A Kingdom of Too Many Knights

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

Knights. Fully harnessed for battle or for jousting, or clad in dazzling silks and gallant brocades whilst flaunting themselves in court, the sheer iconic value of the knight of the late Middle Ages is unmatched. It isn’t hard to undertand why, when it comes to choosing what to reenact, everyone immediately points to the top of the social pyramid. This has led to an overabundance of knights and noblemen in reenactment, compared with historical reality – paradoxically so, considering how many hundreds of euros (or pounds, or dollars, or the monetary unit of your choosing) these portrayals cost.

Having said that, there was a kingdom where there were knights by the bucketload; a kingdom where becoming a knight almost became a viable profession, a guaranteed path up the social ladder. That kingdom of too many knights was Portugal in the 15th century.

Honour and profit

Researching Portuguese nobility is a royal pain in the arse. Though they accounted for less than 1% of the Portuguese population in the 15th century, according to the best estimations [1], they were divided into a multitude of ranks and denominations – some social, some legal, some institutional. At the head were the ‘Grandes do Reino’ (Grandees of the Realm) – princes, of course, all of them dukes in the 15th century; and then counts, marquises, etc. Almost all of them belong to the so-called ‘nobility of blood’ : descendants of great lineages, some as old (or even older) than the kingdom itself.

Most of the nobility, however, consisted of cavaleiros (knights) and escudeiros (squires). Among them were the descendants of the upper echelons, of course – knights so dubbed in recognition of the status of their forefathers (son of knights, a knight in time you’ll be). This was the most usual way of attaining knighthood, of course; it was far from being the only one.

Morocco, the knight-making machine

In Portugal, before the beginning of the 15th century, being made a knight was a real honour and a privilege. Becoming a knight wasn’t something you wished for; only the king could make them, and investitures were rewards for great services rendered to the Crown (valorous feats in battle, generally), or for services whose benefits the Crown intended to reap later on.

After Ceuta was conquered in 1415, the scenario changed radically. King D. João I had always shown a propensity towards knight-making – before the battle of Aljubarrota, the monarch ‘fazia em tanto caualleiros quaaesquer que o seer queria’ [ 2], which he did again in Tui in July 1398 [3] -, but Ceuta was the complete turning point when it came to investitures. For D. João I, the conquered city made for the perfect backdrop against which to knight his children, an honour he extended to the children of several noble families close to the royal family, and also to a few fortunate plebeians lucky enough to be caught up in the celebratory spirit of the proceedings: D. João I knighted so many men that, according to the chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zurara, ‘ataa que corn emfadamento os leixou defazer’ [4].

An outpouring of joy, then, and a new batch of knights to go with it. Though the ranks of nobility did swell considerably that day, that event in itself was not the problem. The problem was that Ceuta, an isolated bastion in Africa, was the only place where war-prone, battle-seeking Portuguese nobles could go to, as it were, get it out of their system. Between 1398 and 1475, there were no wars with neighbouring Castile; domestically, and apart from the sad incident of Alfarrobeira in 1449, Portugal was as peaceful and stable throughout the 15th century as any European kingdom could be. Consequently, any and all martial feats could only take place in Morocco, and take place they did: the successive campaigns in Africa are an example of this, as are the cities the cities that were taken, and a few military disasters along with them. Interspersed between the great military landmarks there were small skirmishes, raids and pillages, the violent game of tag between enemy corps of cavalry. And with the king in Lisbon, who created new knights in Africa? Logically and a logistically speaking, there was only a solution: the king’s delegate on the spot, the captain of Ceuta, D. Pedro de Meneses [5], and every subsequent captain after him. It’s true that men are needed in Africa, and knighthood has very practical implications (which we’ll get to later). But there are too many military exploits, too many brave heroes to be knighted, and so investitures lose their value. They become almost a formality for the men in Africa, a career bonus that rewards military service overseas.

And so we come to one of the main routes, if not the main route, for attaining knighthood in 15th century Portugal. In Morocco, knights are dubbed left and right, for the smallest of reasons – so much so that certain noblemen refuse to be made knights in situations they perceive to have been less prestigious than intended [6].

A stereotype of King Afonso V of Portugal, the knight who dubbed the most knights, in the Grand Armorial de la Toison d’Or.

‘A mor parte da gente destes regnos’

In addition to noble blood and martial feats, there was yet another path to knighthood. After all, not all services to the Crown consisted of sticking it to the Moors. At a time of increasing administrative and economic complexity, many scholars, royal officials, royals administrators and even (the horror! The shame!) great merchants and burgesses were granted the rank of knight. The great nobles complain about these ‘stepping stones’; the king ignores them, and does nothing. In fact, he makes it worse: Afonso V gives away gifts and honours as if he expected the world to end soon, and during his reign he makes new knights ‘em sobeja e desordenada regra‘ [7]. And a knight – any knight – has to be paid for his services.

A record of all knights in the kingdom was kept in Lisbon. This record had two functions: to confirm a given person’s knightly status, obviously, and to know whom the king owed a certain amount (a ‘contia’ or ‘tença’ – essentially, a pension) to ensure that a knight was properly equipped in times of war, and properly attired in times of peace. Add to that the many benefices and gifts only knights were due (in addition to pay during a military campaign), and this policy’s practical results are simple to understand: too many knights draining the kingdom’s coffers dry. And what do the nouveau riche do with a steady influx of money? They spend it, of course; they squander it, they get into debt, and make fools of themselves when they’re called to war and barely have the means to equip themselves, let alone their men. Worse: for those with no great fortune before being raised to knighthood, the ‘contias’ were barely enough to cover the expenses that came with the job . The Grandes complain  to Afonso V in the Cortes (the Portuguese parliament) of 1472, trying to quash these poor knights, these ‘fidalgos de usurpação’ (noblemen by usurpation): ‘Senhor, vossa alteza vê quanto é dissoluta a cavalaria em vossa terra e quanta despesa se vos delos segue (…) Vossa mercê queira em esto prover (…) que qualquer que fizer cavaleiro homem que não tenha conhecidamente por hu manter o estado da cavalaria do seu lhe dê per onde a mantenha, porque o direito da cavalaria assi o quer (…)’ [8]. Any knight worth his salt has to keep up appearances (not to mention fulfill his obligations), which is difficult to do without money in his purse.

Finally, it is worth mentioning ‘escudeiros (squires) and ‘vassalos’ (vassals). I mentioned earlier that there were ‘escudeiros’ of noble blood. During the second half of the 15th century, there were also many ‘escudeiros’  and even a few knights who were anything but: ‘cavaleiros-vilãos’ (‘knight-villeins’) to whom the label was a good fit, or wealthy burgesses who took up the status nobody knows exactly how or why. They weren’t doing it for the ‘contias’ or the ‘tenças’, which, without their being recorded in the proper books, they had not way of receiving. No; these plebeian knights and squires were particularly interested in the social and fiscal privileges that came with the name – exemptions from payments and certain obligations -, of which they availed themselves whenever and wherever they could.

Little wonder, then, that in a letter sent in 1482 by King D. João II to the captains he expressed his frustration regarding Portugal’s surfeit of knights (most of whom could be blamed on his father), saying: ‘A mor parte da gente destes regnos são cavaleiros’ [9] . An exaggeration, of course, but not without is reasons.



[1] See the estimates in Sousa, A. (2007). A Monarquia Feudal (1096-1480). História de Portugal, Volume IV. Rio de Mouro: Círculo de Leitores, pp. 145-147.

[2] ‘Made as many knights as there were those who wanted it’. In Lopes, F. (1977). Crónica del Rei Dom João I da boa memória. Parte Segunda. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, cap. XXXIV, p. 71. Fernão Lopes adds, further on, that not all of the newly-minted knights were nobles by birth, as one would expect.

[3] Lopes, F. (1977), op. cit., cap. CLXXIV, p. 374.

[4] ‘Until he eventually grew tired and stopped’. In Zurara, G. (1915). Crónica da tomada de Ceuta por el rei D. João I. Lisboa: Academia das Ciências de Lisboa, cap. XCVI, p. 25.

[5] See Duarte, L. M. (2003). “África”. In Teixeira, N., and Barata, M. Nova História Militar de Portugal. Volume 1. Rio de Mouro: Círculo de Leitores, p. 414.

[6] (‘The young go so far as to refuse being knighted because they didn’t think a particular skirmish was heroic enough, and because it was well-known that, a few days afterwards, another such opportunity was sure to come along’ (‘Os jovens dão-se ao luxo de recusarem ser armados cavaleiros, depois de uma peleja, porque ela não lhes pareceu suficientemente heróica, e porque era certo e sabido que, poucos dias depois, haveria nova oportunidade’), in Duarte, L. M. (2003), op. cit., p. 415.

[7] ‘In excess and [in] disorderly fashion’. The remark is included as part of the first Chapter of the Peoples of the Cortes of 1472-1473, in Dias, D. (2014). As Cortes de Coimbra e Évora de 1472-73 – Subsídios para o estudo da política parlamentar portuguesa [Masters Dissertation]. Coimbra: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra, p. 124.

[8] ‘Sire, thou seest how dissolute knighthood is in thine land, and how much expense thou incurest from them (…) We ask that thou determinest (…) that whosoever makes a man a knight who is known not to have enough to maintain the status of his knighthood by himself, then giveth him [to that knight] what is necessariy to maintain it, for the right of knighthood so requires it (.. .) “Capítulos Gerais da Nobreza, in Dias, D. (2014), op. cit., p. 110.

[9] ‘Most of the people in this kingdom are knights’. In Chaves, A. (1983).  Livro de Apontamentos (1438-1489). Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional da Casa da Moeda, p. 170.



Chaves, A. (1983).  Livro de Apontamentos (1438-1489). Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional da Casa da Moeda

Dias, D. (2014). As Cortes de Coimbra e Évora de 1472-73 – Subsídios para o estudo da política parlamentar portuguesa [Masters Dissertation]. Coimbra: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra

Lopes, F. (1977). Crónica del Rei Dom João I da boa memória. Parte Primeira. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda

Sousa, A. (2007). A Monarquia Feudal (1096-1480). História de Portugal, Volume IV. Rio de Mouro: Círculo de Leitores

Teixeira, N., and Barata, M. (2003). Nova História Militar de Portugal. Volume 1. Rio de Mouro: Círculo de Leitores

Zurara, G. (1915). Crónica da tomada de Ceuta por el rei D. João I. Lisboa: Academia das Ciências de Lisboa


Anonymous (second half of the 15th century). Grand Armorial de la Toison d’Or. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms-4790 réserve


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