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How to Become a Knight!

Updated on December 4, 2011
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The word knight is said to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon Cniht, a servant, one who serves.

Hence in feudal times it was used for certain persons doing service to a superior lord or the king, the same as duke expressed leadership. As to our knowledge of the origin of the knightly status we must go back as far as the foundation of Rome. Among the early Romans the mounted warriors (equites) held a certain special position socially. Its origin has been placed with Romulus who is said (about 750 B.C.) to have made of the three patrician tribes - Ramnes (Latins), Taties (Sabines) and Luceres (Etruscans) - three centurion (300) of riders in war service. Under the kings this number was raised to six, later, by additions of plebeians raising the rank to 18 and forming the basis of a special order adapted for cavalry. As the service entailed no extra expense the standing of this body of armed riders was raised above that of citizenship.

By law of Roscius (267 B.C.) the condition was imposed of owning a fortune 4,000,000 sesterces. The external badge on the campaign uniform of this body of cavalry was a narrow stripe on the tunic, also the distinction of wearing a gold ring and having special seats in the theatre and circus, besides other political and social features. Under the Cresars this order of riders (equester) was drawn on for imperial officials, to carry on the financial rule of the provinces, etc.

During the Saxon heptarchy, in England, the order of knighthood was conferred by a priest at the altar, Athelstan (900 A.D.) being the first king to create a knight. The receiving of arms at the arrival of the age of manhood was from the days of the Germanic hordes accompanied by a solemn ceremonial, and the candidate to wear arms had to prove fitness in capacity. By the 11th century the ceremony of the investiture of arms had become general. Under the feudal laws some tenants and the owners of lands free from rent or service (allodial) had to be ready on call to serve their lord or king on horseback and wearing a coat of mail.

The origin of the knight of chivalry is one involved in the history of morals of the European nations the institution of chivalry.

The knighthood of chivalry is an independent and voluntary service. The obligation of the landowner to service of knight in arms did not extend to the rest of the family except the head. Those with ambitions of gaining glory and dignity as knights had to submit their military service to some wealthy lord in the hope of gaining an income by their prowess as well as that social distinction which was theirs by birth, and from this field of achieved personal ambition arose a social advance in which the voluntary seeker of fame in arms raised himself a step higher in the social scale than the knight by legal right regardless of merit or valor in the field. These were the first knights of chivalry.

The Crusades increased the number and ranks of these hired knights and at the same time altered and advanced the status of chivalry itself. While the ritual of investing the hired officer with knighthood included such mandates as oaths of fidelity and honor as well as gallantry and protection to women over and beyond the former claim to discipline demanded of the common soldier (milites) this act of crusading for the capture of Jerusalem and the Holy Land introduced a religious feature that did not before enter into the realm of knighthood's services. And we read of the applicant for knighthood first confessing his sins before the priest, spending nights in prayer and passing through pious rites before receiving his titular rank. And the order was conferred on him by a priest instead of being "dubbed" by a knight. Chivalry had become a religious institution and the crusading knight of the 12th century was the militant bearer of the Cross and protector of his Church. Gallantry and protection of the fair sex became a living force among the knight and at tournaments the ladies took a prominent and distinguished part. And we now arrive at the time when the following were the qualifications of a deserving knight: Great respect for the female and three other virtues were enjoined on knighthood, namely, loyalty, courtesy and munificence.

The first of these three virtues included, as paramount, fidelity to engagements, and these engagements were the feudal obligation to superiors and keeping of every promise, besides fidelity to one's lady love. Any breach of engagement was looked upon and condemned with such epithets as: False, perjured, disloyal, recreant.

It forbade the savage instinct to treachery. The knight who perpetrated an offense against this virtue was considered unfit to bear the title of knight. The virtue of courtesy was the display of modesty, self denial and respect for others, and included chivalric treatment of prisoners. Under the term munificence was intended the behest of liberality and hospitality to the visitor, freedom in the use of coin to recompense the traveling minstrel, largesse to the poor, and financial aid to relatives in need. Besides the qualification of valor in the knight a fixed purpose of enforcing justice and redress of wrongs was strongly inculcated. In return for his vows of renunciation of vices the knight received numerous privileges. These were the right to wear distinctive and resplendent armor-crested helm, heavy armor displaying his heraldic bearings, spurs of gold, etc. His horse was spectacular in its armor and its gaudy "housings". In his castle or palace he was permitted the dignity of wearing scarlet robes. Certain civil offices were filled by members of the order. He had the power (to be used not lightly) of conferring knighthood on others (if gentlemen). There were class distinctions of knighthood such as knights bannerets and bachelors. The former belonged to those having large estates and able to summon a certain number of lances for battle. A squire carried his master's sign of distinction in the form of a banner on the end of a lance. The knight bachelor was permitted to carry only a pointed pennant.

But the above high moral plane of action in the knight's life code, though acting as an incentive to good work and restraint from evil, did not prevent abuse of power from entering the valorous rank. The very elevation of rank entailed a sense of degradation of those beneath. It was but human that this breach extended and cases increased in which the populace received disdainful treatment while some members became more and more haughty. Such irregularities or abuses tended to bring the orders into disfavor. The Knights Templar, a religious and military order for the protection of Christians in the Holy Land, which flourished during the Crusades, became very wealthy and corrupt. Their excesses impaired the name of chivalry and brought retribution.

But the cause of the decline and fall of the institution of chivalry's knighthood is placed by some authorities as brought about by the French kings Charles VI and Charles VII bestowing the order of knighthood profusely, and the act of Francis I conferring knighthood on lawyers and other classes of civilians. The efficiency of gunpowder in rendering armor useless, however, is generally accepted as the chief cause of the extinction of the order of knighthood.

Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, published in 1605, ridiculed the dying traditions, and the 16th and 17th centuries saw the displacement of knights by gentlemen and cavaliers. By the 16th century we find the honor of knighthood conferred by the sovereign as a civil more than military honor, as reward for services to state or ruler. And with more peaceful times have arisen numerous orders or fraternities in the social and commercial world utilizing the title, such as the Knights of Columbus, Knights of Labor, etc.

The term knight is applied to a certain piece in the game of chess which is identified by a horse's head; it moves either backward or forward over two squares, one straight and the other diagonal.

In modern England the title of knight is not hereditary, and it ranks below the lowest hereditary title, that of baronet. It is given by the king for distinguished service, often in politics, science, literature, or the arts.

A knight is called sir, for example, Sir Arthur Sullivan. His wife is Lady Sullivan. A corresponding title, dame, is given to distinguished women, such as Dame Sybil Thorndike.


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