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Arms and Armour - Part 6 - Armour

The main type of body armour in Anglo-Saxon times was mail. The term 'chainmail' not being coined until the 1700's. Mail of the period was made by cutting thin strips of iron from a piece of sheet, or drawing iron wire through a draw-plate, and winding this around a cylindrical former. It was then cut off with a chisel to form the links. The links would then be compressed so that the ends overlapped.

Rivetted mail - you can just appreciate some of the fine rivets
*Section of rivetted mail

Half of the links were then welded shut in the forge. The other half had the ends of each link were flattened and then had holes punched in them. As the mailshirt was assembled a punched ring was linked to four of the welded rings, a rivet was put through the holes to close the link. Alternatively, the whole shirt could have been made entirely made with rivetted rings. Finally the whole mailshirt was likely to have been 'oil tempered' to make it stronger and give some degree of rust-proofing.

The early mailshirts seem to have reached to just below the waist and have short sleeves (there is no evidence for sleeveless mailshirts like those known from the Iron Age). These short mailshirts seem to have been referred to as a byrnie and are sometimes shown with a vandyked lower edge.

The mailshirt became longer towards the eleventh century until it reached the knees or just below with sleeves to the elbow. These long mailshirts, often with an integral hood, were split to the groin at the front and back to enable riding and could well have taken a year to make. The term hauberk, often used to describe these long mail-coats, is actually derived from the Old English word 'healsbeorg' which was in fact a mail hood (what is now called a coif); it was not until later that hood and shirt together were known by this name.

Mail worn on its own would stop the cutting edge of most weapons, but did not stop the crushing effects. So some kind of padding would have been worn under the mail. These padded garments, now known as gambesons, were made by sewing fleeces, raw wool or layers of woollen cloth between two layers of linen, felt or leather. Gambesons were probably very thick and could offer very good protection against the impact of weapons.

An aventail attatched to a helm in use; it hangs from a wire held in a slotted tube running around the lower edge of the helm
*Helmet and aventail

Gambesons were usually worn under mail (perhaps even attached to it) and would tend to be a similar outline to the mailshirt, although it is possible they could have been worn on their own by poorer warriors. No gambesons have ever been found, but modern practice in re-enactment shows the validity of such things. The Romans are documented wearing padding under their mailshirts which consisted of two layers of linen either side of a felt inner. Mailshirts also have a tendency to pull your tunic to pieces and stain the cloth, something which a liner such as a gambeson or leather between would prevent.

Mail coifs, or 'healsbeorgs', were worn from the ninth century and tended to cover the top and back of the head, the cheeks, chin, neck and perhaps some of the shoulders. Again coifs are mentioned but have never been found, so we can only guess as to their original shape. By the beginning of the tenth century these had become quite common amongst the professional warriors. By the eleventh century the coif was often integrated with the hauberk becomming a hood. The 'ventail' section of mail on or near the chest that folds up over the neck and chin, and hooked into position over the lower face, is the best explanation for the shapes found on the knights armour in the Bayeux tapestry.

They are not universal, but seem to be a sensible protection for a horseman, as most of the attacks he would receive would come up from below. Padded arming caps would be probably worn under the coif and may also have been worn on their own. The coif as a head covering is shown on figures from Byzantine mosaics, interestingly enough worn by both males and females. How widely elsewhere the wearing of them as normal headgear is unknown until the Middle Ages.

Limb Armour

Limb armour was far rarer than body or head armour. It is possible that a few kings and greater nobleman may have worn some form of greaves; a sensible defence as the legs were unguarded by the earlier round shields and contemporary accounts often mention men having their legs chopped off. No greaves have ever been found in Britain and illustrations of them are very rare. One illustration is dated to the late ninth century and shows a Dane and two companions with thin (metal?) plates attached to the front of their hose and reaching from knee to instep. An example at the beginning of the eleventh century covers also the foot.

By the eleventh century a few of the wealthier warriors are shown with mail chausses or leggings although these too are quite rare. Also in the eleventh century a few wealthy warriors are shown with tight fitting full length mail sleeves under the sleeves of their hauberks. It is also possible that a few warriors may have worn leather vambraces, or have used leather bindings similar to 'puttes' to protect their forearms. At this time lamellar and scale armours were known, and used in the Middle-east, but they do not seem to have reached Western Europe until after the First Crusade.

(left) A pair of chausses. Note the straps to help keep them in place, and to ensure that there is plenty of slack at the knee; (right) A ventail in use on the right and a coif or hood on the Knight on the left. There is a certain amount of doubt that the coif was in use at this date, and the Bayeux Tapestry doesn't corroborate this either way.
*Cinulph's mail chausses *Mail armoured troops in a tight corridor

Spears   Scramseaxes   Axes   Missile Weapons   Swords   Mail Armour   Helmets   Shields

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