I recently received a very sweet note from a sixth grade girl named Trinity, asking for help with a project she’s doing on King Arthur. Her questions were specifically around weapons and armor and it occurred to me that I’ve never done a blog post dedicated specifically to that topic. So this is an expansion of the information I sent her. (Best of luck, Trinity!)
As with all other generalizations about the Celts, sources contradict one another and the information will vary depending on time period and place. For purposes of this post, I’m focusing on Britain during the time period of my novels, approximately 400-550 AD/CE.
The Celts wore trousers, tunics and cloaks into battle. The early Celts did not wear armor, but later on armor was most likely a leather jerkin. As time went on, some fought protected by a type a bronze plate. But it is possible they also used a type of chain mail, which the Celts actually invented. What is not known is when it stopped being used. The web site ancientmilitary.com mentions Ceannlann armor, “a layer of metal scales sewn onto linen which is in turn sown on to chain armor creating a very effective multilayer armor that could cover the entire body.” (I have not been able to back this up with other sources. If you know of any, please tell me.)
As for the tradition that they fought naked? Perhaps it was all hogwash. Maybe it was true at some point, or true of some of the tribes and not others, but from what I can tell, most of the time, they fought clothed and at least lightly armored. Given the success of the Celtic armies over the centuries, I tend to believe they used armor.
As with armor, at first the Celts fought without helmets. When they did adopt them, the helmets seem to have been metal and looked a lot like a Roman’s helmet (some say the Romans intimated the Celtic helmets, others argue it was the other way around) or they may have had horns (there is one in the British Museum that has horns, but it is from the Iron Age).
They carried large shields made of wood, bronze or leather, which could have been rectangular in shape or cone-shaped with a boss in the middle meant to catch the opponent’s weapon. The shields were tall enough to cover them from the shoulder to the knee.
The Celts’ favorite weapon was the spear. There were two kinds: a light one that they could throw like a javelin, and a heavier version that was used in close contact battle for thrusting, more like a lance. These were the weapons par excellence for most of Celtic history.
Their second favorite weapon was a sword. At least in early times, the Celtic sword probably would have been smaller than the broadswords we think of from the Middle Ages. It was likely more like the Roman short swords. As time went on, swords got longer and heavier. Alcock notes that the Irish and Picts were known to fight with extremely long (20-22 inch) double-edged swords. (He also reports that the Saxons fought with two-handed swords up to 36 inches long.) These were meant for one-handed fighting (stalling and slashing) and intimidation of your opponent. I’m no fencing expert, but it stands to reason that longer swords were less effective the closer your opponent was, given the space it took to wield them.
The Celts also fought with slings (slingshots that launched rocks and other projectiles), and bows and arrows, as well as axes and daggers. Duffy also mentions a “javelin-like weapon called a Madaris (84),” but I haven’t been able to find any additional information on that weapon.
Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests: Britain AD 550-850 by Leslie Alcock
Who Were the Celts? by Kevin Duffy
Pictish Warrior AD 297-841 by Paul Wagner
What have your heard, read or seen about the Celts in battle? What do you think is true? What questions do you have?
I think it’s not quite accurate to talk of Celts when referring to Arthur. If we’re talking of an Arthur that lived in the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries, we’re talking simply about a Briton who was using armour and weapons similar to those of the Late-Roman army. (See the Britannia reenactment group – http://www.durolitum.co.uk – Comitatus – http://www.comitatus.net – or Letavia – http://letavia.canalblog.com ) The wealthy warriors may have worn helmets, but not like those pictured above. They were of the kind with a nose guard, usually. They would have worn chainmail or loricated mail and the long swords are thought to be specifically for use on horseback, those this cannot be proven. Those on horseback would were shin guards. There were probably two kinds of shields: a round shield and a large oval shield. The poem ‘Y Gododdin’, tells us they were lime washed. Those who weren’t wealthy (the majority) would use the javelin or the spear and, if they could afford it, a padded jerkin. Hope this helps.
Thanks, Mak. I wasn’t saying that the helmets they would have worn would have been like the one pictured. I noted that the time periods were very different. What I was saying is that the horned helmet is spoken of in reference to the Celts, though not necessarily of Arthur’s time. Thanks for the link and additional information.
There’s a really good book on warfare of the period by Guy Halsall called ‘Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900’
Ooooh! Thanks! I haven’t heard of that one. Will definitely be checking it out. Love finding new sources!