Q&A

Knighthood 101. Is The Knighting Ceremony in Game of Thrones Anywhere Near Historically Accurate?

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

Who had knighting privileges in medieval Europe?

A popular series set in a medieval/fantasy universe had a knighting scene and the one doing the knighting claimed “You don’t need to be a king to Knight someone, you only need to be a knight”.

This just doesn’t sound viable since there would be insane knighting inflation. I imagined only a king or the leader of a Knightly Order could Knight someone.

What exactly were the rules around knighthood?

A question by u/TelegraphBlues on r/AskHistorians


My Answer

I really wanted to answer to that question on the AskHistorians subreddit. For two reasons: first, the scene referred to in the question really struck my feelings when I watched it because of how well acted and written it was; second, I had the knowledge and the necessary books at my disposal to answer in a fashion that would respect the AskHistorians community rules and expectations. Enjoy!

The Very Short Version

The short answer is that any knight could dub a squire to elevate him to knighthood. The long answer offers more contrast. The dubbing ceremony came into fashion in the 11th century. Originally it constituted in very little: a lord gave arms and armours to his vassals to help him into battle. This would also serve as a rite of passage into adulthood and to some extent, we can trace that rite all the way back to Germanic tribes (Keen, 1984, 66-67).

Early Mass Promotions to Knighthood

In the 12th century we observe ceremonies of mass promotions to knighthood. Therefore the knight becomes really distinct from the vassal. The dubbing ceremony gains in complexity and the multiplication of knights give them the feeling to belong to a social order apart from the rest of society. The techniques of warfare would however evolve drastically from the 13th to the 15th century. Crossbow became deadlier and firearms made their introduction. The knights therefore improved their physical protection and adopted the plate armour, which kept on being improved generation after generation.

Only the Best and Wealthiest

To be made a knight became a very pricy thing. Moreover the idea of knighthood was the object of more and more sophisticated theories. The behaviour expected from a knight, in and out of the battlefield, was codified to an extent that made it impossible for anyone to be randomly dubbed. At this point, I’d like to quote the Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (2010, vol. 2, p. 468-469):

All knights were warriors, but not all warriors were knights. […] The concept of the knight as a distinct elite group of warriors began to emerge in the eleventh century. The words used to designate members of this group indicate that the origins of this class lay with the armed and mounted servants who formed a lord’s entourage, or comitatus. The latin word used for a knight from the eleventh century on was ‘miles,’ which in classical Latin meant a soldier and by the tenth century a servant. […] As church attitudes toward violence changed and certain sorts of warfare became theologically acceptable, the warrior rose in status, provided he fought for the right cause. Kings and other rulers made increasing use of knights as administrators. […] Knights regarded knighthood as a separate order in society. Knightly status became a sort of institution, with its own literature, ideals of behaviour, and rituals, such as the tournament and the ceremony of dubbing into knighthood. Initially, dubbing was simply a ceremony in which the lord presented his warriors with weapons and armor, but during the twelfth century the ceremony expanded to include a blessing of the new knight’s sword. […] As the defining characteristics of knighthood developed, the numbers of those entering this elite class of men declined. By the mid-thirteenth century in England and northern France, warriors of lesser means could no longer afford to undergo the public ritual that would make them knights. The social expectations of knights and the public responsibilities that they were expected to take on exceeded their means. Knighthood became an exclusive caste, limited to those who were descended from knights and had the means to maintain the status.

A Knight Always Pays his Debts

Wealth became a capital requirement for anyone to be elevated to knighthood. In a 15th century manuscript that describe how emperors and kings must be enthroned to power, we also find a paragraph on the making of knights (Paris, BnF, MS fr. 5930, f. 3r-4v):

Comment se doit faire ung chevalier

Escuier quant il a  bien voyagie et esté en plusieurs fais d’armes et qu’il a bien de quoy maintenir | son estat ou qu’il soit de grant hostel et de riche et qu’il se tienne en une rencontre ou bataille doit adviser le chief ou ung vaillant chevalier de la compaignie et lors doit venir à luy et lui demander et requérir chevalerie ou nom de Dieu et de saint Gorge. Et celui doit tirer son espee et le doit faire chevalier en disant : « Je te fay chevalier ou nom de Dieu et de saint Gorge, pour la foy et justice loyaulment garder, et à juste querelle soustenir loyaulment à ton povoir, en gardant l’Eglise, femmes, veusves et orphelins. » Et s’il advient qu’il soit noble homme ou vaillant et qu’il soit povre, le prince ne le doit laisser estre fait chevalier s’il ne lui donne de quoy il se puisse vivre honnestement pour l’onneur de l’ordre de chevalerie

How to dub a knight

When a squire has travelled much and been part of feats, if he has enough to provide for himself or if he is part of a great and wealthy house, he must advise his commander or a valiant knight at the beginning of a battle and request to be dubbed in the name of God and saint George. The latter must then draw out his sword and say: “I elevate you to knighthood in the name of God and Saint George, so that you would loyally defend the faith, fight honourable causes, and protect the Church, women, widows and orphans.” If the squire is a noble or valiant man but has no money for himself, the prince must not let him be elevated to knighthood unless he grants him enough to live a decent life.

Who’s Knighting Who?

This text also confirms that any knight could dub a squire. However, as Keen notes, “We have noticed in many early texts the anxiety of aspirant knights to receive knighthood at the hands of some lord of particular distinction or repute. In the later middle ages a still more particular dignity was associated with receiving knighthood at the hands of one who had established a name for himself as a knight of prowess by deeds recognised as outstanding.” (Keen, 1984, 77) My personal favourite promotion to knighthood is the one held for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Since his father had passed away, he turned to the most skilled, feared and respected knight of his court: John of Luxembourg, lord of Beaurevoir.

I will translate Chastellain directly on that one: “The Duke required the order of knighthood to John of Luxembourg while riding next to him, showing no emotion and talking in a cold manner, handing to the latter his sword: ‘Dear cousin, in the name of God I ask of you to grant me the title of knight.’ The foresaid Luxembourg received the request as a high mark of honour. He dubbed him, saying: ‘My Lord, in the name of God and Saint George, I elevate you to knighthood; may your Grace therefore become a knight as you and all of us will need you to be.” (George Chastellain, Oeuvres. Edited by the Académie royale de Belgique. Brussels: F. Heussner, 1863, p. 259) Afterwards, Philip the Good went on his way to dub other valiant squires in his ranks.

A Dubbing Was Pretty Much a Christening

We tend to forget however that the Church could also dub knights. Monstrelet’s son was dubbed knight of the Order of Jerusalem by the canons of Cambrai in 1444; read J. B. Dacier, « Mémoire sur la vie et les chroniques d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet » (1826). Keen addresses that matter quite extensively in his chapter “The ceremony of dubbing to knighthood”. He explores as to why and how the Church became the sole institution to anoint kings and emperors, but failed to monopolize the dubbing of knights. Yet, he observes: “The fact that so often knights were dubbed in church impressed on all minds that knighthood was a Christian calling, imposing broad obligations of Christian observance and morality, whether it was given in a church or not. Under the church’s influence, crusading, the martial pilgrimage, established itself firmly as the highest mode of expression of the chivalric virtues of courage and endurance. Ecclesiastical teaching also gave definition to the idea of chivalry as an order, possessing, as every order should, its rule of life, and instructed the knight about how he should view his individual discharge of his office as a Christian duty.” (Keen, 1984, 76)

When is it Good to be Knighted?

Any knight could therefore dub another knight, but the prerequisites to become a knight made it impossible for any “insane knighting inflation” to ever happen. Matters of wealth, moral code and lifestyle strictly limited the access to knighthood, more and more so from the 12th to the 15th century.

I’d like to end this post as it should with a last observation made by Keen: “A number of late medieval sources mention three normal occasions for receiving knighthood. It may be given, they say, when the emperor or a king holds a solemn court, or at his coronation; usually the ceremony will take place in a church, after the bath and vigil, and the prince himself ‘or some other lord who is a knight’ will gird the aspirants. […] The second occasion for taking knighthood that they mention is on pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, the rise of which practice we have also traced. The third occasion for taking knighthood that they all mention is on the eve of battle, or of the storming of a city, when men seek knighthood ‘in order that their strength and virtue may be greater’. From the latter part of the thirteenth century on, this became a very common occasion for the taking of knighthood. […] In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the making of knights became almost a regular feature of the eve of battle, and the pages of such chronicles as Froissart [and Monstrelet] are in consequence full of references to such creations.” (Keen, 1984, 79-80)

Medieval Literature on Knighthood:

Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of new knighthood (1129)
Ramon Llull, The Book of the Order of Chivalry (1279-1283)
Honoré Bonet, The Tree of Battles (1382-1387)
Christine de Pizan, Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410)

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2678, f. 364r ~ Knights had the strict interdiction to flee the battlefield.
It was regarded as a great dishonnor and chronicler seldom make up excuses
for such behaviour when they write on knights that they know personnally.

Modern Studies on Knighthood:

Peter Coss, The Knight in Medieval England, 1000-1400. Stroud, U.K.: Alan Sutton, 1993.
Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society. Translated by Cynthia Postan. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.
Maurice Keen, Chivalry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.
Malcolm Vale, War and Chivalry. Warfare and aristocratic culture in England, France and Burgundy at the end of the Middle Ages. Liverpool: Duckworth, 1981.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2678, f. 372v ~The best tactic was often to charge an enemy caught off guard.
There was no shame in defeating an enemy that was unprepared for battle,
it showed shrewdness, a quality most valuable to knights.