Did Medieval Knights Really Wear As Much Armor?

Did Medieval Knights Really Wear As Much Armor?

The stories of knights, their courage, and their armor have been passed down through generations, embellished by romanticized tales and depictions in popular culture. However, what did knights wear, and did they don as much armor as we commonly perceive? This article will delve into the intricacies of knight attire and debunk some myths surrounding their sartorial choices.

Knight Attire: A Brief Overview

Knight attire primarily consisted of both defensive and offensive elements designed to protect the wearer during battle and express their societal standing. In the early Middle Ages, knights typically wore a chainmail hauberk (a long, loose-fitting shirt), a helmet, and a shield for protection. Still, as the concept of chivalry developed and warfare tactics changed, the armor was gradually upgraded, culminating in the iconic image of a knight in full armor.

The Evolution of Medieval Knights Armor

It’s essential to understand that medieval armor history is a story of evolution and adaptation, responding to changing technologies, threats, and fashion. Armor went through several transformations throughout the medieval period, from the 5th to the 15th century.

The Early Middle Ages

During the early Middle Ages, a knight’s armor was quite rudimentary. It usually comprised a padded garment or a leather jerkin, a simple helmet, and a large wooden shield, sometimes reinforced with metal. Chainmail was also used, made of thousands of interlocking iron rings, which offered protection against cutting weapons while maintaining flexibility. This type of armor was typically worn over a padded garment to prevent injuries from the impact of strikes.

The High Middle Ages

As we move into the High Middle Ages, around the 11th to the 13th centuries, the knightly class started to become more defined, and armor became a significant symbol of status. This period witnessed the emergence of more sophisticated designs. Knights began wearing a surcoat over their chainmail to protect against heat and dirt. Helmets became more substantial, often covering the entire head and face with slits for vision and breathing.

The latter part of this period also introduced plate armor elements. Pieces like the coat of plates (a series of metal plates riveted to a leather or fabric backing) were designed to protect vital areas like the heart and lungs.

The Late Middle Ages

The late Middle Ages, from the 14th to the 15th centuries, saw the advent of the knight in full armor as we typically imagine them. By this time, advances in metallurgy allowed for the creation of entire suits of plate armor, which covered nearly every part of the body and were tailored to the individual knight. This full armor suit included pieces like the breastplate, backplate, gauntlets, greaves, and full helm, among others.

However, while this image of a fully armored knight is most common in the popular imagination, it’s crucial to note that such armor was not always worn. It was cumbersome and expensive, typically reserved for battles, tournaments, and ceremonial occasions. At other times, knights would likely wear more straightforward armor or typical civilian clothing.

What Is Medieval Knight Armor Made of?

Medieval knight armor was typically made from a combination of materials, including iron, steel, leather, and textiles, each chosen for its unique properties of strength, flexibility, and weight.

The early medieval period saw the use of leather, padded fabric, and wooden shields, often reinforced with metal strips for added protection. Chainmail, which came into widespread use during this time, was made from thousands of interlocking iron or steel rings. The chainmail hauberk, a shirt-like garment, provided flexibility and resistance to cutting blows.

As metallurgical techniques advanced, plate armor became more prevalent, especially during the late Middle Ages. Plate armor was primarily made of steel, chosen for its excellent balance of hardness and flexibility. These steel plates were often treated through a process known as ‘quenching and tempering,’ enhancing their hardness while reducing brittleness. The individual pieces of plate armor were custom-made to fit the wearer, ensuring a balance between protection and mobility.

Additionally, knights wore a padded garment underneath the metal armor called an arming doublet or gambeson. Made of quilted fabric, often stuffed with horsehair or straw, this garment absorbed the shock and prevented the metal armor from chafing the wearer’s skin.

In the end, the creation of medieval knight armor was a complex process involving several materials, each selected for its unique protective properties and the level of comfort and mobility it could provide to the knight.

What Did Knights Wear Under Armor? 

Beneath their formidable armor, knights wore specific garments designed to offer comfort and protection and facilitate the armor fitting. This innermost layer of the knight’s attire was as crucial as the armor that covered it.

The primary garment worn under armor was a padded garment known as an arming doublet or a gambeson. This was made from several layers of fabric, often linen or wool, and was padded with materials like horsehair or straw. The primary purpose of the gambeson was to provide cushioning, distributing the shock of blows and preventing injuries from the impact. It also prevented chafing from the metal armor.

Over the gambeson, knights wore a tight-fitted garment called a pourpoint or arming doublet, equipped with points – small leather loops or metal eyelets. The various pieces of plate armor, like the cuisses (thigh armor), poleyns (knee armor), and greaves (shin armor), were then laced onto this garment. This system kept the armor pieces in place and allowed for greater mobility.

Knights also wore chausses, a type of medieval hose, and coifs, a close-fitting cap, under their helmets for additional comfort and protection.

Thus, under the armor, a knight wore a complex system of garments and accessories designed to maximize the effectiveness of the armor, ensure comfort during long hours of wear, and provide an additional layer of protection during combat.

Myths and Misconceptions: The Reality of Wearing Full Armor

There are many myths and misconceptions about medieval knights and their armor, most notably that they were always encased in heavy, unwieldy suits of plate armor. In reality, as discussed above, full suits of plate armor were the exception rather than the rule and were used primarily in combat situations.

While it is true that a full suit of armor could weigh between 30 to 50 kilograms, it was evenly distributed across the body. Moreover, these armors were designed to provide a balance between mobility and protection. Knights could run, climb, and even mount horses without assistance, debunking the myth that knights needed cranes to mount their horses.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that medieval armor, particularly plate armor, was a significant investment, akin to buying a high-end luxury car today. Therefore, not all knights could afford such elaborate protection, and those who could not wear it lightly or unnecessarily.

What Weapons Did Knights Use? 

Medieval knights were known not just for their armor but also for their skill in wielding a variety of weapons. The choice of weapons was primarily dictated by the period’s warfare tactics and the advancements in armor. Here are some of the key weapons used by medieval knights.

  1. Sword: The sword was the knight’s primary weapon throughout the Middle Ages. Early medieval swords were typically double-edged and designed for cutting, but as armor improved, swords evolved to have a more pointed tip for thrusting into gaps in plate armor.
  2. Lance: Used primarily in mounted combat, the lance was a long, spear-like weapon, often couched under the arm during a charge. The impact of a knight charging with a lance could be devastating.
  3. Mace: A mace is a blunt weapon with a heavy head on a solid shaft designed to deliver powerful blows. It was especially effective against plate armor, where the force of the blow could cause damage even without penetrating the armor.
  4. War Hammer: Similar in concept to a mace, a war hammer had a hammerhead on one side of the shaft and a spike on the other. It was designed to dent or penetrate plate armor.
  5. Dagger: Knights often carried a dagger as a secondary weapon. Daggers like the rondel effectively exploited the gaps in an opponent’s armor in close combat.
  6. Longbow and Crossbow: While not a knight’s primary weapons, these ranged weapons played significant roles in medieval warfare. Knights would often be supported by archers using these weapons to thin enemy ranks or target unarmored opponents.

The arsenal of a medieval knight was thus diverse and versatile, reflecting the challenges and realities of medieval warfare. Each weapon had a distinct purpose and role, and a knight’s mastery of these weapons was key to his effectiveness on the battlefield.

Conclusion: The Ever-Changing Armor of Medieval Knights

The knight attire evolved significantly throughout the Middle Ages, adapting to the changing demands of warfare and societal status. From basic padded garments and chainmail to the iconic knight in full armor, the journey of medieval knight armor is a testament to human ingenuity and the desire for protection and prestige.

While enduring and captivating, the image of the fully armored knight is only part of the complex story of knightly armor. It’s essential to look beyond the romanticized depictions and delve into medieval warfare’s authentic, pragmatic world to truly understand what knights wore and why.