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Sword University

Who were the Knights?

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Knights are often thought of as glorious armor-clad horseback-riding warriors from the Medieval ages. There’s a lot of mis-information out there, especially with the popularization of Medieval stories in movies and TV shows.

How do you define a knight?

In order for one to be considered a knight, a few characteristics had to be met.

  1. Armed and mounted
  2. Inducted into knighthood (generally though lifelong training as a squire or as a merit for impressive acts recognized by feudal superiors)

So for a man to become a knight, he had to equip himself with armor and weapons as well as a horse (this was very expensive to do and only the wealthiest nobles could afford it). And he also had to receive the special military rank by ceremony. Note that some women became knights as well (though there were not many). Knighthood was an “old boys club”. It was limited to the social elite class.

When were knights around?

The first military orders of knights were founded in the 11th and 12th centuries. Knights were around until around the 15th century, though they were dwindling in numbers and effectiveness. They were most prolific in the 12th and 12th centuries.

Why were knights so important?

Knights were basically the ‘tanks’ of the battlefield. Their armor was nearly impenetrable, their horses gave them a huge advantage in speed, momentum and height against an opponent. Their weapons were generally higher-quality, less prone to breaking and sharper than their opponents as well.

A battlefield charge where a wall of mounted knights would ride full-tilt against a line of enemy soldiers was one of the most feared forces on the battlefield and it was nearly impossible to defend.

Furthermore, knights would usually train from an early age (around 7 years old). They would become a squire at around 14 until they were 21. And even then, only those that proved themselves to the highest standard would receive knighthood. Even without the incredible advantages in armor and weapons, a knight would easily defeat most combatants.

Knights also played an important role in society. Tournaments were a major form of entertainment for royalty and nobles. Skilled knights would prove their worth and earn a hefty purse for victories in the joust and hand-to-hand combat events.

What Armor did knights wear?

We often think of the fully-plated mounted jouster when we think of a knight, but knights used a lot more than plate armor through the centuries.

Chain Mail

The most common armor for a knight was chain mail. Small metal rings linked together and worn generally as a shirt, skirt and head-dress or a whole-body cloak (referred to as a hauberk). Mail would protect the knight from slashing and most puncturing weapons quite effectively while allowing maximum freedom of movement. A set of chainmail generally weighed between 20-30 pounds.

Plate Armor

Plate armor was comprised of steel plates, linked together at the joints and often supplemented with chain mail, or additional fixed plates to cover areas exposed at the joints. A set of plate armor’s effectiveness depended largely on the blacksmith’s skill in building movable, well-fitted plates to the knight’s body. A full set of plate armor generally weighed about 60 to 100 pounds. Many of the components of plate armor had specific names: 

Helmet head
Breastplatechest
Pauldron shoulders
Rerebrace upper arms
Vambrace lower arms
Gauntlets hands
Cuisses thighs
Poleyns knees
Greaves ankles and calves
Sabatons feet


What Weapons did knights use?

Most knights used a sword & shield for ground and up-close combat, a lance for mounted charges, a bow for long-range combat and siege. Knights would almost always carry a dagger – this was one of the most effective ways to finish off an opponent. If a knight was knocked to the ground, lifting their face plate or squeezing a dagger through one of the armor joints was the most effective way to finish the job.

As far as swords go, an arming sword was a popular choice. This was a single-hand sword of medium length and weight. This would give the knight a lot of power and mobility while freeing up a hand for holding a shield.

Using a slightly longer sword, like the hand-and-a-half sword had some advantages as well. While fighting on horseback, the greater the reach, the better. While it was still important for the sword not to be too heavy, the extra reach on longer swords allowed greater reach for the knight to strike opponents standing on the ground from the higher vantage point of the horse's back. 

There were other weapons used and we will be releasing a separate article discussing the advantages and disadvantages of several other popular medieval weapons.

What happened to the knights?

Though there were a lot of factors contributing to the fall of the “knight”, the main reason can be summed up in one word; “Guns”. Guns were first introduced into battle late in the 14th century. There was a bit of an arms race when guns were first brought into the battlefield – steel was thickened and improved to resist a gunshot, but soon, guns became too powerful even for strong plate armor to be effective against.

Around the 15th century, the knight, no longer invincible to common soldier, was no longer a viable military option. Steel plate armor was dropped in favor of lighter, more maneuverable armor. There was a period of time (a few dozen years) where it would have been fairly common to see a knight – fully-clad in armor – wielding a gun on horseback. There’s one you don’t often see in Hollywood movies!



Conclusion

Knights were a very unique and highly memorable part of society. Highly-trained, heavily-armored, fearsome on the battlefield and honorable in victory and defeat, the knights left a mark on history. It’s no surprise we are so enamored by their lore. 

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