The Pain of Becoming a Knight

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.

Knight.JPG

The iconic – and irresistible! – image of a medieval knight

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.

squire.jpg

A squire tending to his master’s horse

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.

bath.png

The knightly bath – this washed him clean of sin

girding with sword.jpg

The girding of the knight with his sword

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.

dubbing

The climax of the dubbing ceremony – the colée. Brace yourself, young man, this is going to hurt…

joust.jpg

After the ceremony, the new knight was expected to demonstrate his skills to the crowd

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.

62 thoughts on “The Pain of Becoming a Knight

  1. As initiation into a higher estate, it seems to have a lot in common with traditional magical rites, I have to say.
    Is that picture of the squire from the Codex Manesse? The style is very similar.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it is the Codex Manesse, Sue, well spotted!
      I think most of these rites have similar roots. There’s another theory that the colee is derived from the Roman tradition of slapping slaves when they were freed. They all looked to something else for inspiration. Its a fascinating area to study. 🙂

      Like

      • I thought I recognised the style… we used some of the images from it in a book…and that helmet is pretty memorable 🙂

        Thinking about the colée, wich must have the same root as the Accolade where knighting is concernced, it has to derive from the French and latin ‘col’, for neck… which came to mean an embrace. Having knelt myself while a ceremonial sword was laid on my neck, I can say for certain that, in spite of logic, there is a moent when barriers of both fear and trust must be crossed… so it is entirely apposite for this to be a something a knight would face as he was raised in the service of his lord.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Spot on, Sue, that’s exactly where the term ‘accolade’ came from. That would all make sense about fear and trust at that crucial moment. When did you have the sword on your neck?

        Like

      • You’re on! Perhaps we could catch up over the summer when I’m back from North Wales. I’d love that. 🙂

        Like

    • Thanks Malc, yes, it was a long road to knighthood, and took upmost of a young lad’s childhood. It’s a fascinating ritual, indeed. Thanks for reading. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Good question, Malc! To which I would answer: absolutely yes. I’m not sure what’s happening these days is all good – equality can go too far and in the process something rather special can be lost. I’m all for many aspects of equality, but at the end of the day the genders are different, both physically and psychologically and there’s no getting away from that. To me, it seems a shame that a man can’t even pay a woman a compliment any more without being judged with suspicion and scorn, and I mourn the death of chivalry. At the very least it showed a common courtesy, consideration and respect and I think society is the poorer for it’s passing. So give me a hunky, chivalrous knight in armour any day! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a journey! Especially wrapping it up at the end there with a colée. I think I would be up all night the night before worried about that 🙂 Very interesting to learn about!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Robyn, glad you enjoyed reading about our medieval knighting ceremony. Yes, it must have been a tough, yet exhilarating process to go through. I often wonder how many times the priest went into a castle chapel at dawn on the big day to find the young knight-to-be snoring on the altar! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sir Malc! There are still a few of us left who still value the old ways. I’ve said on more than one occasion that I was born 800 years too late! I don’t really belong in this era. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Learned so much- and interesting how the knighthood varied and the religious one should sound overblown the top – the William marshal one would be my preference –
    And the colee indicates their strength and toughness – but ouch – must hurt –
    💥

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed the knighting ceremony, Yvette. Yes, it could be very elaborate or very simple depending on the circumstances and what level of society the new knight came from. However it was done though, it seems like they couldn’t avoid the colee! Ouch indeed! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Side note – but there is something to the toughness one develops – like my FIL is in a nursing home and even the lightest handling of him was at first painful – and we are talking gentle nurses – we joked that he never did sports – never wrestled with siblings – and was white collar all his life so his threshold for pain was so low – and so those knights were maybe opposite – ha

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh bless him, that must be hard. ❤
        I guess the tough lives they lived in the Middle Ages did harden them more to discomfort and pain. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed reading about the knights. They are such an iconic part of the medieval ages and yet I didn’t know the details on the process of becoming a knight. Very informative and interesting, thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re very welcome, Clare. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the knighting ceremony and how the youngsters got there. Thanks for reading. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The process of “knighting” was also so costly that many families were bankrupt before the process was over … and about 40% of these families ceased being “noble” after whatever war they fought in. They came home to no money, no rents, empty fields. The only thing they had worth anything was their horse, and so these warhorses became our workhorses. Because a big horse that could carry a knight in full armor could also be hitched to a plow. And in fact, pretty much every one of our pure-bred dray horses was originally bred to carry knights in armor.

    Not every “noble” family lived in a grand castle or had tons of money. Many were barely scraping by. Buying armor, a proper horse, sword, spear, etc. etc. was the end of their noble road. They sold their silver. They sold land. They literally wiped out their life to put one lad into knighthood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All true, Marilyn. It was a costly business and a huge investment for the knight and his family. It shows how seriously they took it. 🙂

      Like

    • Thanks Albert, I’m glad you enjoyed reading about knighthood and that you learned something from it too. That’s always good to know. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh thank you, Albert, that’s very kind of you to say. And it’s so good to hear, as that’s how I hope my writing comes across. I like to tell the stories of what happened, but in an accessible and hopefully entertaining way. I really appreciate your thoughts. Thank you. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. really enjoyed this informative and interesting description . Were the knights granted any rewardsfor their military service when they returned home?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed it and learned a bit. 🙂 Knights were awarded land to hold from the king – called a fief – and this was in return for his support or military service as required. If a knight was particularly notable for his achievements and loyalty he may be awarded more land and privileges, and in this way it was possible for a relatively minor noble to rise through the ranks of society. William Marshal, for example, rose from the son of a minor noble to be regent of England through his military prowess and loyalty to the crown. I hope that helps. 🙂

      Like

    • I reckon running in armour must have taken quite a bit of getting used to. But contrary to popular belief, it was very articulated and allowed pretty much full movement. With the mail suit on underneath and the padded gambeson under that, it would have been a big weight to carry, but at least that weight was evenly distributed.
      It is interesting stuff, and it’s good to know you find it interesting too. 🙂

      Like

      • Me neither. I’m definitely a walker instead. It would have been heavy, yes, so I guess it was a case of practice and getting used to it. Still, I wouldn’t have wanted to be without it on the battlefield! 🙂

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s