Monday, October 26, 2009

Guest Post - What the Fashionable Dark Age Warrior Wears by Kathleen Cunningham Guler

Remember the movie “Excalibur,” the 1981 Arthurian fantasy film? Near the beginning is a scene in which a king is in hot pursuit of a beautiful woman. Trouble is, she’s the wife of his military commander. Nevertheless, the king ravishes her—to put it mildly. She’s stripped naked. He’s wearing a full suit of shiny plate armor. Ever so romantic, huh? But besides the obvious inconvenience, what’s wrong with this picture?

The liaison’s result, of course, is the conception of King Arthur. But if this scenario was meant to represent the fifth/sixth century period of the alleged historical Arthur, it missed the mark. No such fancy armor, not even for a king. That type came after the Norman invasion, hundreds of years later.

Picture this: a fighting man in Arthur’s time would have dressed in the everyday style of his Romano-Celtic forebears. He’d wear a simple woven wool tunic with long or short sleeves, a round neck and the bottom hem reaching his knees; breeches (braccae) that tied at the waist and ankles; and a cloak. Several tunics could be combined for warmth and a man of means might also wear a shirt-like garment (camisia) of linen. From his belt hung a small leather pouch—a pre-runner of the Scottish sporran—as well as a small sheathed dagger. Leather strips served as cross-gartering, a crisscrossing from knee to ankle that held the cloth neatly to the leg. Our fellow’s shoes were each made of a single piece of rawhide and gathered over the tops of his feet with thongs.

Clothing was often dyed in bright colors. His cloak, a wide rectangular or circular garment, wrapped around him like a cape and was held in place with a metal brooch. If made of wool, it had two layers, the outer one oiled with lanolin for waterproofing. For winter, skin caps and cloaks lined with fur replaced wool. And no outfit was complete without the long flowing hair and moustache—a man’s pride!

Now, add on the warrior’s gear: leggings and another tunic, both of thick leather, were worn over his regular clothes; a chain mail hauberk (if he could afford it) went over that along with another belt; plus thick-soled leather boots rising above his ankles. Helmets were rare, apparently unpopular except for cavalry. Spears, axes, slings, a shield, and a long-bladed sword and scabbard buckled to a baldric completed the ensemble. Originally it was thought swords were only carried at the hip, but evidence suggests the weapon may have been held across the back “Braveheart” style.

Why the disparity between movie and reality? Films perpetuate misconceptions created by Arthurian stories written all the way back in the Middle Ages. Though that vast body of literature may have fired the imagination, historical accuracy was non-existent. Medieval storytellers slathered on layers of customs from their own time—their styles of clothing and armor, not those of the Dark Ages. Thank goodness for archaeology that at least gives us a glimpse of the truth!

About the Author
Novelist Kathleen Cunningham Guler is the author of the multi-award winning Macsen’s Treasure Series. Drawing on a long background in literature and history as well as her Welsh and Scottish heritage, she has published numerous articles, essays, reviews, short stories and poetry. The author is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the International Arthurian Society and participates in various writing organizations.

You can visit her website at


  1. Thanks so much for guest posting for us Kathleen.

    It is strange which misconceptions carry forward through time!