by Sam Steele
A knight was the armoured tank of the Medieval period, wearing armour first of mail, steel rings riveted together, for hundreds of years until easier access to large amounts of high quality steel was possible from the 1300’s onwards. The armour was designed to take on all types of weapons from axes, swords, spears, arrows and many more found on the medieval battlefield. Creating all the necessary parts of the armour for a knight was specialised work for highly skilled metal smiths, known as armourers. The knights paid large amounts of money to afford the best they could and have it fitted correctly to allow them to move, run, climb, fight and ride in the armour for long periods of time.
In the diagram you can see the major pieces needed to make up the ultimate defence against your enemies, from head to toe.
What did these pieces do?
The helm or helmet isthe main part of any set of armour for any warrior in battles throughout history. It protects the head from blows that would quickly kill or disable the knight if one wasn’t worn. Helmets could come in all shapes and sizes, including types known as ‘basinets’ which were pointed towards the top and helped deflect blows away from the head and prevent arrows from punching holes through the front when facing the enemy. It was the last piece of armour that the knight would put on when arming for battle, being generally the heaviest piece but the most protected part of a knight’s equipment.
The visor or mask protects the face from attacks by arrows and splinters from lances when they hit the shield or armour at high speed. Most visors are hinged to be lifted up, down, moved to the side or taken completely off to allow better vision. Moreover, lifting the visor, when given the opportunity during slower moments in battle, would allow easier breathing, however it leaves the knight exposed to attacks in doing so. The design of the visor can help in deflecting arrows away and specially drilled holes allow easier breathing and their designs would be elaborate to help intimidate or scare the opponents from fighting them.
These help in protecting the joint in the armour where the shoulder meets the top of the arm armour or ‘Rerebrace’. Originally they were nothing more than a single plate attached to the chest armour or strung through the mail shirt to hang freely, but this left the joint exposed to attack if it moves too much. This piece was later improved by becoming a piece with several plates attached to the bottom by leather straps on the inside of the piece to keep the movement needed to lift the knights arms to protect, attack and defend their owner even more.
The protection of the upper arms was a fairly late upgrade to the knight’s armour as the more armour they wore; the harder it was to move around in unless it was made to a very high light weight standard. The rerebrace was usually a single plate which was attached above the armour protecting the elbow, to stop any gaps appearing in between the steel plates which could create a weakness in the armour. In the first stage of their development as a piece of armour knights, and warriors known as men-at-arms (men who were not knights), had the piece made of leather which was boiled to harden it in order to stop the cutting edge of a sword. Several extant leather versions of these have been found to be highly decorated with patterns, to help show the status and wealth of the warrior wearing it and thus advertise that they may be worth more alive, as a hostage to ransom after the battle, than if they were killed.
The protection of the elbow was an early part of the equipment to be worn, as a hit to the joint would most likely immobilise the arm and put the knight at a great disadvantage with only one arm left to defend himself. The design later became bigger and grander to defend more of the arm and linked together with the other parts of the armour protecting the arm. Originally it was strapped or laced onto the arm, but would later have extra plates at each end that were segmented (several plates held together by leather straps underneath), allowing better movement of the arm and better defence and attack.
The discs which hang off the chest are partially for show and often decorative, showing off the wearer’s status as a knight. The discs are meant to cover the small area of the armpit that couldn’t be protected by steel armour and was only usually protected by a layer of mail, worn underneath the armour, but was usually thought to be not enough to stop piercing stabs from going through into the knight’s body.
The lower arms were always more in danger of damage from attack and the vambrace was an early piece of armour, used since ancient times, against cuts and slashes. Originally from thick boiled leather, these too were later upgraded to steel and attached to the rest of the armour protecting the arm. They were made relatively short so the wrist could still move and not restrict the bending of the elbows, which was needed to strike and block attacks.
These were a heavily protected part of the armour. The most technically advanced part of the equipment, which always needed to allow free movement to use shield and weapon, but still allow maximum protection. Early armour for the hands were no more than padded mittens with mail sewn on top, but by the mid 1300’s the fingers were separate or segmented with little plates which followed how the bones of the fingers move. The articulated fingers were only affordable for rich knights due to how much skill was needed to create this design. They could include sharp points on the knuckles as a form of knuckleduster for unarmed combat making this piece of armour a weapon in its own right. The piece would protect the wrists also by strips of metal on a piece of leather or the end of the piece pointed outward to allow free movement when needed.
Since ancient times the chest has always been protected in some form or another. By the 1300’s, for the first time since Roman times, it was protected with metal plates. The breastplate is technically a single piece, but other types of armour, like a coat of plates or brigandines, were leather or fabric with a number of small plates attached onto them. They served the same purpose when larger pieces of steel were not available or affordable. Usually the thickest piece of armour, to take impacts from arrows and lances, it was close fitting to the chest. It had attachments on the bottom that help cover below the hips with extra plates or a separate mail skirt to allow the knight to still bend down and move whilst protected.
The upper legs were first protected with padding and later with mail leggings over the padding. But these were quickly replaced with strips of steel under a thick leather layer which was later replaced by a single open ended piece of steel. The piece was usually attached to a belt to keep it in place, with straps on the back of the cuisses for securing it on the leg. This left the back of the leg exposed, but it was less essential for it to be covered in metal and one way to help keep the weight down.
The knees, like the elbows, were armoured fairly early in the history of armour development, due to the importance of the joint. It was relatively simple in design, apart from being shaped to a point or angled towards middle to help deflect shots, thus further protecting the knee. The outside of the knee usually had an extra plate that was flanged (angled) to protect from hits, as this was a weak point of the knee when attacked by a heavy blow. It first started as a separate piece and then, later on, attached to other parts of the legs armour to stop any gaps in the knight’s protection .This piece was also made to be close fitting to allow better movement at all times.
Since ancient times, the shins or lower legs have been armoured in some form, as most early large shields could only defend as low as the knee. It is one of the first pieces of armour to be put on when arming the knight. The protection of the shins was critical, as evidence from medieval burial pits in Wisby, Sweden, and other burial sites show numerous cuts and injuries to the lower legs. These injuries would indicate the victims were not protected there, making it easy for them to be immobilised and brought to the ground, to be finished off by the enemy, and was probably a major reason for their defeat.
This was a lesser known type of armour used, though it completes the protection down to the toes of the knight. Footwear was generally not protected until new fighting techniques likely forced the shoes to be covered in a set of segmented plates. This would allow the piece to work with the shape of the shoe, which was nothing more than soft leather underneath, and minimise restriction of movement.