Medieval Knight Tabard
(About) The Mark of a True Knight
In the press of horses and soldiers, mud and blood, how could you tell friend from foe, how could you rally to your liege-lord when he was hard-pressed in the fray? By the blazing tabard, which matched your own and your fellow levies! Our Medieval Knight Tabard is the archetype: taking inspiration from the form worn by the Knights Templar, expert LARP and re-enactment manufacturers House of Warfare have designed the ideal tabard for your re-enactment, medieval roleplay or Renaissance Fayre outfit.
Our Medieval Knight Tabard is the perfect way to finish off your medieval knight look. It is naturally coloured, so it won’t stand out as garish or synthetic; it’s entirely period-accurate. It is one-size, so it is more than capable of fitting well over armour, but it is also perfect for wearing as a standalone centrepiece for your outfit. It is emblazoned with a red cross patée, which is the symbol of the Knights Templar – but it is a symbol that appears in the heraldry and iconography of dozens of different states and noble families, so this knight tabard is more than flexible enough to represent any knightly outfit from across the medieval period. It includes a handy hidden pocket at the right hip – likely something that Guy de Lusignan at the Battle of Hattin wished he’d had to hold his car keys. Our Tabard is deeply slit up both the front and back, so that it won’t impede your movement.
In all, it’s a flexible, high-quality garment that strikes exactly the right balance between period-accuracy and modern wearability. You need look no further for your knight tabard costume.
(History) Tabards, Knights and The Coat of Arms
Before they became the battlefield bearers of heraldic insignia, tabards were originally an item of civilian clothing. At their simplest, they were a plain jerkin that consisted of two pieces of material – one at the front, one at the back – pinned or sewn together to make an armless covering for the torso. They would usually have been made from available local textiles, usually linen or leather. They were a simple and lowly garment, worn by peasants, manual workers as a matter of everyday dress – generally they were a male garment, but practical clothing was usually fairly unisex for working commoners in the medieval period.
The need for battlefield identification only really came about in the High Middle Ages. For much of the Early Medieval period, war was an extremely personal affair. There weren’t large standing armies of permanent, de-personalised ranks of soldiers in uniform. Rather, individual lords who had been given land by the king had to provide their own levied soldiers from amongst the peasantry when their King called upon them – so, in all likelihood, you knew your lord’s face and you knew your fellow levies personally, who would never have numbered more than a few dozen for any but the wealthiest of lords. On a confusing battlefield, you were always together with the people whose faces, arms and armour you’d have known for most of your life. Whilst they were loud and violent, medieval battlefields were generally not the smoky warrens of earthworks and cannon emplacements that they became in the early-modern period – barring fog, snow or darkness, you would have been able to see your fellow soldiers well, and would have sought to stick together in formation at all costs. Orders would have been given by your lord or his subordinates, who would identify targets by recognising the banners, personages or armour of their enemies. So why did the knight’s tabard emerge at all?
The Massification of Warfare
Well, all began to change towards the end of the High Middle Ages. Starting in the 13th-century, the scale of medieval battlefields began to change dramatically. Where in the Anglo-Saxon period, a kingdom-deciding clash of forces such as that at the River Idle in 616 CE, when King Raedwald established his hegemony over the entirety of England, might have only included a few hundred participants on each side. In the Hundred Years’ War between the English Angevin Empire and the Kingdom of France, each kingdom could field armies of more than ten-thousand troops who could all be brought to bear on one battle. Where you could probably see your lord’s face in an open-faced helmet from a few yards away, now he was just one mounted combatant among ranks of others, in a big shiny great helm, like all of the others. Clearly, you needed to be able to see who he was, and for him to know you as well. At the same time, the magnificent display and ritual of tournament culture began to achieve its legendary popularity in this period, and the competing knights would wear ostentatious and colourful knight tabard costumes over their armour to show off their wealth and the fineness of their household’s craftsmanship – these also fed into the battlefield forms of the tabard. A good way to think of the tabard is as a visual representation of the bonds of feudal obligation between a King, his knights and his levied soldiers, in a period where the impersonal forces of scale and economics were beginning to stretch those bonds to breaking-point.
Civilian tabards began to develop into means of identification. Rather than just a plain top-layer, they were now worn over armour, and either embroidered or painted with the symbols of your liege’s heraldry. The tabard came to exist alongside a series of similar pieces of clothing which became a sort of proto-uniform for battlefield identification: the medieval knight tabard, which was comparatively short and fitted; the surcoat, which was in effect a longer tabard; and the mantle, a cloak-like garment worn from the shoulders which had developed from Crusader garb. All of these became brightly coloured and made with clear heraldic insignia – this is actually where we get the idea of a literal ‘coat of arms’ from. As the medieval period advanced and weaponry became more deadly, knights and soldiers began to sew plates of armour to the insides of their surcoats and tabards to give themselves extra protection in addition to their increasingly inadequate chainmail. These ‘coats of plates’ would develop into early plate armour, an example of that would be our Polished Steel Cuirass. That said, a Riveted Chainmail Hauberk would be the perfect companion for this tabard.
Armour Too Fancy To Cover Up
Ironically, the advent of full suits of spectacular articulated plate armour in the early 1400s meant that surcoats and knightly tabards were temporarily discarded by the achingly fashion conscious elite for a time: Italian ‘white armour’ was designed to be worn without a tabard, showcasing the extreme finesse of the craftsmen who were able to create wholly encasing riveted armour systems. But a system of ‘livery’ remained popular for enlisted troops: the liege would now provide his paid soldiers, who were increasingly professionalised, with a standardised tabard that wasn’t necessarily merely their lord’s heraldry.
The Wars of the Roses are a fantastic case-study for the evolving nature of battlefield identification – for example, during the Wars of the Roses, Richard III’s men wore a tabard livery emblazoned with a boar. Nevertheless, war remained a personal affair, and allegiances were sometimes malleable – the Stanley family had fought on both sides of the conflict, supporting both York and Lancaster at various stages of the conflict. This did not occasion their troops to swap ‘Yorkist uniform’ for ‘Lancastrian uniform’; they were always liveried as Stanley’s men. This was no more obvious than in the climatic Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 CE, where they quite literally hung back from engagement, waiting to see which way the battle would go, and then intervened decisively to defeat Richard III, placing Henry II on the throne and bringing the Wars to a close.
The Limits of Livery: The Barney at Barnet
However, livery was far from a perfect system. Elsewhere in the Wars of the Roses, at the Battle of Barnet, its shortcomings were exposed. Upstart Lancastrians led by the Earl of Warwick, the Marquis of Montagu and the Earl of Oxford were locked in battle with Yorkist King Edward IV, who had returned from exile to cast out Warwick from his usurped kingdom. Amid a foggy battlefield, the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford had rounded up several hundred men who had pursued a routed Yorkist force and become distracted by looting the town of Barnet. Arriving back onto the scene unaware that the battle lines had shifted about in his absence, his fellow Lancastrian the Marquis of Montagu tried to make out Oxford’s livery, but mistook Oxford’s ‘star with rays’ for King Edward’s ‘sun in splendour’. Spooked that the revenging King appeared to be mounting a sudden attack on his rear out of the fog, Montagu’s men fired arrows and lead shot at the returning Lancastrian looters.
Oxford’s men took up the cry of ‘treachery!’ – one not entirely unwarranted, given the elastic loyalties of those such as the Stanleys. The Lancastrian line, gripped by panic, fragmented – and was smashed to pieces by the actual King Edward, who charged into the centre of the disintegrating Lancastrians and rolled them up like an old newspaper. The King might well have wanted to spare the Earl of Warwick and entreat him to become a valuable ally, since he sent out orders that the Earl be found and brought to him alive – though that may have been to save him to be made a public example of. Regardless, he never had the chance: Warwick was killed in the rout. The Marquis of Montagu was struck down in the confusion, possibly even by one of Oxford’s fellow Lancastrians – depending on your view of him, this was either spectacularly unlucky or some well-deserved karmic justice. Oxford himself barely escaped the whole mess and fled to France, continuing his war against the House of York, eventually returning to take a command in Henry II’s successful Lancastrian army at Bosworth. The Lancastrian rout at Barnet – almost wholly precipitated by Montagu’s fateful mistake amidst the fog – gave Edward such a crushing victory that the principle Lancastrian pretender, Margaret of Anjou, a fierce and talented military leader in her own right, was wholly deprived of the ability to link up with Warwick’s forces and her eventual defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury was made all but certain.
How different all of this might have been with a clearer means of identifying friend from foe!
‘Uniforms’ as we understand them really only emerged well after the end of the medieval period, when warfare slowly transformed away from being the personal province of nobles jockeying for individual power into contending states with independent bureaucratic structures and their own standing armies. The knights tabard is a relic of a lost time, when warfare was intensely bound up in a network of feudal obligations, which welded together the knight, his pledges of loyalty to the King, and the levied peasants whose right to plough the land tied them inextricably to bear their lord’s insignia when called upon. Our Medieval Knight Tabard is the best way to bring this whole complex history to bear on your LARP outfit or re-enactment impression.
- Chest: Fits up to 49 inches
- Length: 47 Inches
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