Intergrating a Late 15th Century Gothic Harness, Observations and Thoughts :- By Alex Kay
I personally think there is more to building a medieval harness than just buying some bits and wearing them. Like other systems, one item has to work in conjunction with another with all the requirements of the wearer met in the process. You would expect that the primary function of armour is that of protection, but this blatantly not the case solely, in the 15th century there are some very heavy armours that do offer protection, but at the sacrifice of maneuverability, these are normally sports harnesses, such for jousting or other tournament based combat, and yet battlefeild armours do not offer the same type of protection, but do so with the added advantage of manuverability. There is also a significant aesthetic requirement of the armour dependant upon the period it is portraying. One of the key learning I took from a course of lectures run by Tobias Capwell of the Wallace collection, was the overall intent of the late 15th Century armour, which can also be seen in the clothes, to stretch and elongate the body, to provide a tall and narrow waisted physique, even the plumage is mounted to heighten the wearer. So already we have 3 key requirements of the armour, one is defence and mobility, and the other associated with the fashion of the period. The final consideration, is the accessories, it is ok to have a harness of a status, but then you have to carry the status of the harness across to your clothes, your scabbard, your sword, your dagger, your shoes, your accommodation, your eating equipment right down to your manners and behaviour. Everything has its place, reason, and a single item could destroy the illusion.
So sources, near all the armours that are in museums are made up of bits and pieces, so when looking at the function of the overall harness armour, there should be a deep distrust looking at the way of bit fits to another. If the person fitting the armour together has done a good job then the appearance will look convincing, if not it will look bazzar. A good example of this can be seen at the Wallace with the equestrian armour, which if you read Tobias’s description, is a mix and match of parts brought together in the victorian times, but overall it has a convincing appearance, and it can be seen that it functions in protecting all that it should do. Whereas some museums seem to fall over on the fitting or pairing of a bevor to a helmet.
One thing that is important to myself when looking at a field armour, is it has to work. It has to function as a defence, yet it also has to allow the wearer to function. So the idealistic view of this would to have every gap covered with plate armour so there is no openings left available to the attacker, yet you would retain complete motion. However coming back in the less idyllic 15th Century, what we have strived to do, is to take each component of armour and make sure that it fits, and overlaps with the neighbouring item to provide the seamless protection to the most likely areas of attack… So to this end the pauldron overlaps the Cuirass which is over the mail standard, and then also the Pauldron overlaps the Rear-brace, whilst the Besagews drop to protect much of the exposed arm-pit when the arm is elevated, with the final defence being the voiders which locally cover the remaining parts of the body left exposed by the armour. Taking this guideline when fitting one component to another produces a convincing armour, made up on components that can be made by several different armourers.
So now we look at where this new armour started from. My last armour was centered around what I could get and what was available without being on a long waiting list. This left me with German style legs and sabatons, and English Breastplate, and English arms, but with a continental style fabric defence based on the Lubeck Jack. However I decided I would strive for more consistency this time around, even though the overall look of the armour looked convincing. So the first item which is the cuirass was ordered from Mark Vickers, and this was requested to match in the style of the German legs that had previously belonged to the other harness, so having found an original in the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge, this provided the theme for the rest of the components . I had an old pair of dressed to kill pauldrons kicking around, and also an old Stirling Brown bevor, and last of all an Arma Bohemia German tipping sallet. So these would other parts would be tried to see if they were suitable to match with the armour.
So the 1st thing was to take the Cuirass and make sure the Pauldrons fitted well over them and also that they functioned. The Pauldrons where on Solid rivets, which provided major restrictions to the motion that could be performed by the arm, basically it was impossible to move the arm to the mouth, so this had to be changed. Whilst studying the internal workings of the pauldrons, it is a common practise to use leather straps, this cannot be seen from the outside so you would be forgiven for assuming they are solid rivets providing pivots, but in the bulk of armours this is certainly not the case. So the pauldrons were taken apart, and then the flutes were put into them carefully using a hammer and a blunted chisel mounted in a vice, then polished back and a line chased under the flute, again a typical feature. They were then re-straped following originals, and then they worked, full mobility could be gained, and now the arm can move right into towards the head without restriction. I guess the moral of this is that if something does not work, it is most likely not right… so then you have to go back to the originals and play spot the difference, in order to work out what is right. Finally the Besagews were made and fitted to the pauldron to again met the protection criteria, whilst also respecting the balance in armours captured in wood carved statues all over Germany.
So once the pauldrons were sorted then it was time to look at how the Cuirass meets with the leg armour… So the Cuirass has three lames, which is something I am not overly happy about, as I would prefer more, maybe 5 or 6 being the typical number of an armour, but it is a good start. So the way to extend the Cuirass down was to fit the tassets, the demi tassets, and the Cutlet. these will then drop the height lower that the Cuirass protects without impeding motion too much. So something I tried here that worked well, and changed my opinion of the type of tasset, was to print out full sized prints of photos of original tassets, and then to sellotape them to the lames, in order to see how they sat, both aesthetically and functionally, with the rest of the harness in progress. After changing my mind several times, I am convinced the right decision was made, which interestingly was not the same as what I would have done if I had not done the photo thing. So then once I was happy, I could mark out the steel and start cutting, forming, fluting, and polishing the tassets until they were done. So following this I then having studied the kind of proportions that the demi tassets are to the tassets, I then cut these out in paper, and made sure that again, they fit to the lames and also would occupy the space correctly to provide the protection they are intended for. The last item the Cutlet was done exactly the same, and again formed and fitted to marry up to the lames of the backplate and breastplate, and then also link up nicely to the demi-tassets. So then comes the next problem, tasset straps, buckles and strap ends. I was looking for something to match the harness, so the most sensible thing to look at is, wooden statues of saints, again looking for the one that is felt matches the style of the harness being constructed. Finally I normally think that there are several points to which the eye focuses on with a german style armour. The helmet, the besagews (not sure why) and the gauntlets. So it was very important to me that these three items stood out, to this end I commissioned a good set of gauntlets and arms from two respected armourers whom had relatively short waiting lists (luck more than anything) to this day, I think the gauntlets really set off the armour, and the besagews which were pieces I constructed based on A20 from the Wallace, really finish the armour off.. So throughout the construction of the armour, countless checks were made to close gaps, between plates, and make sure full maneuverability was maintained as much as possible, and in the end I feel pretty safe in there, somthing which I would not if I did not have faith in the protection and maneuverability that it offers.. If nothing else, I hope this article, promotes all those budding soldiers and knights to put on their harnesses, and take a look in the mirror at where they are exposed, and then to go back to the sources, and see how they have solved it, illustrated in painting, effigies, statues. Finally then to look at the individual component that we have in museums, to validate your thoughts on the function of each component of armour.