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Armour of the English Knight


Tobias Capwell

Thomas Del Mar Ltd

Armour of the English Knight


Tobias Capwell

This was the armour of the age of Henry V, the armour that went into action at Agincourt, the armour worn by some of the most famous fighting men in English history. Here, its story is told for the first time.

This detailed, lavishly illustrated book chronicles the armour worn by English men-at-arms during the later phases of the Hundred Years War, as they fought through the great victories and humiliating defeats in France that would ultimately lead them into the Wars of the Roses.

For the first time, many unknown or rarely published visual and documentary sources have been brought together to reveal the beautiful and intimidating accoutrements of the war-like English. Huge sums were paid by the chivalric elite for human exo-skeletons of hardened steel glittering with engraved and gilded decoration, the form, function and style of which was as characteristic of the English as were their feared longbowmen. Employing rich imagery in diverse media, combined with detailed technical and decorative analysis, Armour of the English Knight creates a unique visual journey through the physical world of the late medieval armoured warrior.


The aventail was usually composed of small, heavy links to form a dense and robust mail weave. Unlike the haubergeon, which by the beginning of the fifteenth century was an ancillary defence worn under the plate armour, the aventail provided primary protection for the neck and shoulders. It was desirable therefore that the aventail material be quite different from the lighter, more flexible mail reinforcing the arming coat and body armour. Very few of the surviving aventails are original to the helmets with which they are presently associated. At least two very fine examples do appear to belong however. One is now in the town museum at Le Landeron, Switzerland, while the other sits proudly on the ‘Lyle’ bascinet from Churburg Castle, now in the Royal Armouries.1

Fig. 1.18. Bascinet, North Italian , c. 1380-1400. Royal Armouries, Leeds, inv. no. IV.470.

Fig. 1.19. Bascinet, probably North Italian , c. 1400. Musee de l’ Hotel de Ville, Le Landeron, Switzerland.



Aventails were almost always lined. The quilted textile lining made the aventail comfortable to wear around the cheeks and chin, but more crucially provided a layer of padding between the mail and the body, neck and head underneath. Constructed of heavy, densely-woven mail backed with layers of shock-absorbent linen and stuffing, the aventail became a highly effective defence, not only against arrows, crossbow bolts, spears and other stabbing threats, but also against the fearsome downward blows of pollaxes, bills and halberds, attacks which, even if initially aimed at the head, might easy be deflected by the helmet down onto the area between the neck and shoulders. Some English effigies suggest such linings, with the aventail’s hem seeming to be turned over, the lowermost links being folded under and inside the lining and then presumably stitched to it.

This helmet was sold directly to the American collector Clarence H. Mackay before 1929. It was then sold with other pieces from his collection at Christie’s in 1939, where it was bought by Sir Archibald Lyle. Lyle presented it to the Tower Armouries in 1946 in memory of his two sons, of whom one was killed at El Alamein in 1942, and the other in Normandy in 1944. It is impossible to be certain whether or not the two other aventails at Churburg (inv. nos. 13 and 15) are original to their helmets. Both have been removed at some point; that of no. 13 is currently mounted inside-out, strongly suggesting that the current mounting is modern and does not date from the working lifetime of the helmet.

Fig. 1.20. North Leigh d. 1411.


THE INTRODUCTION OF CHIN AND NECK PLATES By the early fifteenth century the bascinet with attached mail aventail, which had been the universal head defence for almost a hundred years, was no longer providing adequate protection in the face of key advances in weapons. The design provided excellent protection against downward and head-on blows but was weak in the neck area. The throat was especially vulnerable and until c. 1410 was only protected by the aventail and by the collar or ‘pisan’, which provided a layered defence of linen, leather, and mail (see also p. 100). This arrangement worked well against hand weapons and light missiles, but it could not stand up to the recently-boosted striking power of the couched lance used in conjunction with the newly-developed lance-rest, or ‘arret de la cuirasse’.26 This little metal arm, attached to the breastplate, both supported the weight of the lance, allowing it to be made longer and heavier, and acted as a shock conductor by allowing an impact to be resisted with the body’s core strength rather than just with the hand, arm and shoulder. Thus the forces involved in a mounted collision with the lance were greatly increased, and a new threat to men-at-arms came into play. The throat had always been the most vital target after the eyes in couched lance combat. As early as the twelfth century, it was recognised that frontal injuries to the throat were particularly common among mounted men-at-arms. Raimon of Salerno (1180-1209), in his Surgery,27 calls special attention to lance wounds to the throat, mentioning them as being a special danger to knights when fighting others of their class:

If a knight who goes into battle with poor armour is wounded in the throat so that the breath escapes through the wound when he wants to speak, he is so badly injured, then leave him alone, for he is guaranteed to die.28

A fatal lance-blow to a throat protected only by the aventail seems to have been considered a plausible, indeed familiar enough occurrence for Lydgate to employ it in his Troy Book as the way Ulysses defeats King Philomene of Paphlagonia in mounted combat:

Of Irous herte, with so gret a peyne, That thorugh his schelde, bothe plate & mail, Se smet hym vp thorugh his aventail, In-to the gorge that the strok gan glide, That from his hors he fil doun a-side, Ful perlously pighte vp-on his hed, His knyghtes wnyng sothly he were ded.29


27 28 29

Fig. 1.71. Detail from Romans de la Table Ronde et du quˆte du saint Graal, c. 1410. Austrian National Library, Vienna, Cod. 2537 Han, fol. 156v. Note that while the man-at-arms in the foreground pays the price for continuing to wear the out-moded, non-reinforced bascinet, several of his comrades now are equipped with additional plate defences for the neck and throat.

The lance-rest first appears in art of the 1380s, for example the effigy of Walter von Hohenklingen (d. 1386) in the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Zürich, cited in Blair 1958, p. 61. Another important early instance is the figure of St. George found on the Altarpiece of the Crucifixion from the Church of Chartreuse de Champmol, near Dijon, by Jacques de Baers (also Baerze), c. 1391, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon. The earliest surviving example is present on the segmented breastplate, made in Milan c. 1390 by ‘Master P’, which now forms part of armour no. 13 at Churburg Castle; Trapp 1929, pp. 19-26, pls. X- XIV. See also Buttin 1965. Raimon of Salerno c. 1180. For analysis and interpretation of the various extant texts, see Paterson 1986.

‘Si cavallier quan ven a cutxa mal garnitz, Es per sa gola si nafratz que l’esperitz, Eis per lo colp quan vol parlar tan es feritz, Laissa l estar que de sa mort es emplagitz.’ Lydgate 1412-20, Book II, p. 382, lines 8298-8304.



THE GREAT BASCINET A solid plate protecting the wearer’s chin and throat appears to have become a typical addition to the bascinet throughout western Europe after c. 1410, if not before. The true ‘great’ bascinet was created when this plate was joined to a bascinet skull drawn down to the wearer’s shoulders. An excellent surviving example of this most basic of great bascinet constructions is now in the British Museum.

Here the skull has been extended down to overlap with the backplate,37 to which it would originally have been strapped by means of a leather attached to its interior by means of two rivets; the hole near its lower edge, probably for a bolt, is a later addition. The lower edge of the front neck plate, riveted to the sides of the skull, lines up with that of the extended onepiece skull. There are no pivot holes for an additional front neck plate, so we must assume the helmet never had one. There is also no means for fastening the helmet down at the front; fixing it in back but not in front may have been an attempt to balance protection and mobility, giving additional security while also permitting some slight movement of the helmet. The characteristic enlargement of the whole helmet, and the relative size of the face-opening, was conceived to permit the wearer’s head to move around inside. Allowance of the head to turn and nod while the helmet itself remained stationary distinguished the ‘great’ or ‘large’ bascinet from its smaller predecessors. The great bascinet was an extremely successful design. As well as being used on the battlefield until at least 1450, in the second half of the fifteenth century it was adapted for tournament combats fought both on foot and on horseback. For sporting use, great bascinets originally intended for the field were modified and pressed back into service, even into the early sixteenth century. Today a number of these helmets survive in addition to the one in the British Museum, either complete in all their parts or as fragmentary skulls only.

Fig. 1.94. Great bascinet, by Master ‘T’, Italian, c. 1410-30. Musée de l’Armée, Paris, inv. no. G. PO. 637.


Fig. 1.95. Great bascinet, French or Italian, c. 1410-30. Museo de Navarra, Pamplona.

Fig. 1.93. Great bascinet, c. 1410-20. British Museum, London, inv. no. M&LA OA 2190.

Fig. 1.1.96. Great bascinet, French or Italian, c. 1410-30. From the tomb of Jean Salins de Vincelles, now in the Musée de Beaux-Arts, Dijon.

Perhaps the earliest example of this helmet form is the bascinet, c. 1390-1400, which once hung over the tomb of John de Melsa (d. 1377) in the Church of St. Bartholomew in Aldborough, North Yorkshire (now Royal Armouries inv. no. IV. 1677).

Fig. 1.92. Ashwellthorpe k. 1417.


Leg Armour

Below the knees, fully-enclosed greaves or ‘jambes’ were always worn over the calves. Judging by the effigies, the English greave appears to have had a very distinctive form. In profile it was very straight at the front, with the arch over the instep coming up to a very acute point, granting the foot a good range of movement. The outer ankle bone was protected by a lobe-shaped extension of the trailing edge of the front plate. Sometimes a smaller lobe covered the inner ankle bone, but not always. The greave was attached to the demi-greave by means of a rectangular turn-pin passing through a vertical slot, in the same manner as the demi-cuisse was joined to the thigh plate. This fastening seems to have been sufficient; there is usually no evidence of a demi-greave strap running around the back of the leg. The greave was constructed in much the same manner as the lower cannon of the vambrace, being carefully shaped so that it sheathed the lower leg like a metal skin.

Fig. 1.315. Over Peover d. 1410.

Fig. 1.316. Vambrace, Italian, c. 1380-1400. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. 29.150.91g.

It was made up of front and rear plates, which were almost certainly hinged on the outside of the leg. Although hinges have usually been omitted from effigies c.1400-30, placement on the outer surface seems to have been standard, if the surviving lattenbordered pieces of armour, almost all of which are Italian, are anything to go by. Like those on the surviving examples, the hinges on English greaves were probably seated closely to the trailing edge of the front plate, immediately behind the yellow-metal border. This positioning is found on an Italian latten-bordered vambrace, c.1380-1400, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. no. 29.150.91g).

Fig. 1.317. Swine c. 1410.

The greaves depicted on the effigies of this period must also have been hinged on the outside of the leg because they were clearly secured closed by means of two small straps on the inside of the leg; this feature is clearly depicted on a number of examples. 177

Fig. 2.5. Dodford d. 1445.

1440-50 Great bascinet: Neckplates now quite closely shaped to the chin and throat, more closely resembling a bevor.

Cuirass: Skirts continue to shorten after 1440, especially with the introduction of the new Italianate tasset form. The English variation of the style usually includes side-tassets often of the same size as the front tassets. Hind-tasset design uncertain, but probably similar to those observed on Iberian and Italian export armour of the same period. Because of the shorter skirt, more of the mail skirt is visible, and is generally shown to be drawn down into long dags at the front, back and sides.

Pauldrons: Asymmetric fluted designs introduced, the right having either a large or small cut-out or ‘mouth’ to accommodate couched weapons, the left fully covering the shoulder and upper arm, offering greater protection especially at the front. Arming points and underarm straps assumed to be present, although not depicted on the effigies. Vambraces: The side-wings now take on a deeply fluted, shell-like form. Upper cannons closed with straps, lower cannons perhaps with loose-pin hinges or straps.

Gauntlets: Older hourglass form (illustrated) coexists with the newer type having an extended metacarpal plate. Leg armour: Introduction of diagonal flutes on the thigh-plates, new side-wing design to match the vambraces, and cusped uppermost poleyn lame and demi-greave. Sabatons: Articulation lames starting to be drawn out into points along the top of the foot. Continued and consistent use of downwardlapping construction indicating use of internal leathers.

Fig. 2.6. 200



Fig. 2.13. Porlock c. 1440.

Fig. 2.14. Dennington d. 1441.

Fig. 2.15. Icomb d. 1431.

Fig. 2.16. Weobley d. 1437.

By the mid-1430 the front neck plate was also becoming more shapely, closely formed to the chin and undercutting inwards quite sharply to the base of the throat. The angle under the chin is quite sharp, and therefore different from earlier, great bascinet neck plates, which are much shallower. This new form often resembles the bevor designed to be worn with the sallet, which was just beginning to appear in the 1430s. The neck flange sitting down on the breastplate around the base of the throat is also now cut differently around its bottom edge, being rounded, more pointed in the centre, and again quite different from earlier versions. This transition begins to appear on brasses around a decade before it appears on the sculpted effigies. The older, wider base of the front neck plate (sometimes as wide as the breastplate itself) starts to disappear as early as the 1418 brass of John Fossebrok (Cranford St. Andrew, Northamptonshire), with narrower, curved necklines becoming more common in the 1420s. Fig. 2.12. Porlock c. 1440.



Apart from a pin and staple, another method of neck plate attachment in use from at least c. 1440, both on great bascinets and the bevors accompanying sallets, was strapping to the cuirass, either by means of a separate and dedicated buckle attached to the upper breastplate, or by employing the same buckle, mounted on the plackart, which took the chest-strap on the upper breastplate. The former method was employed on the bevors worn with sallets from perhaps the 1440s, as for example is illustrated on the Netherlandish ‘Trajan and Herkenbald’ tapestry (c. 1450; based on lost paintings by Rogier van der Weyden15) now in the Historical Museum, Bern. The latter method is clearly illustrated on the effigy of Sir Humphrey Stafford (Bromsgrove c.1440-1450).

The visors worn between 1430 and 1450 in England appear for the most part to have continued to resemble the rounded, globose or bulbous types which had been in use for ten to twenty years previously. Those which appear in England are more or less consistent in their form with those found in continental depictions. Under the bevor or neck plates, the English man-at-arms continued to wear a pisan or mail standard. Between 1430 and 1450, the mantle of the standard was more commonly worn under the cuirass rather than over it as had earlier been the fashion; on effigies dating from after 1430, mail can no longer be seen extending beyond the edge of the bascinet neck plates as was most usual in the previous two decades. After c. 1440, effigy carvers began to portray their subjects as being bareheaded, and in these cases the mail standard is clearly visible.


Fig. 2.31. Bromsgrove c. 1440-50.

Fig. 2.32. Dodford d. 1445.


Fig. 2.30. Detail from The Story of Trajan and Herkenbald, South Netherlands, c. 1450. Historical Museum, Bern.

See Buri and Stucky-SchĂźrer 2001, pp. 41-63.


Fig. 2.34. Three details from the Grand Armorial Equestre de la Toison d’Or, c. 1435. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, MS 4790, fols. 116, 11, 113.

Fig. 2.33. Detail from the Book of Hours of Margaret Beauchamp, Countess of Salisbury, English (Rouen), c. 1444. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 41-1950, fol. 2v. Note that the closely-fitted bevor is here shown to be pivoted onto the skull of the helmet. This is perhaps one of the earliest representations of what could be called a ‘close-helmet’, differentiated from the great bascinet by its closer overall fit and lack of an inner chin-plate.

Fig. 2.35. Detail of a window depicting St. George, c. 1430-40. West window, Dean’s private chapel, Windsor Castle.

Fig. 2.36. Detail, history bible, by an Utrecht Master, c. 1443. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, MS 69 B10, fol. 8r.


Tobias Capwell is the author of numerous books on medieval and Renaissance arms and armour. These include The Real Fighting Stuff: Arms and Armour at Glasgow Museums (2006), Masterpieces of European Arms and Armour in the Wallace Collection ( 2011; Apollo Magazine Book of the Year 2012), and The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe 1520-1630 (2012). Toby is also a practitioner of the knightly fighting arts . For twenty years he has been riding and fighting in full plate armour all over the world as a member of the international competitive jousting community. It is this personal, physical experience on which Toby draws, combining it with his more traditional research methods, in an effort to recreate a sense of armour as a practical, functional, everyday aspect of life in the Middle Ages. He is Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Thomas Del Mar Ltd.

Thomas Del Mar Ltd is London’s leading specialist auctioneers of antique arms, armour and militaria, which has held sales since 2005. In addition to organising auctions, the company assists with collection management and advises a number of European ancestral families, international museums and collectors.

Photograph by Cassandra Parsons. ŠThe Wallace Collection, London.


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Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450  

Capwell (Tobias), pub. Thomas Del Mar Ltd, 2015.

Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450  

Capwell (Tobias), pub. Thomas Del Mar Ltd, 2015.