Arms and armour of Bannockburn II

This short article is an extension to the author’s piece featured in the latest issue, Medieval Warfare IV-3, exploring the war gear of early fourteenth-century men-at-arms at the Battle of Bannockburn, as reconstructed in the digital realm for the National Trust for Scotland’s brand new visitors’ centre at the site of the battle. While the rich lords and knights might have been the most glamorous and colourful element of medieval armies, the common soldiers usually made up the majority of the forces. As Arms and Armour advisor to the Bannockburn Project, the author was responsible for briefing the designers and digital artists on the equipment used by all of the battle’s participants, rich and poor, noble knight and humble infantryman. The nature of the common soldiers was more diverse than many might expect. 

Profiling the armies: typology of the medieval fighting man

While the men-at-arms on both sides at Bannockburn were a clear and very distinctive group, otherwise the two armies were somewhat different in composition. Both sides employed a number of different types of fighting man, armed and deployed in particular ways. The first step in reconstructing the equipment of these opposing common forces for the Bannockburn Project was to break down each side into its compositional elements. Not only was the English army much larger, its strengths and weaknesses differed significantly from those of the Scots. To assist the creation of several sets of digital ‘characters’, ‘Character Profiles’ were developed by the author to define the constituent parts of the two sides. The various ranks of men-at-arms have already been discussed in the print companion to the present article.

The English

Hobelars 

Hobelars were essentially heavy infantryman who rode to the battlefield before dismounting to fight. Some could also fight as light cavalry if required. Their equipment was essentially the same as that of lower-ranking men-at-arms, the one notable difference being perhaps a general use of open-faced helmets – iron war hats or bascinets – rather than the fully-enclosed helms of the heavy cavalry. The main hobelar weapon was a light spear, somewhat shorter than the heavy cavalry lances used by the men-at-arms. 

Longbowmen

It is a common misconception that all longbowmen were drawn from the poorest elements of medieval society. In fact the archers serving in the English army were, like the men-at-arms, probably a very diverse company. Some would have possessed armour of a decent quality, although there was not much in the way of uniformity or consistency. An iron skull-cap and a padded gambeson would have been all many possessed, while others had mail shirts and war hats. There is also some evidence for other pieces of armour made of densely padded cloth, such as mantles to protect the neck and shoulders. Inexpensive helmets seem also to have been made out of hardened leather or padded linen. Since archers were also expected to defend themselves at close-quarters, they carried swords, bucklers, short axes and other small hand-weapons along with their bows and arrows. 

The longbow was usually only slightly shorter than the man shooting it. Quivers did not exist – arrows were carried in bunches thrust through the belt or stuck into the ground when shooting, and carried in cloth bags or stored in barrels when travelling.

Although a few of the strongest archers might have been armed with heavy bows with draw weights of 150 pounds or more, most would have shot weapons of between 100 and 130 pounds. An archer had to be able to shoot continually, potentially until his arrows were exhausted. It was therefore less vital that an archer shot at his maximum draw-weight and much more important that he was able to shoot consistently and reliably over an extended period of time. Although maximum range of the Anglo-Welsh warbows could extend to around 200 yards, their effective range was 50-100 yards. At this distance they had a chance of piercing the textile, mail and plate armour of the enemy, although this was never an easy task.

Crossbowmen

Overall the crossbowmen in the English army would have been equipped in quite a similar way to the longbowmen,  apart from their choice of weapon. 

The early fourteenth century was a time of great innovation in crossbow technology. Their stout bows were still being made out of wood, often the yew also used for longbows. However they were also increasingly made in a composite construction – strips of ibex or goat horn glued together formed the core, over which layers of frayed animal tendon were placed, and the whole wrapped in birch bark to seal out moisture. The most advanced bows, however, were made of tempered steel. This was a very new technology in 1314; the first documentary references to steel bows appear only around 1300.

The crossbow was a powerful weapon, with a much greater draw weight than the longbow. However the short bolts shot from the crossbow were also heavier, while the bolt’s acceleration time on the bowstring was much briefer; both of these factors meant that much more bow-strength was required to cast a crossbow bolt the same distance as a longbow arrow. The range and striking power of the crossbows at Bannockburn may not actually have been very different in real terms from those of the longbows deployed alongside them. The crossbow’s key advantage lay in the ease of its use. Only a short time was required to teach the operation of a crossbow, a stark contrast to the lifetime’s practice, beginning in childhood, which was essential for good longbow shooting. 

Mixed infantry 

The majority of the English infantry forces at Bannockburn were made up of ‘mixed’ fighting men, armed and armoured in a heterogeneous way. A wide range of weapons was employed, including long-hafted axes, swords and bucklers, and short infantry spears – these must be clearly distinguished from the much longer schiltron spears of the Scots. 

Armour is also quite varied, but was generally of one inexpensive form or another – mostly padded textile coats.  It does, however, appear that mail and scale armour was worn by those who were able to get ahold of it, even among the common soldiery. War hats were often once again the helmets of choice, made of iron or hardened leather reinforced with iron, although other forms of head protection such as skull-caps of iron, hardened leather, or even scale construction, were also typical.

The Scots

Light cavalry/Border horsemen

The Scots had no heavy cavalry at Bannockburn. Instead, their knights and men-at-arms fought almost exclusively on foot. The Bruce’s army did, however, include a body of light cavalry, probably made up mostly of men from the Scottish Borders. Riding small fell ponies or ‘Galloway nags’, these mobile and rugged horsemen were equipped in a similar way to the better-armed spearmen in the schiltrons, with quilted aketons or gambesons and iron helmets, but usually no leg armour. Their weapon was the light cavalry spear, which later gave these troops the nickname ‘prickers’. Other weapons might include the arming sword and dagger. Like their English hobelar counterparts, the Scottish light cavalry would sometimes dismount to fight on foot.

Spearmen

The expertly-drilled spearmen who comprised the backbone of The Bruce’s army were defined by their very long spears, used en masse in well-disciplined formations to create the famous Scottish schiltrons. Schiltron spears were significantly longer than typical infantry or cavalry spears, and were used both defensively against cavalry and offensively in advancing blocks. Armour for the well-armed Scottish spearman ideally comprised a padded aketon, plate gauntlets, and a bascinet or skull-cap. Some probably also had mail armour. Many had little or nothing in the way of protective equipment. At King Robert’s Parliament at Scone in 1318, the minimum military gear his subjects were required to maintain was defined. Men worth £10 had to have a bascinet or war hat, aketon and/or mail shirt, plate gauntlets, sword and spear. Poorer men were ordered to possess a spear or bow and arrows, but armour was not mandatory. It is reasonable to suggest that at Scone Bruce was enacting in law a standard he had already been trying to achieve and maintain for some time. Some of the Scottish infantry at Bannockburn were probably already equipped in line with the higher of the two 1318 standards, but many others probably were not. A few may have carried swords for close-quarters defence, but primarily Bruce’s spearmen relied on what the written sources term ‘knife-men’- mixed infantry carrying short hand-weapons, seeded in amongst the spears, to provide protection and support as well as a close-range offensive capability.  

Mixed infantry

The Bruce deployed mixed infantry with his schiltrons, tasked with protecting the spearmen and ordered to take advantage of any opportunities provided by them – for example the killing or capturing of English heavy cavalrymen halted or felled by the wall of spears, like the Earl of Gloucester (see On the cover in MW IV-3). Some had textile and mail armour, and hardened leather or iron helmets, but most, drawn from the poorest peasant class, had little or no protection. These light infantry were modestly armed, with small axes, long knives or even farm implements.

Highland Infantry

The body of Highland warriors under the personal command of Robert the Bruce would probably have been armed in much the same way as the rest of the Scots infantry forces. There may, however, have been certain visual features which would have distinguished the so-called ‘wild Irish’. For example, they are more likely to have worn their hair and beards long. The few higher status individuals among them, chieftains and their bodyguards, probably wore quilted aketons or gambesons supplemented with mail, iron helmets and in a few cases, some partial plate leg armour. However, the majority almost certainly did not wear armour of any sort. Most carried the distinctive Highland round shield, which had not yet developed the ornate patterns of decorative tacks and brass plates so closely associated with Highland targes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The medieval targe could act as companion to a sword, axe or spear.

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