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Debunking the biggest myths about knight's armour

Swords, lances, maces, spears, axes, crossbows, scimitars… There were plenty of killer weapons for your average medieval warrior to fear. Each able to crush, bash, gash and slash a human body into worm food with just one well-aimed swing of a foe’s arm. 

Given those rather sizeable battleground hazards, it was no great surprise that combatants in the Middle Ages were so happy to throw anywhere up to 35kgs of metal rings or plating over themselves in a bid to protect their soft, easily-cut-in-half bodies. Looking like a poorly-welded robot was a small price to pay to avoid becoming a human kebab.

Knights and the like wore chainmail and metal armour for centuries, with the rather shrewd idea of shielding one’s body from unwanted holes first occurring to knights who would joust for entertainment. As armour was developed and refined, it found a place on the battlefield, ultimately dying out once guns and other firearms rendered them rather useless.

Fans of medieval combat (and heavy duty dust-ups in general) will be thrilled to hear about History’s brand new show Knight Fight. In it, modern day ‘tough guys’ put themselves to the test in a series of gruelling battles of old. With real weapons and real armour. To celebrate this insane-looking new show, we'd likee to bash a few things ourselves… Some myths.

Here are 5 ‘facts’ about medieval armour that just aren’t true.

MYTH #1: Knights could barely move in their heavy, clumsy armour

Let’s start with the biggest misconception about knights’ armour, shall we? Most folk assume - understandably - that once armour was on, it was virtually impossible to move with any freedom at all. You can see why that’s the assumption, given that a complete suit of armour could weigh as much as a fully-grown Rottweiler. But it’s simply not the case.

With the exception of some of the more poorly-designed earlier types of armour, most actually allowed for a surprising level of mobility. This was, in part, down to the strength, determination and stamina of those that wore them. But it’s mostly thanks to the design, which relied on the suit being made up of many smaller constituent parts. Consider what a suit of armour looks like too - the weight is pretty evenly distributed.

Wearing armour certainly took more energy than shunning the heavy metal layer, but after some practice, most knights were adept at running, riding a horse, fighting - anything required of them, really. They would need to be fairly economical in their movement, however. Recent tests have shown that knight would have used nearly double the energy to perform any manual tasks.

MYTH #2: A crane-like device was needed for a knight to mount his horse

When Sir James Mann, esteemed and trusted Master of the Armouries at HM Tower of London, was asked to advise on the armoury to be worn by Sir Laurence Olivier in the classic 1944 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V, he was only too happy to oblige. He was, however, somewhat less happy when he saw the completed film at the pictures.

Mann was horrified to discover that his insights and expertise had been ignored, particularly during a scene in which Olivier’s Henry V is lifted onto his noble steed using a crane-like contraption. Sir James Mann knew - like any expert - that such a device never existed outside the imagination of fiction writers like Mark Twain. Not in the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, as depicted in the film, or at any other time in history.

Despite their often great weight, knights were always capable of mounting their own horses using just the stirrup. At the very worst, a small stool may have been needed. But a winch or crane…? Never.

MYTH #3: It was impossible to go to the toilet in chainmail or armour

The Middle Ages are fascinating. Knights are fascinating. Armour is fascinating. Yet why is it that no conversation about wearing suits of armour can last more than a few minutes without someone asking how people used to relieve themselves while wearing them? Well, because we all really want to know, don’t we...?

The favoured assumption of most people tends to be ‘they just did their business in the armour’. Which, even by the standards of what was a particularly unhygienic time, is still a rather disgusting thought. It’s one which, again, harks back to this idea that the suit was made up of two or three huge and clunky pieces which are effectively an immovable exoskeleton. Which, as we now know, is just not true.

When nature called, an armour wearer could just nip to the latrine or behind a tree, remove the requisite piece of armour covering the necessary area and tend to their business. As simple as that.

Of course, during battle, there was no such convenience and the matter would need to be attended to on the horse’s back and in the suit. But that was more of a not-wanting-to-die kind of thing than I-can’t-pull-my-trousers-down kind of thing.

MYTH #4: Due to being so expensive, only nobility or monarchy wore armour

The only place you’ll likely find a suit of armour outside a museum is an old country house somewhere. Next to it will no doubt a plaque explaining how the original owner of the armour was a nobleman of some kind. But that doesn’t mean that only the very rich or upper classes could afford metal armour.

Of course, peasants and the like didn’t own full chainmail or metal suits of armour - they had neither the means nor the need. But not all suits were hugely expensive. Some were looted from the battlefield and repaired. Others were simply made from lower quality metal by lesser skilled blacksmiths. 

So while, yes, the very best armour was reserved for the highest in society, protective metal suits were not only the bastion of the extremely elite. 

MYTH #5: Armoured codpieces were to protect a knight’s genitals in battle

Some plate armour features rather - how shall we say? - ‘exaggerated’ codpieces. Why is that? Well, we’ll tell you upfront… It wasn’t a size issue. Knights, and men in general, back in days of yore weren’t unusually well endowed. So it must be a protective element, right? After all, that’s the entire purpose of a suit of plate armour - to protect. But that’s just not the case, either.

Armoured codpieces are merely for show. Were protection at the forefront of a knight’s mind, a plated skirt-like affair would much better conceal and guard a knight’s family jewels. What we’re dealing with here is merely fashion. With a little showing off thrown in for good measure.

Knights with lots of room for their ‘personal lances’ were merely trying to give the impression that they were the manliest man around. Bless them.

Armoured codpieces were to protect a knight’s genitals in battle? Pure fallacy/phallacy.

So, then. None of those ‘facts’ about knight’s armour had a whole lot of truth behind them. If there’s one thing we know for certain about knights, their weapons and their armoury, though… It’s that when they got into it in battle, it was one hell of a spectacle.

Watch Knight Fight  Tuesday 19th February at 9pm.