Jacks and Brigandines

(Above & above right) A well armed Burgundian foot soldier wearing a padded jack under a breastplate in 'German' style.

The secret of the jack's success was its layers of soft linen, held in place with rows of stitching and tailored so as not to restrict movement. There are many references to jacks in 15th century accounts. Burgundian. French and English. Careful reconstructions prove that cunning tailoring and variations in the thickness of the padding make jacks remarkably comfortable and allow freedom of movement combined with good protection. The shoulders of the jack are extremely well padded against blows, and the 18 layers of linen - reduced at the waist - give ample protection on their own even without the breast plate, which sits snug and immobile on the tailored body.

It must be emphasised that the jack is not made like a modern 'duvet' or Continental quilt, with two thicknesses sewn into tubular compartments which are then filled with stuffing. Obviously a blade would pass easily through the stitched but unpadded areas. When making a jack the needle and thread must pass right through all the layers of linen or thick padding so that there are no weak spots. (Photos John Howe)

(Right) The evening sun emphasises some of the complex tailoring of this severely cut example seen from the back. (Photo Gerry Embleton)

(Opposite) Our footsoldier is armed with a beautiful hand-and-a-half sword, with a system of straps that can be worn as a waist belt or over the shoulder. Note the small knife and sharpening steel let into the upper face of the scabbard. (Photo John Howe)

Jacks And Brigandines

(Left) This jack is made with 18 layers of linen. Louis XI of France's ordinance of cl470 is the best surviving description of their construction:

'And first they must have for the said jacks, thirty, or at least twenty-five, folds of cloth, and a stag's skin; those of thirty, with the stag's skin, being the best cloth that has been worn and rendered flexible, is best for this purpose, and these jacks should be made in four quarters. The sleeves should be as strong as the body, with the exception of the leather, and the arm-hole (assiette) of the sleeve must be large, which arm-hole should be placed near the collar, not on the bone of the shoulder, that it may be broad under the arm-pit and full under the arm, sufficiently ample and large on the sides below. The collar should be like the rest of the jack, but not made too high behind, to allow room for the salade. This jack should be laced in front, and under the opening must be a hanging piece (porte piece) of the same strength as the jack itself. Thus the jack will be secure and easy, provided there be a pourpoint without sleeves or collar of two folds of cloth, that shall be only four fingers broad on the shoulder; to which pourpoint shall be attached the hose. Thus shall the wearer float, as it were, within his jack, and be at his ease; for never have been seen half-a-dozen men killed by stabs or arrow wounds in such jacks, particularly if they be troops accustomed to fighting.'

Velvet Covered Sallet

(Above & right) This French soldier wears a simple hrigandine, a light and serviceable protection for the coming assatdt. It has rivets set singly rather than decoratively in threes, and buckles down the front. Usually brigandines were fastened at side and shoulder with buckled straps, but some had front openings, and one at least has points and eyelets reinforced with metal rings. While his comrades, wearing French livery, begin to assault the defended farm they must capture, he buckles the chin strap of his helmet (and multiplies the protective qualities of his hrigandine with a rosary and a prayer ...)

Several 15th century brigandines survive. One in Paris is covered with leather, but velvet and fustian (a textile of mixed cotton and flax) seem to be the usual coverings; certainly some kind of tough, densely woven cloth is needed to hold the rivets. (Photos John Howe)

Brigandines were produced in their thousands in various qualities: strong and simple, with a minimum of plates and covered in cheap fustian, or in rich fabric with gilded nails. In the 1460s one of the archer guard of the Duke of Berry wore 'a black velvet covered hrigandine with gilt nails, bearing a white cross and on his head a bicoquet' (perhaps a contemporary name for a sallet). We know that old armour was sometimes cut up to make brigandine plates. There is some evidence that large parts of obsolete breastplates may have been used - an obvious and practical source for the two large so-called 'lung plates' which formed the chest of some brigandines, and perhaps also for the infinite variety of fabric-covered defences found in illustrations which have fewer and more widely spaced rivets holding them together, indicating larger plates.

Handgunner 15th Century


This handgunner is a member of the garrison of the small and rather dilapidated castle of Vaumarcus in what is now Switzerland. In late February 1476 he is scouting the hills above the castle, wrapped in his winter cloak. From the south he can hear the slow thud of guns from Grandson, where the mighty Burgundian army of Charles the Bold is attacking the lakeside castle held by a Bernese garrison. It is an ominous reminder that the greatest army in the world is advancing just a few miles away; and it is as well for our handgunner that he does not yet know the fate that awaits the Bernese when the castle falls.

The lands of Rudolf von Hochberg. Count of Neuchätel, lie on the borders of territory seized by aggressive Berne on one side and the Burgundian empire on the other. He has tried to stay neutral, but peace talks between the belligerents in 1475 brought little more than a month-long truce. Now the Swiss Confederate army is moving to the relief of Grandson, and the Burgundians are advancing on Rudolf's castle at Vaumarcus, which is caught neatly between the crab's claws.

The commander has been told to surrender as quickly as possible if attacked, but it is a very dangerous situation. Who can imagine that the Confederates have a chance of beating the mighty duke? - yet the Bernese Bear is a powerful and ruthless enemy. In a tiny castle like Vaumarcus it is impossible to keep secrets, and all the occupants share their captain's anxiety: which way to jump?

In fact Vaumarcus surrendered to the Burgundians; but when the Confederates arrived in Neuchätel the count's military forces joined them. A few days later, on 2 March 1476, they won an extraordinary victory over the Burgundians at the battle of Grandson.

The Bernese then burned Vaumarcus - after stripping it of everything down to the very window-frames - in punishment for having surrendered to Charles too easily ... (Photo John Howe)

John Howe NeuchatelGerry Embleton Soldier Wore

(Opposite) Period illustrations of 'foul weather gear' are not particularly common, but most show cloaks. Worn by all classes for travelling, riding, or about town in rain or snow, they would have been the commonest cold weather garment for soldiers. Short cloaks were fashionable and practical for riding. A full cloak of good woollen cloth, cut as more than two-thirds of a circle of material, can be wrapped round the body to give excellent warmth and protection. If tightly woven from wool with most of the oil left in, it repels water very well. Cloaks were fastened on the breast with cords, points, or - most often - with two or three pairs of buttons, strongly sewn in place as they take the full strain of the cloak's weight. The rear view illustrates the ample folds, and the long tail (liripipe) of his hood - rather old-fashioned by the 1470s. A full-cut cloak also made practical bedding, with enough material to serve as both 'mattress and blanket'. This was all the shelter that many a medieval soldier knew when on campaign. (Photos John Howe)

(Right) This handgunner wears a simple but thick woollen gown, less cumbersome than a cloak. The ample sleeves are slit to allow his hands to pass through when shooting or working. Burgundian livery is visible beneath. (Photo Philippe Krauer. l'Illustré)

(Below) Late 15th century handgunners display their weapons. The left hand man gun has the smouldering match held at the top of a simple external S-shaped lever, sprung to drop forwards when the lower half is pulled back. The more advanced gun on the right has trigger and serpentine (match holder) made separately; the lever action of the trigger being lifted drops the match into the priming pan. (Photo Gerry Embleton)

Gerry EmbletonBrigandinesGourd Powder Horn

(Right) Gunners carried powder in a metal flask, gourd or horn; a bag for bullets, match, and perhaps a bullet mould, since guns were not made with standard bores. One late 15th century drawing in the Schilling Chronicles shows handgunners in action, and lying close by a two-compartment ammunition box with balls in one section and prepared charges - cartridges - in the other. (Photos John Howe)

(Above & left) Most inid-15th century armies included increasing numbers of handgunners. Burgundian gunners are depicted in manuscripts as lightly armoured, and holding their guns both on lop of the shoulder and pulled into it like modern firearms. The third quarter of the century saw development of the 'matchlock', with a trigger, a spring- or button-released serpentine holding the match, a swivelling pan cover and a ramrod held in place below the barrel.

Close MatchlockHandgunner Bag Medieval

We are alike both outward and within. Our hunger is satisfied with the same fare. And when our bones into confusion fall. Say, who know the living man by sight. Which is the villein now and which the knight'.'

Wulther von der Vogelweide

(Above) Soldiers and townsfolk spent a lot of time on guard duty, day and night, making their rounds in camp or on the walls with lanterns and passwords. In bad weather they wrapped up in heavy gowns, cloaks and hoods, some issued specifically for 'watching'. Here our Neuchatel handgunner relights his slowmatch from a lantern on the ramparts of Vaumarcus. (Photo John Howe) (Left) A Burgundian handgunner with a felt hat and no armour. Tired, unshaven and dirty, he has been skirmishing in the woods near Morat against Swiss scouts in late May 1476. The duke's ordinances strictly regulated the arms and armour of his troops, but how far they were followed in the three months between the ruinous losses at Grandson and the reorganisation of the army to attack Morat is difficult to say. (Photo John Howe)

Careful working reconstructions reveal the late 15th century handgun to be a handy enough (if very short-range) weapon, more efficient than is often imagined. Again, we must accept the verdict of the day: if it had not been useful they would not have carried it. In fact the Swiss and Germans organised mixed units of handgun and crossbow skirmishers in a sort of 'light infantry' called Schutzenfahnlein, with banners bearing images of bow and gun. We must assume that handguns had some relative tactical value - beyond the obvious one: that a boy like this could now crook his finger and send to his tomb a prince of the blood wearing and riding a fortune.


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