Armour and helmet making
The making of metal armour and helmets, as historically worn as protective clothing in battle.
|Currently viable (see ‘Other information’)
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
For as long as there has been warfare, there has been an armour making craft. Early armour was maille, leather, and layers of quilted fabric sometimes with small plates of metal sewn between the layers. Plate armour made from larger pieces of metal only really developed in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Nothing detailed is known about the craft of armour making before the fourteenth century when the Armourers Company was founded in London in 1346. For the next two centuries armour was being made, but little is known about what was being made. Henry VIII brought armour makers over from the continent, initially in 1511 eventually establishing a workshop in Greenwich producing high quality armour for the Court made in their own particular style, and training British armourers. The Greenwich Armoury survived into the seventeenth century, but it, along with the whole industry, collapsed at the end of the seventeenth century when armour went out of use.
It is a common misconception that the growth of firearms led to the demise of armour, but the decline had a lot more to do with expense and complications of the process – it is skilled work and to make anything, both in terms of apprenticeship and production, takes a long time.
Armour wearing was revived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for ceremonial purposes – particularly for the Guards. Interest in armour revived, after a gap of over a century, following the Eglington Tournament in 1839 and there was a thriving industry making armour through the rest of the nineteenth century. Armour making, especially for re-enactors, revived again in the 1960/70s and there are a small number of people making armour today.
Armour has never really gone away and is used on today’s ‘battlefield’ in pretty much the same way as it was in the past, the difference being that the materials are more likely to be titanium, carbon fibre etc.
The process starts with a flat sheet of metal (iron or steel) which is shaped with hammers and stakes. Sometimes the metal is worked hot and heated in a forge but quite commonly it is worked cold to minimise scaling and wastage of materials. The metal is then polished.
Originally the guild system meant that armourers tended to specialise, e.g. making gauntlets, making helmets, making body armour etc. with a few who did everything. Today, armourers will tend to make anything that is required by the customer. However, there are specialists in chainmail and in brigandine making (padded jackets for either wearing under armour or in place of plate armour).
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Market issues: There is never going to be massive demand for armour. It is a very specialist and limited market (there’s not much else you can use armour for) and is very expensive as it takes a long time to make. The main customers are re-enactors, museums and collectors.
Competition from cheap imports: The biggest threats to the survival of armour making are imports of cheaply-made and poor quality products from places like India. Many re-enactors start with this armour as it is adequate and inexpensive. A re-enactor could equip themselves for around £1000 if they took this route whereas, buying British armour would probably cost 10 times that amount.
There are very few people practising the craft and few people entering it – but the demand is quite low.
Market issues: Most modern armourers produce armour out of sheet steel, which is less strong – but nobody needs armour which can withstand an arrow being shot by a long bow, so this sort of skill will die out.
Dilution of skills: Some armourers will do crude/rough work by hand and then finish by machine, while others will do almost all the work completely by machine.
There is no umbrella organisation for the craft. However, the living history community is very vibrant and members tend to support one another. There are events and markets throughout the year that generate trade and supply the needs of re-enactors and living history.
National Living History Fayre
Craftspeople currently known
There are very few people practising the craft, and very few people training, but the demand is quite low and the craft is reasonably healthy. Although the number of armourers in the UK is not going to be high, it is probably at the greatest number that it has been in the past 50 years due to the interest in re-enactments and living history. There are also a number of opportunities emerging in the film industry. There is never going to be massive demand for armour.