Weapons of the Middle Ages

Knights were men of the sword. Their iron blades were heated, cooled and hammered many times before they became steel. Their blades were often damacened, that is inlaid with gold and silver designs. The knight held the sword by the hilt which was protected by two guards called quillions. The pommel, a large knob at the end of the hilt helped balance the blade. A longsword weighed between one and two kilograms and was used for cutting, slashing and occasionally thrusting. When not in use, it was carried in a scabbard. In battle, the longsword was usually attached to the knight’s breastplate by a thin chain so that it could not be lost.

The lance was made of ash, pine or some other wood and was between 2.5 and 4.5 metres long with a conical, triangular or lozenge-shaped point. By the 14th century proper hand grips and guards were added and an iron spike or ferrule was fitted to the butt so that the lance could be struck in the ground. If a knight grounded his lance, it was a sign that he wanted to talk or parley with his opponent.

battle-axeIn addition every knight had secondary weapons such as the battle-axe, the mace or the war-flail. The battle-axe was a formidable weapon. At the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce of Scotland (1274-1329) was attacked by a young English knight. As the Englishman dashed forward the Scottish king rose in his stirrups and smashed his battle-axe down on the knight’s head, almost cutting it completely in two.

Maces were clubs with spikes or flanged heads. The were sometimes called “holy water sprinklers” because they were used by priests in battle. The war-flail was even more frightening. It consisted of a spiked iron ball on the end of a chain connected to a handle and was used to bludgeon opponents.

The foot-soldiers’ main weapons were longbows and crossbows. Knights would use neither in battle believing them to be unknightly weapons. The longbow was made of strong, supple yew. A notch was cut in both ends of the stave so that a length of hemp could be strung between them. Both the bow and strong were waxed and resined to keep them in good condition. The arrow or clothyard was about one metre long was armed with a metal head. Broad heads were used against foot-soldiers and thin bullet-like heads against armoured knights. The arrows were flighted with split quill feathers.

Crossbows, which were introduced in the 11th century, were made of wood or horn. After shooting, the string was drawn back by the archer placing his foot in the stirrup. He then attached the string to a hook in his belt and straightened his back until the string slipped over the retaining catch on the crossbar of the weapon. The bow was usually shot by means of some kind of trigger. Later a geared contrivance called a windlass was used to wind back the string. Crossbows shot short wooden or iron arrows called bolts or quarrels. Although much slower to load than the longbow, the crossbow was a powerful and accurate weapon.

From Mail to Plate Armour

By the 13th century, a knight’s armour had changed in many ways. Most knights had mail mittens at the end of the sleeves of their hauberk. Theses were split along the palms so that the hands could be freed without taking off the rest of the armour. Helmets called flat-topped helms became fashionable and a new lozenge-shaped shield came into use. Many knights took to wearing linen tunics called surcoats which were slit up the back and front to make riding easier. The crusading knights found these surcoats particularly useful in the Holy Land as they shielded their armour from the sun and helped to keep them cool. Moreover, the knight’s coat-of-arms could be displayed on his surcoat so that everyone knew who he was.

During the 14th century, a new kind of helmet or helm called a bascinet was introduced. It was a mail skull cap and an elaborate helm could be placed over it. A heavy cape of mail called an aventail hung down from the bottom of the helmet to protect the neck and shoulders. The armpits were protects by roundels, the elbows by couters or elbow-kops, the knees by poleyns or knee-kops and the feet by solerets. The upper arms were enclosed in plate armour called rerebraces, the lower arms by vambraces and the legs by schynbalds. All these pieces of plate armour were held in place by straps and buckles and were worn over te top of a suit of mail. At this time, the prick spur was replaced by the rowel spur and the lozenge-shaped shield by a flat-rion-shaped shield.

By 1415, whole suits of plate armour were available. Bascinets with visors of the houndskull type were worn. Breast and back plates protected the upper part of the body. The lower part was defended by a series of thin plates called a fauld. The joints were given even more protection by the use of pauldrons, coudes and genouilleres. The knight still wore mail underneath his plate armour. The greatest weakness of this kind of armour was that the wearer could not turn his head to see behind him as his helmet was fixed in place.

By the 16th century the greatest days of working armour were over and yet this was the time when the finest harnesses were made. Splendid close-fitting helms called armets were worn while the breast and back plates were perfectly moulded to fit the shape of the wearer’s body. Thigh protectors called taces were added to the fould and the head and shoulders were defended by raised haute pieces. By this time a shield was rarely used so that the left pauldron was reinforced with a large plate while the neck was surrounded by a metal beaver. The arms and legs were completely encased in armour.

A Knight and his Armour

The invention of the stirrup enabled horse-soldiers or knights to wear heavy armour and, at the same time, to control their horses in battle. By the 11th century, knights were almost completely covered in mail armour. Mail was made of small interlocking steel rings so that each ring had four others linked through it. Together they made a fabrick strong enough to protect the wearer from most cutting blows. Each armour or harness, as a suit of mail was called, had to be properly planned. The knight had to be carfully measured to make sure that his armour fitted him perfectly. As mail was very expensive to make, it was usually passed down from father to son and modified by the family armourer to fit the new wearer.

Mail was not nearly as heavy as it sounds. Indeed, it was probably about as heavy as the equipment worn by a modern infantryman. A very strong knight, could dance in full mail. Neverthless, a knight had considerable difficulty arming himself and really needed the help of his squire or a servant.

First of all, he put on linen stockings, breeches and a long sleeved shirt made of wool. On top of these clothes, he wore a leather tunic or a padded coat called an aketon; this stopped his shoulders from being rubbed red raw by the movement of the coat of mail.

Sometimes, the knight had to pull his hauberk or coat of mail over his head and wriggle inside, but some hauberks were split up the back so that the knight could push his arms into the sleeves before his squire laced him in. Some knights wore mail leggings or chausses. The tops of these were attached by straps to a waist belt to keep them up.

A coif, a kind of mail balaclava helmet, was pulled over the head and hung down over the neck and shoulders.

A simple conical helmet made of leather or metal, which was padded like a modern crash helmet to protect the head from heavy blows, was worn on top of the coif. A strip of metal called a nasal guarded the nose from swordcuts across the face. A simple type of spur, known as a prick spur was buckled into place on each foot.

The knights equipment was completed by a long, heavy word in a scabbard or sheath, and a large kite-shaped shield held in place by leather straps.

The Knighting Ceremony

This is a topic that I’ve skimmed over before but will go into more detail now.

Although knighting had been a simple affair during the early Middle Ages, the ceremony gradually became more and more complicated. By the end of the Middle Ages, it was performed in the grounds before some great castle amid great celebrations.

swordOn the day before the knighting ceremony (known as dubbing) took place, the squires had their hair cut short to remind them that they should humble themselves in the eyes of God. In those days, a man regarded his hair as his best feature or crowning glory. Then, they bathed to show that their sins were being washed away and that they were about to start a new life. After that they put on black shoes and lay on their beds. The fact that the shoes were black, the colour of death, reminded them that they would die on day and the bed which provided comfort and rest reminded them they would rest in Heaven if they lived up to the ideals of knighthood.

The squires then recited the laws of chivalry. See this post for the Code of Ethics.

After this the squires attended a banquet where they ate their fill. It was the last food they were to have for many hours. That night they entered the castle chapel and laid their weapons on the altar so that they could be blessed by the priest. The squires spent the rest of the night in the chapel praying. This part of the ceremony was called the Vigil at Arms and it reminded the squires that they should only use their weapons in God’s service.

At last the great moment arrived and the squires filed out on to the green lawns before the castle where a huge crowd was eagerly waiting to see the climax of the ceremony. Each squire advanced in turn and had his sword buckled on by one knight and his beautiful golden spurs by another. Then the most senior knight present came forward and gave the squire a cuff on the neck or a light blow on the shoulder with a sword to show that the squire was now a knight. This was known as the giving of the accolade.

Of course, many squires were dubbed knight in far less romantic circumstances. Many received the accolade on the field of battle surrounded by their dead and dying comrades. Although squires were usually knighted by people who were not related to them, fathers sometimes dubbed their own sons. No matter who conferred the honour or where the ceremony took place, this was the greatest honour any medieval soldier could receive.

The Squire – a Knight in Training

At about the age of 14 if the page had made satisfactory progress he became a squire and, if he belonged to, or served in, a wealthy family, he put on silver spurs as a sign of his new status. As a squire, he had the right to carry a shield emblazoned with armorial bearings and to wear a helmet like a knight’s.

At this stage of his training, he was placed with a knight who continued his education and treated him as a kind of companion and general servant. A good deal of his time was spent cleaning his own and his master’s armour. He also helped his knight to dress and undress, made his bed and looked after his clothes. Each evening he took him a glass of spiced wine and slept across the doorway to his bechamber to protect him from sudden attack.

As a knight in training, the squire learnt to leap into the saddle without touching the stirrups and to guide his horse by pressing its flanks with his knees and heels. He built up his strength by wrestling and running and jumping. He practised wielding his heavy weapons until he could fight for long periods without becoming exhausted.

At the opening of tournaments, the squire rode before his knight, holding his helm in his left hand and his tilting lance in his right. If his knight was successful, the squire guarded his prisoners until they were ransomed.

In the early stages of a battle, he rode beside his knight carrying his shield and gauntlets. During the fighting it was the squire’s duty to aid his master should he get into difficulties. For example, if his knight was unhorsed, the squire fetched him another charger of offered him his own mount. When his knight was hurt, he helped him from the battlefield and bound up his wounds. The squire treated wounds that would not stop bleeding with a red-hot sword or dagger, heated in the fire. This stopped the bleeding and covered the wound with a scab so that it could heal. If, however, a knight was killed, his squire made sure that he was property buried and that his mater’s feudal lord was informed.

As a member of the noble class, the squire was expected to learn the arts of civilized behaviour. He had to be able to make conversation and to entertain his master’s guests. He learnt to play draughts, chess and other games. If he wanted to be a social success he had to be able to dance, sing and play music skilfully. A gallant young man dressed in the height of fashion with a fine tunic that was embroidered all over with red and white flowers and had long, wide sleeves. Such an elegant young man could hope to catch the eyes of the ladies.

By the time a squire reached the age of 21, he was qualified to become a knight. However, he could only advance to this honour if he had sufficient land or money to enable him to carry out the duties of a knight. As a result, many squires never achieved knighthood.

The Page – a Military Apprentice

In the Middle Ages, some of the boys destined to become knights trained from early childhood in the knightly arts. The first stage in their military apprenticeship was served as a page in a noble’s household. A page learnt not only about military matters but also about honour and courteous behaviour, especially towards women.

The son of a knight spent his earliest years with his nurse and the other women in the castle. During this time, he learnt something about manners and how to behave. Sometimes he was taught to read but rarely to write. In addition, he started to learn to sing and play a musical instrument. The turning point in his life came when he was given his first pony. He was taught to look after horses and to ride them expertly.

When he was about seven or eight, he was sent away from home to be a page at the court of the king or some great lord. A page’s main duties were to run errands, help the lady of the household with her duties, learn to come when he was called and to wait patiently when there was nothing for him to do. As he grew older he was trained in the use of weapons, especially the sword and bow. He learnt to handle a lance by tilting at the quintain. The quintain was an upright post with a pivoted crossbar. There was a shield on one end of the bar and a heavy sack on the other. The idea was for the page to ride full speed or tilt at the quintain, hit the shield a resounding blow with his lance and duck under the swinging sack. The unfortunate beginner was usually swept out of the saddle time after time by the swinging sack, but this was all part of the training.

The page also started to learn the art of venery or hunting. He had to be able to recognise the spoor, the footmarks, and the fewmets, the droppings, of the forest animals so that he could track them to their lairs. To find his way safely through dense forest, he had to know how to follow and leave a trail.

Medieval men admired the courage and faithfulness of their dogs. Each lord had a dogboy who lived with the hounds in their kennels, learnt their characteristics and looked after them in every way. The page too had to know the ways of dogs so that he could get the best out of them when hunting.

A knowledge of falconry and hawking was also part of his education. Falcons and hawks are birds of prey which can be taught to hunt game for their masters. Medieval falconers trained their hunting birds to come to a lure (a dummy bird containing a piece of meat which was whirled around on the end of a piece of rope. Except during hunting, these fierce birds were kept hooded and had tiny bells attached to their legs so that their every movement could be heard.

Pages spent a good deal of their time hunting or waiting upon the huntsman. Anything that could run or fly was hunted by the members of the knightly class with the greatest enthusiasm.

The Rise of the Knight

The European Middle Ages between 800 and 1450 AD were dominated by the knight. In war, he was a skilled fighter and an armoured horse-soldier. In peacetime, he was a landowner and a ruler of men. The knight appeared at a time of great violence and bloodshed when Western Europe was attacked by the Vikings from Scandinavia in the North and West; by the Arabs from Africa in the South and by the Magyars from the Steppes of Asia in the East. The forefathers of the men who defended Europe against these fierce, ruthless invaders had seized their lands from the Romans some centuries earlier. Now it was the turn of the medieval Europeans to stand and defend these same countries.


The Europeans’ main weapon against the invaders were horse-solders or cavalry. The idea of cavalry was not a new one. The Ancient Greeks and Romans had used horse-soldiers but they had never taken the place of their heavily armed foot-soldiers, or infantry, because they could not charge the packed ranks of the enemy’s foot-soldiers effectively.

Before the invention of stirrups, cavalrymen had the greatest difficulty fighting on horseback. If they wore heavy armour, they were likely to lose their balance. If they charged their enemies with their spears extended in fron of them, they were likely to be swept from the saddle by the impact. But with stirrups, the medieval knights were able to do combat sitting firmly in their saddles.

Historians think that stirrups were invented in China at the end of the fifth century AD, but it took a long time for news of their use to reach the west. However, once the Europeans started using stirrups, other developments followed rapidly. Long pointed shields were designed to cover the whole of the body and cavalrymen learnt to gallop at top speed into their enemies and stab them with their spears instead of throwing them. Their horses were shod with metal shoes so that they could travel over the roughest ground without splitting their hooves. It was possible for a rider to wear heavy armour without losing his balance when leaning forward or backwards.

The day of the infantryman was over, and the day of the cavalryman or knight had come.

As a knight’s armour and war-horse were so expensive some means of paying for them had to be worked out. Instead of hiring and equipping ordinary soldiers, the medieval kings preferred to give away part of their lands to their followers. They governed the estates for their king and supplied him with soldiers whenever he needed them. This brought into being a new system of landholding. It was called the feudal system and it produced a new kind of soldier, the knight.

Medieval Guilds

Only guild members were allowed to trade in the city. They could not work at night or undercharge. By these methods the guild kept production down and prices up. Members who failed to maintain high standards of workmanship were fined or expelled from their guild.

Women rarely became full guild members. Some guilds (for instance the barbers and the dyers) accepted women, and widows were allowed to practise their husbands’ trades, but most guilds tried to exclude them altogether. Women, nevertheless, worked as butchers, ironmongers, shoemakers, hot-food sellers, bookbinders, embroiderers and goldsmiths. Domestic activities such as silkmaking, spinning and brewing were exclusively female occupations.

Many guilds provided a welfare system. The Guild of Mercers (dealers in cloth) in London charged 6d. (6 pennies) a week and used the money to help poor members. Wealthy guilds started schools, ran retirement homes, paid for the funerals of poor guild members and arranged entertainments on holy days.

In some towns leading merchants formed an association called a merchant guild. The guild had a royal charter and took charge of the government of the town.