The concept of knighthood
Knighthood evolves among the Franks and Germans in the early Middle Ages. Heavy cavalry is now the most important element in warfare, but the provision of a strong horse and full armour is expensive. Men who will make this commitment, in support of their chosen leader, deserve a special status.
Ceremonies are developed to emphasize this status, whether the knight is dubbed in the heat of a battle or more elaborately in church. But the concept of an order of knights, sharing high ideals of chivalry, only develops later – when the challenge of Christian service confronts the crusaders in Jerusalem.
The Knights of St John of Jerusalem: AD 1113-1291
The hospital of St John of Jerusalem is older than the crusades. Founded in the 11th century by Italian merchants from Amalfi to look after sick pilgrims in Jerusalem, the hospital takes its name from the nearby church of John the Baptist.
With the arrival of the crusaders in Jerusalem, in 1099, the hospital grows in importance and in wealth. Crusader knights, grateful to have their wounds healed or illnesses cured, devote themselves to the hospital’s cause or endow it from their estates. In 1113 the hospital is taken under papal protection. It becomes a religious order which the knights can join, committing themselves to chastity, to good works and to warfare for the Christian cause.
As they grow in power, the Knights of St John become an important part of the army of the kingdom of Jerusalem, fighting battles against the Muslims while also maintaining their charitable function in the care of the sick. It is a measure of their power that the great castle of Krak des Chevaliers is one of their strongholds – a hospital with thicker walls than most.
In their militant role the knights are matched by the other great 12th-century order, that of the Templars. Both orders have to leave the Holy Land after the fall of Acre in 1291. But the Knights of St John thrive elsewhere in later centuries.
The Knights Templars: AD 1120-1291
In about 1120 a group of crusading knights, distressed at the plight of pilgrims set upon by marauding Muslims, dedicate themselves to their protection. Taking vows of poverty and chastity, they pledge obedience to the patriarch of Jerusalem. They are given quarters in the part of Jerusalem once occupied by the Jewish Temple, thus acquiring their official name – Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.
The order is organized on a military basis with four ranks – knights, sergeants, chaplains and servants. The knights, all of them noble, wear the famous white surcoat with a red cross. Only the knights and sergeants fight, vowing always to accept combat even at the adverse odds of three to one.
Like the Knights of St John, the Templars grow rapidly in numbers and in strength. They become an integral part of the defence of the Latin kingdom, with castles of their own. This powerful involvement in affairs of state, without the charitable function which nourishes the idealism of the Knights of St John, exposes the Templars to the temptations and the jealousies of political life.
After the fall of the Latin kingdom in 1291, the Templars withdraw to their vast estates in Europe – where the envy provoked by their wealth and power contributes, it would seem, to their mysterious and sudden end.
The Teutonic Knights: AD 1191
When Acre is recaptured by the crusaders, in 1191, a group of German merchants form a fraternity to run a hospital in the town. At first they adopt a rule similar to that of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. But in 1198, when the German contingent in Palestine is short of fighting men, they are transformed into an order more akin to the Templars. Known in German as the Deutscher Ritterorden (‘German Order of Knights’), they are usually referred to in English as the Knights of the Teutonic Order.
Soon, from as early as 1211, they divert their energies to a different crusade – against pagans on the eastern borders of Germany. For three centuries they play an important role in Europe, particularly in Prussia.
The Order of the Garter: AD c.1347
In about 1347 Edward III, king of England, invents a new form of knighthood in the Order of the Garter. Later imitated in every kingdom of the world, membership of such an order is conferred purely as an honour. It requires no knightly service, other than ceremonial, but it is hoped that the subject’s loyalty will be bound by this honour more closely to his sovereign. Among other early orders of this kind the most famous is the Golden Fleece, instituted by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, in 1430.
This system of honours can even survive without a monarch. The first and most famous of all republican orders is France’s Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour), instituted by Napoleon in 1802.