(About): Expert Leathermaking Craft Brought to Your Fantasy Outfit
Our Viking Leather Armor is a visually stunning two-piece torso armor, created from tightly woven strips of tough suede leather. The expert makers at House of Warfare have chosen 13/15 oz. leather for the main interwoven straps that make up the body of our Viking Leather Armor. This is thick, heavyweight suede that provides an excellent degree of personal protection – if raiders and warriors did wear this sort of leather armor in the Viking Age, then it would certainly have been made out of this weight of leather. When designing our Viking Leather Armor, House of Warfare kept in mind the requirement for mobility and the way it would look and feel when worn in concert with other pieces of armor – thus, it has been made with large, scalloped arm-holes to permit a great range of movement, whilst leaving plenty of space to accommodate pauldrons or rerebraces without becoming restrictive. The back piece is a robust, four-part construction that provides excellent protection from the rear. The front and back pieces are connected by four rugged leather straps which have been riveted in place with brass rivets: one over each shoulder and two around the back. Each strap is fully adjustable with an attractive antiqued brass buckle that mimics the decorative goldwork that Viking buckles were made from, resulting in an excellent range of fit for all body shapes. The edges of the leather armor are securely hemmed and stitched in place, so it won’t catch or snag on other clothes or armor. It is available in either brown leather or black, giving two contrasting looks to complement your outfit precisely.
This style of leather armor made from interwoven straps has become a mainstay of how we think of Vikings in the modern era. Recent big-budget TV shows such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom have shown Viking raiders wearing these forms of torso armor, and they’re undeniably incredibly cool. Our Viking Leather Armor would make a fantastic accompaniment to a period-accurate Viking re-enactment – but it also has much wider applications. The speculative nature of this piece means that it would compliment any number of fantasy roleplay outfits: is it the chest armor of a ranger? Could it be the hastily assembled garb of a sorcerer arrayed for battle? Is it the breastplate of a sneaky rogue? Our Viking Leather Armor is as flexible as your outfit is.
(History): The Ongoing Search for Viking Leather Armor
Leather in the Viking Age was a commonplace material in everyday life. All manner of leather accessories dating from the Viking period have been found – riveted leather belts, comfortable turnshoes, embossed scabbards and others. However, there is little evidence that Vikings ever made much (if any) Viking leather armor – it remains a conspicuous gap in our historical knowledge. If we sift through the historical record for these traces of what the Vikings used leather for, we can get closer an understanding of Viking leather armor, and what it may (or may not!) have looked like.
There can be little doubt that leather was a sought-after material in Viking society – like today, it would have been perfect for all manner of applications requiring a flexible, strong component. The commonest item of Viking leatherwork that appears in the archaeological record is the humble shoe. Viking shoes were made in the ‘turnshoe’ fashion; this was a method of shoe construction common to all medieval societies, where the leather in shaped and stitched into a shoe on a last with the seams on the outside, and then turned inside-out to make a fairly waterproof seamless boot. Because they had no soles, these would be stuffed with straw or moss for padding. However, these boots had to be fairly soft leather in order to be turned – the leather had to be of higher quality, requiring more investment of time and effort on the part of the tanner and the currier, and would therefore be much more fragile than rougher rawhide. And this effort was no small task: it would take more than 18 months to take a batch of animal hides from the carcass through the arduous (and incredibly gross) process of tanning: drying, liming, bating, tanning, scrubbing and finishing. There can be no doubt that Viking leather production was prolific; for example, even a small test-pit in the Viking city of York’s Coppergate district discovered thousands of leather fragments from its flourishing early-medieval leather industry. But it seems that the bottleneck in the arduousness of its production always meant that leather was almost always limited to small objects and subsidiary material.
Holy Leather – Early Medieval Reliquaries
Whilst these small items made from leather seem to be commonplace pieces available to a good proportion of Viking society, larger pieces of leather used for a single specific purpose (such as Viking leather armor) seem to be far rarer in the historical record. We cannot attribute this wholly to the fragility of such items, as many much smaller items and fragments have survived intact – it seems that Viking society simply had less use for large leather goods. There are, however, a few notable exceptions which can shed light on why leather seems to have been mostly confined to use as a subsidiary material.
An early Celtic example of a large leather item is the Breac Maedoc cumdach. Viking raiding in Ireland began in the 8th-century CE, and they discovered there a wealthy and confident Church with hundreds of monasteries, many of whom held holy relics and received part of their income from pilgrims, making them a juicy target for these early vikingrs. One such reliquary was the shrine of St Maedoc, a spectacular early-medieval box made from plates of hammered bronze, decorated with relief castings of sumptuous figures and saints. The legend goes that St Maedoc donated the reliquary personally to the monks of Rossinver, and although the provenance of the item is far from certain, it is likely that it dates from the beginning of the Viking Age, around the 9th– or 10th-century CE. The item was rediscovered contained in a beautiful leather reliquary bag, known as a cumdach, which is tooled with stunning Norse-Gael knotwork. Although this particular leather bag dates from several hundred years after the reliquary itself, we know that leather bags were used in the ritual transportation of relics: the saintly object would be reverently bagged up, placed around the neck of an esteemed brother, and taken on procession to the bounds of the county to be hailed by the populace – sort of like an incredibly holy Amazon delivery. We know this practise was done with other leather-bagged holy objects, such as the St Cuthbert Gospel, an early-8th-century text from County Durham, northern England, which also retains the oldest original book-binding in the Western world, made from inlaid goat leather. This association between leather products and holy objects in the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon worlds speaks to the comparative rarity of leather for the Vikings, and although it seems likely that most Vikings would have owned one or two leather objects, its use for large constructions such as leather bags (or indeed Viking leather armor) was likely only reserved for a tiny elite.
Searching the Sagas
The only reference to Viking leather armor from the Vikings themselves is of dubious historical value – it is from the saga of Olaf II Haraldsson of Norway, later canonised as St. Olaf. Olaf is a well-attested historical figure: he participated in Northern European regional politics through raiding and interventions in Anglo-Saxon politics, and declared himself the sole King of Norway in 1015, securing the title de facto at the Battle of Nesjar. His reign saw the extension of his great personal piety to the rest of Norway; much of the country was Christianised, some of it brutally – he was known in his own time as ‘Olaf the Lawbreaker’ for these often-violent conversions. Olaf’s reign came to an ignominious reign when he lost a series of engagements to Cnut, King of the North Sea Kingdom of Denmark and England, losing his kingdom to the Danish king in 1028. He attempted to retake his kingdom in 1030, but fell to his own kin in the Battle of Stiklestad. It is at this battle that the sagas recount a possible example of Viking leather armor. According to the 12th-century Heimskringla sagas, one of the warriors who slew King Olaf was Thorir Hund (literally, ‘Thorir the Dog’), and Thorir wore a coat of reindeer hide which could turn aside sword blows. Could this be a historical attestation to a suit of Viking leather armor…? It is sadly unlikely. Amidst the battle, with King Olaf’s sword merely throwing dust from the coat with each blow, the saga recounts that:
“The king himself now proved the power
Of Fin-folk’s craft in magic hour,
With magic song; for stroke of steel
Thor’s reindeer coat would never feel
It seems more likely that this is a little bit of historical embellishment. Rather than a practical piece of armor, the saga paints Thorir’s coat as a magical piece of clothing enchanted by the Saami (indigenous Finns). Reindeer hides are also far too thin to make effective armor, and so a coat made from them would not turn aside a sword blow effectively at all. Whether we can conclusively say that this indicates a grain of truth that has merely morphed and become exaggerated by the oral tradition of the sagas is very difficult to say; however it seems most likely that Thorir may have merely been fighting in fine clothing rather than any form of Viking leather armor. Was this common practise? To answer that question, we have to examine Viking armor more generally.
Whilst it is extremely appealing and intuitively highly plausible that Viking warriors wore tanned Viking leather armor into battle, there’s very little evidence to show that they actually did. In amongst a reasonably thoroughly-documented material culture, we don’t have a single piece of surviving leather armor, and only one solid reference to contemporary leather armors which may well be mythic. So what did the Vikings actually wear as armor into battle?
For the wealthiest Vikings, chainmail was the ultimate in torso armor. Strangely enough, the Vikings were direct inheritors of Rome, in terms of their arms and armor: the late-Roman form of chainmail was the dominant elite armor, being made by Gallic and Germanic smiths from early Antiquity onward. A suit of chainmail represented an enormous amount of invested time, effort and materials; a suit might contain 40,000 individual links, at least half of which had to be threaded into place and hand-riveted by a smith or their apprentices. Scandinavia had relatively few natural iron deposits, and even these produced poor quality metal, so the outward-looking Vikings prized the high-quality Frankish brunia chainmail above all others – so much so that in 803 CE, Charlemagne promulgated laws banning the sale of chainmail to any foreign buyer! Since this armor was not only extremely expensive but also represented martial conquest (ie. if a vikingr lord had a suit of Frankish brunia then they’d probably taken it from its owner), they were comparatively rare and restricted only to the wealthy ruling elite.
The Viking Round Shield
For your average Norse-in-the-fjord, though, the best form of torso armor was the heavy Nordic round shield – and we might even go so far as to venture that this is the authentic form of Viking leather armor! The typical high-Viking Age shield was made from butted planks of wood secured together with three iron bands, and a single handle secured with iron nails. This method of construction was laid down in the Norwegian Frostaþing laws dating from around the 11th-century CE, showing that this was clearly the established primary means of self-defense. Unlike obscure Viking leather armor, we have many surviving examples of Viking shields – they are made from pine, spruce and fir, although curiously heroic poems such as the Völuspá use lind (linden wood) to refer to shields. All of the surviving Viking shields have a central ‘boss’, a shaped cup of iron that protects the hand-grip and gives the shield extra resilience to central blows. They are often bound around the edges with tough rawhide to prevent the shield splintering when struck edge-on (there is little evidence for banding the rim with iron). Frequently, modern depictions of round shields display them as hulking great table-tops over an inch in thickness. Such a shield would be exhausting to wield – most Viking shields fall within the range of ¼ to ½ an inch, and several are cleverly chamfered to be thicker in the centre to reduce weight without compromising defense. Almost all of the shields in the record are a little under 3 feet in diameter (32-36 inches).
Crucially for our purposes here, the Viking shield was sometimes covered with leather, which would have been stretched over it whilst wet and secured with nails. Experimental archaeology (the fancy name for actually re-enacting what ancient peoples would have done in the past to discover if things worked the way we think they did) has shown us that covering a shield in leather increases its effectiveness significantly. A bare wooden shield might well be split or splintered to the point of unusability by a couple of heavy axe-blows, but a leather-covered one can still be used after five or six. In terms of weight, a Viking shield would weigh roughly a manageable 10lbs or so, although one covered with leather would weigh somewhat more around 15lbs. If you imagine what this means when wielded, an adult with a shield would be protected by a layer of stout wooden boards from chin to thigh, even the most simply-constructed of which would avert at least a couple of killing blows. In terms of a cost-benefit analysis, this rendered Viking leather armor irrelevant: most Viking warriors would have worn ordinary clothes into battle. These would have been brightly-coloured with simple dyes, including the kyrtill overtunic, trousers and cloaks, made from native fibres like flaxen linen. Because of the effectiveness of the shield, it is also more than conceivable that even a wealthy Viking wearing fine clothing, such as Thorir Hund’s reindeer-hide coat, if they did not own a chainmail shirt or had merely chosen not to wear it.
All told, the case for historical Viking leather armor is looking pretty thin. When taking together the lack of archaeological evidence, the effectiveness of shields, and the labor and effect involved in making leather, it seems much more likely that Viking leather armor is the realm of fantasy. That said, one cannot find finer Viking leather armor for sale than ours – and it will bring your fantasy outfit to life!
- Material: 13-15 oz. Leather
- Color: Brown / Black
Chest – 31-43.3 Inches, Waist – 30-43.3 Inches, Front Top Width – 11.8 Inches, Front Waist Width – 21.3 Inches, Front Length – 18.5 Inches, Back Top Width – 10.8 Inches, Back Length – 20.3 Inches, Weight – 2.9 Pounds
Chest – 35-48.3 Inches, Waist – 34.5-48 Inches, Front Top Width – 12.3 Inches, Front Waist Width – 25.5 Inches, Front Length – 19 Inches, Back Top Width – 12 Inches, Back Length – 20.5 Inches, Weight – 3.3 Pounds
Chest – 38-51.8 Inches, Waist – 38.5-51.8 Inches, Front Top Width – 12.5 Inches, Front Waist Width – 29.5 Inches, Front Length – 19 Inches, Back Top Width – 12 Inches, Back Length – 20.6 Inches, Weight – 3.5 Pounds
Chest – 45.5-59.3 Inches, Waist – 45.5-59 Inches, Front Top Width – 14.8 Inches, Front Waist Width – 36 Inches, Front Length – 19 Inches, Back Top Width – 15.5 Inches, Back Length – 20.8 Inches, Weight – 4 Pounds