There were three main types of soldiers during the Middle Ages: foot soldiers, archers, and knights. The knights were heavily armored soldiers who rode on horseback. Only the wealthiest nobles could afford to be a knight. They needed very expensive armor, weapons, and a powerful war horse.
Medieval Knight by Unknown
The First Knights
The first knights of the Middle Ages fought for Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, in the 700s. In order to fight battles across his large empire, Charlemagne began to use soldiers on horseback. These soldiers became a very important part of his army.
Charlemagne began to award his best knights with land called "benefices". In return for the land, the knights agreed to fight for the king whenever he called. This practice caught on through much of Europe and became standard practice for many kings for the next 700 years. If you were a son born into the family of a knight, you generally became a knight as well.
Orders of Knights
Some knights decided to pledge themselves to defending the Christian faith. They formed orders that fought in the Crusades. These orders were called military orders. Here are three of the most famous military orders:
The Knights Templar - The Knights Templar were established in the 1100s. They wore white mantles with red crosses and were famous fighters during the Crusades. Their headquarters was in the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The knights refused to retreat in battle and were often the first to lead the charge. In the Battle of Montgisard, 500 Knights of the Templar led a small force of just a few thousand men in victory over 26,000 Muslim soldiers.
The Knights Hospitaller - The Knights Hospitaller were founded in 1023. They were formed to protect poor and sick pilgrims in the Holy Land. During the Crusades they defended the Holy Land from the Muslims. These knights wore black clothing with a white cross. After the fall of Jerusalem they moved to the island of Rhodes and to Malta.
The Teutonic Knights - The Teutonic Knights were German knights that were once part of the Hospitallers. They wore black clothing with a white cross on the shoulder. After fighting in the Crusades, the Teutonic Knights began a conquest of Prussia. They became very powerful until they were defeated in 1410 by the Polish at the Battle of Tannenberg.
There were also orders of chivalry. These orders were meant to imitate the military orders, but were formed after the Crusades. One of the most famous of these orders is the Order of the Garter. It was founded by King Edward III of England in 1348 and is considered one of the highest orders of knighthood in the United Kingdom.
End of the Knight
By the end of the Middle Ages, the knight was no longer an important part of the army. This was for two main reasons. One reason was that many countries had formed their own standing armies. They paid soldiers to train and fight. They no longer needed lords to come fight as knights. The other reason was a change in warfare. Battle tactics and new weapons such as longbows and firearms made the heavy armor the knights wore cumbersome and useless. This made it much easier to arm a soldier and pay for a standing army.
Interesting Facts about Knights from the Middle Ages
Knights often fought for the rights to pillage. They could become quite rich with the loot they gained from ransacking a city or town.
By the end of the Middle Ages, many knights paid the king money instead of fighting. Then the king would use that money to pay soldiers to fight. This payment was called shield money.
The word "knight" comes from an Old English word meaning "servant".
The knights of religious orders often made a pledge to God of poverty and chastity.
Today, knighthoods are awarded by kings and queens to people for their achievements. It is considered an honor. Famous people who have been knighted in recent years include U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Singer Paul McCartney of the Beatles, and movie director Alfred Hitchcock.