English Medieval Knight 1400-1500

Artwork by Graham Turner

By the opening years of the 15th century steel plates covered the knight's entire body. The main body protection of the previous century had been the coat of plates, or 'plates', in which plates were riveted inside (or occasionally outside) a canvas covering. This was then faced with a richer material such as velvet or even leather, with the rivet heads visible on the outside. The heads were often tinned or gilded and might be of foliate form to enhance the effect.

Plates were usually arranged as horizontal hoops but many had a breast defence of two plates or even a single breastplate. The coat was put on like a poncho and fastened at the back, though a number were side fastening and closed additionally at one or both shoulders.

Many knights now wore 'plates' with an external breastplate and a fauld of steel hoops below. Beneath the 'plates' was a long-sleeved mail coat, consisting of thousands of interlinked and individually riveted iron rings. Such coats were usually slightly longer than the 'plates' and might now be provided with an upstanding collar made from thicker rings to provide stiffness. A padded aketon was worn beneath to help absorb the shock of a blow, this was necessary because mail was flexible and would yield when struck, even if the links were not torn.

By about 1425, knights increasingly replaced the coat of plates with armour which was attached by points (laces, often red) directly to an arming doublet, a padded coat provided with gussets of mail covering the armpit and inner arm. The Hastings manuscript of about 1485 said that points were to be of fine waxed twine such as that used to make crossbow strings, and each would be fitted over the end with a brass 'aiglet' or metal point. Some might be made from buckskin, which is tough and stretchy. A few knights still wore the full mail coat underneath, with elbow-length sleeves over the plates of the upper arm, well into mid-century, a practice more common in Italy.

Shields were rarely used, except perhaps by cavalry, largely being relegated to the tournament. Typical examples were made from wood, which was faced with leather and sometimes lined with parchment or cloth.

The main knightly weapon was the sword, with those from Cologne, Milan and Savoy being popular. At the beginning of the century some swords tapered to an acute point, with a blade of flattened diamond-section for stiffness; others had a broader blade that tapered more acutely nearer the point but with edges sharp enough to cut. During the second quarter of the century, a form of blade appeared that was flat in section but which had an upstanding mid-rib. A few broad-bladed weapons had two short fullers (channels) near the cross-guard, with a short single one below, and were probably Italian imports. Some swords were heavy, perhaps 5 lbs (2.2 kg) or more, and some over 50 ins (1.2 m) long, designed as thrusting weapons to combat plate armour. Long, narrow blades tended to have a long grip, to help balance them, and an elongated pommel like a 'scent-bottle'. Larger hand-and-a-half swords were also known as bastard swords or 'swords of war'. Many swords had a metal flap on the cross-guard over the blade, which fitted over the scabbard to stop water penetration.

The front section of the blade was sometimes left blunt, since men tended to hook their finger over it; this section was called the 'ricasso'. Some continental sword hilts developed a loop to guard the forefinger, a second loop then appeared to the rear cross-guard. Swords also, on occasion, had a ring on the side of the guard. The design of such guards continued to develop throughout the 15th century, and some incorporated a knuckle guard, although such models were rare in England until the 1500s.

The lance, often of ash, had swellings either side of the hand, and a large circular steel vamplate nailed on to guard it. A circular fixture (called a graper) nailed on behind the hand to ram against the lance-rest was used on the breastplate to prevent the weapon running back when a strike was made. The war-hammer sometimes had a rear spike and eventually a top spike. Maces had flanged steel heads and usually iron or steel hafts; they could be hung from the saddle by a thong. In the early years of the century the long-hafted axe was occasionally used. The pollaxe ('poll' meaning head) or ravensbill had a combination of axehead, hammer or beak; the top and bottom of the haft were fitted with a spike. A rondel protected the hand, while long steel or latten strips (langets) were nailed to the haft below the head to prevent it being cut. The halberd had a long blade backed by a fluke, with langets and top spike. The less common ahlespiess had a four-sided spike with a disc at the base. Bills, glaives and guisarmes were more common in the hands of ordinary footsoldiers.