Medieval knight armor with chain mail

Advances in Medieval Knight Armor Could Not Match Weapon Technology!


The knight in shining armor is undoubtedly the first image that comes to mind for most people when they think about warfare during the Middle Ages . The knight in this mental image is often a warrior wearing the iconic ‘ suit of armor’ . While it is true that this type of armor (known as plate armor or plate mail) was used by the knights, it only came into existence during the Late Middle Ages. Prior to that, the hauberk (a shirt of mail or chain mail) was normally used by knights and was the best protection available to the warrior.

By the 14 th century, crossbows capable of penetrating the hauberk rendered this type of armor obsolete. Therefore, plate mail was developed as a means to protect the knights from this new weapon. The emergence of firearms changed the face of battle once more. Since only the heaviest of plate mails could withstand these weapons, the knight’s armor lost its usefulness once more. Plate armor slowly fell out of use and was relegated to the history books and our popular imagination.

The First Version of Medieval Knight Armor

Although plate armor is the armor associated with the knights of Medieval Europe , it was in fact created only during the last phase of the Middle Ages, i.e. the Late Middle Ages. Prior to this period, knights relied on the hauberk for protection. This type of armor existed in Europe as early as the late Roman period and was made by sewing rings of iron onto a piece of fabric or leather.

During the Medieval period, this design was improved, and shirts of mail that did not require a piece of fabric / leather beneath it were created. The Medieval armorers made this innovation possible by interlacing the rings and closing them firmly by welding or riveting.

As the creation of the hauberk was laborious and time consuming, it is little wonder that that only the elite were able to afford them. The hauberk was strong enough to withstand blunt force attacks by spreading the impact and was able to block both stabbing and slashing blows. The hauberk was also flexible enough to allow movement, which was especially important for a mounted warrior.

One of the best-known images of the hauberk can be found on the Bayeux Tapestry, where the Norman Knights are shown wearing this type of armor. The hauberk was completed with a coif, a hood made of interlocking iron rings (like the hauberk), and a helm, both of which provided protection to the head.

The part of knight armor covering the chest and back was call a hauberk

The part of knight armor covering the chest and back was call a hauberk. (Tatoute / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Outside of the battlefield, the hauberk served as a status symbol for the elites. The upper class was set apart from the rest of society as only they were able to afford this type of armor. Nevertheless, wearing armor was not an exclusive right of the nobility and the lower classes had access to them as well. One of the common misconceptions about warfare in the Middle Ages is that armor was worn only by knights.

While the armor used by the lower classes may not have been as good as those used by the nobility, it afforded them some amount of protection during battles. The cheapest and most readily available type of armor was the quilted jacket (known also as a gambeson), which was simply a padded jacket. A wealthier commoner may be able to afford a more expensive type of armor known as hardened leather. This was made by boiling pieces of leather and treating it with other substances.

The hauberk protected Medieval knights adequately on the battlefield for many centuries. By the Late Medieval period, however, the hauberk no longer provided enough protection, due to the extensive use of the crossbow. This weapon first appeared in Medieval Europe around the 10 th and 11 th centuries in the technologically advanced city states of Italy.

By the 14 th century, the crossbow was commonly used on the battlefield. Unlike the bow, little training was required to master the use of this weapon. Moreover, the projectiles fired by these weapons were capable of piercing through the hauberk. Thus, the crossbow came to dominate the battlefield of Late Medieval Europe, and the knight, in his hauberk, was no longer safe.

Close up of chain mail used as knight armor

Close up of chain mail used as knight armor. (Worldantiques / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Medieval Knight Armor Gets Upgraded

The response to the widespread use of the crossbow was the development of a new type of armor that could withstand the weapon’s deadly power. Plate mail did not appear overnight and was developed gradually over the course of the 14 th century, achieving its complete form around the beginning of the 15 th century.

From then until the early 16 th century, plate armor reigned supreme, and was the best form of protection available to a knight. Thus, those who could afford this armor (usually the elite) would have opted for it.

In order to protect the knights from crossbow bolts, the Medieval armorers first created a poncho-like coat that had small plates of metal riveted to it, which eventually became the breastplate towards the end of the 14 th century.

Unlike the hauberk, it was impossible to create the plate armor as a single suit that covered both the torso and the limbs. To ensure protection of the limbs separate pieces had to be created and worn together with the breastplate. In addition, the helmet was also improved to provide greater protection to the head.

The initial result of these developments was the bascinet, which was originally worn under a great helm. By the middle of the 14 th century, however, the bascinet replaced the great helm and was worn on its own. While the great helm was excellent for protecting the head, it came at the cost of reduced visibility, ventilation, and agility. The bascinet, on the other hand, reduced the degree of protection, but increased a wearer’s visibility, freedom of movement, and provided better ventilation. This was due to the fact that unlike the great helm, the bascinet was an open-faced helmet. The exposure of the face , however, was a major disadvantage of the bascinet if it were worn alone.

Knight armor was improved using plates of metal instead of mesh

Knight armor was improved using plates of metal instead of mesh. (Jappalang / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Armorers of the 14 th century improved the design of this helmet by adding a visor to the bascinet. The visor protected the face , while at the same time ensured that visibility and mobility were not compromised. Moreover, when not in battle, the visor could be raised, thus aiding the circulation of air for the wearer.

This was a significant innovation that would be used in the design of many helmets developed by armorers during the two centuries that followed. The bascinet was worn with an aventail (also known as a camail), which was the successor of the coif. The aventail was attached to the bascinet and covered the throat, neck, and shoulders of the knight.

Components of the Medieval Knight Armor

The plate armor typically associated with Medieval knights today consisted of many different elements. The elements were linked together with leather straps and movable rivets. Beneath the plate armor, a knight would normally wear a quilted jacket, which served as a kind of padding.
While the quilted jacket provided an extra layer of protection, its main function was to make it more comfortable for knight when he was wearing his armor. The two most important components of the plate armor were the helmet and body armor , which protected the knight’s head and torso respectively.

The components of knight armor.

The components of knight armor. (Alþykkr / Public Domain )

As mentioned before, the bascinet was a major improvement for helmet design during the 14 th century. This type of head armor, however, is not the one people would usually associate with a knight’s plate armor, which is not surprising, considering that helmets continued to be developed during the 15 th and 16 th centuries.

The two most recognizable designs, and most often associated with plate armor, are the armet and the close helm. Like the bascinet, these two types of helmets covered the entire head, but had a movable part that allowed the wearer to expose his face. The close helm was closer to the bascinet, in the sense that it had a visor that could be raised. On the other hand, the armet had a pair of hinged cheek pieces that could be opened outwards.

Both the armet and the close helmet extended all the way to the neck. The part protecting the neck was known as a bevor and this replaced the aventail that was used together with the bascinet. Certain helmets covered only the head and therefore the bevor was a separate piece of armor that was worn to provide protection for the exposed parts.

Such helmets include the sallet and the burgonet, whereby the throat and the lower half of the knight’s face were left unprotected. The bevor served to complement such helmets and provided the necessary protection for these vulnerable areas.

Knight armor with bevor

Knight armor with bevor. (PKM / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The part of the plate mail that protected the torso was known as the breastplate, or cuirass, which covered only the front of the body. During the 14 th century, the breastplate extended all the way to the wearer’s hips, so that it could rest there. If it were not designed in such a way, it would be necessary to suspend the breastplate from the shoulders, which would cause hindrance to the knight’s movements.

The breastplate was usually connected to a back piece, which protected the wearer’s back. Around the middle of the 15 th century, the breastplate was divided into two parts. The top half continued to be called a breastplate, whereas the bottom half became known as a plackart. The two parts were attached to each other using a strap or sliding rivet.

Apart from these pieces, the knight’s body armor also included faulds and the culet. Faulds were bands of plate armor that protected the waist and hips, whereas the culet protected the small of the back. The faulds were attached to the breastplate / plackart, while the culet to the back piece, and the two could be connected to form a protective skirt.

Plate armor was also designed to protect the limbs. The design of these parts was much more sophisticated and consisted of various components, as they not only had to provide protection, but also to ensure their maneuverability. After all, a knight who could not move on the battlefield was practically useless.

The armor protecting a knight’s arms began at the shoulders with the spaulder. During the 15 th century, this developed into the pauldron, which protected the underarms and shoulder joints as well. Before this, these areas may be protected by the besagew, which was basically a circular plate worn in conjunction with the spaulder.

The piece protecting the upper arm was called the rerebrace (known also as brassart or upper cannon), whereas the piece covering the lower arm was called the vambrace (known also as lower cannon). Between the two was the cowter, which protected the elbow. An additional piece of armor, known as the guard of vambrace, may be worn over the cowter. Finally, gauntlets were worn to protect the hands.

Knight armor also used plates to cover the limbs

Knight armor also used plates to cover the limbs. (Livrustkammaren / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Armor for the legs were about as complex as those protecting the arms. Armor for the legs began with the tasset (known also as tuille), which were metal bands hanging from the faulds. This piece was meant to protect the upper leg. The thigh was protected by the cuisse, whereas the equivalent armor for the lower leg was the greave. The knee was protected by the poleyn, while the sabaton, a shoe made of metal, protected the foot.

A complete set of plate armor usually weigh from 20 to 25 kilograms (45 to 55 pounds), though some could weigh as much as 50 kilograms (110 pounds). The weight of plate armor greatly increased during the 17 th century, in response to the appearance of firearms on the battlefield. These new weapons were powerful enough to pierce through plate mail and only the thickest, best-made armor could stand up to them.

Such armor was only affordable by the wealthiest of nobles, and as a result, the use of plate mail began to decline. Plate mail was not abandoned altogether, but rather, pieces were discarded one by one. In time, only the breastplate, helmet, and gauntlets were left. Plate armor continued to be popular among the nobility up until the 18 th century. By this time, however, plate armor had lost is practical purpose of protecting its wearer. Instead, it was worn as a kind of fashion statement .

After medieval knight armor lost its practical purposes it was worn as a fashion statement

After medieval knight armor lost its practical purposes it was worn as a fashion statement. ( Silvia Pascual / Adobe)

While plate armor is rarely used today (apart from Medieval and Renaissance re-enactors, perhaps), people are still fascinated by it. Interestingly, it was this fasciation and curiosity that led Graham Askew, a biomechanics researcher at the University of Leeds, to study how knights moved around in their armor.

Four volunteers, historical re-enactors who were used to wearing their own replica 15 th century armor, were recruited. These men walked and ran on a treadmill (with and without armor), while their breathing rate, along with the amount of oxygen inhaled, and carbon dioxide exhaled, were measured using a breathing mask. The data was then used to calculate the energy that was expended.

As expected, the energy required by the volunteers when wearing armor was more than that required while not wearing armor. Although it has been pointed out that the plate armor worn by Medieval knights weighs about the same as the equipment used by modern day soldiers or firefighters, there is a crucial difference that made the knights expend more energy.

In the case of plate armor, the legs of a knight were encumbered, since much weight was placed on them, making it more difficult to walk. Considering, however, that the knight was primarily a mounted warrior, this would not have been too serious a problem, so long as he had his horse to carry him around the battlefield.

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Top image: Medieval knight armor with chain mail. Source: guerrieroale / Adobe.

By Ḏḥwty


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