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Knights have gotten into our heads and into our hearts and they move us on a level so deep that most of us don’t even examine why do we care about knights so much? It is a hard question to answer but I think some responsibility has to go to the Orders of Knighthood that spread all over Europe with their heroics, villainy, and romanticism embedding themselves deep into our imaginations.
A very remarkable thing happened in 1096: a mismatched international group of Nobles, their knights and many thousands of hangers-on, prostitutes, servants, and soldiers headed east to go on Crusade in order to free Jerusalem from Muslim rule and perhaps find salvation. Most of the people on the Crusade traveled more than 1,000 miles with no central organization and only a vague outline of a plan. Arriving in Constantinople the disparate groups of knights banded together and started their campaign. In a world where wars usually lasted no more than a couple of months the First Crusaders campaigned from April 1097 until August 12, 1099 it what had to be one of the most remarkable military feats in world history. From the wilderness of the Anatolian plains, to the mountains of Cilicia to the bloody forge of Antioch the Crusaders became what was probably the fiercest, deadliest and most effective army since the glory days of Roman Legions eight centuries before them.
Again, the Crusaders provided spectacular displays of manhood, martial valor and incredible fighting spirit. From the incredible cavalry charges that smashed massive Muslim armies, to the unbelievable hand to hand ability of the knights on the walls of Antioch, the Crusaders earned a lasting legend.
At Antioch the Muslim ruler Kerbogha of Mosul attacked with a massive army from outside the walls, which the Crusaders famously faced down. A lesser known part of that battle was that just a few hundred knights and men at arms were left inside to hold back the garrison of Antioch still firmly established in the citadel of that city. The soldiers left to hold back the garrison were pretty sure they were going to die, many of them hid in the houses and streets of Antioch to try and avoid the inevitable. The commander of this force went down into the city and lit the buildings on fire to drive them out and out they came once again to the walls. There they stood against thousands of Turks and Arabs and did not give an inch. They held, and against all odds their brothers outside the walls smashed Kerbogha’s mighty army a victory so stunning, so unexpected that it rose in the minds of most to the level of a miracle.
The memory of the First Crusade lived long in the minds of the Europeans and the incredible accomplishment of that First Crusade fired the imaginations of everyone. After the Crusade was over the legacy of that epic event was preserved in the idea of knightly orders. Knights not given over to greed, conquest and glory but to a worthy cause. A warrior, motivated by a righteous cause. How poor our fiction, our imaginations, and our history would be without this figure; and because of this, there is no more iconic image of this heroic warrior than the knight. The first of the Orders was the Knight of the Hospital who were to fight Muslims longer than anyone on and land-sea for 500 years. Then of course come the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher key to that glorious and all too short-lived Kingdom of Jerusalem and then the most famous of them all the Knights Templar. Just saying their name aloud makes one think of epic adventure, noble causes, bloody wars, dark conspiracies, and ancient evil.
The Knights Templar evoke so much from us because they have been in the background of our culture and stories for centuries. Known for reckless courage, epic last stands and incredible castles the Knights Templar inform our image of knights, even when we think of Castles we often think the castles that Templars built. From their humble beginnings to the ultimate heights of wealth and glory the Knights Templar had everything going for them until the evil King of France betrayed them and suppressed them. That epic fall gave us the ill-omened Friday the 13th and a swirl of rumor, legend, titillation that would keep some of our best and worst writers and creators busy for centuries.
Knights have always been fodder for fiction from the tales of Roland, Oliver, and Charlemagne, to King Arthur and his Roundtable, early creators projected Knights into our past and modern-day creators have pushed them into our future. Jedi Knights and high-tech knights can the heroes of stories such as Robotech, Warhammer, Gundam, and even Voltron. We bring the sensibility of knights not just to our fiction but into our reality as well. Where do we train highly specialized warriors, that are given special emblems to bear, unit history to live up to, a code of honor to guide them and the very best weapons to employ against our enemies? We may call them by names such as Delta Force, Seal Teams, Force Recon and Special Operation Squadrons but a knight of the past would recognize much of himself in the units of our special operators.
In an important sense Knights are no longer part of lives culture, tradition, technology, and countries have passed them by but in another very important sense they are still with us today. When we feel there is a righteous cause worth dying for, when we train and work to be the best we can be, when a Cowboy and his pistol is all that stands between justice and chaos, when a Jedi confronts a great evil with his laser sword, when our brave men of Special Operations take to horseback in the mountains of Afghanistan to bring payback for our fallen towers and dead innocents, the idea of the knight is still with us.
Imagine with me for a moment the best of what a knight can be: there across the field is the enemy, evil, ruthless and relentless. They want nothing more than to see you and all you hold dear destroyed. Then the men come, they have trained and prepared for this their whole lives. They have often drawn their swords for greed, ambition or mere glory and perhaps they in their time have even done evil. But not this day. This day they draw their sword in honor, for a righteous cause worthy of their efforts and even of their lives. They have lived and trained for this moment and now they stand tall in the face of their fear. You see a flash of light from their bright armor, hear that deeply moving scrap metal on leather as swords are unsheathed and then the movement of the horses as their hooves slam into the ground from a walk, to trot and
Finally to a full charge….
What can you do but shout…. Excelsior!