The Well-Dressed Knight. — Peter Lawton — 31st October 2016.

Where did the medi­eval knight come from?
Most people have seen suits of armor in museums, and even parish churches have carved effi­gies of knights on tombs, so the pic­ture of a knight is well known. In England the first knights were Normans who came with William the Conqueror.  They fought on horse­back, unlike the Saxons who were mainly foot sol­diers.

William gave his faith­ful knights large estates to reward them for their ser­vices and also to main­tain con­trol of the coun­try.  They star­ted as armed retain­ers (‘knit’ is Saxon for ‘retainer’ or ‘ser­vant’) then began to do offi­cial duties and, as their status began to rise, they became sher­iffs and magis­trates.

They advised the King on mil­it­ary and other mat­ters. They began to claim des­cent from well-known lead­ers like Alexander the Great to increase their status. Geoffrey de Charney (the ori­ginal owner of the Turin Shroud) wrote a book about knight­hood in which he said that the qual­it­ies required were:

  • Loyalty
  • Generosity
  • Courtesy
  • Prowess

but, most import­antly, a knight should have prowess at arms.

We are famil­iar with tour­neys and jousts from his­tor­ical films show­ing knights train­ing for war­fare on horse­back to improve bal­ance and accur­acy, but in real­ity the train­ing was much more viol­ent with crowds of knights fight­ing each other in a melee.

Talhoffer pro­duced a book of draw­ings show­ing dif­fer­ent meth­ods of fight­ing with swords, poleaxes (pol­lacks?) and also fight­ing without arms.  Even today there are groups who prac­tice armed mar­tial arts.

Arms and Armour.
The changes in weaponry over the cen­tur­ies caused changes in armor. In 1100 the sword (the symbol of knight­hood) was the main weapon, but by 1400 the poleaxe was more com­monly used and by 1600 the musket was in use.

William’s men wore chain mail coats but would give if  hit with a sword and trans­fer the blow to the body. By the 13th and 14th Centuries cross­bow bolts and espe­cially long bow arrows could pen­et­rate a chain mail coat, so better armor was needed.

At first many small metal plates were fastened to a leather jerkin to pro­tect the chest, then as metal-working improved so did armor.  By the mid 14th Century larger pieces of metal like the breast­plate and the bassinet (a metal collar that pro­tec­ted the neck and shoulders) were in use and by the 15th Century full armor was used.  Of course this was only pos­sible because of the improve­ments in iron-making foundries and metal-working during medi­eval times.

German armor was very light with flut­ing to give it strength.  The German knights fought on horse­back against poorly armed enemies, whilst Italian armor was heav­ier and the side meet­ing the enemy first was thicker and stronger the rest of the armor. The Italians knights were bat­tling other city states whose armor was sim­ilar. English armor how­ever had a longer skirt and was more sym­met­rical because English knights often fought on foot.

What did it cost?
In the mid 13th Century a full suit of armor cost £16  (about £10,000 in today’s money). In 1397 Thomas of Woodstock bought armor (prob­ably more than one set and pos­sibly with dec­or­a­tions in gold) cost­ing £403 (about £68,000 in today’s money).

The body armor all hangs on a padded leather doublet with many laces which are used to tie the armor plates to it. Peter demon­strated get­ting dressed in his armor with the help of two ‘squires’ (mem­bers of the club).  He already had the greaves and demigreaves (cover for his calves), wings (cov­er­ing his knees). The breast plate,  cuisses (cov­er­ing his thighs) on his legs, and the vam­braces (fore­arms) , couters (elbows) and rereb­races (upper arms) on his arms were all added by the squires  which took over 20 minutes to fully dress him.

The armor weighed about 60 lb and this is less than a modern sol­diers’ full kit, much of which he would carry on his back,  However, the prob­lem an armored knight in battle had was that the build up of heat inside the padded leather and metal around his body allowed him only about 15 minutes fight­ing time, then he would have to drop back out of the front line.

Peter explained how chain mail was first made.  The iron was drawn (by hand!) into wires by pulling the metal through a series of dies.  Then the wire was wrapped in a spiral round a thin metal rod then cut along the rod to get a series of open rings.  Each ring had a small hole drilled in each open end and these were joined by a tiny rivet as the rings were ‘knit­ted’ one at a time into a chain mail sheet. This was a tough, labor-intensive, time-consuming task and was later mech­an­ized using water power for the wire draw­ing.

He also showed us how a knight would hold and fight with a poleaxe (a weapon that I have heard called a hal­berd), a com­bined spear and battle ax with a point at each end of the shaft, and said that this is where our expres­sion “poleaxed” comes from.  He said that if he was a knight fight­ing on foot he would choose this weapon rather than a sword every time.

This inter­est­ing talk was full of inform­a­tion and his dis­play of weapons and armor quite amaz­ing.