Once a Knight is Enough

Knight Genealogy

by Laura Knight


The First Knight?

Aelfmar, Cniht of King Æthelstan

Perhaps we should start with trying to understand our name. Lucian Lamar Knight wrote:

…it is supposed that the patronymic derived its genesis from the fact that one of its bearers, belonging to the noble orders, signed his name and followed it with the mention of his rank, Knight, which he eventually annexed to his full name and by which he was subsequently known. ……this change must have been made prior to the Norman Conquest… (Knight, p. 1)

I’m not sure why Lucian wished to declare that the Knight name arose before the Conquest and he gives no indication at all of the reasons behind this statement. If the Knight name was so noble, and existed before the Conquest, it would surely have shown up in the Domesday Book; it isn’t there. But still, Lucian may have been right, though for different reasons as we will see.

So let’s start over from the beginning.  Wikipedia tells us:

The word knight, from Old English cniht ("boy" or "servant"), is a cognate of the German word Knecht ("servant, bondsman, vassal"). This meaning, of unknown origin, is common among West Germanic languages (cf Old Frisian kniucht, Dutch knecht, Danish knægt, Swedish knekt, Norwegian knekt, Middle High German kneht, all meaning "boy, youth, lad")

The meaning of cniht changed over time from its original meaning of "boy" to "household retainer". Ælfric's homily of St. Swithun describes a mounted retainer as a cniht.

Who was this Aelfric and when did he live?  Crank up the search: Aelfric was born c. 955 and he was composing his homilies (sermons) not long after 987 (he was a priest).   The “Life of St Swithun” was probably written within a year or two after 997.    Okay, back to Wikipedia on the name:

While cnihts might have fought alongside their lords, their role as household servants features more prominently in the Anglo-Saxon texts. In several Anglo-Saxon wills cnihts are left either money or lands. In his will, King Æthelstan leaves his cniht, Aelfmar, eight hides of land.

When did King Æthelstan live and die? We quickly find that he was King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 and King of the English from 927 to 939 when he died. So, right away we see that King Æthelstan preceded Aelfric and his homily referring to a mounted retainer as a “cniht, but only by about 58 to 60 years; it might be thought that he was talking about what he saw and knew so certainly, Aelfmar, who received the eight hides of land (almost a thousand acres), was more than just a household servant!  Wikipedia again:

A rādcniht, "riding-servant", was a servant delivering messages or patrolling coastlines on horseback.

A narrowing of the generic meaning "servant" to "military follower of a king or other superior" is visible by 1100. The specific military sense of a knight as a mounted warrior in the heavy cavalry emerges only in the Hundred Years' War. The verb "to knight" (to make someone a knight) appears around 1300; and, from the same time, the word "knighthood" shifted from "adolescence" to "rank or dignity of a knight".

It’s useful to read the entire Wikipedia article for insights. What I would like to know is whether or not the initial K of the name was pronounced at any point in time, and, when the spelling was cniht, was the initial letter C a hard C and was it vocalized?  But I digress.

I did some searching and I think it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the will of Æthelstan which I found online.  There are four references to  his cniht, Aelfmar:

And to my father, King Æthelred, I grant the land at Chalton [Hants.], except the eight hides which I have granted to my retainer Ælfmær … I grant to Ælfmær the land at Hambleden [Berks.], which he previously possessed; and I beseech my father, for God Almighty’s sake and for mine, that he will allow what I have granted to him. …And I grant to my ‘dish-thegn’ Ælfmær the eight hides at Catherington [Hants.], and a roan stallion, and the damaged sword. … And Ælfric of Barton and Godwine the Driveller are to be as well maintained from my gold as my brother Eadmund knows that I ought rightly to pay them… And my brother Eadmund and Bishop Ælfsige [Winchester] and Abbot Byrhtmær [New Minster, Winchester] and Ælfmær, Ælfric’s son, are witnesses of this answer.  [Ælfric of Barton]

We notice that Ælfmær is to receive a horse, so he was certainly a mounted cniht! It seems certain that the four references are all to the same person and now we know the name of the father of Aelfmar, it is Aelfric of Barton, though certainly not the homily-composing Aelfric born c. 955! 

Barton is in Cambridgeshire, about 8 kms SW of Cambridge. Cambridgeshire is part of East Anglia; it was the former kingdom of the East Angles. The kingdom formed in the 6th century in the wake of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain. It was ruled by the Wuffingas in the 7th and 8th centuries, but fell to Mercia in 794, and was conquered by the Danes in 869, forming part of the Danelaw.

The Great Danish Army, known by the Anglo-Saxons as the Great Heathen Army, was a coalition of Norse warriors, originating from Denmark but possibly also including elements from Norway and Sweden, who came together under a unified command to invade the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that constituted England in AD 865. Legend has it that the force was led by three of the five sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, including Hvitserk, Ivar the Boneless, and possibly either Ubba or Bjorn Ironside.  

The Danish kingdom was conquered by Edward the Elder and incorporated into the Kingdom of England in 918 just 21 years before Æthelstan made his will. So, if Aelfric, the father of Aelfmar, was  “of Barton”, then there is a very high probability that he was of Danish descent at least on the male side.

Checking the locations mentioned in Æthelstan's will in the Domesday Book (1086) which was compiled 147 years later, I do not find a Hambledon in Berkshire. The only thing that seems like a possible is a place with the modern name “Knighton” and the Domesday name “Nisteton” (Hinde 1995, p. 36)  At present, Knighton is a hamlet in Compton Beauchamp parish, Berkshire, 7¼ miles W of Wantage. But the name "Knighton" is certainly suggestive!

There is a Hambledon in Buckinghamshire and is listed in the Domesday book as Hanbledene known previously as Hemelan dene. It was the possession of Queen Matlida at the time of the Domesday. (Hinde 1995, p. 43)

Looking at the two places on the map, I notice that Wantage/Knighton is SW of Oxford and Hambledon is SE of Oxford and they are both about the same distance from Newbury where a later prominent Knight family lived. The proximity of the lands of Aelfmar to these locations may be something, or it may mean nothing.

Next I had a look through the Hampshire section of the Domesday Book;  Chalton is there (modern name) and was called Ceptune in Domesday: it was held by “Earl Roger.”  We notice Chawton as the next entry: “Celtone: Hugh de Port” and Chawton was the manor of Thomas Knight as Lucian Lamar Knight reported.  So, if this was the trail Lucian was following, it doesn’t say what he suggests it says unless he means to imply that the name “Knight” developed as an add-on to the De Port family.  But that was after the Conquest so maybe he meant something else. (Hinde 1995, p. 122) As it happens, the De Ports did change their name, but not to Knight.  Catherington on is just a few kms SW of Chalton and Chawton is about 25 kms N.

There are a number of individuals using surnames, more or less, at this time, and it is hard to see how any of them would give up their illustrious names for the plain “Knight.” One interesting thing about Hugh de Port, the earlier holder of Chawton (one of 53 of his properties listed), was that his son, Henry, was most likely the first Norman sheriff of Kent and a lot of Knights are found in Kent. Anyway, Hugh’s heir, Adam de Port, was steward (i.e. knight) to King Henry I, and witness to various royal documents, so he stood in much the same position as Aelfmar, cniht of Æthelstan.  In other words, Aelfmar wasn’t a nobody! For all we know, the original Knight family originated with Aelfmar, Cniht of King Æthelstan except we have found no serious hard evidence to support such an idea; just suggestions. The time between Aelfmar and the first documented Knights I have found is over 200 years.  

1166 – Norfolk – Admin – Oscetel Cniht, Godefridus Niht – (Norfolk Pipe Rolls, National Archives, Kew England)

Twenty-five years later, there was a Hamo the Knight mentioned in the records of Canterbury Cathedral. In 1200, there is finally a Robert Knight.

It’s certainly possible that some persons then knew their ancestry the same way we have some vague idea of our own back in the early Colonial times, and it is even possible that some people used the name “Knight”, through that period the same way we have (and our Colonial ancestors back to Jamestown). All that is possible, and that leads me to the strong suspicion that the first persons using the name as a name and not a description, were probably referred to as cnihts by the conquering Anglo-Saxons.

From Aelfmar's time to Robert Knight in 1200, 261 years, the pronunciation and spelling changed from Cniht to Knyte to Knygte to Knyght and then, finally, Knight.

I apologize that my version of our name is not as romantic as Lucian Lamar Knight’s version, but it is what it is.







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