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Knight Fight: a brief history of armour

Real weapons, real fights, real people and real armour. HISTORY's brand new and exclusive series Knight Fight takes us deep into the incredibly hardcore world of Medieval Martial Arts.

We know you’re just as excited as we are about it.

Each episode showcases the fighting skills of six combatants with a love of all things olde as they fight one another with historically accurate axes, swords, shields and spears. All while wearing huge, heavy suits of armour. Trust us, it’s a show like no other.

We’ll see some of yesteryear’s most incredible armour put to the test and see how it protected and affected fighters as they swung their swords with devastating effect. But just how did body armour come to be.

Before we can truly appreciate armour in action, let’s take a quick look at its history, shall we? How it came to exist, what it did (and didn’t do), how it evolved and what put a stop to it…

What armour did

Well, alright. This part isn’t exactly going to shock you. We’re sure you understand the basic purpose of wearing armour in battle. But we’ll quickly run through it, anyway. For the avoidance of any doubt.

Body armour came in many, many different forms. But at its core, a ‘suit’ of armour - however it was made up - was simply protective clothing. It would be worn over regular clothing and was designed to be able to absorb or deflect blows from your enemies’ weapons. They were extremely useful to soldiers who wanted to remain alive, what with human bodies being notoriously fleshy and easy to pierce with enormous sharpened pieces of metal.

How armour came about

When we think of body armour employed on the battlefield, our thoughts tend to wander towards The Middle Ages. Medieval knights charging on horseback, covered from head to toe in chainmail or plate armour. And understandably so. It was a time when body armour was really refined and optimised. But armour pre-dates this period.

Roman legionnaires wore personal armour consisting of metal strips affixed to leather straps known as ‘lorica segmentata’. Which replaced ‘lorica hamata’, a type of chainmail. Being metal they survived the ages, giving us proof of their existence and use. But it’s firmly believed that armour existed even before the Roman Empire. It’s just that it was not made from metal and as such rotted over time (leaving no evidential trace). Very early armour would have been made from leather or other animal hides, fabric or even wood.

Later, scale armour saw small overlapping metal pieces knit together to give better coverage than the strips. The Romans then connected the pieces with wire, which became known as ‘lamellar’ armour. Viking warriors were thought to have worn very similar suits too, although they were not all that prevalent. Primarily because the Vikings tended to avoid pitched battle conflict where possible, but also because it was extremely expensive and time-consuming to create the suits.

The constituent parts became smaller and smaller until the idea of chainmail evolved. Suits made of small but tough interlinked metal rings made for a lighter suit. But the Romans’ use of chainmail was nothing new. They are thought to have taken their inspiration for it, originally, from the Celts.

Armour's weaknesses

The most obvious assumption about the drawbacks of wearing armour is that the suits were huge, heavy and clunky. This is a fair claim in the infancy of the suit or armour. But as armour evolved, it quickly became surprisingly light and the wearer was actually pretty agile while wearing it. That said, movement was still a little restricted.

Different types of armour had different disadvantages. The weakness would generally not exist when the armour was conceptualised. But soon, weapons would be created or adapted to render the armour style useless and they would have to be discarded or refined.

Chainmail, for example, was excellent at limiting the damage caused by larger weapons like swords. But proved all but useless when longbows and crossbows began to dominate the battlefield.

The knights of the Byzantine Empire were heavily influenced by Rome and their elite mounted soldiers took to plate armour, shields, helmets and horse armour easily.

The way around this was full body plate armour, such as that worn by both the English and French during the Hundred Years' War. Proper, well-made, sculpted, strengthened, toughened and tempered plate armour wasn’t getting pierced by an arrow. But it did weigh a soldier down somewhat. And there were still gaps between the plates that the enemy could aim for, of course.

How armour evolved

As time went on and various civilisations learned to work better with metal, weapons improved greatly. As weapons improved, so too did armour. It had to in order to protect the wearer. Blacksmiths began making the suits out of iron instead of bronze, making it much, much stronger. As they became more and more skilled at forging armour, it became more advanced and more effective.

Soon, there was no longer just ‘the best armour of the day’. Differing quality emerged, based on the expertise of the creator behind it and the amount of money being spent. Soon, nobility, aristocracy and royalty would own and wear the very finest suits of armour, with lesser versions worn by less wealthy or important figures.

Warriors from all over the world have worn armour in battle throughout the years. Some, as we’ve mentioned, taking inspiration from rival tribes or empires. Like when the Romans saw the Celts’ armour. The knights of the Byzantine Empire were heavily influenced by Rome and their elite mounted soldiers took to plate armour, shields, helmets and horse armour easily. The Byzantines pushed the evolution, design and efficacy of armoury on no end during their ten centuries of existence.

Why suits of armour ceased to be

Suits of armour were a staple of any battlefield for centuries. Eventually though, they became all but obsolete. The reason being was simple - guns. Gunpowder weapons could obliterate many suits of armour. Or at the very least kill anyone wearing one. So it became pointless to wear one. Soldiers became slightly more agile and their stamina increased. But they became a lot more susceptible to their enemy’s weapons.

Yet while full body armour is long gone, armour has had something of a renaissance in the past century or so. World War One soldiers took to helmets again to protect against exploding grenades, shells and bombs (and, of course, shrapnel). And since bombs now feature so heavily in warfare, shrapnel is even more of a danger than a bullet. So armour is back in.

Combat armour may no longer weigh some 35kgs or so, but it still has a place in war. It’s just lighter, better designed and more technically advanced. It still owes a debt of gratitude to the hulking greats suits worn by knights of the past, however.