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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Repton Warrior (Saxon scale armour?)

The Repton Warrior
  This fragment of sculpture, discovered in 1979, is thought to have been part of the shaft of a cross or other memorial. It may well represent Æþelbald, who was Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia from 716 to 757 and who termed himself “Rex Britanniae”. He was eventually murdered by his own bodyguard and interred in the crypt at Repton’s monastic church. Interpretation of the stylised image supports established ideas about dress in this period, but calls other conventional ideas about the period into question.


    The sculpture shows a mounted warrior, clearly sporting a magnificent moustache. Æþelbald identified himself as belonging to the ‘gens Anglorum’ and it is during his reign that the entire folk of this isle began to think of themselves as Ænglisc rather than Seaxisc. The English love-affair with the moustache would therefore seem to significantly pre-date its use in the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’, where it is used as an identifying marker for the English warriors, distinguishing them from their Norman foes. The idea that this is a memorial to, and a likeness of, an Anglo-Saxon king, is supported by the fact that the figure appears to be wearing a gold circlet bearing a filigree decoration.
 In his left hand Æþelbald holds a shield, obviously shrunk by the sculptor to fit the available space in the stone section. At his waist is what is unmistakably a large Type III seax, characteristically worn horizontally with the edge of the weapon held uppermost. This appears to be approximately 18 inches long. The sheath can be seen to have the typical metal reinforcing strip along the upper edge, even showing the fixing rivets, and an interesting ‘V’ shaped ‘throat’ fitting at the mouth of the sheath. He wears ‘Winingas’ on his lower legs and his thighs are covered by the folds of a knee-length tunic. The detail of the carving is such that one can rule out the possibility that this is a depiction of an anachronistic leather-strip skirt [pteryges] as worn by Romans. This confirms that this is a stylised but essentially accurate depiction of a warrior circa the 8th Century A.D.

    Æþelbald is clearly wearing some sort of body armour. This does not appear to cover even his upper thighs and is sleeveless. In “Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Warfare” , Dr. Richard Underwood comments that the sculpture shows : “... a mounted warrior wearing a mail shirt...” While acknowledging that this is a possibility, it is more likely that it is an attempt to portray another type of armour altogether. Close examination reveals the “shingling” typical of Scale Armour. Such an accurate artist as this would undoubtedly have made a more convincing job if he had wanted to portray the typical 8mm ring-mail byrnie of the period, perhaps carving rows of dots or larger ‘symbolic’ rings as was done later in the Medieval period. Furthermore, while a ringmail vest is possible, it is an illogical armour, for the essence of mail armour is its flexibility : it allows areas of the body which demand free movement to be protected, thus a mail-coat usually has sleeves to at least elbow length and reaches down to at least the mid-thigh. The armour in the sculpture does not extend beyond the waist or the chest. It leaves the shoulders free to move. Scale-Armour is inherently less flexible than ring-mail, so with a scale cuirass the shoulders must remain free. The sculptor shows the scales overlapping downwards which is typical of Scale Armour. So-called Lamellar Armour has longer, slimmer metal plates which overlap upwards ! This is thus not a Lamellar Cuirass.

    Scale Armour is an ancient form of defence, dating from at least 2,000 B.C. and probably invented [like much else] in the Near / Middle-East. It was called Lorica Squamata by the Romans, who used it extensively, particularly to mark out Centurions and other ‘NCOs’.
Roman "Lorica-Squamata


It is made from hundreds of small, shield-shaped metal plates, usually about an inch long and a little less wide. These could be cut using shears from sheet bronze or, more likely, forged hot by hammer work from bar iron ; the necessary holes being formed using a punch. This method would work- harden the scales and allow them to be thicker towards the middle. Rows of completed scales would then be fastened loosely together in horizontal rows using rough iron rings, making use of the holes in the sides of the scales. The completed rows were then applied to a foundation of rough linen or thin hide and stitched to it. Further rows were added, overlapping the scales downwards and, again unlike lamellar armour, offsetting each row by the width of half a scale to  produce a shingle effect.

 The manufacture is thus of quite ‘low technology’; a Scale Byrnie would be easily made and simple to repair, it is cheaper than mail and very decorative and distinctive. Its disadvantages are that the individual scales are easily  damaged and the armour is fairly easy to pierce with an upwards directed thrust.
    Shirts of iron scale and lamellae were certainly in use in Continental Europe at the same period as Æþelbald and clad in his gleaming scale cuirass, he would have been instantly recognisable : a living Mercian Banner ! One can theorise with regard to what such a cuirass would have been called in Old English. It could well have just been called a Byrnie. The word ‘Byrne’ derives from ‘brün’ = “burnished, shining” and particularly if the scales had been dipped in molten tin, the scale shirt would certainly have shone. Our ancestors might have called the harness a ‘Scealu-Byrne’ or maybe a ‘Wyrmfell Byrne’ [Dragon-skin Armour].

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