Compilation of reference images taken from multiple sources, 2019.
What kind of armour would an English man-at-arms have worn about the time of the first battle of St. Albans in 1455? While question may sound simple and straight forward, the answer took more than 3 years to fully realize. The greatest obstacle was the fact that almost no armour of verifiably English manufacture has survived from the fifteenth century. Who better to ask than the foremost experts on the subject: Dr. Tobias Capwell, curator of arms and armour at the Wallace Collection? Dr. Capwell has spent years studying monumental effigies and contemporary illustrations, and his findings were published a few years ago in Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450. 1
While some armour was obviously produced domestically in England, as discussed briefly in Armour Build: I. the Long Game, a significant amount was imported from Italy. Cost was the primary factor: domestic armour was relatively more expensive due to the fact that the armourers' chief raw material--steel--had to be imported all the way from Spain. Surviving documents show that lesser knights and squires imported large quantities of foreign armour, chiefly from Milan. It should come as no surprise that, according to Dr. Capwell, during the fifteenth century "the Italians developed an export style which was designed to have the widest possible foreign appeal, being very practical, flexible and adaptable... [Y]ou find the same basic armour system in France, Germany, Spain, the Low Countries and England." Depending on the nationality of the buyer, a few minor variations were made to suit regional taste. For more a thorough discussion about the development of regional styles in armour manufacture, consider reading Regional Styles in Armour.
Building an Italian Export Armour 'Alla Inglese'
For a basis, Dr. Capwell suggested the WS A2 currently residing in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. It originally belonged to Friedrich I, Kurfürst von der Pfalz, often known as Frederick "the Victorious." The Friedrich harness is possibly the best preserved and near-complete example of such Italian export armour: symmetrical shoulders with besegews, longer cuirass skirt, smaller tassets, and a great bascinet. It was made in Milan about 1449/1450 by by Tomasso and Antonio Missaglia and two other armourers, Pier Innocenzo da Faerno and Antonio Seroni, with a few 'Alla Tedesca' [in a German style] modifications as required by a Count Palatine. According to Christopher Dobson in Alla Tedesca? Italian 'Gothic' Armour and the Export Trade, evidence of this can be seen in a number of redundant rivet holes. For example, there were holes corresponding with the traditional Italian method of using vertical straps to suspend the outer breastplate (plackart) from inner breastplate and back. It would appear the Friedrich had been modified prior to delivery to use a threaded bolt that moved in a short vertical slot cut into the outer breastplate, which allowed for a small amount of flexion. Additionally, the great bascinet was originally bolted to the inner breastplate and probably attached to the backplate with a strap and buckle. It was not until the mid-20th century that vertical straps and buckles were "restored" on the cuirass and bascinet. There are another pair of redundant holes beneath the neck for the attachment of internal leathers, which would have run down to the waist of the outer breastplate and restricted how much the two parts could articulate from side to side. 2 The Friedrich did have a number of other features common with the traditional Milanese style including asymmetrical arms and mail sabatons; it is impossible to know if the gauntlets were another point of variance, or not, as the ones now associated with it were not the originals. It is very interesting to consider that someone as important as Friedrich received a harness with 'off the peg' elements tailored to his requirements rather than a ‘bespoke’ one, made to measure, especially considering that he was known as for his exceptional height.
The next step in the build was to determine what an English variant of the same style would look like. There is evidence that, as early as the 1430s, there was a definitive style of armour preferred by the English. A purchase receipt belonging to Philip the Good in Burgundy includes a pair of gauntlets "à la façon d'Angleterre" [in the fashion of England].3 Dr. Capwell recommended symmetrical vambraces and gauntlets, rectangular besagews, an armet, and plate sabatons. Although asymmetrical shoulders are commonly paired with symmetrical vambraces, it is highly unusual for symmetrical pauldrons to appear with asymmetrical arms as seen with the Friedrich. As the English generally preferred to fight on foot, symmetrical arms seemed most appropriate. A contemporary example of vambraces with symmetrical couters can be seen on the BHM SBZ102 composite armour currently in the Historisches Museum in Bern, Switzerland. They, too, were made in the same Missaglia workshop around 1455.
Although the Germans preferred circular besagews, those seen on similar armours in England are often more or less rectangular, with slightly concave sides resembling a miniature pavise. The besagews also tended to be pointed directly to the arming doublet or mail, not hung from the pauldrons like those on the continent. For the reproduction harness, it was decided to copy the besagews from the funeral effigy of Sir John St. Loe, who died in 1447 and whose tomb was completed about 1450 in the Church of St. Andrew, Chew Magna, Somerset.
By the mid-fifteenth century, an armet was an option to the great bascinet. Paired with symmetrical shoulders, it would provide a great deal of head mobility, an important consideration if selecting a single helmet for multiple events such as joust a'plaisance (joust of peace), melée a'chival (mounted combat), and melée a'pied (foot combat). A contemporary example of an armet was reproduced from the one found in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. Object number LM 16807 was made between 1450-1455 in the same Missaglia family workshops as the Friedrich.
Another point of variance occurs at the feet. The lower edges of the greaves on the Friedrich were pierced for attaching mail sabatons, a common feature of many Italianate armours. The English almost always wore plate sabatons. The sabatons were unfortunately omitted from the original commission but are still planned for a future addition. A possible example to duplicate would be the ones depicted on the funeral effigy of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick in St. Mary's Church, Warwick, England.
1. Capwell, Tobias. "Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450." London: Thomas del Mar Ltd., 2015.
2. Dobson, Christopher. Alla Tedesca? Italian 'Gothic' Armour and the Export Trade. eBook, 2013. p. 17. Available from http://www.chris-dobson.com.
3. Capwell, Tobias. "Rediscovering the Armour of Late Medieval England." Royal Armories YouTube Channel, Winter Lecture series, 03 November 2021.