In Westeros,much like our own history, knighthood was more of an idea than a reality. Yes knights existed, but the idea of a true knight was more something to aspire to than actually achieve. Lots of people called themselves knights, but few lived up to the name and title of “Ser”.
In our world, knights are given the title “sir”, a bastardization of the word sire. A knight in Westeros was expected to follow a code not unlike our own knight’s code of chivalry. Knights in The Seven Kingdoms were expected to be brave and just, defend the young and innocent, act cleanly as well as godly, and act with military courtesy. This was not always the case.
In fact anyone in Westeros could become a knight, and often did. From baseborn to bastards, anyone could be made a knight as long as they were knighted by one who was a knight. Westeros was a traditional feudalistic society, and in such a society, upward mobility was almost nonexistent outside of the merchant class. Knighthood was a way for people born in the lower classes to actually improve their situation and gain wealth , land, and title. The Cleganes are a good example of this, as the founder of the house was originally a kennelmaster for Tytos Lannister, Tywin’s father. Tytos was saved from a lioness by Clegane’s dogs and was granted a knighthood and land for this. Sandor never was anointed, and thus was never a knight, but Gregor was a knight, and one could argue his crimes were far worse than anything his brother did.
Just as anyone could become a knight, there were many different types of knights they could become. For example, there were hedge knights, a knight without a master. Like ronin in Japanese society. These masterless knights would travel from master to master plying their arms for food, shelter, and a bit of coin. Unfortunately when the coin ran out many of these most hedge knights put their arms to use by resorting to banditry. Being a hedge knight though did not mean the knight could be any less devout to their code. Ser Dunk the Tall is often considered a pinnacle of knighthood, so much so that he was allowed to have a Targaryen prince as his squire.
The opposite of a hedge knight was a landed knight, who has his own keep and land. They act like an overseer with their own peasants and men-at-arms, and may even take on hedge knights as sworn swords. Landed knights are sworn to fight for the lord who holds dominion over their land, and must respond if called into battle. The more important a landed knight was the more land and vassals he himself would have and be responsible for.
In order to become a knight, one would have to go through being a squire first. Squires are boys who are seeking the path to knighthood. It is at this stage that they learn to properly care for and use of weapons, armor, and horses. It is here they are supposed to learn about Chivalry. When they graduate from this stage, they become knighted by someone who is already a knight.
It is important to note that knighthood in the Seven Kingdoms had a religious component as well as the martial component. Knighthood was tied to the faith of the seven which the Andals brought over with them from Essos during their invasion. During the knighting ceremony the person who is knighting taps his sword on the shoulders of the squire and recites a prayer. This is all that is required, however more elaborate ceremonies involve sleeping in septs at the feet of the alter of the warrior, or being anointed with blessed oils. Since Northerners do not often worship the Seven, they rarely become knights, instead they are called simply heavy Cavalrymen. This does not excuse them from acting with the same ideals expected of a knight. Knights were expected to protect and spread the Faith of the Seven like the Knights of our Middle Ages
Very few actually reach the pinnacle of knighthood, and you will often hear references to someone not being a “true knight”. In fact the ideal knight as described by most in Westeros is Ser Barristan Selmy. However, even he was unable to fulfill his vows, and is considered a traitor by some.
In the end, knighthood is fickle. On one hand you are supposed to follow a code of virtuousness, and on the other you are supposed to follow orders which may contradict your code. This leaves knighthood a bitter taste in many noble mouths.
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