So I have a fairly large empire led by knights, and there are a lot of different households with their own proud histories and strong personal identities. As a natural consequence of this, a culture has developed where a knight's armour is often used to announce loudly who the wearer is and which part of the empire they come from.

In what ways could a suit of steel full plate armour be customised to make it easier to figure out who is who even in rather chaotic situations? To clarify, the wearers value being properly recognised for their battlefield deeds over protecting themselves from assassination attempts.

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    $\begingroup$ Historically, a Coat of arms served this purpose. Do you want to introduce more descriptive rules to its composition, so that people don't have to just memorize them all? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jan 24, 2019 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ this question could easily have been answered with a quick google search. As many have pointed out tabards, coat of arms and painted crests on shields were all common practice $\endgroup$
    – BKlassen
    Jan 24, 2019 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @BKlassen: Crests were worn on helmets. The design depicted on the shield is called a coat of arms. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 24, 2019 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ Medieval nose art! $\endgroup$
    – ivanivan
    Jan 25, 2019 at 4:07
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    $\begingroup$ Stickers! Like laptop stickers, but on the armor. Or sponsors' stickers like Nascar? $\endgroup$
    – CDspace
    Jan 25, 2019 at 17:45

9 Answers 9


Historically, tabards and painted shields were used display a Coat of Arms.

If you want knights from the same area (but of different houses) to show some similarity, then you can make some armaments/adornments specific to certain regions.

These could include:

  • Helmet designs
  • Plumes or crests of coloured animal hair
  • Shield shape, e.g. circular, rectangle, escutcheon
  • Enameling of armour

Knights did not walk around in armor. Armor was worn in battle, or at tournaments, or, occasionally, at social events. (Quite similar with modern soldiers; they don't wear body armor when they don't have to. Armor is not confortable at all.)

The identity and provenance of the knight was advertised by means of heraldry. Specifically, the knights wore:

  • A distinctive design upon the shield. The shield bearing the design is called a heraldic escutcheon. The description of the coat of arms is called the blazon.

    For example, the coat of arms of the German village of Behnsdorf are "party per pale argent and vert, a tree eradicated counterchanged", which can be represent on the heraldic escutcheon as in the following picture:

    Arms of Behnsdorf
    (source: wikimedia.org)

    Arms of Behnsdorf: party per pale argent and vert, a tree eradicated counterchanged. Image by Jörg Mantzsch, available on Wikimedia. Public domain. (Note that using that German law restricts the use of this design as a coat of arms to its lawful owner.)

    The heraldic escutcheon could (and was) also depicted on carriage doors, windows, etc.

  • A distinctive crest upon the helmet. (Heraldic crests were worn in tournaments and social occasions, but not in battle or in everyday life.)

  • A distinctive badge upon clothing. The same badge was worn by the men at arms following the knight, house personnel etc.

  • Particular colors for clothing and mantle (usually the main metal and color of the heraldic escutcheon).

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    $\begingroup$ Minor nitpick - armor isn't all that uncomfortable if it's fitted properly. I'm in the SCA and I fight in a suit of armor from time to time. With a proper gambeson and padding it's fine. I've spent entire days in armor and after a few hours you hardly notice it. That being said, I'm sure medieval knights only wore their gear on days where they were expecting to fight. It's not for lounging around the house in. $\endgroup$
    – BoredBsee
    Jan 25, 2019 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ @BoredBsee modern alloy armor with modern fabrics, or combat armor with wool padding? And where you hiking in the armor of just standing around. Because studies show wearing accurate armor impacts physical performance more then modern soldiers with full modern armor and gear. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3248716 $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 26, 2019 at 6:40
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    $\begingroup$ As an illustration of what @BoredBsee is talking about see Pennsic battle highlights. Because of the time range being recreated and financial limitations, people are wearing everything from the absolute minimum required by safety rules to full plate. They don't just hike, they run. It is also a good illustration of heraldry in battle. If I took the time to look them up in the SCA Armorial I could identify many of the fighters just from their shields. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2019 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ Blazon presents a chicken-and-egg problem. You want armory to fit into a constrained design space such that knights can be quickly recognized and distinguished from each other in less than ideal conditions. This constraint makes blazon, a terse jargon, feasible; but blazon also enforces it: “Don't rely on a fussy distinction for which the heralds don't have a word!” $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2019 at 2:16

The Armour of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland

enter image description here

An example of Greenwich armour produced by the Royal Almain Armoury. Now tell me that's not distinctive enough!

This wasn't available to just anyone, you needed personal permission from the monarch to use this armoury and it was certainly expensive enough, but also the best you could get.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, historically, codpieces :) $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2019 at 6:21

In the eras when full plate armor was worn bare, without a cloth cover, to show off the metal, it was decorated in various ways. There could be patterns of contrasting polished and rough unpolished metal, patterns of different metals on the surface, patters of gilded and ungilded metals, patterns of fluted and unfluted smooth metal, etc., etc.

And all the photos of such highly decorated armor that I have seen have the patterns seem too small-scale, intricate, and fussy to be much good at identification.

Identification was much easier in the eras when knights wore garments like surcoats and tabards displaying their coats of arms over their armor.

I think that sometimes the surcoat would be the color of the field of the coat of arms and have many copies of the charge in the coat of arms scattered over the surface. And sometimes a surcoat, and always a tabard, would have one iteration or copy of the coat of arms on the front side and one on the back side and one on each sleeve.

An ordinary warrior who had a coat of arms, up to a knight bachelor, would have a pennon attached to his lance with his coat of arms on the flag, while a higher ranking warrior, a knight banneret or higher, would have a banner with his coat of arms, and the banner would usually be carried by a banner bearer.

So a knight banneret or higher lord would have a personal flag, and the garments he wore over his armor would have the same pattern as his personal flag. So it would be like wearing copies of his personal flag as his clothing.

But there's more! In some eras a warrior would carry a shield, and shields were almost always decorated with patterns, and so when heraldry was invented any warrior who had a coat of arms would put it on his shield.

But that's not all! A knight could have his horse wear horse cloths that had several iterations of his coat of arms.

In some eras knight wore crests on their helmets, sometimes two dimensional cut outs, sometimes three dimensional models. The designs of crests were sometimes identical to the coat of arms, sometimes based on it but a bit different, and sometimes totally different from the coat of arms.

For even more icing on the cake, in some eras various lords had badges, emblems different from their coats of arms, but sometimes identical to their crests, which they put on their personal possessions and also had their retainers wear small copies of. Warriors and servants of a lord would sometimes wear civilian costumes and military uniforms in the livery colors of the lord, which might be the colors of his coat or arms or badge or different colors.

What's more, a lord might have a flag called a standard, along narrrow flag decorated with his crest and/or badge.

So if you were looking for Lord X you might notice a group of soldiers wearing his livery colors and copies of his badge, with Lord X's standard flying, and among them someone wearing Lord X's coat of arms (and maybe his horse was wearing Lord X's coat of arms) and holding a shield with Lord X's coat of arms, and wearing Lord X's crest on his helmet, and accompanied by someone carrying a banner with Lord X's coat of arms, and you would begin to suspect that that person could possibly be Lord X.

If the President of the United States went into battle wearing the coat of arms of the USA which is "Argent, six pales gules, a chief azure" (white with six thin vertical red stripes, and across the top a blue bar) he would wear a surcoat with "Argent, six pales gules, a chief azure" in front and in the back, and one on each sleeve, and carry a shield with "Argent, six pales gules, a chief azure", and wear a crest over his helmet of "a glory with 13 mullets on blue field" (A circular cloud with rays of light surrounding a blue field with 13 stars).

His horse would wear trappings with "Argent, six pales gules, a chief azure", and he would be accompanied by a banner bearer with a banner of "Argent, six pales gules, a chief azure".

The coat of arms of the Count of Habsburg was "Or, a lion rampant gules, crowned azure" (a yellow field with a red lion rearing up wearing a blue crown) and the coat of arms of the Duke of Austria was "Gules, a fess argent" (red with a white horizontal band in the center). The coat of arms of the count of Nassau was "Azure, billety or, a lion rampant or" (a blue field strewn with yellow rectangles, a yellow lion rearing up).

The King of the Romans was the person elected Emperor of the Romans but not yet crowned emperor in Rome by the Pope. The coat of arms of the King of the Romans was "Or, an eagle displayed sable" (a yellow field with a black eagle with wings spread out, having only one head).

Adolf, Count of Nassau, was elected King of the Romans in 1292, but the Electors declared him deposed on 23 June 1298 and elected Albert, Count of Habsburg and Duke of Austria, as King of the Romans. Albert and Adolf fought at the Battle of Gollheim on 2 July 1298. The angry Adolf sought out Albert and you can be sure Adolf made an effort to learn beforehand what the coats of arms of Habsburg, Austria, and any other fiefs claimed by Albert looked like if he didn't already know such famous coats of arms. Albert unhorsed Adolf and dismounted to finish Adolf off.

A poem written centuries later claims that both Adolf and Albert wore the coat of arms of the king of the Romans on their surcoats, yellow strewn with black one headed eagles. That is logical since the king of the Romans was theoretically the rightful ruler of everywhere and so was the highest possible position, and one which both Adolf and Albert claimed. I don't know if the poet actually knew that Adolf and Albert, and lords in general, used armorial surcoats in 1298, but I think that armorial surcoats became common some time before 1298.

Since the coat of arms of the king of the Romans was one single-headed eagle, it would have been quite possible that both Adolf and Albert actually wore surcoats with one eagle on the front, one on the back, and one on each sleeve. Producers of historical movies should note that if Adolf and Albert both wore surcoats semi (strewn with an arbitrary number) of eagles they would not have looked identical, having be made by different makers for different clients. Thus they would have different numbers of eagles of different sizes and with different design details, and someone could tell the difference when Adolf and Albert were facing each other.

In some battles the lord or king would wear uncovered armor or a plain surcoat and one or more brave knights would volunteer to wear surcoats with the lord's coat of arms to attract enemy attacks. I think that I read of one battle where the king in disguise survived and about a dozen knights who wore his coat of arms were killed.

Knights, lords, and kings sometimes wore civilian robes emblazoned with their coats of arms, which would be highly desirable from a visual standpoint in any fictional medieval fantasy world.

As far as I know, the only way to make bare metal armor have as distinctive a pattern as a coat of arms would be to paint the coat of arms in full color on the metal of the armor.

And it seems to me that wearing surcoats or tabards with the coat of arms over the armor would be just as good as armor painted with the coat of arms, especially if the character also wears similar garments with the coat of arms in civilian settings when he isn't wearing any armor.


Festooned with trophies and medals!

enter image description here

The OP wants the wearer of this armor to be / properly recognised for their battlefield deeds/. Medals and trophies corresponding to these great deeds can be affixed to the armor which do exactly that. Some trophies might actually be trophies taken from fallen foes or conquered citadels. Claws or fur tufts from conquered animals could be included. Boy scouts style, there would be medals for recognizing other worthy feats as well - possibly assembled into shapes so people would also know which medals were missing and yet to be attained.

This would be on the dress armor, of course. Should one wear one's dress armor into battle through necessity or forgetfulness, medals and trophies damaged in the course of battle can be retrieved afterwards and attached again, being worth so much the more for their battle-testedness.

I think it makes sense that if you defeat a foe who himself has medals, that vanquished foe should bestow a medal on the victor to commemorate the occasion - the "you beat me" medal. These medals would not be displayed but kept handy in a secret compartment.

  • $\begingroup$ That sounds cool - you could have the medals magnetic to put on and take off more easily and also to be granted more easily. Furthermore, it would more closer to a modern medal. On the other hand, the "medal" could be a pattern put onto the armour itself. So the more accomplishments you have, the more ornate the armour would become. The pattern could be painted or consist of physical alterations to the armour. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 25, 2019 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ Yep. Perhaps some of these magnets could serve as a record of the knight's noble travels to far off lands, and be used to attach important knightly parchments and blacksmith bills. You could also maybe spell stuff with the little multi-coloured letters $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2019 at 14:07

Paint It

Its always good to put some color on your suit or you could wear some sort of garment over the armor to show off your house sigil in bright colors.

  • $\begingroup$ Such a garment is called a surcoat. $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2019 at 22:56

Built In Speakers

You said you wanted the Knights' armor to announce loudly who they were, why not take that literally: Knights have speakers or sirens built into their armor that (depending on your technology level) either say their name and accolades, or play a specific sounds/tune. Even with lower tech, a combination music box/mechanical siren could play a kind of audio-heraldry with different note combinations denoting the various awards, medals and honors the knight has received in addition to their personal/familial "entrance tone"

  • $\begingroup$ Speaker are little too advance for the setting... but I'll steal the general for a mage knight who can control sound! $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2019 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ While modern electric speakers are pretty advanced, music boxes and mechanical sirens aren't beyond the scope of historical possibility (especially if magic is a thing)! Heck you could produce distinctive sounds with bells or clappers. $\endgroup$
    – aslum
    Jan 25, 2019 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ Some ancient forces -- the Romans, who borrowed the idea from some other group, as an example -- carried banners with "whistles" on the staffs. When the cavalry charged, the whistles made an eerie shrieking noise. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2019 at 17:27

Paint, plumes, and tabards

First let me say AlexP's answer will show you why this is less of an issue, but Many many armors were painted or had decorations added, Armor was so expensive that the cost of paint was negligible.

For the less wealthy paint was very common, mostly because they only ever owned one suit of armor, often partially hand me down, so why not paint it in your down time. Generally the patterns were simple (usually 2-3 colors) on the large scale and detailed up close. this was partially just as decoration but it also would work as identification for allies and attendants. Especially the colors and basic pattern.

enter image description here

enter image description here

Tabards, AKA shirts worn over armor, were also common and would usually be brightly colored.

enter image description here

The wealthy used embossing, etching, plumes, and other more expensive but permanent forms of decoration. Armor was expensive so just paying to add decoration was normal for those that could afford it. The wealthy prefer a high polish (which was ludicrously expensive to maintain). Here is a great video summarizing all the different forms of decoration. The wealthy would use large colored feathers or plumes for for identification, they are lightweight and don't impact performance. Usually one or two colors again, and the wealthy could afford the expensive imported birds needed to get said feathers.

enter image description here

But there is no reason your people can't all use paint and tabards, just like having the same uniform they could use the same color to identify allies. Painting specific parts (helmets would be good) could be used to identify individuals. The wealthy will find other ways to show off, like silk tabards.

Note shields were usually painted but shields became less and less common as armor became better because did not help and just became dead weight.


Distinctive Helmets, shields, and symbols on the armor itself.

No actual change to the shape of anything unless it would be functional.

If your tech level allows for it, you may want to try Anodizing the metal to color it without weakening it.

  • $\begingroup$ Anodizing to create colored armour sounds pretty useful. It won't tell people that the wearer is Sir Bob, but it could tell them that the wearer is from provence X.Handy for figuring out who someone is at a glance, and usefull for the reader when there trying to remember which characters are closerly conected. $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2019 at 21:33

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