Wednesday, November 14, 2012


From Page to Knight
A future knight started training at age 6 as a page. A young page was often sent to a knight’s castle for training. As a page he learned simple household skills and basic fighting skills with wooden swords. He served the lord and lady of the castle. Some learned to read and write as part of their training. At about age 14 the page became a squire. He often lived in a group with other squires and learned to use real weapons. They often got used the heavy armor by running around in chain mail. Squires looked after the lord’s horses, practiced swordsmanship, hit targets with lances, and helped dress his lord in the heavy armor, which could sometimes take up to an hour.

Full knight training, from page to knighting, could take as long as 15 years to complete, depending on how well the participant learned and applied his training. Generally after age 21, they could be knighted, though some could be knighted earlier if they fought well, especially during times of war when fighting men were in need. Only the king or another knight could knight another person. Upon being knighted, a knight was given a sword and spurs (spurs were worn at the knight’s ankle). These were most always worn as symbols of his knighthood. If his knighthood was ever taken away for disloyalty or other reasons, so were his sword and spurs. After a knighting, celebrations including tournaments, feasts, dancing and music took place, sometimes lasting for days. Some squires were knighted quickly without ceremony before or after a battle for showing great courage.

At first, anyone who had been trained, and could afford the mount and armor, could be a knight. Later in history, only important men of title could be knighted. This ensured loyalty in high places as well as continual funding. A knight’s armor, being very costly, could only be afforded by rich nobles, a wealthy sponsor, or as an expensive gift from someone. Some squires remained squires because they lacked the funds to buy the required horse and armor.

Armor, Weapons and Tournaments
Heaviest suits of armor weighed about 50 pounds with the chain mail weighing about the same, but the mail seemed heavier because it hung on the knight, but the plate armor sat on the waist and was more evenly distributed over the body, so it seemed lighter. Each type of armor was generally considered a separate suit for different battle tactics. Chain mail might have seemed heavier, but it allowed for more movement than plate armor. Full chain mail and full plate armor were not worn together, but pieces of each could be added to the other to create a hybrid suit for efficient protection and mobility. Example: Plate armor was sometimes placed over the mail at the shoulders and neck area for added protection. Since stainless steel didn’t exist at the time, chain mail rusted easily, so it was regularly rubbed down or rolled in sand to keep it clean and free of rust.

A garrison consisted of a team of knights and other soldiers protecting a castle. Knights (soldiers on horses) only made up about a 5th of a medieval army, with the rest being soldiers on foot using bows and arrows, crossbows, lances, pikes, axes, maces, flails, etc. Some knights thought archers were cowardly because they shot from a distance and it was safer, but I’m sure there were other knights who didn’t think so and were quite good with the bow and crossbow. Bow archers could shoot at a rate of about 12 arrows per minute (1 every 5 seconds).

The size of warriors’ shields, from full body length to the size of a man’s torso, grew smaller with the advancement of sturdier armor.

Most knights had about three horses: One for battle, one for carrying his gear and one for traveling on. A knight’s war horse was specially bred and weighed almost twice as much as an ordinary horse.

Firing stones and iron balls with cannons and gunpowder weren’t widely used until the 1300s. Trebuchet’s (giant catapults) and giant crossbows were more widely used.

Medieval enemies sometimes got into a castle by bribing a guard to open the gate or by climbing up the drains. Through the plumbing? Ewe! Stinky bad guys!

Tournaments were a way for a knight to practice and sharpen his skills with sword and lance. A decree from King Edward I stated that tournament blades and lances must be blunted or protected at the tip to prevent serious injury and death. No use killing off his army of good knights and soldiers during practice. Edward once banned tournaments for a time because knights were participating in those rather than fighting in Edwards battles with the Scots.  During long sieges, knights sometimes held tournaments with enemy knights to relieve the boredom of waiting.

God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900
People expected knights to stick to high standards of conduct: Bravery, loyalty, generosity, and being truthful. This was the code of chivalry. They also treated noblewomen with great respect and were expected to be completely devoted to the lady he loved. Sometimes ladies tied a scarf or ribbon on a knight at a tournament. His wearing it showed the dedication of his performance to her.

Knights killed enemy knights without reserve, unless an enemy knight surrendered, then the surrendered knight was treated with respect, and not thought less of for having surrendered.

A knight loved to hunt and did so for entertainment, sport and to provide meat for the family. He hunted large prey on horseback with the use of dogs, and smaller animals on foot with the use of birds. Sometimes he paid peasants to run ahead and make noise to scare the animals out of hiding.

Coat of Arms
Medieval Times knights line up
The surcoat/surcote that went over the chain mail or armor was decorated with designs and pictures that represented the family or region in which the knight was from. This was known as the coat of arms. The coat of arms was also painted on shields and often made into a cover that was placed over the horse as well. This allowed people to recognize the knight. A son could wear his father’s coat of arms while the father was alive, but had to add an extra symbol to indicate the son’s place in the family. Upon the father’s death, the eldest son could remove his indicating mark and fully inherit the father’s coat of arms. If a man had no sons, the daughter could inherit his coat of arms and she’d be known as a heraldic heiress. Sometimes women created a coat of arms by combining her father’s and husband’s symbols.  These coats of arms were often bisected with a different symbol represented on each side.


Knights began to be phased out around the mid 14th century as kings began hiring year round mercenaries working for a wage instead of knights to fight their wars. Many knights also preferred to stay at home and look after their estates. Even as early as 1300, knights began to lose their advantage on the battlefield as technology and weapon engineering became more powerful, such as the cannon, longbow shooting arrows right through armor, the use of pikes that forced a knight to dismount and have to fight on foot, and different tactics used by foot soldiers. With the ascent of more powerful and wealthy merchants, kings looked to them for financial and political support rather than knights. Kings even began to knight the merchants, though this was more of an honorary title than anything, for they weren’t expected t fight. Some countries today still knight people as a reward for a service rendered to their country.

(Tidbits taken from a great young-readers book, Knights, by Rachel Firth with wonderful pictures and illustrations by Lucy Owen

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