Knights had an analogue organization in modern America. Ostensibly they were there to protect the weak, orphans, widows, and the poor, later to reclaim Jerusalem for Christianity. Often they were little more than killers, other times they were cagey military contractors, and once in a while they performed their mission. In reality they were given to rampages beyond the battlefield. Knights scared noblemen, noblemen who figured out that they had to bring them under their authority and also have their own loyal knights. They were the worst part of the military industrial complex. They built reputations around themselves and their code of conduct served largely as smokescreen to their true motives. There may have been a few Lancelots. There were many many more Knights like the Dark Prince who was a mercenary, led knights as mercenaries, and took both bribes and military contracts, all rendered one way or another with military power exercised on rivals.
Knights first had no political position. It took a while before these organized heavy cavalry became a tool in feudalism. Technically William The Conqueror formed the first Knight order, he learned the same thing that Medieval kings and warriors learned for the next 700 years: the horse is an incredibly important weapon particularly when you have vast distances to travel and armies to defeat. In between 1066, the Battle of Hastings, and 1095, the First Crusade, knight warfare was cementing itself into European militaries. Today we watch combat aircraft take off or tanks rumble through a desert and can imagine the fear this would inspire. In the middle Ages, charging knights sent opposing armies fleeing for the hills. Like the modern weapons of today, knights were expensive. Horses were expensive. Training horses was expensive. So noblemen had to pay for knights, and their training and equipment. Knights began to wear body armor and so rivals developed weapons that could penetrate chain mail, like the needlepoint spear and arrow, and the crossbow. Then knights began wearing hardened metal armor covering themselves top to bottom. On and on went the arms race.
The amount of cash a nobleman had to have to wage war created a wartime economy for craftsmen. People who worked in iron, steel, brass or copper, leather, forging, and artists of all kinds all made money on the Knights. Even an artist did well because like all martial arts practitioners, an ego was involved and a class system demanded that people distinguish themselves. Armor was forged, adorned, improved on. Noblemen had to wage warfare like a politician has to get elected in America. He had to have backers, investors, money, loot, however it came, even by violence.
Like the Roman arena, knights began tournament play to test their skills, create a betting economy, and of course for fame and fortune. In the middle ages, a knight was more than just a weapon, he was a star, and his halo would affect the way people looked at not only him but also the King he served. It’s interesting to note that the ornamentation that the knight wore on his helmet was there to identify him. It is believed that fame was as important to the knight as is to a modern day movie star or a cable pundit. In medieval Japan similarly Samurais wore unique flags to identify their clans and themselves. The jousting tournaments were a bigger affair than the Disney-esque tournament. They took up acres of land, and sometimes entire villages were used for what ended up being actual combat. Jousting tournaments were there for people to be distracted, to be entertained, to bet on, to train future knights and to help nobles and craftsmen to develop better weapons. Tournaments were the test ranges, in effect.
It really wasn’t until 1296 that Raymond Lull, a Catalan author, mystic, and poet formalized a code of conduct for Knights. He called it Chivalry from the French word Chevalier, or horseman. Edward III even set up a court of chivalry where-in matters such as how much one owed someone else for a bet on a tournament, or who can marry the widow of a fallen knight, were decided. Edward III’s son, the Black Prince, laid siege to a castle that rebelled against his rule. He allowed the Knights inside to be saved and them murders all 3000 men women and children. So everyone began to catch on that being a Knight was an entry into a better position in society. You can kill people for not believing in Jesus. You can be spared because you’re good at something, you live better than most and your life means more.
An interesting note about Knights during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) is that the defeat of mounted French Knights by English longbow men was an affront to the class society. Bowmen were commoners. Their weapons were cheap and plentiful and required little special training to use. Bowmen were anonymous, had no special accommodations and suffered the privations of commoners and infantry all over Europe. Knights were glorious, technologically advanced, well, a cut above the commoner. They had friends in high places, girls in every castle and money. At Crecy, in 1346, English longbow columns put 300,000 arrows into the air over French Knights in the first few minutes. They cut down the best of the best for France. In some ways it was not unlike the Mujahadeen shooting down $10 million Russian aircraft with a $25,000 weapon fired by a goat herder.