How to Be a Knight
The classic image of a knight is a soldier who fights the enemies of his lord and king on horseback while upholding the principles of chivalry. Knighthood is thought to date back to the Ordem Equestre, horse-riding nobles of ancient Rome. and other places. The image of the knight, however, comes from the “Song of Roland” and other legends of Charlemagne and his paladins, which spread from France to England with the Norman conquest of 1066. Historically, knighthood could be earned by only a select class of people, but in the last century, several modern ways have arisen to become a knight.
Becoming a Medieval Knight (Historical)
1. Be born into the noble class. In the feudal era, the opportunity to become a knight was, in practice, restricted to the nobility, as it was they who usually had the wealth necessary to own and maintain the horse, armor, and weapons that knights needed to defend their lords’ lands.
A family could be made a member of the nobility (ennobled) by the king if one of its members performed an outstanding service worthy of a knight.
2. Be born male. While in modern times, both men and women can be knighted, historically only men were knighted as a matter of course. In fact, the word “knight” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “cniht,” meaning “boy.” There were exceptions, however.
In 1149, the Order of the Hatchet was created to honor the women of the town of Tortosa in Catalonia (Spain), who dressed as men to repel the Moors who had invaded their town. They were made the equivalent of knights.
The legends of Charlemagne do note the adventures of a female knight named Bradamante (Bradamant), who was Charlemagne’s niece. However, Bradamante initially posed as a male until meeting and falling in love with Rogero (Ruggiero).
3. Learn from your parents what it means to be a knight. For the first seven years of his life, a boy would learn the manners required of a knight from his parents, who told him stories of chivalrous deeds and took him to tournaments. Play time involved taking up a wooden sword and shield against imagined enemies of the liege lord.
4. Become a page. At age 7, a boy would become a page (also called a varlet, meaning “little vassal”) in the service of a noble and any ladies of the court who resided under the noble’s roof. He would be dressed in the lord’s colors and placed under the older pages in the lord’s service. As a page, his service would be divided among household duties, physical activities, and education.
Household duties included serving as waiter and busboy at the lord’s table, maintaining the lord’s clothes and helping him dress. This included helping the lord into and out of his armor at jousting tournaments.
Physical activities included learning to ride and hunt, both with arms and with a hawk or falcon. The swordplay he practiced under his parents’ roof would become more formalized, and the page would also learn how to joust by holding a lance while riding a wheeled hobby horse pulled by two other pages toward a target.
Education built on the manners training the page received from his parents, and also included religious training and developing thinking skills through games such as chess and backgammon.
The more wealthy the noble, the greater the prestige associated with serving as a page to him. However, the more wealthy the noble, the more pages he had and the greater the competition among the pages for status within the noble’s house.
5. Become a squire. Usually at age 14, but sometimes as young as age 10, a page would be apprenticed to a specific knight as his armiger or squire, from the French “escuyer” for “shield bearer.” In this role, the knight-in-training was regarded as a young man and so had greater duties, responsibilities, and expectations than when he was a page. The household duties of waiting at table on the lord of the manor were now transferred to assisting his knight in similar fashion. The squire also helped his knight into his armor and maintained it, assisting him both at tournaments and in battle, and saw to the care of the knight’s horse. A squire who assisted the lord of the manor in this fashion was known as the “squire of the body” and was considered the highest ranking of all the squires of the manor.
Swordplay with wooden swords and lance-play on a hobby horse were now replaced with real weapons. Squires also had to learn to swim and climb to be able to storm a castle.
Manners lessons included learning the code of chivalry (conduct in battle and regard for those the knight served to protect) as well as music and dancing. Squires also learned the art of heraldry, the symbols for their own and other noble houses so they could tell friend from foe on the field.
6. Be invested as a knight. Assuming the squire showed himself worthy of his lessons, at age 21, he would be dubbed a knight. (In some cases, such as particular valor in combat, he might receive the honor sooner, much as battlefield promotions are accorded today, and with only a brief ritual dubbing.) The formal knighting ceremony was highly ritualized and involved the following steps:
A night vigil in the chapel of the castle whose lord the knight-to-be would represent, including a ritual bath to symbolically purify the candidate. The candidate was clad in a white vestment to represent purity, covered with a red robe to represent nobility. On his feet and legs were black shoes and stockings to represent that he would give his life in the service of his lord and chivalry if need be. The sword and shield the knight would wield would be placed on the chapel altar, while the candidate knelt or stood before it in silent prayer for a period of 10 hours.
In the morning, a Mass was held with a sermon on the duties of the knight. At this point, the knight-to-be’s friends and family were in attendance. The priest then blessed the sword and shield and handed them to the knight’s sponsor, who then passed them to the lord who would conduct the ceremony. This might be the lord of the manor, a greater noble, or even the king. (By the time of Henry VIII, only the reigning monarch conferred knighthood.)
Two sponsors presented the knight to the presiding lord, in whose presence the knight swore an oath of allegiance and vows to shun traitors, to treat women with the greatest respect, and to observe all the rituals of the Church. The presiding lord then presented the knight with the sword and shield and touched him on the shoulder with either the flat of the sword or the flat of his hand, saying, “I dub thee Sir .” The sponsors then put the sword and its scabbard around the knight’s waist and spurs on his heels, at which time the knight could use the title “Sir” himself.
Becoming a knight required being able to afford the expenses associated with the honor. Those squires who could not afford it were called “arma patrina” and were allowed to carry a lance and shield, but did not have any of the other accoutrement of knighthood.
The "Squire of the Body" often accompanied the knight onto the field of battle, where he would, at a distance, hold and maintain the knights spare accoutrement. If the knight fell in battle, the Squire of the Body would take up a weapon and protect his knight's body. Should the squire prevail over an assailing knight, he had the right to take the horse, shield, armor and sword from the knight he defeated. That would then become his armorial, and he would automatically assume the knighthood of his vanquished.
Becoming a Knight of the British Empire
1. Be outstanding in your field. While medieval knighthood was an award for military merit, modern knighthood in the United Kingdom is awarded for outstanding achievement in one’s field of endeavor, whether it be business and industry, education, the sciences, religion, or entertainment.
There are actually five levels of honor for men and women in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire: Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight/Dame Commander (KBE), Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire(OBE), and Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). Only the first two allow their recipients to use an honorific before their name.
2. Be a citizen of the United Kingdom. Medieval knighthood was accorded only to men, but modern knighthood can be accorded to both men and women, who are called “Dame” instead of “Sir.” However, to be able to be called either “Sir” or “Dame,” you must be a British citizen.
Non-citizens cannot be knighted, but they can receive honorary knighthoods on the recommendation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They do not undergo the knighthood ceremony, and they may not use the title associated with becoming a knight or dame, although they may use the initials of the order after their names as knighted citizens do. If they should later become British citizens, they can then seek the full honors of knighthood.
3. Be invested as a knight. Investiture may be either public or private and includes a ceremonial dubbing by the reigning monarch or a member of the royal family acting on the monarch’s behalf. This is followed by the presentation of insignia.
Unlike medieval knighthood, modern knighthood carries no military obligation to the Crown.
Clergy who are knighted are not dubbed, as the use of a sword is not considered appropriate to their calling. They also do not use the title associated with becoming a knight or dame.
Becoming a Knight in the SCA
1. Obey the governing laws of the SCA and your kingdom and barony within it. The purpose of the SCA is to educate and entertain its members and others by recreating various aspects of medieval society, ranging from the mundane to man-to-man combat. As a member of the SCA, you are subject to its laws as well as those of the regional group (kingdom) and local group (barony, canton, college, or shire) within it to which you belong to ensure order, just as medieval knights were subject to the laws of their kingdoms to ensure order within them. Just as medieval knights were seen as exemplars of the laws to which they were subject, so will you be as a knight within the organization.
2. Respect your leaders. Regional groups/kingdoms are led by a king and queen, while smaller groups within a kingdom are led by a seneschal. You need to show these people the respect they’re due by virtue of their position; if you do become a knight, you’ll have to take an oath of fealty (allegiance) to them.
3. Participate in SCA events. If you expect to become a knight in the SCA, then you need to take part in SCA events. You don’t have to attend every event, but you should try a number of different activities and find the ones you do best. You will have to compete in tournaments, but you shouldn’t restrict your activities to them. Participation also includes doing the following:
Dress the part of your persona to the best of your ability. You don’t have to be perfectly authentic, but you can and should do a reasonable job, and you can always ask for help if you need it.
Share your expertise with others and be willing to learn from them in return. If you have knowledge or skills that your fellow members can benefit from, share them. Likewise, be willing to learn what your fellow members have to teach you; you may pick up both a new skill and a new friend.
Share your resources with others as you can afford to. Called “hospitality,” this means lending your time and talents to help other members out apart from teaching. This could be as simple as lending your sword to someone who’s broken his or as complex as organizing an event.
4. Display behavior befitting a knight of the realm. Not only must you treat your leaders with courtesy and respect, but your fellow members as well and, if taking part in a tournament, your opponents. Your persona may be part of a culture that isn’t noted for courteous behavior, but you can’t use it as an excuse for behaving badly at events. (The comic strip character Prince Valiant was of Norse blood, but he acted in a manner befitting a knight of King Arthur’s court, not as a Viking raider might.)
The one form of courtesy you’ll be expected to practice as a knight and should be practicing before you become one is to uphold the honor of your consort. (The SCA confers knighthood to both men and women; your consort is your significant other.) You wear a token, or favor, identifying your consort when you compete in a tournament; your actions in the tournament reflect not only upon you, but upon your consort, as well.
You can, however, inject those elements of your persona that fit into a display of courtesy, such as removing your feathered hat with a flourish when your Italian fencer bows before the queen.
5. Acquit yourself well in combat. You should develop your combat skills in tournaments to the point where you can reasonably stand against any of your opponents, regardless of whether you win or not.
6. Be knighted by your monarch upon the recommendation of existing knights. Most kingdoms have a council of knights who advise the monarch as to the fitness of prospective candidates for knighthood. Getting to know these people can help you in your quest, but it is ultimately the monarch who decides.
Although the best known, the SCA is not the only organization that re-enacts medieval history. Other such organizations may or may not offer the opportunity to earn knighthood; those that do presumably have standards similar to the SCA’s.
Whichever organization you belong to, you’ll find it best to focus more on the journey to knighthood than on the goal of becoming a knight. Spend more time honoring others and less worrying about when the honors will come your way.
Other Ways to Be a Knight
1. Earn the title through life achievement. This knight does not carry the GBE or KBE appendage. This title is for men only, and is appended John Jones, kt. This is known as the Knights Bachelor and is the most junior of the order for men. It is the lowest rank of the knighted male. A woman given this honor will actually carry the Dame Jane Jones, DBE title, Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, because this is the most junior of the order for women.
2. Join a religious or civic organization. For religious organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, they even say "serve the Lord, get a sword" (and then they offer you pretty epic insurance.) Besides the KofC, there are a surpringly large number of organizations that feature “Knight” in their names or as a title that can be earned by rising through the organization’s ranks.
3. Buy the title. It’s possible to gain the title of “knight” simply by paying a membership fee in some organizations or signing up for a reward program that includes the title “knight.”
4. Join an organization that promotes the ideals of chivalry in the modern world. Some social organizations, such as the International Fellowship of Chivalry-Now, devote themselves to fostering the ideals of chivalrous behavior in their daily lives, as opposed to having their members to dress in armor and swing maces at each other.
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