Medieval horse armour

Such investments needed to be protected, and it is unsurprising that there should be a development in horse armour that parallels that of armour for the knight. It was by no means a total innovation; the late Roman army had used horses wholly covered in mail or lamellar armour for the catapbracti (literally ‘completely enclosed’) or klibanophoroi (meaning ‘camp oven’; a humorous reference to how quickly these fully armoured men and horses would heat up!), both of which were adopted from their Sassanid Persian neighbours who spanned the Middle East between second and seventh centuries. Whilst such armour continued to be used in small numbers in the Byzantine Empire, this practice had died out in Western Europe long before.

The rule of the Templars makes no reference to either bards or horse armour (although it does specify that no brother should have an ornate and decorated bridle), which might suggest that at the time of its writing (between 1135 and 1187) horse armour was not used. When interpreting the visual sources, the same problem exists for identifying horse armour as it does for spotting early 13th century plate armour. Just as a pair of plates might be hidden beneath a flowing surcoat, so horse armour might lie beneath an emblazoned ‘bard’, ‘caparison’ or ‘hoarding’ – cloth covers that need to be an armour themselves. Such barding appear in illustrations from around the first decade of the 13th century, but this need not mean that the horse was armoured at this point. By the end of the 13th century the term milites cum equus coopertus, ‘warriors with covered horses’, was being used to differentiate between the knight and man-at-arms and the less well equipped and socially inferior sergeants, squires, hobelars and the like, who were referred to as milites cum equus discoopertus.

horse armour 1

A clear indication of armour is to be found in a manuscript of Thomas of Kent’s Roman de Toute Chevalerie, dated to around 1250 and illustrated by Matthew Paris or one of that school of illuminators. It includes some depictions of horses in full mail boarding, including a scene of armourers working on the front half of a set and although not every horse is so equipped, this is supported by several manuscripts of similar date.

Cuir bouilli defences were also used; Edward I provided 38 chamfrons, or headpieces, and a similar number of cruppers, which covered the horse’s rump, for a tournament at Windsor Park in 1278. In the 1322 inventory of Wigmore Castle five pairs of chamfrons are recorded, along with five pairs of leather flanchers and peytrals, which would cover the horse’s withers and chest respectively. The Luttrell psalter image of about 20 years later clearly shows Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s mount with a chamfron. This is almost certainly of leather as it sports a fan-like crest identical to that on the banneret’s helm, which would itself have been almost certainly constructed of cuir bouilli.

horse armour 3

The joust had a great impact on the development of armour. The danger of the creatures running into each other or, after its introduction in the 1420s, into the tilt barrier led to the development in the 14th century of padded buffers that sat beneath the caparison and protected the horse’s chest.  But again it was the metallurgical developments of the 14th century that brought about the clearest changes. The ability to create large iron blooms meant that plate armour could be made for the horse as well as his rider. Starting with the chamfron, by the mid-15th century the ‘soft’ armours had been replaced by hinged and pinned plates. At about the same time cloth bardings become relegated to the tournament and pageant field, in part because they were unnecessary encumbrance but also, perhaps, because of the contemporary fashion amongst men-at-arms for doing away with heraldic surcoats to show off the ‘white harness’ underneath.

horse armour 5

The knight in shining armour of popular image, encased in a carapace of steel, was a late arrival onto the medieval scene. His wargear evolved almost continuously as armourers and weapon-smiths responded to the changing tactical needs and fashions of their clients and to the changing quality of their metals. Developments in the power and effectiveness of weapons were countered by changes in armour which in turn led to further improvements in arms. Thus the knight of the 12th century, clad in mail and a nasal helm, was as well protected from the weapons of his days as the plate-armoured man-at-arms of the 15th century, but this by no means made him invulnerable.

horse armour 4

The knight had a range of options to choose from, in terms of both the armour he wore and the weapons he used and whilst the culture of personal prowess and the expectations of fashions might direct those choices to a certain extent, a sophisticated understanding of tactics and battlefield also played a role. The nature of that tactical sophistication and how and where the warrior acquired it is the subject of our next chapter.

from Robert Jones’s book ‘Knight, The Warrior and World of Chivalry’