During the Middle Ages in Europe knighthood was conferred upon those men who had attained certain achievements. It also carried with it a special code of gallant behavior and duty that a knight had to obey.
At first, heroic men were simply knighted by their king on the battlefield. Later a more special and ritualized method of becoming a knight was developed. A knight usually began his training as a page to a noble family when he was about seven years old. He was little more than a servant to the family, but he was being tested to see if he had the personal discipline to carry out his tasks and to work industriously for his master and mistress.
When a page was fifteen or sixteen and had proved himself worthy, he became a squire to a knight. A squire’s duties were to assist the knight in whatever was needful. He would help the knight prepare for battle or jousts by assisting him into and out of his armor and helping with the lance, sword, and other weapons the knight might call for.
In his service of about five years a squire also had to learn the arts of fighting with sword, lance, and other weapons of war of those times, and he served on the field of battle with his master. If the squire mastered all of this and was otherwise worthy, then he might be made a knight in the service of his king.
The ceremony of becoming a knight is called “dubbing,” and certain rituals had to be carried out before the squire was dubbed. The squire would first bathe as a symbol of washing away his sins and starting a fresh, new life. His hair would be cut to show his obedience to God. Then, wearing black shoes as a symbol of death, he rested on a bed, which symbolized the eternal rest the knight-to-be would gain if he lived his life according to God’s teachings.
A squire had to know and follow the code of chivalry, which included such things as obeying God, protecting the weak and helpless, defending and honoring women, fighting for his king, and living an exemplary life to show that he was worthy of his knighthood.
Usually a banquet was held for squires the day before the knighting ceremony. After the banquet, the squire spent a night of “vigil at arms” in a church, praying that he might uphold the honorable practices of being a knight, confessing his sins, having his weapons blessed, and being reminded that his weapons should only be used for God and goodness.
The dubbing ceremony itself was usually performed the following morning. The new knight was presented golden spurs (squires wore silver spurs), generally by someone not a knight, and his sword was buckled on by another knight. There was, of course, the custom of touching a sword to the squire’s shoulders and/or head. In another type of dubbing, the eldest knight present at the ceremony gave the squire a mild blow on the neck or the shoulder. Both of these were known as “accolades,” and they were the only blows that the new knight would not ordinarily return!
Beneath his protective armor a knight usually wore a woolen shirt, long linen stockings like tights, and breeches. A padded cap was worn on the head. The chain mail was made of small rings and was tailored to fit the knight. It was expensive, even by those days’ standards, and often took two or three years to make, so the knight took especial care of it and often passed it on to his sons or other family members. The chain mail leggings were held in place by a belt, and the tunic, or hauberk, was either like a pullover or was open in the back. A coif was a chain mail covering for the head and shoulders. As time passed, armor became more like broad, flat metal plates that shielded the body. By the middle of the 1500s, armor was worn that almost completely enclosed the body, including the hands and feet. A helmet, spurs, a sword, and a shield completed the suit of armor.
At first knights in full armor could only be identified by coats of arms on their shields or by the distinctive insignia attached to their lances. Later they wore long tunics split up the front and back for ease in riding a horse. These tunics helped to reflect the sun and also helped to identify the knight.
A knight needed a good destrier, or war-horse, to carry him into battle. The horse, too, was outfitted with special protective equipment, even armor plating. Long blanketlike bards or caparisons protected the horse and helped tangle up the swords and weapons of the foot soldiers in battle.
A knight participated against other knights in jousts to practice his skills. He would ride a courser, a horse that could be used either for battle or for tournaments. He might also own a palfrey, a horse used for traveling or hunting, or a hack, a horse used for everyday riding.
The honor, work, and duty associated with being a knight has not only filled our history books, it has also inspired such famous stories as Ivanhoe, the tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and accounts of the Crusades and the quest for the Holy Grail.