The origins of knighthood
are obscure, but they are said to date back to ancient
Rome, where there was a knightly class of Ordo Equestris
(an order of mounted nobles). The Emperor
Charlemagne had knights, and from him we have the orders
of chivalry, from which the medieval knighthood grew,
along with the system of heraldry.
Knighthood became an established military guild in many
European countries, and it had certain characteristics:
a would-be knight would undertake strict military
training from boyhood, including some time as an
assistant (an esquire, probably derived from the Latin
scutifer; shield-bearer) to a knight with whom he rode
He would also have to prove himself worthy according to
rules of chivalrous behaviour, such as 'faithfulness to
his Saviour and his Sovereign', generosity, self-denial,
bravery and skill at arms.
In addition, he would be expected to have the financial
ability to support the honour of knighthood, so that he
could provide himself with arms, armour, horses and the
required number of armed followers to render military
service to his Sovereign for a minimum period each year.
In former times, no person could be born a knight
(the use of the term 'knight' in England may have come
from the Anglo-Saxon word cnyht or cnite, meaning
'military follower') - even monarchs and their heirs had
to be made knights.
Alfred knighted his grandson Athelstan; William I was
knighted when he became king (although he had previously
been knighted in Normandy); Edward III, Henry VII and
Edward VI were all knighted, after coming to the throne,
by one of their subjects.
The conferment of knighthood involved strict
religious rites (encouraged by bishops who saw the
necessity of protecting the Church, and of emphasising
Christian ideals in order to temper the knights'
ferocity), which included fasting, a vigil, bathing,
confession and absolution before the ceremony took
The first and simplest method of knighting was that used
on battlefields, when the candidate knelt before the
royal commander of the army and was 'stricken with the
sword upon his back and shoulder' with some words such
as 'Advances Chevalier au nom de Dieu'. (The action of
touching the sword on the recipient's shoulder is known
The second method involved greater ceremony, which could
include the offering by the knight of his sword on the
Although the monarch's 'lieutenants in the wars' and
a few others of high birth 'possessed of special royal
authority' could knight others, over the years
successive Sovereigns began drastically to limit the
power to confer knighthood - particularly Henry VIII.
Eventually, it became the custom for monarchs to confer
all knighthoods personally, unless this was quite
However, knighthoods were not necessarily sought
after, as there were men who wanted to avoid an honour
which compelled them (at great expense and personal
inconvenience) to reinforce the Sovereign's armies.
The alternative to knighthood was the payment of a fine
instead of military service, and kings such as Edward
II, James I and Charles I found such fines a useful
source of income for the crown (this practice of fining
was abolished in Charles II's reign).
James I even instituted a new honour of baronetcy (a
title which could be passed on to descendants) in 1611,
so that he could raise money and valuable reinforcements
for his army.
In extreme cases, when a knight was found guilty of
treachery or treason, he could lose his honour by formal
degradation - a public ceremony in which his
accoutrements were taken off him.
In 1468, Sir Ralph Grey was taken to Doncaster where,
being guilty of treason, his 'gold spurs were hewn from
his heels while his sword and all his armour were
The last public degradation was in 1621 at Westminster
Hall, when Sir Francis Mitchell was found guilty of
'grievous exactions' and had his spurs broken and thrown
away, his belt cut and his sword broken over his head.
Finally, he was pronounced to be 'no longer a Knight but
Other more recent examples of degradation from honours
are when Sir Roger Casement had his knighthood cancelled
during the First World War for treason (he was
subsequently executed), and in 1979 when Sir Anthony
Blunt (a former Surveyor of The Queen's pictures) also
had his knighthood withdrawn.
Currently, a person may be stripped of his knighthood
should he be convicted of a criminal offence by a Court
Today, The Queen (and occasionally members of the
Royal Family on her behalf) confers knighthood in
Britain. The knight-elect can be knighted at a public
Investiture or privately.
The ceremony is similar: after his name is announced,
the knight-elect kneels on a knighting-stool in front of
The Queen who then lays the sword blade on the knight's
right and then left shoulder.
After he has been dubbed, the new knight stands up
(contrary to popular belief, the words 'Arise, Sir ---'
are not used), and The Queen then invests the knight
with the insignia of the Order to which he has been
appointed (a star or badge, depending on the Order).
By tradition, clergy receiving a knighthood are not
dubbed, as the use of a sword is thought inappropriate
for their calling.
Over the centuries, knighthood has evolved: it is no
longer awarded solely for military merit, it cannot be
bought and it carries no military obligations to the
However, knighthood remains as a form of recognition for
significant contributions to national life. Recipients
today range from actors to scientists, and from school
head teachers to industrialists.
Foreign citizens occasionally receive honorary
knighthoods; they are not dubbed, and they do not use
the style 'Sir'. Such knighthoods are conferred by The
Queen, on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth
Office, on those who have made an important contribution
to relations between their country and Britain.
Foreign citizens with knighthoods include the former US
Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Chancellor Kohl,
President Mitterrand and Mayor Giuliani of New York.