From the beginnings of medieval feudalism, a lord’s armorer had pride of place. By the Late Medieval period, the armorer’s art was cut loose from feudal bonds and became a wildly exuberant riot of ornamentation and masterful craftwork. Here, we shall chart the rise of the armorer — from the humble blacksmith to the makers of the finest medieval armor in history. We’ll look at three of the best — all armorers to kings and emperors: the Helmschmieds of Augsberg, the Milanese Negrolis, and King Henry VIII’s Royal Almain Armoury at Greenwich.
Medieval Armor and Medieval Armorers
If we are to look at the process of armor-making and the individuals whose craft gained them fame and renown, we have to look toward the end of the Medieval Era at the beginning of the Renaissance and the post-Medieval world. Before the Late Medieval period (c. 1250 CE onward), we have little or no examples of individual armorers that we can confidently ascribe particular works to. This is partly due to the problem of historical sources which pervades Early and High Medieval history in general: very few original documents have survived, and they deal almost exclusively with the affairs of the church and the highest rungs of the nobility.
For example, the inheritance rolls of the Frankish Empire under the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (r. 800 – 828 CE), tell us an enormous amount about the status of armor in that society: fine brunia of chainmail were handed down through successive generations of the wealthiest families like the most precious heirlooms — but these documents tell us little about their construction or the individuals who made them.
Archaeology can help us identify sites of metalworking, and even in rare cases help us identify individuals with a degree of certainty. For example, in Sogndalsdalen, western Norway, the grave of a Norse blacksmith who lived in the 9th century was discovered in 2015, replete with a set of fine tools buried alongside him, as well as a sword and an axe which he may well have made himself. Though we can instantly observe the status of such burials, showing that across Medieval Europe skilled smiths were highly valued, the names of these smiths are lost to us. The only surviving names are considered to be mythological, like Weyland the Smith, a Germanic folk figure who made the mythic hero Beowulf a shirt of maille so fine that he offered it to his lord upon his death.
The Humble Town Blacksmith
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The position of smiths in society (as indeed, the position of everyone) was determined by feudal bonds: sworn oaths of service that bound individuals to a set of responsibilities and claims. A peasant would be sworn to serve a lord, tilling the lord’s land and paying taxes in the form of food. In return, the Lord would protect them and permit them to keep some food for subsistence.
The smith, being a non-agricultural worker, was likely bound by slightly different bonds, swearing their craft in service to a particular lord. Most blacksmiths produced simple work, shoeing horses, making nails, fashioning door hinges, and so on. Only the wealthiest lords in more urbanized environments could have afforded to have a smith skilled enough to outfit and maintain the weapons and armor of their household — thus, the status of the individual smith was commensurate. Smiths often worked on a small scale, with one or two apprentices, usually close family, who would learn the trade of the smith and, eventually, take over the forge when the elder smith could no longer work.
The Quickening World
This static, ordered arrangement began to shift in the Late Medieval Era. For a whole host of reasons, the bonds of feudalism in Western Europe began to loosen from the 13th century onward. Agricultural exhaustion, the impact of the Black Death, power struggles between wealthy nobles and the monarchy, and increasing urbanization weakened the hold that the divinely-appointed aristocracy had over the peasantry, and new forms of relationships began to emerge. The Late Medieval city was the crucible for these social changes, where poor, proto-industrial workers, artisans, and a newly wealthy middle-class of propertied burghers began to emerge, overseen by new institutional arrangements like aldermen councils, or even city-state republics.
At the same time, Medieval states were becoming wealthier than ever. Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe had been fragmented into a series of disparate sovereignties, between whom trade was the exception rather than the rule, confined only to the realm of the elites. The center of power was well and truly in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the sophisticated Islamic world and the post-Roman Greek states. By the 14th century, Western Europe had undergone a sustained population boom and an agricultural revolution that began to eclipse the waning East.
The generally improved state of wealth and safety began to predominate in developed, bureaucratized states in the West, which led to greater trade and greater interconnectedness. This permitted, for the first time, the re-emergence of specialized divisions of labor that had been impossible on smaller scales since the fall of the Roman Empire. An increasingly international and wealthy elite could now indulge in fashion, seeking styles from far-flung places in order to impress, with their clothing, food — and armor.
The Blast Furnace and the Medieval Armorer
For our analysis of Late Medieval armor, the most important element of this subtle change in the Medieval world was the revolution in steel production. With the emergence of the water-powered blast furnace, labor-intensive proto-industrial production of metals was now possible, with dozens of workers powering a huge, two-story-tall blast furnace, rather than a couple of druids operating a three-foot-high bloomery. This meant that steel became much more accessible. And it was a good thing too!
Powerful High Medieval weaponry like the crossbow and the couched war-lance had made chainmail less and less effective as a means of staying alive on the battlefield. The rise of the blast furnace both permitted and stimulated new forms of Medieval armor — and after a period of experimentation known as “transitional armor”, the form to emerge supreme was plate armor.
Plate: The Final Form of Medieval Armor
Plate medieval armor emerged gradually and haphazardly from the 14th century onward. Initially, these were likely individual pieces of armor, commissioned as one-offs from skilled blacksmiths – most early surviving suits consist of mismatched pieces that are only broadly similar in style. Steel breastplates emerged from the earlier ad-hoc innovation of sewing iron linings into one’s colorful surcote.
An early example of a steel breastplate can be seen depicted on Edward the Black Prince’s funerary effigy at Canterbury Cathedral (1380s CE). Although it seems inevitable that the “closed shell” of steel armor was the destination of armor development, there was no predetermined course — indeed, elsewhere in Europe (particularly in Eastern Europe and the Levant) plate armor never emerged at all.
The Armorer Comes of Age
By the middle of the 15th century, metalworking techniques and the quality of steel had improved to the point where unified sets of armor could be commissioned from a single armorer or workshop. No longer were armorers bound in a narrowly feudal fashion to serve a single master: now, the loosening bonds of feudalism and the rise of a pan-European economy meant that they were much freer to accept commissions from afar, for gold or silver. This is when armorers began to step out from the shadows and into the limelight. For the outward-looking, fashion-conscious nobility who characterized the era, exotic suits of armor were a fantastic way to demonstrate one’s cutting-edge fashion, with a rakish air of implied danger.
These commissions began to consist of entire garnitures, whole sets made up of dozens of interchangeable parts for different roles: a heavily embellished breastplate made from thick steel for the joust, a lighter, plainer one to wear in the field, and so on. These garnitures gave our master armorers the canvas upon which their genius could be displayed for their patrons.
We’ll look at three of the most famous makers of Late Medieval armor: the Helmschmied workshop of Augsberg, the spectacularly decorated Milanese work of Negroli brothers, and the magnificently refined Royal Almain Armories of Tudor London.
The Helmschmied Workshop
Arguably the finest Late Medieval armorers to emerge in Central Europe, the Helmschmieds were a dynasty of armorers whose designs and fine works were the envy of emperors. The first Helmschmeid we have records for is Jörg, active among a community of fine master armorers in the Free Imperial City of Augsberg within the Holy Roman Empire (modern Germany).
These “free cities” provided a unique environment within the medieval world, as they were far more mercantilist and less restrained by suffocating feudalism. The Helmschmieds’ masterful armor, within the angular and dramatic Gothic school, had already caught the eye of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, who had commissioned armor pieces from the workshop in 1477 — but it was Jörg’s second son Lorenz who would catapult the Helmschmied name into the history books.
In 1480, Lorenz was formally summoned by the Habsburg Archduke (Crown Prince) Maximilian to serve as his personal armorer during his campaigns in the Burgundian Wars. It was during this period that he produced the present author’s favorite garniture of the Medieval era: a magnificent set of fluted Gothic field armor.
Lorenz took up permanent residence at Maximilian’s capital in Innsbruck, and in 1491 he was officially titled Maximilian’s court armorer. There, with a stable of other talented armorers, he was largely responsible for shaping an entire style of armor, known as “Maximilian armor”, characterized by extreme fluting, narrow close-fitted silhouettes, and grotesque helmets.
The Helmschmied dynasty flourished in the decades that followed. After Lorenz died in 1515, his son Kolman continued to produce magnificent armor for the Habsburgs. Kolman’s son Desiderius Kolman Helmschmied (the fourth generation of Helmschmied armorers) continued to produce cutting-edge armor for wealthy aristocrats well into the second half of the 16th century — his pieces like this eye-popping burgonet helmet bear the unmistakable influence of wildly decorative 16th century Milanese armor-makers. Towering among them was our next family of armorers: the brothers Negroli.
The Negroli Brothers
If the Helmschmied workshops produced the finest examples of High Gothic armor, then the Negrolis were the unchallenged masters of the Milanese heroic style. The armor of the Negrolis is described as armor all’antica — “armor in the ancient style”. Amid the wash of the Renaissance, Roman and Greek forms and fashions had been imported into art, fashion, and armor.
Bartolomeo Campi’s (d. 1573) parade armor made for Holy Roman Emperor Charles V is perhaps the finest complete example of armor all’antica: a mock-Roman emperor’s outfit modeled on Caesar Augustus, complete with a sculpted musculata cuirass. The Negrolis’ pieces feature roiling Classical scenes, legendary heroes, and fearsome beasts — their helmets, in particular, are simply spectacular, often transforming the wearer into the visage of a mythical monster or a Greek God, their wearers laying claim to the imagined glories of the Classical past.
Gian Giacomo Negroli, much like Jörg Helmschmied, was the head of the house, with at least three brothers, each specializing in their own techniques: Fillippo who worked in repoussé, Giova Batista, and Francesco, renowned for his gold-on-black damascening.
Sixteenth-century Northern Italy, like some areas of Germany, was an intense patchwork of independent city-states (and even some republics, shock horror) that permitted guild organizations. The armor produced by the Negrolis reflects this newly intensified form of production. Although armor-craft had long been broken down into specialisms, like shaping, polishing, and engraving, the extreme artwork-armor of the Negrolis was made possible by an even more intense specialization, utilizing dozens of workshops to break the process down even further into something that much more closely resembled a modern production line, with each craft worker able to master their tight niche to a hitherto-unseen degree of perfection.
Late Medieval Armor at the Royal Almain Armouries
While both the Negrolis and the Helmschmieds were individual families (although the former much more closely resembled a modern craft business), our final famous set of Medieval armorers come from an armory rather than a family.
The Royal Almain Armories were founded around 1511 CE by King Henry VIII of England (yes, he of the six wives). Though English armor-smiths had been highly respected for centuries (particularly during the Wars of the Roses at the end of the previous century), England had fallen behind the trend of new expressive and exuberant Gothic and Northern Italian styles.
Henry set out to restore his kingdom’s prestige for master armorers. Though it was headed by the King’s Armorer John Blewberry, the actual armorers of the workshops were continental in origin: Henry imported Flemish, German, and Italian armorers to work at the new Armories, built at Greenwich on the River Thames.
Although this might seem like a recipe for a cultural clash, the fusion of styles — continental and English — was spectacularly successful. The “Greenwich armor” made at the Royal Almain Armory is considered to be some of the finest medieval armor of its age, and it was home to Jacob Halder, arguably the last truly great maker of medieval armor.
By about 1600, the rise of firearms had made heavy plate harnesses more or less obsolete, relegating them to the tournament field and thence finally to the archives of history. But, for a century and a half, the Late Medieval armorers of Europe were the masters of war.