When most people think of medieval archers and the use of arrows then they usually have 2 battles on their mind. The Battle of Crecy and the Battle of Agincourt. Both battles ended with victories of English armies that were mostly made up of longbowmen, over French armies that included strong departments of knights wearing plate armor.
But were the arrows of the English longbowmen really able to penetrate the plate armor of the French knights to a depth that caused fatal injuries? Or was there another reason for the high casualties that the French knights suffered at the Battles of Crecy and Agincourt?
Or in other words: Were arrows able to penetrate medieval Plate armor?
Arrows with special Bodkin points were able to pierce plate armor if they hit a weak spot of the plate (like a spot where the metal had been hammered too thin) at the exact right angle. But even then they usually didn`t enter any deeper than 1 cm (0,39 in) so that the padding worn under the armor prevented fatal injuries.
Let`s take a closer look!
Could an arrow penetrate medieval Plate armor?
When we approach the question of whether or not a medieval arrow was able to pierce plate armor we have to look at two things. The effectiveness of medieval armor and the effectiveness of longbows and arrows. I wrote an article about both of the topics so I will only briefly touch on the most important points in this article. But please feel free to check out the other two articles for more detailed information.
And in the following, I will mostly talk about the bodkin-arrowhead since that was the arrowhead that due to its shape was the most likely to penetrate plate armor (and also chainmail, but more on that in the last paragraph).
Bodkin arrowheads were a special type of arrowhead used in war that had a rhombic cross-section and was relatively long, slim, and tapered. Most were made from Iron but some were made from steel. Originally built to pierce chainmail, heavier versions of bodkin points were able to pierce plate armor although usually not deep enough to cause fatal injuries.
But to be able to pierce plate armor the use of heavier types of bodkin points was not enough, two more conditions were necessary.
First of all, the arrow had to hit the plate at the exact right angle. If the arrow did not hit the armor at the exact right angle then the arrowhead would glide off the curves of the plate armor (that were designed to deflect hits from maces, lances, or arrows). Here you can find out more about why maces were still more effective when it came to overcoming plate armor than for example swords.
The second condition that was necessary to be true for an arrow to pierce plate armor was that the arrow had to hit a weak spot on the plate. The individual plates that made up a plate armor were not rolled but hammered into shape. And depending on the skill level of the armorer some spots at the plates might have been hammered a little bit too thin.
These weak points (together with structural weak points of plate armor like the armpits, more on that here) were prime spots where a bodkin arrow shot from a longbow had a decent chance of penetrating the plate armor.
But did that mean that the knight wearing the plate armor was severely wounded or even killed by the arrow that had pierced his plate armor?
Arrows piercing plate armor – not as fatal as one might think
Ok, so let`s assume that an arrow with a bodkin point that was shot from a longbow at a sufficient distance, more on the effective reach of longbows here, had hit a plate at the exact right angle and in the exact right spot.
The arrow had penetrated the plate armor and must have killed the knight, right?
Well, not exactly.
Even if an arrow was able to penetrate plate armor the damage it created was usually not enough to kill the bearer. While experiments have shown that arrows with bodkin points could penetrate plate armor under certain conditions and enter up to 1 cm (0,39 in) deep, the padding that was worn under the plate armor usually prevented fatal injuries.
And even in the case that the arrow had also pierced through the padding it had usually lost too much of its force to create more than a superficial wound that could usually be treated pretty well. Here you can find out more about how arrow wounds were treated in the Middle Ages and how arrowheads that had separated from the shaft were removed from a wound.
There is actually a story of a knight who was unlucky enough to have several arrows pierce his armor. Even though several arrows had pierced his armor the damage done by the arrows was not enough to stop the knight from fighting. Only when the battle was over and he took off his armor the padding that he wore beneath was soaked in blood from the superficial injuries that the arrows had caused.
I actually really like that story because it does not only show how effective armor was in keeping its bearer alive and able to fight but also because it is the perfect transition to the next question related to the Battles of Crecy and Agincourt that I mentioned in the introduction.
If an arrow was rarely able to kill a knight when it had penetrated the plate armor then how were English armies that mainly consisted of archers able to butcher a good part of the Western European knighthood in the Battles of Crecy and Agincourt?
Why did an arrow not necessarily have to pierce plate armor to be effective?
Well, it turns out that an arrow didn`t have to pierce the plate armor of the knight to seriously endanger the knight.
The first way into which I go into more detail in my article here is that every medieval armor, including plate armor, had weak points that could just not be heavily armored without major downsides. Examples of that are the eyeslits of the knight’s helmet, his crouch, or his armpits.
A lucky arrow that found its way into the eyeslits or the less well-armored armpits of a knight could kill or at least severely injure the man without having to pierce Plate armor.
Another way an arrow could put a knight out of the fight without having to pierce his armor was by bending the individual plates of his plate armor.
The individual plates of a suit of plate armor (for example at the knee or the outside of the elbow) have to be able to glide over each other. If only one of the plates was bent – for example by the impact of an arrow – the plates did no longer glide over each other and limited the movement of the knight.
I mean just imagine you are a knight in full plate armor but an arrow hits and bends one of the plates that protect your elbow. Suddenly you are no longer able to bend your elbow. So to get that fixed you will have to leave the battle and find an armorer to repair your armor which puts you out of the fight.
That by the way was also one of the reasons why the mace was such an effective weapon against a knight in full plate armor. Here you can find out more about how (and how frequently) maces were used in the Middle Ages.
The third way an arrow could endanger a knight in full plate armor without piercing the armor had to do with the warhorse of the knight. These warhorses made knights highly effective, more on the effectiveness of knights here. But when faced with longbowmen they also posed a risk.
While the knights of the Late Middle Ages were usually well protected by their Plate armor the same can not always be said for their warhorses. Yes, warhorses did have some degree of armor. But compared to the knights wearing full suits of plate armor the horses were much more susceptible to being seriously injured by arrows. And if the warhorse of a knight was wounded or killed by arrows then the knight in his full plate armor was thrown off his horse.
Even though the myth that the weight of his armor prevented a knight who was unsaddled from fighting on foot or even getting up on his feet again is completely untrue, there was still the chance that the wounded horse fell on top of the knight and demobilized him.
In that case, it only took a couple of lightly armored archers to hold the knight down and one archer who used a dagger or his archer’s pick to kill the knight by stabbing him through the eyeslits of his helmet.
For that purpose, every archer (including English longbowmen) carried a sidearm. Here you can find out more about the sidearms of medieval archers and why most didn`t carry a sword (even when swords became more affordable during the High-to Late Middle Ages)
Another option was to cut the chin strap and then take the helmet off. After that, the archers could kill the knight without any problems even though he was wearing the highly effective plate armor.
Ok, so plate armor could under some conditions be pierced by arrows even though the arrows did usually not cause a lot of damage or even kill the man wearing the plate armor.
But what about chainmail? Could chainmail be pierced by arrows?
Could arrows piece chainmail?
Chainmail, unlike Plate armor, does not consist of solid steel or iron plates. Instead, chainmail consists of – depending on the quality – many tens of thousands of riveted or welded rings. The diameter of the individual rings depends on the quality and the price of the hauberk, the coat of chainmail. Here you can find out more about the price of medieval armor.
The relatively long, slim, and tapered bodkin arrowheads were originally designed to pierce chainmail by going right through the individual rings. And if the individual rings were not riveted or welded together (or of poor quality) then the rhombic cross-section of the bodkin point could force open the individual rings of the chainmail.
But when the rings were well made and either riveted or welded together by a good craftsman then the chainmail could withstand an arrow. And the padding that was worn under the chainmail helped to soften the impact of the arrows and served as a second layer of armor.
However even though well-made chainmail had a certain chance of withstanding an arrow, even an arrow with a bodkin tip, it was most certainly better to not put the quality of the hauberk to the final test. So robust shields were carried as the first layer of defense not only but also against the bombardment with arrows.
Here you can find my article with more information on how medieval shields were made. And here you can find more information on why knights eventually stopped using shields despite their excellent protection.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Richard Wadge: Arrowstorm: The world of the archer in the hundred years war (Gloucestershire 2007).