Did you know that much of the full body plate armour that we think of as being medieval is usually not medieval at all?
If you type “medieval armour” into google images then chances are that something like this will appear:
Yet the majority of examples of armour shown here are in fact from the Renaissance, or the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, which is when plate armour reached its zenith in Europe. In fact, during much the medieval period men did not really wear the full body suits of plated armour that the general public have come to associate with the “Knight in Shining Armour” stereotype from film and television.
As Tobias Capwell, curator of the Wallace collection, has mentioned, “in the fourteenth century they couldn’t make [the] big pieces of iron and steel” that characterise the suits of armour in the google search image above. Rather, they found other ways of protecting the body: chain mail or padded textiles, such as the jupon of the Black Prince.
Now you could spend years debating when the medieval period ends and the Renaissance / early modern starts. For example, historians of England would argue that the medieval period ended in England after the War of the Roses in 1485, while historians of Spain would say it did end there around 1510 with the deaths of Isabella of Castile or later, Ferdinand. The Renaissance is generally categorised as lasting between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, although Renaissance is quite a regional term that most often applied to Italian city states. Generally though, it is agreed that the early modern period, which is a little broader in scope than Renaissance, started in 1500 and ended in 1800.
For the sake of this post though, it is my opinion that the majority of plate armour in the popular imagination of the general public is more characteristic of the later Renaissance period, than of the medieval (although I could be wrong, tell me what you think below!).
Armour design and armourers thrived in the first half of the sixteenth century. This was due to one central conflict that raged throughout Europe during the first sixty years of that century: the Habsburg-Valois Wars, also better known as the Italian Wars (1494 – 1559). These were a series of conflicts between the rival French Valois dynasty and the Spanish-Austrian Habsburg dynasty, primarily fought over territory in the Italian Peninsula. Although many of the battles were fought in what is now Italy, the rivalry involved much of Western Europe at the time, and drew in nations such as England, Scotland, as well as the German and Swiss Provinces. The fact that this conflict lasted decades meant that practical armour was not just required, but the rivalry between Renaissance monarchs such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the French King Francis I required magnificent ceremonial armour that displayed their military prowess, wealth and importance.
In fact some of the most famous plate armourers in history were Renaissance artisans who were patronised by key figures of the Italian Wars. As Silvio Leydi has explained, from “the French invasion of 1499 to the peace with France in 1559” Milan was “at the centre of every war between the Habsburgs and the Valois”, and it was successively occupied by various forces throughout the conflict. This involvement with the conflict was capitalised on by Milanese artisans and talented family workshops, such as that of the Negroli family, was established, the most famous of who were Filippo and Giovan Paolo.
The Negroli family boasted customers such as Emperor Charles V, King Francis I, Henry II of France, and Francesco Maria I Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. We know this because much of the armour they created bears their makers mark and has survived in royal armoury collections.
Talented armourers also arose in Habsburg territories such as the Seusenhofer brothers, Hans and Konrad, from Innsbruck in Austria. In fact, their workshop was the court workshop of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Austria, and the Emperor regularly commissioned armour for both himself and as gifts for others. Many iconic pieces by the Seusenhofer brothers, and Han’s son Jorg Seusenhofer, appear in various armour collections across Europe such as those of Maximilian I, Charles V, Henry VIII England and Francis I.
As part of my postdoctoral work on fashion during the Italian Wars I travelled to Austria, Spain and France to view a lot of Renaissance armour. Although this is somewhat out of my usual expertise (although there are many parallels you could draw between armour and fashion during the sixteenth century), I found this learning experience helpful to understanding the connections between armour and fashion, as well to key aspects of Renaissance thought such as their conceptualisation of classical antiquity. This was also when my idea of a medieval knight and shining armour was challenged.
Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll outline some of the main styles of Renaissance armour that were prevalent during and advanced by the events of the Italian Wars.
 A Stitch in Time. 2018. Episode no. 5-6, first broadcast January 03 by BBC Four. Directed by Lucy Kenwright and created by Adam Reeve. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy-uMO4BvbA
 Silvio Leydi, ‘Milan and the Arms Industry in the Sixteenth Century’, in Stuart W. Pyhrr and José-A. Godoy, Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and his Contemporaries (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998), p. 25.
 Pierre Terjanian, ‘Notes on the early life and career of Hans Seusenhofer, court armorer of Emperors Maximilian I and Ferdinand I in Innsbruck’, from The Antique Arms Fair At Olympia, London (2018), p. 26
1 thought on “When “Medieval” Armour is not quite medieval… Plate Armour and the Renaissance.”
Thank you Sarah, for an interesting article on Medieval Armor. Makes me wonder how the French armor at Agincourt in 1415, actually looked.