A knight is a person awarded an honorary title of knighthood by a sovereign or other political leader for service to the country or sovereign, particularly as a military role. In Europe, knighthood use to be bestowed upon mounted warriors. Knighthood was considered a class of lower nobility during the High Medieval Period. By the Late Medieval Period, knighthood became connected with the ideals of chivalry, a code of conduct for the perfect courtly Christian warrior. Frequently, a knight was a servant, which served as a warrior for a lord with payment in the form of land. The lords relied on the knights, who were skilled in battle on horseback. Knighthood in the Medieval Period was closely linked with horsemanship, especially the joust, from its origins in the twelfth-century until its final blooming as a fashion among the high nobility in the Duchy of Burgundy during the fifteenth-century. This association is reflected in the etymology of chivalry, cavalier, and related terms (more information in the Etymology section below). The special prestige bestowed to warriors finds a parallel in the furusiyya in the Muslim world, the Greek hippeus (ἱππεύς), and Roman eques of the classical era.
In the late Middle Ages, new types of warfare started to render classical knights in armor obsolete; however, the titles continued throughout many countries. In this day and age, a number of orders of knighthood still exist in several nations, including the English Order of the Garter, the Swedish Royal Order of the Seraphim, and the Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav. These orders has its own criteria for qualification; however, knighthood is usually awarded by a monarch or head of state to selected people to recognize some meritorious recognition as in the British honors system often for civilian service to the country. The present-day female equivalent in the UK is a Dame.
In the past, the ideals of chivalry were common in medieval literature; generally, the literary cycles known as the Matter of France, relating to the legendary allies of Charlemagne and the Matter of Britain, relating to the legend of King Arthur.
Table of Contents
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Medieval Knighthood Evolution
- 3 Knightly Culture in the Middle Ages
- 4 Medieval and Renaissance Chivalry Literature
- 5 Decline
- 6 Types of Knighthood
- 7 Notable Knights
- 8 References
- 9 Further Reading
- 10 Cite This Page
The word knight came from Old English cniht (meaning “servant” or “boy”), is a cognate of the German word Knecht (meaning “bondsman” or “servant”). This meaning is common among West Germanic languages (cf Old Frisian kniucht, Dutch knecht, Danish knægt, Swedish knekt, Norwegian knekt, Middle High German kneht, all of which mean “boy, youth, or lad”, as well as German Knecht meaning “servant, bondsman, or vassal”). Middle High German had the term guoter kneht that also means knight; however, this meaning was in decline by about 1200 A.D.
The meaning of cniht altered over time from its initial meaning of “boy” or “servant” to “household retainer”. Ælfric’s homily of St. Swithun explains a mounted retainer as a cniht. Whereas, cnihtas possibly have fought alongside their lords, their part as household servants features more distinctly in the Anglo-Saxon texts. In many Anglo-saxon wills, cnihtas are left either land or money. In the will of King Æthelstan leaves his cniht, Aelfmar, 8 pieces of land.
A rādcniht, “riding-servant”, was a servant patrolling coastlines or delivering messages on horseback.
A decline of the generic meaning “servant” to “military follower of a king or other superior” is clear by 1100 A.D. The specific military sense of a knight as a mounted warrior in the heavy cavalry emerges only in the Hundred Years’ War. The verb “to knight”, which means “to make someone a knight”, arrives about 1300 A.D. and from the same time, the word “knighthood” changed from “adolescence” to “rank or dignity of a knight”.
An Equestrian (Latin, which came from eques meaning “horseman”, from equus meaning “horse”) was a member of the second highest social class in the early Roman Empire and the Roman Republic. An Equestrian was often translated as “knight”, the medieval knight, but, was called miles in Latin, which in classical Latin meant “soldier”, usually infantry).  
In the Roman Empire later on, the classical Latin word for horse, equus, was switched in common jargon by the vulgar Latin caballus, occasionally considered to come from Gaulish caballos. From caballus came terms in the different Romance languages generally with the (French-derived) English cavalier: Italian cavaliere, Spanish caballero, French chevalier, Portuguese cavaleiro, and Romanian cavaler. The Germanic languages have terms general with the English rider: German Ritter and Dutch and Scandinavian ridder. These words came from Germanic rīdan, “to ride”, and in turn came from the Proto-Indo-European root reidh-.
Medieval Knighthood Evolution
In ancient Rome, there was a knightly class Ordo Equestris, which means order of mounted nobles, from which European knighthood may have been borrowed. Some portions of the armies of Germanic peoples who occupied Europe from the 3rd century AD onward had been mounted, and some armies, such as those of the Ostrogoths, were mainly cavalry; however, it was the Franks, which generally created armies composed of large masses of infantry with an infantry elite, the comitatus, which often rode to battle on horseback instead of marching on foot. While the armies of the Frankish ruler Charles Martel conquered the Umayyad Arab invasion at the Battle of Tours in 732 A.D., the Frankish forces were still largely infantry armies, with elites riding to battle; however, dismounting to fight.
In the Early Middle Ages any well-equipped horseman could be described as a knight or miles in Latin. The first knights showed up during the reign of Charlemagne in the eighth-century.   While the Carolingian Age progressed, the Franks were usually on the attack and larger numbers of warriors took to their horses to ride with the Emperor in his wide-ranging campaigns of conquest. About this time, the Franks progressively continued on horseback to fight on the battlefield as true cavalry instead of mounted infantry with the finding of the stirrup and would remain to do so for centuries afterwards. In some countries, the knight went back to foot combat in the fourteenth-century, the association of the knight with mounted combat with a spear and later a lance, continued to be strong. The older Carolingian commemoration of presenting a young man with weapons influenced the development of knighthood ceremonies, in which a noble would be ritually presented with weapons and declared to be a knight, generally amid some festivities.
These horsed warriors made Charlemagne’s far-flung invasions possible and to protect their service he awarded them with land. These horsed warriors were given to the captains directly by the Emperor to award their good attempts in the conquests and they in turn were to grant benefices to their warrior contingents, which were a mix of free and not free men. In the centuries following Charlemagne’s death, his newly empowered warrior class grew stronger and Charles the Bald announced their land to be hereditary. The period of violence in the nineth- and tenth-centuries, from the fall of the Carolingian central authority to the rise of separate Western and Eastern Frankish kingdoms (later to become France and Germany respectively) only rooted this newly landed warrior class. This was because governing power and defense against Viking, Magyar, and Saracen attack became a local affair that revolved around these new hereditary local lords and their demesnes.
During the twelfth-century, knighthood became a social rank with a difference being made between milites gregarii (non-noble cavalrymen) and milites nobiles (true knights). As the word “knight” became increasingly confined to denoting a social rank, the military role of fully armored cavalryman gained a separate term, “man-at-arms”. Any medieval knight going to war would automatically serve as a man-at-arms; however, not all men-at-arms were knights. The first military orders of knighthood were those of the Knights Hospitallers and of the Holy Sepulchre, both of which were founded at the First Crusade of 1099 A.D., followed by the Order of Saint Lazarus (1100 A.D.), Knights Templars (1118 A.D.), and the Teutonic Knights (1190 A.D.). At the time of their foundation, these were intended as monastic orders, whose members would act as simple soldiers defending pilgrims. It was only the following century with the successful conquest of the Holy Land and the rise of the crusader states that these orders became powerful and prestigious.
The great European legends of soldiers such as the paladins, the Matter of France, and the Matter of Britain simplified the concept of chivalry among the warrior class. The ideal of chivalry as the ethos of the Christian warrior, and the transmutation of the term “knight” from the meaning “servant, soldier”, and of chevalier “mounted soldier”, to refer to a member of this ideal class, is significantly influenced by the Crusades, on one hand inspired by the military orders of monastic warriors, and on the other hand also cross-influenced by Islamic (Saracen) ideals of furusiyya. 
Knightly Culture in the Middle Ages
The school of knights was already well-established by the tenth-century. The knight was a title denoting a military office, the term could also be used for positions of higher nobility such as landholders. The higher nobles grant the vassals their portions of land (fiefs) in return for their loyalty, protection, and service. The nobles provided their knights with necessities as well, such as armor, food, horses, lodging, money, and weapons. The knight usually held his land by military tenure that was measured through military service, which usually lasted forty days a year. The military service was the quid pro quo for each knight’s fief. Lords and Vassals could maintain any number of knights; however, knights with more military experience were those most looked for. All petty nobles intending to become prosperous knights needed a great deal of military experience. A knight fighting under another’s banner was called a knight bachelor while a knight fighting under his own banner was a knight banneret.
A knight must be born of noble blood; generally, sons of knights or lords. Occasionally, commoners could be knighted as a reward for exceptional military service. Children of noble blood were taken care of by noble foster mothers in castles until they reached 7 years old.
The 7 year old boys were given the title of page and given to the care of the castle’s lords. They were placed on an early training regime of hunting with huntsmen and falconers, and academic studies with priests or chaplains. Pages then become assistants to older knights in battle, carrying and cleaning armor, taking care of the horses, and packing the baggage. Pages would follow the knights on expeditions, including into foreign lands. Older pages were instructed by knights in swordsmanship, equestrianism, chivalry, warfare, and combat (but using wooden swords and spears).
When the boy turned fifteen he became a squire. The new squire swore on a sword consecrated by a bishop or priest and attended to assigned duties in his lord’s home. During this time the squires continued training in combat and were allowed to own armor (rather than borrowing it).
Squires were obligated to master the “seven points of agilities”, which were climbing, dancing, fencing, long jumping, riding, shooting different types of weapons, swimming & diving, and wrestling. These are the prerequisite skills for knighthood. All of these were even performed while wearing armor.
When the boy turned 21, the squire was eligible to be knighted.
The knighting ceremony (also called “accolade”) was typically held during one of the great feasts or holidays, such as Easter or Christmas and sometimes at the wedding of a royal or noble. The knighting commemoration generally included a ritual bath on the night before the ceremony and a prayer vigil during the night. The day of the commemoration, the prospective knight would swear an oath and the master of the ceremony would dub the new knight on the shoulders with a sword.  Squires could also be conferred knighthood early if they showed valor and efficiency in battle.
Knights were expected to fight bravely and to display courtesy and military professionalism. If knights were taken as prisoners of war, the knights were customarily held for ransom in somewhat comfortable surroundings. This same standard of conduct didn’t apply to non-knights, such as archers, peasants, and foot soldiers, who were usually killed after capture, and who was viewed during battle as mere impediments to knights’ getting to other knights to fight them.
Chivalry advanced as an early standard of professional morals for knights, who were relatively prosperous horse owners and were expected to provide military services in exchange for land. Early concepts of chivalry included loyalty to one’s liege lord and bravery in battle, similar to the values of the Heroic Age. During the Medieval Period, this grew from simple military professionalism into a social code, such as the values of gentility, nobility, and treating others reasonably. In The Song of Roland (1100 A.D.), Roland is depicted as the perfect knight, demonstrating unwavering loyalty, military prowess, and social fellowship. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (1205 A.D.), chivalry had become a blend of religious duties, love and military service. Ramon Llull’s Book of the Order of Chivalry (1275 A.D.) demonstrates that by the end of the 13th century, chivalry entailed a litany of very specific duties, including riding warhorses, jousting, attending tournaments, holding Round Tables and hunting, as well as aspiring to the more æthereal virtues of “faith, hope, charity, justice, strength, moderation and loyalty.”
Knights of the Late Middle Ages were expected by society to continue all these skills and many more as outlined in Baldassare Castiglione’s, The Book of the Courtier; however, the book’s protagonist, Count Ludovico, says the “first and true profession” of the ideal courtier “must be that of arms.” Chivalry, derived from the French word chevalier (‘cavalier’), simultaneously denoted skilled horsemanship and military service, and these remained the primary occupations of knighthood throughout the Middle Ages.
Chivalry and religion were mutually motivated during the era of the Crusades. The early Crusades helped to clarify the moral code of chivalry as it related to religion. As a result, Christian armies began to devote their efforts to sacred purposes. As time passed, clergy instituted religious vows which required knights to use their weapons chiefly for the protection of the weak and defenseless, especially women and orphans, and of churches.
With the rise of Renaissance civilization and moral relativism, the knight and chivalry along with him–lost much of his significance to society and the idealism of chivalry romance was fundamentally rejected in Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe (1532 A.D.) and more directly derided in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605 A.D. to 1615 A.D.). The medieval literary genre of chivalry romance had been the high-water mark of idealism and romanticism in literature, but in the 16th century Machiavelli instructed aspiring political rulers to be ruthlessly pragmatic and to apply the principle that the ends justify the means, directly counter to the high-flown idealism of late medieval chivalry. Later, the high-flown values of chivalry romance were heavily satirized in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which portrayed the charmingly idealistic protagonist as a lovable but hopelessly delusional imbecile.
During peacetime, knights often demonstrated their martial skills in tournaments that usually took place on the grounds of a castle.  Knights can parade their armor and banner to the whole court as the tournament commence. Medieval tournaments were made up of martial sports called hastiludes, and were not only a major spectator sport but also played as a real combat simulation. It usually ended with many knights either injured or even killed. One contest was a free-for-all battle called a melee, where large groups of knights numbering hundreds assembled and fought one another, and the last knight standing was the winner. The most popular and romanticized contest for knights was the joust. In this competition, two knights charge each other with blunt wooden lances in an effort to break their lance on the opponent’s head or body, or unhorse them completely. The loser in these tournaments had to turn his armor and horse over to the victor. The last day was filled with feasting, dancing and minstrel singing.
Besides official tournaments, there was also unofficial judicial duels done by knights and squires to finalize various disputes.  Countries like Germany, Britain and Ireland practiced this tradition. Judicial combat were of two forms in medieval society, the feat of arms and chivalry combat. The feat of arms were done to settle hostilities between two large parties and supervised by a judge. The chivalry combat was fought when one party’s honor was disrespected or challenged upon in which the conflict cannot be resolved in court. Weapons were standardized and must be of the same caliber. The duel lasted until the other party was too weak to fight back and in early cases, the defeated party were then subsequently executed. Examples of these brutal duels were the judicial combat known as the Combat of the Thirty in 1351 A.D., and the trial by combat fought by Jean de Carrouges in 1386 A.D. A far more chivalric duel which became popular in the Late Middle Ages was the pas d’armes or “passage of arms”. In this hastilude, a knight or a group of knights would claim a bridge, lane or city gate, and challenge other passing knights to fight or be disgraced. If a lady passed without an escort, she would leave behind a glove or scarf, to be rescued and returned to her by a future knight who passed that way.
One of the greatest recognizing marks of the knightly class was the flying of colored banners to display power and to recognize knights in battle and in tournaments. Knights are generally armigerous (bearing a coat of arms), and indeed they played an essential role in the development of heraldry.  As heavier armor, including enlarged shields and enclosed helmets, developed in the Middle Ages, the need for marks of identification arose, and with colored shields and surcoats, coat armory was born. Armorial rolls were created to record the knights of various regions or those who participated in various tournaments.
Medieval and Renaissance Chivalry Literature
Knights and the concepts of knighthood featured largely in Renaissance and medieval literature and have secured a permanent place in literary romance. While chivalry romances abound, particularly notable literary portrayals of knighthood include The Song of Roland, Cantar de Mio Cid, The Twelve of England, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, as well as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and other Arthurian tales (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc.).
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), which was written in the 1130s, introduced the legend of King Arthur, which was to be important to the development of chivalric ideals in literature. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), written in 1485, was important in defining the ideal of chivalry, which is essential to the modern concept of the knight, as an elite warrior sworn to uphold the values of faith, loyalty, courage, and honor.
Educational literature was also written. Geoffroi de Charny’s “Book of Chivalry” expounded upon the importance of Christian faith in every area of a knight’s life, though still laying stress on the primarily military focus of knighthood.
In the early Renaissance, more emphasis is laid upon courtliness. The ideal courtier, the chivalrous knight, of Baldassarre Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtierbecame a model of the ideal virtues of nobility. Castiglione’s tale took the form of a discussion among the nobility of the court of the Duke of Urbino, in which the characters determine that the ideal knight should be renowned not only for his bravery and prowess in battle, but also as a skilled dancer, athlete, singer and orator, and he should also be well-read in the Humanities and classical Greek and Latin literature.
Later Renaissance literature, including Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, turned down the code of chivalry as unrealistic idealism. The rise of Christian humanism in Renaissance literature demonstrated a marked departure from the chivalric romance of late medieval literature, and the chivalric ideal ceased to influence literature over successive centuries until it saw some pockets of revival in post-Victorian literature.
By the end of the fifteenth-century, knights were becoming obsolete as countries started starting their own professional armies, which were faster to train and cheaper & easier to mobilize.  The advancement of high-powered firearms eradicated the use of plate armor, as the time it takes to train soldiers with guns is much less compared to that of the knight. The cost of equipment is also significantly lower and guns give a reasonable chance to easily penetrate a knight’s armor. In the 14th century the use of infantrymen armed with pikes and fighting in close formation also proved effective against heavy cavalry. An example of this was seen in the Battle of Nancy, when Charles the Bold and his armored cavalry were decimated by Swiss soldiers only armed with pikes. As the feudal system came to an end, lords saw no further use of knights. Many landowners found the duties of knighthood too expensive and so contented themselves with the use of squires. Mercenaries also became an economic alternative to knights when conflicts arose.
Armies of the time began adopting a more realistic approach to warfare than the honor-bound code of chivalry. Soon, the remaining knights were absorbed into professional armies. Although they have a higher rank than most soldiers because of their valuable lineage, they have lost their distinctive identity that previously set them apart from other common soldiers. As the age of knights dissolved, some still survived as knightly orders who still exist even by the end of the Medieval Age. They adopted newer technology while still retaining their age-old chivalry traditions. Examples of holy orders that existed beyond the Middle Ages were the Knights Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights.
Types of Knighthood
- Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which was founded during the First Crusade in 1099 A.D.
- Order of the Holy Sepulchre, which was founded during the First Crusade in 1099 A.D.
- Order of St. Lazarus, which was established about 1100 A.D., obsolete in the sixteenth-century.
- Knights Templar, which was founded in 1118 A.D., which was disbanded in 1307 A.D.
- Teutonic Knights, which was established about 1190 A.D. and ruled the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia until 1525 A.D.
Other orders were established in the Iberian Peninsula under the influence of the orders in the Holy Land and the Crusader movement of the Reconquista:
- Order of Aviz, which was established in Avis in 1143 A.D.
- Order of Alcántara, which was established in Alcántara in 1156 A.D.
- Order of Calatrava, which was established in Calatrava in 1158 A.D.
- Order of Santiago, which was established in Santiago in 1164 A.D.
Honorific Orders of Knighthood
After the Crusades, the military orders became idealized and romanticized, which resulted in the late medieval notion of chivalry, as reflected in the Arthurian romances of the time. The creation of chivalric orders was fashionable among the nobility in the 14th and 15th centuries, and this is still reflected in contemporary honours systems, including the term order itself. Examples of notable orders of chivalry are:
- The Order of Saint George, which was founded by Charles I of Hungary in 1325 or 1326 A.D.
- The Order of the Most Holy Annunciation, which was founded by Count Amadeus VI in 1346 A.D.
- The Order of the Garter, which was founded by Edward III of England around 1348 A.D.
- The Order of the Dragon, which was founded by King Sigismund of Luxemburg in 1408 A.D.
- The Order of the Golden Fleece, which was founded by Philip III, Duke of Burgundy in 1430 A.D.
- The Order of Saint Michael, which was founded by Louis XI of France in 1469 A.D.
- The Order of the Thistle, which was founded by King James VII of Scotland (who was also called James II of England) in 1687 A.D.
- The Order of the Elephant, which may have been first founded by Christian I of Denmark; however, was founded in its current form by King Christian V in 1693 A.D.
- The Order of the Bath, which was founded by George I in 1725 A.D.
From about 1560 A.D., purely honorific orders were founded, as a way to confer prestige and distinction, unrelated to chivalry and military service in the more narrow sense. Such orders were particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, and knighthood continues to be conferred in various countries:
- The United Kingdom and some Commonwealth of Nations countries such as New Zealand;
- Some European countries, including Belgium and The Netherlands.
- The Holy See.
There are other sovereigns and also republics, which also follow this practice. Modern knighthoods are typically conferred in recognition for services rendered to society, which are not necessarily martial in nature. The British musician Elton John, for example, is a Knight Bachelor, thus entitled to be called Sir Elton. The female equivalent is a Dame, for example Dame Julie Andrews.
Honorific knighthood may be conferred in two different ways in the United Kingdom:
The first is by membership of one of the pure Orders of Chivalry, including the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, and the dormant Order of Saint Patrick, in which all members are knighted. In addition, many British Orders of Merit, namely the Order of the Bath, the Order of St Michael and St George, the Royal Victorian Order and the Order of the British Empire are part of the British honours system, and the award of their highest ranks (Knight/Dame Commander and Knight/Dame Grand Cross), comes together with an honorific knighthood, making them a cross between orders of chivalry and orders of merit. By contrast, membership of other British Orders of Merit, such as the Distinguished Service Order, the Order of Merit and the Order of the Companions of Honour does not confer a knighthood.
The second is being granted honorific knighthood by the British monarchy without membership of an order, in which the recipient is called Knight Bachelor.
In the British honors system, the knightly style of Sir is connected with the given name and optionally the surname; therefore, Elton John might be called Sir Elton John or Sir Elton; however, never Sir John. Similarly, actress Judi Dench DBE (Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) may be addressed as Dame Judi or Dame Judi Dench; however, never Dame Dench.
Wives of knights; however, are entitled to the honorific pre-nominal “Lady” before their husband’s surname. Thus Sir Paul McCartney’s ex-wife was formally styled Lady McCartney (rather than Lady Paul McCartney or Lady Heather McCartney). The style Dame Heather McCartney could be used for the wife of a knight; however, this style is largely archaic and is only used in the most formal of documents, or where the wife is a Dame in her own right (such as Dame Norma Major, who gained her title six years before her husband Sir John Major was knighted). The husbands of Dames have no honorific pre-nominal, so Dame Norma’s husband remained John Major until he received his own knighthood.
Since the reign of Edward VII, a clerk in holy orders in the Church of England has not normally received the accolade on being appointed to a degree of knighthood. He receives the insignia of his honor and may place the appropriate letters after his name or title but he may not be called Sir and his wife may not be called Lady. This custom is not observed in Australia and New Zealand, where knighted Anglican clergymen routinely use the title “Sir”. Ministers of other Christian Churches are entitled to receive the accolade. For example, Sir Norman Cardinal Gilroy did receive the accolade on his appointment as Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1969. A knight who is subsequently ordained does not lose his title. A famous example of this situation was The Revd Sir Derek Pattinson, who was ordained just a year after he was appointed Knight Bachelor, apparently somewhat to the consternation of officials at Buckingham Palace. A woman clerk in holy orders may be made a Dame in exactly the same way as any other woman since there are no military connotations attached to the honor. A clerk in holy orders who is a baronet is entitled to use the title Sir.
Outside the British honors system it is typically considered inappropriate to address a knighted person as ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’. Some countries, however, historically did have equivalent honorifics for knights, such as Cavaliere in Italy (e.g. Cavaliere Benito Mussolini), and Ritter in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as Georg Ritter von Trapp.
State Knighthoods in the Netherlands are issued in three orders, the Order of William, the Order of the Netherlands Lion, and the Order of Orange Nassau. Also, there remains a few hereditary knights in the Netherlands.
In Belgium, honorific knighthood, rather than hereditary, can be conferred by the King on particularly meritorious individuals including scientists or eminent businessmen or for instance to astronaut Frank De Winne, who was the second Belgian in space. This practice is similar to the conferal of the dignity of Knight Bachelor in the United Kingdom. In addition, there still are a number of hereditary knights in Belgium.
In France and Belgium, one of the ranks conferred in some Orders of Merit, including the Légion d’Honneur, the Ordre National du Mérite, the Ordre des Palmes académiques, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, the Order of Leopold, the Order of the Crown, and the Order of Leopold II in Belgium, is that of Chevalier (in French) or Ridder (in Dutch), which means “Knight”.
In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth the sovereigns tried to establish chivalry orders; however, the hereditary lords who controlled the Union did not agree and managed to ban such assemblies. They feared the King would use Orders to gain support for absolutist goals and to make formal distinctions among the peerage which could lead to its legal breakup into two separate classes, and that the King would later play one against the other and eventually limit the legal privileges of hereditary nobility. But finally in 1705 A.D., King August II managed to establish the Order of the White Eagle which remains Poland’s most prestigious order of that kind. The head of state (now the President as the acting Grand Master) confers knighthoods of the Order to distinguished citizens, foreign monarchs and other heads of state. The Order has its Chapter. There were no particular honorifics that would accompany a knight’s name as historically all (or at least by far most) its members would be royals or hereditary lords anyway. So today, a knight is simply referred to as “Name Surname, knight of the White Eagle (Order)”.
In continental Europe, different systems of hereditary knighthood existed or still exist. Ridder, Dutch for “knight”, is a hereditary noble title in the Netherlands. It is the lowest title within the nobility system and ranks below that of “Baron” but above “Jonkheer” (the latter is not a title, but a Dutch honorific to show that someone belongs to the untitled nobility). The collective term for its holders in a certain locality is the Ridderschap (such as Ridderschap van Holland, Ridderschap van Friesland, etc.). In the Netherlands no female equivalent exists. Before 1814 A.D., the history of nobility is separate for each of the eleven provinces that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In each of these, there were in the early Middle Ages a number of feudal lords who often were just as powerful, and sometimes more so than the rulers themselves. In old times, no other title existed but that of knight. In the Netherlands only 10 knightly families are still extant, a number which steadily decreases because in that country ennoblement or incorporation into the nobility is not possible anymore.
Similarly, Ridder, Dutch for “knight”, or the equivalent French Chevalier is a hereditary noble title in Belgium. It is the second lowest title within the nobility system above Écuyer or Jonkheer/Jonkvrouw and below Baron. Like in the Netherlands, no female equivalent to the title exists. Belgium still does have about 232 registered knightly families.
The German and Austrian equivalent of an hereditary knight is a Ritter. This classification is used as a title of nobility in all German-speaking areas. Traditionally it denotes the second lowest rank within the nobility, standing above “Edler” (Noble) and below “Freiherr” (baron). For its historical association with warfare and the landed gentry in the Middle Ages, it can be considered roughly equal to the titles of “Knight” or “Baronet”.
The Royal House of Portugal, historically bestowed hereditary knighthoods to holders of the highest ranks in the Royal Orders. Today, the head of the Royal House of Portugal HRH Duarte Pio, Duke of Braganza bestows hereditary knighthoods for extraordinary acts of sacrifice and service to the Royal House. There are very few hereditary knights and they are entitled to wear a breast star with the crest of the House of Braganza.
In France, the hereditary knighthood existed in regions previously under Holy Roman Empire control. One family ennobled with that title is the house of Hauteclocque (by letters patents of 1752 A.D.), even if its most recent members used a pontifical title of count.
Italy and Poland also had the hereditary knighthood, which existed within the nobility system.
In Ireland, there are still traces of the Continental system of hereditary knighthood. Notably all three of the following belong to the Welsh-Norman FitzGerald dynasty, created by the Earls of Desmond, acting as Earls Palatine, for their kinsmen.
- Knight of Kerry or Green Knight (FitzGerald of Kerry), the current holder is Sir Adrian FitzGerald, sixth Baronet of Valencia, twenty-fourth Knight of Kerry. He is also a Knight of Malta and currently President of the Irish Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
- Knight of Glin or Black Knight (FitzGerald of Limerick), which is now dormant.
- White Knight, which is now dormant.
Another Irish family were the O’Shaughnessys, who were created knights in 1553 A.D. under the policy of Surrender and regrant, which was first established by Henry VIII of England. They were attainted in 1697 A.D. for participation on the Jacobite side in the Williamite wars.
Since 1611 A.D., the British Crown has awarded a hereditary title in the form of the Baronetcy. Like knights, baronets are accorded the title Sir. Baronets are not peers of the Realm, and have never been entitled to sit in the House of Lords, therefore like knights they remain commoners in the view of the British legal system. However, unlike knights, the title is hereditary and the recipient does not receive an accolade. The position is therefore more comparable with hereditary knighthoods in continental European orders of nobility, such as ritter, than with knighthoods under the British orders of chivalry.
Women in Orders of Knighthood
England and the United Kingdom
Women were appointed to the Order of the Garter just about from the beginning. In all, 68 women were appointed from 1358 A.D. to 1488 A.D., including all consorts. Though many were women of royal blood, or wives of knights of the Garter, some women were neither. They wore the garter on the left arm, and some are shown on their tombstones with this arrangement. After 1488 A.D., no other appointments of women are known, although it is said that the Garter was conferred upon Neapolitan poet Laura Bacio Terricina, by King Edward VI. In 1638 A.D., a proposal was made to revive the use of robes for the wives of knights in ceremonies, but this did not occur. Queen consorts have been made Ladies of the Garter since 1901 (Queens Alexandra in 1901, Mary in 1910 and Elizabeth in 1937). The first non-royal woman to be made Lady Companion of the Garter was The Duchess of Norfolk in 1990, the second was The Baroness Thatcher in 1995 (post-nominal: LG). On 30 November 1996, Lady Fraser was made Lady of the Thistle, the first non-royal woman (post-nominal: LT). The first woman to be granted a knighthood in modern Britain seems to have been H.H. Nawab Sikandar Begum Sahiba, Nawab Begum of Bhopal, who became a Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India (GCSI) in 1861, at the foundation of the order. Her daughter received the same honor in 1872 A.D., as well as her granddaughter in 1910. The order was open to “princes and chiefs” without distinction of gender. The first European woman to have been granted an order of knighthood was Queen Mary, when she was made a Knight Grand Commander of the same order, by special statute, in celebration of the Delhi Durbar of 1911. She was also granted a damehood in 1917 as a Dame Grand Cross, when the Order of the British Empire was created (it was the first order explicitly open to women). The Royal Victorian Order was opened to women in 1936, and the Orders of the Bath and Saint Michael and Saint George in 1965 and 1971 respectively.
In French during the medieval period had two words, chevaleresse and chevalière, which were used in two ways: one was for the wife of a knight and this usage goes back to the fourteenth-century. The other was possibly for a female knight. Here is a quote from Menestrier, a 17th-century writer on chivalry: “It was not always necessary to be the wife of a knight in order to take this title. Sometimes, when some male fiefs were conceded by special privilege to women, they took the rank of chevaleresse, as one sees plainly in Hemricourt where women who were not wives of knights are called chevaleresses.” Modern French orders of knighthood include women, for example the Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor) since the mid-19th century, but they are usually called chevaliers. The first documented case is that of Angélique Brûlon (1772 A.D. to 1859 A.D.), who fought in the Revolutionary Wars, received a military disability pension in 1798 A.D., the rank of 2nd lieutenant in 1822 A.D., and the Legion of Honor in 1852 A.D. A recipient of the Ordre National du Mérite recently requested from the order’s Chancery the permission to call herself “chevalière,” and the request was granted (AFP dispatch, January 28, 2000).
As related in Orders of Knighthood, Awards and the Holy See by Archbishop Igino Eugenio Cardinale (1983), the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary was founded by two Bolognese nobles Loderingo degli Andalò and Catalano di Guido in 1233 A.D., and approved by pope Alexander IV in 1261 A.D. It was the first religious order of knighthood to grant the rank of militissa to women. However, this order was suppressed by Sixtus V in 1558 A.D.
The Low Countries
At the start of Catherine Baw in 1441 A.D. and 10 years later of Elizabeth, Mary, and Isabella of the house of Hornes, orders were founded, which were open exclusively to women of noble blood, who received the French title of chevalière or the Latin title of equitissa. In his Glossarium (s.v. militissa), Du Cange notes that still in his day (17th century), the female canons of the canonical monastery of St. Gertrude in Nivelles (Brabant), after a probation of 3 years, are made knights (militissae) at the altar, by a (male) knight called in for that purpose, who gives them the accolade with a sword and pronounces the usual words.
To honor those women who defended Tortosa against an attack by the Moors, Ramon Berenguer IV, and Count of Barcelona, created the Order of the Hatchet (Orden de la Hacha) in 1149 A.D.
The inhabitants of Tortosa, being at length reduced to great straights, desired relief of the Earl; however, being not in a condition to give them any, they entertained some thoughts of making a surrender. Which the Women hearing of, to prevent the disaster threatening their City, themselves, and Children, put on men’s Clothes, and by a resolute sally, forced the Moors to raise the Siege. The Earl, finding himself obliged, by the gallentry of the action, thought fit to make his acknowledgements thereof, by granting them several Privileges and Immunities, and to perpetuate the memory of so signal an attempt, instituted an Order, somewhat like a Military Order, into which were admitted only those Brave Women, deriving the honor to their Descendants, and assigned them for a Badge, a thing like a Fryars Capouche, sharp at the top, after the form of a Torch, and of a crimson color, to be worn upon their Head-clothes. He also ordained, that at all public meetings, the women should have precedence of the Men. That they should be exempted from all Taxes, and that all the Apparel and Jewels, though of never so great value, left by their dead Husbands, should be their own. These Women having thus acquired this honor by their personal valor, carried themselves after the Military Knights of those days.— Elias Ashmole, The Institution, Laws, and Ceremony of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1672), Ch. 3, sect. 3.
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