Knighthood: the oldest dignity

Knighthood is certainly the oldest rank and dignity known to Christian civilisation, the conferment of which has always been accorded with great honour.

It has been said that knighthood was first associated with the cult of St Michael the Archangel, the premier Chevalier. However, there are two more likely origins, the first being the ceremonial or ritual of warrior initiation in use in the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne and the other the military organisations of feudal, or possible Roman, times.

Derivation of the term Knight Bachelor

The derivation of the word ‘Bachelor' in the title has been much debated and variously interpreted by historians. Hugh Clark in 1784 said ‘the degree is undoubtedly the most ancient, though the lowest Order of Knights in England. It was accounted the first of all military dignity, and the foundation of all honours. The word Bachelor was added by King Henry III, and so styled, because the title of honour dies with the person to whom it is given and descends not to his posterity'.

He seemed to feel that the award might be denigrated by being bestowed too loosely: ‘This title, which was anciently in high esteem, is now conferred indiscriminately upon Gownsmen, Physicians, Burghers and Artists, whereby the original institution is perverted, and is of less reputation than it hath been; it still is accounted a respectable degree of honour both in England and foreign countries'.

Dr William Shaw in his Knights of England, suggested that the Norman-French word battalere or battelier (one who fought on the battle-field) became confused with the base Latin word baccalaurius, which in its anglicised form became ‘knight bachelor'. This is almost certainly the correct solution. The Roman Milites Baccalaurii were quite distinct from and considerably junior in rank to the Equites Aurati . That these two subdivisions did exist in the seventeenth century seems to be proved by the wording of a warrant of that time which ordained that Baronets shall have precedence over Equites Aurati and Milites Baccalaurii .

Knighthood through the ages

In mediaeval days knighthood became a brotherhood throughout Christendom and included therein were the great majority of ‘gentlemen of blood who practised the profession of arms'.

Some trace the use of the term ‘knight' in England to the Anglo-Saxon word cnyht (or cniht or cnite ) of which the original meaning was a youth or military follower and which afterwards came to mean a trusted servant, and later still, as the dignity of the term increased, the military tenant of an earl or bishop.

The youth who hoped to attain the rank of knighthood, the highest degree that could be obtained in the school of arms, engaged in a long course of discipline to improve his strength, to acquire the address requisite in martial exercises, and to cultivate those sentiments of generosity and honour deemed essential to the military character. After a noviciate in the capacity of page, he was admitted to the degree of esquire, in which character he usually attached himself to some favourite knight and, under his auspices, sought to acquire in the field that renown, which might entitle him to the first honours of chivalry.

By the time of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the word ‘knight' conveyed a definite dignity attached to a certain rank in the profession of arms. There are some who maintain that knighthood was introduced into Britain at the time of the Norman Conquest (1066). The eminent historian Stubbs did not agree with this. He considered that intelligent kings such as Canute (1017) and Edward the Confessor (1042) could hardly have failed to introduce to their country an institution which was flourishing in many other countries of Europe with which they were closely acquainted. We read, too, that in earlier days King Alfred made his grandson Athelstan a knight and that at this ceremony he invested him with a scarlet mantle set with precious gems and bound round his body a belt, with a sword in a golden scabbard. The Saxon form of knighting appears to have included some form of ‘bathing' and both in England and in other countries of Europe ‘knighthood by the bath' was combined with religious rites such as confession, absolution and elaborate ritual.

Knights Banneret

In a book which deals with Knights Bachelor the ancient, distinguished and long since discontinued honour of Knight Banneret must not be forgotten.

A Knight Banneret was a Knight Bachelor who had distinguished himself in battle and became entitled to bear a small square banner rather than a swallow-tailed pennon. He commanded a body of officers and men, i.e. knights, esquires and soldiers, whom he raised to serve under his banner, but who were paid by the Crown. However, some wealthy knights, (as in the case of a distinguished soldier, Sir Thomas Tryvet, prior to the battle of Troyes in France in 1380) claimed the dignity of Banneret, saying that they had sufficient revenue to maintain that estate by their own means.

Bannerets were part of the army from possibly the time of King Henry III, but certainly the time of King Edward I.

The procedure for becoming a Knight Banneret seems to have been that, on being advanced to that honour, the Knight Bachelor would, whilst in the field, be escorted by two senior knights to the King or his Lieutenant. With him came the Heralds carrying a swallow-tailed flag called a pennon, with his arms painted on it. The Heralds would announce to the King or Lieutenant (usually a General) that the knight concerned had shown himself valiant in the field of battle and deserved to be advanced to the degree of Knight Banneret. The King or General then ordered the points of his pennon to be cut off. He now had a smaller banner or Banneret. The new Knight Banneret then received his fees; however, if he was previously a Knight Bachelor he had to pay the Heralds their attendance fees.

Knights Banneret were created only in the field of battle and it could happen that if they were unable to support this dignitary a grant of money was made. This appears to have varied between £200 and £500 a year, depending on their income. The wages of Knights Banneret were the same as those of Barons and double those of Knights Bachelor, i.e. in war a Baron or Banneret received 4s. a day, a knight 2s. and an Esquire 1s. The wife of a Banneret was called a Banneress.

The creation of a Knight was in the past always accompanied with ceremonies involving vigils, bathing, investiture, the receiving of the accolade and the taking of vows. These ancient ceremonies are echoed today, in the Annual Service of Dedi­cation held in the Chapel of the Imperial Society, where newly created Knights Bachelor (together with earlier created knights and their guests) are invited to attend and encouraged to make their vows.

The last creation of a Knight Banneret was by King Charles I, at the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642, in recognition of the rescue of the Royal Standard.

Ideals of chivalry

Long before the Order of the Bath was founded the mediaeval knight was imbued with the ideals of chivalry, which incorporated the religious character of his investiture, respect paid to women and the development of the idea of honourable conduct, all of which still apply to Knights Bachelor of today.

In the account of the knighthood at Rouen in 1127 by Henry I of Geoffrey of Anjou, detail of the ritual of the bath is given. In King John's reign there are royal orders to the Wardrobe for the delivery of robes and bedding to candidates prior to the ceremony of bathing. Knighthood from about 880 to 1250 took a highly ceremonial form and most knights were soldiers. From 1250 knighthood by dubbing, a simpler form, became more common.

Jousts and tournaments

Henry I also laid down strict rules for knights entering jousts, and various penalties for contravening them. Birth had to be proved for several generations and any person pretending to ennoblement would ‘be caned and his horse taken from him'.

Scutage and fines

A necessary feature of knighthood had been the obligation of military service, but Henry II found that limiting this to 40 days made prolonged warfare impossible. He therefore levied ‘scutage' (payment of money), instead of demanding personal military service and was thus able to hire mercenaries.

Periodically, the Crown called upon a number of tenants to assume knighthood and fined them if they did not obey. Although originally the intention was to keep alive the feudal obligation of military service the fines produced a profitable source of income, so that the practice continued until the reign of Charles I. On 17th July 1603, shortly after the accession of James I, a summons was issued to all persons having £40 a year to receive the award of knighthood or be fined. Shortly afterwards more than 500 persons were dubbed knight by King James at Whitehall; 430 of them on 23rd July. Records show that many disobeyed the summons and were fined. The object in creating so many knights must have been to keep up to date the registration of tenants in chivalry as this no longer carried an obligation to military duty. The qualification of £40 (payable to the Crown) a year on land had become a social qualification with little feudal obligation.

The first civilian to be knighted was Sir William Walworth on 13th June 1381 by Richard II for his part in protecting the King and the slaying of Wat Tyler, leader of the rebellion at Smithfield. These days Knights Bachelor are not created for military service.

Register of Knights

The Register of Knights was instituted at the College of Arms on the order of King James I in a letter to the Earl Marshal dated 15th May 1622 as ‘there is daily inconvenience found ... some pretending to that honour who never received it from us, others losing their right to precedency, there being no record extant…'

The London Gazette of 5 May 1821, contains the following notice:

‘Carlton House, 1821, May 4

The following is a copy of an order from His Majesty to the Marquess of Winchester, Groom of the Stole, which in obedience to His Majesty's commands has been communicated by his Lordship to the Lords of the Bedchamber:

‘The honour of Knighthood having in two recent instances been surreptitiously obtained at the levée, His Majesty, for the purpose of effectually guarding against all such disgraceful practices in the future, has been pleased to direct that henceforth no person shall be presented to His Majesty at the levée by the Lord in Waiting, to receive the honour of Knighthood, unless his Majesty's pleasure shall have been previously signified in writing to the Lord in Waiting by one of His Majesty's principal Secretaries of State.'

The two individuals who practised this disgraceful trick on the King were Francis Columbine Daniel and Charles Aldis. Some thought that, as a matter of course, they were not to be included in the list of knights. Townend considered, however: ‘I cannot see on what principle, for, however obtained from the King, the honour, if once conferred, remains until the death or degradation of the recipient'.

Alas the early lists are not complete, even though at that time no knight was registered without payment of the due fee. Total fees were high and in 1784 amounted to £161 15s 4d .

Although it is usual for knighthood to be conferred by dubbing by the Sovereign, this authority has been delegated (by Dispensation Warrant and Letters Patent) on occasions to other members of the Royal Family, commanders of armies, governors general, and also conferred by Letters Patent under the Great Seal when the persons concerned cannot attend an investiture.


It is interesting that King James I in his original Letters Patent of 1611 creating the Order of Baronets made the male heir of a baronet, possibly unintentionally, a knight on reaching the age of 21. This privilege remained in force until cancelled by King George IV on 19th December 1827. Thus thereafter the male heir of a baronet did not attain the rank nor the title ‘Sir' until succeeding to the baronetcy.