Wednesday, March 18, 2015


During the WARS OF THE ROSES, English MEN-AT-ARMS, and especially members of the PEERAGE and GENTRY, entered battle encased in a defensive body covering of metal plate armor, which was designed to deflect blows from heavy weapons in close combat and to ward off arrows shot from a distance. Because most civil war battles were decided by hand-to-hand combat between men fighting on foot, full or partial sets of armor of any available quality were worn by any soldier able to buy or otherwise procure them.

By the late fifteenth century, the making of plate armor was a fine art, and new methods of forging iron allowed for the production of lighter, stronger, more flexible suits that could better protect a larger portion of the body and allowed for greater mobility and endurance. Although a complete set of armor, or "harness," was expensive, and might only be available to wealthy nobles and knights, most men went into combat at least partially harnessed, even if with older, lower-quality pieces. The finest armor had curved and fluted design elements, which gave it strength and allowed it to deflect blows more easily. Totally encased in metal, a knight in full harness had greater confidence in battle, and by the late fifteenth century many discarded the shields of earlier times and opted instead to wield the heavy two-handed weapons, such as poleaxes, which were, ironically, designed to crush the new, stronger body armor. Although they also employed two-handed, shafted weapons, such as the bill and glaive, more lightly armored men-at-arms continued to carry a small, round shield known as a buckler, which could be easily slung from a belt or strap worn around the waist.

Full harness was worn over a heavy padded doublet that was slit for ventilation. Gussets (i.e., metal or mail inserts) were sewn to the doublet to protect vulnerable areas such as the arms, elbows, and armpits, where metal joints would have been too restrictive of movement. Wax cords (arming points) were attached to the doublet to allow the plate armor to be secured to the body. Other undergarments included heavy, padded hose and leather shoes. The main body armor comprised upper and lower breastplates, which were hinged vertically on one side, back plates, a metal skirt, and tassets, which hung from straps on the skirt and protected the lower body. The feet were encased in plate shoes called sabatons, which were attached to lower leg coverings called greaves. The greaves and the upper leg coverings, known as cuisseis, had two halves that hinged on the side and were secured by buckles and straps. A special knee piece, attached by rivets or pins, protected the gap between greaves and cuisseis. Arms were protected by two similar coverings, the vambraces (for the lower arm) and rerebraces (for the upper arm), with special pieces called cowters and pauldrons attached by straps to protect, respectively, the elbows and the shoulders. Gauntlets fitted over the vambrace protected the hands and wrists. The sallet, a visored metal helmet worn over a padded arming cap, protected the head, while the bevor, a triangular metal plate worn below the sallet, protected the neck.

Although most knights dismounted for battle, the grand cavalry charge, as RICHARD III proved at the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD, could still be employed to retrieve desperate situations. During the HUNDRED YEARS WAR, unarmored horses had been extremely vulnerable to ARCHERS. Thus, many noblemen armored their mounts during the Wars of the Roses. Horse armor involved protective pieces for the head, neck, chest, rump, and flank, and might even include armor-plated reins to prevent an enemy from cutting them and depriving the rider of control. Nonetheless, the weight and expense of horse armor limited its use to the wealthiest combatants, who generally used their mounts only to ride to or escape from the battlefield.

Further Reading: Ayton, Andrew, "Arms, Armour, and Horses," in Maurice Keen, ed., Medieval Warfare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Boardman, Andrew W., The Medieval Soldier in the Wars of the Roses (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1998); DeVries, Kelly, Medieval Military Technology (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1992); Prestwich, Michael, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).

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