History of Plate Armor: The Unofficial & Unabashed Guide

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knight wearing plate armor

Ah, plate armor. This medieval defensive gear takes me back to a simpler time, where all you needed to march into battle was a sword, a shield, and a good can opener to pry yourself out of your armor afterward. 

Whether you take an interest in historical combat tactics or enjoy viewing museum displays of ornate steel outfits from days gone by, there’s no denying that plate armor is woven into the magnitude and mystique of warfare throughout the years.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the history and details of medieval plate armor. The OG flak jacket, if you will.

Ready to roll? Let’s do it!

Origins of Plate Armor

Plate armor is a type of armor made from metal plates that cover and protect the body. The development of plate armor can be traced back to the Middle Ages when knights wore chain mail armor made of interlocking metal rings.

While chain mail armor provided good protection against slashing attacks, it was less effective against thrusting attacks from weapons like spears and arrows.

As a result, armorers began to experiment with different materials and designs to create armor that provided better protection.

One of the first innovations was the addition of metal plates to the mail armor, which could deflect thrusting attacks more effectively.

Over time, these plates became more specialized, eventually evolving into the full-plate armor we associate with medieval knights.

The use of full-plate armor reached its peak in the 14th and 15th centuries, particularly in Europe, as kingdoms fought many wars to expand their empires.

During this time, armorers developed increasingly sophisticated designs that provided greater protection while allowing increased mobility and flexibility.

Some of the key innovations in plate armor during this period included:

  • Full-body coverage: By the late 15th century, full plate armor covered the entire body, including the head, hands, and feet.
  • Articulated joints: Plate armor was designed with articulated joints, allowing greater mobility and flexibility.
  • Fluting: Armorers added fluting, or decorative grooves, to the metal plates to improve their strength and reduce weight.
  • Engraving and etching: Plate armor became about artistic expression, with armorers engraving elaborate designs onto the metal plates.

Despite its effectiveness, plate armor began to fall out of use in the 16th and 17th centuries as the development of firearms made it increasingly vulnerable.

However, plate armor remains an iconic symbol of medieval warfare and has continued to influence modern depictions of knights and warriors in popular culture.

Parts of Plate Armor

If you were in the market for plate armor, you would have had to know that all armor was not created equal. Two different types were available depending on the level of protection you wanted.

Let’s look closer at the components of half-plate armor and full-plate armor!

Half-Plate Armor

Half-plate armor was a popular type during the late medieval period because it provided a good balance of protection and mobility. It was lighter and more flexible than full-plate armor, making it easier to move around and fight.

Half-plate armor typically consisted of the following pieces:

  • Breastplate: A metal plate that covered the chest and upper torso.
  • Backplate: A metal plate that covered the back.
  • Pauldrons: Shoulder plates that protected the upper arms and shoulders.
  • Vambraces: Arm plates that protected the forearms.

Half-plate armor was often worn by infantry soldiers, providing some protection while allowing for mobility and ease of movement. It was also less expensive than full-plate armor, making it more accessible to common soldiers.

However, it was not as protective as full plate armor and was vulnerable to attacks on exposed areas such as the face and legs.

Full-Plate Armor

Diagram Source: Medieval Chronicles

Full-plate armor consisted of metal plates that protect the entire body. The specific parts of plate armor can vary depending on the time period and region, but generally, full plate armor included:

  • Helmet: A metal headpiece that covers the head, face, and neck. It often includes a visor or other face protection.
  • Gorget: A collar-like piece that protects the neck and the lower part of the face.
  • Breastplate: A metal plate that covers the chest and upper torso.
  • Backplate: A metal plate that covers the back.
  • Pauldrons: Shoulder plates that protect the upper arms and shoulders.
  • Gauntlets: Metal gloves that protect the hands.
  • Vambraces: Arm plates that protect the forearms.
  • Cuisses: Thigh plates that protect the upper legs.
  • Greaves: Shin plates that protect the lower legs.
  • Sabatons: Foot armor that protects the feet.

Some sets of plate armor may also include additional pieces such as a codpiece to protect the groin or a fauld to protect the waist and hips.

How Did Blacksmiths Make Plate Armor?

The process of making plate armor involved several steps that required the skills of experienced blacksmiths and armorers. Here are the basic phases of plate armor creation:

  1. Design and pattern-making: The first step in making plate armor was to design and create a pattern for the armor pieces. This involved taking measurements of the wearer’s body and creating templates for each armor piece.
  2. Cutting and shaping: Once the patterns were created, the armor pieces were cut from sheets of metal using a variety of tools such as chisels, saws, and shears. The pieces were then shaped and formed using hammers, anvils, and other tools to create the desired shape and curvature.
  3. Joining and riveting: The individual armor pieces were then combined using rivets or other fasteners, which were hammered into place to secure the pieces together. The rivets were often hidden on the inside of the armor to improve its appearance.
  4. Finishing and polishing: Once the armor was assembled, it was polished and finished using various techniques, including sanding, buffing, and burnishing. The armor was often decorated with etched designs or other embellishments to make it more visually appealing.

The process of making plate armor required a great deal of skill and experience, and it could take weeks (even months) to create a single suit of armor.

Blacksmiths and armorers often worked closely with their clients to ensure the armor fit well and provided the necessary protection. Many armorers developed reputations for their exceptional artistry and attention to detail.

Medieval Plate Armor’s Impact on Combat & Society

The superior protection of plate armor allowed knights and soldiers to engage more effectively in close combat.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how plate armor shaped the course of both battlefield strategy and social economics during its heyday.

Psychological impact

Wearers of plate armor would appear intimidating and larger than life – an effective psychological weapon that could unnerve the enemy while boosting their own side’s morale.

The metal clanging of the marching armies added to this effect, resonating a booming warning to the enemy that they were not to be trifled with.

Effectiveness

Plate armor’s effectiveness against cutting and piercing weapons such as swords, arrows, and spears made it possible for knights to charge into battle without fear of being easily wounded or killed.

This led to the development of new combat tactics, such as the cavalry charge, which relied on the speed and strength of heavily armored horses and riders to break through enemy lines.

Modernized weapons

New weapons like the poleaxe and the Warhammer were developed to penetrate or bypass plate armor.

These weapons required specialized training and tactics to use effectively, and they were often wielded by special forces of soldiers whose main directive was to disable heavily armored opponents.

Social & economic impact

The cost of producing and maintaining plate armor was high, which meant that only the wealthiest members of society could afford to wear it.

This created a division between the noble class, who could afford to equip themselves with plate armor, and the lower classes, who were ill-equipped and less likely to engage in direct combat.

The Decline of Plate Armor’s Popularity

Plate armor’s popularity declined during the Renaissance period, which lasted from the 14th to the 17th century. Although some soldiers and knights continued to use plate armor well into the 17th century, wearing armor had become little more than a strange custom to most by the end of the Renaissance.

Several factors contributed to this decline:

  • The development of firearms: As firearms became more common and effective, plate armor became less practical for protection. Guns could penetrate or bypass the armor, making it less useful in battle.
  • Changes in warfare: The nature of warfare began to change during the Renaissance period, with more emphasis on siege warfare and less emphasis on close combat. Plate armor was less useful in sieges, where soldiers were more likely to be exposed to artillery and other long-range weapons.
  • Changes in fashion: As the Renaissance progressed, fashion shifted towards lighter, more flexible clothing. Plate armor was heavy, making it less comfortable and fashionable.
  • Cost: Plate armor was expensive to produce and maintain, meaning it was only accessible to the wealthiest members of society. As warfare became more costly and professionalized, the cost of outfitting an army with plate armor became prohibitive.

As a result of these factors, plate armor was gradually replaced by lighter and more flexible forms of armor, such as cuirasses and helmets made of hardened leather or metal.

Plate Armor Today

Today, plate armor is often used in movies and reenactments for historical purposes. Here are some examples of how plate armor is used in modern times:

  • Medieval reenactments: One of the most common uses for plate armor is in medieval reenactments, where people dress up in period costumes and act out battles, tournaments, and other events from the medieval period. Plate armor is an essential part of the costumes worn by participants, and it makes the experience more authentic by serving as a fond reminder of forgotten civilizations.
  • Historical fencing: Historical fencing is a sport that involves using replica weapons and armor to simulate medieval combat. Participants often wear plate armor to protect themselves from blows, which adds to the sport’s realism.
  • LARPing: Live-action role-playing (LARP) is a game where participants dress up in costumes and act out roles in a fictional world. Plate armor is often used in LARPing to add to the costumes’ authenticity and protect players during combat.
  • Jousting: Jousting is a sport that involves two armored knights riding on horseback and charging at each other with lances. Plate armor is essential for both the knights and their horses to protect them from serious injury during the competition. You will likely have seen jousting if you’ve ever been to the Medieval Times restaurant.
  • Film and television: Plate armor is often used in film and television productions set in medieval times to create an authentic look and feel. Actors wearing plate armor can perform realistic fight scenes and stunts while still being protected from harm.

Famous Examples of Plate Armor Throughout History

Throughout history, armor has been worn by brave warriors and powerful leaders alike as a way to protect themselves from danger and…to flaunt their obscene wealth and power.

I’m willing to bet that Sigmund Freud would’ve had a field day analyzing men and their armor. But sometimes, as I’m sure the good doctor would tell us, sometimes plate armor is just plate armor.

Anyway, there are a few famous examples of plate armor from history, including: 

King Henry VIII’s armor

England’s King Henry VIII, who was known for quite literally playing with his wives’ heads, was also known for his elaborate and ornate suits of armor.

One of Hank’s most famous suits of armor was the Greenwich armor, which was made in 1511 and featured elaborate engravings of Tudor roses and fleur-de-lis.

Maximilian I’s armor

Maximilian I was Holy Roman Emperor in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and was known for his passion for jousting and chivalric culture.

He commissioned several suits of armor that were highly decorated and featured intricate designs, including the “Gothic Armor,” which is now on display in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

How much does plate armor weigh?

Generally speaking, plate armor worn by medieval knights and soldiers typically weighed between 40 to 60 pounds.

Is plate armor bulletproof?

No, plate armor is not bulletproof. Plate armor was designed to protect against the weapons used in medieval times, such as swords, axes, and arrows. While plate armor is very effective at stopping these weapons, it is not designed to stop modern firearms.

What is the oldest piece of armor?

The Dendra Panoply is a suit of armor that dates back to the Mycenaean period of ancient Greece, around 1400 BCE. It was discovered in the tomb of a warrior in the village of Dendra in the Argolid region of Greece and is considered the oldest intact piece of armor today.