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When & Why did knights exist?

Although the English word knight did not start to mean the same as it does today until around 1100AD, the type of soldier that would later be called a knight had been around for much longer.  Groups of heavily armed soldiers on horseback had been used in battle by the ancient Greeks and the Romans, but it was not until around 800AD that the well trained, heavily armed, elite fighting soldier that we would now call a knight began to appear in Europe.  

Feudal LoyaltyA knight pledging his allegiance to Emperor Charlemagne

Knights as we know them today rose in importance due to the way medieval Europe was ruled. In order to gain the crown, and to help them keep it once they had it, medieval kings would make deals with other powerful fighting men. A powerful medieval knight would be given land, called a fief, in return for promising to support the king in times of war. This would make the knight the vassal, or servant, of the king. 

This strange type of government, called feudalism, happened on lots of levels of medieval society, with powerful knights, or lords, granting fiefs to lesser ranked knights to secure their service. These knights would then become vassals of the more powerful knight and would fight for him when he was called upon by the king. In this way powerful knights could amass large private armies, and the more powerful they became the more land and power they could gain in return for the promise of their service.

As well as powerful knights and kings, religious leaders such as popes, bishops, and abbots also acted as feudal lords, gaining more power through the granting of feudal favours for support.


Gloucestershire soldiers

Gloucestershire has two accounts concerning the county’s armour and weapons; The Military Survey of 1522 and Men & Armour 1608.  Both make fascinating reading and copies are held by Gloucestershire Archives. 

The Military Survey of Gloucestershire, 1522

This was a national survey by Henry VIII to assess the wealth and military strength of the nation to help prepare for a war with France.  Commissioners were sent to every parish to collect data about landowners and tenants and their wealth. All the male inhabitants of the parish were to muster so the commissioners could record what weapons and armour they possessed and assess their fitness to serve in war.

Types of armour in Gloucestershire’s 1522 survey: Almain rivets (half armour for infantry), bevor (plate face guard on helmet), brigandines (breast and back plates made up of smaller plates laced together), coat (a chainmail tunic), fauld (similar to a tasset and worn over the hips), gauntlets (mail or plate on leather), gestron (a mail shirt), gorget (plate collar), harness (suit of armour), half harness (armour for upper body only), hauberk (mail shirt), jack (sleeveless armour made of metal or horn plates sewn onto a tunic), sallet (short-brimmed helmet), skull (brimless helmet), splints (vanbraces or arm guards), tunic (a quilted or mail jacket or a jack).

Types of weapons in Gloucestershire’s 1522 survey: bill (shafted weapon with a curved blade and a spike), bow & arrows, crossbow, halberd (shafted weapon with pointed blade and spike about 2m long), glaive (similar to a halberd), javelin, knive (a small sword), dagger, pole axe (similar to a halberd but with a rear facing spike) and sword.

Men and Armour for Gloucestershire, 1608Men and Armour for Gloucestershire, 1608

This was complied by John Smith of North Nibley for Lord Berkeley in September 1608. It comes at the end of the age of knights when guns were starting to replace swords and bows. It is described as ‘The names and surnames of all able and sufficient men in body fitt for his Ma’ties service in the warrs’.

As well as names it gives the following information:

  • Each man’s age - about 20, about 40 or between 50 and fourscore.
  • His occupation.
  • What arms and armour he had.
  • Whether he was a trained solider.
  • His stature – This was to indicate what type of solider each man could be, either  a pikeman (tall), a musketeer (average height) or a pioneer (short). 

The array of weapons and armour is much less varied than the 1522 survey, and only 2 bow makers (bowyers) are recorded in the whole of the county.

Types of armour in 1608 – Corslet (could mean a complete suit of armour or just the front and back plates), jack, headpiece or headpeece (helmet).

Types of weapons in 1608 – Musket (a musket or a caliver), ‘bowe and sheafe of arrows’, crossbow, launce (a lance) and a black bill (a type of bill hook).

The end of the age of knights

By the early 1600s the age of the knight was coming to an end. The use of new weapons and military tactics, most importantly the increasing use of firearms, put an end to their superiority on the battlefield. At the same time changes in the way society was governed, and the rise of new professional armies, meant that rulers didn’t have to rely so heavily on the knight’s feudal support to retain their power.