Armour from God’s point of view

That this should be the first ever book to deal exclusively with English Medieval armour is not altogether surprising, since virtually no armour from this period survives that can be securely identified as English. Indeed, Tobias Capwell, the curator of arms and armour at the Wallace Collection in London, illustrates rather less than a handful of surviving pieces, by far the most important and best preserved of which is the great funerary helm of King Henry V, from his monument in Westminster Abbey. It is all the more remarkable therefore that the author should have succeeded so well in giving us a vivid picture, not just of the English man-at-arms and his armour, but of the world in which he lived and fought. Although at one level a highly specialised scholarly analysis, Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450 is much more than this. By developing a framework for the dating of English armour to within periods of as little as ten or 20 years, the author provides a means for the dating of other works of art in which men-at-arms are depicted, such as seals. This outstanding book should therefore have a considerable impact on wider Medieval studies, and be of great interest to historians of the 15th century, as well as to specialists in other art-historical fields, notably sculpture and manuscripts.

Capwell uses a range of literary and visual sources to compensate for the lack of surviving material and to build a picture of the English man-at-arms, dealing along the way with misconceptions such as that, familiar from the Arthurian legends, of the solitary questing aristocratic knight. Knights were in fact surrounded by numerous attendants and followers, most of whom also wore some form of armour and were also trained in the arts of combat. Thus the term “man-at-arms” is in some ways a more appropriate descriptive. He shows how the English developed a quite different fighting style from their Continental brethren, in particular after the English learned lessons from their major defeat at Bannockburn in 1314. The remarkable English successes in the 14th and early 15th centuries, especially against the French, were not just due to the use of longbow archers, but to cadres of well-trained men who, unlike their French opponents, were schooled to dismount and fight on foot, often using the tactic of staying put, rather than advancing. The English developed a fearsome reputation on the Continent and were in demand as mercenaries. Their fighting tactics had a clear impact on the type of armour required.

The key myth that Capwell sets out to disprove is the notion, promulgated in the past even by some distinguished scholars, that the English were not capable of making fine armour. He shows through judicious use of documents that, while cheaper armour would often have been imported from the Continent, workshops in London and elsewh ere made high-quality armour for the upper end of the market. But how can we know what this armour looked like, if none survives? We are also accustomed to thinking that virtually all sculpture in English churches was destroyed during the Reformation, so it is astonishing to realise that a substantial corpus of around 200 carved alabaster and stone effigies of knights, often with their ladies, survives in churches across England and Wales.

The outstanding photographs by Cameron Newham of many of these effigies are a revelation, showing the best to be masterpieces of English Medieval sculpture. They depict the effigies from above, the primary position so far as those commemorated were concerned, since this was the view that God would see. Most effigies depict the armour so accurately—even reproducing repairs—as to suggest that in many cases the sculptor may indeed have been illustrating an actual armour, almost certainly English in origin, which had been formerly owned by the subject. This striving for accuracy was partly conditioned by the importance of clearly indicating the rank of the individual within the social hierarchy; it means that the images of the armours, every one of which is different, collectively provide a remarkable resource for Capwell’s exhaustive survey of the stylistic development of English armour over a 50-year period.

Each component, from the helmet to the sabatons (feet defences) is discussed separately, with numerous details from the effigies being used, along with manuscript illustrations and other sources, including new drawings by Robert MacPherson and Jeff Wasson, to tell a fascinating story of continuous evolution, in which technical issues, fashion and the brutal realities of warfare all played their part. Although the narrative is clearly written, the arguments are complex. One might have wished for clearer signposting to the principal image of each effigy discussed, while readers with less specialist knowledge will want to make use of the helpful annotated drawings at the beginning of the book, and the glossary at the end.

In an appendix, Capwell engagingly describes the story of his personal quest to rediscover the lost world of the English medieval knight, by recreating his own replica armour, designed and made for him by Robert MacPherson, and involving numerous modifications, as armourer and practitioner endeavoured to establish by trial and error what did and did not work. The exercise helped to explain the practical reasons behind many of the sometimes initially puzzling design solutions documented in the alabaster effigies. A series of photographs showing the author in his completed replica armour demonstrating a variety of positions reminds us what a magnificent sight the English Medieval knight in full armour must have been—and an absolutely terrifying figure to his enemies.

• Jeremy Warren is a specialist in European sculpture and the history of collecting. He is a research fellow at the Wallace Collection, London, where last year he completed The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Italian Sculpture, published by Paul Holberton Publishing

Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450

Tobias Capwell

Thomas Del Mar, 308pp, £54 (Europe), £64 (Rest of the World) (hb)