The Dates of Variously Shaped Shields

Félix Vallotton, Femme couchée dormant, 1899, oil on canvas.

It’s late, and you’re still awake. Allow us to help with Sleep Aid, a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific texts available in the public domain. Tonight’s prescription: An Attempt to Classify and Date the Various Shapes Found in Heraldic Shields—Principally in England, with Incidental Datings,” the first chapter of George Grazebrook’s The Dates of Variously Shaped Shields, published in Liverpool in 1890.

It seems necessary, by way of introduction, to say a few words on the circular convex shields used from very early times by our Saxon and Norman ancestors. These were of wood, with a central boss of bronze, and were sometimes of very large size; frequently, if we may judge from contemporaneous illuminations, as much as four feet in diameter. Across the inside of the boss a handle was fixed, and the shields, which were thus held out almost at arm’s length, as represented in many ancient MSS., must have been most cumbersome. It is hard to see how the sword or lance could have been conveniently used. The round shape must have interfered greatly with the view of one’s opponent, and a bungler would inevitably slice pieces from off his own shield while attacking his enemy. Moreover, such shields must have been lightly made: we know exactly how the bosses were fastened with rivets through the shield, for they are constantly found in Anglo-Saxon grave mounds, and the wood is thus known to have been of some thickness. But we can obtain from contemporary writings many more particulars. 

By the laws of Gula [said to have been established by Hacon the Good, who died 963] any possessor of six marks was required to furnish himself with a red shield, of two boards in thickness, a spear, and an axe or a sword.

In the history of the same king [Heimskringla, vol. i, p. 155] he is thus described: “he put on his tunic of mail (brynio), girded round him his sword called quern-bit [i.e., millstone-biter], and set on his head his gilded helmet. He took a spear in his hand, and hung his shield by his side.”

Again, in the same book [Heimskringla, ii, 352], in the description of the Battle of Sticklastad, where Olaf King of Norway, called “the Saint,” was slain 1030, the monarch is said to have worn a golden helmet, a white shield, a golden hilted and exceedingly sharp sword, and a tunic of ringed mail (“hringa brynio”).

Again, in the Edda Gunnar one of the Reguli of Germany says, “My helmet and my white shield come from the Hall of Kiars.”

These quotations are hardly sufficient evidence of it perhaps, but it seems as if in the tenth century white shields were borne by leaders and red ones by the common soldiers,—every one who possessed six marks.

Supplementing these and completing our description, Saxon poetry tells us that the wood was by preference the lime tree. I need not give quotations; they will be found in the several works on ancient arms and armour. Beowulf [line 5215] describes how Wigluf “seized his shield—the yellow linden wood.” Again, these lines occur [Poem of Judith, Thorpe’s Analecta, p. 137]:—

“The warriors marched
“The chieftains to the war
“Protected with targets,
“With arched linden shields.”

It seems almost as if linden trees were cultivated with this view, for the Saxon Chronicle, under anno 937, tells us how King Athelstan and his heroes

“the board walls clove,
“And hewed the war lindens.”

But certainly on one occasion remains of oak timber were found in connection with the bronze boss of an Anglo-Saxon shield.

Occasionally rims of metal have been found with such remains, but such protecting edgings do not seem to have been the usual custom. The laws of Gula, quoted above, mention “two boards in thickness,” that is, glued crossways, to prevent warping or splitting. Such a formation in a convex shield would show a very great amount of skill in the working of wood at this early date. Leather seems to have been sometimes stretched over the shield; because the laws of Athelstan forbade the use of sheepskins for the purpose, under a penalty of 30s.: a very large sum. Had skin coverings been common, remains of such skins would be found still attached inside the bronze bosses; but only one skin-covered shield has been found [at Linton Heath, in Cambridgeshire], and in that the skin covered the boss also, having been stretched over the whole shield.

Lastly, red seems to have been at least a favourite colour, for Sœmund’s Edda mentions a red shield with a golden border, and Giraldus de Barri says the Irish “carried red shields, in imitation of the Danes.”

The boss was often carried out into a sharp spike, and the shield could thus be used for offence as well as for protection. But perhaps such points were also found of use in stopping the cut of a sword, which might otherwise slip down the shield and find a resting-place in the leg or other exposed part.

We shall see as we proceed that such circular shields or targets constantly appear till the middle of the seventeenth century, borne by foot soldiers, with pikes, halberds, and swords, and sometimes as large as two feet in diameter. Frequently foot soldiers are represented with a small target, ten or twelve inches in diameter, wherewith to receive their opponent’s cut, while the other arm wields a huge broadsword. Such were in later times called “targetiers.” Their small targets were hooked to the side when not in use, and one is represented in 1473 which projects to a point (Hewitt, ii, 488), while others are flat and studded with nails, or otherwise ornamented, such as appear among the Scotch and Irish till a much later date. Small shields of a square form, and ten inches square, were used by fencers with rapiers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Such is a hasty sketch of the circular shields. They were used by all ranks of the Saxon nations—among whom, of course, were those we call Normans—to the end of the tenth century.

Fitness for the purposes of defense is the prime governing law in such matters. We shall see this leading to many strange alterations of shape in after centuries, and, at the date at which we have now arrived, (the first half of the eleventh century,) a perfect revolution in the appearance of shields took place within a space of about fifty years.

Meyrick explains how the Normans who were engaged in the conquest of Apulia, in the south-east of Italy, about the beginning of the eleventh century, learned there the advantages of long and narrow shields, such as were then in use among the Sicilians, and states that about fifty years before the battle of Hastings they received from Melo, the chief of Barri, supplies of such vastly improved arms. The intimate relations with Normandy at that time, and under Edward the Confessor, led to their prompt adoption in England also; and hence in the Bayeux tapestry kite-shaped shields No. 3 are universal among horse soldiers, both Anglo-Saxon and Norman. Some Saxon foot soldiers bear the old round shields, and one square-shaped one appears on that roll.

There is a very amusing picture of Harold and his companions proceeding, in company with William of Normandy, to the conquest of Britanny. They came to the little river Coësnon, where, the tide being out, the river-bed was an expanse of slippery mud. The prudent ones dismounted and led their horses across; but one horse is represented coming down and the rider falling over his head, while his shield flies through the air attached to his neck by the guige [Bruce’s Bayeux Tapestry, p. 61]. This “guige” was another most valuable improvement which probably came from Sicily with the new shape of shields. It was a leather strap sufficiently long to let it hang from the neck, and so, when two hands were required to wield a battle axe or heavy weapon, the shield could be flung loose and recovered again. I am aware that in Cotton MS. Cleopatra, cviii, written early in the eleventh century, a group of Saxon horsemen is represented on a journey, and the round shield of one hangs from his back, looking like the beehive which the knight in Alice in Wonderland thought might some day prove useful. It has, it will be seen, an absurdly awkward appearance [Hewitt, vol. i, p. 77; Cutts, p. 313].

The principle, then, of the kite-shaped shields which we see in the eleventh century was that, with as much compactness as possible, they should protect the body with the wider part, while the extended point was sufficient to defend the leg; and following so nearly the shape of the body the knight had his sword-arm free. They seem to have been five feet long or even more, for they served as a bier whereon to carry away the slain or wounded. It is amusing to see Goliath represented with a kite-shaped shield, while the little David on the top of him tries to wield his huge sword. This appears in a Latin Bible of 1170. [Brit. Mus., Add. MS. 14789, fo. 10; engraved, Hewitt, i, 134.]

A remarkable recrudescence of old ideas both in the shapes and sizes of shields occurs from time to time as we proceed. At times they seem to have been nearly as much as five feet long—and then, as protective mail became more perfect, and probably the varying style of fighting required it, they were greatly reduced. King David and his followers appear [Cutts, p. 335], on their expedition against Nabal, in full mail of the end of the thirteenth century, with shields scarcely eighteen inches long—just sufficient to prevent the point of a lance reaching some flat or dangerous or vulnerable spot from whence it would not readily glide off, or to receive the blows of an assailant’s sword. Nor can we suppose that one scale of size, or indeed one exact shape of shield, reigned universal at any one period; every knight had his own fancies as to which best suited him; and at length we find many illuminations of the sixteenth century in which knights appear jousting and fighting without any shields at all. They were hung up, to show the heraldry, on their tents, and the massive body-armor alone was considered sufficient protection.

These few explanatory words are necessary to introduce upon the scene the various shaped shields occurring during the centuries which follow. While considering these variations we must bear in mind that they are strongly marked into two great divisions, viz., before the sixteenth century, when shields were in actual use and any alteration in their outline was considered to be an improvement to meet some freshly noticed want; this will be further referred to as instances occur. During and after the sixteenth century, shapes were selected in an arbitrary way, as a matter of taste alone; and hence earlier examples were sometimes exactly adopted, while at other times details and alterations were introduced, just to suit the fancy of the purchaser or artist and the conventional style of the times.

As references for what has already been said, I would name the works of Meyrick and Hewitt, Planché’s work on Costume, Strutt’s Horda, and a learned paper on shields, by Sir Frederick Madden, in Archæologia, vol. xxiv. This, although primarily discussing the chessmen found in the Island of Lewis, contains the results of wide researches as to shields in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. There is also a valuable and well illustrated book, Scenes and Characters of the Middle Ages, by A. L. Cutts, published by Messrs. Virtue and Co., 1872.

The principal authority for the accurate dating and classifying of shields is the immense number of mediæval seals attached to deeds and charters, and with dates exactly known. If it were practicable to arrange in chronological sequence illustrations of a sufficient number of these, we should at once have the classification of dates, styles, and shapes, which would be so very valuable, and which it is the attempt of this paper to display. Hence it is that to the end of the fifteenth century seals form so large a part of the evidences submitted. The certainty of such records is unsurpassed: we have a parchment, itself dated, or the date of which in very early instances can be otherwise closely ascertained; and attached to this we have a seal with the shield; and, to make it perfectly certain, we have the owner’s name inscribed around it, and so we know he is not using some one else’s seal, found or come down to him from earlier times. Such instances frequently occur, and are at once in this way detected. There are instances where the same seal, acquired in early life, continued to be used for over fifty years; but that is the extent to which such valuable proofs can wander from the actual prevailing type and date.

Besides seals, the many invaluable illuminations in the British Museum and Bodleian Libraries, and in the great Continental Libraries, furnish numberless pictures of knights and their accoutrements, contemporaneously executed, and with the most manifest exactness in every detail. Many of these have been engraved in our popular literature, as well as in the learned works named above; but to enable the mind to form correct conclusions these should be all cut out and arranged in groups of exact dates, or drawn as they are in a student’s note book.

The earlier monumental effigies afford many valuable examples of shields, and after they cease to be represented by the side of the figure, such often appear among the architectural details, giving the shape of shield, with an exact date attached.

Monumental brasses give evidence to a later date, and the canopy work introduced often carries ornamental shields.

Architectural stone carvings frequently give data of great value. I need only refer to those put up in Westminster Abbey about 1260, which show the exact shape and proportions of some of the shields then used, and are represented as hanging by their “guiges” from stone projections carved into various devices. But representations in stone and in stained glass, especially those of later date, seem to be greatly influenced by their surroundings, and cannot therefore be implicitly relied on as proofs of style and date. They are often found not to correspond exactly with other examples; indeed it is a curious fact, which all my fellow students will vouch for, that these two—stone and glass—seem of all materials most liable to err. The good name of many a respectable family has been ruined by the bend sinister introduced through the ignorant determination of some stone-carver; while in glass, colours are altered, and impaled shields have been turned round and so reversed; while, in the particular subject under discussion, viz., the exact shapes of shields which obtained at various dates, we find in both stone and glass that their shapes follow the necessities of the rest of the design, and are made to fit into them.

Printed books supply many shields from the end of the fifteenth century, showing the artistic taste in such matters which prevailed from that date to the present. Printers’ marks begin still earlier, and are often contained in shields; but these usually show a spirit of exaggeration, and convey the impression that such would not be found elsewhere, and hence they are not of much use to us in our present purpose of laying down exact dates.

Grants of arms and book-plates come in to continue our information, giving shapes and the decorations surrounding them. Book-plates are usually efforts of art and taste at the dates when they were executed, and these two occur just at the time when other evidences fall short, and so they are peculiarly valuable.

In the following remarks I shall gladly avail myself of the new system of nomenclature devised and introduced by my friend, Mr. J. Paul Rylands, F.S.A. I welcome it as a most valuable desideratum, by means of which I hope to make my subject intelligible. Without such a system a still greater number of illustrations would have been required, and I should like to bear my small testimony to its very great and, I expect, increasing usefulness. It is not everyone who has the ready hand to dash off the correct outline when seeking to communicate the style of a shield, or a book-plate, and here we have a simple alphabet of shapes which can be read and understanded of all men, and which will certainly be found so convenient that it will come into general use.

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