Plate armour

'Gothic' armour
'Gothic' armour

Plate armour is personal armour made from large metal plates, worn on the chest and sometimes the entire body.

Medieval European History

Plate armour protecting the chest and the lower limbs was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but it fell into disuse after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Single plates of metal armour were again used from the late 13th century on, to protect joints and shins, and these were worn over full mail haubergeons. By the end of the 14th century, larger and complete full plates of armour had been developed. During the early 1500s the helmet and neckguard design was reformed to produce the so-called N├╝rnberg armours, many of them masterpieces of workmanship and design. European leaders in armouring techniques were northern Italians and southern Germans. This led to the styles of Milanese from Milan, and Gothic from the Holy Roman Empire. Eventually, England produced armour in Greenwich which equalled the masters of Europe, and they developed their own unique style. Maximillian style armour immediately followed this, in the early 16th century. Maximillian armour was typically denoted by fluting and decorative etching, as opposed to the plainer finish on 15th century white armour. This era also saw the use of Close helms, as opposed to the 15th century style sallets and barbutes.

The threaded screws used in armour were used in other industries, and may have been invented by clockmakers or other machinists.

Full plate armour was very expensive to produce and remained therefore restricted to the upper strata of society, and lavishly decorated suits of armour remained the fashion with 17th century nobles and generals, long after they had ceased to be militarily useful due to the introduction of firearms in the battlefield. Reduced plate armour, typically consisting of a breastplate, a burgonet, morion or cabasset and gauntlets, however, also became popular among 16th century mercenaries. From the 15th century on, armour specifically designed for jousting (rather than for battle) and parade armours also became popular. Many of the latter were decorated with biblical or mythological motifs.

16th century plate armour for men and horses (Metropolitan Museum)
16th century plate armour for men and horses (Metropolitan Museum)
King Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-1598) in a luxurious half-armour
King Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-1598) in a luxurious half-armour
15th century depiction of a melee. A breast plate is pierced by a sword (it is debatable whether the depiction is realistic).
15th century depiction of a melee. A breast plate is pierced by a sword (it is debatable whether the depiction is realistic).

Effect on Weapon Development

Evolution of plate armour also triggered developments in the design of offensive weapons. While this armour was effective against cuts or blows, they could be pierced by bolts fired by powerful crossbows, and their weak points could be exploited by long tapered swords designed for the purpose. However, the vast majority of crossbows could not pierce plate armor, as they do not have the energy required to penetrate the typically 2 mm thick steel. Maces were used not to pierce the armour, but to inflict blunt trauma right through it. Another small weakness in plate armour was the joints, where the plates overlapped; this could expose unprotected gaps in certain stances of the wearer, through which sword and dagger blades could penetrate. In armoured techniques taught in the German school of swordsmanship, the attacker concentrates on these cracks, resulting in a fighting style very different from unarmoured sword-fighting. Because of that weakness, most warriors wore a mail shirt (haubergeon) beneath their plate armour (or coat-of-plates). After that the armpits were protected with mail patches sewn onto a gambeson or arming jacket. Further protection for plate armour were small round plates called besagews that covered the armpit area.

Composition

Plate armour could have consisted of a helmet, a gorget, pauldrons (or spaulders), couters, vambraces, gauntlets, a cuirass (back and breastplate) with a fauld, tassets and a culet, a chainmail skirt, cuisses, poleyns, greaves and sabatons. While it looks heavy, a full plate armour set could be as light as only 20 kg (45 pounds) if well made of tempered steel. This is less than the weight of modern combat gear of an infantry soldier, and the weight is better distributed. The weight was so well spread over the body that a fit man could run, or jump into his saddle. Modern re-enactment activity has proven it is even possible to swim in armour. That it was necessary to lift a fully armed knight onto his horse with the help of pulleys is a myth originating in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and has no historical base. Even knights in enormously heavy jousting armour were not winched onto their horses. This type of "sporting" armour was meant only for ceremonial lancing matches and the design had to be extremely thick to prevent severe accidents, such as the one causing the death of King Henry II of France.

Late period cavalry armour to modern battle gear

Armour was not confined to the Middle Ages, and in fact was widely used by all armies until the end of the 17th century, for both foot and mounted troops. Leg protection was the first part to go, replaced by tall leather boots. By the early part of the 18th century, only field marshals and royalty remained in full armour on the battlefield, as they were tempting targets for rifled musket fire. However, cavalry units continued to use front and back plates, and either helmets or "secrets", a steel protection they wore under a floppy hat. Japanese musketeer troops continued to use plate armour well into the early 19th century. The cavalry armour of Napoleon, and the French, German, and British empires (heavy cavalry known as curassiers) were actively used through the 19th century right up to the first year of World War I, when French cuirassiers went to meet the enemy in armour outside of Paris.

Plate armour briefly re-appeared during World War II on some Soviet Guard (elite) infantry units, who wore steel chestplates. In the Korean War, body armour was re-introduced for U.S. foot soldiers, more so in the Vietnam, and the U.S. soldiers in Iraq now always wear light-weight Kevlar helmets and armour vests. The U.S. Air Force used flak jackets as a form of plate armour. The 1970s introduction of Kevlar body armour brought sheet metal (especially titanium) trauma plates back into fashion as a form of rifle-grade add-on to flexible vests.

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