Movies and video games love to depict medieval kings and knights in golden armor. But did golden armor really exist in the Middle Ages or is it just a fancy invention made in Hollywood?
Armor made from solid gold wasn`t used in the Middle Ages. But gilded armor, armor where only a thin layer of gold was applied to the surface, did exist and was not only used for ceremonial purposes. Since the fire gilding didn`t reduce the effectiveness of the armor, gilded armor could also be used in battles and tournaments.
Let`s take a closer look!
Armor that was made from pure gold didn`t exist in the Middle Ages since gold is too soft and too heavy to make any sort of effective armor from it.
But fully gilded armor did exist in the Middle Ages and was also not just used for ceremonial purposes, but could also be worn in tournaments and even battles. Both medieval tournaments and medieval battles are highly fascinating topics, so I wrote an entire article about the origins and the purpose of medieval tournaments and another article about how medieval battles worked. Please feel free to check them out.
Ok, so gilded armor was highly effective despite the gold. The reason for that was the way the gold was applied to the armor. One way would have been to gold-plate the steel surface of the armor. The downside of gold-plating the armor was, that the conjunction of the steel surface and the gold plates was less stable.
The better way was to fire gild the steel armor.
Gold could be applied to the surface of medieval plate armor by a process called fire-gilding. Therefore powdered gold was mixed with mercury to form a paste that was then spread on the steel surface of the armor. The piece of armor was then heated so that the mercury boiled and evaporated off the surface, leaving the gold chemically bound to the underlying metal.
While fire-gilding created a much more stable result than gold-plating the armor, it was also more dangerous since the goldsmith was exposed to a significant amount of mercury.
But the result was spectacular (and extremely expensive)! So only wealthy kings could afford gilded armor. Especially the French kings liked gilded armor since a fully gilded suit of armor created the image of the kings as the sun manifesting in human form. The average knight and even less wealthy kings had no chance of owning gilded armor. They instead relied on mirror-bright plate armor that was regularly polished and so common among knights, that it became a sign of the knightly class.
Contrary to the polished armor of the late medieval knights, the plate armor that was worn by regular late medieval soldiers was oftentimes painted.
Do you want to find out more about how common (and just how affordable) plate armor was in the Late Middle Ages? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Now we talked a lot about gilded armor. So in the following video, you can see the gilded armor of Henry VIII to get a better idea of how gilded armor looked. Granted, Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) can only partially be attributed to the Middle Ages since he lived most of his life in the Early Modern Period instead of the Middle Ages. But think the video still gives you a good idea of just how spectacular gilded armor looks.
However, gilded armor (just like any other armor) was not worn daily. Instead, knights and kings wore more comfortable clothes when armor was not necessary. But that is a story for another time. Here you can find out more about what they wore when not in battle.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
David S. Bachrach: Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Alan Williams: The knight and the blast furnace (2003).