Late Armor

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This late 15th-century suit of Italian plate armor covers the entire body. During the late 15th century and the early 16th century the art of the armorer reached its peak.

Model by Peter Wroe of Richard Beauchamp’s armour, which is in the Milanese style of about 1450.

Body protection for soldiers in the 14th century saw a general trend away from the use of mail and towards the use of plate. In Scandinavia and eastern Europe lamellar armor composed of small plates laced or riveted together became widespread; it was worn under a leather jerkin. Elsewhere soldiers increasingly wore pieces of solid plate strapped onto their mail hauberks or attached to the inside of a leather jerkin to protect vulnerable joints and limbs. For mounted soldiers, whose legs were an easy target for foot soldiers, plate leg protection was evolved, comprising sabaton (foot), greave (shin), poleyn (knee), and cuisse (thigh) sections. By the end of the century armorers were attaching the pieces of limb protection to each other by metal strips known as lames, rather than to another garment. Leather straps and loose riveting provided the necessary flexibility. Armorers also began to demonstrate their skill in designing surfaces curved in such a way as to deflect an enemy’s weapon point away from vulnerable body areas.

Two distinct styles in western European armor emerged during the 15th century-the Italian and the German. Italian armor is characterized by smoothness and roundness in the modeling of the individual pieces. Milan was an important center of manufacture. The German style, more angular and spiky, is often referred to as “Gothic”; its main centers of manufacture were Innsbruck, Nuremberg, and Augsburg. These differences are exemplified in two common forms of head protection: the smooth cylindrical shape of the Italian barbut, based on ancient Greek helmet designs, and the prominent projections of the German sallet with its pointed neck guard. However, as both countries exported armor and armorers (HENRY VIII employed first Italians and then, from 1515, Germans in his Greenwich workshops) elements from both soon blended in European armor.

KD garniture of Charles V, by Kolman Helmschmid – Augsburg, 1525.

In Germany in the early 16th century the armorers’ craft received strong encouragement from the informed patronage of Emperor MAXIMILIAN I. Among the famous makers who worked for Maximilian and his successors were the SEUSENHOFER FAMILY of Innsbruck and the HELMSCHMIED FAMILY of Augsburg. Maximilian’s name is associated with the type of ridged plate that represented the most advanced scientific design attained in European armor, combining strength and flexibility to a marked extent. A curious vagary in this period was the attempt to reproduce in metal the puffed and slashed garments of contemporary civilian fashion, even down to simulation of the stitching. From the mid-16th century changes in military strategy and increasing deployment of firearms made mobility more desirable than all-over body protection; plainer suits, often without the lower leg protection, became more common for practical purposes, while the parade or ceremonial armor of princes became increasingly ornate. The use of etching (in northern Europe) or embossing (predominantly an Italian fashion) for decoration naturally negated one of the primary functions of plate armor-to present a smooth surface off which a weapon point would glance.

Besides suits of armor for the battlefield, armorers also evolved specialist equipment to meet the rather different demands of the tournament. Heavily reinforced pieces protected the knight’s left shoulder and arm, as the side that would take the brunt of his opponent’s attack. A premium was placed on helmet design that protected the wearer against an opponent’s lance; the English great helm and German frog-mouth helm are examples of this specialist type. For foot combat this kind of helmet restricted visibility to an impractical degree, so a helmet with a visor was used instead. The need to adapt armor for different purposes led to the evolution of the garniture, in which the basic suit of armor is provided with additional matching pieces for special applications, such as a tournament or a parade. Garnitures such as those made for Henry VIII of England and Emperor Charles V and preserved in such collections as the Tower of London or the Armeria Real, Madrid, exhibit the armorers’ ingenuity in the design and decoration of these sets, which of course only the rich and powerful could afford or needed. Sometimes matching sets of horse armor were provided as well; one such set was the ceremonial armor made for Eric XIV of Sweden in 1563.

Missaglia family Italian makers of weapons and ARMOR. In the 15th century their workshop in Milan was a European leader in this field. Tommaso (died c. 1454), who retired in about 1451, handed over to his son Antonio (died c. 1495), who fulfilled commissions for a number of important clients. Some of his work is preserved in the Wallace Collection, London. After Antonio’s death the family’s place as leading armor manufacturers in Milan was taken by the NEGROLI FAMILY.

Negroli family Italian makers of weapons and ARMOR. They succeeded the MISSAGLIA FAMILY as the leading Milanese manufacturers in this field in the first half of the 16th century. Leading members were Jacopo and Filippo (active 1525-50) who made embossed parade armor as well as more practical suits. Among their clients were Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France.

Helmschmied family (Kolman family) A family of Augsburg armorers, successive generations of which worked for emperors and princes from the last quarter of the 15th century. Their work is signed with the mark of a helmet. Lorenz Helmschmied (1445-1516) made a complete set of ARMOR for horse and rider for Emperor Frederick III (1477; Vienna) and in 1491 was appointed chief armorer to Frederick’s son Maximilian (I), for whom he made many fine pieces. Lorenz’s son Kolman (1471- 1532), who worked independently from 1500, produced complete garnitures for Charles V, such as the “K. D.” garniture (c. 1526), parts of which survive in the Armeria Real, Madrid. The family workshop’s tradition of creating richly decorated parade armor was further developed by Kolman’s son Desiderius (1513-c. 1578) under the patronage of Philip II.

Seusenhofer family One of the most important German families of armorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Konrad Seusenhofer (1460-1517) moved from Augsburg to Innsbruck in 1504 to set up a court armory for Emperor Maximilian I, and was later succeeded as court armorer by his brother Hans (1470-1555) and Hans’s son Jörg (c. 1505-80). During the 16th century, when plate ARMOR had become ceremonial rather than practical, the family made richly elaborate armor, often decorated by inlaying, gilding, etching, or carving, for the European monarchies. Konrad was instrumental in evolving the type of fluted armor, known as “Maximilian,” popular in the first three decades of the 16th century (a fusion of the German and Italian styles of armor). A fashion in armor during the 1520s was to simulate the puffing and slashing of the dress of the period, an early example being the armor made by Konrad for Archduke Charles in 1514. Other clients of Konrad’s included Henry VIII of England and James IV of Scotland.

Another fashion of the mid-16th century was for garnitures- complete “wardrobes” of matching pieces of armor for different occasions. A famous example of this is the “Eagle” garniture made by Jörg Seusenhofer for Ferdinand, Archduke of Tyrol, in 1547, which comprised over 60 separate pieces.

Further reading: David Edge and John Miles Paddock, Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight: An Illustrated History of Weaponry in the Middle Ages (New York: Crescent Books, 1988); Alan Williams, The Knight and the Blast Furnace: A History of the Metallurgy of Armour in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period (Leyden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003).

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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