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home page knowledge base features A brief history of "Arms and Armour"


A brief history of "Arms and Armour"


Arms and Armour are both of great antiquity and interest to all. Most individuals have experienced Arms and Armour in some way or another. The earliest weapons were, no doubt, made by primitive man in his search for food and as a means of protection against wild animals. But man has seldom been able to live in peace with his neighbours and as such they therefore built fortified buildings and enclosures to keep them safe. As man continued his warlike nature he improved his weapons so that he also needed a protective skin and therefore defensive armour became necessary.

Throughout the centuries a race developed between defensive and offensive arms and armour. The later invention of the firearm led to defensive armour becoming discarded and almost obsolete. Castles suffered a similar fate, due to the development and use of the cannon.

Armoured Helmet-German

Armoured Helmet, German

Armour in the ancient world, was prominent and served its wearer excellent protection. The Ottoman "Janissary", the Greek "Hopolite" of around 500 BC and the "Roman Legionary" from first century AD had their armour made of bronze. These warriors were members of the Ancient World's own special forces and as such were excellent soldiers with the most up to date equipment for their time.

When most people think of armour they ultimately think of the medieval knight, roaming the land on horseback jousting, doing chivalric deeds and rescuing damsels in distress. Although some of them may have exhibited these wonderful virtues most would not have practised any. However the armoured 'medieval' knight of the Middle ages had a major impact on the culture, social and political history of Europe. The knight being popular for around 6-8 hundred years. One could divide the emergence of knighthood into three stages;

  1. The heavily armoured soldier.
  2. The development of the mature institution of knighthood.
  3. The decay of institutions as a consequence of the rise in new social forces in the middle ages through to early modern times.

The Angles and Saxons would have had a simple sword, spear or axe, a helmet of iron bands and a round shield. They would also have worn a chain mail shirt made from interlinking iron rings, which was very expensive and therefore most wore armour mainly of quilted jerkins of leather with pieces of metal, bone or horn, which was secured to the outer garment.

With the Norman invasion came a better-disciplined armoured cavalry. They had a mailed shirt with a hood called a coif and wore a helmet which had an extension, giving protection to the nose, called a nasal. They also had a sword and a lance or spear. They carried a kite-shaped shield which gave greater protection whilst on horseback. This style of armour stayed for some time with minor changes. The helmet changed by the development of the helm, similar style to the nasal and with flat topped and conical styles. The shield became shortened through time. The surcoat that was worn over the chain mail shirt was developed mainly due to the crusades to offer protection against the heat. This surcoat was also used to display the heraldic identification of the wearer. There is much pleasure given to the medieval scholar by seeing the fine "coats of arms" which can be seen in the many illuminations and manuscripts in the books of the Middle Ages.

In the second half of the thirteenth century the conical helmet was preferred as it provided a glancing surface to blows from weapons. The knight would wear a small amount of plate armour called poleyn on each knee. Together with more plate armour shoulder defences called aileetes made from steel or cuirbouly which was lighter and still strong. Armour was secured using leather straps or laces. Leather was still widely used in conjunction with the mail and plates and sometimes leather was used after being soaked in oil and moulded to shape.

During the following years more plates were used in the manufacture of Armour. The knights were now riding into battle almost encased in armour. These plates covered the joints and other delicate areas. They were called roundels, rebraces, vambraces, schynbalds and sabatons. The helmet was pointed and called the bascinet. The English knights that were defeated at Bannockburn were armed in this fashion. During this time not only was the knight armoured but his horse too was encased in armour such as the head protection of a chanfron. The foot soldier from the fourteen-century used the polearm and halberk and the use of the crossbow and longbow with a shield called a pavise became much more evident.

"I have always had an interest in Armour, Castles and anything medieval since childhood"

In the early fifteenth century knights were completely encased in plate armour. Various forms of helmets were evident such as the pig-faced bascinet and the hounskull styles. The rise of chivalry made warlike games such as the tournament a major part of the knight's life and therefore armour had to be developed further.

Most European countries carried out the manufacture of Armour. Particularly important were the Italian or Milanese and German or Gothic armours. England and Scotland did not have armourers of the same quality as these countries and had to import much of their armour. The armour of Milan and South Germany is the finest ever made. The most lavish and dynastic armouries were in Madrid and Vienna. These are classed as the greatest in the world. There is little British made armour that has survived. Armour was frequently decorated by engraving, embossing and damascening with gold. Acid was used to etch armour.

Since 1322 there has been an active armourer's guild operating in Coleman Street in London, Henry VIII decided to have his own workshops at Greenwich which he staffed craftsmen from the continent. The Greenwich armour developed its own style of being solid and simple although was also susceptible to contemporary change in form due to fashion. By the reign of Charles I the use of armour was in its wane due to the development of effective firearms. Although it continued throughout the civil war period. The styles of the sixteenth century followed the form of civilian dress and became more rounded, similar to the Elizabethan doublet.

David Lee Donachie, Armourer

I have always had an interest in Armour, Castles and anything medieval since childhood. I started to collect armour in my early twenties; it was at this time I met, probably one of the best armourers in England, a Mr Joseph Walsh. Over the years he helped me to learn some of the arts of being an armourer. Unfortunately a few years ago Joe died aged 84. He had worked since his teens in the engineering trade and had developed the associated illness of white finger. In spite of this handicap he made wonderful pieces of reproduction armour, and was sought after by dealers as being only one of three renovators of original armour in the United Kingdom. He produced such exact matches of originals that even experts could not identify them or tell the difference from the original. I have learnt a number of other associated skills from other professional armourers. But I leave the making of chain mail to others, as to me its manufacture is extremely boring and time consuming. I have made suits and items for a number of programmes and adverts, for display and for re-enactment societies. My own preference is for the armour of the middle ages.

When I have been asked how would one start to make Armour, I would probably answer don't bother, its not a roaring trade and you will not ever become rich. In fact it is a hobby that is extremely expensive, as my wife constantly reminds me. It is a 'hands-on' skill, which takes lots of time. But having said that, you may eventually get a sense of achievement when you make your first item. Therefore to anyone who does want to become an armourer, my advice would be to remember that it is an ancient craft. You need to learn the skills of an artist, toolmaker, designer, metallurgist, chemist, engineer and then the added understanding of a joiner, a leatherworker and maybe even a scientist... well you should certainly be skilled in the art of improvisation. (All tools are adapted or converted for the various needs).

"My most important tool must be my Throatless Beverly Shears"

The cost of tools as you start out is by far the major cost. The best way to acquire your tools is over many years. I got my tools from lots of different sources. Some I made but the majority were from car repairers who were going out of business. My most important tool must be my Throatless Beverly Shears; it is the main tool to cut and work the steel. The majority of armourers, whether the hobbiers or professionals, have extensive libraries on armour. Armour can be made from patterns and eventually put together. The medieval master armourers probably started in the same way.

small-armour-man

There can be the sleepless nights where the nightmares come back to haunt you. I can remember the day when I decided to transport three large pieces of 8ft x 4ft sheets of steel (with very sharp edges). My vehicle was being serviced and so I decided to use my wife's vehicle, after all she would not know if I was quick enough. Rushing to get the steel in and return the car before she noticed was most definitely the wrong thing to do. The horror of the ripping sound as the steel edge ripped the upholstery and headlining. The worry of trying to conceal from your wife, with rolls of sellotape and glue, the number of holes in her beloved car. Then having to think up an excellent excuse, should she find it. All add to the excitement and pleasure of being an Armourer.

If anyone wants to try armour making then they should try chain mail as it is the least expensive the easiest and least tool intensive and can be made almost anywhere. I find it boring to make, but then I am not the most patient man in the world. It will develop a different kind of skill. The medieval armourer would only make certain items. He would have a type of construction line, working with other armourers who were possibly more proficient in various other items. Therefore as a modern armourer the same principle can be applied to get the best result for a quality suit. A lot of armour is now imported from Spain and India. The latter is certainly better than the Spanish items that I have seen. (Some are no better than baked-bean tins, or appear to be like them.) As with most British armourers the armour that I make is made from the finest grade 16-gauge steel.

As I have mentioned, with the advent of firearms armour was eventually discarded, but not entirely. We can see much of the legacy of armour with the modern soldier of today. A good example is the ceremonial dress of the Horse Guards at Buckingham Palace. In my own chosen profession, of police officer, they still have a need to wear body armour (which resembles that of Japanese armour in the idea of lamellar construction being lightweight and strong).

I can remember an event some years back on a raid for firearms and drugs. The target house was protected from justice by three guard dogs, which helped to look after the drugs and weapons. We had to decide who would go in and secure the little pooches. I lost the toss of a coin, and had to wear a suit of head to toe kevlar and chain mail body armour (this was very similar to that of the thirteenth century knight, around 40lb, in weight). To be truthful I felt like a cross between Robocop and Lancelot as I went alone into the house to face these three snarling Rottwiellers. As it did for our ancestors the body armour saved my skin from being savaged. I do not think the hounds were too impressed when they missed out on lunch!

Finally with the hope of not sounding like an advertisement, I would recommend any member of the association to visit our national collection of arms and armour at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. The Armoury has some of the finest examples of armour in the world. The services and facilities are exceptional, as are the many exhibitions and displays of tilting, falconry, leather, armour and gun making. Visiting this collection provides a full day of entertainment for all.


Words: David Lee Donachie. Article taken from The Journal Issue 6.



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