Armour and Armourers

For all of their deficiencies, knights proved their mettle against Byzantine and Muslim forces, and for nearly 250 years after the Battle of Hastings (1066) they were all but invulnerable to the weapons used by European infantrymen. At the Battles of Courtrai (1302) in the Franco-Dutch War and the Morgarten (1315) in the First Austro-Swiss War, however, Flemish and Swiss pikemen demonstrated that the proper choice of terrain allowed resolute foot soldiers to defeat French and Austrian knights respectively. By then the use of powerful crossbows and longbows also put knights at greater risk of death on the battlefield at the hands of commoner bowmen. The combination of archer and dismounted knight used by the English throughout the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) proved deadly effective against French knights. Men-at-arms responded to their new vulnerability by using plate armour for themselves and their horses, which were more likely than their riders to be killed in battle. Plate armour presented several problems. It was too expensive for the less wealthy nobles, so that the near equality in knightly equipment that had marked the previous era disappeared. Its weight required larger and more costly warhorses, which were slower and less maneuverable, allowing the men-at-arms to do little more than a straight-ahead charge. Despite defeat by the Swiss infantrymen in numerous battles throughout the fifteenth century, culminating at Nancy (1477) in the death of Charles the Bold (1433-1477), the duke of Normandy, armoured horsemen remained a potent element, especially in the French army.

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 armour 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 armourers 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. Armourers 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 armour emerged during the 15th century-the Italian and the German. Italian armour 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 armour and armourers (HENRY VIII employed first Italians and then, from 1515, Germans in his Greenwich workshops) elements from both soon blended in European armour.

Arms and armour changed significantly during the Renaissance, with improvements in one of them often leading to modifications in the other. New military tactics and techniques triggered some developments, while others were based on fashion. Armour and weapons were not simply tools of war; they also served important social and artistic functions.

The most popular form of armour during the Middle Ages was mail—sheets of interlocking iron rings. Though flexible and strong, mail did not protect as well as solid plates. In the 1200s armourers began making plate armour out of materials such as leather and, eventually, steel. The earliest plate armour protected the lower legs and knees, the areas that a foot soldier could easily attack on a mounted knight. Over time, armour expanded to cover more and more of the body.

By the early 1400s, knights were encased in complete suits of overlapping steel plates. A full suit of armour might weigh as much as 60 pounds, but its weight was distributed over the entire body. A knight accustomed to wearing armour could mount and dismount a horse fairly easily and even lie down and rise again without difficulty. A foot soldier wore less armour than a knight. He might have an open-faced helmet and a shirt of mail with solid plates covering his back and chest.

Armour changed again as firearms became more common. Rigid armour would crack when hit by a shot from a pistol or musket. Some armourers responded by making their armour harder, while others produced plates that would dent rather than breaking. However, the only really effective technique was to thicken the armour, which made it too heavy to wear in battle. As armour became less useful, soldiers tended to wear less of it. By 1650 most mounted fighters wore only an open-faced helmet, a heavy breastplate, and a backplate. By 1700 armour had all but disappeared from the battlefield.

Tournaments called for special armour. Since participants did not have to carry the armour’s weight as long as they would in battle, they wore heavier armour that offered them greater protection. Each specific event in a tournament required its own type of armour. Some contests involved battles between mounted knights, while others featured hand-to-hand combat on foot.

Most armour, even that worn in battle, was decorated in some way. The decoration ranged from etched borders around the edges of plates to detailed images of saints or ancient heroes. Some very expensive armour was inlaid with patterns in silver or gold. Highly decorated weapons and suits of armour were status symbols, worn only at court or on special social occasions.

In Germany in the early 16th century the armourers’ 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 armour, 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 armour 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 armour-to present a smooth surface off which a weapon point would glance.

Besides suits of armour for the battlefield, armourers 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 armour for different purposes led to the evolution of the garniture, in which the basic suit of armour 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 armourers’ 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 armour were provided as well; one such set was the ceremonial armour made for Eric XIV of Sweden in 1563.

Missaglia family Italian makers of weapons and ARMOUR. 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 armour manufacturers in Milan was taken by the NEGROLI FAMILY.

Negroli family Italian makers of weapons and ARMOUR. 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 armour 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 armourers, 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 ARMOUR for horse and rider for Emperor Frederick III (1477; Vienna) and in 1491 was appointed chief armourer 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 armour 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 armourers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Konrad Seusenhofer (1460-1517) moved from Augsburg to Innsbruck in 1504 to set up a court armoury for Emperor Maximilian I, and was later succeeded as court armourer by his brother Hans (1470-1555) and Hans’s son Jörg (c. 1505-80). During the 16th century, when plate ARMOUR had become ceremonial rather than practical, the family made richly elaborate armour, often decorated by inlaying, gilding, etching, or carving, for the European monarchies. Konrad was instrumental in evolving the type of fluted armour, known as “Maximilian,” popular in the first three decades of the 16th century (a fusion of the German and Italian styles of armour). A fashion in armour during the 1520s was to simulate the puffing and slashing of the dress of the period, an early example being the armour 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 armour 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 Armour 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).

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