The fairytales so beloved by children all around the world often have a heroic male character whose bravery and honour triumph over the perilous dangers to valiantly win the fair maiden and save the day. 

In many traditions, this fabled hero is a variation of a medieval knight – a strong and fearless warrior, skilled on horseback and willing to fight to the death to save his king, queen, country, honour, or the love of his life. 

But where did the stereotype of the virtuous knight originate? What are the traditions of chivalry associated with the knights of old? And what is the role of knighthoods in today’s contemporary society? 

The Noble Rank Of Knight

This fantasy of the traditional chivalrous knight is based on centuries of history within the various noble systems of the world, in which a knight was a close ally of a king or lord, adopting the role of a kind of bodyguard and right-hand-man rolled into one. 

The official rank of Knight ultimately came to be regarded as a valid title within many systems of aristocracy both in Europe and beyond. 

Towards the latter years of the traditional system of nobility, the rank of Knight was regarded as a lower-ranking noble, comparable to other aristocratic titles of a similar calibre such as Lord, Baron and Baronet. 

While the precise position of a noble knight within the social hierarchies may have fluctuated over the centuries, one characteristic of this unique avatar has endured throughout the ages – that of virtuous chivalry. 

The Early Knights

The modern-day stereotype of chivalrous knights is likely to be based on the traits and qualities of the Knights Templar. 

This early order of medieval Knights was established to protect the Christian pilgrims as they travelled to and from the Holy Land during the period of the Christian Crusades around the 12th and 13th century. 

Conquest of the Orthodox city of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204
Conquest of the Orthodox city of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 – David Aubert (1449-79), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to the emergence of the Knights Templar, the public image of mounted militiamen was much less honourable, frequently being associated with less virtuous traits such as violence, bribery, theft and extortion. 

The Knights Templar transformed the perception of an armed warrior on horseback, elevating the tainted image of petty thugs and bullies into that of the hero in shining armour that we are more familiar with today.

The Traditions Of Chivalry

As the earliest knights were commissioned to protect the vulnerable, it’s not surprising that they became regarded as courageous heroes. The fact that many of these early orders of knights were established by the Roman Catholic Church also explains why so many of the characteristics of knighthood align with typical Christian values and virtues.  

These honourable traits became known as the traditions of chivalry, but they ultimately encompassed far more than the simple role of a protector on horseback. 

Over the centuries, the traditions of chivalry commonly associated with knights included such honourable values as;


Military prowess

The Evolution Of Knighthoods

In their earliest incarnations, knights were close companions of the kings and leaders, often fighting alongside their sovereigns or serving as their protectors and guardians. 

The earliest knights would have been highly-skilled warriors, familiar with the field of battle and trained to prove their mettle in the wars that raged throughout the medieval periods. 

Over time, the day-to-day role and duties of a knight evolved from that of an active military protector to become more of an honourary role for nobles and aristocrats. 

While the rank of knight endured throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance period, the role of knights moved away from the battlefields and the perilous paths en route to the Holy Land. 

Instead, the lifestyles of many of the later knights were more akin to the lavish lifestyles of history’s royal courts and noble societies. 

Enduring Virtues And Courtly Values

While the role of a knight became less about military action as society evolved over the centuries, the traits and traditions of chivalry that knights had long been associated with still endured. 

The skilled horsemanship that knights had become famous for may not have been required so urgently for fierce battles and wars over territory, yet these skills were still lauded and applauded by many – both in royal circles and in the working classes. 

Jousting competitions were one of the most beloved forms of entertainment during the Middle Ages, and once again the knights could be the hero of the hour through their victories and skill on horseback. 

As civilised noblemen, many of the later knights would also uphold the legacies of virtue and honour that their forebears had been so famous for, often vowing personal duties and commitment to the safekeeping of vulnerable groups. 

Modern Knights And Modern Values

While the official rank and title of knight does still exist in modern society, the role is a far cry from the fearless warriors of history and fable. 

In today’s society, knighthoods are often granted by sovereigns or heads of state as an act of recognition for particular merit or contribution. These awards are also bestowed upon people from all walks of life, no longer the preserve of the military or the aristocracy. 

Much as the earliest knights were selected for their impressive contribution to king and country, modern knighthoods are granted to those who have proven themselves in the various fields of commerce, science, social works or the arts. 

While these contemporary knights may no longer be recognised for their fearless courage or skilled horsemanship, some of the old traditions of chivalry do remain. 

For example, in the New Year Honours List – the traditional allocation of new knighthoods that takes place in Britain every year – many of the candidates are applauded for their good works and lifelong devotion to worthy causes. 

These modern knighthoods may no longer call to mind the fairytale heroes of the Middle Ages, yet they still evoke many of the traditions of chivalry and honour that all knights and nobles would be proud to possess.