Knight in shining armour

7th May 2004 at 01:00
More than protection, 15th-century German Gothic-style armour was an art form, a status symbol and an example of fine craftsmanship. David Edge and Emma Bryant report.

This famous and visually stunning German Gothic-style equestrian armour was made in the late 15th century. It is field armour (armour intended for war) of which very few examples have survived. Gothic-style armour is often regarded as representing the pinnacle of the armourers' art. It relies on smooth swirling lines, fluted surfaces and subtle three dimensional forms, with cusped and pointed borders and edges. These are uncluttered by the often over-ornate etched-and-gilt surface decoration that became the norm in later centuries.

In its own time Gothic-style armour was the height of fashion, and was as much a statement of wealth and status as a form of protection during battle. The wonderfully pointed shoes or "sabatons", for instance, reflected the prevailing fashion for extravagantly pointed civilian shoes at court (square toes were to become de rigueur a couple of decades later when armour, naturally, followed suit).

Although much of this armour probably came from a single source, it was assembled into its present form by dealers, prior to its acquisition by art collector Sir Richard Wallace. (It was sold around 1860 from the castle of Hohenaschau in the Tyrol, along with the rest of the armoury of the Counts von Freyberg). Since complete armours of this date were already very rare, even in the 19th century, dealers and collectors commonly assembled armour from mis-matched pieces. This array would have cost, in today's money, as much as a jet plane.

The shaffron (armour for a horse's head) bears the mark of the city of Landshut in southern Germany, and this is probably where most of the rest of the harness was made, too. It also bears the mark of a Gothic "R", which has been ascribed to Ulrich Rambs, one of the finest workers in armour (Plattnerkunst) of his era. Though little horse armour survives, knights commonly protected their steeds with armour, which was melted down and recast as fashions changed. The saddle was probably made around 1520; the gauntlets (from gant, the French for glove), pauldrons (from epaule, the French for shoulder) and tassets (defences for the upper-leg) are all 19th-century restorations. Armour terminology is foreign to our ears today and is derived from medieval European languages, mostly French and Latin.

The word "chivalry" itself derives from the French for horse - cheval.

This armour is made predominantly of steel, much harder and stronger than wrought iron. It became much more commonly used for armour from the 15th century onwards, at least for those who could afford it. The common soldier usually wore far inferior undecorated armour (if any), often made from wrought iron. The brass borders were mostly added in the 19th century to make the armour more attractive to collectors.

Armour was made by forging metal plates into three dimensional forms by hand, usually while red hot, and then connecting pieces using leather straps, buckles and brass-capped iron rivets. The finest quality armour was so well articulated that it allowed for free and easy movement in battle.

Examples like this were made by professional armourers, who would often spend a lifetime learning their trade, progressing from apprentice to journeyman, and finally - if they were skilled enough - becoming a master.

The finest, most expensive armours required enormous skill to construct and assemble, since they had to be specially made to measure.

Knights were usually members of the landed aristocracy, and therefore wealthy in their own right. Since they were also usually the commanding officers and elite warriors of medieval armies, many also benefited from the spoils of war, as well as enjoying all the other advantages of high military rank and status. As pages, squires and aspiring knights, boys from the age of seven learned the arts of war and the knightly code of chivalry, although in practice relatively few seem to have lived strictly according to such codes.

In the early Middle Ages, during the development of the feudal system, one could theoretically attain knighthood by merit, but by the 15th century birth had become the single most important qualification. However, since knighthood could be conferred by the reigning monarch, it was not long before the chivalric ideal became tainted by financial considerations, with titles sold to the highest bidder. This process, already under way by the 16th century, reached heights of corruption in late 18th-century pre-Revolutionary France.

It is a popular myth that knights had to be winched on to their horses, as shown in the film Henry V (1944), directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. This knight's armour weighs about 27 kilograms (59lbs - less than the kit carried into combat by many modern soldiers). With training, a fit knight could easily mount his horse unaided. Once in the saddle he rode straight-legged, effectively standing in his stirrups. This position gave him a very low centre of gravity, enabling him to lean down and strike his enemies on foot without over-balancing. The high saddlebow made it difficult for an opponent to knock him out of the saddle once he was in it.

Armed with a lance, sword and mace, and protected by state-of-the-art arrow-proof armour, the mounted knight was a formidable force.

David Edge is the armourer, and Emma Bryant education officer, at the Wallace Collection

Lesson ideas


KS 1-2

Explore and describe battles of the late Middle Ages. What was everyday life like for the poor, as opposed to the comparatively rich knight in armour? How have weapons, warfare and personal defence changed between the 15th and 21st centuries? Why don't we go into combat on horseback nowadays?

KS 3

How is medieval life interpreted in modern books and films? Look at Lawrence Olivier's Henry V, and at Monty Python and the Holy Grail and A Knight's Tale.

Art and design

KS 1-2

Look straight at the horse's head and draw it from this and other angles.

What can pupils learn about perspective? What constructional elements do you need to consider if you design your own armour?

KS 5

Manipulate a digital image of the work. Create models of the man on horseback.

KS 5

This 15th-century armour for man and horse was made for battle, but it also makes a strong aesthetic statement. Discuss whether an object ostensibly made for war can be considered as art.


KS 1-2

How was armour made? Compare it with protective clothing today.


KS 2

Research modern versions of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Can pupils make up their own knightly adventures?

KS 5

How does armour feature in Shakespeare?

Design and technology

KS 4

Manipulate and construct 3D sheet-metal forms through welding, bending and joining.

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