English Medieval Knight 1200-1300

The commonest body armour of the 13th-century knight was mail, consisting of interlinked iron rings made up into garments. Despite the amount of mail that was undoubtedly in use, little has survived in any quantity dating from before the late 14th or early 15th centuries and none of that which does survive is of English manufacture. For the most part we are thrown back on manuscript illustrations and sculpted figures to reconstruct the knight of the period.

Artwork by Graham Turner

The mail coat was called a hauberk. This was usually about knee-length or a little shorter, split up the fork a short distance to facilitate riding, with wrist-length sleeves extended over the hands to form mail mufflers, or mittens. The neck was extended up to form a hood. To guard the throat the slit below the chin, which facilitated putting on the coat, might be laced shut. However, it was more common to extend one side of the lower edge of the hood as a flap of mail that could be drawn up across the chin and often the mouth when action was expected. This was called a ventail, and was probably usually lined or padded for comfort. In order to secure it in place a lace, threaded through the rings at the temple to keep the hood in place, was tied through the rings on the ventail. Some were fitted instead with a buckle to secure through a strap, or possibly a hook. A padded and quilted coif or cap was worn under the mail, tied under the chin with laces. By about 1275 some knights had begun to wear a separate coif but integral coifs remained equally if not more popular throughout the rest of the century.

A mail coat weighed roughly 30 pounds, depending on its length and the thickness of the rings. Some slightly shorter versions were also seen, with three-quarter or elbow-length sleeves, and are very probably the form known as a haubergeon.

In about 1250 Matthew Paris depicts a cuffed gauntlet made separately from the sleeve of the mail coat, but such an item was rare until the following century. At this date it appears to have been a form of bag gauntlet of leather with a flaring cuff, or a form reinforced by whalebone or metal plates inside or outside a leather or canvas mitten.

Several varieties of helmet were in use. The conical form was either raised from a single piece of iron or steel, sometimes with reinforcing bands, or else made in the form of the old Germanic spangenhelm , from four segments riveted inside a framework of iron bands, usually four springing from a brow band. Such helmets would still be seen in mid-century, but in art they are sometimes ascribed to the 'baddies', emphasising the more up-to-date equipment of the 'good guys'. By 1200 round and cylindrical variants were already popular. All three forms might have a nasal, but are sometimes provided with a facemask. A few had a neck-guard, and in the late 12th century the two were joined to produce a rudimentary form of the great helm. This form, rare in 1200, was usually shallower at the rear than at the front, though the second seal of Richard I suggests that helms reaching the same depth all round were known before 1200.

The all-enclosing helm became increasingly popular through the 13th century. Some had a single vision slit across the front, and gradually reinforcing bars were added to strengthen the metal around the slits and down the medial line at the front. The front plates overlapped those in the rear to afford a smoother surface against a weapon point. The flat top was riveted over the upper edges. This form of top surface was much less protective than conical or even round-topped helmets, but nevertheless remained the usual form until later in the century. After about 1250 the upper sides began to taper, though the top usually remained flat. From about 1275 a few tapered to a point and by the end of the century round-topped examples were also seen. The lower edges had also deepened and by 1300 the first visors may have appeared.

By mid-century the cervellière (also known at this date as a basinet), a small, hemispherical skullcap of iron, had become popular and increasingly supplanted the conical and round-topped helmets. Sometimes worn over the mail hood but under the helm, illustrations reveal that it could also be worn under the hood but over the padded coif, and would account for a number of pictures showing warriors apparently wearing very rounded coifs and seemingly no other head defence. Such hoods often show a lace around the temples, either to keep the mail in place or also to help secure the cervellière.

In the later 12th century helmet crests had appeared, usually on the helm - Richard I is shown with one on his second seal. The fan crest was sometimes made from thin metal, though wood and parchment were also used, especially for tournament versions. The fan could be painted with the coat-of-arms or some part of it. Three-dimensional crests were also sometimes used, made from whalebone or, more commonly, wood, parchment or leather.