Gateway to the Classics: European Hero Stories by Eva March Tappan
European Hero Stories by  Eva March Tappan

The Life Of The Knight

When a knight galloped into the courtyard of a castle, his helmet and armor all a-glitter, his sword clanking at his side, his plume waving, and his horse prancing and caracoling, it is small wonder that the boys of the place all gathered to see him, and that every one of them said to himself, "I wish I were a knight."

The boy who was going to be a knight must be of noble birth. His training generally began when he was only seven or eight years old. He was taken away from his mother and his father's castle, for it was the custom for boys to be brought up in the castle of some friend of their father's or perhaps of some one of higher rank than he. A castle was a gloomy stone building, with strong walls and towers, usually placed either high up on a cliff or in a swamp, so that it could not be easily captured. Within it were dungeons and treasure rooms and rooms for the lord and his family. It had also a well and perhaps a garden, and it was protected by a moat and a drawbridge.


A Castle in Sussex, England.

The little boy about to begin his training at such a castle was first called a page; and before he could hope to become even a squire there was much for him to learn. Until he was fourteen or fifteen his first business was to wait upon the ladies of the household, to run on their errands, carry messages for them, and ride with them when they went out hunting or hawking. He must always be polite and obedient, for no one could imagine such a thing as a knight who was rude or would not obey the laws of knighthood. He must learn to play chess and draughts, to read, to sing, to dance, to play on the flute and harp, and to say his catechism. He was also taught that he must choose some lady and must serve her truly. There is a story that a lady the French court once asked a little page who was the mistress of his heart. "I love my mother best and my sister next," he replied. "Yes, but who is your lady-love in chivalry?" she asked, and he finally chose a little ten-year old girl. "That is not the way," declared his teacher. "You must not choose a child, but some lady of noble birth who can advise and help you. Some day you must do daring deeds for her sake, and you must be so humble and faithful to her that she cannot help being kind to you."


A Squire Becoming a Knight.

Most of the training of the page was given him by the ladies of the household; but he was also taught to ride and leap, to hurl a light spear, and to fight in sham battles with the other pages of the castle. He waited upon his lord and the ladies at the table, and sometimes he accompanied his lord to battle. He was to do no fighting there, but simply to serve him in any way that a boy could. He was in no danger, for it would have been a disgrace to any knight to wound a page.

Of course all this time the boy was looking forward to the day when he would be promoted and would become a squire. That came to pass when he was about fourteen. Then he not only served at table and brought water for the lord and his guests to wash their hands before and after the meal, but he learned to carve, he brought his lord's special cup of wine at retiring, and waited upon him in every way. In a large castle where there were many squires, one cared for the dining hall, arranged it for singing or made the tables ready for chess. A squire was not permitted to sit at table with a knight, not even if the knight was his own father, but he might join in the amusements. Each in turn was "squire of the body," and the one in office was the one whom all the others envied, for when his lord went, to battle, this squire was his regular attendant. The young page might carry the helmet, but the squire bore the armor and shield, and it was his task—no easy one—to encase his lord in the heavy armor that was then worn. If the knight lost his weapon, the squire must be ready with another. If he took prisoners, they were handed over to the squire to guard; and if the knight was thrown from his horse, the squire must help him to mount again.

Although a squire was rarely made a knight before he was twenty or twenty-one, he had little chance to be idle. He was still expected to keep up his attendance upon the ladies of the castle; but he now learned to use, not the light weapons with which he had practiced as a page, but the battle-axe and sword and lance of the knight. He must become a master of horsemanship and be perfect in leaping and swimming and climbing. He must learn to bear heat and cold and hunger without a word of complaint, and he must accustom himself to wearing the heavy armor of the time and to moving easily in it. There was one exercise in particular which he was expected to practice until he had become perfect. This was called the quintain. A figure of a man arrayed with sword and shield as if for battle was fastened to a post in such a way that it swung about easily. The young squire rode up to the figure full tilt and struck it with his lance. If he hit it on the breast, nothing happened, but if he aimed badly and hit the legs or the arms or was slow in getting away, then the court-yard reechoed with shouts of laughter, for the figure whirled about and the unskillful squire was struck a heavy blow with a sandbag.

When the time had come for the young man to become a knight, there was much ceremony, and every act had its meaning. He went into a bath and afterward put on a white garment to indicate purity. A red one was placed over it to show that he would shed his blood for the right. One whole night he spent fully armed, praying and meditating in a church. On the following day he gave his sword to the priest, who laid it upon the altar, blessed it, and returned it. He made solemn vows to defend the church, to be true to the king, and to help every lady who was in distress. Then the lord of highest rank came forward. The young man knelt before him with clasped hands and declared solemnly that his earnest wish was to maintain religion and chivalry. After this, the knights and ladies put on, first, his spurs, then the other pieces of his armor. The lord fixed on the sword and struck him upon the neck a slight blow called the accolade, and said aloud, "I dub thee knight in the name of God and the saints." The other knights embraced him, and the priest prayed that he might ever be faithful and loyal. Then the people all went out of the church, and the newly made knight sprang upon his horse and rode about in his gleaming armor, flashing his sword and spurring on his steed to prance and curvet and caracole. After this he dismounted. He made as generous gifts as he could afford to the servants and minstrels of the castle in which he had received his training. The rest of the day was given to feasting and entertainments.

Of course this ceremony differed somewhat in different countries, and sometimes a man was made a knight on the battlefield because he had just performed some deed of valor. If a knight broke his vows, his spurs were cut off, his sword broken over his head, his armor taken from him, and he was laid in a coffin. Then the burial service was read over him as if he were dead.


A Knight Armor.

The great pleasure and amusement of the knights was the tournament, or mock battle, and they would journey long distances to see one or take part in one. The battle took place in what was called the lists, a large oblong space marked off by railings. Close to these were the galleries, or seats for the spectators. It was all made as gorgeous as possible with a vast display of banners and tapestry and coats of mail, and especially by the brilliant robes of the ladies. When the trumpet sounded and the cry was heard, "Come forth, knights, come forth!" the two bodies of knights that were to tilt, one against the other, galloped forward at full speed from opposite ends of the lists with their lances in rest and met with a terrible shock. The ribbons of their lady-loves waved from their helmets. Pieces of wood were fastened to the points of the lances, for the object of the charge was not to kill but to unhorse opponents. There were strict rules for the behavior of knights during a tournament, and an accurate method of counting their honors. To strike an opponent out of his saddle counted three, to break a lance on his helmet counted ten. The ladies were the judges of all questions, but they usually gave their power into the hands of an umpire called the Knight of Honor. After the tournament had come to an end, some fair lady who had been chosen Queen of Beauty and Love presented the prizes.

Knighthood flourished from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. Armor grew heavier and heavier till it became almost impossible for a knight to mount his horse without help, and if his horse was slain, he rolled off helplessly and became an easy prey for his foes. About the middle of the fourteenth century, the English won two great battles, at Cré-cy' and at Poitiers, against the French, not by the power of the knights, but by the valor of the common folk with their bows and arrows. Then came the invention of gunpowder, and after that the knight became little more than a useless incumbrance. His time was past, and his armor now hangs in museums.


Early training for knighthood. — The education of the page. — His lady love in chivalry. — His physical training. — The page in battle. — The duties of a squire at home and in battle. — His exercises. — The quintain. — Becoming a knight. — The disgrace of the false knight. — A tournament. — Why knighthood disappeared.

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