The Child Armour of Rhodes: Medieval Childhood, Knightly Education and Experiences through the Order of St John

Museum of the Order of St John Eliot Benbow, Queen Mary University

Eliot Benbow is a third-year history undergraduate student at Queen Mary University of London.

Photograph of a piece of dark metal armour shaped to fit over a knee.
LDOSJ 2617 ©MOSJ/Matt Spour 2021

The Armour shown above, located in the collections of the Museum, is a piece of a boy’s leg armour, used by a page in Rhodes between 1500 and 1522. It offers a fascinating insight into the education and knightly training of children and adolescents in the Middle Ages. Surviving child armour often belonged to European royalty, as, for example, the padded jacket and brigandine of Charles VI of France, a late fourteenth-century example. The armour under investigation, on the other hand, is a rare specimen of a humbler social background, though most likely still aristocratic. This armour exemplifies how education was linked to the Order of St John, which had become increasingly militarised in the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century. Faced with the rising powers of the Ottoman Empire, the Rhodian metropolis, ruled by the Order, had developed into a frontier society. By the early sixteenth century, it was fighting for its territorial survival. This perilous situation led the Order to embrace new trainees and inductees into its ranks. The Order had long been associated with children and their later recruitment. Its Jerusalem-base hospital, the cornerstone of its foundation, also served as an orphanage in the time of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), its children later joining the ranks of the Order. By the fourteenth century, however, the order had developed into a much more aristocratic institution, with applicants required to prove noble heritage and birth. The armour helped support this status, displaying a high level of wealth and financial power and can be linked to the social aspirations of those who joined the order.

Examples abound for children-related military material culture in the Middle Ages. Wooden swords and practice bows have been found in archaeological digs and are well represented in contemporary manuscripts. Training in archery and swordsmanship would begin in early life, by boys from six to eight years old, under the watchful eye of an adult teacher. For children under the age of ten, child armour would begin to introduce the physical requirements of a military life, promote a level of physical prowess intrinsic to the practice of medieval knighthood, and helped youth to ease the transition into the military roles that they would play in later life. The armour in question most likely belonged to a page aged between twelve and fifteen. At this age boys of aristocratic background began intense military training: wearing armour, mounted exercises, fencing, wrestling and a continuation of skills such as archery. Training in wearing armour, often while riding on horseback, merged well into the knightly identity. The evidence for such use, however, is far from conclusive.

The Order’s aristocratic links are evident in the armour. This armour, for several reasons, can be associated with wealth. The armour is typical of the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. It was made in Milan, and would have been made to the specific requirements of an individual page. Aesthetically, the piece was decorated with gilded bands, some of whose decoration, thanks to the articulating plates (or lames), has survived centuries of oxidisation. The crosshatched decoration provided aesthetic improvements without compromising the practicality of the armour. Armour was not simply a practical piece of military equipment. It was a statement of wealth, taste and social status. Furthermore, plate armour was a bespoke product which was customised specifically to the knight or page to allow for ease of movement and efficiency in combat. Wealth is also evident in the size of the armour. The page would outgrow this armour within a few years of receiving it, necessitating procuring future sets of armour. The object, therefore, existed for a wealthy elite in late medieval society. The Hospitallers grew to rely on this elite through their continued reverence of knightly chivalry, and a promotion of an aristocratic social class, who were also crucial to securing the financial security of the Order, as donations by this period stemmed from the individual support of Monarchs and wealthy patrons rather than a united response. The encouragement of the wealthy to join therefore also meant a source of self-funding. Those youths who journeyed to the Order would often be supported by their families, who would provide them with money and the means to equip themselves.

On the images below you can see examples of some of the surviving decorative patterning on the armour:









The presence of a page in the fortress city of Rhodes can be compared to the castles of the European nobility which were often frequented by pages, who came to finish their chivalric training. However, Rhodes in this time was a highly militarised frontier state, faced with the growing might of the Ottoman Empire. An island naval state, it faced danger not only from the Ottomans, but also from piracy which was a near constant menace in this period. In the Rhodes frontier children were caught up in the conflicts faced by the Order. The first Ottoman siege of Rhodes in 1480 was depicted in texts lauding the actions of the Hospitallers. Guillaume Caoursin vice chancellor of the order, wrote an instantly popular account of the siege concluding that, ‘every creature in Rhodes of all manner of age, both men and women of all manner of states, put and applied themselves and their goods with great will and great devotion.’ The sense of endeavour portrayed by Caoursin helped to create a strong collective brotherhood, or at least an external projection of it, which would prove appealing to those wishing to join the Order.

In the 15th and 16th Centuries, the danger of Rhodes for adults, let alone children, would have been considerable and evident for parents sending their children to join the Order. However, the Hospitallers presented Rhodes as a bastion of Chivalric morals and Christian virtues. The gritty, gruesome details were massaged away. The turmoil and hardship suffered by the Knights Hospitaller at Rhodes and described by Caoursin portrayed the idea of brotherhood and a common identity for potential recruits in the West. This was coupled with the Hospitallers’ island existence as a fundamental aspect of the Order. The Order desperately required new recruits. During the first siege in 1480 it had lost 231 knights. Rhodes effectively became the epicentre of the Order’s endeavours, a result of the significance of the responsibility aspects of sovereignty that came with owning island territories.  The centrality of Rhodes impacted the Order’s vocabulary.  The term ‘outremer’, which traditionally referred to the Latin East in the Crusader period, was used by the Hospitallers to describe western Europe, where the Order had its estates or ‘colonies’ which would support Rhodes. The armour — made in Italy and crossing the Mediterranean to Rhodes — is also a feature of this West to East transfer. The transfer of recruits, another West to East transfer, was in part facilitated by the naivety of the youths who joined the order, encouraged by the propaganda and reputation surrounding the Hospitallers, unwitting to the extent of the danger and at times horror into which they were about to enter.

ALT="map of 15th century Ottoman Empire"
‘The Growing Ottoman Empire 1453-1481’, found in William R. Shepherd’s ‘Historical Atlas’, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911 p.93

The allure of the Order to children and adolescents can be clearly seen through the history of the Order itself, and is exemplified in the Documents held by the Museum.  Such is the story of two of its inductees. Around 1516, Rostand Merle joined the order at age of 16, later followed by his brother Claude who was aged only 12. Their letters, often written back to their parents in Southern France survive in the collection of the museum, and provide a wonderful and understudied source for the participation of adolescents in the Order. Their pride in joining the Order reflects both their aristocratic background and the mythos surrounding the Order itself. This initial enthusiasm quickly shattered once Rostand had reached Rhodes, from where he wrote to his parents of the horrors he had witnessed, the terrible violence and death. This included, tragically, the death of his brother Claude, whom he had begged his parents not to send. Claude, brimming with pride in one letter, wrote list-like to his mother, enumerating all the things he was bringing on his way to the Rhodes, again showing the financial networks involved in joining the order in this period, and the high levels of financial agency required. The Merle brothers also remind us of the clear proximity of medieval children and youths to death, which would often affect themselves, their family members and friends. Rhodes exposed them to the horrors of war. For Rostand Merle, his naivety, and importantly, the destruction of the ideal image of the Order he thought existed, perhaps initiated a removal of the last vestiges of childhood and was followed by his traumatic transition into the adult world.

ALT="handwritten letter on parchment"
Expense account of Claude de Merles in connection with his voyage from Avignon to Rhodes, K24/4/I ©MOSJ

ALT="handwritten letter on parchment"





On Medieval and Aristocratic Childhood:

Ariès P., 1960 ‘Centuries of Childhood’ (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

Bidon D A, Lett D, Gladding J. (trans.)  1999 ‘Children in the Middle Ages: Fifth- Fifteenth Centuries’ (Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame Press)

Shahar S., 1990 ‘Childhood in the Middle Ages’ (London: Routledge) 210-224


On Armour:

Karcheski W., Richardson T. 2003 ‘‘The Medieval Armour from Rhodes’ (London: Royal Armouries)

Oakshott E. 1980 ‘European Weapons and Armour ‘From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution’ (Woodbridge: Boydell Press)

Patterson A. 2009 ‘Fashion and Armour in Renaissance Europe’ (London: V&A Publishing)


On the Knights Hospitaller and Rhodes:

Housley N. ‘The Later Crusades: 1274-1580’ (Oxford, 1992)

Luttrell A. ‘The Hospitallers of Rhodes and the Mediterranean World’ (Aldershot 1992)

Sire H.J.A ‘The Knights of Malta’ (London, 1994) (Sections on Rhodes)

Williams A. ‘Crusaders as Frontiersmen: The case of the Order of St John in the Mediterranean’ in ‘Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands, 700-1700’ Power D. and Naomi Standen (eds.) (Basingstoke, 1999) pp.209-227



This object features in our Key Stage 2 creative writing resource which you can download and use for free.

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