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The armorial splendour of the golden Age of Chivalry

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Sport, War, Weapons on Monday, 30 January 2012

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This edited article about armour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 619 published on 24 November 1973.

Mediaeval tournament, picture, image, illustration

A mediaeval tournament during which knights wore armour more suited to the jousting contest than to war, by C L Doughty

Wars flourished in Europe in the 14th century, when knightly chivalry flowered into a brilliant, if brutal, way of life. This period also saw some rapid developments in arms and armour.

Sir Eustace d’Aubrecicourt was a young knight, eager for glory in the service of the King of France. He carried a shield of ermine two bars couped gules and was determined that these, his family’s proud coat of arms, should be in the very forefront of battle.

Already, the two armies were drawn up, the English invaders and their German allies on a hill some miles south of Poitiers, the French facing them from the valley below. Impatient for fame young Sir Eustace rode forward between the two forces. His challenge was at once accepted. Down from Count Johann von Nassau’s battalion charged a German knight named Ludwig von Recombes, his lance lowered as thousands of soldiers cheered.

The crash of their meeting was like a clap of doom. Both knights were hurled from their horses, though Sir Eustace was on his feet in a moment. The German rose slowly, clutching a wounded shoulder, his shield with arms argent five roses gules dangling useless at his side.

This was warfare in the highest tradition of chivalry – brave armoured knights tilting at each other with lowered lances. But Poitiers in the year 1356 was really a battle of nations, not a tournament of champions. Sir Eustace’s triumph was short lived, for five German men-at-arms, not even knights, rushed down to rescue Ludwig von Recombes. Sir Eustace was felled with a savage blow and dragged off as a prisoner to the Count of Nassau. He was tied to a cart and there remained until rescued during the course of battle.

Despite chivalrous incidents like that between Eustace and Ludwig, Poitiers, like most major confrontations of the 14th century, was a battle in which armoured knights faced infantrymen armed with longbow or crossbow and as usual the latter won. Not surprisingly, armourers kept trying to improve defences for both men and horses.

During the first half of the century, the overall appearance of the knights changed considerably. Their long flowing surcoats were abandoned in favour of shorter, less awkward jupons. As if in a gesture of defiance against those scruffy, but deadly, bowmen, knights also dressed more and more gorgeously. Pieces of their plate armour were often engraved and inlaid with brass or gold. Sword belts, apart from moving down from waist to hips, became elaborate affairs of hinged, jewelled clasps.

In a more practical vein, additional pieces of plate armour were added to the basic mail hauberk. Though not generally visible, body armour of horizontal plates riveted to a leather jerkin was now normally worn under the colourful jupon.

One of the most obvious changes was in the helmet. Heavy great helms were relegated to tournaments, while for real war a close fitting conical bascinet was preferred. Either riveted or laced to this bascinet was a mail aventail hanging down over the shoulders. Various sorts of face protection were added to the basic bascinet, ranging from a small nose-piece buttoned to the brow of the helmet, to full visors hinged either at the sides as in the hounskull helmet, or to the forehead, called the klappvisor.

During this period, many German names came into armour as Germany, like northern Italy, was fast becoming a major armour-making centre. In fact, the proud English and French knights who battled during the 100 Years’ War used Italian or German armour if they could afford it, rather than inferior French or English makes.

The jupon went out of fashion in Germany during the 14th century and this enables us to see the sort of experiments that were going on underneath. Illuminated manuscripts and statues often show German knights wearing brigantines, which were heavy leather or cloth jackets with small pieces of metal riveted on the inside. The rivet-heads showed through to the outside, and this is the real armour that lies behind those ridiculous brass-studded jackets that film directors make their medieval heroes wear.

But it wasn’t just an export-drive that encouraged German armourers to come up with new ideas. The Germans had their hands full on their eastern frontier fighting pagan Prussians as well as Christian Poles or Russians. In the forefront of this conflict were the Teutonic Knights, an order of warrior-monks who had turned their attentions towards eastern Europe after being thrown out of Palestine along with the other Crusaders.

Though usually portrayed as villains in Russian or Polish history, these Teutonic Knights were certainly a ruthlessly efficient civilising influence along the Baltic coast. In these regions, the German warriors in their white cloaks embroidered with a black cross, came up against a different sort of armour.

The old Byzantine and Asiatic traditions dominated eastern Europe and this meant that most Slav warriors still wore lamellar armour. Could this influence have encouraged German armourers to experiment with an increased number of metal plates? We cannot be sure, but we shall be looking at this Eastern, Asiatic tradition of armour later in this series.

Meanwhile in Western Europe, many new orders of knighthood were being created. These were intended to encourage loyalty to a king rather than devotion to God as the old Crusading Orders had done. One of the most famous new orders was the Order of the Garter formed by Edward III of England, while the French had their Order of the Star. Orders such as these, plus lavish tournaments, huge ceremonial feasts, heroic poetry and, of course, the cult of courtly love, were all part of the bloodthirsty game called chivalry.

Jousting and tournaments were an old idea but they now became more than mere practice for war. Special armour and weapons were developed. Blunted lance-heads for the joust of peace, heavy collars to protect the throat and a particularly strong gauntlet called a mayndefer for the right hand holding the lance, all kept bloodshed to a minimum.

Though a writer of the period said that “A youth must have seen his blood flow and felt his teeth crack, under the blow of his adversary . . . thus will he be able to face real war with the hope of victory,” there was still no point in letting knights damage each other, even in so rough a game as the medieval tournament.

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