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See Inside October 2011

The Trouble with Armor

The steel plates worn by medieval soldiers may have led to their wearers' demise



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On August 13, 1415, the 27-year-old English king Henry V led his army into France. Within two months dysentery had killed perhaps a quarter of his men, while a French army four times its size blocked escape to Calais and across the English Channel. Winter approached; food grew scarce. Yet in one of the most remarkable upsets in military history, a force of fewer than 7,000 English soldiers—most of them lightly armed archers—repulsed 20,000 to 30,000 heavily armored French men-at-arms near the village of Agincourt, killing thousands. Shakespeare’s play Henry V attributed the victory to the power of Henry’s inspirational rhetoric; the renowned military historian John Keegan has credited the self-defeating crush of the French charge. But a study by exercise physiologists now suggests a new reason for the slaughter: suits of armor might not be all that great for fighting.

Researchers at the University of Leeds in England placed armor-clad volunteers on a treadmill and monitored their oxygen consumption. The armor commonly used in the 15th century weighed anywhere from 30 to 50 kilograms, spread from head to hand to toe. Because of the distributed mass, volunteers had to summon great effort to swing steel-plated legs through each stride. In addition, breastplates forced quick, shallow breaths. The researchers found that the suits of armor doubled volunteers’ metabolic requirements, compared with an increase of only about 70 percent for the same amount of weight carried in a backpack.

Of course, medieval battles did not happen on treadmills. The fields at Agincourt were thick with mud, having recently been plowed for winter wheat and soaked in a heavy October shower. The French charged across 300 yards of this slop, all while suffering fire from the English archers. Combine the effort required to run in armor with that needed to slog through mud, says Graham As­kew, one of the study’s leaders, and you’d expect at least a fourfold increase in energy expenditure—enough, it seems, to change history.

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