The romantic notion of a ‘knght in shining armour’ is just that – a romantic notion. In reality becoming a knight in medieval times involved a long and difficult apprenticeship, lasting fourteen years from the age of 7 or 8. Once confirmed in the role, the fully fledged knight still had to work hard to retain his title. He was obliged to serve his king in battle and to provide men for the same purpose, or money in lieu of men. He must also supply provisions for the king’s army. When Henry II invaded Ireland in 1172 his fleet of 400 ships contained vast quantities of supplies including food, cloth, animal skins, axes and spades, all of which would have been requisitioned from the estates of many more knights than the 500 who accompanied him.
In more recent times knighthoods are conferred on individuals in recognition of service in many different walks of life, not just the military. According to Debretts there are currently in the region of 3,000 living knights and dames (Dame is the equivalent honour conferred upon a woman).
Difference between Peerage and Knightage
The peerage is a hierarchy of heritable titles ranging from Duke, the highest rank, through Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron to Life Peer. Knghthood is not inheritable. On the other hand, because the other titles can pass down through the generations, they represent honours granted not to the holder but to an ancestor. Until 1999, all hereditary peers had the right to sit in the House of Lords, the British Parliament’s upper house. Now only a small number have that privilege.
In the past, because a peer had the automatic right to membership of the House of Lords, he was forbidden to stand for election as a member of the House of Commons. This rule threw up an interesting case in the 1960s. In 1942 William Wedgewood Benn was created a Viscount on the advice of Winston Churchill, in order to increase Labour party representation in the wartime parliament. In 1950 his son, Anthony, was elected MP for Bristol South East. On his father’s death in 1960, Anthony inherited the title and could no longer sit as an MP. He campaigned for the right to renounce the title and, in 1964, succeeded. He was thus able to once again become an MP, after which he went on to hold a number of ministries in various Labour governments.