What Rank Is a Knight?

What Rank Is a Knight?

In the intricate meshwork of societal structures, hierarchy plays a crucial role. The realm of medieval knights, marked by chivalry, bravery, and honor, is no exception. The knight rank system, with its various knight rank names, can be puzzling, especially when discussing the highest knight rank. Let’s delve deeper into this intriguing subject.

Historical Background of Knights

Knights were, by definition, members of the warrior class in the Middle Ages, recognized for their expertise in combat, loyalty to their lords, and commitment to the principles of chivalry. The rise of knights in the 9th and 10th centuries was closely linked with the evolution of European feudalism. Throughout the ages, knights have evolved from military professionals to honorary titles bestowed upon individuals for their significant contributions to society.

What Social Rank Is Knight?

The social rank of a knight in medieval society was pivotal, situated below the nobility but above the commoners. A monarch or a lord granted the title of ‘knight,’ recognizing an individual’s military prowess, personal merit, or service. Knights often hailed from the lower nobility or wealthy families who could afford the expensive armaments and horses.

In the feudal system, knights were vassals to their respective lords or monarchs, offering military service in exchange for land or fiefs. This arrangement allowed knights to acquire wealth, influence, and, often, the ambition to elevate their social status to higher nobility.

Despite their lower rank in the noble hierarchy, knights commanded respect and admiration for their martial skills and adherence to the chivalric code – principles that dictated their conduct, including bravery, loyalty, and generosity.

In the later Middle Ages, the creation of knightly orders led to stratification within the knights, with some ranks considered nobler than others. Knights of these orders held a high social class, often equivalent to high nobility.

In contemporary society, a knight’s title, such as those conferred in the UK, symbolizes honor and prestige. It doesn’t necessarily denote social rank as in medieval times, but it is a mark of recognition for the recipient’s significant contributions to society. Such knights hold a special esteem, adding a modern dimension to this historical social rank.

Are Knights Above Lords?

In the hierarchical structure of medieval society, knights were not above lords but typically below them. The title of ‘lord’ was often associated with land ownership and political authority, while ‘knight’ was a military rank.

Lords were landowners and often held the power to knight individuals. Knights were generally vassals to their respective lords or monarchs, serving them in exchange for protection or land grants known as fiefs. Thus, in the feudal context, knights were generally subordinate to lords.

But it’s crucial to note the nuanced and complex nature of medieval hierarchy. Some knights, particularly those associated with powerful knightly orders or those who had achieved significant military success, could amass considerable wealth and influence, sometimes rivaling lower-ranking lords. Also, there were instances when knights were lords, blurring the distinction.

In today’s society, the titles of ‘lord’ and ‘knight’ are largely ceremonial, with ‘lord’ still suggesting a higher social rank. But, they carry different connotations: knighthood is usually granted for outstanding achievements in various fields, while lordship often indicates a hereditary or appointed position in the aristocracy.

The Knight Rank System

The system of ranking knights mirrors the complex, hierarchical society of medieval times, reflecting the prevalent societal stratification. Knights occupied a special and significant place in this structure.


Before becoming knights, they would have to be squires, typically serving in this role from adolescence until early adulthood. As squires, they learned about weaponry, horseback riding, and the codes of chivalry and etiquette. Once the squire proved their courage and skills, they were promoted to the rank of a knight.

Knights Bachelor and Knights Banneret

Upon attaining knighthood, the knight rank system was divided into two categories: Knights Bachelor and Knights Banneret. Knights Bachelor were the most common type of knight, typically serving a liege lord or the king. They were the fundamental units of the chivalric order and formed the backbone of the medieval army.

Knights Banneret were higher in the pecking order, conferred directly by the king or a significant nobleman, usually on the battlefield. They were permitted to lead troops under their banner, distinguishing them from Knights Bachelor.

Orders of Knighthood

From the 12th century onward, Orders of Knighthood emerged as a new layer in the knight rank system. These were brotherhoods of religious and secular knights united under a common cause or patron. Famous orders included the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller, and the Order of the Garter. Orders had their hierarchy, with the highest rank being Grand Master or Sovereign.

Knight Rank Names

The titles and rank names associated with knighthood vary significantly based on geographical location and historical period. Some common knight rank names include Chevalier (French), Ritter (German), and Caballero (Spanish). In England, knights were addressed as “Sir,” followed by their first or full names.

Ranks within Orders

Inside Orders of Knighthood, rank names were often specific to the organization. For example, within the Order of the Garter, ranks included Knight Companion, Ladies Companion, Supernumerary Knights and Ladies, and Royal Knights and Ladies. Each of these ranks held unique privileges and responsibilities within the order.

Women in Knighthood: The Role of Dames 

The history of chivalry is often synonymous with knightly valor, yet the narrative predominantly features male figures. However, the concept of women in knighthood, designated by the title ‘Dame,’ is an intriguing aspect of chivalry that has become prominent over the centuries.

In the Middle Ages, women could not traditionally become knights, as knighthood was a military role, and women were largely excluded from military service. Nevertheless, there were notable exceptions, like Joan of Arc, who didn’t officially hold the title but exhibited knightly qualities.

The inclusion of women in chivalric orders started in the late Middle Ages with the creation of ‘lady’ ranks. Women, primarily of noble birth, were appointed to these positions as a form of recognition and honor, but they did not share the same duties and rights as their male counterparts.

In modern times, the role of women in knighthood has evolved significantly, aligning with societal shifts toward gender equality. The United Kingdom, in particular, has taken strides to recognize the contributions of women to society.

The rank of ‘Dame’ in British Orders of Chivalry, equivalent to ‘Sir’ for men, is conferred upon women who have made significant contributions to society. The two senior ranks in most British orders are ‘Dame Grand Cross’ and ‘Dame Commander.’ Distinguished figures like Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren, known for their immense contributions to performing arts, and Dame Jane Goodall, a renowned primatologist, exemplify the role of Dames in modern knighthood.

Modern Dames carry forward the chivalric ideals of service and honor, representing them in various fields, from arts, sciences, sports, and public service to humanitarian efforts. Their roles echo the core values of medieval chivalry—courage, justice, and service—yet adapted to the context of modern society, proving that the essence of knighthood transcends gender boundaries.

Ranks of Knights Templar

The Knights Templar was one of the most influential Christian military orders during the Middle Ages. The order was established in 1119 to protect Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land during the Crusades. It quickly grew in power, wealth, and influence. Understanding the ranks of the Knights Templar provides a glimpse into the order’s complex internal structure, which played a crucial role in their operations.

The Templar rank system is comprised of three main levels, each with distinct responsibilities and roles.

  1. The Noble Knights: These were the knights who came from noble families. They served as the military force of the Templars, wore distinctive white mantles adorned with a red cross, and adhered strictly to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Each knight had a squire to assist them, often a young noble training to become a knight.
  2. The Sergeants (or serving brothers): These members of the order were usually from non-noble backgrounds. They wore black or brown robes and performed a variety of roles within the order, including administrative tasks, tending to the order’s estates, and serving as men-at-arms to support the noble knights in battle.
  3. The Chaplains: The Chaplains were the ordained priests of the order, responsible for holding religious services, maintaining the spiritual health of the knights, and managing correspondence with the Church and other spiritual matters.

Above these three ranks was the order’s leadership, composed of the Grand Master, the Seneschal, and the Marshal. The Grand Master was the highest authority, making key decisions and representing the Templars. The Seneschal acted as the Grand Master’s deputy, and the Marshal was in charge of individual commanders and the order’s military operations.

This structure allowed the Knights Templar to operate effectively across Europe and the Holy Land, combining a powerful military force with a network of estates, farms, and other economic interests that funded their activities.

Order of Chivalry Ranks

Orders of Chivalry originated during the Middle Ages, primarily as religious and military institutions dedicated to service, charity, and warfare under the codes of chivalry. Each order typically had a hierarchy of ranks, reflecting the structure of medieval society. The exact titles and roles could vary between different Orders of Chivalry, but a common system prevailed.

At the lower end of the order were Knights or Dames. These individuals made up the bulk of the membership in an order and were responsible for the order’s core duties. Depending on the order’s mission and historical period, this could include military service, charity, or other services.

Above the Knights were the Commanders. These members had demonstrated greater commitment or service to the order and were often responsible for commanding groups of knights, overseeing properties, or managing other administrative tasks.

Next in line were the Grand Officers. This rank was often divided into several specific roles, such as the Grand Chancellor (overseeing administration), the Grand Hospitaller (overseeing charity and medical services), and the Grand Marshal (overseeing military matters). These roles could vary between orders.

At the top of the order was the Grand Master (also known as the Sovereign) and the Lieutenant Grand Master. The Grand Master was the ultimate authority in the order, making key decisions and representing the order to the outside world. The Lieutenant Grand Master acted as a deputy, ready to take on the role of Grand Master when necessary.

In the present day, most Orders of Chivalry have lost their military function and operate primarily to recognize service and merit. The ranks are now often symbolic, reflecting the level of the recipient’s service rather than a functional hierarchy. However, the importance of these ranks remains significant, symbolizing the enduring prestige and honor associated with the chivalric tradition.

English Knight Ranks

Understanding the English knight ranks offers an insightful exploration into the layers of British chivalric hierarchy. While steeped in history and tradition, the system has adapted over the centuries to reflect the changing society and values.

England’s most basic form of knighthood is the Knight Bachelor, awarded by the monarch for public service or other forms of merit. Unlike other forms of knighthood, the Knight Bachelor does not belong to any specific order.

The Orders of Chivalry represent a higher tier of knighthood, each with its unique rank system. The most senior is the Order of the Garter, instituted by Edward III in 1348. The members of this order, limited to the Sovereign and 24 Knight Companions, occupy the pinnacle of British chivalric hierarchy.

The Order of the Bath, established by George I in 1725, includes three classes: Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GCB), Knight/Dame Commander (KCB/DCB), and Companion (CB). Knights and Dames, Grand Cross, and Commanders use ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’ before their names.

The Order of St. Michael and St. George was intended for service in foreign affairs, and the Royal Victorian Order, a personal gift from the monarch, also followed a similar classification of ranks.

The Order of the British Empire, founded by George V in 1917, is the most commonly awarded. It consists of five ranks: Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight/Dame Commander (KBE/DBE), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE). The first two ranks are entitled to use ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame.’

Over time, these English knight ranks have evolved from military distinctions to recognition of significant contributions to the nation in various fields. The prestige associated with each rank signifies society’s profound respect and gratitude towards the individual’s service and achievement.

What is the Highest Knight Rank?

The highest knight rank considered the chivalric order’s pinnacle, varies based on the context. In the context of medieval armies, the Knight Banneret held a higher position than the Knight Bachelor. Yet, within the Orders of Knighthood, the highest rank was typically the Grand Master or Sovereign. These ranks represented the absolute authority within the order, possessing the power to make decisions and lead the knights.

The Grand Master was the head of monastic military orders like the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. These positions were usually for life, combining both military and religious leadership. On the other hand, the Sovereign was the head of orders like the Order of the Garter, often held by a monarch or a powerful noble.

Still, the highest knight rank in prestige and honor, especially in modern contexts, is the knighthood conferred by a monarch or a state, recognizing outstanding contributions to the country or humanity. Notable examples include the British knighthoods (Knight Bachelor, Knight Commander, etc.) in the Orders of Chivalry.

From Battlefields to Royal Courts: The Evolving Roles of Knights 

Knighthood, as a historical institution, originated in the turbulent times of the early Middle Ages when warfare was a dominant aspect of life. Knights were then primarily warriors, epitomizing martial prowess and courage. Their principal duty was to their lord, and they took part in military campaigns, defended territories, and participated in tournaments showcasing their combat skills.

As knights were typically granted lands or “fiefs” by their lords in exchange for their military service, they also undertook the role of local rulers or lords, managing their lands, ensuring law and order, and administering justice. This aspect emphasized their importance in medieval society’s social and political fabric.

On the other hand, as centuries rolled on, the role of knights began to change. With the end of the Crusades, the emergence of professional armies, and the evolution of warfare technology, the military necessity of knights started to diminish. Concurrently, the concept of chivalry began to permeate into the culture of royal courts, and the figure of the knight started to be associated more with ideals of courtly behavior, nobility, and virtue.

By the Late Middle Ages, knighthood had become a symbol of social status. The tournaments evolved into grand social events, more of pageantry than martial tests. Knights were expected to uphold chivalrous virtues such as honor, gallantry, courtesy, and fidelity. They became ideal figures in courtly romances and were seen as protectors of the weak and defenders of justice.

Today, knights are no longer warriors or lords. Modern knighthood primarily serves as a form of honor conferred by monarchies like the UK to individuals for their exceptional contributions in various fields. Science, arts, public service, and more domains have replaced the battlefield. However, the essence of service, courage, and honor—the foundational principles of knighthood—still resonate in these contemporary knights, linking them to their historical counterparts in an unbroken chain of tradition and prestige.

Knights in Contemporary Times

In contemporary times, the concept of knights has changed dramatically. The aggressive nature of knights has faded, and the honor of knighthood is now often bestowed for significant contributions in various fields such as arts, sciences, politics, or charitable activities. Titles like “Sir” or “Dame” in the UK signify this honorary status. In this modern context, the hierarchy is less defined, with the focus shifted from the order of ranks to the recognition and celebration of extraordinary contributions and achievements.

Conclusion: The Everlasting Prestige of Knighthood

Despite the shift from feudal societies to democratic states, the allure and prestige of knighthood remain. From Knights Bachelor and Knights Banneret to the Grand Masters and Sovereigns of the Knight Orders, each rank plays a significant role in the narrative of chivalry and honor. In the present day, these knight rank names have been transformed into titles of respect for those who have made significant contributions to society, embodying the spirit of medieval knights in a modern context. The highest knight rank, irrespective of its name or associated order, represents the pinnacle of recognition, honor, and respect in society.