The Medieval Nobles and Their Fierce Fighting Methods

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., The College of William and Mary

Nobility underwent many changes during the High Middle Ages, and for the first time, knights entered the noble class. Thanks to new technologies, medieval nobles became known as formidable warriors. Learn of their methods as well as the benefits bestowed to nobles.

Noble knights statues
Statues of noble knights in wall niches at Buda Castle in Budapest, Hungary. (Image: Photograph by Mstyslav Chernov/Public domain)

The Ranks Within Nobility

If you had examined medieval nobility around 1300, at the end of the High Middle Ages, you would have noticed that there were various ranks or layers within that nobility. At the bottom, some ordinary knights may have had modest landholdings, or might not have owned any land at all; the latter might have had to live in the households of other, more powerful nobles.

You would have noticed that above the knights, there were individuals known as “castellans,” or nobles who possessed castles.

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It might have been one castle or possibly a small collection of castles. Together, knights and castellans formed the lower stratum of medieval nobility around 1300.

Above the knights and castellans were the barons. As the highest level of medieval nobility, barons included people with titles such as “count,” if one ruled over a county; “duke,” if one ruled over a duchy; perhaps “marcher,” if one lived in a dangerous frontier and was expected to protect it; and kings, for they, too, were part of the medieval nobility.

Whatever the title—knight, castellan, count, duke—all nobility shared one thing in common: the medieval nobility was a warrior class with a common manner of fighting.

The nobility was also a largely illiterate class. This class of illiterate warriors differed greatly from the aristocracy of the Roman Empire. Roman senators were highly educated, highly literate, and largely civilian—they would rather have killed someone with a witty insult than by lopping their head off.

Medieval nobility was also different from early modern nobles, who were the foppish, highly educated, and a largely civilian aristocracy in Europe.

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How Medieval Nobles Fought

Battle of Tewkesbury by MS Ghent as illustrated in the Ghent manuscript
Medieval nobles fought as knights did: on horseback, wearing heavy armor and weapons. (Image: Tewkesbury/Public domain)

That the nobility fought was not what separated them from other segments of society. Townspeople fought and peasants occasionally did so.

What set nobles apart was the very distinctive manner in which they fought; theirs was a style that was not shared by other classes. Nobles fought as knights did: on horseback, in heavy armor, using swords, and especially, lances wielded in a particular way.

A nobleman fought with a lance that was couched: tucked underneath the arm, pointed at an opponent, and then driven into the opponent with the full weight of the bearer, his armor, and his horse behind it.

Considerable controversy surrounds the question of when this technique of fighting arrived in Europe. It was very effective, and much to the advantage of any who could afford the requisite equipment and training.

The knightly method of fighting appears to have developed in Europe during the 8th and 9th centuries, but the transition to that style of combat was much slower than was once believed.

Perhaps due to their natural conservatism, warriors were slow to abandon older methods of fighting, which did not involve couching the lance and charging into an opponent. Traditional combat methods instead meant swinging the lance overarm and underarm, hurling it, or simply jabbing the opponent with it—none of which carried the same impact as the newer methods.

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Developing the Knightly Fighting Method

As late as the 11th century, some nobles continued to cling to the older, less effective methods of fighting. It was not until about 1100 that the transition was truly complete. As for why the knightly method of fighting developed in Europe, the reason is technological.

Two technological developments during the 8th and 9th centuries enabled fighters to couch their lances and to charge into their opponents.

The first technological change was the infamous stirrup. Riders had considerably more balance in the saddle with stirrups, control over their mounts, and freedom of their hands and hand movements.

Just as important as the stirrup, though, was something known as the high-backed saddle. If you charged into your opponent, without a high-backed saddle and with the lance tucked under your arm, your mount would continue without you.

You would be left, at best, hanging in the air, in a cartoon-like manner. More likely, you would be thrown off the back of your horse and killed. The high-backed saddle rose up behind the posterior of the knight so he could withstand the shock of riding into someone while carrying a lance.

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How Nobility Changed in the Middle Ages

From 1000 to 1300, the medieval nobility was a warrior class. The fact that this particular group could fight more effectively than anyone else is what separated nobles from the rest of society.

Hardly stagnant, however, the nobility underwent two important, noteworthy changes between 1000 and 1300.

The first concerns the definition of “nobility,” and what that title conferred upon the bearer. Around the year 1000, the meaning of the term “noble” was vague. By 1300, it had become precise and much more exclusive than it had been prior.

The second change dealt with the composition of nobility. In Europe in the year 1000, ordinary knights were not considered “nobles.”

If you had addressed a count, a duke, or a king with the title of “knight,” you probably would have been physically assaulted for it. Knights had a lowly reputation.

By 1300, the situation had changed. Knighthood was an honorable vocation, and all members of the nobility, whatever their title, gloried in using the title of “knight.”

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The Shifting Meaning of “Noble”

The change in the meaning of the definition of “nobility” signals a change in the perception of those who carried the title.

The word “noble,” or nobilis in Latin, existed in the year 1000. There are individuals called “noble,” and the word already had a long history behind it.

Around the year 1000, however, the meaning of the word nobilis was vague. There were no rules in existence to determine who should be called “noble” and who should not.

Furthermore, the title of nobilis conferred no specific benefits to the individual. Nothing accrued to you because you used the title of nobilis.

The social definition of the world had shifted by 1300. If you were considered nobilis, you enjoyed certain specific, legal privileges that medieval nobility would continue to cling to through the Late Middle Ages. This carried through even into the early modern period, long after the nobility had abandoned its military role in Europe.

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Benefits of Being a Noble

The privileges that were now attached to the term nobilis, which members of the nobility claimed for themselves and received, included the right to be beheaded. The right to be beheaded might seem like an odd right to request, but in fact, it was a cherished right, compared to the alternatives.

Execution by beheading was quick and honorable. It was better than burning, which was painful, and reserved for the worst sorts of criminals. Beheading was also preferable to hanging, which was slower, and humiliating, since a body would be displayed for mockery days or weeks afterward.

Beheading of the Duke of Somerset in 1471 at Tewkesbury.
Beheading of Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset in 1471, painted by Ghent master (late 15th century). (Image: Ghent master/Public domain)

More lucrative than the right to a quick and honorable death was the noble right to escape the payment of taxes. By 1300, nobles had claimed that they should have the right to avoid paying royal taxes, or municipal taxes if they happened to reside in a town.

While nobles’ claims were not always respected, they often were. Medieval nobles claimed that their military service fulfilled their societal obligation—it would be redundant for them to fight and also pay taxes. The noble exemption from taxation would have a long and contested future ahead of it in European history.

Nobles did not always get every privilege that they claimed during the High Middle Ages. They tried to claim an exclusive right to vengeance, for example, in the case of personal injury.

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If you were assaulted, only if you were noble could you assault the person who assaulted you, or the person’s family or friends. The habit of vengeance was too widespread in medieval society for it to be given only to nobles, but the nobility at least attempted to claim it.

Common Questions About Medieval Noble Warriors

Q: Why did people fight in the Middle Ages?

People in the Middle Ages fought primarily as a means of self-defense; for instance, they needed to protect themselves from invading forces. They also fought as a means of securing resources, as poverty was rampant during that time. In some cases, though, as with the nobles, they fought primarily out of greed. The nobles had enough to eat, yet they used their superior weapons to acquire resources from the less fortunate.

Q: Did knights fight in full armor?

Medieval knights fought in full armor, which could be divided into two categories: chain mail and plate armor. Chain mail was composed of metal rings. Plate armor had an advantage as it protected the body from swords and arrows better than chain mail. Its disadvantage was that it was bulkier and heavier than chain mail, hampering the warrior’s agility.

Q: Why were knights important in the Middle Ages?

The Middle Ages were a violent, turbulent time. Knights served as protection for the upper class, primarily kings and nobles.

Q: How did knights fight in reality?

Battles between the knights would involve the knights charging toward one another on horseback. The goal was to stab or dismantle the other using a lance.

This article was updated on December 2, 2019

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