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Your lungs are almost bursting as you crest the rise at full tilt, your breath rattling in your ears and echoing in your suffocating great helm. You are surrounded by the melee, death coming at you from all angles in every moment. A great cry goes up from the back ranks of the enemy, and you see dozens of men-at-arms streaming down the slope. All is lost – but wait! The men’s tabards bear the colours and heraldry of your allied bannermen! They crash into your foes and drive them from the field. You whirl on your heel, ready to deliver a crushing blow, but your own lord’s colours on the man’s tabard stays your hand, though you do not know his face.   Armies in the medieval period never fought in uniform. There was no standardisation, since individual soldiers often outfitted themselves with their own arms and armour, or at very most were outfitted by their own local lord with equipment produced on a small scale. There was little unity of command, with seniority often being contested and chafed. Even loyalties themselves were often fluid and liable to change, even in the heat of battle! In this confusing mess, it’s a wonder that medieval armies ended up attacking the right people at all! One of the most important manners of distinguishing friend from foe in the medieval period was the tabard: a simple open-sided smock emblazoned with the colours or heraldry of one’s allegiance. At its most basic, a medieval tabard was simply a long oblong piece of fabric with a hole in the middle for the head, that formed an outer layer over other garments. This was often cinched at the waste with a belt to keep it in place. The tabard was originally a civilian garment, worn in the manner of an apron – it was very similar to a simple tunic, usually made from a stouter cloth, and was a staple of manual workers, craft workers and monks. By the end of the medieval period, liveried armies in proto-uniforms clashed on a grand scale. Tabards are a staple for any re-enactment club or LARP group, as they can bring unity to a set of disparate outfits with a single stroke. If you’re stuck for which you should go for, then keep reading for inspiration before you browse our medieval tabards for sale.

What Was the Medieval Tabard?

Like many types of medieval clothing, medieval tabards originated as a type of tunic. Like other medieval tunics, they started as a simple enough cut, but eventually evolved into something more elaborate and recognisable as its own garment. They were a short, sleeveless coat and ranged from being used as work clothes, to being part of livery. They could be worn loose over the body, or with a belt which would sinch it in, securing the tabard in place and providing shape.

Tabard or Surcoat?

Medieval tabards are regularly confused with surcoats, which makes sense as both are tunics designed to be worn over clothing or armour. If we’re going to quibble over semantics, all medieval tabards are technically surcoats, but not all surcoats are tabards. This is because the surcoat refers to the outermost garment. Along with so many medieval terms, the name is originally French, meaning literally “over the coat.” Not only this, but like many other medieval words, it has multiple spellings and can refer to a whole bunch of things. However, the surcoat also usually referred to a specific garment, as other outer coats developed their own identities and names. By the time tabards had started to become a separate garment, there were several differences between them which helps us to know whether we’re looking at a surcoat or a tabard.
  • For starters, unlike medieval tabards which were always sleeveless, surcoats could be either sleeved or sleeveless.
  • A medieval tabard would have less material than a typical surcoat, being closer fitted to the body.
  • The tabard was also much shorter than the surcoat, ending about the waist whereas the surcoat was usually more like a long coat.
 

Where did the Tabard Come From?

Whilst we aren’t certain exactly where the tabard comes from, one good theory advanced by historians is that the tabard became adopted into military use during the Crusades from the early 12th-century CE. The French, German and English knights who went to the Holy Land to ‘defend’ it from Muslim ‘invaders’ were heavily equipped with full suits of iron or mild-steel chainmail and steel helms. Whilst these were cumbersome in temperate Western Europe, in the Levant they were potentially deadly, and the documents that we have from the period illustrate heatstroke as a constant danger. For example, the Battle of Hattin was a crushing defeat for the Crusaders at the hands of Saladin, not in small part due to their dehydration and exhaustion: the Crusading army had left an oasis with abundant water, but was successfully cut off and starved of replenishment by the Ayyubid sultan.

The Development of Medieval Tabards

Like other medieval overcoats, medieval tabards started off as surcoats. They were long, sleeveless smocks that came about around the 12th century during the time of the crusades. This is where we have the image of the crusader knight wearing a long white tabard-like garment over his armour. Knights at that time wore mail armour, which didn’t deal too well with the extreme heat. It was common for soldiers in full chainmail to find this inhospitable environment as unwelcoming as the soldiers they faced. Because of this, the knights decided to cover over the metal with a long, simple, white surcoat. This would prevent the heat of the sun from directly reaching the very conductive metal mail and reflect some of the heat away. They still wouldn’t be comfortable, but it was better than nothing. Besides, the image of the crusading knight in the white surcoat is still iconic today.

Further Development for War

The knights brought this style home with them and it altered over time, becoming shorter and more colourful. To start with, they simply had different coloured fabrics, but eventually being used to display coats of arms. In the 14th century, this surcoat had often been replaced by a garment known as the jupon. This was a short, close fitting sleeveless coat that was worn over armour and often displayed the heraldry of the wearer. The jupon is often referred to a tabard, the main difference being that the later tabard isn’t as tightly fitted as the jupon and hangs more loosely over the armour. Interestingly, the continued development of full plate armour caused both the rise and temporary fall of tabards among the knights. Because well armoured knights no longer had any use for shields, they used the tabard to display their heraldry and identify themselves. However, there was a period of time in the early half of 15th century, before the final form of the tabard had been developed, when many knights wore only their white armour and didn’t cover it with any tabard or surcoat. Apparently, the sight of the gleaming metal was too impressive to be hidden by a bit of cloth. Eventually, medieval tabards made a return to the knightly uniform in the late 15th century. These were short, light garments, which were open at the sides and sometimes belted. They were also used among common soldiers, likely for a similar reason as the original crusader’s surcoat, to protect their armour from the elements.

Development for Peace

While we’re most familiar with the tabards used by soldiers and knights, the shortened, sleeveless surcoat also saw use in peacetime. It was worn by peasants and monks as fairly basic garments, being functional and useful for protecting what clothes they wore underneath. A form of this style of tabard is still worn by some religious orders. It’s known as a scapular and is worn by both monks and nuns. This garment is primarily symbolic nowadays, but it was once both an identifying mark of the monk and a practical piece of clothing. In the 15th century, medieval tabards came into fashion as an overcoat among people of all walks of life. Rather than simply being a practical working man’s coat, it was worn in both war and peace to identify people as belonging to a certain noble household, or just to follow the trend. The design of the medieval tabard had changed massively in this time, being a far cry from the basic outer garment they started out as. Originally, they were similar to sleeveless tunics, but as with other clothes in the late middle ages, they evolved. The newer medieval tabards were made from either two or four textile panels. The simpler design had two large panels which hung down over the wearer’s front and back, so the sides were completely open. Some tabards also had two smaller panels which hung over the wearer’s shoulders and outer arms, creating open sleeves of a sort. Each of these panels may have a coat of arms upon them, identifying the wearer without question. Otherwise, they would be either plain, or have different colours. These tabards would be worn with or without a belt and they continued to be worn after the end of the middle ages.

The Different Uses of Medieval Tabards

The material that the tabard was made from depended on its purpose and who was wearing it. As a workman’s outer coat, the tabard would consist of humble, sturdy materials. Perhaps hemp or wool, or even leather for those who needed something really hard-wearing and protective. However, some tabards which were worn for fashion at the very end of the middle ages may have been made using rarer materials, such as silk or velvet. Linen and finely spun wool were also popular materials among the better off, with fur trimmings and elaborate embroidery. Tabards worn during wartime would also need to be sturdy enough to stand up to the rigors of war, so would be made from fabric that could withstand this punishment and still hold a dye. They were worn by both common foot soldiers and knights alike over their armour. This was both to identify them, and to protect their armour from the elements. The common foot soldiers would wear tabards of simple cloth, but knights who had money sometimes splashed out on silk tabards to be worn over their armour. However, this was extravagant even for the majority of the nobility, so only the very rich or very vain would bother.

Heraldic Medieval Tabards

In their final form, medieval tabards would often be emblazoned with the coat of arms of a certain noble house, or family. These would be worn by both the nobles themselves and their retinue. They would serve to identify a servant in peacetime, and a knight in times of war. Tabards would also be often worn for ceremonies, so each noble house was clearly represented. These ceremonial tabards would be works of art, made from silk and gold thread. This ceremonial use continued after the end of the middle ages.

Identifying Knights in Warfare

The ability to identify a knight in war was of utmost importance to both the potential opponent and to the knights themselves. While common soldiers and men-at-arms who weren’t of the nobility were fair game, knights actually dying in war was relatively uncommon. Rather than trying to kill a knight, the enemy force would aim to take them alive. This was especially true if the knight was particularly wealthy or belonged to an exceptionally important noble household. Was this fair? Absolutely not. There were several reasons why it was preferable to take a knight alive. For starters, a living noble can produce a healthy ransom. A dead noble was worth nothing. This was part of the medieval chivalric warfare. Famously, King Richard Lionheart was held for ransom to the amount of 100,000 pounds (in weight) of silver. Another famous case of ransoming, which was more of an ordinary example of the practice, was that of Sir Bertrand du Guesclin, who was a knight during the 14th century. Du Guesclin surrendered when his liege’s force was defeated, and his liege killed and was subsequently captured and ransomed off. Beyond the monetary value of the ransom, this practise was encouraged because of the alleged importance of the nobility at the time, as well as the seemingly fluid practices of war. Even two knights on opposing sides during one skirmish had a vested interest in keeping the other alive, as they may well be friends in peacetime and could fight side-by-side in the next skirmish. There was a sense of honour involved in this practise as well. While the chivalric code of conduct made famous by literature is largely fiction, many knights did strive to at least have a veneer of honourability.

Medieval Heralds

Also decked in a medieval tabard showing the coat of arms of their liege would be the heralds. These were originally messengers sent by the nobility, usually to pass on messages or proclamations. They may have been commoners, but this was a lofty position to be in as they essentially represented their liege. Heralds would also manage the tournaments that took place in the late middle ages, which further solidified their role as regulators of the different noble coats of arms. As the medieval period drew to a close, the importance of heralds grew. Even in modern times, there are active official heralds in several countries, usually those which still maintain a monarchy, such as the United Kingdom. These heralds wear tabards displaying the royal coat of arms and read public proclamations.

When In Rome...

The Crusading Knights clearly had to learn fast, and so they adapted the clothes of the inhabitants of the area. For example, the artwork of the Fatimids, Turks and Ayyubids, all of whom the Crusaders met and fought against in equal measure during the Crusader period, depicts their warriors as wearing loose flowing surcoats over their armour before and during this time. The franci Knights often adopted a tunic worn over the chainmail, as well as a long mantle to keep as much of the sun off as possible. Soon, knights began sewing their heraldry onto their garments, leading to the iconic image of the Knights Templar brothers, arrayed all in white save for the blood-red cross of the Order – this is also where we get the idea of a literal ‘coat of arms’. When these knights returned to Europe, the forms of dress they had adopted were widely imitated, being associated with the cachet and status of being holy warriors. Thus this loose-fitting over-armour tunic became the medieval knight’s tabard and the surcote, depending on their length, and the use of heraldic mantles became widespread. But why did they become so popular? Sure, everyone wanted to look like a cool Crusader knight, but battlefields and the social relations which governed them were rapidly evolving in Western Europe in the High Middle Ages. To understand how medieval tabards, surcoats and mantles became a commonplace feature of battlefields, we need to get to grips with the changing nature of medieval warfare, and how the landscape of medieval Europe gave rise to the need for battlefield identification.  

The Calm Before the Tabard

In the Early Middle Ages, the early armies of the Anglo-Saxons, Franks and Germans were formed along the lines that bonded all of society together. Kings endowed lords with lands, in return for their service when called upon to fight. In turn, these lords (extremely generously) gave the peasants the ‘right’ to live on that land and to be ruled over (lucky them), in return for various taxes: these were usually paid in kind with agricultural products, but they were also often required to serve in the lord’s armed force. Note that this is well before the existence of a standing army; the only men permanently under arms would be the retainers and bodyguards in the lord’s personal household.  

Raising an Army

Thus, when a king wanted to flex his military muscle, or had to defend from another encroaching kingdom, he would call upon his bannermen. These lords would then raise their own forces individually from their own land – levying peasants, arming and equipping them locally. The means and manner of this equipping varied; for example in Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom, it was set out in law that a lord had to provide a certain number of chainmail suits for every body of levies, and a lord could lose his title for failing to equip his host. Others, such as the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, where individual lords retained significantly more independent power vis-a-vis the monarchy, were more ad-hoc. Either way, this decentralised manner of raising and equipping armies could only ever be small in scale. Gone were the days of the large, professionalised armies of Rome, where hundreds of thousands of men were recruited for decades-long stints in the Legions., who faced off against massive Celtic armies that were more like whole societies-on-the-move. Now, even the largest battles before 1000 CE were only fought with a few thousand warriors under arms – often with strict ideas of honour and ritualised conflict (although the Christian monastic historians of the period delight in telling us of the dastardly violations of God’s honour-code).  

War on a Small Scale

This meant, effectively, that there was little need for the medieval tabard. Since military units were raised on such a small scale, you would likely have known almost every person you served with, at least by sight – and you would have met your lord in person at least several times. You would be able to recognise your King by his own personal arms and armour, which were probably richly decorated. As well, the helms in use in the period were all open-faced, rather than the big enclosing helms of the High and Late Middle Ages: you could easily tell who was who at a glance. However, that was all going to change.  

Tabards and Surcoats

From the 10th-century onward, Europe’s population began increasing significantly. A warming climate meant longer growing seasons, more stable states and kingdoms, and a general increase in wealth. Feudalism became more complex, with a hierarchy of knights, earls and lords beneath the King, each owing military service and levies. This also meant that armies became significant larger. Now, small contingents of men from a lord’s demesne would be serving amongst a much larger military force. The evolution of the Norman nasal helmet into the more protective enclosed helm and the great helm also meant that more soldiers were no longer identifiable by their faces. All of these pressures combined to create the need for a way of easily identifying high-status individuals at a distance.  

The Heyday of the Heraldic Tabard

As mentioned above, this coincided with Crusaders returning with their medieval knight’s tabards and their ‘coats of arms’, adopted from their Levantine allies and opponents. The adoption of medieval tabards was clearly earliest amongst the nobility, who emblazoned their own person arms on their tabards – one example is the tomb of Edward the Black Prince in Caterbury Cathedral. The cuirass of his funereal effigy is covered with a surcote bearing his personal heraldic arms: the quartered French fleurs-de-lys and English lions of the Plantagenet line, with a white label across the top indicating his status as the firstborn son. However, it should be remembered that warfare (and feudal society more generally) remained a matter embodied in the personage of the noble individual: feudal states and kingdoms were entirely dependent on their leaders; there wasn’t really an independent ‘state’ to wage war outside of the person ambitions of the leading nobles. Thus, for example, the death of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy ended the Burgundian Wars at a stroke, and resulted in the complete partition of the Dutchy. There wasn’t yet a need for mass-identification and uniforms beyond the medieval knight’s tabard.  

Livery and Standing Armies

Toward the end of the medieval period, however, proto-uniforms began to become more widespread. Armies had began to professionalise – the Hungarian Black Army formed by King Matthias Corvinus was arguably the first field army to be paid in wages rather than levied as part of feudal dues, and the French monarchy had introduced a direct land tax to fund the Compagnie d'ordonnance who were kept permanently under arms. At the same time, the practise of ‘livery’ had become more common. This was a development from the growing use of the personal heraldry of knights and lords as a means of personal identification (sort of an early ‘branding’) – now, a lord would outfit his household and his levies with ‘livery’: they would all bear the heraldry and colours of their house. In the case of heralds and soldiers, this would often be in the form of a medieval tabard. Amongst the city-states of Italy, independent republican city-states had developed their own livery, the Venetian city militia being outfitted in a unified livery of red and white. Sometimes, symbols were agreed upon for military purposes that had no direct heraldic association: for example, troops displayed their loyalty to Richard III’s Yorkist cause during the last phase of the Wars of the Roses with the image of a white boar on their tabards and banners.  

Not Quite So Uniform

Yet this movement toward uniformity was far from… er… uniform. Some armies in the Late Middle Ages were highly idiosyncratic – the Swiss and German Landsknechte, flamboyant mercenaries who wore the latest trends in extravagant clothing, prided themselves on their individuality. Until the early-modern period, most troops outside of the personal household of a knight or lord were unliveried, and would have identified one another haphazardly, sometimes pinning some symbol to their amour or clothing, but mostly relying on battlefield position to discern friend from foe. This was hardly foolproof, as the famous debacle at the Battle of Barnet during the Wars of the Roses demonstrates: approaching the battlefield in the fog from an unexpected angle, a division of Lancastrian soldiers were misidentified as Yorkists – mistaking the Lancastrian Earl’s ‘star with rays’ badge for King Edward IV’s ‘sun in spendour’! - and the whole Lancastrian battle line dissolved into panic. The resulting crushing defeat of the Lancastrian army arguably led directly to Edward reclaiming his throne. It would be only with the widespread professionalisation of armed force in the 17th and 18th centuries that uniforms would replace the medieval tabard, the surcoat and the livery.

Medieval Tabards for Sale

As we can, tabards went through quite a few changes in the middle ages. While they were most famously worn by the armour of knights, they were also popular among the common soldiers, and by others outside of war. This means that if you’re looking for something to finish off your LARP outfit and round out your character, our medieval tabards for sale can suit many different characters. If you are trying to be as authentic as possible, shop around for a style that suits your character’s status and the time period you’re aiming for. If you’re less concerned with historical accuracy, then pick whatever looks good. Our recreated tabards are mostly made out of cloth, so need little maintenance. This makes them ideal for LARP events. However, medieval tabards could also work well for collectors. The designs are attractive and work well as part of a display piece.  

Tabards Ahoy!

Now that we know how and why the tabard developed, we can much better make sense of the modern reproductions of medieval tabards for sale, and how they fit in with the arms and armour you may have already incorporated into your LARP outfit or re-enactment. They are a quintessential part of medieval battle dress, symbolising its evolution out of the Dark Ages into the increasingly depersonalised, post-feudal world.