A knight banneret, sometimes known simply as banneret, was a medieval knight ("a commoner of rank") who led a company of troops during time of war under his own banner (which was square-shaped, in contrast to the tapering standard or the pennon flown by the lower-ranking knights) and was eligible to bear supporters in English heraldry.
The military rank of a knight banneret was higher than a knight bachelor (who fought under another's banner), but lower than an earl or duke; the word derives from the French banneret, from bannire, banner, elliptical for seigneur banneret or chevalier banneret, Medieval Latin banneretus.
Under English custom the rank of knight banneret could only be conferred by the sovereign on the field of battle. There were some technical exceptions to this; when his standard was on the field of battle he could be regarded as physically present though he was not. His proxy could be regarded as a sufficient substitution for his presence.
As there were no standing armies (except the military orders), military service was rendered ad hoc as an obligation of a vassal, either in person and/or with a contingent raised by one's own means. This social role was crucial: a suzerain, or feudal overlord, was dependent upon his vassals to mobilise on his behalf in case of war. The only alternative was to replace knighthood as the core of military forces with mercenaries, as under a condottiere, but those often proved highly unreliable and expensive, as well as being known for changing sides for greater profit, or simply deserting and looting for themselves.
In feudalism, the rank was given to those nobles who had the right to lead their vassals into battle under their own banner. Ultimately bannerets obtained a place in the feudal hierarchy between barons and knights bachelor, which has given rise to the idea that they are the origin of King James I's order of the baronet. John Selden, indeed, points out that the "old stories" often have baronetti for bannereti, and he points out that in France the title had become hereditary; but Selden is careful to say that "banneret hath no relation to this later title [of baronet]". The title of knight banneret, with the right to display the private banner, came to be granted for distinguished service in the field. No knight banneret, says Selden, of the English custom:
can be created but in the field, and that, when either the king is present, or at least his royal standard is displayed. But the creation is almost the self-same with that in the old French ceremonies by the solemn delivery of a banner charged with the arms of him that is to be created, and the cutting of the end of the pennon or streamer to make it a square or into the shape of a banner in case that he which is to be created had in the field his arms on a streamer before the creation.
The creation of bannerets is traceable, according to Selden, to the time of Edward I. "Under these bannerets, diverse knights bachelor and esquires usually served; and according to the number of them, the bannerets received wages". During the fourteenth century, men who had received an individual summon to parliament, but did not possess the estate of a baron or higher peers, were styled as bannerets of parliament, and were considered to be a distinct from and socially inferior to other peers. By the early fifteenth century, this distinction between baron and banneret had disappeared. The last authentic instance of the creation of knights banneret was by King Charles I to several men at the Battle of Edgehill (1642) including Thomas Strickland of Sizergh for gallantry, and John Smith for rescuing the royal standard from the enemy.
Whether any further bannerets were granted is debated by historians. George Cokayne notes in The Complete Peerage (1913) that King George II revived the order when he created sixteen knights bannerets on the field of the Battle of Dettingen in 1743,[a] and although his source for this, a diary entry by Gertrude Savile, states "This honour had been laid aside since James I, when Baronets were instituted", which contradicts other sources, a news magazine published in the same year as the battle recorded the honours. Several sources, including Edward Brenton (1828) and William James (1827), record that captains Trollope and Fairfax and were honoured with bannerets by King George III for their actions during the Battle of Camperdown (1797). However, these awards were never recorded in The London Gazette and is much more likely that these knighthoods, which first appear in formal records in December 1797 without their nature being specified, were as knights bachelor.[b]
Though the title had long fallen into disuse, bannerets and their sons continued to be listed in the table of precedence until at least as late as 1870; those created by the sovereign under the Royal Standard in wartime rank above baronets, whereas those knights banneret not so created by the sovereign in person rank directly below baronets.
On page 364 of the 1990 edition of Dod's Parliamentary Companion, its table of precedence, which includes various long-vacant dignities, has in position 99 "Knights Banneret, created under the royal standard in open war, the Sovereign or the Prince of Wales being present" and in position 104 "Knights Banneret, provided they be not made in the manner described at No. 99. This position was allotted to such as were created by the commanders of armies in the king's name on the open field of battle." The former class of Knights Banneret thus rank below Judges of the High Court of Justice and above younger sons of viscounts and the latter class below baronets and above "Knights of the Thistle, when below the degree of a baron".
Following the creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918, most of its ranks were given unique names, to distinguish RAF personnel from their counterparts in the British Army and Royal Navy. It was initially suggested that the rank equivalent to an army colonel or a navy captain should be known in the RAF as "banneret". However, this proposal was rejected and the name group captain was instead chosen for the rank in question.