A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer sheilde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he never wield;
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full iolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen, Canto 1
Picture a medieval knight, what do you see? A helmet? A sword? A horse? Heraldic trappings? Metal suits? Damsels in distress? St George? The Dragon . . . Fantasy? Mythology? Lies?
Recently my son came home from school and asked me to make him a full suit of armour – plate armour – not chainmail. It was a challenge that had immediate appeal. The only problem was my day job, I work very long hours in the family business. If this thing was going to be made I would need a lot of assistance. In fact, I would more or less co-ordinate the project and Junior would actually be making it.
Yes, he said he would be on board. He would do all of the paper mache I required of him. All of the painting too. Immediately he began working on the shield, so I began envisioning a plated armoured suit in corrugated cardboard. I cut the major panels of the suit and played with ideas of how to construct the necessary articulated elbow and knee joints. I had to think practically if he was going to wear the suit to Medieval Day at school. He would have to eat wearing it, which meant sitting down. He would have to kneel on the floor to work a miniature catapault and stand and stretch to fire an arrow from a bow. So it was to be flexible and durable to last the day – activities, lunch and toilet trips.
How flexible did it have to be? I thought back to the battles described by Procopius in his Persian Wars. Perhaps a little early in the Middle Ages and a little farther east than necessary but his accounts are that of an eye-witness. I thought about pitched battles and battlefields in general. When faced with an armed foe how functional would a suit of armour – plate armour be? Huns and horse archers had bows and swords and the ability to switch between both. Why didn’t the Roman cavalry wear a full suit – why did the best outfitted Roman wear chest plate only? Surely if plate armour was practical the Romans would have done it first? I had another look at the Bayeux Tapestry. Those Normans wore chain mail. Much more flexible but apparently just as heavy as plate armour. Could it be that plate armour wasn’t worn on the battlefield?
But what of all of those depictions of knights in shining armour – in history books, in the movies, in fairytales, in Scooby Doo? What of the tales of the Pre-Raphaelite canvases, the songs of minstrels and the epic medieval poems? Are they all romances? Is none of it based in historic reality? And what of the suits of armour that have been preserved through out history? Were they just for show? What purpose could plate armour have served? The full suit, visor down is intimidating – was this its purpose?
I wouldn’t want by sons to wear plate armour in a pitched battle but if they were on Sentry duty, such a suit may serve its purpose, that is, if the soldier was on guard duty – or heavily assisted by a page at a tournament.
Where is the Bayeux Tapestry for the later Middle Ages depicting knights on horseback in battle?
Could Edmund Spenser have been hinting at this impracticality of plate armour in the late 1500s when he wrote those lines? Did the major damage to plate armour come by jousts and not battles? No, I believe a real fighting knight wore chain mail – flexibility on a battlefield was key. Which was a great relief to my anxiety when the time came to make the suit. Sewing together faux chainmail and tunic was far less demanding than keeping Junior motivated to paper mache so many different panels of armour.
Photo Credit – Plate Armour