Early 15th Century Hundred Years’ War Arms and Armour I

Warlord Games

All three kingdoms, England, Scotland, France, used the same types of arms and armour; it was just that each favoured the use of some particular types more than others. This came from each of three kingdoms having different types of soldier as the core of their armies. Archers, for example, were raised by English, Scottish, French, Gascon and Burgundian captains, but the most sought after were the English and Welsh. Why? They certainly had more experience and had lived in a country which had actively encouraged military archery for at least three generations by the time of Verneuil. But England and Wales were not the only countries which developed some tradition of hand bow archery. William Wallace had archers from Ettrick Forest at the Battle of Falkirk, although it was their absence rather than their presence that had an effect on the outcome of the battle. The Counts of Foix in Aquitaine used archers, both local recruits and English hirelings, in their wars with their noble rivals in the area from about 1360 onwards. The Burgundian army throughout the fifteenth century included archers, perhaps initially in imitation of their English allies. The Burgundians were both enthusiastic hirers of English and Welsh archers and employers of ‘home grown’ archers. So the question remains, why were the English and Welsh the dominant archers on the battlefield for two centuries? While they were not invincible, indeed they were on the losing side in a number of battles, they were never defeated by archers of another nation. But, while we always think of the English and Welsh as longbow archers, the English at least also used crossbows to a limited degree. Unlike the practice in Continental European armies, there is no evidence that they used them in field armies, but only in garrisons.

Men from all three kingdoms wore plate armour, but again the proportion of men using part or full plate armour varied in the three kingdoms. There were two significant stages in the development of plate armour that happened around the beginning of the fifteenth century which have great importance for the Battle of Verneuil. These were the manufacture of full suits of plate armour and advances in iron and steel production. Taken together, they meant that a man wearing the best quality plate armour could be reasonably confident that war-bow arrows presented no fatal threat until they were shot at point-blank range (about 40–60yd) or found one of the gaps in a suit of plate armour necessary to allow movement.

Protecting these openings in a suit of armour was a challenge to armourers which they met with increasing success in the fifteenth century. Just as the English tactical system was unique in military history, so the western European development of full suits of rigid plate armour is not found in any other culture. In the Moslem world, India, China and Japan, robust helmets, chainmail, scale armour and relatively small plates that overlapped or reinforced chainmail were the norm. All of these cultures had sufficient metallurgical skills to make effective plate armour if they wished, it was just that they seemed to prize the flexibility of their style of armour over the arguably higher level of protection offered by full plate armour. Why western Europe military culture developed suits of full plate armour which were extravagantly expensive in their use of materials and skilled time is difficult to explain for certain. The Classical Greek tradition favoured rigid breast and back plates while the Roman tradition went for smaller overlapping plates or even scales. It is likely that the use of powerful crossbows in Continental European warfare and the use of the English and Welsh longbow were a powerful stimulus for this development. Advances in iron and steel production in the late fourteenth century made the development of full suits of plate armour worthwhile because they made it likely that the plate would be more or less impervious to missiles. It was in north Italy where ‘a certain sophistication in manufacturing techniques is apparent by 1400 when higher quality iron and steel were produced by new carburising processes and the use of the blast furnace’. These technological improvements, particularly surface hardening, enabled armourers to improve the impenetrability of their products without necessarily increasing the weight of the suit of armour. This was a significant improvement to field armours, which were tiring to wear while engaging in demanding physical activity like advancing across a rough battlefield or hand-to-hand fighting. If men wearing armour designed for fighting on horseback were fighting on foot, they would find this more tiring than if they had been wearing a foot armour, because a mounted man would tend to wear heavier leg protection. This would have a noticeable effect on the way they walked and on their sustained agility. This may explain in part the behaviour of the Lombards in the Battle of Cravant (see the account of this battle below). Also, most plate armours, whether designed to be worn on foot or horseback, restricted how deeply the wearer could breathe, which in turn affected the wearer’s stamina. In addition to these technological developments, by the second decade of the fifteenth century the armourers of north Italy had come to the final stage of the development of the various pieces of a full body armour, and the way they fitted together.

The developments of the rest of the century were aimed at improving the functionality and appearance of the armour. This armour had been developed to meet the needs of the professional mercenary soldiers in Italy. They had concentrated on ensuring that a mounted man could charge in battle with confidence that he was unlikely to be fatally wounded by the opposing mercenaries. As a result the shoulder pieces or pauldrons were large and asymmetrical (the left being larger than the right to remove the need for a shield) to protect a common weak point in most earlier armours, and the helmet (known as an armet) was shaped like the bow of a ship to deflect arrowstrikes and other blows as the owner charged. These developments led to armour from north Italy being the most sought after for perhaps two generations until the German armourers caught up with the technology. It also meant that mercenaries from north Italy who were equipped with this armour were much sought after, as the account of the Battle of Verneuil below will show.

In the fifteenth century, the design and shape of armour, particularly the pieces protecting the body and the head, developed to improve the protection it offered. Two major helmet types developed: the bascinet, a close-fitting helmet often tapering to a point at the top of the head to provide glancing surfaces; and the sallet, which looked a bit like a smooth, steel baseball cap worn back to front with a tail to protect the back of the neck. Both types were used with or without visors.

A fundamental problem with good suits of plate armour was that, to be as comfortable to wear and effective as possible, the armour had to fit the wearer well. In other words they were made to measure. This made the suits very expensive and time-consuming to obtain. If the armour was made to measure this presented the owner with a major problem – he couldn’t change shape much. This problem is made clear by the armours of Henry VIII in the collection of the Royal Armouries, which show that he gained weight as he aged.

As a result it was difficult for anyone other than the original owner of the armour to wear the suit without alterations, which might include modifying or replacing some parts. But armour was like modern men’s suits: not all are made to measure. There are records of merchants carrying bales of armour and numbers of helmets of differing styles to England, France and Spain. This armour was not designed to make full suits but provide a good level of protection for men who could not afford bespoke armour. Since armour needed to fit well to be comfortable and effective, this had an effect on its value as booty.

Plate armour was worn with various types of soft or flexible protection, and many fighting men wore very little plate – maybe only a helmet. In the main, men who had little if any plate armour couldn’t afford it and would hope to get some as booty. However, some men, what proportion we cannot know, deliberately relied on the more flexible forms of protection because they were lighter, less draining of stamina and relatively effective. These soft, flexible armours included gambesons, chainmail, and brigandines. The gambeson (commonly known as an aketon or actoun in Scotland) was usually made of linen, quilted and padded in vertical strips, commonly long enough to reach the wearer’s thighs. The quilting was usually stuffed with folded linen, woollen fibres or other cheap frayed cloth. When sleeves were part of the gambeson they were separate pieces laced to eyelets in the armholes of the gambeson. The impenetrability of the gambeson depended on how tightly folded the stuffing was but it was an efficient protection much favoured by the English and Welsh archers and Scottish fighting men. Shorter versions were worn under plate armour to cushion the wearer. Chainmail was no longer worn on its own by this time in western Europe but was used with plate armour to protect the spaces necessary for limbs to be able to move freely and often the undersides of arms and backs of legs. The brigandine was like a gambeson with much less padding, having small, overlapping plates like scales sewn onto the garment. These scales were often covered with at least one layer of fabric, sometimes quite showy material. A brigandine was quite heavy, less flexible than a gambeson, but provided better protection. The point has already been made that it is possible that the development of war-bow archery, with its advantages of range, penetration and relatively rapid shooting, encouraged the development of full suits of plate armour, rather than flexible armour such as mail with plates worn to protect particularly vulnerable areas. Even good mail worn over a gambeson will not reliably keep out war-bow arrows if they are fitted with the appropriate head. This last point is key; there was an ‘arms race’ between medieval English arrowsmiths who continued to develop types of military arrowhead between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries to penetrate armour, while the armourers improved the arrow resistance of their products. At the beginning of the period the specialist military arrowheads in use were types whose development can be traced back to Viking times. These included long needle-pointed bodkins that would go through an individual ring in chainmail and quite probably penetrate the gambeson worn underneath. However, as the wearing of armour plates over the mail became more common in the fourteenth century, this type of arrowhead became obsolete. It just bent against plate. While this may not have been a problem for the English archers fighting the Scots in the 1330s, because the great majority of the Scottish soldiers would have no plate at all, it was a problem fighting the knights and nobles of France in the following decades. As a result, shorter, more triangular heads were developed with bigger sockets for the heavier arrowshafts required as bows gained in draw weight. Edward III’s administration made a significant contribution to this development in 1368 when it issued orders to the sheriffs of twenty-six English counties for a large number of arrows. These orders were very specific about the quality of the arrows necessary, not only requiring that seasoned wood be used for the shafts, but saying that the arrows were to be ‘fitted with steel heads to the pattern of the iron head which shall be delivered to him (the sheriff) on the king’s behalf’. These orders were not the first time that military arrowheads made of steel were mentioned in royal orders, but it is the first time that all the heads were to be steel. This, and the supplying of a design pattern, shows that the royal administration wanted a standard, good-quality military arrow with the capability to penetrate plate. However, recent tests suggest that the arrowheads developed later in the fifteenth century to penetrate plate armour may, paradoxically, have been less effective at penetrating gambesons and brigandines.

The types of hand-to-hand weapon used in all three kingdoms were much the same. Every fighting man carried at least one knife, ranging from the specialised misericord through to an everyday eating knife. The misericord, later known as the rondel dagger, had one purpose in war – finishing off an armoured knight. They had long, stiff, slim blades, not uncommonly 12in (30cm) long, and were designed to fit through the gaps in armour. The handles of these daggers often had flat ends to allow them to be driven through mail and padded jackets by a hammer blow from the hand. These were perhaps more commonly owned by wealthier fighting men, although they would be popular battlefield booty. By the fifteenth century they were worn by better-off citizens, aping the military style. The bollock dagger, so named from the shape of its handle, has been found widely in England and parts of northern Europe, and was used by ordinary men. Many bollock daggers found in England are single-edged with blades up to about 13in (335mm) long. They would serve well as fighting knives, although less effective for subduing an armoured man than a rondel dagger, and should be regarded as part of a man’s personal property in peace and war.

Ownership of a sword was almost as widespread among the soldiery of all classes as was ownership of knives and daggers. These varied widely in type and quality depending on the standing of the owner. As a result of the long run of relative military success for the English and Welsh soldiers from 1415 onwards, many of the ordinary archers and men-at-arms probably owned better quality swords than might be expected for men of their social status. From the thirteenth century onwards, knightly swords came in two broad types, the great (or war) sword and the arming sword. The blade of the great sword was about 48in (122cm) long with a grip long enough to allow it to be used two-handed as well as one-handed. Most surviving examples are well enough balanced to allow effective one-handed use. Originally, the great sword had a blade for both cut and thrust, but by the second half of the fourteenth century the blade shape changed noticeably. It was longer, narrower and stiffer, and its manufacturing probably placed greater demands on the skills of the swordsmith than had the earlier type. It is generally considered to have been developed in response to the increasing use of plate armour, which not only provided protection against the arrows of the upstart English archers, but also slashing blows from swords. This new blade shape shows that sword fighting techniques were changing to incorporate more thrusting moves to attack weak points in armour. In the first half of the fifteenth century, if Talhoffer’s manual is any guide, these swords could be used ‘half sword’, with one hand holding the blade halfway down, so that the point could be thrust into the weak points of the armour with force at close quarters. It is difficult to know how attractive great swords would be as booty for the ordinary archer and soldier of the various nations fighting in France at this time because of their specialised design, which required special training to use effectively. The arming sword was smaller, the blade being about 28–32in (71–81cm) long, and was worn as a secondary weapon by most fighting men and as a dress weapon marking social status. This is not to denigrate its real utility as a one-handed fighting sword for both cut and thrust. Most arming swords were light and well balanced so that they could be used in a fast, agile style of fighting which would contrast with the popular image of medieval battles, namely lines of armoured men bludgeoning each other with heavy weapons. The archers and other ordinary infantrymen would often use arming swords.

Lightly armoured men such as archers could take on more heavily armoured men-at-arms with the arming sword because it was easy to manipulate. They also used the more brutal falchion, which had a short, wide, heavy blade with a curved edge and straight back and was used for hacking blows. Besides the inevitable buffeting effect of being hit by a brawny archer using a falchion, the blow could distort or crack individual plates in a suit of armour.
This was also the period when the use of the shield declined, whereas the use of the buckler continued. It has been suggested that this decline came about because of the improvements in the quality of armour and the move to using two-handed weapons like the poleaxe and the great sword. This was despite the undoubted value of a shield against an arrowstorm of war-bow arrows.

Otherwise, the hand weapons used by the men of the various nations involved in the fighting in France in the first three decades of the fifteenth century varied according to the type of fighting they were trained for, their financial and social status, and to some degree which nation they came from.

Finally, in this general summary of the arms and armour used by the men fighting in the wars in France in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, there is the matter of training. Nobles and knights were well trained in use of arms; being an effective fighting man was still one of their major roles in society. Since English armies were made up of paid soldiers it is reasonable to expect that they all had some level of skill with their weapons. Similarly, the French urban militias would have practised. The Scottish soldiers also seem to have had some skill. The legal requirements for ordinary English and Welsh men to practise archery have been noted above. But the question remains, how did all these men gain their weapon skills? For the ordinary men of all three nations there is almost no evidence.

No doubt experienced soldiers led the practice but they have left almost no trace. There are tantalising references in the Register of Freemen of York to two men who may have played a part in this training. In 1298 Robert of Werdale, who was described as an archer, was enrolled in the register, and in 1384–85 Adam Whytt, a buckler player, was enrolled.

To be eligible to be a Freeman in York, these men would have become established in the city by following their trade in their own right for a number of years. They would also be reasonably prosperous since there were fees to pay to be registered. In short, they would have been respectable citizens of York, not just rough, skilled fighting men. They are the only two men on the register who might have been instructors in fighting arts. However, for men who were prepared to pay for training there were manuals of fighting and no doubt masters of arms to train them. In noble households the training was led by experienced members of the household. Some of these may have had access to one of these fighting manuals. But the fact that these manuals were written at all suggests very strongly that there were professional teachers of fighting skills. The earliest manual (Royal Armouries Ms.I.33) dates to around 1300 and was created in south Germany. This German tradition continued when Liechtenaur created his manual somewhere between about 1350 and 1389, when his work was incorporated in another manual compiled by Dobringer. In about 1410 Fiori de Liberi produced the first surviving Italian manual. Evidence of an English tradition of fighting manuals is found in two fifteenth-century manuscripts on swordplay.

The existence of theses manuals shows that the medieval warrior was interested in developing his skills; medieval battles were not just two lines of meatheads battering each other. As Liechtenaur put it, ‘above all things you should learn to strike correctly if you want to strike strongly’. While it would be a mistake to suggest that the majority of the professional fighting men in the wars in France during the early fifteenth century had access to a fighting manual, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many benefited from training or demonstrations by men with skill and experience, some of whom had access to such a manual.


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