by Sir Guy Francis Laking




F the English king had held his own on the hill; if William's body and not Harold's had been dragged that October morning to a grave under the rocks of the Sussex shore, our tale of the armourer's changing fashions would yet go on. For a generation, for two generations or three, those old English who never loved change would have followed their fathers' customs, riding to the battlefield, but lighting down to fight with swinging weapons, Englishmen elbow to elbow. Yet we cannot doubt that, in the end, the English knight would be as the French knight, as the knights of Flanders or Almain, a horseman fully armed for the battle of horsemen.

But the Conqueror's host brought with them sudden change. When all was turned about in England the fashions of war-gear turned with the rest. "Englishmen," says Wace, "do not know how to joust with the lance or how to bear arms on horseback, they grasp hachess e gisarmes." Yet they will learn their lesson of the sons of the men who came riding on great horses from Pevensey, lifting long lances. Long after the conquest of England will linger the memory of those axes that hewed down horse and rider on the hill-side. But the axe will go out of favour with warriors whose pride sits in the saddle, who can joust with the lance. From the Conquest onward the history of arms and armours is, in the main, a history of fashions of knights who will fight on horseback wherever they dare risk the skin of that costly beast, the destrier or great horse.

The memorable doings at the battle of Hastings may be seen pictured in the famous roll of needlework still preserved at Bayeux. Controversy has arisen as to the exact date of the production of this needlework roll. It was the former tradition that it was the work of Queen Maude, consort of the Conqueror, and her handmaidens; but of late years, a date, varying from fifty to one hundred and twenty years after the actual date of the battle, has been assigned to it. We ourselves, however, are inclined to think that as [32] the armour and weapons represented are simpler and more archaic in form than any known representations of mid-XIIth century armaments, it is safer to place the production of the Bayeux needlework in the last quarter of the XIth or the commencement of the XIIth century, a view that almost coincides with that taken by M. le Commandant Lefebvre de Noëttes, who assigns the date of its production to between the years 1120 and 1130.

Without doubt the needles that wrought those many yards of history in coloured threads upon coarse canvas worked to make a faithful picture. But a nice accuracy of detail must not be sought in this strange stitchwork record. Yet vague as are the details of the costumes and armaments given, they have been taken as chief authority for the XIth and XlIth centuries' armour by nearly every writer on the subject, from Sir Samuel Meyrick until the present day.

From a coloured cast made by Charles Stothard. British Museum

Shirts of mail represented by simple outlines, the various types distinguished by arrangements of dots, rings, and lines; conical fighting helmets resembling triangles balanced on the heads of the warriors; spears that look like darning needles, and other weapons, the true meaning and use of which can only be a matter of guesswork; such conventions serve this authority (Fig. 40). Yet, much that is of the greatest interest and importance in the study of armour and arms can be learnt from this crude work: though we have constantly to bear in mind that this needlework roll has been subject to restoration on no fewer than four occasions, the first of which occurred late in the XVIIth century.

In the case of the Norman warrior, we will not, imitating our procedure with his Saxon brother, consider the habiliments of the rank and file first; [33]
but we will pick out and dissect the armour and weapons of some of the principal figures in the famous roll and seek to trace the likeness in their accoutrements to that of those appearing in other existing documents of the same period, by this comparison endeavouring to determine the actual aspect and method of manufacture of Norman armaments.

We will however keep to the order in which we have already discussed the armaments of the Saxon warrior - that is, first the body armour, then the helmet and the principal weapon, the sword, and finally the secondary weapons, such as the lance, the spear, the mace, and the bow.

His eleventh representation on the Bayeux needlework, showing his helmet thrown back on his head to assure his followers of his presence.

First look at the representation of Duke William himself - he appears eleven times on the roll. The most interesting of these figures is that in the scene where, to assure his followers of his presence, the Duke has thrown back his conical helmet with its broad nasal guard, holding it raised with his right hand, while with his left he brandishes a curious mace that resembles nothing more closely than a stout wooden cudgel (Fig. 41). The rambling letters of the background tell you that HIC EST WILEL' DVX. With the exception of the horseman in front of him, William is the the only warrior represented in full mail; by that is meant that he and his companion have the additional mail covering of chausses for their lower limbs, differing therein from the other knights who are defenceless below the knee save for leather thongs or the equivalent. His hauberk descends below the knee, its skirt slit back and front for convenience in riding, in a fashion that has bred a controversy as to whether the hauberk ended below the waist, as a pair of short breeches, and was, in fact, cut like a modern bathing suit. But on reference to another part of the Bayeux roll we see weapons and armour being carried to the ships. None of the hauberks, which are clearly drawn from a full-face view, are so fashioned [34] below, and we can therefore take it that the appearance lent to many of the hauberks worn by the knights was not due to their really encircling the legs of the wearer, but to the incapacity of the embroiderer or draughtsman in indicating the hauberk clinging to the legs (Fig. 42).

Soldiers carrying hauberks, helmets and swords to the ships, likewise spears or javelins and apparently liquid rations

An instance of the simple form of the long hauberk (though the fact does not bear great weight in this argument) is to be seen in some of the chain mail shirts which were captured from the Soudanese after the battle of Omdurman; many of these shirts were certainly as long as those worn by the Norman invaders, but none was joined round the legs, although the Soudanese method of fighting on horseback and much of Soudanese military apparel bear a very close resemblance to those of the Norman warrior of the XIth century.

Mr. Albert Way, in his glossary for the second edition of Meyrick's "Critical Inquiry," applies to this imaginary combination garment of hauberk and breeches the name haubergeon as opposed to the simple shirt or hauberk. But in this he must surely be in error, for the name is a diminutive of hauberk, and so could not well be a term to describe these very long hauberks.[35]

If we look carefully at the selected illustration of the Conqueror from the Bayeux needlework, we can see the armoured sleeves of another garment issuing through the wide arm-holes of the hauberk; these in the loose drawing of the time are represented as possessing exactly the same annulated surface as the hauberk itself. May they not be the sleeves of the small under-hauberk that might correctly be called the haubergeon?

The hauberks have a square opening at the neck, whilst at about the height of the chest we see on most of the shirts a rectangular reinforcement edged with some other material. This, in the Duke's hauberk, is not present, but it seems that the hood of mail issues from under the top of his hauberk. Might not this mail hood and the under sleeves appearing from beneath the hauberk be part and parcel of the same under protective garment?

We have discussed the probable shape of the Norman hauberk, but we come now to a far more difficult problem - the method of its construction and the material used. Up to this point the word mail has been used to denote the pliant, protective material of the hauberk, not necessarily interlinked mail. From the divers ways of illustrating it, it would appear that various forms of mail are intended to be indicated. That pioneer in the study of armour, Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, in his " Critical Inquiry," classifies the various styles represented as "tegulated," "trellised," mascled," " banded," etc., scale-mail being already recognized by antiquaries in the lorica squamata of the Romans. But after most carefully studying his views we cannot help agreeing with the late Mr. W. Burges, that these many names are but so many guesses at the materials indicated by the old artists, and that, whatever convention their brush or needle may follow, it is, as a rule, chain-mail that they would show us.

In the Bayeux needlework, where the figures are small and the material coarse, the embroiderer had no better method of representing interlinked mail than by indicating rings on the surface of the coat. Many writers have imagined from this that the armour was actually composed of rings sewn on to a foundation of some kind of linen, cloth, or leather. But such a protection would be of the poorest quality; it might withstand a sword-cut, but would be incapable of stopping a thrust from any weapon - the rings would immediately be forced apart. It may also be asked how long the stitches attaching the rings would last when the iron had begun to rust? Let us therefore be bold and assert that the mail hauberk of the Norman, conventionally represented by rings, by dots, or by scale-like marks, was none other than the ordinary interlinked chain mail, as we know it, of the [36] XVth and XVIth centuries. It may, of course, have varied very considerably in the size of its links; we see several sizes of rings illustrated in the Bayeux roll, but we think they all represent mail of the same construction, of the same make as the ring-byrnie of the Anglo-Saxon.

His eighth representation on the Bayeux needlework; showing the conventional rendering of chain mail in two ways upon the same hauberk. - Note the clear outline of his sword hilt.

Two instances of mail differently pictured, but necessarily of the same kind, we can here illustrate. First in the Bayeux roll, in the eighth representation of the Conqueror (Fig. 43), where he is standing unmounted. The mail of his hauberk is here represented by a cross hatching, into the trellis of which are inserted the usual circles. This is on his body and right leg; but the part of the hauberk that falls over his left leg shows a different treatment, circles alone without the cross hatching. Therefore, unless his hauberk had a longitudinal half of one kind of mail and another half of a different kind, which of course is entirely improbable, we have proof positive of two conventional fashions of representing the same mail shirt upon one figure.

FIG. 44.
MS. Nero C. iv, about 1125, British Museum. In the upper picture the hauberk of Goliath shown in two conventional ways, though of necessity the same mail shirt. In the lower picture note the wheel pommels of the swords and formation of spear and lance heads

For a second instance of this looseness of drawing, we have but to look at the illustration (Fig. 44) chosen from the Cotton MS. Nero, C. 4, about 1125. We see in the upper portion of the page David and Goliath. On the left of the picture David has driven the stone from his sling into the forehead of Goliath; on the right of the picture David, after the death of his opponent, hands Goliath's hauberk of mail to Saul. As it stands to reason that the hauberk worn by Goliath must be the same as the one offered by David to Saul, and as the former has only just killed the giant, it is instructive to see that the same shirt of mail, illustrated twice in the same picture, is represented after two distinct conventions: worn on the giant it is represented by a series of small S-shaped markings; stripped from his body and held in the hand of Saul, it is shown with small circles evenly placed over the whole shirt.

These two illustrations are here described at some length for the lesson [37] they teach as to the extreme looseness of conventional mail-illustration is most instructive.

Four conventional ways of what the author believes to be the ordinary hauberks of linked chain mail

When, however, we see entirely different methods used in illustrating defensive coats or hauberks, all of which are chosen from the same Bayeux needlework (Fig. 45), we must stop to consider whether they are intended to distinguish real divergences from the conventionality of rendering.

This might be a quilted defensive garment of the brigandine type

However, when shirts are rendered as in our next illustration (Fig. 46), they were of the other types that were in use, which can safely be said to differ entirely in their construction from the true chain mail shirt, and must therefore be placed in a different category. Doubtless they were those quilted coats of linen which in later years would be known as the pourpoint or later still jacks. They might also be made of leather, or be composed of scales of copper, iron, or horn sewn between layers of pliable material.

A certain similarity in the fashion of the armour prevails throughout, though in many cases the degree of protection afforded by the armaments varies considerably. One knight will be seen with his legs encircled in thongs; one with creaseless legs as if bare, though they were doubtless covered with cloth or leather: some appear in sleeveless hauberks and some [39] with bare arms; others again are distinguished by wearing spurs or by riding bareheaded.

MS. Nero, C. iv, about 1125, British Museum showing a different type of hauberk, the sword worn on the right-hand side, and a later form of conical helmet

In the Cotton MS. Nero C. iv, which, as we have already stated, may be assigned to the last years of the XIth or early years of the XIIth century, we note a figure taken from a group entitled "Massacre of the Innocents" (Fig. 47). Here the hauberk is of different form from those depicted on the Bayeux needlework; it is not slit up at the front and back, but at the sides. Through the right-hand opening issues the sword scabbard, the top of which passes through a special aperture in the waist of the hauberk. A warrior wearing such a hauberk would find it impossible to straddle a horse, so we must take it that it was intended solely for use on foot. It will also be noticed that the sleeves of this hauberk reach almost to the wrist. The long pleated tunic beneath shows no signs of the gambeson.

Guy, Count of Ponthieu, in a scaled garment, carrying the Danish or Norman axe. The head shown almost duplicates the example illustrated (page 26, Fig. 32)

Up to this point we have barely mentioned what is called scale armour. We have spoken of it as the leather byrnie of the Anglo-Saxons. But scale armour has been known in all ages and by every nation. In the Bayeux needlework we see the figure of Guy, Count of Ponthieu (Fig. 48), in a very clearly delineated hauberk of this fashion, the scales of which, from their magnitude, we should imagine to be of leather rather than of metal. It will be noticed that it is a sleeveless hauberk, for doubtless scales of such size would restrict the free swing of the arms. The scale tunic was the most popular defence of the soldiery, even after Saxon times, owing to the simplicity with which the scales, of iron, copper, horn, bone, or even of horse's hoof, could be cut out and sewn on to a foundation of leather or cloth. These scales were of all shapes; some with the edges rounded and placed to overlap like tiles; often in groups of two; while in other instances each plate was rectangular, a fashion which, when displayed as we see it on one of the warriors of the close of the XIth century, drawn in Herr Hefner-Alteneck's Trachten, part i, Plate XII, gives a very excellent illustration of what Sir Samuel Meyrick will call "tegulated" armour. We have not reproduced this plate, for we confess to a feeling of uneasiness in doing so as not having seen the original; for judged by certain of its details, as for instance its completely "tegulated" [40] legs, feet and gauntlets, it would seem of a later date. It has, however, been accepted by some of the first authorities as being truly an example of the period, so we have alluded to it. It is stated that in the original miniature painting upon vellum the armour is silvered, which would be meant to represent iron.

Construed by John Hewitt. From Ancient Armour and Weapons in Europe, by John Hewitt

From a statue of the early part of the XIIIth Century. Reims Cathedral

The figure expressed by the Great Seal of William II gives us a good example of a scale suit as worn by persons of high rank at this period. In this instance the scales might even be of gilded iron or bronze. The hauberk reaches to the knee and is clearly of simple form, split up front and back to facilitate riding. As far as it is possible to see, it has long sleeves reaching to the wrist (Fig. 49). For an excellent illustration of the military attire of scale armour, though of rather later date, we illustrate one [41] of the statues of soldiers from the facade of Reims Cathedral (Fig. 50). In all probability the date of this statue is of the first quarter of the XIIIth century, but the large overlapping scales are remarkable, for they show but a very slight defensive advance from those depicted as worn by Guy, Count of Ponthieu.

< Back to Chapter 1 part 3 ~ ^ Return to Table of Contents ~ Continue to next part of text >
3 July 2000 ~ v1.00 ~ Copyright © 2000 by Lee A. Jones
Return to site home page ~ framed ~ unframed