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Who and What were knights?


Knights were the most fearsome soldiers of the medieval world.  Heavily armed and well trained, they fought for more powerful noblemen, such as a king, in return for status and often land.

Knights in battleThe English term Knight is thought to have its origins in many old European words, most importantly the Old English word cnith meaning boy or servant and the Old German word knecht meaning servant or vassal (a person who held land or power by pledging allegiance to a more powerful person such as a king).

In many parts of medieval Europe, such as medieval France, Spain and Portugal, knights were more commonly called names that indicated their status as men who could afford to fight on horseback, such as chevalier (France), caballero (Spain), cavaleiro (Portugal) or the word Ritter, meaning literally rider, in German.

In the medieval period knights were expected to behave in an honest and courteous way, to protect those who could not defend themselves, and fight for the good of all.  This behaviour is referred to as the code of chivalry (a term derived from the French word for a knight).

However it seems that not everyone was impressed by the knights chivalric pretensions. In 1170, the scholar Peter de Blois took a dim view of knights and their chivalry writing that their mouths were filled “with the most filthy language and the most abominable oaths!”.

Knightly Weapons

Medieval knights used a wide variety of weapons to smash, slash, stab, and bash at their enemies in battle. They were highly trained in their use, often learning from a very young age. Click on the boxes below to reveal six of the best knightly weapons!

Broadsword or Greatsword
A Greatsword (© Rama)Heavy, fairly sharp, double-edged blade, often up to 2m long.  Able to cut through armour and lop off limbs, but you need to be well-trained to use it effectively.  Also handy for leaning on.
Spiked gauntlets
Gauntlets (© Rama)Good for punching enemies in the face, throat, body and just about anywhere! OW!

A flail with spiked steel ball (© Tim Bartel)A spiked metal ball attached to a wooden handle by a chain. The flail was developed from a farming tool meant for threshing wheat!

A Falchion (© Timothy Dawson) A curved sword with just one sharp edge.  Lighter than a broadsword, they were handy at loping off heads!
A war hammer or Maul (© Dr Haggis)A massive heavy iron hammer.  Difficult to handle, but very effective if used properly.

A Bec-de-Corbin (© Nazanian)A long pole with a curved pick-axe and a spear point on top.  Very nasty.


Note: Bows and crossbows were rarely used by knights, as they were thought of as inferior weapons because they killed at long range and not face-to-face.  The French knights found this out to their cost at the famous battles of Agincourt (14 October 1415) and Crecy (26 August 1346) when bowmen were in the forefront of the English victories.


When they were not needed by their liege (king or ruler) for battle medieval knights would often take part in tournaments. Each tournament was a series of mock fights between individual knights or even large groups of knights working as teams, depending on what kind of tournament it was.  

Knights joustingTournaments were usually divided into two types, the melee and the joust or jousting. The joust was an individual tournament event while a melee was a team event with up to 50 knights a side fighting it out!

In a joust each knight sat on horseback and would attempt to knock the other knight off his horse using a lance (a special type of large spear), the combined speed of two knights charging at each other could reach 60mph!  Jousting lances were measured to make sure they were equal in length to ensure no-one cheated by using a longer lance!
Knights fighting in a melee
Tournaments were hugely popular with spectators. As well as providing great entertainment, tournaments could be a place for knights to test and refine their skills, and could also be a source of great prestige for those who competed successfully.

However, tournaments were not universally popular.  In 1130 tournaments were banned in France on the order of Pope Innocent II, who feared that they were a distraction from a knight's proper task of fighting for Christianity, and in England Henry II briefly banned tournaments on the grounds that rowdy drunken knight were a threat to public safety! In 1292 the Statute of Arms ordered that only blunted broadswords and axes could be used in melees, and in 1309 Edward II banned all tournaments except jousting!


To learn about British knightly tales from the dark and middle ages click here!