It's not as easy to define the word 'knight' as most
people might think. Knights were the warrior elite of
their day, but there were different types of knight.
There were peasant knights, those not of noble birth,
who made a living as mercenaries, and if very
successful might even graduate into the lower rank of
nobility and become barons. Few knights of less than
baron status owned their own castle, though some
did, but many might have owned a manor house,
which might be fortified, or perhaps they would retire
on a small fortune and become a village reeve? The
nobility were also knights, often held in higher regard
by the snobbery of the day. Each noble was sworn
into the service of a higher noble, and the sovereign
or highest overlord was (allegedly) the vassal of God
only. This was the feudal hierarchy.
The knight on the left was not the kind of man you
would want to argue with! A popular myth is that
knights required no skill but just clubbed one another
with swords, but in fact they were highly trained in
European martial arts from a very early age. They
also used to build up their bodies by lifting weights, so
they were strong, athletic and lethal with a variety of
Knights were considered most effective when fighting
on horseback, often with the couched lance as the
primary weapon. The force behind the lance when a
horse was in full flight would have been enormous!
Indeed, it was often said that the only way to stop
them was with a castle wall! However, groups of
infantry armed with long pole-arms, could also break
the charge of oncoming knights. Knights were heavy
cavalry, and very mobile shock troops. At times,
however, they would wage guerilla warfare by
harassing the supply lines of an enemy army that had
cut off their castles from the front line.
"Come on then, if you think you're hard enough!" or
"Mine is bigger than yours!" and let's face it, you would
be mad to argue! Click image to enlarge.
Knights were not simply warriors, however, they had multiple administrative and legal duties in peace time.
Knights had the power to decide local legal disputes, and when the dispute involved the most precious
commodity: land, twelve knights were required to come together and act as a jury and judge (note that peasant
knights could also perform these duties). They also assisted in collecting taxes, maintaining the defenses of
castles, manors, towns and cities and offering advice to their lords. Knights were expected to operate according
to a code of chivalry, though this code did not always apply to those outside the noble ranks - that is they were
expected to show mercy and be courteous to nobles, but not so much so to poor peasants. Even then, not all
adhered to the code. Knights were highly valued men, and it was often better to capture one in battle, rather
than to kill him, for the ransom.
One popular myth is that the armour was so heavy that a knight needed a winch to left them into their saddles.
This is not at all true. The knight above is wearing chain mail armour, but even with the plate armour that
gradually replaced chain mail, a man can do somersaults, lie down, run, crawl, jump, pretty well move as
normal. (Although armour may weigh over 100 pounds, it is distributed over the whole body and so easy to
carry). The problem with armour, apart from its great expense and the constant maintenance it needed, was the
overheating that it would subject its wearer to, especially in the stresses of battle. This could greatly enhance
battle fatigue, but let's not forget that these men were very well trained and were accustomed to wearing
armour and their fitness would increase their tolerance to overheating, however, it was always a problem. This
has lead some to question whether or not armour could be worn during the Crusades. Well, I doubt that they
did much fighting in the midday desert heat, when given the choice, also the clothe surcoat worn over the
armour would have shielded the metal from direct sunlight. It would also be tempting to try and endure several
hours of intense heat and fatigue if you thought your life depended on it! It is also true that the knights would
not wear their armour 24 hours a day! There is a record of a knight in full plate armour riding three days and
nights to deliver an urgent message. Clearly such a feat would be exhausting!
Another common myth brings into question the effectiveness of armour. The armour was very effective
otherwise nobody would have worn it, especially considering its cost! The development of quality longbows and
arrows with specially designed chain-mail piercing warheads, did make the longbow rather effective against
chain mail and this was probably one motive to develop plate armour. The crossbow also posed a great threat
to armoured men. However, experiments have shown that plate armour was very effective against the longbow
at medium to long range. In fact it is reckoned to have needed on average 30-50 arrows striking a knight in
plate armour to cause a fatal wound. Why then did the English archers, with their longbows, defeat the heavily
armoured French knights at Agincourt? Simple, each archer could fire a dozen or more arrows a minute! By the
time the knights got close they were literally full of holes. It is often said that the greater penetrating power of
the crossbow out-competed the longbow, but this is doubtful since the crossbow had a much slower rate of fire,
so it probably depended upon circumstance as to which bow would prevail. The crossbow was certainly very
good for targeting key figures during a siege!
Another myth is that gunpowder easily did away with armour. The fact is that the two coexisted for a long time.
The breastplates available during the English Civil War were guaranteed to stop musket balls (you wouldn't buy
one unless it bore the dent of a test fire as proof!) though these breastplates were rather thick and heavy. In
the end, armour slowly declined as it became heavier and more expensive and men simply chose not to wear it.
Another myth that I would like to dispel is this idea, popularized in certain films and video games, that the nobles
were wimps who sent others into the action to fight for them. In many action RPG games you can play as a
knight who does the fighting for some noble sitting in their high throne. Although the paths taken in these role
playing games are similar to the way the knights would live their lives there are many differences as well. There
is no doubt that some nobles were wimps, but the ruling classes prized themselves on the craft of warfare,
they were a military elite that ruled by virtue of their military prowess. Tournaments were frequently held in
peace-time, during which many knights, including nobles, would be injured or even killed. The church
disapproved of these tournaments, though probably not for moral reasons, more likely they feared the
depletion in troop numbers for their crusades. I say this because, although many monks and nuns may have
been pious people, many a bishop hastened to war and actually fought in battle in his own suite of armour! It
was not unknown to see a bishop in armour charging into battle with his mace. Despite the church propaganda,
such as stories of demons disguised as crows (!) circling above the tourney grounds waiting to carry off
departed souls, the tourneying continued. Later on, however, the tournament became a more dignified affair,
with blunted lances in use, rules and judges, and extra strong and heavy armour, that would be impractical for a
Finally a mention should be made of the warrior monks. The orders of the Templars and Knights of St John
were monks who trained and fought as any other knight, though they became renown for their skill and ferocity.
It is hard to know how much that is said about these warrior monks is true and how much is propaganda, for the
fact is they became wealthy and influential from their exploits and the church feared and envied their power and
desired their wealth. Thus, the church persecuted and eradicated the Templars. Perhaps they should have
remembered their own scripture: "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword."