Did Knights Use Shields (Despite Their Armor)? The Truth!

There are basically two options when it comes to depicting a medieval knight in movies and video games. Either the knight is depicted with a two-handed weapon and no shield, or with a one-handed weapon in the one hand and a shield in the other hand. But are both depictions historically accurate?

And did knights really carry shields despite their armor?

Knights used shields together with more or less comprehensive mail armor for most of the Middle Ages. The shield was the main defense while the chainmail was only seen as a lifesaver and not as a primary defense. Only when full suits of plate armor were developed in the Late Middle Ages (after 1250) did shields become obsolete and the combination of shield and one-handed weapon was replaced by two-handed weapons which were more effective against plate armor.

There were also other advantages to wielding a two-handed weapon instead of a one-handed weapon, more on that here. But one can generally say that only the development of full suits of plate armor caused knights to stop using shields.

However. For most of the Middle Ages, the shield was an essential piece of equipment for both knights and regular soldiers.

Let`s find out why!

The Use of Shields in the Early & High Middle Ages

Mail armor was pretty rare in the Early Middle Ages since the high cost of production meant that only wealthy individuals could afford mail armor.

And early medieval mail armor was also not a complete suit of chainmail, but basically, a short-sleeved T-Shirt made from mail. So even when an early medieval knight wore chainmail, much of his body (like the arms and legs) was not covered by chainmail. So the knight used a shield to not only protect these parts of his body but also to prevent direct hits on his chainmail.

While chainmail is quite effective, especially against cuts, it is not as effective against heavy thrusts (with a lance) or blows with a mace or hammer. The risk of getting injured despite the chainmail and the padding that was worn beneath the armor by most knights was still relatively high. So it was better to not get hit at all and use the shield to deflect the hit instead.

Do you want to find out more about what knights wore under their armor and why some knights preferred to not wear any padding under their chainmail? Then please check out my article here!

Mail armor only became more affordable during the High Middle Ages. Additionally, the mail armor became more and more complete and now also covered the legs and arms completely (well, at least when the knight could afford it). But even though mail armor usually covered the entire body in the High Middle Ages, knights still used shields and relied upon them as their main defense. Chainmail was still only seen as a lifesaver and not as a primary defense!

The reason for that is simple:

Even though chainmail was pretty effective, it was not impenetrable. (Especially not compared to plate armor).

Yes, chainmail was a good protection against cuts. But stabs and thrusts with a sword and especially with a lance were a different story. Shields were used by knights to block and defect incoming blows so that the chainmail would ideally not be tested. Only when the enemy’s weapon slid off or made it past the shield in the heat of battle was the chainmail tested – it was seen as a lifesaver, not the primary defense!

By the way. When we speak of medieval shields then you must not imagine a couple of boards that were quickly nailed together. Medieval shields were built in a highly sophisticated and very effective (yet affordable) means of defense!

The Use of Shields in the Late Middle Ages

Shields only became obsolete in the Late Middle Ages when full suits of plate armor were developed. Plate armor was extremely effective against basically any sort of danger a medieval knight could face on a battlefield so it was no longer necessary to carry a shield as a primary defense.

The downside of the effectiveness and fast production of large amounts of plate armor was that in the Late Middle Ages, full suits of armor were no longer exclusively worn by knights, but became extremely common even among regular soldiers and mercenaries.

But due to the effectiveness and the commonness of plate armor the one-handed swords that were used in the Early And High Middle Ages were no longer effective weapons.

But since a knight in full plate armor didn`t really need a shield anyway since his plate armor was so effective, knights stopped using shields and chose to carry two-handed weapons instead. These two-handed weapons were much more effective against the plate armor that was common on late medieval battlefields.

Do you want to find out more about the characteristics of such a late medieval two-handed longsword and how they compare to earlier medieval swords? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where you can also find a video on the so-called half-sword technique, a technique developed to overcome plate armor.

But despite the development of special techniques (like the so-called half-sword technique (designed to overcome plate armor), swords were still not overly effective in overcoming plate armor. However, even in the Early and High Middle Ages, swords were not as common and battle-deciding as movies often make us believe. But that is a story for another time.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Donald J. La Rocca: How to read European armor (New York 2017).*

Alan Williams: The knight and the blast furnace (2003).*

Philippe Contamine: War in the Middle Ages (1998).*

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