We have a lot of ‘Sirs’ these days. Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Michael Parkinson…all famous people…all knighted by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, of the United Kingdom for various services. It must be fun to be able to say you’re a knight and have ‘SIR’ in front of your name. But these days, admittedly, being given a knighthood is more a ceremony than anything else. You wouldn’t expect Paul McCartney to put on a suit of armour, hop on a horse, cry out ‘Tally ho!’ and charge off to Iraq, would you?
While these days knights have very little in common with the “knights of old”, people have always had a fascination with these strange and alien beings, the best of the best, the bravest of the brave, the strongest of the strong, the Green Berets, the SAS or the Marines of the Medieval world…but who were knights? What did being a knight mean? And most importantly…
How the hell did you become a KNIGHT anyway?
What was a knight?
A knight was a medieval soldier, a gentleman soldier, and a gentleman soldier who fought a gentleman’s war. He was an elite warrior and fighter who swore an oath of alliegence to the king. This is why in movies set in the medieval period, some people who bow to the king would address him as “my liege”, as he was the person to whom they had sworn alliegence.
A knight was expected to be many things. He had to be an expert warrior above everything else, but he also had to be courageous, brave, courteous, protective, polite and respectful of authority. He had to be in top-condition all the time and he was expected to keep his equipment and his horse in fighting condition as well, for he never knew when the king might call upon him to ride into battle. The knight held a position of respect and responsibility in his community and he was expected to uphold the law and not to abuse his authority, which was given to him by the king.
The Code of Chivalry
A knight was expected to behave like a knight…but how was a knight expected to behave anyway?
A knight’s life was regulated over by a set of rules, regulations and guidelines known as the Code of Chivalry, or the Chivalric Code. These days, if someone is said to be behaving ‘chivalrously’, it’s generally assumed that he’s kind and polite, compassionate and helpful…however, that is just one tiny iota of the vast and complex code of honour and conduct that regulated a knight’s life. So what is the full Code of Chivalry?
The original Code of Chivalry, also called the ‘Knightly Virtues’, were divided into three parts, they were:
1. Warrior Chivalry. Here, you were expected to fight for what was right. You were expected to obey your lord or your your king (whoever was your ‘superior officer’, so to speak), you were expected to be merciful, courageous, fair, selfless and you were expected to protect those who could not protect themselves, be they the weakly, the sickly, the poor, the young or the delicate. So effectively…the sick, the elderly, the impoverished and the children. You were expected to fight to the best of your ability for a child or for the innocent poor, as well as you were expected to fight for the life of your liege lord or your king.
2. Religious Chivalry. Religious Chivalry meant being faithful to God. It meant protecting the innocent, it meant being generous to others, to protect the church and to battle evil and misdeed and to be a beacon of what was wholesome and good in the world.
3. Chivalry of Courtly Love. This is the branch of chivalry which most people still recognise today. The knightly virtue of Courtly Love meant that a knight was expected to be a man of honour. That he was to be as good as his word. That he was to be discreet. He was expected to be polite and courteous, especially to women. He was to protect the womenfolk and to be helpful, kind-hearted and understanding, firstly of his own lady (either the wife of his lord or the queen, or to his own wife), and thereafter, to all ladies indiscriminately.
A Knight’s Tale
We’ve covered what a knight was and how a knight was supposed to act…but now, probably the most important question is…how did you become a knight?
I’m sure everyone would love to be a knight in shining armour. I’m sure a lot of kids back in the Medieval Era wished they were knights. Dressing up in armour, doing brave things, winning all the hot chicks and getting bags of cash from the king for all the awesome stuff you did…It’d be like a professional wrestler today. But to become a wrestler…and more importantly…a knight…isn’t easy. In fact it was so not-easy that if you intended to become a knight, you had to start training from the very day you could walk! So…where did you start?
Hither Page, Come Stand By Me
First and foremost, to be a knight, you had to have some sort of social-standing in life already. Most people who became knights had wealthy parents, were the children of knights, or were the children of wealthy or powerful noblemen who had good connections with the king. Money was a key part of becoming a knight; you had to be rich, or at least well-off, because you needed the money to pay for the training, the horse, the armour, the sword…it all came out of your own pocket. And once you had the money and you were considered knight-material, the training would begin. Don’t get cushy, training a knight was the medieval equivalent of special forces bootcamp today.
Considering that the training was so hard, if you intended to be a knight, a real knight, a knight in shining armour, then you had to start training young. Very young. How young? Try seven years old.
That’s right. If you intended to be a knight, you had to start at the age of seven. These days, kids at the age of seven are in elementary school learning how to read. Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, if you intended to be a knight, you had to start training at this age…and it wasn’t softened up just because you were a kid. So how did it work?
Once the decision had been made to turn you into a knight (usually by your parents), you were sent off to a neighbouring castle or even to the king’s household itself. Here, you would start your training as a page.
A page was a knight-in-training. You learnt how to ride a horse, you learnt how to throw spears, how to fight with a sword (using a human-shaped dummy known as a quintain as a target). You had to learn how to ride a horse and use your sword effectively at the same time and you had to do sparring-matches with the quintain, stabbing its shield with your sword and then hopping out of the way as the dummy swung around on its stand after the strike (the dummy’s movement was to simulate an enemy knight swinging his sword back at you, after you’d taken your swipe at him).
Apart from all the physical training, the young page also learnt things which other children his age would give their eyes to be able to do. He was taught reading, writing, various languages such as Latin or French, and the lady of the house or a lesser noblewoman in the king’s household, would teach the boy courtly manners so that he would know how to act in front of the king (if he ever met him).
As you can see, being a page wasn’t just some weekend correspondence course you did through the post, or a weeklong workshop you did down at the local community center. Starting at the age of seven, you were expected to do this stuff for the next seven years at least! Your training as a page didn’t finally stop until you were fourteen, or in some cases, as late as sixteen!
Once you finished your page’s training, about the age of 15, you then became a ‘squire’, or, to use the full term, an arming-squire. Becoming a squire meant that you had a position something between a knight-in-training, a junior knight, and a personal manservant. A squire was a teenage trainee who was assigned to the service of a specific knight. His knight was his mentor and his master who was supposed to teach the young whip everything he was ever likely to need to know about knighthood. The squire did everything for the knight, he served his meals, he accompanied him, he cleaned up after him, he took care of the knight’s horse, he accompanied him on journeys, he followed him to tournaments and matches and he assisted him in combat.
Much like a valet, a squire was also expected to look after a knight’s clothes. And what does a knight wear?
Yep…a squire was expected to learn how to look after the knight’s suit of armour, in training for when he would someday (maybe) wear his own. The squire was expected to dress his knight and know where everything went and how it fitted and held together. He was expected to know how to do a few basic repairs to the metalwork and of course…he had to know how to keep the armour clean! His master couldn’t be a knight in shining armour if the armour wasn’t shining!
There was no Brasso back in the 15th century, no steel wool, no Simichrome polishing-paste. How was the squire to keep his knight’s kit clean?
14th and 15th century Brasso was a polishing agent made up of sand…vinegar…and…urine. The squire would rub this stuff onto the armour and scrub it in and wipe it off over and over and over, to get a nice, glittering shine. In the middle of a battle, a squire was expected to be hot to trot at a moment’s notice. When his master was out in the fray, slashing, bashing and crashing away at the enemy, the squire was expected to be able to repair broken pieces of equipment, he was expected to help the knight if he was injured, he was expected to run out into the middle of hell with a new piece of kit for his knight and he was expected to protect his knight if he was in trouble.
A full suit of armour, with the helmet, shoulderpads, breastplate, arm and legplates, kneepads, gauntlets (gloves) and sword. Under this would be a chainmail suit and more clothes to act as padding against the weight of the metal.
Along with all this stuff, one of the most important parts of becoming a knight was learning how to wear authentic, 15th century medieval armour! All knights wore armour, so as a squire, part of your more advanced training was to learn how to put on a suit of armour, how to take it off, and most importantly, how to move around and FIGHT in a suit of armour! These days when we think of protective clothing, we think of bulletproof vests or kevlar or something like that. Medieval armour was nothing like that. A real, full suit of medieval armour was made of steel and iron and it was incredibly heavy. You had the helmet, the visor, the breastplate, the backplate, the armplates, legplates, you had the gauntlets. Under all this you had the chainmail and your tunic and your trousers (hose). You had your socks and your shoes and your protective metal overshoes. Add to this your belt, your dagger, your sword and your shield…you were a walking tank, carrying at least (note, at LEAST) 30-50 kilograms of metal (about 80-100lbs). Part of your training was to dress up in full kit and spend the entire day in your armour, walking around and doing your regular duties. This was to get you used to wearing the armour in all kinds of weather and to be able to move around in it comfortably during battle. You were also expected to be able to mount, ride and dismount a horse in full armour.
I Dub Thee, Sir Knight
Exactly how long it took you to become a knight was variable. Official training from page to squire took seven years. How long it took you to become a fully-fledged knight from just being a simple arming-squire depended on a lot of things, but it usually hung onto the size of the squire’s nuts and how brave and courageous he was during battle. Don’t forget, a squire wasn’t just a servant, he was a junior knight-in-training, and he WAS expected to fight or at least to defend himself and his master in battle. If the squire was brave enough, if he was courageous and ballsy enough, if he had proven himself to his knight or to the local lord or even to the king himself…he might get a nice word about him put into the next ‘graduation ceremony’, and the king (or more commonly, the local lord), would consider him knight-material.
If young Jimmy Ryan had started life out in the 14th century as the son of a wealthy nobleman who desired Jimmy to become a knight, Jimmy would have started training at the age of seven, as a page. At the age of fourteen, he became a squire. After proving himself worthy after years of loyal service, the knight might speak to the lord or the king (depending on who he served), or the squire himself might speak to the big man. If the lord or king decided that the squire was indeed worthy, he would agree to arrange the knighting ceremony. While there was no fixed age from which a squire became a knight, it usually happened in the squire’s early 20s.
Officially, a knighting is called an ‘accolade’ or a ‘dubbing’, hence the term “I dub thee…”. It was performed in the following manner:
The king or lord, having decided the squire was indeed ready for knighting, would arrange a time and place for the knighting ceremony. The night before the big day, the squire would dress in clean, white and red robes and clothes. He would pray and fast throughout the night, purifying his soul for the next great moment in his life. While this was going on, a priest would bless the sword which the squire was to recieve and then lay it down on an altar, ready for the ceremony.
In the early morning, before dawn, the squire would bathe, making sure he was thoroughly clean. He then put on his best clothes, attended confession with a priest, had breakfast, and then headed off to the place where the ceremony was to take place. By now, it would be dawn.
Just like a graduation ceremony from university today, this was a big event. It wasn’t just the knight, the king and a flock of peasants. It was everyone. The squire’s family, his best friends, the wealthy and the powerful and the respected families and personages…anyone who was anyone, would show up for the big day, to watch this historic event.
When everyone was assembled, the ceremony took place. The squire would kneel in front of his liege lord, or his king (again, depending on who was available), and the person in charge would raise the sword (placed on the altar earlier that day) and he would do the motions which we’re all familiar with. He would tap the flat of the sword-blade on one shoulder, and then on the other, while saying something along the lines of: “For services rendered, I dub thee, Sir James Ryan…”. In older times, the lord or king might actually strike the squire with the sword, but somewhere along the way, it was decided that this was a bit dangerous, so it was replaced with the gentle shoulder-taps which we recognise today. This over with, the squire was officially proclaimed a knight and what followed would be a night of food, wine and making merry, into the small hours of the next day.