The medieval knight is one of the most enduring and iconic figures of history. These men of steel, clad in gleaming armour, lance in hand and mounted on their magnificent steeds are one of the defining images of the Middle Ages. Knighthood was the aspiration of many noble sons, and getting there involved years of preparation and intensive training, culminating in the elaborate dubbing ceremony that welcomed him into the elite ranks of warrior horsemen. But the knighting ritual could be a costly affair, usually funded by the candidate’s family, and although it was the pivotal moment in the young warrior’s life, the customs surrounding it could mean he spent his first day on the job feeling shattered, hung over and sore.
Training for knighthood began in childhood, and it took a very long time as the evolving code of chivalry involved much more than nifty footwork and sword skills. At around seven years of age, a nobleman’s son may be sent to another aristocratic household, or even the king’s court, to take up the position of Page. Serving a knight and running errands, the young lad would first be taught how to behave in polite society, how to sing, dance and recite poetry and how to conduct himself in the company of ladies. He also began his training for the battlefield by handling practice weapons and horses. At around fourteen years old, he moved up to the full-time position of Squire, a term derived from the French ecuyer, meaning ‘shield bearer’. Now his preparation stepped up a gear, and he received all the necessary military training including riding, fighting with a sword and lance and running in armour. Service to his knight involved helping him in and out of his armour, looking after his horses and accompanying him into battle. And so eventually, if after all these years of demanding preparations the young squire had mastered all the necessary skills, both military and social, he was ready to be knighted.
Originally a secular event, the ceremony took on a more religious significance towards the end of the 12th Century as the church became increasingly involved with the concept of chivalry, keeping the peace and fighting holy Crusades. Thus, the investiture of knights often took place during major religious festivals such as Christmas or Easter. The night before the ritual it was customary for the new recruit to take a bath, symbolic of baptism and purification, and then keep a lonely all-night vigil in the castle’s chapel in prayer and meditation, his sword laid on the altar before him. At daybreak on the big day the sleep-deprived youth then had to attend mass before being clothed in special coloured garments: a white tunic representing purity, a scarlet cloak for the blood he is ready to spill in defence of the Church and his king, brown hose showing the earth to which he will eventually return and a white belt for more purity. The finishing touches were gilded spurs fitted to his heels and his blessed sword girded to his side before the assembled throng, all to a herald of trumpets.
Following a short interview to ensure his honourable knightly intentions, the crucial part of the ceremony took place; the colée, or buffet. Usually administered by the father, the lord or the king, far from a gentle tap on the shoulders this was a deliberate heavy blow, a big whack to the side with a hand or sword that often knocked the youngster to the floor. The origins of the colée are a source of debate among historians, with theories ranging from the only strike he will receive without retaliating to a reminder never to forget the oath he had taken. It was with these newly acquired bruises that the newcomer to the chivalric orders was then required to display his prowess in a tournament or a set of suitably war-like games. Finally it was time for the celebrations, with banquets, booze and a great deal of celebrating. So after all this praying, being knocked around, showing off and partying following a sleepless night, it’s easy to imagine that the fledgling knight may be craving his bed and a good rest. He probably needed a week to recover.
Of course, the dubbing ritual wasn’t always this elaborate and one size didn’t fit all. For some, such as William Marshal, the greatest knight that England ever knew, the ceremony was a swift affair on the battlefield with a simple girding with a sword, a colée and a few words such as: “be thou a knight!”. Not all new recruits were of noble blood, and some young men achieved knighthood through acts of great bravery or honour. But however the ritual was conducted, whether it happened in the grounds of a grand castle or among the spoils of war, the act of becoming a knight transformed a young man into something higher. He’d been elevated in social and military status. From that day on, aching and tired or not, he’d entered into the exclusive chivalric band of brothers that formed the noble defensive bedrock of those glorious Middle Ages.