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The Franks

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The Franks

You have probably heard about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, and you probably know that they are just a fictional story. But knights actually existed and were part of the Franks. They were different from what you imagine, so let’s take a look at who they were, how you could become a knight, and what knights did.

The Frankish empire

The Franks were a West Germanic group of people, made up of different tribes, which originated near the Lower Rhine region. The name ‘Franks’ is first found in third-century Roman sources. However, the different tribes that eventually made up the Franks were known by individual names long before that.

The Franks began migrating from northern Europe into Gaul where they started establishing the Frankish kingdom. Despite some struggles with the Romans, the Franks were influenced by them and they adopted aspects of the Roman identity and Christianity. Over time, their Germanic tongue evolved into French.

In short: the Franks started out as Germans but eventually became French over the course of their existence. Just remember that the French people of today are not descended from Franks as they are a mix of different peoples from the past.

Gaul is a region of western Europe. It encompasses present-day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, and parts of Northern Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany.

The Franks Frankish Kingdom StudySmarterFigure 1: Frankish Kingdom - Hel-hama, Sémhur, CC-BY-SA-.3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0, Wikimedia Commons.

The king of the Franks

Eventually, the Roman Empire collapsed and in the Middle Ages that followed, two dynasties emerged:

  1. The Merovingian Dynasty: ruled by King Clovis I, who united all the Franks in 509.

  2. The Carolingian Dynasty: ruled by Pepin the Short, who was crowned in 751 as King of the Franks after the Merovingian Dynasty was overthrown.

The most famous Frankish King was Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great.

The Franks developed the concept of the knight, with the first knights appearing during the reign of Charlemagne.

The Franks Lithograph of King Clovis StudySmarterFigure 2: Lithograph of King Clovis, Wikimedia Commons.

The Franks Portrait of Charlemagne StudySmarterPortrait of Charlemagne, Wikimedia Commons.

Who were the Frankish knights?

The Frankish knights were the most powerful units of the Frankish army. They were heavily armoured cavalry.

The origin of the knights

It is unknown precisely where the term ‘knight’ itself came from. The French word for ‘knight’ is ‘chevalier’ which is derived from the French word ‘cheval’ meaning horse, which makes sense as the knights fight on horseback.

For thousands of years, there have been soldiers fighting on horseback, but actual knights came into being in the eighth century during Charlemagne’s reign. Knights fought for their lords who in turn fought for their king, and a knight would typically have 40 days of service per year.

Charlemagne granted lands to his best knights for agreeing to fight for him, a system that helped with the development of the feudal system. Rewarding knights for services became standard practice for many kings throughout Europe for the next 700 years.

Feudal system

A type of social and political system where landholders provide land to tenants in exchange for their loyalty and services.

Becoming a knight

As a man, you could become a knight by demonstrating your bravery on the battlefield or you could also become an apprentice to a knight by following this career path:

  1. Page: around the age of 7, the boy would go and live in the household of a knight. He would perform tasks such as serving meals and carrying messages. He would also start learning archery, horsemanship, and sword fighting.

  2. Squire: anywhere between 10 and 14 years of age the page would become a squire. He would be doing muscle work such as cleaning the stables, and brain work, such as learning the codes of knightly conduct, and combat practice.

  3. Knight: around the age of 21, after having proved his bravery and skill in battle, a squire would become a knight. He would take an oath to honour and protect the King and the Church, and he would be given a pair of riding spurs and a sword. These were simple ceremonies but they would become more elaborate during the times of The Crusades.

However, not everybody could become a knight. The first requirement of a knight was that you had to be able to afford the weapons, armour, and a warhorse. Considering these were not cheap, it was often the nobility and aristocrats who became knights.

Knighthood was also hereditary, so it could be passed down from father to son. Of course, the son would have to be trained to become a knight.

Looking and fighting like a knight

The armour and weapons used by the Frankish Knights became the standard for all future knights.

Armour

A knight’s armour changed over the centuries:

  • In the early Middle Ages, the Franks used leather armour, like the Romans. It was expensive but since it could be easily shaped and hardened by boiling it in water, it was quite effective in stopping wounds related to sword-fighting. It was, however, vulnerable to thrusts and arrows.

  • Later on, knights started wearing chain mail, again, like the Romans. It was easy to make and relatively effective in stopping a slice from a weapon. It was, however, vulnerable to pointed weapons. The coat, trousers, gloves, and shoes could all be made from chain mail, which would then cover the entire body except for the face. A full suit of armour made entirely from chain mail could weigh up to 30 pounds (13.5kg).

  • In the latter half of the Middle Ages, knights started wearing plated armour. It provided the least amount of movement but the maximum amount of protection. It was not until firearms were developed that the plated armour became ineffective.

They would wear a sleeveless coat over the top, which would allow them to show off his family colours and/or coat of arms.

Coat of arms

The colourful decoration that knights had on their shields and outfits. A coat of arms is traditionally unique to an individual person, family, or estate.

Their horses got protection too:

  1. A simple cloth, which sometimes covered the horse’s head and ears.

  2. A two-piece coat of chain mail, with one piece for the front and one piece for behind the saddle. A padded helmet, plate head covering, armour plate of metal or boiled leather to protect the chest.

The Franks Full plated armour StudySmarterFull plated armour, Photolitherland, Wikimedia Commons.

Weapons

A knight used several different pieces of weapons over the centuries:

  • Lance: a long wooden pole with a metal tip. Due to the length of a lance, it could only be used while on horseback. It could be used to knock an enemy knight off his horse.

  • Sword: this was the preferred weapon once a knight had dismounted his horse (or was thrown off) or if his lance had broken. Some used a one-handed sword and a shield, while others preferred the larger two-handed sword.

  • Mace: a club with a big steelhead used to crush an enemy.

  • Longbow: these came into use later and became a major part of winning battles during the Middle Ages. The reason was that knights could now attack from a distance or from castle walls.

Fighting style

The main attacking weapon was the lance. At first, the lance was light and short and could even be thrown, but from about 1100 onwards a lance was carried under the arm, so it could now be longer and heavier. This meant that an opponent could be attacked from a further distance and with the lance being heavier, the knight had a better chance of knocking their opponent out of the saddle.

A knight would open combat with the lance, but since a lance normally breaks upon the first impact, they would switch to a sword afterward.

Being on a horse gave a knight an enormous advantage over foot soldiers due to their height (from being on a horse) and the speed they could charge with.

There are no real records about specific tactics or formations they used, but modern reconstructions can give us an idea.

The army would enter the battlefield in an orderly fashion. They would usually be divided into three groups with the commander in chief in charge of the one on the rear.

The armies were mostly made up entirely of officers, who tended to be ill-organised, ill-disciplined, and prone to insubordination.

Who are the most famous Frankish knights?

The most famous Frankish knights were:

  1. Bertrand du Guesclin: he was a fourteenth-century Frankish knight who proved his excellence in many battles and conflicts. He defended Rennes against an English attack, successfully secured French influence in Navarre (Northern Spain), and played a key role in recapturing English-controlled regions in France.

  2. Geoffroi (Geoffrey) de Charny: also a knight from the fourteenth century. He was known as the embodiment of knightly ideals. He participated in many battles during the French-English war, and he also wrote a number of books. He died on the battlefield while carrying the French banner.

  3. Hugues de Payens: a Frankish knight who in 1118, established the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, which later became known as the Knights Templar.

  4. Jaques de Molay: a Frankish knight who joined the Knights Templar towards the end of the crusades, in the thirteenth century. He participated in a number of battles and he was famously known for being the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. In the early fourteenth century, the Knights Templar were eliminated and Jaques de Molay was sentenced to death for heresy and other charges.

  5. Godfrey of Bouillon: a Frankish knight who was one of the most passionate participants in the First Crusade. He sold all his lands to Pope Urban II so he had enough money to furnish an army of 40,000 soldiers. He was one of the most prominent people who helped capture Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099, and he was later proclaimed as ruler of Jerusalem.

  6. Raymond IV of Toulouse: a powerful nobleman and knight who was one of the leaders of the First Crusade.

  7. Roland: an important and influential Frankish military leader under Charlemagne. Immortalised in La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland). He was the hero in this eleventh-century epic poem.

The Knights Templar

The Knights Templar were the most famous of the Frankish knights and a Catholic military order.

Who were the Knights Templar?

The Knights Templar were the fighting elite of their day. They were highly trained, well-equipped, and highly motivated.

The Knights Templar are also known by other names:

  • The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.

  • The Order of Solomon’s Temple.

  • The Templars.

Not all members were warriors though. Many had a supportive role where they would acquire resources to be used to fund and equip the knights fighting on the front line.

Those who were sworn in as knight templar were made monks. They were not allowed to:

  • Have property.

  • Receive private letters.

  • Be married or betrothed (engaged).

  • Have any other vow in any other order.

  • Have more debt than he could pay.

  • Have any infirmities, meaning no physical or mental weakness.

This combination of soldier and monk was a powerful one and they considered martyrdom one of the most glorious ways to die.

Martyrdom

The suffering of death on account of adherence to a cause and especially to one's religious faith.

Why were the Knights Templar necessary?

In 1099, towards the end of the First Crusade, the Franks had captured Jerusalem from the Muslims. With Jerusalem in Christian hands, devout Christians from western Europe went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem but many were robbed or killed along the way while crossing Muslim-controlled territories.

Frankish knight Hugues de Payens wanted to protect these pilgrims, and so in 1118, he created a military order with eight relatives and acquaintances. They called it the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. They would later be known as the Knights Templar, as we mentioned above.

In 1139, Pope Innocent II issued a papal bull giving the Knights Templar some special rights:

  • They could pass freely through all borders.

  • They were exempt from paying taxes.

  • They were permitted to build their own chapel for private worship.

  • They would answer only to the Pope.

Papal bull

An official document or letter from the Pope (in Roman Catholicism).

The Franks Drawing of the Knights Templar StudySmarterDrawing of the Knights Templar, Wikimedia Commons.

The Knights Templar in battle

As we mentioned before, the Knights Templar were highly skilled and motivated, and saw dying on the battlefield as something glorious. They were not allowed to retreat from the battle unless outnumbered three to one, and even then only when they got the order from their commander or if the Templar flag went down. This combination meant that the Knights Templar were feared by the enemy.

A key tactic that the Knights Templar used was called the ‘squadron charge’. This is where a small group of knights would gather into a tight unit and gallop at the enemy at full speed with sheer determination and force. This made it clear to the enemy that the knights would rather die than fall back. This tactic would scare the enemy soldiers causing them to break a hole in their lines and giving the Crusader forces an advantage.

Even though the Knights Templar were relatively small in number, they would join other armies in key battles and were usually the ones to tip the balance in favour of the Crusader army. They would either ram through the enemy’s front line at the beginning of the battle, therefore creating an opening and chaos, or they would ram through the fighters that would protect the enemy’s army from the rear.

The Knights Templar’s most famous victory

One of their most famous victories was in 1177 during the Battle of Montgisard. Some 80 Templar knights and their entourage came to the aid of Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, and his 500 knights and only a few thousand infantry. They would take on the army of Muslim leader Saladin, consisting of 26,000 soldiers. Saladin made the mistake of letting his army scatter to pillage the surrounding villages. The Knights Templar saw this as their opportunity and struck hard. By the end of the battle, Saladin had but a tenth of his army left.

Were the Knights Templar the first bankers?

Fighting was not the only thing the Knights Templar did. Even though they were sworn to individual poverty, they were given control of wealth beyond just direct donations. What did that mean? When a nobleman wanted to participate in the Crusades he could place his assets under Templar management. Through this, the Knights Templar amassed wealth throughout Christendom and the outremer. In 1150, they began to issue so-called ‘letters of credit’ for pilgrims. When someone wanted to go on a pilgrimage, they would deposit their valuables at a local Templar preceptory and they would receive a document that indicated what was given and its value. With this document, the pilgrim could then retrieve his or her funds upon arrival in Jerusalem. So, basically, a ‘letter of credit’ is like a modern-day cheque.

Outremer

Comes from the French word outre-mer, meaning overseas. Outremer refers to overseas territory.

Preceptor

A monastery of the Knights Templar.

The pilgrims were now much safer on their journey to Jerusalem because they were not carrying valuables and therefore it would less likely for them to be robbed or killed. In the meantime, those valuables left in Templar care would contribute to the Templar coffers.

The end of the knights

By the end of the Middle Ages, knights became obsolete and were no longer an important part of the army. This happened for two main reasons:

  1. Many countries had formed their own standing armies. These were quicker to train, cheaper, and easier to mobilise.

  2. Warfare changed. The advancement of high-powdered firearms meant that armour was no longer enough. It also took less time to train someone to use a firearm than it took to train someone to become a knight.

Standing armies

A permanent, often professional, army.

These things led to the end of knights in France as we know it. That being said, Napoleon founded the Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honour) in 1802. To enter as the first rank of Knight (Chevalier), one must have served a minimum of 20 years of public service or 25 years of exceptional professional distinction.

Frankish Knights - Key takeaways

  • The Franks were a West Germanic group of people whose language evolved from Germanic to French due to Roman influences.

  • The French people of today are not direct descendants of the Franks.

  • The first Frankish knights appeared during the reign of Charlemagne.

  • Knighthood could be bestowed upon you or a boy could become one by following this career path:- Page: from age 7.- Squire: between the ages of 10 to 14.- Knight: from the age of 21.

  • In 1099, Frankish Knight Hugues de Payens established the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon which would become the famous Knights Templar.

  • The Knights Templar were there to protect Christian pilgrims going to the Holy Land (Jerusalem).

  • The decline of the knights happened towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Franks

The Frankish knights were the most powerful units of the Frankish army. They were heavily armoured cavalry.

They were a West Germanic group of people. The Franks, however, adopted aspects of Roman identity like Christianity and Latin. Therefore, over time, their Germanic tongue evolved into French. So, you can say that they started out as German but turned French over the course of their existence. It is worth noting that the French people of today are not direct descendants from the Franks.

The names of the three Frankish kingdoms are:

  1. East Francia/Frankia

  2. Middle Francia/Frankia

  3. West Francia/Frankia

This depends on which event you choose to be the end of the Frankish kingdom:

  1. The treaty of Verdun in 843 and the creation of West Francia. This would make Louis I (Louis the Pious) the last king of the Franks.

  2. The election of Hugh Capét, Count of Paris and Duke of Île-de-France as King of France in 987. This would make Louis V the last king of the Franks.

Charlemagne.

Final The Franks Quiz

Question

Who were the Franks?

Show answer

Answer

They were a West Germanic group of people that originated near the Lower Rhine region.

Show question

Question

Are the French of today direct descendants of the Franks?

Show answer

Answer

No, they are not. The French come from a different mix of people.

Show question

Question

Which 2 main dynasties emerged in the Middle Ages?


Show answer

Answer

  1. The Merovingian Dynasty

  2. The Carolingian Dynasty

Show question

Question

Who was the most famous Frankish King?


Show answer

Answer

Charlemange

Show question

Question

When did knights first appear?


Show answer

Answer

In the eighth century, during Charlemagne’s reign.

Show question

Question

What was a knight’s career path?

Show answer

Answer

  • Become a page at age 7

  • Become a squire between the ages of 10 to 14

  • Become a knight at the age of 21

Show question

Question

What is a coat of arms?

Show answer

Answer

The colourful decoration that knights had on their shields and outfits. A coat of arms is traditionally unique to an individual person, family, or state.

Show question

Question

What were the three types of armour over the centuries?


Show answer

Answer

  1. Leather in the early Middle Ages.

  2. Chain mail later on in the Middle Ages.

  3. Full plated armour in the latter half of the Middle Ages.

Show question

Question

Which two types of protections could a knight’s horse have?


Show answer

Answer

  1. A simple cloth, that might cover the horse’s head and ears.

  2. A two-piece coat of chain mail. A padded helmet, plate head covering, and armour plate of metal or leather to protect the chest.

Show question

Question

What four types of weapons would a knight use?


Show answer

Answer

  1. Lance

  2. Sword

  3. Mace

  4. Longbow

Show question

Question

Who was Hugues de Payens?


Show answer

Answer

He was a Frankish knight who, in 1118, established the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon which later became known as the Knights Templar.

Show question

Question

What was a Knights Templar not allowed to do or have?

Show answer

Answer

  • Have property.

  • Receive private letters.

  • To be married or betrothed.

  • Have any other vow in any other order.

  • Have more debt than he could pay.

  • Have any infirmities.

Show question

Question

Why were the Knights Templar needed?


Show answer

Answer

They were needed to protect Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, as they would often be robbed or killed on their journey.

Show question

Question

Which Pope issued a papal bull for the Knights Templar?


Show answer

Answer

Pope Innocent II

Show question

Question

When did the Pope Innocent III issue his papal bull?


Show answer

Answer

In 1139

Show question

Question

What special rights did this papal bull grant the Knights Templar?


Show answer

Answer

  • They could pass freely through all borders.

  • They were exempt from paying taxes.

  • They were permitted to build their own chapel for worship.

  • They would answer only to the Pope.

Show question

Question

By which time did knights become obsolete?


Show answer

Answer

By the end of the Middle Ages

Show question

Question

Why had knights become obsolete?


Show answer

Answer

  • Many countries now had their own standing armies

  • Changes in warfare

Show question

Question

What is the name of the modern knighthood that can be bestowed on someone after having served a minimum of 20 years of public service or 25 years of exceptional professional distinction?


Show answer

Answer

Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honour)

Show question

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