"Venus at Vulcan's Forge," Jan van Kessel the Younger (1654 – 1708).
At some point in everyone’s life they reflect on past decisions and contemplate ‘what if I knew then, what I know now?’ The purpose of this series is to answer some of the most commonly asked questions regarding the building of a reproduction harness through the lens of someone who has walked the path for more than two decades. While it may come across as rather snobbish advice to some, rest assured that, if maintaining a relatively high degree of historical accuracy is important to you, it will save you a great deal of heartache and money to play the long game and plan every step of your build from the start.
First, select a region and date. Think long and hard before you settle on an answer as this one decision will affect each and every one that follows. While that may sound a bit dramatic at first, consider it from a modern perspective. If you were given the job as head curator for a new 20th-century military museum, how well would it be received to mix and match uniforms and weapons if you were unable to find enough complete sets to fill your display cases? Is there really a difference in the American Expeditionary Forces, or “doughboys,” of World War I and the German Fallschirmjäger paratrooper of World War II and the Spetsnaz commandos of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Would critics accept the argument that it could represent a plausible as lower-ranked soldiers might have looted the dead on the battlefield, or would they pan your decision? Men-at-arms from different regions are just as incongruous in the fifteenth century as modern soldiers are across the span of the 20th century. The focus of this article is England at the start of the Wars of the Roses in 1455. The evidence below reflects the author’s preferred time and period, but the general concept of doing your homework still applies.
The fifteenth century was all about conspicuous wealth, and, for the knightly class, it was important to keep up with the Sir Johns. One could not go to a tournament wearing battered field gear, and no occasion called for new armour more than riding off on campaign for the king. So, where would an English man-at-arms go if he were in need of new kit? The answer would seem to be the armourers of London Southwark.
In 1322, a group of 26 of 26 armourers and helmet-makers was granted the right to oversee standards of production in the City of London. When the Worshipful Company of Armourer’s and Brasiers received its charter of incorporation in 1453, its Master was Thomas Parker of Southwark.1 Only a few years before, on 6 May 1450, Thomas had been granted the workshops of the royal armoury within the Tower by King Henry VI, who named him his personal armourer for life.2
Thomas Parker enjoyed a long career. The keeper of household expense records for Sir John Howard, later duke of Norfolk, records that on the 3rd of May 1469, he paid Thomas Parker of Southwark and another unnamed armourer a total of 20 shillings to fashion a “gestrone” for him. Gestron is the English term for a jazerant, a garment made of mail stitched between two layers of padded fabric. A transcription of the entry can be seen in Manners and Expenses:
Item, the iij.d day of May, my master paid to Thomas Parker of Suthwarke, for stuffe of lynnene clothe and fustene, and fore warkemaneshipe of a gestrone of maylle, x.s.
Item, the same tyme my master yafe to an armorer fore the same gestrone, and fore makyng and facyonyng of the same, x.s. 3
Thomas Parker was not the only armourer to receive Sir John’s business. Two years earlier, on 5 December 1467, Howard purchased a pair of brigandines from Parre of Southwark:
Item, the v.th day of Desembre, my mastyr toke to Parre of Suthewerke, in ernest to make a peyr of breganders for him selffe, x.s. 4
In 1469, Edward IV extended his patronage to another London armourer named John Smyth, and, according to the exchequer, had purchased at least £360 worth of armour and other military equipment from him by 26 October of that year. 5
Of course, not all armour was made in England. Due to the fact that England had no domestic steel production--the primary ingredient in armour--all of the steel had to first be imported from Spain. This made domestic armour more expensive than its foreign counterparts; therefore, a considerable amount was imported from Milan, which was generally considered to be of a higher quality than the English-made variety. According to a chancery warrant issued in June 1471, Olivier de la Marche, a famous Burgundian soldier, diplomat, and ‘man of letters,’ would convey 500 complete harnesses, as well as 500 brigandines and 1,000 sallets for archers, into England for private sale. The brigandines were “garnished and complete,” explained to include sallets, bevors, leg harness, gardes, gardebraces. 6 It is interesting to note that de la Marche was very close to Charles the Bold, who was not only brother-in-law to Edward IV, but had recently aided the English King to retake his kingdom after being forced to flee to France following the earl of Warwick's rebellion. A few years later, during the winter of 1474-75, the master of the ordnance received £400 from the exchequer in recompense for 136 complete suits of Milanese armour bought for the king from Thomas Grafton, merchant of the staple of Calais. 7
Play the Long Game
So, you have selected your region and timeframe and are ready to progress to the next step of commissioning your first armour? Remember the adage ‘you get what you pay for.’ It is especially true of armour. Avoid touting the “poor man-at-arms” excuse often heard from those who bought poorly-made armour from India because it allowed them to obtain a “complete” kit from the start. The critics of your hypothetical museum did not accept it, historically-minded groups will be equally dismissive. Even kit that was considered mass-produced “munition” armour was significantly superior to the junk commonly sold on places like eBay and Etsy.
Why refer to building a first set of armour as ‘the long game?’ The average time you will have to wait in an experienced armourer’s queue is 6 months to 1 year. The production time similarly averages between 6 months and 1 year for a complete harness. So, you are looking at having to make a deposit and wait between 1 and 2 years for your armour to arrive. Keep in mind that you should plan for at least one or two in-person visits for proper measuring and fitting. If it does not fit correctly, it will be a hindrance instead of protection, and you will find yourself right back in another queue.
What if you cannot afford to commission a complete harness for your first build? Does it have to be done all at once? No, of course not. However, it is still worth remembering that you will incur additional cost by spreading it out in the form of separate fittings, etc. If the budget is especially tight, you should consider following the footsteps of your medieval predecessors and purchasing a brigandine with maille sleeves:
By using a brigandine as a starting point, in short, and protecting his head and limbs with plate or mail, a man-at-arms could construct a semi-complete harness whose weight and cost was dictated mainly by his financial ability and by his personal standards of comfort and military efficiency. How many men-at-arms actually did this during our period [i.e. 1450-1471] is a moot point, but the number was probably fairly large. Since there were a great many men-at-arms who could not or would not buy complete armor, and since most of them would probably not have been content to wear the peasant’s jack, brigandines and perhaps shirts of mail may have been the favorite body armor of English men-at-arms at this time. 8
A highly-recommended source for a quality reproduction brigandines is Ashley Barber at Armour Services Historical. Base prices range from approximately £680 £900 with additional decorative features costing more. There are also a number of armourers in Eastern Europe that make brigandines as well, sometimes at a lower cost; however, do your homework on how close adhere to the historical model it is meant to reproduce. The use of brigandines from a historical perspective is discussed further in A Pair of Brigandines.
Maille sleeves can be obtained in a number of ways. For top quality, consider commissioning a tailor-made set from a recommended source such as Mark Hale at Cap-á-Pie. Mark can also provide more general-sized options for a bit less impact on the budget. If you are looking for the best fit at the lowest price and are willing to do most of the work, you should consider buying a set of arms or complete hauberk from eBay and tailor them yourself. Cap-á-Pie and other maille-suppliers offer riveting tongs as well as loose rings and rivets. It takes some practice, but it can be enjoyable to learn and a point of pride to show off your tailor-made maille garments. More information is available under Maille-Making in the menu.
If you are still interested in commissioning a new harness: you may find the next article in the series helpful: Armour Build: II. Historicity.
If it all sounds a bit daunting trying to avoid the pitfalls of building a harness, the final article in this series offers an example of how the author selected the elements of his Milanese Export 'Alla Inglese'.
1. A Short History of the Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers, obtained from www.armourershall.co.uk]
2. Cal. Patent Rolls, Henry VI, 5, A.d. 1446-1452: 314.
3. Manners and Household Expenses of England in the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (London: Roxburghe Club, 1841), p. 538
4. ibid, p. 431.
5. Public Record Office (P.R.O.), E 403/839 (under 20 February), E 403/842 (under 8 May), and E 404/74/2/60.
6. Public Record Office (P.R.O.), C 81/File 832/3110.
7. Great Britain, Public Record Office (P.R.O.), E 159/243/ Brevia directa baronibus/Hilary Term, 6 Edward IV/ m.8r.