The armored knights were the elite fighting men of medieval Europe. With their horses, armor, lances, and swords, they were both costly warriors and a figure with high cultural and social prestige. Although warfare rarely lived up to the ideal of mounted nobles clashing in chivalrous combat, knights were highly skilled soldiers who adapted well to the constantly evolving challenges of the medieval battlefield. In the 12th century, knights of the Christian kingdoms in Palestine formed military monastic orders such as the Knights Templar. Obeying austere religious rules, these fighting monks became elite forces dedicated to the struggle against the invading Islam. Named after the Temple in Jerusalem where they had their headquarters, the Templars accumulated wealth that attracted the envy of kings. The order was condemned for alleged heresy and suppressed in 1312.

Medieval society expected any young male of social standing to seek glory in war. Training was taken very seriously. Boys served first as pages and then as squires in the household of a knight who ensured their education in horsemanship and the use of the sword and lance. After graduation to knighthood, training continued through tournaments that honed fighting skills, and through more or less constant warfare. If there was no fighting to be had close to home, knights would seek it out, traveling to the edges of the Christian world to fight the “infidels.” The classic form of knightly combat was the charge with couched lance on horseback. But knights were also effective on foot, wielding swords, maces, or battle-axes. The code of chivalry to which knights subscribed expressed a Christian ethic of warfare, but in practice the plundering, skirmishing, and sieges of medieval warfare left little place for idealism. In the relatively rare pitched battles, knights were sometimes routed by disciplined foot soldiers or bowmen, but they remained a dominant force into the 16th century. Fought in August 1346, the Battle of Crécy was one of the encounters that questioned knights’ dominance on the battlefield. Although French and English knights did engage with lance and sword, the flower of French chivalry was mown down by Welsh longbow men.

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