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An extract from Scenes and Characters of the Middle Ages, by Edward Lewes Cutts

[Pg 311]






We proceed, in this division of our work, to select out of the inexhaustible series of pictures of mediæval life and manners contained in illuminated MSS., a gallery of subjects which will illustrate the armour and costume, the military life and chivalric adventures, of the Knights of the Middle Ages; and to append to the pictures such explanations as they may seem to need, and such discursive remarks as the subjects may suggest.

For the military costume of the Anglo-Saxon period we have the authority of the descriptions in their literature, illustrated by drawings in their illuminated MSS.; and if these leave anything wanting in definiteness, the minutest details of form and ornamentation may often be recovered from the rusted and broken relics of armour and weapons which have been recovered from their graves, and are now preserved in our museums.

Saxon freemen seem to have universally borne arms. Tacitus tells us of their German ancestors, that swords were rare among them, and the majority did not use lances, but that spears, with a narrow, sharp and short head, were the common and universal weapon, used either in distant or close fight; and that even the cavalry were satisfied with a shield and one of these spears.

The law in later times seems to have required freemen to bear arms for[Pg 312] the common defence; the laws of Gula, which are said to have been originally established by Hacon the Good in the middle of the eighth century, required every man who possessed six marks besides his clothes to furnish himself with a red shield and a spear, an axe or a sword; he who was worth twelve marks was to have a steel cap also; and he who was worth eighteen marks a byrnie, or shirt of mail, in addition. Accordingly, in the exploration of Saxon graves we find in those of men “spears and javelins are extremely numerous,” says Mr. C. Roach Smith, “and of a variety of shapes and sizes.”... “So constantly do we find them in the Saxon graves, that it would appear no man above the condition of a serf was buried without one. Some are of large size, but the majority come under the term of javelin or dart.” The rusty spear-head lies beside the skull, and the iron boss of the shield on his breast; the long, broad, heavy, rusted sword is comparatively seldom found beside the skeleton; sometimes, but rarely, the iron frame of a skull-cap or helmet is found about the head.


Saxon Soldiers.


An examination of the pictures in the Saxon illuminated MSS. confirms the conclusion that the shield and spear were the common weapons. Their bearers are generally in the usual civil costume, and not infrequently are bare-headed. The spear-shaft is almost always spoken of as being of ash-wood; indeed, the word æsc (ash) is used by metonymy for a spear; and the common poetic name for a soldier is æsc-berend, or æsc-born, a spear-bearer; just as, in later times, we speak of him as a swordsman.

We learn from the poets that the shield—“the broad war disk”—was made of linden-wood, as in Beowulf:—

“He could not then refrain,
but grasped his shield
the yellow linden,
drew his ancient sword.”

[Pg 313] From the actual remains of shields, we find that the central boss was of iron, of conical shape, and that a handle was fixed across its concavity by which it was held in the hand.

The helmet is of various shapes; the commonest are the three represented in our first four wood-cuts. The most common is the conical shape seen in the large wood-cut on p. 316.


Saxon Horse Soldiers.


The Phrygian-shaped helmet, seen in the single figure on p. 314 is also a very common form; and the curious crested helmet worn by all the warriors in our first two wood-cuts of Saxon soldiers is also common. In some cases the conical helmet was of iron, but perhaps more frequently it was of leather, strengthened with a frame of iron.

In the group of four foot soldiers in our first wood-cut, it will be observed that the men wear tunics, hose, and shoes; the multiplicity of folds and fluttering ends in the drapery is a characteristic of Saxon art, but the spirit and elegance of the heads is very unusual and very admirable.

Our first three illustrations are taken from a beautiful little MS. of Prudentius in the Cottonian Library, known under the press mark, Cleopatra C. VIII. The illuminations in this MS. are very clearly and skilfully drawn with the pen; indeed, many of them are designed with so much spirit and[Pg 314] skill and grace, as to make them not only of antiquarian interest, but also of high artistic merit. The subjects are chiefly illustrations of Scripture history or of allegorical fable; but, thanks to the custom which prevailed throughout the Middle Ages of representing all such subjects in contemporary costume, and according to contemporary manners and customs, the Jewish patriarchs and their servants afford us perfectly correct representations of Saxon thanes and their cheorls; Goliath, a perfect picture of a Saxon warrior, armed cap-à-pied; and Pharaoh and his nobles of a Saxon Basileus and his witan. Thus, our second wood-cut is an illustration of the incident of Lot and his family being carried away captives by the Canaanitish kings after their successful raid against the cities of the plain; but it puts before our eyes a group of the armed retainers of a Saxon king on a military expedition. It will be seen that they wear the ordinary Saxon civil costume, a tunic and cloak; that they are all armed with the spear, all wear crested helmets; and the last of the group carries a round shield suspended at his back. The variety of attitude, the spirit and life of the figures, and the skill and gracefulness of the drawing, are admirable.

Another very valuable series of illustrations of Saxon military costume will be found in a MS. of Ælfric’s Paraphrase of the Pentateuch and Joshua, in the British Museum (Cleopatra B. IV.); at folio 25, for example, we have a representation of Abraham pursuing the five kings in order to rescue Lot: in the version of the Saxon artist the patriarch and his Arab servants are translated into a Saxon thane and his house carles, who are represented marching in a long array which takes up two bands of drawing across the vellum page.


Saxon Soldier, in Leather Armour.


The Anglo-Saxon poets let us know that chieftains and warriors wore a body defence, which they call a byrnie or a battle-sark. In the illuminations we find this sometimes of leather, as in the wood-cut here given from the Prudentius which has already supplied us with two illustrations. It is very usually Vandyked at the edges, as[Pg 315] here represented. But the epithets, “iron byrnie,” and “ringed byrnie,” and “twisted battle-sark,”show that the hauberk was often made of iron mail. In some of the illuminations it is represented as if detached rings of iron were sewn flat upon it: this may be really a representation of a kind of jazerant work, such as was frequently used in later times, or it may be only an unskilful way of representing the ordinary linked mail.

A document of the early part of the eighth century, given in Mr. Thorpe’s Anglo-Saxon Laws, seems to indicate that at that period the mail hauberk was usually worn only by the higher ranks. In distinguishing between the eorl and the cheorl it says, if the latter thrive so well that he have a helmet and byrnie and sword ornamented with gold, yet if he have not five hydes of land, he is only a cheorl. By the time of the end of the Saxon era, however, it would seem that the men-at-arms were usually furnished with a coat of fence, for the warriors in the battle of Hastings are nearly all so represented in the Bayeux tapestry.

In Ælfric’s Paraphrase, already mentioned (Cleopatra B. IV.), at folio 24, there is a representation of a king clothed in such a mail shirt, armed with sword and shield, attended by an armour-bearer, who carries a second shield but no offensive weapon, his business being to ward off the blows aimed at his lord. We should have given a wood-cut of this interesting group, but that it has already been engraved in the “Pictorial History of England” (vol. i.) and in Hewitt’s “Ancient Armour” (vol. i. p. 60). This king with his shield-bearer does not occur in an illustration of Goliath and the man bearing a shield who went before him, nor of Saul and his armour-bearer, where it would be suggested by the text; but is one of the three kings engaged in battle against the cities of the plain; it seems therefore to indicate a Saxon usage. Another of the kings in the same picture has no hauberk, but only the same costume as the warrior in the wood-cut on the next page.

In the Additional MS. 11,695, in the British Museum, a work of the eleventh century, there are several representations of warriors thus fully armed, very rude and coarse in drawing, but valuable for the clearness with which they represent the military equipment of the time. At folio 194 there is a large figure of a warrior in a mail shirt, a conical helmet,[Pg 316] strengthened with iron ribs converging to the apex, the front rib extending downwards, into what is called a nasal, i.e., a piece of iron extending downwards over the nose, so as to protect the face from a sword-cut across the upper part of it. At folio 223 of the same MS. is a group of six warriors, two on horseback and four on foot. We find them all with hauberk, iron helmets, round shields, and various kinds of leg defences; they have spears, swords, and one of the horsemen bears a banner of characteristic shape, i.e., it is a right-angled triangle, with the shortest side applied to the spear-shaft, so that the right angle is at the bottom.


No. 4.


[Pg 317] A few extracts from the poem of Beowulf, a curious Saxon fragment, which the best scholars concur in assigning to the end of the eighth century, will help still further to bring these ancient warriors before our mind’s eye.

Here is a scene in King Hrothgar’s hall:

“After evening came
and Hrothgar had departed
to his court,
guarded the mansion
countless warriors,
as they oft ere had done,
they bared the bench-floor
it was overspread
with beds and bolsters,
they set at their heads
their disks of war,
their shield-wood bright;
there on the bench was
over the noble,
easy to be seen,
his high martial helm,
his ringed byrnie
and war-wood stout.”

Beowulf’s funeral pole is said to be—

“with helmets, war brands,
and bright byrnies behung.”

And in this oldest of Scandinavian romances we have the natural reflections—

“the hard helm shall
adorned with gold
from the fated fall;
mortally wounded sleep
those who war to rage
by trumpet should announce;
in like manner the war shirt
which in battle stood
over the crash of shields
the bite of swords
shall moulder after the warrior;
the byrnie’s ring may not
[Pg 318] after the martial leader
go far on the side of heroes;
there is no joy of harp
no glee-wood’s mirth,
no good hawk
swings through the hall,
nor the swift steed
tramps the city place.
Baleful death
has many living kinds
sent forth.”

Reflections which Coleridge summed up in the brief lines—

“Their swords are rust,
Their bones are dust,
Their souls are with the saints, we trust.”

The wood-cut on p. 316 is taken from a collection of various Saxon pictures in the British Museum, bound together in the volume marked Tiberius C. VI., at folio 9. Our wood-cut is a reduced copy. In the original the warrior is seven or eight inches high, and there is, therefore, ample room for the delineation of every part of his costume. From the embroidery of the tunic, and the ornamentation of the shield and helmet, we conclude that we have before us a person of consideration, and he is represented as in the act of combat; but we see his armour and arms are only those to which we have already affirmed that the usual equipment was limited. The helmet seems to be strengthened with an iron rim and converging ribs, and is furnished with a short nasal.

The figure is without the usual cloak, and therefore the better shows the fashion of the tunic. The banding of the legs was not for defence, it is common in civil costume. The quasi-banding of the forearm is also sometimes found in civil costume; it seems not to be an actual banding, still less a spiral armlet, but merely a fashion of wearing the tunic sleeve. We see how the sword is, rather inartificially, slung by a belt over the shoulder; how the shield is held by the iron handle across its hollow spiked umbo; and how the barbed javelin is cast.

On the preceding page of this MS. is a similar figure, but without the sword.

[Pg 319] There were some other weapons frequently used by the Saxons which we have not yet had occasion to mention. The most important of these is the axe. It is not often represented in illuminations, and is very rarely found in graves, but it certainly was extensively in use in the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period, and was perhaps introduced by the Danes. The house carles of Canute, we are expressly told, were armed with axes, halberds, and swords, ornamented with gold. In the ship which Godwin presented to Hardicanute, William of Malmesbury tells us the soldiers wore two bracelets of gold on each arm, each bracelet weighing sixteen ounces; they had gilt helmets; in the right hand they carried a spear of iron, and in the left a Danish axe, and they wore swords hilted with gold. The axe was also in common use by the Saxons at the battle of Hastings. There are pictorial examples of the single axe in the Cottonian MS., Cleopatra C.VIII.; of the double axe—the bipennis—in the Harleian MS., 603; and of various forms of the weapon, including the pole-axe, in the Bayeux tapestry.

The knife or dagger was also a Saxon weapon. There is a picture in the Anglo-Saxon MS. in the Paris Library, called the Duke de Berri’s Psalter, in which a combatant is armed with what appears to be a large double-edged knife and a shield, and actual examples of it occur in Saxon graves. The seax, which is popularly believed to have been a dagger and a characteristic Saxon weapon, seems to have been a short single-edged slightly curved weapon, and is rarely found in England. It is mentioned in Beowulf:—he—

“drew his deadly seax,
bitter and battle sharp,
that he on his byrnie bore.”

The sword was usually about three feet long, two-edged and heavy in the blade. Sometimes, especially in earlier examples, it is without a guard. Its hilt was sometimes of the ivory of the walrus, occasionally of gold, the blade was sometimes inlaid with gold ornaments and runic verses. Thus in Beowulf—

“So was on the surface
of the bright gold
[Pg 320] with runic letters
rightly marked,
set and said, for whom that sword,
costliest of irons,
was first made,
with twisted hilt and
serpent shaped.”

The Saxons indulged in many romantic fancies about their swords. Some swordsmiths chanted magical verses as they welded them, and tempered them with mystical ingredients. Beowulf’s sword was a—

“tempered falchion
that had before been one
of the old treasures;
its edge was iron
tainted with poisonous things
hardened with warrior blood;
never had it deceived any man
of those who brandished it with hands.”

Favourite swords had names given them, and were handed down from father to son, or passed from champion to champion, and became famous. Thus, again, in Beowulf, we read—

“He could not then refrain,
but grasped his shield,
the yellow linden,
drew his ancient sword
that among men was
a relic of Eanmund,
Ohthere’s son,
of whom in conflict was,
when a friendless exile,
Weohstan the slayer
with falchions edges,
and from his kinsmen bore away
the brown-hued helm,
the ringed byrnie,
the old Eotenish [369] sword
which him Onela had given.”

There is a fine and very perfect example of a Saxon sword in the[Pg 321] British Museum, which was found in the bed of the river Witham, at Lincoln. The sheath was usually of wood, covered with leather, and tipped, and sometimes otherwise ornamented with metal.

The spear was used javelin-wise, and the warrior going into battle sometimes carried several of them. They are long-bladed, often barbed, as represented in the woodcut on p. 316, and very generally have one or two little cross-bars below the head, as in cuts on pp. 313 and 314. The Saxon artillery, besides the javelin, was the bow and arrows. The bow is usually a small one, of the old classical shape, not the long bow for which the English yeomen afterwards became so famous, and which seems to have been introduced by the Normans.

In the latest period of the Saxon monarchy, the armour and weapons were almost identical with those used on the Continent. We have abundant illustrations of them in the Bayeux tapestry. In that invaluable historical monument, the minutest differences between the Saxon and Norman knights and men-at-arms seem to be carefully observed, even to the national fashions of cutting the hair; and we are therefore justified in assuming that there were no material differences in the military equipment, since we find none indicated, except that the Normans used the long bow and the Saxons did not. We have abstained from taking any illustrations from the tapestry, because the whole series has been several times engraved, and is well known, or, at least, is easily accessible, to those who are interested in the subject. We have preferred to take an illustration from a MS. in the British Museum, marked Harleian 2,895, from folio 82 v. The warrior, who is no less a person than Goliath of Gath, has a hooded hauberk, with sleeves down to the elbow, over a green tunic. The legs are tinted blue in the drawing, but seem to be unarmed, except for the green boots, which reach half way to the knee. He wears an iron helmet with a nasal, and the hood appears to be fastened to the nasal, so as to protect the lower part of the face. The large shield is red, with a yellow border, and is hung from the neck by a chain. The belt round his waist is red. The well-armed giant leans upon his spear, looking down contemptuously on David, whom it has not been thought necessary to include in our copy of the picture. The group forms a very[Pg 322] appropriate filling-in of the great initial letter B of the Psalm Benedictus Dns. Ds. Ms. qui docet manus meas ad prælium et digitos meos ad bellum (Blessed be the Lord my God, who teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight). In the same MS., at folio 70, there are two men armed with helmet and sword, and at folio 81 v. a group of armed men on horseback, in sword, shield, and spurs.

It may be convenient to some of our readers, if we indicate here where a few other examples of Saxon military costume may be found which we have noted down, but have not had occasion to refer to in the above remarks.



In the MS. of Prudentius (Cleopatra C. VIII.), from which we have taken our first three woodcuts, are many other pictures well worth study. On the same page (folio 1 v.) as that which contains our wood-cut p. 312, there is another very similar group on the lower part of the page; on folio 2 is still another group, in which some of the faces are most charming in drawing and expression. At folio 15 v. there is a spirited combat of two footmen, armed with sword and round shield, and clad in short leather coats of fence, vandyked at the edges. At folio 24 v. is an allegorical female figure in a short leather tunic, with shading on it which seems to indicate that the hair of the leather has been left on, and is worn outside, which we know from other sources was one of the fashions of the time. In the MS. of Ælfric’s Paraphrase (Claud. B. iv.) already quoted, there are, besides the battle scene at folio 24 v., in which occurs the king and his armour-bearer, at folio 25 two long lines of Saxon horsemen marching across the page, behind Abraham, who wears a crested Phrygian helm. On the reverse of folio 25 there is another group, and also on folios 62 and 64. On folio 52 is another troop, of Esau’s horsemen, marching across the page in ranks of four abreast, all bareheaded and armed with spears. At folio 96 v. is another example of a warrior, with a[Pg 323] shield-bearer. The pictures in the latter part of this MS. are not nearly so clearly delineated as in the former part, owing to their having been tinted with colour; the colour, however, enables us still more completely to fill in to the mind’s eye the distinct forms which we have gathered from the former part of the book. The large troops of soldiers are valuable, as showing us the style of equipment which was common in the Saxon militia.

There is another MS. of Prudentius in the British Museum of about the same date, and of the same school of art, though not quite so finely executed, which is well worth the study of the artist in search of authorities for Saxon military (and other) costume, and full of interest for the amateur of art and archæology. Its press mark is Cottonian, Titus D. XVI. On the reverse of folio 2 is a group of three armed horsemen, representing the confederate kings of Canaan carrying off Lot, while Abraham, at the head of another group of armed men, is pursuing them. On folio 3 is another group of armed horsemen. After these Scripture histories come some allegorical subjects, conceived and drawn with great spirit. At folio 6 v., “Pudicitia pugnat contra Libidinem,” Pudicitia being a woman armed with hauberk, helmet, spear, and shield. On the opposite page Pudicitia—in a very spirited attitude—is driving her spear through the throat of Libido. On folio 26 v., “Discordia vulnerat occulte Concordium.” Concord is represented as a woman armed with a loose-sleeved hauberk, helmet, and sword. Discord is lifting up the skirt of Concord’s hauberk, and thrusting a sword into her side. In the Harleian MS. 2,803, is a Vulgate Bible, of date about 1170 A.D.; there are no pictures, only the initial letters of the various books are illuminated. But while the illuminator was engaged upon the initial of the Second Book of Kings, his eye seems to have been caught by the story of Saul’s death in the last chapter of the First Book, which happens to come close by in the parallel column of the great folio page:—Arripuit itaqu, gladium et erruit sup. eum (Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it); and he has sketched in the scene with pen-and-ink on the margin of the page, thus affording us another authority for the armour of a Saxon king when actually engaged in battle. He wears a hauberk, with an ornamented border, has his crown[Pg 324] on his head, and spurs on his heels; has placed his sword-hilt on the ground, and fallen upon it.

In the Additional MS. 11,695, on folio 102 v., are four armed men on horseback, habited in hauberks without hoods. Two of them have the sleeves extending to the wrist, two have loose sleeves to the elbow only, showing that the two fashions were worn contemporaneously. They all have mail hose; one of them is armed with a bow, the rest with the sword. There are four men in similar armour on folio 136 v. of the same MS. Also at folio 143, armed with spear, sword, and round ornamented shield. At folio 222 v. are soldiers manning a gate-tower.

When the soldiers so very generally wore the ordinary citizen costume, it becomes necessary, in order to give a complete picture of the military costume, to say a few words on the dress which the soldier wore in common with the citizen. The tunic and mantle composed the national costume of the Saxons. The tunic reached about to the knee: sometimes it was slit up a little way at the sides, and it often had a rich ornamented border round the hem, extending round the side slits, making the garment almost exactly resemble the ecclesiastical tunic or Dalmatic. It had also very generally a narrower ornamental border round the opening for the neck. The tunic was sometimes girded round the waist.

The Saxons were famous for their skill in embroidery, and also in metal-work; and there are sufficient proofs that the tunic was often richly embroidered. There are indications of it in the wood-cut on p. 316; and in the relics of costume found in the Saxon graves are often buckles of elegant workmanship, which fastened the belt with which the tunic was girt.

The mantle was in the form of a short cloak, and was usually fastened at the shoulder, as in the wood-cuts on pp. 312, 313, 314, so as to leave the right arm unencumbered by its folds. The brooch with which this cloak was fastened formed a very conspicuous item of costume. They were of large size, some of them of bronze gilt, others of gold, beautifully ornamented with enamels; and there is this interesting fact about them, they seem to corroborate the old story, that the Saxon invaders were of three different tribes—the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons—who subdued and inhabited different portions of Britain. For in Kent and the Isle of Wight, the settlements of[Pg 325] the Jutes, brooches are found of circular form, often of gold and enamelled. In the counties of Yorkshire, Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Northampton, and in the eastern counties, a large gilt bronze brooch of peculiar form is very commonly found, and seems to denote a peculiar fashion of the Angles, who inhabited East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. Still another variety of fashion, shaped like a saucer, has been discovered in the counties of Gloucester, Oxford, and Buckingham, on the border between the Mercians and West Saxons. It is curious to find these peculiar fashions thus confirming the ancient and obscure tradition about the original Saxon settlements. The artist will bear in mind that the Saxons seem generally to have settled in the open country, not in the towns, and to have built timber halls and cottages after their own custom, and to have avoided the sites of the Romano-British villas, whose blackened ruins must have thickly dotted at least the southern and south-eastern parts of the island. They appear to have built no fortresses, if we except a few erected at a late period, to check the incursions of the Danes. But they had the old Roman towns left, in many cases with their walls and gates tolerably entire. In the Saxon MS. Psalter, Harleian 603, are several illuminations in which walled towns and gates are represented. But we do not gather that they were very skilful either in the attack or defence of fortified places. Indeed, their weapons and armour were of a very primitive kind, and their warfare seems to have been conducted after a very unscientific fashion. Little chance had their rude Saxon hardihood against the military genius of William the Norman and the disciplined valour of his bands of mercenaries.



[369] “Eoten,” a giant; “Eotenish,” made by or descended from the giants.

[370] The Harl. MS. 603, of the close of the eleventh century, contains a number of military subjects rudely drawn, but conveying suggestions which the artist will be able to interpret and profit by. In the Add. MS. 28,107, of date A.D. 1096, at f. 25 v., is a Goliath; and at f. 1,630 v., a group of soldiers.