Knights in the Middle Ages were the epitome of strength.
To this day, cultural icons abound in movies, from King Arthur to A Knight’s Tale and Braveheart, where knights are used to represent masculinity and fortitude.
However, it’s important to know that not all Knights in the Middle Ages were men.
Just like in Game of Thrones with the fabulous Brienne of Tarth, women could be knights in their own right.
In history, women who were considered knights were known as Dames.
Although they didn’t ride into battle wearing armor, these women had an important job in society as the wives of male knights and as women that had accomplished extraordinary things for the British empire.
What is Knighthood?
Before we go into detail about female knights and dames, it’s important to understand first and foremost what it means to be a knight.
Contrary to popular belief, many knights nowadays don’t have to wield swords and wear armor.
Origins of “Knight”
The word “knight” originates from the word cniht, which meant boy or servant in old English.
In the 1300s, the first instance of “knighthood” was seen, which means someone was then given the title of knight.
In modern times, people can be given the title of knighthood if they show their great service and accomplish something for their country (Sweden, the U.K., etc.).
For instance, Sir Elton John and Paul McCartney are both hugely famous British singers that were given the title of knighthood by the Queen of England herself.
This is a big change from the original meaning of knight, which once was only used to describe men of the military.
The groups, known as orders, that these knights belong to are still around hundreds of years later.
Some of the most famous orders that both men and women can be knighted in include:
- The Most Noble Order of the British Empire
- The Most Noble Order of the Garter
- The Order of the Thistle
- The Order of St. Michael and St. George
- Order of Merit
- The Knights Templar
These orders came about during the crusades of the 12th century.
They were used to denote people of a higher class that embodied the values of “Christian soldiers.”
As such, being a knight means much more than having to wear armor or fight into battle.
This is why many women have so far been given the title of Dame and have been accepted into knighthood!
Were Women Warriors in the Military?
If you’re asking whether there were female knights in the past, you might be wondering if there were any women that participated in battle. The answer is, yes!
Although a woman can be a dame and achieve initiation into knighthood without military service, there were many women during the Middle Ages who fought bravely and, if it wasn’t for laws that prevented them, could be considered full-blown knights.
Joan Of Arc
Although we don’t consider Joan of Arc a knight, she was an incredibly powerful figure in France and is considered a saint in the Roman Catholic Church (which we feel is way better than being a knight!).
Joan of Arc is perhaps the most famous example of a woman that embodies the Christian values of the Middle Ages as well as the fortitude that came with being a knight but didn’t necessarily hold the title.
Joan of Arc was a peasant teenager who, after having visions of angels and hearing voices from God, was determined to lead troops in battle.
She led troops in the battle of the Siege of Orleans under the permission of King Charles VII.
Proper titles aside, Joan of Arc was truly a knight in every sense of the word.
Matilda of Tuscany
Matilda of Tuscany was the vice queen of Italy and had nobility and military power.
She commanded troops against Henry IV and tried to protect her and her family’s lands in Northern Italy.
A member of the House of Canossa, she formed an alliance with the Christian Church and is still regarded as one of the most influential female figures of the early 11th century.
Gaita de Lombardi
Gaita was a German princess who conducted the battle of the siege of Trani in 1080 alongside her husband, the Duke Robert Guiscard of Apulia.
She wore armor into battle and was described as looking like the goddess of war, Athena, in battle!
Her husband later died in a second battle against the Byzantines, and shockingly, Gaita de Lombardi was right by his side.
Women As Military Aids
In addition to these military leaders during the Middle Ages, women did play a role in battles and sieges.
In fact, women in medieval armies could wear their own armor and followed knights into battle to care for them.
Women would not only care for their wounds but also follow them into the battlefield and give them supplies.
Of course, women would also provide companionship and follow their own husbands and friends into battle.
This was more common during the Holy Crusades than any other battle, which is, coincidentally, when knights were just coming into being.
The Origin of Dames and Female Knights
If you didn’t already know, when someone is given a knighthood, they are referred to as “sir.”
However, women who are also given the knighthood title are referred to as “dame.”
Although a dame used to be the name for the wife of a knight, this later changed in the 17th century.
Any woman whose name you hear with “dame,” preceding her name is not the wife of a knight, but is, in fact, a knight herself.
The term “dame” came about during the 14th century. In 1381, the first chivalric order to accept women as knights was the Order of Ermine, which was founded by John V, the Duke of Britanny.
In the 1900s, several chivalric orders officially recognized dames as the male equivalents of knights. These include:
- The Order of the British Empire
- Royal Victorian Order
- The Order of St. Michael and St. George
- The Order of Bath
Since then, many other Dames have now been named due to their accomplishments and accolades.
To become a dame means to be accepted into knighthood.
To do so, the Awards Intelligence Service has to determine whether a person has made a long-term, outstanding contribution to the British empire.
Once this is determined, the queen will knight someone during a formal ceremony.
Females are knighted and given the title of Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or DBE.
However, if a woman is knighted in the Order of Garter or the Order of Thistle, they are given the title Lady instead of Dame. There are specific requirements for each order.
For instance, the Order of Thistle in Scotland recognizes men and women who have held public office or have contributed to the way of life of the nation.
Women that are knights in the Order of Thistle include:
- Queen Elizabeth
- Elizabeth the II
- Princess Anne
The Order of the British Empire has two classes where women can be dames (out of the five classes). These include the first and second classes.
A female knight in these orders is known as Dame Grand Cross or Dame Commander.
Dame Commanders that have been knighted in the past several decades include:
- Emily Lawson, Chief Commercial Officer of the NHS of England, who was responsible for rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine program saving countless lives
- Vivienne Cox, a businesswoman who was knighted as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2016, and later a Dame Commander in 2022 for her sustainability and inclusion efforts as chairman of Vallourec
- Sara Khan, a British activist and CEO of Inspire, an independent organization that fights against extremism and sexism
- Mary Berry, host of the hit show the British Bake-off, who is considered by the queen to have made a tremendous impact in the world of culinary arts
- Twiggy Lawson, a supermodel from the 1960s that is considered to be a British fashion icon and a great contributor to the arts
- Maggie Smith, a famous British actor best known for her role as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter Series.
Becoming a Dame
The list above only covers the tip of the iceberg. There are a plethora of reasons why these women were chosen to be knights and are now called “dames.”
However, from the list, it’s easy to tell how important these women are in their respective fields.
Sure, these modern women didn’t ride into battles like Joan of Arc or Gaita de Lombardi.
However, they did play an important role in putting Britain on the map and were highly recognized!
These women knights embody the values of: