The Writer’s Guide to Plate Armor

This week is the third part in my series about common types of medieval armor. As in my previous posts, I will be pointing out misconceptions.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Introduction

Plate is probably the most iconic type of armor from medieval Europe, conjuring up images of the “knight in shining armor” from fairy tales. Full plate armor had its golden age from the late 15th to the early 16th century. There were multiple styles of plate armor that varied across time and regions and it was not uncommon for soldiers to wear partial suits either to limit the weight or because they could not afford all the pieces.

An early transitional style of armor known as a coat of plate was worn from the 12th to the 14th century and was a rudimentary breastplate made of large metal plates riveted to the inside of a cloth or leather garment and worn over mail. [2] The development of flintlock muskets in the 17th century, which could punch through plate armor at a considerable distance, lead to a decline in its use. The breastplate was the last piece to be employed and was worn by soldiers in the Napoleonic wars to protect them against shrapnel. [1]

Pieces

The base layer underneath plate armor was an arming doublet and thick woolen hosen or padded legs called cuisses. A full suit of plate armor was made up of the following pieces.

A helmet which could either completely enclose the head such as a bassinet, barbute, armet or close helm, cover only the upper part of the face such as a sallet or be open faced like a burgonet.

The neck was protected by a gorget worn over a bishop’s mantle of mail. If a sallet was being worn it was paired with a bevor that protected the jaw and neck.

A breastplate, also known as a cuirass, protected the chest and historically did not always include the backplate. Bands known as faulds could be attached to the bottom of the breastplate to shield the front of the hips. Bands attached to the bottom of the backplate were known as culets.

Spaulders covered the shoulder and upper arm but not the armpit. The gap could be filled by an extra piece such as a gardbrace, basagew or rondel. A different option was pauldrons, which did cover the armpit and sometimes part of the back and chest.

The elbow was protected by couters and the space between them and the bottom of the shoulder armor was filled by a rarebrace, brassart or upper cannon.

The forearms were covered by the vambraces or lower cannons.

Gauntlets protected the hands and could be a mitten style or have individually articulated fingers. The legs were covered by the cuisse on the thigh, poleyn on the knee and greave on the lower leg. The feet were protected by sabatons or sollerets. For additional protection, armor plates known as tassets could be suspended from the bottom of the breastplate. [3]

Effectiveness and Vulnerabilities

The biggest misconceptions about plate armor are the weight and the effectiveness. I tackled this myth in my introduction to medieval armor which you can find here. Plate armor was highly effective against most medieval weapons although there was some success in developing a heavier bodkin arrowhead that could punch through the thinner plates and in using a heavy bludgeoning weapon to crush in the armor.

There are three main points of vulnerability in a suit of plate: the eye slit, the armpit and the back of the knee. The eye slit on most helmets (unless it’s open face) was quite narrow and usually required either a near-impossible archery shot or being close enough to stab a knife through.

The armpit was vulnerable because it couldn’t be completely protected by armor or the wearer wouldn’t have the range of motion needed to swing a sword. If the person is using a shield and a one-handed arming sword their right armpit is the most vulnerable because it’s not protected by the shield and they expose it every time they raise their arm for a strike.

The back of the knee, like the armpit, is unarmored for freedom of movement. A great literary example of this vulnerability is Pippin stabbing the Witch King in the back of the knee in Tolkien’s “Return of the King.”

Another problem with plate armor is the smoothness of the surface which makes it is more likely to get stuck in mud. There are accounts from the Battle of Agincourt in the Hundred’s Year War of a number of unhorsed knights becoming so mired in the mud that they could not get back up and some even drowned in their helmets.

Writer’s Tip: Knowing the vulnerabilities of plate armor is a great way to injure your character even when your reader thinks they’re safe because they’re wearing armor.

A very lucky shot. Photo source.

Cost

The cost of plate varied according to the complexity as well as over time. For example, a total suit of armor owned by a knight in 1374 was valued at £16 6s 8d while that owned by Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, in 1397 was worth £103. [4] For a more comprehensive list, I suggest the Medieval Price List.


I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plate_armour
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_plates
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Components_of_medieval_armour
[4] Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, Christopher Dyer, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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