The Knight is probably the most easily recognisable ‘character’ of the Middle Ages, filtering down through our subconscious to the present day. The image of a man in shiny armour on a proud warhorse wielding a sword or lance has inspired generations of artists, authors, film-makers, and now re-enactors.
It is often suggested that he was expected to plough through foot soldiers standing in his way when mounted on his horse. Or at least that was the theory. No single foot soldier or archer should be able to stand up to any one knight in one on one combat. However there are many cases and situations in battle when this just doesn't happen, for reasons set out below.
It's easy to get it wrong, and very expensive to portray correctly. As it should be!
The Knight is often conceived as one of three types of fighting men during the middle ages: (Knights, Foot Soldiers, Archers), but the reality is more confusing. Knights generally owned and rode warhorses in battle [called destriers], but many soldiers owned and rode horses. [see hobilar, squire and mounted archers]. Knights were also generally the wealthiest of the three types of soldiers, but as we will see, generalisations are there to be shotdown and trampled underfoot!
Foot soldiers [infantry] may be the personal household or retinue of the knight, or a city levy/militia raised by a Commission of Array.
Archers were well paid during this time, usually owning horses, but other missile/artillery weapons were employed in warfare. These ranged from slingers, crossbowmen [arbalesters], gynors who worked siege engines, and finally gunners. Gunpowder weaponry was introduced into English warfare in about 1328, and this is one reason for the sudden spurt in the development of armour technologies during the 14th century. The onset of hostilities with France, [the Hundred Years War] also assisted the evolution of both armour AND weapons,
For the period studied by NANMA, the 14th century, a Knight [as all Knights were male], was usually covered in multiple layers of armour for war or tournament.
There are 3 distinct phases of armour development during the century.
1300-1330 the ending of maille with additional plate protection over the limbs.
1330-1360 a transitional period with multiple combinations of plate, mail, leather.
1360-1400 the advent of true plate armour.
It required money of course to be a knight. The money had to come from somewhere – and this was usually from land rents on his various manor[s] across the country. A figure of £40 per annum was a normal requirement. Sometimes ransoms of captured nobles could make a man rich, hence the reason why so many lower class sort returned from the Hundred Years Wars with great riches.
The war horse alone could cost the equivalent of a small airplane. [£80 in 1300’s being normal. Average mans salary £4.00 per years]
A knights shield would always be made of wood and covered with leather, parchment or canvas. Metal [iron] seem to be reserved for small ‘bucklers’.
A Knight would decorate his shield with his family heraldry or ‘armorie’; hence wearing a ‘coat of arms’ was proof of his lineage.
A knight’s prime weapons were the sword and lance. Axes, battle hammers, and maces were also used to defeat the enemy, each with its particular strengths and weaknesses. The dagger was often carried on the opposite hip to the sword, and could take a number of forms during this period.
Becoming a knight was part of the ancient feudal agreement. In return for military service, the knight received a fief. In the late middle ages, many prospective knights began to pay "shield money" to their lord so that they wouldn't have to serve in the king's army. The money was then used to create a ‘professional’ army that was paid and supported by the king. These knights often fought more for pillaging than for army wages. When they captured a city, they were allowed to ransack it, stealing goods and valuables.
Becoming a Knight:
There were only a few ways in which a person could become a knight. The first way was the normal course of action for the son of a noble:
When a boy was 7 or 8 years old, he was sent to another castle or manor house where he was trained as a page. The boy was usually the son of a knight or of a member of the aristocracy. He spent a lot of his time strengthening his body, wrestling and riding horses. He learned how to fight with a spear and a sword. He practiced against a wooden dummy called a quintain. It was essentially a heavy sack or dummy in the form of a human. It was hung on a wooden pole along with a shield. The young page had to hit the shield in its centre. When hit, the whole structure would spin around and around. The page had to manoeuvre away quickly without getting hit. The young man was also taught more civilized topics. He may be taught to read and write by a schoolmaster, who was often a monk or chaplain. He could also be taught some Latin and French. The lady of the castle taught the page to sing and dance and how to behave in the king’s court. Table manners were taught by the 14th C to the nobility.
At the age of fifteen or sixteen, a boy became a squire in service to a knight. At the simplets level, his duties included: dressing the knight in the morning, serving all of the knight’s meals, caring for the knight’s horse, and cleaning the knight’s armor and weapons. He followed the knight to tournaments and assisted his lord on the battlefield. A squire also prepared himself by learning how to handle a sword and lance while wearing armour and riding a horse.
When he was about twenty, a squire could become a knight after proving himself worthy. A lord would agree to knight him in a dubbing ceremony. The night before the ceremony, the squire would dress in a white tunic and red robes. He would then fast and pray all night for the purification of his soul. The chaplain would bless the future knight's sword and then lay it on the chapel or church's altar. Before dawn, he took a bath to show that he was pure, and he dressed in his best clothes. When dawn came, the priest would hear the young man's confession, a Catholic contrition rite. The squire would then eat breakfast. Soon the dubbing ceremony began. The outdoor ceremony took place in front of family, friends, and nobility. The squire knelt in front of the lord, who tapped the squire lightly on each shoulder with his sword and proclaimed him a knight. This was symbolic of what occurred in earlier times. In the earlier middle ages, the person doing the dubbing would actually hit the squire forcefully, knocking him over. After the dubbing, a great feast followed with music and dancing.
A man could also become a knight for valour in combat after a battle or sometimes before a battle to help him gain courage.
The Knightly ideal of chivalry was aspired to by most, but the rules were broken as and when necessary, dependant on the individual. They promised to defend the weak, be courteous to all women, be loyal to their king, and serve God at all times. Knights were expected to be humble before others, especially their superiors. They were also expected to not "talk too much". In other words, they shouldn't boast. The code of chivalry demanded that a knight give mercy to a vanquished enemy. However, the very fact that knights were trained as men of war belied this code. Even though they came from rich families, many knights were not their families' firstborn. They did not receive an inheritance. Thus they were little more than mercenaries. They plundered villages or cities that they captured, often defiling and destroying churches and other property. Also the code of chivalry did not extend to the peasants. The "weak" was widely interpreted as "noble women and children". They were often brutal to common folk. They could sometimes even rape young peasant women without fear of reprisal, all because they were part of the upper class.
The original Code of Chivalry, also called the ‘Knightly Virtues’, was 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 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.