Were Knights Rich or Poor?

Were Knights Rich or Poor?

Throughout history, the term “knight” has come to represent chivalry, honor, and nobility, evoking images of men in gleaming armor valiantly defending their king and kingdom. Yet, the reality is more complex and varies significantly across different periods and regions. The question of whether knights were rich or poor has no straightforward answer. It can, however, be explored through various historical contexts and examples, including one of the most notorious orders of knights, the Knights Templar.

Were Knights Lower Class?

Knights occupied a unique place in the hierarchy of medieval European society. They were typically not classified as a lower class. Still, they fell into the lower nobility category, sitting below the higher ranks of nobility, such as earls, dukes, and kings.

Knighthood was tied to military service, and it was often a position attained by individuals who could afford the expensive equipment necessary for warfare. This typically meant that knights were drawn from families of some wealth, usually landowners.

Yet, being a knight was not solely about wealth or birth. It was also about service and duty. Knights were expected to uphold the code of chivalry, serve their lord faithfully, and protect the weak and innocent. These responsibilities set them apart from the commoners and placed them within the sphere of the nobility.

That said, there was a significant economic disparity among knights. Some were wealthy landowners with considerable influence, while others may have struggled to maintain their status due to the costs associated with their role. But even the poorest knight was still considered a member of the nobility, not the lower class.

Could Poor People Become Knights?

The possibility of poor people becoming knights in the Middle Ages was quite slim but not entirely impossible. Knighthood was typically granted to individuals who could afford the expensive requirements of the role, including armor, weapons, and horses. As such, it was often restricted to those from wealthier families.

But there were exceptions to this rule. One route for a person of lesser means to become a knight was through exceptional bravery or skill in battle. On rare occasions, a commoner who displayed extraordinary courage could be knighted on the battlefield. This was usually a decision made by a lord or even the king. Such a scenario was the exception, not the rule, but it did provide a potential path to knighthood for those from lower economic backgrounds.

It’s also worth noting that knightly orders, such as the Knights Templar, accepted members based on their religious commitment rather than their economic status. These orders concerned a potential knight’s piety and military ability more than his wealth.

Even in these cases, however, the newly minted knight would still need the means to support the lifestyle and duties of a knight. This could potentially be facilitated by the patronage of a lord or the support of a knightly order, but it remained a significant hurdle.

So, even though the vast majority of knights came from wealthier backgrounds, there were limited avenues for less affluent individuals to attain this status. Yet, they were few and far between. 

The Socioeconomic Position of Knights

Knights were originally defined not by their wealth but by their military role. In the medieval era, becoming a knight involved swearing an oath of loyalty to a lord and promising military service when required. Knights were usually from the lower nobility or even from wealthy commoner families that could afford the expensive arms, armor, and horses necessary for warfare.

How Rich Were the Knights?

In the early Middle Ages, a knight was not necessarily rich. Many were modestly wealthy landowners who could bear the cost of their equipment. Still, they weren’t usually among the upper echelons of society in terms of wealth or influence. They primarily relied on the income from their lands and the spoils of war to maintain their status and lifestyle. But knights’ status and wealth could vary considerably as time progressed.

By the High Middle Ages, the idea of knighthood had begun to take on more romantic, noble, and wealthy connotations. Knights, particularly those who served in the retinues of powerful lords, could amass significant wealth. This wealth was often tied to their lord’s granting of lands or benefices as a service reward. These estates provided the income to sustain the knight’s lifestyle and military commitments.

Were All Knights Rich?

Despite the romanticized image, not all knights were rich. It was common for knights to struggle with maintaining their expected lifestyle. The cost of armor, weapons, horses, and squires was high. Knights who lacked income from significant land holdings or didn’t receive sufficient rewards from their lords often faced financial hardship.

Could Knights Become Nobles?

Knights were already considered part of the nobility in the societal structure of the Middle Ages, albeit the lower nobility. However, a knight could ascend to higher ranks of nobility, such as becoming a baron, an earl, or even a duke.

Typically, such advancements occurred through a combination of factors. Demonstrating exceptional bravery, skill, or loyalty on the battlefield could garner a knight the favor of his lord or king. Marriage into a higher-ranking family was another avenue to ascend the social ladder. Also, in cases of significant service to the crown or the realm, a king might bestow higher nobility as a reward.

An excellent historical example is William Marshal, who began his life as a landless knight but rose to become one of the most powerful men in England. He served four kings loyally, was granted the title of Earl of Pembroke, and served as regent for the young King Henry III.

Nonetheless, such ascensions were not commonplace. The societal structure was generally rigid, and upward mobility was limited. But a knight could rise to become a higher-ranking noble in certain circumstances.

How Much Did Knights Get Paid?

Knights were not paid, as we understand today, with a regular salary or wage for their services. Instead, they received compensation in a variety of forms that differed from our modern concept of payment.

The most common form of ‘payment’ was through the grant of land or a “fief” from a lord. This land, often inclusive of the peasants living on it, was given to the knight in return for his military service. The knight could then generate income from this land, whether it be through the collection of taxes, harvests from the farms, or other sources. The land provided the financial means necessary for a knight to maintain his military equipment, horses, and household.

The size and value of the fief varied widely depending on the knight’s standing, the wealth of the lord, and the need for military service. A knight serving a powerful and rich lord could expect to receive a large and productive estate. However, a knight serving a less affluent lord might receive a smaller fief or none at all.

In addition to land, knights could acquire wealth through the spoils of war, including money, precious metals, jewels, and other valuable goods. Capturing high-ranking enemies could also lead to lucrative ransoms. Yet, these sources of wealth were inconsistent and dependent on the outcomes of battles and wars.

It’s also worth noting that knights had significant expenses, including the cost of their armor, weapons, horses, and the maintenance of their households. So while they might have been ‘paid’ well by our standards, their expenses were also high. Therefore, comparing a knight’s ‘payment’ with current salaries or wages can be challenging.

Was It Expensive to Be a Knight?

The costs associated with being a knight in the medieval era were quite high. Knighthood was not just a position or a title but a lifestyle requiring significant expenses.

Firstly, the armor a knight wore was costly. A full suit of plate armor, popular during the late Middle Ages, could cost the equivalent of a small fortune. This cost was not just for the initial purchase but also for ongoing maintenance and repair. In addition, as technological advancements were made in warfare, knights would need to continually upgrade their armor to remain effective on the battlefield.

Knights also had to maintain a stable of warhorses. These were not just any horses but specially bred and trained for warfare. A knight would have needed at least two or three: one for riding, one for carrying equipment, and one for battle. The costs of purchasing, feeding, housing, and caring for these horses were substantial.

Then there were the weapons. A knight needed a range of weapons, such as swords, lances, and daggers. These had to be high quality, durable, and often custom-made, contributing further to the expenses.

Another significant cost was the upkeep of the knight’s household. Knights were expected to live according to their status, which meant maintaining a household that included not just their immediate family, but also a retinue of servants, squires, and sometimes even clergy. The cost of feeding, clothing, and providing for these people was another considerable expense.

Finally, knights were expected to participate in tournaments, which, while offering potential rewards, also involved high costs in terms of travel, lodging, and possible ransom if they were ‘captured.’

In the end, being a knight in the medieval era was a costly proposition, and maintaining the knightly lifestyle required a steady influx of resources.

The Case of The Knights Templar: An Exception to the Rule

The Knights Templar, also known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, stands out as an intriguing case study of the financial status of knights. Despite their vow of personal poverty, the Order itself grew to become incredibly wealthy.

How Rich Were the Knights Templar?

Founded in 1119, the Knights Templar grew from a small, humble order of knights protecting Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land into a vast, international organization. At the height of their power, the Templars owned vast estates across Europe and the Middle East. They were not just an order of knights but also an economic powerhouse with a network that stretched from England to the Holy Land. The Templars’ wealth was so vast it was said to rival that of kings.

How Did The Knights Templar Get Rich?

So, how did the Knights Templar become rich? The Templars’ wealth was primarily accumulated through donations. Initially, these came from religiously devout pilgrims grateful for their protection. Over time, the donations became larger and more frequent. As the Templars gained recognition for their piety and military success, nobles and even monarchs began donating land and wealth to the order. 

Another significant source of wealth was the Templars’ involvement in banking. As they protected the routes to the Holy Land, they developed an early form of banking, where pilgrims could deposit assets in their home country and withdraw the equivalent in the Holy Land. This made the journey safer for pilgrims and provided the Templars with additional income.

Their growing influence and wealth came with a price. The Templars’ enormous power aroused the jealousy and fear of European monarchs, culminating in their suppression in the early 14th century. Most infamously, King Philip IV of France, heavily indebted to the Templars, instigated their downfall. He leveled false charges of heresy against the order, leading to their dissolution by Pope Clement V and confiscating their wealth.


In the end, were knights rich or poor? We see that knights were as diverse as the societies they lived in. While some knights did attain considerable wealth, others struggled to maintain their knightly obligations. Their wealth was often tied to their service, rewards from their lords, and income from their lands.

The Knights Templar, on the other hand, provides a unique example of an order of knights that, as an organization, accumulated vast wealth. Their transformation from a modest order of knights to a financial powerhouse illustrates how, in certain circumstances, knights could attain a level of wealth and power that extended far beyond the battlefield. Yet, their story also provides a cautionary tale of how such wealth and power can invite envy, fear, and downfall.