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Arms and Armour


A knight's Armour was more than just protection against the more violent aspects of his lifestyle; it was intimately connected with his status as part of a military and social elite. Quality and craftsmanship in Armour were valued by knights almost as much as efficiency; from the earliest days of the mail hauberk, Armour was expensive and represented both a major capital investment and an opportunity to indulge the knightly love of finery. In the later Middle Ages particularly, Armour became noticeably subject to the need to display wealth and keep up to the latest fashion. For this reason, many suits of Armour, or "harness", which survive have been preserved as works of art.

Nevertheless, armour's first purpose was to protect the knight against his enemies in battle, and developments in Armour throughout the Middle Ages tended to be in response to new and better weapons. Chain mail, a crucial part of knights' Armour for most of the period, was a good general protection but could not withstand a direct hit with a lance or arrow. This led first to the adoption of additional protective clothing, such as the metal-reinforced coat of plates, or the padded gambeson (though the latter was worn as much to keep mail from chafing the body as to stop weapons piercing it), and later to the development of Armour constructed of solid metal plates, jointed for flexibility by smaller metal plates known as lames (hence the term laminated).

Plate Armour weighed about the same as a complete chain mail suit (about 50 lbs./23 Kg) but, if properly made to fit its wearer perfectly, was more comfortable because the weight was distributed evenly over the body instead of being suspended entirely from the shoulders. The only period in which knights were so burdened by their Armour that they could not rise if they fell, was during the mid-fourteenth century, a period of transition from full mail to plate Armour when it was customary to wear both.

In the following example the principal changes for each period are illustrated in the corresponding images:

Norman Knight C. 1066

For hundreds of years, the basic form of body Armour consisted of the chain-mail shirt, called the hauberk, or byrnie. In one form or another, this was an essential piece of body defence until the late fifteenth century. We have ample evidence in the Bayeux tapestry of the equipment worn and carried by the Norman knights who rode to victory at Hastings; they had knee-length mail hauberks with elbow-length sleeves, split at front and rear for ease when riding, conical helmets with a nasal bar, and leather or padded cloth greaves. Only very high ranking lords wore mail stockings to protect their legs and feet. Norman knights carried long, kite-shaped shields, often decorated with swirling shapes like this one, though there is no evidence that these decorations were associated with specific knights or families in the heraldic sense. Their main weapons were a sword and a long lance; the Saxons, by contrast, are often depicted wielding battle-axes and carrying smaller, round shields.

Norman Knight C.1180

The knight's Armour and equipment has not fundamentally changed for a hundred years, but it has undergone a process of improvement and refinement. The mail hauberk, worn over a tunic tightly padded with wool and called a gambeson, is just below knee-length and the arms have been extended to incorporate mittens. The knight slides his hands in and out of the mittens through a slit at the wrist, which is then laced up. His legs and feet are now also encased in mail. Over his hauberk he wears a long, sleeveless, loose fitting surcoat, which may bear his own distinctive device - the first beginnings of heraldry . His helmet is now round, the better to deflect blows and missiles, with a larger nasal bar. The neck of the hauberk extends into an aventail - which is laced to the helmet with thongs. His sword has the characteristic "fish tail" pommel, and his lance a broader blade with lugs to prevent too deep penetration into opponents' bodies. His shield has become shorter and more triangular in shape.

Teutonic Knight C. 1270

This Teutonic knight is one of the remnants of the Schwertbroder - the Brethren of the Sword, a rather disreputable minor military Order who had been instrumental in the conversion of Livonia (modern day Latvia and Estonia). Most of the members were killed in a massacre when they were surprised on an expedition into Lithuania, and the survivors were incorporated into the Teutonic Knights in 1237. By 1270 knights helms were once more domed over the crown of the head, since the curving surface deflected glancing blows. On top of the helm is a fitting where a crest can be attached. The hauberk is growing shorter and a gambeson is just visible beneath it. The shield is now much smaller and shaped like an iron. For this reason they are called heater-shields. The poleyns have been enlarged so that they completely cover the knee joint at front and sides. The sword has a new-style wheel shaped pommel.

Italian Knight C. 1400

The harness of this knight represents a late stage in the transition from mail to plate. His plate Armour is complete but he still wears an aventail and a habergeon. His bascinet is fitted with the characteristic "pig-faced" visor, which, when lowered, protected his face completely in battle. The breast plate has been in use for some time, and now has developed such refinements as a protruding socket at the right arm-pit on which the knight can rest his lance as he charges. His gauntlets are becoming bell-shaped; the fingers are made of canvas. Plate Armour now covers the legs front and rear (though as yet he does not wear a back-plate); greaves and cuissed are in two parts, hinged at the inner leg seam. The winged plates on poleyns and couters offer extra protection. The knight might still wear a jupon over his Armour, but with this amount of plate defence, the shield is becoming obsolete.

Italian Knight C. 1425

In the fifteenth century plate Armour really came into its own and mail was worn only to supplement it at vulnerable joints or at areas which needed extra mobility such as hip and groin. This knight is obviously wealthy, because he is wearing a suit of Milanese Armour of the finest quality. Northern Italy shared with Germany a reputation for producing the finest Armour, and developed a characteristic, rounded style. To go with the body harness he could choose from two types of helmet; a close fitting armet which covered his entire head, tapering at the neck, or a sallet, as here, a more open style, which did not enclose the chin and throat, but had a curving neck guard behind. This one is a "Ventian" style sallet, with open face instead of a visor. His shoulders are protected by pauldrons, he wears both breast and back plates, and these are extended with overlapping plates to cover his hips. He wears mail chausses with fashionable long spurs.

German Knight C. 1470-80

This knight is wearing a German, or "Gothic" harness, which can be distinguished from the Italian by the more angular, spiky appearance. It tends to be ornate and exaggerated; often the surface of the plates were rippled or fluted, and their edges were cusped. German armourers liked to decorate plates with points, and here we can see typically pointed sabatons on the knight's feet, poleyns on his knees, couters at the elbows, and gauntlet cuffs. The breast-plate was often made in two parts, the lower overlapping the upper and rising to a point in the centre. The knight wears a Gothic-style sallet (helmet) with a closed face, his chin and throat are protected by a separate piece of plate Armour called a bevor which was attached to the breast-plate. The knight's lower body is protected by a mail skirt, but on top of this he could also wear two plates called tassets to protect his upper thighs, which strapped on to his breast-plate. His sword is a "hand-and-a-half" sword with longer blade and grip.

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