Did knights just wear armor for protection? Was there another reason?
Why did knights wear armor? The simple answer is for protection. But there is much more to this question. Protecting oneself in battle has always been a concern for any soldier, and medieval knights were no exception. In fact, it was their protective armor that helped define them as a military unit and social class. Armoring oneself during the Middle Ages was a great expense that only the wealthy could afford.
Who were Knights?
By the 10th century, the main characteristics of the medieval knight were well known. The knight was a mounted warrior with rank and authority; his position and relationship to others was clearly defined. There was a class order of upper aristocracy, followed by knights and then commoners. Each had duties and responsibilities. The knight’s social prestige was further enhanced by the fact that all noblemen, no matter what their rank, were knights. Warfare became the monopoly of the aristocratic caste.
The Benefits of Knighthood
European knighthood became an aristocracy rather than a profession. In the century or so following Charlemagne’s death, his newly created warrior class grew stronger still; one monarch, Charles the Bald, declared their fiefs to be hereditary. On the other hand, it came to be law and custom that a man could not be knighted unless he was descended from knights. The resulting hereditary class, the knights, were increasingly seen as the only true soldiers of Europe.~
Why did Knights Wear Armor?
The wearing of medieval armor was an effective means of protection in war and combat for centuries. The object of medieval armor was to protect the wearer from attack from the most powerful weapons of the period. Medieval knights are most remembered for their elaborate armor. A knight’s armor was more than protection; it reflected his status and lifestyle. The quality of the armor was as important as the overall look and the battle efficiency. Indeed, it was also fashion statement. As a member of the aristocracy, it reflected his stature in the social class of knighthood.
The two main forms of armor helped define the knight and his social position. But it was also used as a means to protect the aristocratic knight who was going into battle. Other warriors and soldiers would go along as well, but they did not have the personal protection that a knight had. Hence, they were not considered as important as the knight. The knight’s life was considered valuable; the commoner’s life was not.
Among the earliest metallic armor to be worn by medieval knights was chainmail armor, consisting of tens of thousands of interlocking rings woven painstakingly by hand to form a shirt, coif, or leggings. Because of the mild steel produced in medieval times, each ring had to be riveted to keep all the rings from spreading and opening under the weight of the piece. This was a labor-intensive operation and demanded that the knight not only have the means to afford the chainmail, but the expertise of his handcrafters to make the chainmail.
Late in the Middle Ages, plate armor began to appear (late 13th-early 14th century) – first as reinforcements to vital areas such as the chest and shoulders, and finally as a complete suit (early 15th century). The medieval knight in shining armor that most people think of is the fully plate-armored knight. The plates were all handcrafted, requiring great care in construction.
Both forms of armor were replaced as combat arms improved, and the armor did not afford the protection that it once did. Still a distinctive form of social dress, it would later be replaced by more conventional forms – still ostentatious, but easier to wear. The combat uniform, at least in this incarnation, was over. So why did the knights wear armor? For protection, and as a mark of distinction of their social standing and class.