Body Defences cl250 to c360

During the 13th century defensive armour began increasingly to include plates of horn, whalebone, leather and iron. There are frequent references to 'curie' and 'paires de cuiraces' (from the French cuire, leather), and to 'pairs of plates'. Exposed parts - knee, shin, elbow and forearm - were protected with padded defences and strapped-on plates; but body armour was usually invisible beneath the mail shirt or cloth surcoat. We have little evidence for the form of these usually hidden protections, nor a clear idea of when they first developed - only when they first appear in our sparse sources, suggested in effigies by rigid shapes under flowing surcoats or buckled straps glimpsed inside their wide armholes.

Gradually the plates grew in size to cover the entire body. The hauberk, now generally worn beneath the plates, diminished until, by the 15th century, its function was merely to fill the gaps in the now almost complete plate armour.

(A) A very early representation of a 'pair of plates', from a Spanish manuscript. (The Commentary on the Apocalypse, Beatus of Paris, cl250)

(B) This sleeping guard from a reliquary clearly shows vertical plates riveted to the inside of a long coat. Armour made of plates and fabric was not the most expensive, and both old and new materials could be combined. Footsoldiers would continue to use multi-layered defences combining plates and padding until the end of the age of armour. (Wienhausen Monastery. Germany, cl270)

(C) The French knight Sir Brocardus de Charpignie. c 1270, wears what look like the buckles for a 'coat-of-plates' on his shoulders; and an unusual bowl-shaped helm with a shallow neck guard. Or rather, we think it is unusual - in fact it may have been very common, only we have no other representations of it.

(D) The effigy of an unidentified knight shows clearly the buckles of some kind of plate defence under his surcoat. (Pershore Abbey, Worcestershire, second half of 13th C)

(E) The monumental effigy of Nils Johnsson, c 1315-19, shows a reinforced surcoat with visible rivet heads. His attached mail mittens are turned back over his wrists. Common soldiers wore gloves and gauntlets, which seem to have been in widespread use at all levels of society for work, warfare or fashionable display. (St Mary's Church, Sig-una, Sweden)

(F) This knight painted on a church wall at South Roda, Sweden. cl323, wears an unusually short reinforced surcoat or coat-ofplates, and -apparently - complete breeches of mail. At the battle of Bouvines (1214) Reginald de Boulogne is said to have been saved from a dagger-thrust under his mail shirt because his mail hose were fastened to it.

(G & H) Reconstruction of a coat-of-plates, based on the figure of St Maurice in Magdeburg Cathedral, late 13th C, and a drawing in Warrior to Soldier 419-1660 by Norman & Pottinger (see further reading list, page 96).

(I) Coat-of-plates based on one of some 30 found at the site of the battle of Visby in Gotland (1361). Most are constructed of many small plates, but three have large vertical plates originally riveted to a cloth 'poncho' which was probably padded or multi-layered. The plates exposed here would almost certainly have been hidden beneath a fabric lining.

It must not be assumed that early armour was only worn in the ways described here. In a pre-industrial world where everything was made by hand there must have been an individuality which is difficult to imagine today.

(Left above and below) Reconstruction of a 'coat-of-plates', worn with a plain steel kettle hat and separate-legged hose by one of the Black Prince's artillerymen, c 1350s. (Photos Gerry Embleton)

Coat Plates Sir Brocardus CharpignieGerry Embleton

Our knowledge of the warrior's equipment is scanty, but we find a few interesting details in the 13th century Rule of the Temple. The Order decreed that a Templer knight - at the upper end of the scale of professional soldiers -should have in addition to his arms and armour an arming cap, dagger, large and small knives, two shirts, two braies, two pairs of padded chausses, a narrow belt, two small sacks for his nightshirt, arming coat, etc., and

(Above & right) Until the early 1300s the footsoldier was usually a villein - drawn from the poorest agricultural tenantry, and owing military service to his feudal master. He probably came wearing the strongest and warmest clothes he possessed, with a poncho-like liuke or a cloak and a hood, and carrying any spare clothes and personal possessions in a bag. He was supposed to bring arms of his own or those that his master could provide; if he failed to do so fines might have to be paid. If called up by a rich and generous lord he might be well equipped: if not, then hard times might lie ahead.

This man has rolled his hose down to below his knees; he works at cutting wood on a chill autumn morning, in his doublet and hood. Woven checks and stripes were simple to produce and much more common than we may imagine, being frequently mentioned in lists of livery. His purse has the very cheapest sort of metal decorations. He may be travelling with a small band of his comrades, buying food with his wages en route. We read of Catalan and Aragonese soldiers in 1302 bound from Palermo to Messina accompanied by their wives and children, with the king's silver in their purses, and a generous ration of biscuits, cheeses, salt meat, garlic and onions. (Photos Gerry Embleton)

13th Century Soldiers a leather or coarse sack for his mail hauberk, wide sword belts with or without buckles, and felt hats.

A sergeant, a little less well armed than a brother knight, had mailshirt. mail hose without feet (to make marching easier) and war hat. Turkish bows were included in his arsenal, as was probably other captured material. On crusade their clothing and equipment was certainly influenced by that of the enemy and adapted to the hot climate.

13century Soldier Picture

tRight) This 13th century soldier comes from a prosperous village or serves a lord of some means; he has a new gambeson and good woollen jacket, hose and hood. His kettle hat is bright steel (though they were frequently painted). He is armed with a light spear and a knife. (Photo John Howe)

(Above) A slightly better armoured and armed member of the same contingent, wearing a woollen hood in his captain's colours. He has a mail shirt under his gambeson. and in addition to his long spear he carries a cheap but serviceable sword. We do not know how extensively common soldiers wore mail in the 13th century. Mail takes a very long lime lo wear out; it can easily be patched and repaired, even relailored. There must have been a vast and steadily increasing accumulation of mail in Europe, some perhaps dating back to Roman limes or even earlier. With his everyday clothes this soldier wears a second pair of short hose - loose footless 'socks' - lo protect his lower legs against the cold and the snagging of hmshwood. (Photo Gerry Embleion)

(Below) A well padded gambeson or aketon was the common soldier's usual protection - a long tunic made of cloth stuffed with wool, cotton or rags and quilted to keep the stuffing in place. Wrap-around coats-of-plates, and perhaps padded shirts reinforced with mail and plates became increasingly common, giving a harder and smoother outline to the body of the knight as depicted; these defences may also have been worn by some humbler soldiers.

Around 1300 the daily rate of pay for the foot soldier in England, France and Florence was about the same as that for a labourer. Tenants called up to serve came armed and equipped according to the property they rented. In 1284 the Abbot of St Maur des Fosses in France called up 12 tenants who each had a mail shirt, iron cap, sword and dagger; 53 had a padded gambeson. iron cap, sword and dagger; the more prosperous among the rest had to have an iron cap, sword and dagger, and the poorest a bow, arrows and dagger. Villages might be obliged to provide a number of men armed and fit for military service, and inspection reports frequently note how poorly armed they sometimes were. (Photo John Howe)

Visby 1361 Gotland Soldier

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  • edoardo
    Did the 13th century foot soldier wear a surcoat?
    5 years ago

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