The knight in his shining armor is probably among the first images that come to mind when we think of the Middle Ages. But what did knights wear beneath their armor? And did all knights wear some sort of padding under their armor?
Knights wore linen undergarments and often also a padded jacket (usually padded with horse hair) under chainmail. Some knights also chose not to wear any additional padding under their mail armor. Knight in plate armor only wore linen undergarments and an unpadded arming doublet, made from two layers of cloth, onto which the individual plates were fastened. Additional padding was not necessary when plate armor was worn.
Let`s take a closer look.
What did knights wear under chainmail?
Knights often wore a padded layer beneath their mail armor to soften the impact of blows and thrusts. The padding was usually worn in the shape of a padded jack, a long quilted jacket that was stuffed with horse hair. The thickness of the padding could vary on the personal preferences of the knight since the padding didn`t only have advantages.
An additional layer of padding beneath the mail armor was beneficial in many situations since it softened the blow in case the enemy’s weapon made it past the shield. And in case an arrow was able to pierce the chainmail additional padding was also helpful. When an arrow had pierced the chainmail, the padding beneath the chainmail usually absorbed so much of its remaining power that the arrow couldn`t inflict any serious injuries to the knight.
There are several sources from the crusades that describe how surprised the Muslims were when they saw Franks (every western European knight was seen as a Frank by them), who had countless arrows stuck in their armor but still kept on fighting.
Do you want to find out more about how likely it was that an arrow penetrated chainmail and plate armor? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
However, despite these advantages, the padding that was worn under the chainmail also had its downsides. The more padding the knight wore under his chainmail, the more the padding limited his mobility. Additionally, a thick layer of padding also increased the necessary size of the shirt of chainmail which increased the total weight of the armor.
Some knights avoided that by only wearing a very thin layer of padding, and others wore no padding whatsoever under their chainmail. That is actually supported by several medieval images. Some knights preferred to not wear any padding aside from their linen undergarments under their chainmail. That is supported by several medieval pictures where you can clearly see the muscles of the knights under the mail armor. If they would have worn padding under their armor, their muscles would not show under the chainmail like that!
The advantage of not wearing any padding under the chainmail was that it made the knight more mobile. While medieval armor in general is not restricting the ability to move too much, it is still a difference if you wear thick padding beneath a shirt of chainmail. Just imagine two scenarios: In the first one you wear a thick, padded coat beneath a shirt of chainmail. In the second one, you only wear a shirt of chainmail over a thin layer of linen.
Yes, you can move quite well in both. But you will still be a little more mobile and less restricted in the scenario in which you only wear the chainmail.
However, that slightly increased mobility came at a price. When a knight didn`t wear padding under his chainmail, he obviously felt the impact of his enemy’s weapons to a much greater degree. Yet that was not as much of a problem as one might think. To understand that, we first have to look at the job of mail armor.
Mail armor was generally (but especially when no additional padding was worn under the chainmail) a last line of defense and a lifesaver, not a Get Out of Jail Free Card. The main defense of a knight in mail armor was his shield. The chainmail was only expected to save his life in case the enemy’s weapon made it past the shield.
The use and production of Medieval shields is actually a highly interesting topic. And it is no coincidence that the development of plate armor (a full suit of plate armor almost made the knight invulnerable with only two ways to kill him) is connected with the knights stopping to use shields. But that is a story for another time. If you are interested in why and when knights stopped using shields, I would like to recommend you my article here.
But back to the clothing that knights wore under their chainmail.
No matter if they wore padding or not, one thing was worn by all knights. And that was linen undergarments. These linen undergarments were also quite helpful when it came to preventing heat exhaustion. Here you can find out more about how the linen undergarments cooled the knights in their mail armor down and just how common heat exhaustion was among knights.
Ok, so some knights wore a layer of padding beneath their mail armor and some only wore their linen undergarments but no additional padding under the chainmail. In both cases, the mail armor was highly effective in keeping the knight alive. Here you can find out more about just how effective chainmail was compared to textile armor like the Gambeson or plate armor.
Speaking of plate armor. Let`s look at what knights wore under their plate armor.
What did knights wear under plate armor?
Plate armor was only developed in the Late Middle Ages and somewhere around the beginning of the 15th-century full suits of plate armor that covered the knight from head to toe in plate had been developed.
By the way. Over the course of the Late Middle Ages, plate armor did get quite affordable and as a result also pretty common. Here you can find out more about just how common plate armor was on a late medieval battlefield and how much the plate armor that a regular soldier used would cost.
The development from away from chainmail to complete suits of plate armor also changed what was worn under the armor.
So while knights during the Early and High Middle Ages had, for example, still worn padded caps under their helmets, the padding was now integrated into the helmet itself. The Mail coifs were also replaced by aventails, hoods of chainmail that were attached to the bascinet and padded to protect the top part of the shoulder, the neck, and the throat.
But even during the days of the full suits of plate armor, chainmail was still used to protect the parts of the body that could not be covered with plates. Attacking these parts (for example the armpits) was actually one of the two ways a knight in full plate armor could be killed.
To cover the gaps in his plate armor, the knight could either wear a complete shirt of chainmail under his plate armor or only mail sleeves. The mail sleeves covered the arms as well as parts of the chest and protected the inside of the arms and the armpits, which were not covered by plates.
But unlike knights who wore only chainmail, knights who wore plate armor never had any padding under it! Instead, knights wore arming doublets to which the individual parts of the plate armor could be fastened. Do you want to find out more about how long it took to put on plate armor? Then please check out my article here.
Linen undergarments and arming doublets were worn under plate armor. The arming doublets were used to attach the individual plates. They weren`t padded and usually only consisted of two layers of linen. Additionally, knights either wore a complete shirt of chainmail or mail sleeves that also covered parts of the chest to protect parts of the body (like the armpits) that could not be armored with plates. The groin was also protected by special mail briefs.
Here you can find out more about how knights protected their groin and why dedicated groin armor was only developed in the Late Middle Ages.
However, while knights generally used mail sleeves and groin armor to protect the parts of the body that were not covered by plate, the same can not be said for regular soldiers. While regular soldiers also wore plate armor in the Late Middle Ages, their suits of plate armor were usually less complete and parts like the armpits were oftentimes not covered. And their armor, unlike the polished armor of the knightly class, was oftentimes also painted. Here you can find out more about why and how medieval soldiers painted their armor.
So it shows that what was worn under medieval armor depended on the type of armor but, in the case of mail armor, also the personal preference of the knight.
Unlike in the case of chainmail, padding was never worn under a complete suit of plate armor since that was simply not necessary. For more information on that and more information on the effectiveness of medieval armor in general I would like to recommend you my article here.
And here you can find out more about the maintenance of medieval armor and why plate armor was so much more laborious to maintain than chainmail.
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).