Most of my research and writing is in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but I do have an interest in the whole Middle Ages, particularly when it comes to war, armour and weapons. By the time we reach the late fifteenth century armour has developed to the extent where plate has almost completely replaced mail, thus creating the ‘knight in shining armour’ of popular imagination. But getting into it was a lot more complicated than you might think …
First, it helps if you lay out your armour so you can check that you have all the pieces. This is a set of relatively middle-of-the-road harness as used in England in the 1470s; that is, it’s not the top-of-the-range stuff used by kings and princes, but owned by a knight, esquire or man-at-arms who could afford a complete set. Those lower down the social scale might just have whatever bits and pieces they could get hold of.
Next, you need one of these: a combatant who is already wearing the arming jack and hose which go under the armour. (Note: for the rest of this article I am going to use the word ‘knight’ to designate this combatant, simply for ease of use – but do bear in mind that you didn’t have to be a knight to wear this stuff, and indeed by the time of the Wars of the Roses armoured knights were probably outnumbered by esquires and men-at-arms).
These garments had to be made specifically for each man and his harness: as you can see, the points (laces) are already in position in various places. Clicking on the image should give you a bigger picture so you can see the detail.
You also need at least one of these:
No knight could arm himself. You needed at least one, and preferably two, assistants who knew what they were doing. A burly adult squire might just about manage on his own; a smaller boy or page wouldn’t, for reasons that will become clear as we go along.
Right, let’s begin. The basic rule of thumb is to start at the bottom and work your way up. This particular knight was somehow missing his sabatons (foot armour) the day we took these photos, but they would go on first, fitting over his shoes. Next come the greaves, the pieces of armour that cover the lower leg. They are hinged, to cover both shin and calf, and fastened with leather straps and buckles.
Next the poleyns (for the knee) and cuisses (thigh).
Again, they are fastened with straps around the leg, and are additionally pointed to the arming jack at the top so much of the weight hangs from there.
As you can see, the cuisses don’t cover the back of the thigh: this is so the knight can sit more easily in a saddle. The protection for the groin area needs to be flexible so that he can walk and ride; here we have a skirt made of mail.
Tying the laces for this can be a bit fiddly if you’re not used to it!
But, as you can see, once it’s in place it will help protect the gap between the plate armour for the upper body and for the legs.
Next comes the really heavy piece: the cuirass. This is made up of breastplate, backplate and faulds (separate movable plates to protect the hips) all hinged and kept together to make it easier to put on. As you can see, undoing all these straps every time would be unnecessarily complicated:
First you heave it up and fold it around the knight’s body; then you fasten the straps at the top so that the weight is taken by his shoulders while you deal with the rest.
Then the knight has to brace himself while you manually shove the front and back pieces together so they overlap, being really careful not to catch your fingers in the gap (once you’ve done this once, you’ll be sure never to do it again …).
Doing up the first strap, the one that holds it all together, is quite tough, hence the need for a bigger and more experienced squire!
But after that, the other ones are a bit easier …
The knight can now take a moment to check that everything so far is fitting to his satisfaction, and that no straps are too tight or too loose, which would be a liability in combat.
The plate for the arms is all in separate pieces. First the rerebraces for the upper arm; these are tied on to the arming jack with the points that are already in position.
It’s very important that the leather gloves go on next, *before* the rest of the plate for the arms.
Note to the squire: if you forget this, you’ll have to take it all off again later as the gloves need to fit underneath. I’m not laughing, honest …
Next, the vambraces for the lower arms. Again, they are laced:
Clearly, the knight doesn’t want a big gap around his elbows, so the couters go on next. They have holes in the right places so that they can also be pointed in place.
Continuing to work our way up, next we have the pauldrons for the shoulders. This particular harness has a decoration on one piece, which is rather nice:
These need to be laced on, both at the top (which can be tricky if your knight is tall!) …
… and then under the armpit, which is an experience about as pleasant as you’d expect it to be.
We’re nearly there.
But the knight needs to protect his head and throat. First he dons an additional padded arming cap, and then the bevor is fastened in place:
And then, finally, the helm and gauntlets.
This type of helm is called a sallet. It is curved, the better to deflect any blows aimed at it, and it has a visor that can be flipped up so the knight can drink (or see more clearly) without having to take it off completely.
For me it’s the helm that really completes the transformation. Up until this point, although he was gradually being encased in steel, the knight still looked like a real man, a human with whom you might be able to negotiate. Now he’s got his helm on and his visor down, he’s suddenly faceless and therefore a lot more frightening.
Now he’s protected, but he needs to be able to attack others. The principal sidearm, of course, was the sword, worn belted at the knight’s side.
Although knights would ride when travelling, by the late 1470s someone wearing a full suit of plate was just as likely to fight on foot as he was on horseback, in which case the weapon of choice was often the poleaxe:
So here he is: the armoured tank of his day, a well-protected killing machine.
Before we end this article, there a just a few things to be aware of, and a few misconceptions to put to bed.
Firstly: yes, this armour is heavy (this particular harness, not including the weapons, weighs in at about 37kg, which is 82lb or not far off 6 stone), but it is very flexible, and because it is all in separate pieces, the weight is distributed fairly evenly around the body. Thus the knight can walk, run and mount his horse without a problem. An armoured man didn’t need to be winched into his saddle, and he wasn’t helpless if he was knocked over. This particular knight can turn a cartwheel while wearing his armour, although we haven’t yet worked out how much use that might be in a combat situation.
Secondly: you cannot put this armour on in a hurry, and nor can you do it yourself, whatever you might hear on TV. If you ever read the words ‘he hastily donned his armour’ in a history book or novel, put it down and back away quietly …
All photos © James Mears. Many thanks to knight Colin Middleton and to his faithful squire!