This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The high-point of chivalric warfare before the advent of gunpowder

Posted in Bravery, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about armour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

Agincourt, picture, image, illustration

Agincourt – the impossible victory, by Ron Embleton

“Sacre Bleu! They’re advancing towards us!” gasped a knight standing in the front rank of the dismounted French army as it trudged wearily across the sodden muddy fields of Agincourt.

“And we are three times their number – these English have the courage of the Devil himself!” replied another knight. “They are mere archers and hardly one of them has armour. Some do not even wear helmets!”

“But the English men-at-arms and knights are close behind . . . Look out!” At that moment a hissing and wailing filled the air as 13,000 English arrows crashed into the tight-packed French. Only a few men fell, for these knights wore full plate armour even though they fought on foot – yet they retreated a little and lowered their heads as that terrifying rain of arrows rattled about their ears.

A picked band of 800 mounted knights under the command of Sir Clunet de Brabant were meant to crush these infernal English archers but three-quarters of them had their horses shot from under them before they could even charge.

Confusion and panic quickly spread through the French ranks as even the bravest men remembered that the English had won every battle for the past 70 years.

The rag-bag English infantry shot a final volley into the bewildered French then, with the scent of victory in their nostrils they threw down their bows, took up swords, axes, billhooks – even mallets and clubs – and hurled themselves at the swaying mass of heavily armoured Frenchmen. Mercilessly they slaughtered the cream of French chivalry, thrusting their blood-stained daggers through the visor slits of any man who fell on that traitorous muddy ground. The French in their heavy armour were at a severe disadvantage when fighting on foot. Nevertheless many stood their ground like iron-clad rocks and hacked down any English bowman who dared come too close.

The slaughter at Agincourt was horrifying. Ten thousand French and 1,600 English died, but one thing was proved yet again – armour alone was not enough against the “fire”-power of the English longbow, not even the superb white armour of those unfortunate French knights, so named because it consisted entirely of polished plates without even a surcoat to cover them.

Ironically that defeated French army included many weapons that could outshoot even the English longbow – new fangled guns! Although the English bowmen despised French infantry even more than French cavalry, it was to be those humble French gunners who would finally turn a century of defeat into victory for France.

We tend to think of English infantry of the 14th and 15th centuries as all being bowmen, and of French infantry as largely consisting of mercenary Genoese crossbowmen. This is an oversimplification, for such weapons were used by both sides while a large proportion of all infantry were men-at-arms armed neither with longbow nor crossbow.

This infantry was, of course, more lightly armoured than the wealthy cavalry, but in the later Middle Ages even foot soldiers tended to put on more armour. To complicate the situation these poorer warriors generally wore second-hand armour, pieces either discarded by the aristocracy as new ideas came into fashion, or captured in battle. Nevertheless the light armour of the English archer during the 100 Years War would probably consist of a helmet, perhaps of the chapel-de-fer type although this had a brim which could get in the way when drawing a bow. More suitable was a bascinet without a visor though preferably with a mail aventail to protect the neck.

After any successful engagement the archers would steal mail hauberks, brigandines or at least quilted jackets from enemy corpses. Sword and buckler were the best defensive weapons for an archer, the buckler being a tiny shield held in the left hand to parry an enemy’s blows. Incidentally archers carried their arrows through a loop in the belt, not in quivers.

Crossbowmen did, on the other hand, use quivers for their deadly little bolts. Because of their slower rate of fire, crossbowmen also needed large shields called mantlets. These were propped up like photograph-frames on a mantlepiece and protected the crossbowmen as they loaded their weapons. Since many crossbowmen were well paid mercenaries they often had more up to date armour than the archers. In the 15th century this would probably include a plackart which was a cleverly designed breastplate that covered only those soft areas of a man’s belly below the rib cage while still leaving him free to move easily.

A characteristic helmet of the 15th century was the sallet. This had a sort of tail to protect the back of the wearer’s neck. Some left the face open, some covered the upper part leaving slits to see through, and others had movable visors that came down as far as the nose.

Men-at-arms varied a great deal in their appearance. Some wore the same armour as horsemen, though generally with less leg armour so that they could still walk easily. Many rode into battle then dismounted to fight, in which case they might have full leg protection. These footmen seldom bothered with shields, apart perhaps from a small buckler. Instead they relied on skilful sword play, or on rigid discipline where every man protected his neighbour from a side attack.

Discipline did, in fact, appear to be more characteristic of infantry than of those high-born cavalry knights. Swiss infantry in particular constantly humbled the mounted might of their foes by fighting in solid ranks with long pikes forming a deadly hedge of steel that cavalry couldn’t break.

More common than the pike in the 14th and 15th centuries was the halberd, a long-handled weapon with an axe-head, a spear-point and a hook for pulling down horsemen, or the poleaxe which was similar though including a hammer-head to smash even the toughest armour.

Guns had by this time appeared on the field of battle, yet the disciplined peasant infantryman had by the 15th century already earned himself a place in the roll-call of honour by toppling the proud knights of Europe from their horses in battle after battle.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.