Becoming a knight

The three main strands of the chivalric ethos – warrior, courtier and Christian – might throw up some contradictions, but on the whole the knight was able to ignore these, adapting courtly behaviour and Christian teaching to fit with the martial ethic.

The differing strands fused together, building on each other to create a mode of behaviour that was at the same time practical and violent and idealistic and spiritual. The way in which this process worked can be seen in the ritual surrounding to making of the knight.

The ceremony in which St. Martin became a knight

The ceremony in which St. Martin became a knight

The origin of the ceremony lay within the warrior ethic, being the ancient tradition of giving the warrior his arms. This can be seen in the lord making a gift of arms to his retainer. This is reflected in the Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian heriot, the death-duty of arms, armour and mount payable to the deceased’s lord, effectively the return of weapons and armour loaned to a retainer to enable him to perform his martial service. Beowulf gave arms and armour to the men who became his retainers. There may be something of this act in the depiction of William the Bastard and Harold in the Bayeux Tapestry: William paces the helmet on Harold’s head beneath the legend Hic Willelm dedit Haroldo arma: ‘Here William gives Harold arms’. The delivery of weapons was also a rite of passage marking a youth’s coming of age, and an ancient one recorded as a custom of the Germanic tribes by the second-century Roman historian Tacitus.


William giving arms to Harold

William giving arms to Harold

Both these aspects of conferring weapons and armour were present within the act of ‘dubbing’ the knight. To some extent the young squire began his adult life at his knighting (although the tirones – the young knights without ties of land or marriage – were still seen as young and boisterous). The importance placed on who performed the actual ceremony; and the desire to be knighted by a man of status and prowess added an element of submission and deference to the proceedings. Even if there was no formal act of homage between the lord conveying knighthood and the recipient, it helped to reinforce the ties between noble houses. Similarly, the mass knightings of the 14th century drew knights together through the shared ritual. Often these groups formed familiae, especially if they were knighted alongside a prince or young nobleman, such as the Black Prince, who was knighted with a number of his household and friends at the onset of the Crécy campaign. By their close association with the prince, it also enhanced their social standing.

It was such royal ceremonies that saw the introduction of courtliness and pageantry into the proceedings. The mass knightings enhanced the grandeur of the occasion, which became as much a political statement as a rite of passage.

Dubbing the knight, 14th century miniature

Dubbing the knight, 14th century miniature

The dubbing ceremony also came to share traits with coronation rituals. Besides the blessing and presentation of a sword, there was a statement of the duties of both roles, in particular that of protecting the inermes, the defenceless population, upholding the peace and dispensing justice. The introduction of this announcement of the knight’s duties, accompanied by the collée, a blow aimed at driving the point home, was almost certainly in part a result of the coming together of knighthood and nobility; but such sentiments were also analogous to those espoused by the Peace of God movements, and it is probably those movements that helped to bring the tenets of protection and justice into the chivalric sphere, as the bishops and clergy behind them sought to bind the local knights into supporting these same precepts.

The involvement of the Church within the dubbing ritual is clear. When Raymon Lull described the process in the early 1280s he imbued each element with Christian symbolism: the bath was a purification akin to baptism, the white shirt the recipient wore marked this purity, his white belt was a symbol of his chastity and the sword. blessed and taken from the altar, symbolized his duty to protect and dispense justice. His description is almost identical to that given by the 12th century Norman chronicler Jean of Marmoutier of the knighting of Geoffrey of Anjou by Henry I of England in 1128. Again, there was a ritual bath, after which Geoffrey was dressed, though not in a white shirt representing his purity but in a tunic of cloth of gold indicative of his social position. Gilded spurs were fixed to his heels and then a sword was strapped to his waist by the king himself.

Unidentified knights being dubbed by Charles VII, 1484

Unidentified knights being dubbed by Charles VII, 1484

About 200 years later the Church prepared a liturgy for the making of a knight. It is almost identical to the process described above. Even here, however, there is no mention of a priest being involved. The act of creating a knight remained a secular one; although the ceremony might take place in a church, and might be imbued with Christian symbolism and significance, it was performed not by churchmen but by secular lords.


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2 Responses to Becoming a knight

  1. Alistair Kerr says:

    Contradictions or not, Knights of one sort or another have appeared in many societies; not just Christian ones. Samurai in Japan; Ghazi in mediaeval Islam; even in Native American societies. They seem to be unavoidable at a certain point in a society’s development. While some Knights were no doubt rather rough, I have the distinct impression that in Western Europe knighthood was an attempt by the Church to impose civilised rules on warfare. At that time there was not much in the way of international law; no equivaent of the Geneva Conventions or human rights law. According to the Laws of Chivalry, there were certain things that Knights were definitely not supposed to do. There wre other things that they were expected to do, like showing clemency to defeated enemies; rescuing oppressed poor people; being helpful and courteous to women; and supporting the Church. Some no doubt fell short of the ideal. As an idea, knighthood has proved very successful and durable. The Pope still creates knights; so do monarchies and republics. And knighthoods are not supposed to be conferred on people who are undeserving of them, so perhaps orders of chivalry and the honours system still helps to promote better behaviour. One would like to think so.

  2. Chris Monk says:

    I enjoyed this piece. Your introduction reminded me of the dilemmas Sir Gawain has in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I tend to read the poem – which is of course looking backwards at chivalry – as a commentary on the impossibility of chivalry, and perhaps therefore its futility.

    Just a small observation, just in case others think you might be suggesting that we can speak of Anglo-Saxon knights (though I don’t actually think you are doing that):

    When referring to the arrangement of king/lord and his warriors in early Anglo-Saxon England, we usually use the term ‘comitatus’ (though this term was devised in the nineteenth century). It describes the relationship between a lord and his retainers, one where the lord provided sustenance and covering (inside his hall) for his men, and where for acts of exceptional service he gave them gifts: rings, armour, swords, even horses. In return for all this the retainers would swear absolute allegiance to their lord.

    Society changed in later Anglo-Saxon England, but the concept of the comitatus lived on in heroic poetry. When the poem Beowulf was actually written down around 1000 (probably at the time of King Ethelred the Unready), it would have been understood as nostalgic. Of course the characters in the poem are not Anglo-Saxons but Scandinavian forbears. It has been suggested by one scholar that the poem may have been used as part of a national call for greater loyalty and brotherhood, which I suppose is the quality that underpins later concepts of chivalry, as you make clear in your piece.

    I have a website about Anglo-Saxon and medieval stuff (the blog of which is sometimes a little irreverent), should anyone be interested:

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