Guide to Medieval Knight Armor & Helmet Types
Few historical figures are as popular as the medieval knight. When most of us think of a knight, we picture a brave soldier on horseback wearing shining plate armor and a full helmet.
This picture of a medieval knight is not far from the truth. Knights of the late Middle Ages protected themselves with sophisticated and protective plate armor.
But what about knights from earlier centuries in the Middle Ages? What sort of protective items did they rely on in battle? Plate armor may have gained immense popularity by the 1300s, but prior to its invention, knights utilized other types of protection.
We know about the evolution of armor in the Middle Ages thanks to records left behind. This historical and archeological evidence includes physical pieces of armor, illustrations of knights, and written records.
Tombs also provide key information about medieval knight armor. During the Middle Ages, the tombs of royalty and nobility (including knights) were oftentimes ornately carved to resemble the likeness of the person who passed.
Details of armor construction and components can be gleaned from examining these tombs carefully.
We will utilize these forms of evidence to discuss the evolution of a medieval knight’s armor from the 9th to 15th centuries. These centuries span the early to late Middle Ages, when the role of the knight in society was at its peak. Information about Renaissance-period armor can be found here.
Medieval Knight Chain Mail
Prior to the invention of plate armor, early medieval knights relied on chain mail as their main form of protection. It was referred to as “ring mail” during this period.
Medieval armorers created chain mail by drawing out and coiling small strips of iron into rings. These were hammered flat and interlocked into a protective chain pattern.
Mail could be made with only a few simple tools like pliers and a hammer. The earliest European chain mail dates to the 9th century.
The earliest chain mail essentially formed a tunic, and protected the vital organs of the torso.
Armorers improved upon this design and created better-fitting mail shirts that could protect the arms. Shirts of mail were called hauberks, and could vary in size and length depending on the wearer.
Hoods of mail protected the head underneath a helmet. Some medieval helmets featured hooks for attaching chain mail pieces at the neck (shown in photo below).
The effectiveness of chain mail depended on a few factors. Linkage type, material, weave density, and ring thickness all played a part in protecting knights well.
The most common linkage pattern was the 4-1 pattern. Mail in this pattern provided both protection and maneuverability. Chain mail performance could vary depending on whether the metal links were harder or softer and thicker or thinner.
While harder, thicker metal may sound more protective, the variation of metal used suggests that different styles worked for different situations.
At its best, chain mail provided protection from sword blows and arrows. At its worst, mail could actually exacerbate injuries obtained on the battlefield. The sharp edges of punctured links could pierce wounds, leading to blood poisoning.
The way a knight wore chain mail influenced its effectiveness. According to arms expert John Clements, chain mail was actually made to be worn quite loosely. This helped “avoid concentrating the hit of the blade.”
Chain mail was the most advanced armor of the early Middle Ages. When worn alone, it provided some protection from swords and arrows.
Mail was a prized possession of a knight and was treated with care. Cleaning chain mail was the job of a knight’s squire. This was performed by swirling the chain mail in a barrel of sand and vinegar.
Chain mail’s use was not limited to the early Middle Ages. It continued to be a popular form of protection underneath plate armor until the 15th century, when it was replaced with padding.
Plate Armor of the Middle Ages
Chain mail as a main form of protection became less appealing with the dawn of new military technologies. During the Hundred Years’ War, new battle tactics made mail ineffective.
Knights fighting this war adopted plate armor, which protected the body from head to toe. Chain mail was worn underneath these plates to provide protection at the joins.
Plate armor was time consuming to create and was therefore expensive. Only high-ranking knights could afford to buy and wear such innovative armor.
The effectiveness of plate armor led armorers to create full suits of armor for horses as well. Many pieces of horse armor from the late medieval and Renaissance periods survive to this day.
The popularity of full suits of armor led to changes in shield design. Knights could no longer be recognized behind their layer of metal armor, so brightly painted shields distinguished one fighter from another.
Coats of arms and heraldry gained popularity with the advent of plate armor for this reason.
Plate armor proved so effective that it continued to be used well into the Renaissance period. The styles of plate armor evolved and new centers of production opened across Europe.
Types of Medieval Knight Helmets
One of the most important components of a knight’s ensemble was the helmet. Knights took care to protect their heads, as a head or brain injury was usually fatal during the Middle Ages.
The types of helmets used varied, much in the same way that chain mail and plate armor styles differed between knights.
The following helmet styles gained popularity and replaced each other from the early to late medieval periods. Like armor, helmets evolved as new weapons and fighting styles emerged on the battlefield.
The nasal helm was a simple early medieval helmet style. It featured a domed shape and a protective metal nose strip. This helmet was created from a single sheet of metal.
The relative lack of protection from the nasal helm likely led to it being replaced by full helmets. A knight’s face would have been completely unprotected from sword blows, arrows, and other dangers.
Similar to the nasal helm but lacking a protective nose strip, the spangenhelm was a German-style helmet that also had a conical shape.
The spangenhelm is named for its framework of metal strips, which can be seen in the surviving helmet above. This helmet would have only protected the skull, and left the face completely vulnerable.
The great helm is an iconic style of knight helmet that completely covered the head and face. It was first developed in the late 12th century but was most commonly used between 1220 and 1540.
The great helm is characterized by its bucket shape. The flat-topped cylindrical shape of the helmet fit over the head with little customization.
Because it covered the entire face, knights who wore the great helm relied on painted shields to distinguish themselves from other fighters.
The bascinet gained popularity in the 14th and 15th centuries. It featured a unique visor that somewhat resembled the nose of a dog.
This helmet style, although a bit funny, offered excellent protection for the head and face. The narrow slits for the eyes and mouth protected the knight so well that it may have limited visibility.
The close helm is similar in overall style to the bascinet. It became popular around the same time and was worn into the 1500s. This style of helmet featured a movable visor and a long neck piece that fit well with the rest of a knight’s armor.
The close helm and other styles would have been padded with leather or horse hair to make their fit more comfortable and secure.