Heavy metal hardens battle: Body armor hindered Medieval warriors

The French may have had a better chance at the Battle of Agincourt had they not been weighed down by heavy body armour, say researchers.

A study published July 19 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that soldiers carrying armour in Medieval times would have been using more than twice the amount of energy had they not been wearing it. This is the first clear experimental evidence of the limitations of wearing Medieval armour on a soldier’s performance.

During warfare in the 15th century, soldiers wore steel plate armour, typically weighing 30-50kg. It is thought this may have been a contributing factor in whether an army won or lost a battle.

“We found that carrying this kind of load spread across the body requires a lot more energy than carrying the same weight in a backpack,” says lead researcher, Dr Graham Askew from the University of Leeds Faculty of Biological Sciences. “This is because, in a suit of armour, the limbs are loaded with weight, which means it takes more effort to swing them with each stride. If you’re wearing a backpack, the weight is all in one place and swinging the limbs is easier.”

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One Response to Heavy metal hardens battle: Body armor hindered Medieval warriors

  1. alfy says:

    I am sure all the experiments were well conducted and the conclusions were scientific. However, trying to apply these results to an actual battle, like Agincourt is more problematic.

    First question. “Do we know the actual numbers of 1. mailed knights, 2. men at arms, and 3. archers employed by each side? Well, no we don’t. We are lucky if we have a contemporary estimate of total numbers on either side.

    What load-bearing was typical of each of the three soldier types? We can make a reasonable estimate of this. Mailed knights were well-to-do upper-class men who could afford full armour for themselves and a heavy horse to carry them.

    Men at arms were part of the company of a mailed knight who paid for their equipment. They were rather like modern NCOs sergeants and corporals. Their armour would probably be limited to helmet, backs, and breastplates. Lower ranking men at arms may have had nothing more than a helmet and a leather jack studded with metal discs.

    The archers would have been very lightly armed and they would not usually have been in direct contact with men in armour. Some may have had helmets but the most any of them were likely to have no more than the leather jacks described earlier.

    What bearing does this have on the experiments described? Well, it is only relevant to fully armoured knights and the more heavily accoutred men at arms. As I have said, we only have a hazy idea of actual numbers.

    The essence of medieval battles of those times was the armored cavalry charge, which if successful would completely overrun the enemy and throw his dispositions into complete confusion. This would only work across relatively open ground. If, as at Agincourt, the enemy English had formed up behind very boggy ground the armoured charge would grind to a halt.

    In addition, the English had brought sharpened wooden stakes with them, which they set in the ground at an angle, facing the oncoming cavalry. Though the knight’s destriers (war horses) were highly trained, they were not stupid, and would not charge into a fence of sharp wooden posts.

    Once the French knights had become bogged down the lightly armed archers would begin to pick off individual knights. The lightly armed men at arms could move easily in the boggy ground and deal with the floundering knights. A single thrust from a poinard (a thick short dagger) into the vizor of the helmet would kill the knight.

    Alternatively, a single blow on the helm with a short steel hammer would be enough to cause severe disablement. This work was popular as there would often be money or valuables to steal from the wealthy knights. If they were sufficiently famous they could be captured or ransomed for large sums of money.

    The problems of the physiological capability of heavily armoured men is hardly the issue at Agincourt because both sides employed mailed knights. It was the lack of manoevre which defeated the French. Once the initial charge had failed they should have pulled back. A lack of proper overall control meant that those at the back kept pushing forwards into a growing disaster. The English had simply to capitalise on the errors of the French.

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