Proceedings 18        31 May 1990        Warburg Institute, Woburn Square, London

THE KNIGHT AND THE BLAST FURNACE: an illustrated talk on late medieval arms and amour  by Dr Alan Williams (member of SHMTS).

The President being unfortunately unable to attend, the Secretary, at the Vice President's invitation, chaired the meeting and introduced the Speaker.


After a brief historical survey from the ancient world to the later middle ages, Dr Williams turned to a discussion of metalo-graphic investigation. Considering that armourers were major users of iron and steel during the period it was surprising how little attention was paid to the metallurgy of armour. Marked stylistic changes made quite accurate dating possible but more interesting were changes in materials of construction--steel constituting a significant proportion from the early 1400s until the mid 1600s when armour fell into disuse. The breastplate was the largest steel object made before the 19th c. and best quality steel was often heat treated to a hardness of 300-500 VPH

In his studies over the past twelve years, the speaker had used two techniques Ca] the viewing of cross sections where they had been cut in manufacture, by placing the whole piece of armour on an inverted metallurgical microscope; [b] by studying flakes from inner surfaces where corrosion had started to separate laminations. He preferred the former, as showing the section of a plate entire, though the latter had the advantage of enabling subsequent electron microanalysis. Where museums' policies allowed, multiple sampling was desirable and from studies he had made in the Royal Armouries, Tower of London; Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery; and the Stibbert Museum, Florence the speaker had been able to show that top quality armour of diverse provenance tended to consistency of composition.

In Europe, ring mail began to give way to plate armour in the 14th century when additional plate protectors for arm and leg came into use, together with the brigandine for the torso, in effect, a sleeveless coat of numerous linked metal plates. With the passage of time (and improvements in technique?) the plates became fewer and larger so that by the early 14005, the suit of armour had evolved-a homogeneous defence of large plates in which ring mail featured only at points of articulation.


During the 15th century north Italy was the main centre of armour production, Milan and Brescia being especially noted. The castle of the Trapp family at Churburg South Tyrol/Alto Adige still retains a large collection of these Italian armours though various pieces were bought by some foreign collections, e.g. in London and Glasgow.

Of 10 specimens studied in Churburg itself, 1 was ferritic (1), 5 were pearlitic steels (2) and 4 were hardened steels.

Of 26 sample specimens of high quality 15th century Italian armour all were made of steel and the majority hardened in some way. It might be expected that the percentage of hardened steels would increase with the passage of time, surprisingly, however, armour made in the same centres in the 16th century, though in the top price range, are of unhardened steel. Armours by Niccolo Silva (Stibbert Mus. ca.1510) and Pompeo della Cesa  (Bavarian Nat. Mus., ca.1590 and Royal Armoury, Turin, ca. 1590) decorated with gilding are all of pearlitic steel.


After north Italy southern Germany was the other great centre of production for quality armour, the lead towns being Innsbruck, with nearby Mulhau home of the imperial court armoury; Augsburg; Nurnberg; and Landshut. Here and elsewhere (e.g. Prague Brunswick and Bernau) fantastical ~Gothic7 armours were produced in wrought steel plates hardened to between 400 and 550 VPH. Masters included Lorenz Helmschmied of Augsburg, Hans Ringler of Nurnberg and Conrad and Jorg Seusenhofer, imperial armourers. An Augsburg master induced to enter imperial service by Maximilian I,

Conrad Seusenhofer made the horned helmet given by Maximilian to Henry in 1511 and still in the Tower of London. On analysis, the skull piece revealed martensitic (3)quenching products whereas the grotesque parade mask is pearlitic; presumably, in combat this would have been replaced with a plain visor of hardened steel. Conrad’s son Jorg made a full garniture for Ferdinand King of the Romans (brother of Emperor Charles V) of which the gauntlet had been analysed to reveal hardened steel of 390-520 VPH. Like many other pieces from Nurnberg and Augsburg it was decorated with etching and gilding.


Around 1511 Henry VIII established his own royal armoury, first at Southwark soon moved to Greenwich. First he hired Italians, examples of their work are the skirted armour for foot combat, of low carbon steel and an armour for horsed combat embellished by Flemish craftsmen with silver, engraved pictures and a border of ‘H’ and ‘K’ initials for Henry and Catherine (of Aragon>, but the one was of low-carbon (only 0.1%) and the other of pearlitic steel is an example (of what? DLS). From about 1520 the Royal armouries were staffed chiefly by "Almains" (i.e. Germans). Under analysis pieces made between 1520 and 1540 reveal pearlitic or other unhardened characteristics. By contrast 10 of 18 pieces dating between 1540 and 1560 show attempts at hardening while thereafter,

DELETE beginning with the Mastership of Jacob Halder (of Augsburg) Greenwich, armours were regularly of tempered martensite. Over the 50 years up to 1610, 16 out of 17 specimens reveal microstructures of hardnesses up to 370 VPH, the pieces being regularly embellished with etchings or gildings. Greenwich, late starting, continued with the production of armour of high metallurgical quality and elaborately embellished with fire-gilding into the early 17th century a tournament armour of 1610 was among the last quality suits made anywhere in Europe. By this time century armour was being produced in mass, made of iron and depending on thickness for proof against bullets.

The Chairman thanked the speaker for a comprehensive and informative talk and, following questions from the floor, brought the meeting to a close at 5.50 p.m.