The term ‘knight’ is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word (cniht) which means a household retainer. The English first used the word to describe the French nomads who came to England after the Norman Conquest in 1066. They were warriors who fought on horseback; many of the nobility employed them to perform household duties in peace time and to fight when trouble arose. When enemy forces threatened an area, the common people often fled to the castles and strongholds of the nobles, where they placed themselves under the defence of the Knights. Knighthood attained a high practical value with the growth of the vassal-lord relationship in the feudal system in Europe during the Middle Ages. Under the feudal system, land was granted by the lord in return for service, and part of this service was the provision of fighting knights who could defend the lord from military attack. In feudal times the knights were ministers of the poor and underprivileged and often challenged the ruling class in their behalf. There were several qualifications for knighthood.
The aspirant must be of good family background, mainly from the nobility, a young man of means, educated, often from childhood, in the art of fighting on horseback. In many cases, the candidate left his family and was adopted by the nobility who sponsored his riding and military training by veteran knights. Before attaining knighthood, the young man had to serve an apprenticeship as a page or valet, while he learnt the rules of conduct, and then as a squire or shield bearer for a knight while he learnt the art of war. He also had to pass through the ceremony of knightly investiture, which usually took place at Christmas, Easter or Pentecost. Sometimes, the investiture, like field commission, took place on the field of battle. In the course of the Middle Ages, there arose soldiers of the Cross who did not or could not possess the necessary property qualification. These took part in the Crusade – the Holy war against Muslims. To these the honours and benefits of knighthood could hardly be refused on the grounds that they did not possess sufficient property qualification. It was thus that the conception of knighthood as something distinct from feudalism arose and gained ground.
During the Crusades the great Orders of monastic knights sprang up. Prominent among these were the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem founded in 1113, the Knights Templars, organised in 1118 and the Teutonic Order of Knights, begun in 1190. These Orders of Knighthood were actually religious Orders which were at the same time military in character. As such, the knights took the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and shared the immunities of monks. They were directly under the Holy See. Following this, in many countries of Western Europe, the Kings founded knightly Orders, usually with religious ideals, though without the monastic vows, and dedicated to the service of the King. Many of these Orders became important as honours even after knighthood as a military institution had disappeared. Thus in England, the Orders of Knights of the Carter and of the Knights of Bath have continued to the present day. In Austria and Spain the most famous Order was that of the Golden Fleece founded in 1429; in Italy the Order of the Annunziata founded in 1362 by the Count of Savoy.
Almost all European rulers, including the Pope and the German princes, after the Crusades, developed Orders of Knighthood as decorations and reward, and in recognition and appreciation of active service to the Church and/or to the state and to humanity. From the foregoing, it can be seen that the granting of Papal honours to members of the laity for distinguished service and as a means of recognizing and rewarding loyalty is a very ancient custom in the Catholic Church. These honours were once conferred mainly in the framework of the Supreme Order of Christ and the Order of the Golden militia or Golden Spur. Noble lineage was then normally required in the recipients. If this could not be proved, the recipients were ennobled by the Orders into which they were admitted. In the sixteenth century, the Papacy founded several Collegia Militum (Colleges of Militia), all of them short-lived. Thus, among others, we find the collegium Sancti Petri (College of St. Peter), established by Leo X in 1520. In his Preface to Understanding the Catholic Knighthood by Bro. Goddy Chiweobi, KSJ, Rev. Dr. A.E. Onyeocha remarked that although the Collegium Sancti Petri possessed the characteristics of chivalry, “in reality it was a society of gentlemen engaging themselves to give financial help to the Roman Curia and receiving in return honours and tributes”.
In 1540 Paul III set up the Collegium Militum Sancti Pauli (College of St. Paul’s Militiamen) and in 1546 the Knights of the Lily. Pius IV founded the Pian Knights in 1559. In 1586 Sixtus V established the Leuretan Knights whose aim it was to defend the Holy House of Loreto, the reputed house of the Holy Family of Nazareth, which according to tradition was translated (from Nazareth) to Fiume in Ilyria in 1291, thence to Recanati in 1294 and finally to the estate of a certain Lady Lauretta, who gave the name to the town of Loreto, situated three miles, from the Adriatic in Central Italy. In the two following centuries and in the early 1800s several other minor institutions, all short-lived, appeared in the Papal States, mostly of an honorary kind. Among these were the Equestrian Order of the Morettor founded by Pius VII to honour the Chairman of the Academy of painters, sculptors and architects, and the Equestrian Order of St. Cecilia, established by Pius IX in 1847, to be awarded to the four guardians, the chairman, the secretary and the camelengo of the Musical Academy of St. Cecilia. Following the suppression of nobility and the privileges associated with it in the nineteenth century, and the increase of abuses perpetrated in the bestowal of awards, nobility titles, privileges and favours of all kinds of delegated bodies or individuals, as well as the appearance of State Orders of merit in Europe, the Papacy decided to reform its own system of conferring honours on well-deserving persons, basing it on the new criterion of personal merit and worth.
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