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:
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.