At the mention of knights, it’s common to conjure up images of medieval heroes on horseback, clad in shining armour, riding in to rescue fair maidens or bravely battle to save the day.
Many of these imaginary characters are inspired by Arthurian legends – the ancient stories of King Arthur and his gallant knights of Camelot which emerged from Welsh and English folklore in the Middle Ages.
This may explain why it’s commonly thought that Knighthoods are a singularly British convention.
The History of Knights
While ancient English history is full of famous knights and their ladies, the role and rank of Knight was not unique to the British Isles.
In fact, one of the oldest and most famous orders of knights was that of the Knights Templar, the legendary protectors of pilgrims during the Crusades, which originated in Jerusalem in the 12th century.
And across medieval Europe, the many varied nations that established systems of aristocracy during the Middle Ages also had a position equivalent to that of an English knight within their social hierarchy.
For example, in France, the title of Chevalier is regarded as similar to an English Knight, a word that actually stems from the old Latin word for horse. Similarly, the Spanish title Caballero has the same word origin.
Within the medieval Germanic nobility, a social order that played such a powerful role in the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the oldest noble titles is that of Ritter.
Again, this harks back to the image of horse-riding heroes, as the word ritter translates as rider. The variation Ridder also evolved in the neighbouring nations of Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands.
So the rank and title of a horse-riding noble was a common feature throughout many of the European medieval systems of nobility, and not exclusive to the British Isles.
From the papal order of knights in Jerusalem, to the French chevaliers of Versailles, knights played a key role in many of the social structures of the Middle Ages.
Becoming a knight, or inheriting the title of knight, was not solely a privilege for British noblemen or warriors, it was a prevalent position throughout Europe and beyond.
Modern Knights and Knighthoods
Becoming a knight in the Middle Ages was not solely a British opportunity – but what about today?
Unfortunately for lovers of nobility and aristocracy, the modern world holds far fewer opportunities to attain or inherit official noble titles such as a knighthood.
When many of the European nations moved from a monarchy to a republic, the practice of honouring select individuals or granting privileges to a select few was regarded as inegalitarian.
As a result, the old social systems of nobility and aristocracy no longer carry quite the same weight or importance as they did during their heyday of the Middle Ages.
Some ancient noble titles often endure in name only, as in the case of the German nobility, whereby an erstwhile Knight or Duke may use or bequeath the title only as part of their surname.
In some republican countries, the system of aristocracy no longer exists at all, and preferential titles are regarded as undesirable within a democracy or independent state.
Britain has endured as one of the few modern nations to continue the practice of regularly granting official honours, such as the yearly selection of knighthoods granted to chosen members of society.
However, this practice it’s not exclusive to British citizens.
Obtaining a Knighthood
It is possible, in theory, to attain a papal knighthood. These are granted to persons of merit, usually members of the Catholic faith, as decreed by the Pope.
It’s also possible, even within republican countries, to ascend the military ranks to achieve the esteemed honour of a knighthood. Italy, for example, still has this opportunity for advancement to such esteemed status.
France also has a similar path to becoming a knight. Despite being the birthplace of égalité, there is a Legion of Honour, founded by Napoleon Bonaparte, that still grants knighthoods to both military superstars and civilian high-achievers.
While both of these routes require decades of dedicated service, they are occasionally granted to foreign nationals.
Spain also has an ancient order of knights that still grant honours, though this is one of the most exclusive knighthoods in the world, and again demands a life’s work of significant contribution – though there are also opportunities for those claiming a royal bloodline.
There is a lesser-known route to become a contemporary knight, and it’s a method that has its roots in the aristocracy of the Middle Ages, and that is to purchase the title from a verifiable source.
Even during the earliest medieval times, there are stories and records of titled nobles selling on their claim to a knighthood, a practice that was endorsed and even initiated by the heads of state who issued the honours.
There may be far fewer knighthoods available for sale in modern times, but with discernment and funding, it’s possible to purchase the title of knight, and become a peer of the legendary Chevaliers and Ritters, and this opportunity is available to anyone, regardless of status, or origin of birth.
So, it’s not necessary to be British to be knighted.
In the modern world, there are still a few rare opportunities to receive a knighthood in countries other than Great Britain.
Even within British society, while the honour is regarded as a very limited privilege and attainment, it is available to non-British citizens.
Despite the move towards a more egalitarian status for many of the oldest nations of Europe, there are still ways to attain an official noble title within the remaining orders of knights.
In fact, this is one of the incredible advantages of our very own Livonian honours system. The Grand Dukedom of Pomerania and Livonia offers to people of all nationalities the opportunity to be knighted. Anytime a person purchases a Livonian title, as part of the package, he or she will officially acquire the title of Knight or Dame.
While these esteemed and noteworthy titles no longer convey the historic legend or noble birth that are conjured up by King Arthur’s band of gallant subjects, they are still, in the great aristocratic tradition, a symbol of significant exclusivity, achievement or contribution to society, all around the world.