The Title of knight transcended rank and nobility. Contrary to popular belief it was not bestowed by kings and queens. Only a knight could make another man a knight. A knight would only bestow knighthood upon another they saw fit.
Who could become a knight? How was one be deemed fit to be a knight? Who decided this and what actions would they need to take to be seen as suitable for knighthood?
The first people when the term knight is mentioned are lords and kings. The aristocracy were the base of the the warrior caste. Eligible bear arms, the aristocracy were the foremost in honors and numbers in the ranks of knighthood. Trained from youth in the arts of war, chivalry, conduct and etiquette it stands to reason that knights drew from their ranks the highest of the social order.
A knight had to maintain themselves, their equipment, any lands and men that served them, this required wealth. A poor knight could not maintain their obligations for long.
The social structure of Medieval Europe also favoured the aristocracy as knights, recognition and fame ensured your induction into the ranks of knighthood, far be it for an unknown man with no connections to a knight to be granted the honor of knighthood, but instead, the well known sons and brothers of lords and kings making a name for themselves in the field of valor.
However through marriage, and the donation of large sums of money the merchant classes were able to secure the necessary clout and political favor to have this great title bestowed on their sons. In the 14th and 15th centuries we see the rise of the merchant nobles families, keen to secure more power, bought and married into nobility. Often during this time, the exchange of wealth between once rich aristocracy and poor mercantile families can be viewed in just a few generations.
With the rich landowners becoming merchants or worse, poor farmers themselves, and the merchants the richest landlords in the county. It was not uncommon for an aristocrat to sell off an honor or two to stave off poverty. Nor at times beneath the king when accounting for loans to make for war.
But not all merchants brought their knighthoods, some were able to earn the title in their own right though that was even rarer.
Sir William Walworth, Mayor of London, famed for slaying Wat Tyler and effectively ending the peasants revolt. Was a merchant and a member of the fishmongers guild before being awarded his honors of knighthood.
It was said to become a knight one must be able to be proficient in Foot Lance, Longsword, Dagger and Polehammer, Yet how would above mentioned Sir Walworth have been proficient in all those weapons? A merchant and politician, and while capable enough with a weapon to end a man’s life. It’s doubtful that he was renowned for taking to the tourney circuit before or after his honors.
Many a young knight was found fit on the tourney field, the story of Du Guesclin defeating his father at tourney to be made a knight for displaying his skill and valor at tourney.
However you find others who win their honors through skill of war such as Sir John Chandos, who is said to have been knighted for his efforts in the Hundred years war. Like Du Guesclin, Chandos was hailed as one of the true knights of his age.
It is in dispute whether the English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood was knighted or if he assumed the title himself. Famed for his skill in battle and his cunning as a general, Hawkwood was far from the chivalric ideal of a knight, but to this day he is still awarded the title.
De Charny, who famously wrote on the subject of knighthood said that a Man at Arms of worth should strive be like Judas Maccabeus
“He was wise in all his deeds, he was a man of worth who led a holy life, he was strong, skillful, and unrelenting in effort and endurance; he was handsome above all others, and without arrogance; he was full of prowess, bold, valiant, and a great fighter, taking part in the finest, greatest, and fiercest battles and the most perilous adventures there ever were, and in the end he died in a holy way in battle, like a saint in paradise.”
Such high standards to live up to, yet De Charny was the Bearer of the Oriflamme and knight and writer of the precepts of the Order of the Star had high standards of what a perfect knight should be, and how they should conduct themselves.
Du Gueslin himself was said to be an ugly and squat man, his valor and skill in combat were without peer. Not so much the shining example set by Judas Maccabeus, John Hawkwood, though master tactician and skilled in arts of war was far from any of these virtues, yet he held the mantle of Knighthood and his name is still known to this day.
Many more men would take up arms and not be awarded the title of knight, much like today they would be passed over or their deeds missed by their peers.
De Charny mentions this
“I must now consider yet another category of men-at-arms who deserve praise: that is those who devote a good part of their own financial resources and suffer physical hardship in the search for opportunities for deeds of arms in a number of countries; and they may well find many such opportunities and incur no reproach on many good fields of combat. But it so happens that few learn of their exploits but are only aware of the fact that they have been there, which is in itself a fine thing; for the more one sees great deeds, the more one should learn what is involved and should talk and take advice at the places where feats of arms are performed or where one is engaged in other activities. And because of this they deserve to be praised and honored: although their deeds have been of little account, they have done no ill; for it is very important in such activity to pause and look. Hence so it is that he who does best is most worthy.”
So as we can see not all men who took up the path of a Man at Arms eventually achieved their end goal, more often than not, we see it as being in between the extremes, the chivalric ideal and the ugly truth. The noblest ideals of knighthood meets the common man, greed and poverty.