Though I think effectively ending the revolt and saving the life of the king is well worth the honours of a knight.

But if we are considering what De Charny thought of as suitable for a knight, Du Gueslin himself was said to be an ugly and squat man; though his valour and skill in combat were without peer.  Not so much the shining example set by Judas Maccabeus, John Hawkwood, though master tactician and skilled in arts of war, was far from any of these virtues, yet he held the mantle of Knighthood.

Many more men would take up arms and not be awarded the title of knight, and as in today’s tournament field they would be passed over or their deeds missed by their peers. De Charny addressed this.

“I must now consider yet another category of men-at-arms who deserve praise: that is those who devote a good part of their own financial resources and suffer physical hardship in the search for opportunities for deeds of arms in a number of countries; and they may well find many such opportunities and incur no reproach on many good fields of combat.

But it so happens that few learn of their exploits but are only aware of the fact that they have been there, which is in itself a fine thing; for the more one sees great deeds, the more one should learn what is involved and should talk and take advice at the places where feats of arms are performed or where one is engaged in other activities. And because of this they deserve to be praised and honoured: although their deeds have been of little account, they have done no ill; for it is very important in such activity to pause and look. Hence so it is that he who does best is most worthy.”

So we can see not all men who took up the path of a Man at Arms eventually achieved their end goal, that of the knight.  More often than not many strove for recognition and failed to achieve the fame and glory of knighthood. Be it through inheritance, the acts of war, the honours of the tournament, or transactions of the merchant.

I think there is a lesson here for us in the re-enactment community. There are many among us who work hard with little recognition but do great work just for the sake of learning and displaying great living history; that is I think worthy of great praise. So I will leave you with some parting words from De Charny;

“…for the more one sees great deeds, the more one should learn what is involved and should talk and take advice at the places where feats of arms are performed or where one is engaged in other activities. And because of this they deserve to be praised and honoured.”

Popula Urbanum Square

Andrew is a living historian and adult educator who has turned his hand to many different medieval projects over the years.  His interests have included armouring, HEMA and medieval tailoring. His latest folly is researching and cataloguing the rise of the medieval guilds and the middle class and their influence on the modern era.

Andrew co-hosts Popula Urbanum on Youtube and runs Modern Medieval Man on Facebook.

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2 thoughts on “Guest Article: How Does a Man Become a Knight?”

  1. Great guest article! I would just add what I’ve said before, and will keep saying it for as long as I have to: there’s more to the Middle Ages than what the English and the French did and thought. In Portugal, for example – which didn’t have a feudal system, exactly -, chivalry as an institution was only established during the 12th-13th centuries, long after other European territories had shifted towards the understanding of the knight as a fundamentally aristocratic construct. Later on, during the 15th century, it became relatively easy for would-be knights to attain knighthood, by fighting in Northern Africa (Morocco) – to the point where the old noble families complained openly about this, and the war in Morocco became a sort of ‘knight academy’ for the Portuguese. The frontier between knights and non-knights was much more porous in Portugal than in most other places, even though the essential ways of attaining knighthood – feats of arms, services to the monarch or a great lord – remained essentially the same. Though Portuguese conceptions of chivalry were informed by English and French chivalric notions as expressed by De Charny and others, we can’t simply use them as one-size-fits-all models for all chivalry in Europe. Periphery zones, such as the Iberian kingdoms, the Holy Roman Empire, the Scandinavian kingdoms, etc., would have their own specific conceptions of chivalry, knighthood, and aristocracy.

    A good paper on this topic, for Portugal: