When reading about the thirteenth century we frequently come across mentions of knights and their armour. But what did this armour look like, how did he put it on, how did he use it? There are numerous reference works we can consult which give information on these points, but in my opinion nothing beats a good practical demonstration, so this is what we’re going to do on this page.
To start, take one knight wearing the latest in thirteenth-century underwear.
You need a complete set of harness; it’s useful if you lay it all out on the ground before you start so you can check that you’ve got everything.
You also need at least one – and preferably two – helpers who know what they are doing, plus plenty of time.
The first item which the knight needs to put on is his chausses, or mail leggings.
These need to go over the padded hose which he’s already wearing. They are quite fiddly to put on as they’re relatively tight fitting: if they were too loose then it would be difficult for the knight to walk or ride. The chausses are formed of two separate legs, rather than being ‘trousers’ – this is so that the knight can sit astride his horse more comfortably.
They are held up by being tied to the drawstring at the waist of the knight’s braies (under-trousers), and then, to prevent sagging, they are supported by additional ties around the knee and ankle.
Next comes the gambeson, a thick padded garment.
It is made of many layers of material, fabric, wadding and horsehair, all quilted by being stitched through and through, so it is hard and solid, not soft like a duvet. A good gambeson will more or less stand up by itself! The padding stops the force of any blows which might hit the knight and spreads them out; it also stops the mail links becoming embedded in his flesh.
The gambeson is not ‘breathable’ like many modern materials so the knight got very hot and sweaty when wearing it: if fighting in it for several hours he needed to make sure that he took on plenty of fluids (and salt), otherwise he could collapse from dehydration.
Next comes the padded coif, to add more protection to the knight’s head and also to keep his hair out of the way.
The main defensive armour of the period, of course, was made out of mail (note: the correct term is ‘mail’, not ‘chain mail’, a phrase which only came into use in the nineteenth century). The standard early thirteenth-century pattern is for each link to be joined to four others, two above and two below.
What’s also fairly typical of the period is that if you look carefully at the close-up you can see it’s made up of alternate rows of solid links and riveted ones. This makes it slightly quicker to put together because you’re not riveting every link, but it is still a very time-consuming process. You have to forge the steel, make the individual links, fit them together correctly and do the riveting. You’re talking about weeks and weeks of work for a skilled craftsman, as well as expensive materials, which is why mail was very expensive and available only to the better-off.
The main item of mail armour is the hauberk or mail shirt. Getting the knight into this can be a tricky business.
The hauberk is heavy (see below for notes on the weight of equipment), but this is deceptive as if you trained every day you would get much more used to it. It’s also very flexible so the knight can move around easily.
One thing which helps to spread the weight is the belt, a less glamorous but very important item of equipment. When the knight puts the hauberk on, all the weight is hanging from his shoulders. However, if he puts his arms in the air, has a belt buckled very tightly around his waist, and then puts his arms down again, he will find that much of the weight is now being held by the belt.
As you can see, the hauberk has an integral mail coif, or hood. This needs to be laced around the forehead so it doesn’t fall forward over the knight’s eyes when he’s riding or running around.
It also has an integral ventail, which is the bit which folds up and down to cover his throat. Again, this is fastened with a tie.
Also integral are the mittens, which have mail on the back but leather palms to make it easier to hold reins and weapons. The palms are slit so that the knight can take his hand in and out when necessary.
If you look at contemporary illustrations of combat, the knights have always got gloves on, and there’s a reason for this. Despite what you see on TV and films (and this is one of my pet hates), nobody in their right mind would go into combat without wearing gloves. All you have to do is be hit, even accidentally, on the finger, and even if it’s not hard enough to break or sever it, it will still distract you, and as soon as you drop your sword or lose your concentration for a moment, you’re in trouble.
Thirteenth-century image of knights fighting, from the chronicle of William of Tyre. Note that the combatants are wearing mailed gloves!
The mittens are attached to the hauberk but arranged so you can take them on or off. They also have ties around the wrist to help hold them in place.
Next comes the surcoat. Opinions differ as to what exactly was the original purpose of the surcoat: was it to keep the sun off your mail if it was too hot, or to keep the rain off and stop it rusting if it was wet? Either way, the surcoat handily serves both purposes. The surcoat is also a useful place to display the arms, the coat-of-arms, of the knight, which was important because it’s very difficult to tell people apart once they have their helmets on.
In the early thirteenth century heraldic designs were still fairly simple, generally geometric designs or animals, and you don’t get the massively complicated quarters and eighths and cadency marks which you get later on. This particular design would be described as ‘argent, a saltire engrailed sable’.
Next comes the sword belt – the sword is a side-arm so the knight needs to be able to carry it without using his hands so he can draw it later if he needs to. It goes on the left-hand side so it can be drawn with the right hand.
Incidentally, swords from this period are much less heavy than they are generally supposed to be – about 3 lbs or 1.5 kg, which is only about three times as much as a fencing foil. A sword is a weapon of balance and skill, not a club.
The knight might also make use of other side-arms such as the mace, which has a blunt head used for causing crushing injuries, or the axe, which is particularly lethal as it has a fairly hefty weight concentrated behind quite a small cutting edge. These are all designed for use with one hand so he can also use his shield.
Next an additional padded arming cap is placed on the knight’s head to help keep the helmet in place.
Now the helmet. The early thirteenth century was a kind of transitional time for helmets: if you look at contemporary illustrations you can see old-fashioned nasal helms alongside the later ‘face-mask’ type. The most up-to-date fashion, however, was the great helm, which you can see here.
In some ways this design is a bit of a step backwards, because having a flat top to a helmet isn’t a good idea – it can get badly dented if hit, which causes serious injury to the knight. Later on in the thirteenth century the design changed so we get the ‘sugar-loaf’ design, and after that helmets nearly always have curved shapes so they help to deflect blows.
Wearing a great helm does not give you much visual range, and nor does it allow for easy breathing. A balance needed to be achieved between greater safety and less visual range (which would basically mean that the knight’s head was fully enclosed) and greater vision but less safety (an open face). So the result here is narrow eye-slits and small breathing holes.
The shield goes on the knight’s left hand.
It has short straps known as enarmes for when he is using it, and a longer strap called a guige to hang it round his neck and shoulder when he’s not using it. It is made of layers of wood and leather, laminated to form a strong, layered defence. As with the surcoat, it is also a useful place to display arms.
The primary weapon of the knight was of course not the sword but the lance. In the early thirteenth century a lance was not a blunt stripy wooden pole but rather an item which might now be described as a spear: a wooden shaft, ten to twelve feet long, with a sharp, double-edged metal point at the end.
In earlier centuries the lance was used more like a spear – if you look at the Bayeux Tapestry you can see the Normans using the ‘pig-sticking’ overarm technique. This means that the lance is being propelled only by the strength of the knight’s arm. But by the early thirteenth century knights used a technique called couching, which means they tucked the lance under their right arm and held it tight.
A picture from the Chanson d'Aspremont showing a knight using the 'couching' technique
Given that the knight was wedged into his saddle and therefore quite stable on his horse’s back, this means that the whole weight of man, armour and horse was all concentrated behind that sharp cutting edge, which could cause some real damage. There are credible contemporary accounts of a lance piercing someone right through and the coming out the other side.
This brings us on to the horse. Again, contrary to popular myth, warhorses were not massive shire-horse-type animals. They were, however, very strong to carry all that weight, and were also bred for aggression.
So, the knight is now armed and ready for combat.
There are a few things to note which disprove the popular misconceptions you might see in film or TV. The first is that it is physically impossible for the knight to arm himself. As you can see from the photos, there is no way he would be able to get into his gear without help: he needs at least one and preferably two assistants.
Secondly, it takes rather a long time to arm the knight correctly. The minimum which is needed is (in modern terms) about twenty minutes, and that’s if you have two expert helpers. Generally you’d need to allow at least half an hour so that you could get all those fiddly bits with the ties right, otherwise the knight is going to get the coif falling over his eyes, or his chausses slipping, which is dangerous. Preparing for combat was a deliberate, planned action, not something done on the spur of the moment.
And finally, the questions of weight and ease of movement. Yes, the armour is heavy – it needs to be, otherwise it wouldn’t be much use for protection. The harness used in these photos is of course a replica (there is very little surviving original mail from the period) but it was made as an authentic copy, and the different pieces weigh in as follows:
Gambeson: 10lb (4.5kg)
Hauberk: 38lb (17kg)
Chausses: 18lb (8kg)
Helm: 6lb (2.5kg)
Shield: 4lb (2kg)
Scabbard and sword belt: 2lb (1kg)
Sword: 3lb (1.5kg)
Axe: 4lb (2kg)
That's a whopping 85lb (38.5kg), or about 6 stone in old money.
However, and this is the important bit, the weight of the harness did not render the knight immobile. Far from it: because the mail is made from many thousands of small links it is very flexible, and the wearer has free movement of his body and limbs. And let us not forget that the knight had been training, pretty much every day, since his childhood. This meant that he was accustomed to the armour and its weight so it didn’t really bother him.
And so you have it: the armoured thirteenth-century knight.
He is very much the 'armoured tank' of his day – virtually invincible and unkillable under all that protection. Very few knights tended to die in early thirteenth-century combat situations (most of the dying was done by those of the lower ranks, or by civilians). There are some ways in which his opponents could maximise their chances against him, but ‘how to fight against the armoured thirteenth-century knight’ is a post for another day!
Many thanks to knight Colin Middleton and to his faithful squire.
Photos © James Mears