I've read recently about “distraint of knighthood” law in medieval England started by Henry III but I found it very strange indeed. This law forced all rich people who has 40 £ or more to be knighted by the king or pay fine instead. However, many of those rich people were not necessarily nobles, but rather, rich merchants, patricians craftsmen, yeomen, and non-noble landowners. Such law will create a large group of knights (thus becoming nobles) who are of non-noble birth! even if they are rich they are still seen by nobles and clergy as commoners. This is quite against the common fact that all medieval nobles were of noble birth, so how would this law fit with these contradictions?

Also, was this law only in medieval England? Were there any similar laws in other parts of Europe?

  • 1
    Please cite all terms.. The question cannot be tagged both early modern and early medieval). The King made the law - the king was not bound by the law ; that is the nature of autocracy. If the king needed funds, the king created law that provided grounds to raise the funds. Although we today use the term "middle class" to understand economic changes, the term was not available to legal scholars in this period. If you had the money to support the king, the king could oblige you to grant that money – Mark C. Wallace Mar 8 '20 at 23:29
  • 10
    Knights were not necessarily nobles (nor were nobles necessarily knights). – sempaiscuba Mar 8 '20 at 23:31
  • 2
    @MarkCWallace I've gone and changed your link to point to something more in line with the question. Note that Charles I (as per the Personal Rule article) revived the old medieval concept started by Henry III so that he (Charles) could raise money. It was a legalism. – Spencer Mar 8 '20 at 23:46
  • 1
    @AnasAlbakri Worth reading something like Knighthood and Chivalry for an overview. Note that in the feudal system, most knights actually owed allegiance to members of the nobility, rather than directly to the king. – sempaiscuba Mar 9 '20 at 0:07
  • 2
    Knights (in general) were commoners - only Barons and higher, the peers of the realm, were noble. Certainly barons could also be knights, and usually were, but at least 90% if not 95% of all knights were common. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 9 '20 at 0:12

The original definition of "noble" was someone who owned a large amount of land. At minimum, it referred to someone who could afford to buy and deploy a horse for use in combat. These were the people whom the king granted "fiefdoms" to under the feudal system that made them nobles.

There was an important feature of nobility that held true in England, and later France, but not in most parts of central and Eastern Europe. That is, only the eldest son could inherit a noble title from his father. (In France, all sons could.) This English rule, together with the general fact that sons inherited a noble rank one lower than their fathers (the son of a duke was a marquis, the son of a count was a viscount, etc.), meant that English nobles would die out after several generations unless the pool was replenished.

So the king's decree meant that anyone who had x pounds or more, and could afford a horse (and armor and a weapon), to buy such, and in return receive a grant of knighthood, and thus nobility. This restored "nobility" to its original purpose, and served the interests of the king, who wanted to create as many mounted warriors (and hence nobles) as could support themselves. Of course, this displeased most existing nobles, whose nobility had been procured by an ancestor, and who wanted to prevent others from doing the same in the present.

It would be as if members of the top 1% were asked to demonstrate their membership by buying and making available a tank for the use of the government.


Knights were not peers. Indeed, even though baronetcies were inheritable, baronets were not peers either. When a knight was sent to Parliament, it was to sit in the House of Commons, not the House of Lords.

Also, it was the prerogative of a king to ennoble people. There was a status accorded to having been of long noble descent, but a man ennobled by the king was certainly a noble.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.