Medieval and Renaissance Plate Armour: How effective was it really?

A topic that I have seen a lot of misconceptions about in the past is the use and effectiveness of plate armour of the Late Medieval/Renaissance period. A lot of this comes in the form of tropes from movies, as well video games to some extent. Some examples show the armour to be completely useless, while others show it to be used strange ways and configurations.

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Introduction to Plate Armour

After the plate armour used in the Ancient and Classical periods (such as Roman lorica segmentata). It began to see widespread use again in the late 13th Century. These were mostly single plates used to protect joints and the shins over a mail hauberk. By the end of the 14th century, the full suit of armour had been developed. European leaders in armouring techniques were northern Italians and southern Germans. This led to the styles of Milanese from Milan, and Gothic from the Holy Roman Empire. England produced armour in Greenwich which developed its own unique style. Maximilian style armour immediately followed this in the early 16th century.

Protection

Obviously the point of armour is to protect the wearer from harm, and yet there are countless depictions of armour in films, television and other media of armour being barely any better that wearing nothing, or even worse when mobility is considered. So what sort of protection did the plate armour of this period provide? There is some very simple evidence that we can see first of all; the design of specific anti-armour weaponry. This includes warhammers, maces, poleaxes, and certain specific swords, crossbows and daggers. These weapons are all designed with the aim of two main approaches. First of all is to punch through armour using a high force of impact at a small point, such as with the spikes on warhammers and poleaxes, as well as heavy crossbows. Secondly, they could bypass the armour entirely by exploiting the gaps between plates, which would be what you would try to do with swords, rondel daggers, and spikes on the top of poleaxes or similar weapons. Furthermore, there are fighting techniques that were developed to be used in conjunction with these weapons against an armoured opponent. These can be seen in certain late-medieval combat treatises that depict armoured fighting. In these styles of combat, you are taught to rely on your armour to fully protect you from strikes you may receive from regular weapons (shown below), and when fighting an armoured enemy you should first aim to tire or weaken them by striking them with heavy blunt force or accurate thrusts to weaknesses, and then if possible to grapple them to the ground so you can finish them with a thrust through the visor or under the helmet to the throat with your rondel dagger.

These examples are quite convincing to me, but if you need more evidence, there have also been more scientific tests on the effectiveness of various weapons against various armours, and the metallurgy of medieval armour. You do need to be careful, however, to avoid the ‘tests’ you may see on some ‘historical’ documentaries’ you may find on TV, as they seem to think placing a solitary breastplate or thin piece of mail made of who-knows-what type of steel against a flat surface and shooting it with a modern bow is good enough. In real use, weapons and armour would behave far differently. First of all there would be movement, as the armoured man would most likely not stay still while you attack him, he would attempt to move and negate some of the force of a blow, or let it glance off at an angle. This is a very important point, as with all forms of armour, even modern tanks, the shape and angle of it makes up half of the protection value. The other half, comes from the quality of the materials. Generally the materials and construction of armour get better through time, especially when multiple layers are used, and the steel starts to be surface hardened. In some tests, it does very rarely occur that an arrow may pierce a piece of plate armour, but this in reality would barely even cause a wound in most cases, as underneath the breastplate for example, there is usually empty space, and then a layer of chain mail, and then a layer of thick padded gambeson.

Furthermore, the type of arrow used would be important, as something with a broad head point would have little hope of doing anything to armour. Even with more effective types of arrow, if it only hits a smooth angled part of the armour, it will glance off. The main weakness against arrows would be the visor of the helmet, where although the arrow wouldn’t literally slip though the gap, but it would just have something to catch onto, and drive all the force of the shot into the opening, probably widening it and then entering the face. Therefore a knight would probably just lower their head in the hail of arrows, just as if it was rain.

“Did you hit me yet?”

Mobility

The second main principle of armour to consider is the mobility of it, including the weight, comfort, and range of motion. These factors are probably subject to even more misconception, thanks again to movies, mostly. The first thing to mention here is that obviously armour is going to have some negative effects on the mobility of its wearer, and with all armour there is always a compromise between mobility and protection. If you want to increase the protection, you have to either increase the thickness, or the size of a plate of metal, thus making it heavier, and more cumbersome for the wearer. You can see examples of this in action when you look at certain armours, as with some the pauldron of the forward facing shoulder would be larger, providing more protection, while the shoulder of the sword-arm would have a smaller pauldron, allowing for easier use of the weapon. a reasonable trade-off. So there are some points to certainly consider in the mobility of plate armour, it obviously doesn’t act like clothing, and some examples do restrict movement a fair amount, but these are either very poorly made, or are tournament armour, which is meant for jousting and provides a lot of protection, but would be useless to fight normally in.

However, as I said there are many misconceptions about plate armour surrounding this. One of the main ones, and perhaps quite understandable, is the weight. After all, it must be insanely heavy to wear a full suit of metal on your body! and with layers of chain underneath? Well full harness would probably weigh somewhere between 30-50 kg. This is actually pretty similar to the weight in gear modern soldiers have been carrying in march for years. There have been tests on the effects of this weight on the wearer in regards to their ability to move and march after wearing armour for long periods of time, but with armour you probably wouldn’t be wearing it to march in for long distances, unless you were particularly paranoid of being ambushed at any moment. Open battles in the medieval period were enough of a rare occurrence in war when compared with sieges, and were usually planned in advance, allowing you the time to equip yourself, so you wouldn’t be wearing your armour for overly long periods of time. When you were wearing your armour, you would of course be heavier, but with the weight evenly spread out all over your body it really doesn’t have the same effect as carrying 50 Kilos just from your shoulders.

So what about the ease of movement in armour? This is another case where the popular view is very wrong, with some believing that knights would not be able to get up if they fell on the ground, or even had to be hoisted into their saddles with cranes. A lot of this comes from misleading information from the 19th century, as a lot of historical misconceptions seem to. Well made plate armour would mostly allow for completely normal movement by the wearer, with the main restriction only being tilting of the neck in certain helmets. In fact, well articulated armour would allow for greater range of movement in most joints that the human body is capable of. Modern experiments with genuine fifteenth  and sixteenth century armour as well as with accurate copies have shown that even an untrained man in a properly fitted armour can mount and dismount a horse, sit or lie on the ground, get up again, run, and generally move his limbs freely and without discomfort.

Lastly, the main issue one may have while wearing a full suit of plate armour would be the visibility out of the visor. Certain helmets had larger openings which would make it easier to see, and most had visors or removable face plates. It is generally thought that visors would be kept down at range to protect from arrows, and then lifted when in close combat. However, this may not be as common as once believed, because when you can mostly rely on your armour to protect you from random attacks, you have less of a need to concentrate on parrying enemy blows, so you can just wade into combat and take down unarmored foes with little difficulty in most cases. This would favour you having the visor lowered to protect you, allowing just enough visibility to get by.

So after reading this I hope you find that you know more about armour and how it was used than you probably knew before. And if you still need convincing, you probably could have just skipped reading this whole thing and though about this instead: If plate armour wasn’t really damn good, then why would people continue to use, develop and spend fortunes on it for hundreds of years?

Sources

  1. Le combat en armure, Daniel Jaquet
  2. The Evolution of Arms and Armors During The Crusades 
  3. Knights in Shining Armor: Evolution of Armor during the Hundred Years War
  4. English Longbow Testing Against Various Armor circa 1400
  5. Some Aspects of the Metallurgy and Production of European Armor
  6. Limitations imposed by wearing armour on Medieval soldiers’ locomotor performance
  7. Arms and Armor—Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions
  8. Arms and Armor: A Farewell to Persistant Myths and Misconceptions
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