Medieval armor was highly effective. But despite its effectiveness, medieval armor did not make knights invulnerable. There were a few ways to kill a knight in full armor despite him wearing armor. However, the ways how knights in armor were killed depended on the type of armor (chainmail or plate) they wore. Both chainmail and plate armor had advantages and disadvantages, more on that here.
The impact of an underarm-couched lance could pierce both chainmail and plate armor, maces and war hammers could also be used to break through plate armor. Another way to kill a knight in full armor was to attack the weak points of his armor (like the groin, the inside of the legs, the eyeslits of the helmet, and in the case of plate armor the armpits). Ideally, the knight was immobilized before the weak points in his armor were targeted.
Let`s take a closer look and start with the way that is most commonly depicted in movies.
Lances, Maces & Warhammers – breaking through the armor by brute force
When it came to using brute force to kill a knight in his armor by simply breaking through the knight’s defenses, then the first weapon that comes to mind is the sword. And while the sword was a highly effective weapon, especially against unarmored or only lightly armored warriors, it was not really useful for killing a highly armored knight in a suit of chainmail (a so-called Hauberk) or a suit of plate armor.
Here you can find out more about the effectiveness of medieval swords & a special technique called half-handing that was developed to make swords more effective against plate armor.
By the way. While the sword is the weapon that most of us associate with the Middle Ages, swords were actually not that common and also not really that decisive in battle. Here you can find out more about the types of weapons that were much more common than swords.
Ok, so swords were not really useful for breaking through armor by brute force. Yet we will revisit swords later when we talk about attacking less armored parts of a knight’s armor.
For now, I would like to look at the weapons that were ideal for breaking through a knight’s armor by brute force.
Under-arm couched lances that had the weight of the charging horse and the armored knight behind them could penetrate both chainmail and plate armor. Maces and war hammers could also be used to break through the armor or at least inflict concussions even when they didn`t pierce the armor.
Highly robust shields were used to add an additional layer of defense against the impact of an underarm-couched lance. Here you can find out more about the sophisticated process of making a medieval shield robust enough to withstand such brute force.
Another way both maces and war hammers could become dangerous to a knight in plate armor was when the hit of the mace did not injure the knight, but bend the plates (for example at the elbow) of his plate armor.
The individual plates that made up a suit of plate armor had to be able to glide over each other to give the wearer maximum mobility. If one of the plates was bent, then the plates could no longer slide over each other and the plate armor turned from a highly effective protection into a handicap.
So let`s say that the blow of a mace hit a knight in full plate armor at the elbow, bent the plates at the elbow, but did not break the bone. In that case, the knight would no longer be able to fight and would have to leave the battlefield taking him out of the fight. It is actually quite interesting that it seems like knights usually did not try to kill hostile knights but would rather try to take them out of the fight without killing them.
Because of that, maces and war hammers were generally more effective against plate armor and were not really used against chainmail. Here you can find out more about when & how often maces and war hammers were used.
Ok, so lances, maces, and war hammers could be used to break through medieval armor. But what about arrows? Could arrows piece medieval armor?
When we think about the use of longbows and arrows against armored knights then we usually think of the Battle of Agincourt and the catastrophic casualties the French knights as well as their allies from the Holy Roman Empire suffered. But were these casualties really inflicted by the arrows themselves or was there another, more secret, reason why so many knights died at Agincourt?
I wrote an entire article debating whether or not arrows were able to pierce medieval chainmail and plate armor and how (un-) dangerous an arrow which had pierced armor would have been.
And when it comes to the reason for the high casualty rate the French knights and their allies suffered in the Battle of Agincourt I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about how arrows played a crucial part but did not kill the bulk of the knights who eventually died in the Battle of Agincourt.
And that brings us to the second way a knight could be killed despite his highly effective armor.
Demobilizing the knight & exploiting the gaps and weakpoints of his armor
We have already talked about weapons that could break through the armor of a medieval knight.
But there was another, more delicate way to kill a knight in his armor. And that was to attack the gaps and weak points in his armor. Both suits of chainmail (so-called Hauberks) and suits of plate armor had weak points.
In the case of a Hauberk, the weak point could be the inside of the legs and the groin when the knight didn`t wear leggings made of chainmail in addition to his shirt of chainmail. The weak points of plate armor were the armpits, the groin, and once again the inside of the legs. And the weak point of any helmet was the eyeslits. The reason why the armpits were the weak point of plate armor is that it was impossible to attach plates to the armpits without drastically limiting the range of motion of the knight.
And the reason why the inside of the legs was usually not covered in plate (or chainmail) was that knights steered their horses by applying pressure with their legs. If they would have had plates on the inside of their legs they would have lost the connection to their horses!
Armorers actually tried really hard to minimize these weak spots as best as they could, more on that here.
So by attacking these weak points a knight could easily be killed even without the need to break through his armor.
Attacking the weak points of the armor (like the groin, the inside of the legs, the armpits, or the eyeslits of the helmet) was the best way outside of using brute force (like hitting the knight with a mace or charging at him with a lance) to kill a knight in his highly effective armor.
However, there was one downside.
A knight in armor knew perfectly well that his armor did not make him invulnerable and that his armor had weak points. Needless to say that any knight tried his best to protect these weak points in his armor especially well!
In case two fully armored knights faced each other with longswords they might have used a technique called half-swording to attack the weak point in the opponent’s armor. Here you can find out more about half-sworing and a video demonstrating how that might have looked.
But for most warriors on a medieval battlefield, that technique was not the ideal way since effectively using a sword against a well-trained knight took years of training and had little chance of success.
Since knights had been trained to fight from an extremely young age on, most medieval soldiers did not have any chance of attacking the weak points in a knight’s armor as long as the knight was either on horseback or his feet. Here you can find out more about the effectiveness of medieval knights as well as the 3 reasons for their effectiveness.
The average medieval soldier had the best chance of killing a knight in full armor if he took five or six of his comrades and attacked the knight with them. Four or five would have wrestled the knight to the ground and held him down while one soldier would use his dagger to attack the weak spots in the knight’s armor (for example by stabbing him through the eye slits of his helmet).
That, by the way, is most likely the way the English soldiers were able to kill most of the French knights at the Battle of Agincourt. First, the arrows killed the horses, then the thrown-off knights were immobilized and stabbed through the weak points of their armor by the English infantrymen.
By the way, many of the sidearms medieval archers carried could be used for that exact purpose!
Another popular way of killing an immobilized knight outside of stabbing him through the eyeslits of his helmet or in between the individual plates of his armor was to cut the chinstrap and take his helmet off. Then he was completely vulnerable and at the mercy of the attackers who could do whatever they wanted to him.
However, when knights fought each other they oftentimes took care to not kill each other. There were 3 reasons for that which will be explored in my article here, please feel free to check it out.
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).