The defeat of armour

As part of our 600th commemoration of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique temporary collection of arms, armour, art, music and manuscripts at the Tower of London.To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, one of the contributors of the publication, Thom Richardson of the Royal Armouries, writes about the developments of armour leading up to the battle.

The accounts of the privy wardrobe (the fourteenth century organisation which ran the armoury at the Tower of London and is the earliest ancestor of the present-day Royal Armouries), give incredible detail about the manufacture, storage and issue of armour and weapons, especially longbows and arrows, throughout the first half of the Hundred Years War. Unfortunately the records run out after 1410, so the details about what went over to Harfleur with Henry V for the Agincourt campaign don’t survive. But we have a pretty good idea of all the processes from what went on before.

44.DI 2011-0241
The Lyle bacinet, North Italian, late 14th century.

By about 1375 plate armour for the well-equipped man-at-arms was pretty much fully developed. The effect of improved missile weapons (the longbow in England but especially the crossbow elsewhere in Europe) had driven men-at-arms to dismount and fight on foot. The plate defences which protected them from arrows and crossbow quarrels allowed them to discard the shield, so they could wield close combat weapons in two hands. The cumbersome great helm, brilliant protection for a headlong mounted charge with the lance, had long been relegated to the tournament. The closely fitting bacinet (see above) had now taken over as the helmet of choice for most men-at-arms. On wearing mail under armour, we now know that complete mail shirts largely ceased to be worn under plate harness. In their place mail sleeves, collars and paunces (literally mail pants!) replaced them as soon as plate became widespread in the middle of the fourteenth century.

Brigandine, Italian c. 1470. Royal Armouries.

The last big change in plate armour was the replacement of the pair of plates, a cuirass formed of iron plates riveted inside a textile covering which evolved into the brigandine (above), by the solid plate breastplate and backplate. We find the very earliest references to solid breastplates around the time of Agincourt, and the few surviving fragments of armour of the period, assembled in the exhibition, illustrated how plate armour was close to achieving the pinnacle of its expression. As well as the account of armour in our excellent catalogue (see here) readers might also like to consult our learned colleague Tobias Capwell’s brand new Armour of the English Knight.

Pair of cuisses, probably Italian, c. 1420. Royal Armouries.
Pair of vambraces, Italian, 1430-1440. Royal Armouries.
Pair of vambraces, Italian, 1430-1440. Royal Armouries.

Ballistic testing of longbow arrows against plate armour remains controversial. Recent research has confirmed the experiments of the 1970s, that 2mm of medieval plate armour could resist any medieval arrow or crossbow. Our experimental work at Ridsdale in 1996 (Royal Armouries Yearbook 3, 1998, 44-9) supports Peter Jones’s earlier work, and Matheus Bane’s recent piece (see this link) does so as well. To the contrary, much of the work suggesting the longbow arrow could pierce plate  is theoretical rather than practical (P. Bourke and D. Wetham’s article in Arms & Armour 4, 2007, 53-81 has been roundly criticised and generally condemned) but work by the highly respected archer and broadcaster Mike Loades, Longbow, Oxford 2013, continues to support the armour piercing longbow as do Mark Stretton and his circle (H.D. Soar, M. Stretton and J. Gibbs, Secrets of the English war bow).

Longbow stave, English, c.1545. Royal Armouries.

Also controversially, research conducted at the University of Leeds with the help of the Royal Armouries, suggests that the wearing of armour to fight on foot might seriously have hampered the French knights at Agincourt: G.N. Askew, F. Formenti and A.E. Minetti, ‘Limitations imposed by wearing armour on medieval soldiers’ locomotor performance’, The Royal Society Proceedings B, Biological Sciences, 279, February 2012, 640-44.

Image of the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt diorama. Credit: Daniel Faulconbridge, Wargames Illustrated.
Image of the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt diorama. Credit: Daniel Faulconbridge, Wargames Illustrated.

The arms and armour of the medieval knight remain wonderfully controversial, even after close to two centuries of scholarly research into the subject. To be as well informed as you can be on the controversies, why not visit our Agincourt exhibition at the Tower of London!

To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ publication, please see further posts via this link, or pick up a copy for yourself via the Yale University Press websiteThe Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.