Kit: Armour Overview

Armour is a great way of indicating higher status, and many people see it as a good project to make their kit more warlike. But it's a controversial area, with a lot of debate surrounding what armour was worn and how much. This page will be about torso-covering armour, so if you want to find out more you should check out our pages about Helmets, Gloves and Bracers.

This page is structured as an overview. We'll discuss each type of armour one at a time, first looking at the Saxon/Viking archaeological evidence, then the Saxon/Viking documentary & pictoral evidence, and then finally the evidence for it in other cultures (either before our period or not in the Saxon & Viking lands). Any details on making your own armour will be on seperate pages, linked from this page. Note that the headings are basically in order of reliability- archaeological evidence is fairly sound, documentary or pictoral evidence is less reliable (especially saga evidence, as the sagas were written after our period), and evidence from other cultures is very unreliable as proof for Vikings or Saxons…

Only mail can be really said to be fully authentic for Saxons or Vikings, and even then it's mainly for elite warriors. Lamellar is only known in the Viking world from one find from Birka, so it's hard to justify using it much. Padded armour is useful to wear under mail but we have no evidence of it among Saxons or Vikings, and similarly we have no definite proof for the use of leather or scale armour by Saxons or Vikings. In this guide we will mention evidence for different types of armour exisiting in pre-Viking times or in Byzantium, but just because something existed in Byzantium does not mean it exisited in Britain or was used by Saxons or Vikings! It's a stretch, even for people playing Rus Viking characters.

Mail armour

Mail, also known (to the hatred of scholars) as chainmail or maille, is armour made from lots of tiny rings all joined together. It's intricate work, but many Wychwooders have made their own mail shirts over the years. It is the armour we have the most evidence for in our period, for rich Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.

Over the 3 centuries of the Viking Age mail seems to have become more widely available. Whilst at the start of our period (the late 8th/early 9th century) it was probably the preserve of professional warriors & the rich, by the time of the Bayeaux Tapestry (depicting 1066, made 1070s) all the front line soldiers seem to be wearing it. Similarly early mail shirts seem to have t-shirt length sleeves and are waist-length; later shirts have full length sleeves and are knee-length (with front & back spilts to aid movement & horse riding). 11th century mail shirts also seem to have had integral hoods and sometimes also mail leg armour. It seems that another 11th-century innovation is a flap that could cover the lower face or be let done to cover the chest- soldiers on the Bayeux Tapestry often have these odd squares on their torsoes.

Archaeological Evidence

There is one Viking mail shirt surviving, from Gjermundbu. Details are available here: 'The Gjermundbu Mail Shirt' by Stephen Francis Wyley
There is also at least one Saxon mail shirt surviving, from Sutton Hoo. Sutton Hoo was, as you should all know, an amazing ship burial from the early 7th century that they dug up in Suffolk. You can see the shirt in the British Museum.
As well as these full shirt finds there are a lot of scraps, and pieces like aventails from helmets. 'Ring Mail - Breaking the Chain' by Russell Scott for The Vikings discusses a whole selection of mail finds, from the Migration & Viking eras, looking at their thickness and diametre and method of joining.
'Mail from the Garrison of Birka' by Peter Beatson' discusses similar topics to Russell Scott's article, but looking just at the pieces of mail found at Birka.
Note that there's no confirmed finds of butted mail (the type of mail that all of Wychwood's mail is)- rivetted or welded mail is the most authentic. This means that each individual link should have each of it's ends physically joined, not just pushed together. This is very time consuming, hence people don't normally do that!

Documentary & Pictoral Evidence

There is also extensive documentary evidence for mail, and a fair amount of pictoral evidence (just look at the Bayeux Tapestry!)

Non-Saxon or Viking Cultures

Mail was also used by other cultures in our period. It has a long history, possibly originating with the Celts, then spreading among the Romans and beyond. See Wikipedia for more details.

Making Mail

We have a page on making mail here: Mail

Leather jerkins

There's no firm evidence for these, but possibly people who couldn't afford mail would have looked for some form of body armour?

Archaeological Evidence

There are no finds of these. This could be because leather often does not survive well.

Documentary & Pictoral Evidence

Some people interpret some Saxon manuscript illustrations as showing leather jerkins. This is debatable.
On the Viking side of things, there is a reference in the Saga of Olaf Haraldson (St. Olaf) to a reindeer coat stopping a sword. The text suggests that this is an enchanted coat, so whether it can be taken to mean that reindeer hide was commonly used as armour is highly debated. The NorsefoldArchives contains the original reference.

Non-Saxon or Viking Cultures

Unknown

Making Leather Jerkins

We have a page on making leather armour here: Leather Armour

Padded Cloth

There is no Saxon or Viking evidence for padded cloth armour, either worn under armour or on it's own. However there is evidence for it in Byzantium in our period, the Ancient Romans used Subarmalis under their armour, and later Knights used gambesons. Having something under armour is very useful, as it helps spreads the force from incoming blows. So there are practical arguments for using it, even if it's existance can't be proved.

As it's so controversial, it's recommended that if you make it you design it to be unobtrusive- make it to wear under your mail and so that it will be entirely covered by your mail.

Archaeological Evidence

There are no finds of these. This could be because cloth often does not survive well.

Documentary & Pictoral Evidence

None

Non-Saxon or Viking Cultures

Legio XX Subarmalis is a page on the Ancient Roman leather or cloth padding worn under armour.
The Osprey Byzantine books contain lots of details on Byzantine padded armour, worn under armour or on it's own.
Wikipedia discusses gambesons in the later Medieval period.

Making Padded Armour

We have a page on making padded armour here: Guide to Padded kit

Lamellar and Scale

Lamellar and Scale are two type of related armour. Scale armour is armour consisting of scales attached to some underlying material (e.g. leather); whereas lamellar are just attached to each other, using complex lacing arrangements. Scale normally overlaps pointing downwards, lamellar pointing upwards.
Some metal lamellar have been found in Birka. This find is highly debated, with some saying it is from a foreign mercenary. But it does at least show that some lamellar made it to the Viking lands, making it a possibility for Rus Viking characters.
Scale, on the other hand, hasn't been found in any Viking contexts. So it's more of a stretch of the imagination to use it for any Saxon or Viking characters.

Archaeological Evidence

Inside the Viking period and lands, there is just one set of finds, the Birka lamellar.

Documentary & Pictoral Evidence

There are references in sagas to "spangabrynja", which could refer to metal lamellar. These could, on the other hand, be referring to something else, or be reflective of the later period in which their were written, rather than the period they portray.

Non-Saxon or Viking Cultures

There are lots of other finds of metal lamellar in nearby cultures & dates: a cluster 5th-7th century finds from Avar-controlled Northern Europe, from Hungary in late 7th-8th century, from Russia in 10th-13th century, from Byzantium in 12th century. Of course, none of these are clear evidence from our period.
'Byzantine Lamellar Armour' by Peter Beatson has a good run down of many finds.
'A contribution to the study of lamellars' by Ivan is a very interesting article, including details of Avar (6th/7th century) and Byzantine lamellar (from the 6th or 7th to the 12th century).

No leather lamellar has been found (leather does not typically survive well), but documentary sources say that it was used in Byzantium and by Asian horse nomads.

The Byzantines used metal scale armour. For example, see
Basil II, 'The Bulgar-Slayer', Byzantine Emperor 960-1025 in this 11th century manuscript illustration. The Osprey Byzantine books have more details.

Making Lamellar & Scale Armour

We hope to have a page on making lamellar and scale armour here: Lamellar and Scale Armour

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