The knights of old have long been evocative figures of history. The chivalrous heroes on horseback that populate the most cherished myths and legends have become a much-loved stereotype, both for the people of medieval times, when the orders of knights first emerged, right up to the present day.
Fables, fairy stories, literature and modern movies all revel in the stories of courage and honour represented by the knights of history – both real and imagined.
Over the centuries, the image of a knight has become simplified into a generalised character. It’s usually represented by a valiant and chivalrous military champion, mounted on a fine horse, clad in steel armour, and bearing a flag or banner.
Yet these modern interpretations are a simplification of the many types of knights and formal orders that evolved over the ages. While the earliest knights may have shared a similar rank, over time, a hierarchy evolved to distinguish the varying levels of status and achievement within the knightly orders.
While we may still be familiar with the notion of contemporary knighthoods, some of these distinctions have endured to modern times.
Here are some insights into the evolution of the hierarchy of knights throughout the ages, as well as the comparable ranks and titles that exist today.
Medieval Knight Ranks
The rank of Knight Bachelor dates back almost a thousand years. During the early Medieval period, before the formal orders and ranks of knights were established, the most basic or common type of knight – the one that many likely call to mind when imagining the knights of old – was the Knight Bachelor.
This rank is considered to be the lowest-ranking type of knight in what would come to be the hierarchy of knighthood.
The rank of Knight Bachelor did not always represent a novice knight or a young knight, but rather it related to a degree of criteria within the hierarchies that served to recognise knights of higher status, standing or achievements.
Beyond the basic level of a Knight Bachelor was a type of knight who was deemed to be of higher rank, and was entitled to carry a banner – hence the term, banneret.
This elevation within the hierarchy of knighthood was usually in recognition of outstanding military performance, often involving the attributes of courage, bravery and honour for which the esteemed knights of old became renowned.
The upgrade from a small pennon (type of flag on a lance) carried by the Knights Bachelor, to a larger square banner, was both significant and symbolic.
In the fields of battle, the distinctions worn or carried by the knights meant that they could be easily identified in both their allegiance and their status.
A Knight Commander, as the name suggests, was in charge of a group of knights. This rank was similar to that of a general within the military, or to use a contemporary example, the equivalent of a higher managerial position within a company.
As the social esteem of knights became more established during the Middle Ages, the rank of a Knight Commander was a considerable achievement.
Over the ages, a great number of Order of Knights became established around the world, and before a definitive formal structure became established, there was considerable variety in the terminology and the details of the ranking systems.
For example, some other comparable terms for a Knight Commander were Grand Officer, Grand Commander, Commander 1st Class and Commander with Star.
Knight Grand Cross
This knightly rank was historically regarded as the highest position within the hierarchy of knighthood. It’s a rank that has become more well-known and prominent in recent times, and is still an esteemed honourary title today.
In a similar pattern to the variations of a Knight Commander, the rank of Knight Grand Cross was alternatively styled as Commander Grand Cross, Grand Cordon or Grand Collar.
However, the Grand Cross rank is one that has become the most established in modern terminology and remains one of the eminent ranks and titles within the order of knights that have endured to the 21st century.
Modern Knight Ranks
These days, all knighthoods are honourary titles – there’s no requirement for the newly knighted to leave their homes and embark on crusades or join the field of battle in service to the monarch.
Yet the modern chivalric orders still follow a pattern of hierarchy which has its roots in the ancient knights of old.
There are still a number of Orders of Knights that exist around the world, and one of the most famous is the British system which regularly makes headlines as it appoints new members to its ranks.
Within the most well-known – the Order of The British Empire – the rank and order of titles is a direct reflection of the hierarchies of knighthood that emerged during the medieval period.
For example, the most basic honour is the Knights Bachelor, which enables the recipient to be styled as a Sir, but doesn’t include the right to use any letters after the name. This rank is similar to the ‘entry-level’ of knighthood that the ancient Knight Bachelors would have known.
Similarly, the Knighthoods Grand Cross – and their female equivalent, the Damehoods Grand Cross – are regarded as the highest class of honours within the modern British Order of Knights. This esteemed title brings with it the privilege to use the styling of a Sir or a Dame, and also the right for the recipients to use the post-nominal letters of GBE to signify their achievement and social elevation.
(There are a number of variations at this level of honour that reflect the different orders. For example, in the case of the Royal Victorian Order, the letters after the name would be GVCO, i.e. Grand Cross of the Victorian Order. Likewise, the post-nominal letters would be GCMG for the Order of St Michael and St George.)
The story of the hierarchy of knighthoods is as rich and historic as the stories of the greatest knights of myth and legend. How these ranks and systems of hierarchy evolve provides a fascinating glimpse into the evolving world of knights and noble ranks. It also provides an enduring legacy that continues to live on in the many esteemed modern Orders of Knights and their contemporary awards.