Crying over spilt Castlemilk: The Tale of Sir William and the Silver Sallet Part 6

In this sixth and final part we discover the fate of both our protagonist and his silver sallet. This, in turn, opens up a wider debate as to the fate of so much of the martial material culture of the period.

A Bloody Red Herring

Sir William would never return to redeem his sallet. He, his big brother Sir John, and the vast majority of his countrymen fell in the sair fecht against the Auld Innemie. At Rouvray on 12 February 1429 a Franco-Scots force sought to cut off a supply train loaded with barrels of herring headed for the invested city of Orléans. The Scots were abandoned by their pusillanimous native allies including Duke Louis of Orléans’ natural son Jean (count of Dunois from 1439) (Figure 1). This Bâtard d’Orléans, however, would prove himself to be a key figure in turning the tide for King Charles. Once trapped in the net of the wily Sir John Fastolf at this Battle of the Herrings, the Scots felt the bitter edge of this English commander’s ‘werre cruelle and sharpe without sparing of any parsone’.[1]

Figure 1: A Knight in Prayer, Stone figure sculpture, French, 15th century, Glasgow Museums, 44.25.

‘white harneys of old facion’

Where then, is Sir William’s sallet now? And indeed the harness of so many of those who fought at this time? Documentary evidence such as indentures, household, business and governmental accounts, and wills attest to the fact that there was a great deal of it.[2] The final act of the Orléans play, alluded to in the first essay, has the defeated English soldiers marched away bareheaded – their sallets in their hands (‘la teste nue […] leurs salades en leurs mains’).[3] Sumptuous artworks depict harness in fine detail (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Ordeal by Fire of St John the Evangelist (detail), stained glass panel, France, c. 1510, Glasgow Museums, 45.390.a.

            Sir John Fastolf, a commander who had grown filthy rich from the wars in France, was dead by 1459. In 1462 an inventory was made of his goods at his house at Southwark. There listed are ‘viij white harneys of old facion […] x peyre breganders, febill […] x basenettes, xxiiij salettes, vj gorgettes […] ij haberions and a barell to skore [t]hem’.[4] On 4 November 1454 two London armourers were tasked with providing a valuation of the stock of Court Pothof, late of Southwark, armourer.[5] Of those classed as an ‘old haubergeon’ (‘vet’ haberion’) three were valued at 20d., one at 16d. and another at 12d. There was one sallet that was black from the hammer, meaning it had not been planished or polished (‘j nigra Salet’) worth 10d., one old basinet (‘j vet’ Basenet’) worth 16d., and one pair of greaves (‘j par’ Greves’) (lower leg defences) worth 8d. These sorry scraps were probably not worth much more than the roll of parchment on which they have been recorded.

Figure 3: Sallet/salade/ barbut, Italy, late 15th century, originally fabric covered, Glasgow Museums, E.1939.65.al.

            The answer, then, to our question is simple: until the Gothic Revival of the eighteenth century, mail and plate armour was considered perfectly reusable iron and steel. A good example is to be found in Glasgow Museums’ collection. A mid-fifteenth-century helmet has had its face opening crudely sheared back, most probably to provide an archer with a better view (Figure 3). Visitors to Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum can gaze in awe at the ‘Avant’ harness (Figure 4). It is a remarkable survival from the fifteenth century. Yet it is also a sight that would have once been commonplace in every town, city, and castle and on every battlefield across Europe.

Figure 4: Milanese Armour by Corio Workshop, Italy, c. 1445, Glasgow Museums, E.1939.65.e.

From the Siege of Orléans to the Soo side

Today Scottish schoolchildren readily recognize the name Lord Darnley as that of the notorious second husband of Mary Queen of Scots (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Portrait of Lord Darnley, Henry Stuart (1545-1567), 16th century, Glasgow Museums, PL.1927.248.

Yet the vital role of his ancestor – and so many of theirs – in weakening the English cause in France is largely forgotten. Darnley is a neighbourhood in, what is now, the Southside of the City of Glasgow very close to Glasgow Museums Resource Centre. In nearby Castlemilk, Sir William’s castle was demolished to make way for an (also demolished) country house, the stables of which have been converted into a community hub. Here can be seen a fantastic nineteenth-century fireplace carved with the dramatic scene of Sir William and his men fighting heroically at the gates of Orléans (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Old fireplace rescued from Castlemilk House depicting Sir William fighting at the siege of Orleans.

[1] Letters and Papers Illustrative of the Wars of the English in France […] Vol. 2, Part 2, ed. by Joseph Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1864, repr. 2012), p. 518.

[2] R. Moffat, ‘Armourers and Armour: Textual Evidence’, in The Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450-1450, ed. by Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 49-52.

[3] Mistère du siège d’Orléans, ed. Guessard and De Certain, p. 745.

[4] London, British Library, Additional MS 39848, fol. 50r-fol. 53r, printed in Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, Part I, ed. by Norman Davis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 107-14 (at pp. 113-14).

[5] London, London Metropolitan Archives, Plea and Memoranda Roll A80, membrane 4.

Dancing on the rope, swallowing knives, juggling with daggers. Sword players in the 15th century.

In the town of Metz, the weaver Philippe de Vigneulles (1471-1522) wrote his mémoires. His text is full of anecdotes about “his” world, one of merchants who made their fortune within the walls of the free cities of the Holy Roman Empire. He tells us about the acrobats that he likes to see dancing on ropes in the square of Viller. One of them is “a master above all masters” (maistre par sus tout les aultres maistre), coming from the city of Luca (Lucques) in Italy.

“when the Italian master came to play, he surpassed all the others and did incredible things, that no one could believe without seeing him, on the small rope as well as on the big one. It seemed to touch neither the sky nor the earth, so light was he. And this master was so well dressed that there was no lord in Metz who had a more beautiful dress than he had. He was a master of the sword, the battle-axe, the short dagger and all other weapons and the buckler.”[1]

The city of Luca is known for its martial games.[2] It is also not surprising to read about Italian masters who excel at “playing” with weapons. What is interesting here is the list of his martial expertise, which can be tied to urban fencing competitions, the so-called fencing schools.[3] Such competitions were organised by travelling master-at-arms, some of them belonging to interurban networks, guilds of masters of the sword. The most famous one in the Holy Roman Empire, the brotherhood of Saint Marc, received imperial privileges in 1487. Other masters were not member of such guilds and call themselves “free-fencers”. Other were associated with jugglers, dancers, bear watchmen or other kind of performers, as represented by figure 1. On this illuminated painting of 1480, decorating a house book, one can see a snake charmer, a dagger swallower and a fire eater, next to a pair of wrestlers and a pair of fencers. In between the fencer holding longswords is a master-at-arm holding the staff used to referee a fencing bout. Pairs of long knives, daggers and staffs are lying on the ground at the feet of the fencers. All of these weapons represent known martial disciplines to be found in the corpus of fight books, strongly connected with urban fencing practices at the end of the Middle Ages. The poses can also easily be recognised with fencing “guards” in the technical literature about fencing. In passing, the illuminated painting is attributed to master E.S., who produced other works of art related to fencing and other games, such as playing cards (fig. 1).[4]

Fig. 1: Anonymous, Mittelalterliches Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg, 1480 (taken from Christoph Graf zu Waldburg Wolfegg (ed.), Venus und Mars. Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch aus der Sammlung der Fürsten zu Waldburg Wolfegg (New York / Munich: Prestel, 1997)). Wikimedia Commons.

The status of master at arms, or master of the sword, does not correspond to a trade in its own right at the end of the Middle Ages. Apart from a few exceptions such as masters who managed to obtain the protection of a prince in a court, most of the fencing masters mentioned in the archival documents, or authors of the fight books do have another main occupation, most of the time unrelated with fencing. For example, Jorg Wilhalm is a hatter in Augsburg, but he is also specialised in fencing in armour with all weapons. We also find craftsmen such as furriers, candle makers, cutlers, etc, who hold regular fencing schools in Swiss towns as early as 1463.

Those with acrobatic skills who frequent in or accompany travelling people from city to city were keen to play with swords in public. Such is the case of a troupe of foreigners who performed at the city of Estavayer on the shores of the lake of Neuchatel in 1454 and 1459. They are mentioned in an accounting document as ‘poor Sarracens recently made Christians’ (ppovre Sarragin qui se sont fait cristient), who received ‘eight jugs of wine’ for their performance of ‘a play with two-handed swords’ (qui juerent de l’espée à due main).[5] The show was attended by the town council and the wine was drunk from the cellar of a burgher, member of the council. The circumstances of this performance and its specific kind is unclear, as is usual of dry mentions in accounting documents, but it is likely that it was either a competition, or a sword-dance. Sword dance are cultural practices documented in the late Middle Ages in the whole Europe, and tied to either guild practices in cities, or festivals in more rural areas.[6] Such performances can be very elaborated and include competitions as illustrated in fig. 2. On this painted drawing kept in Nuremberg, two fencers cross their swords from a platform made of inter-laced swords held by other performers.

Fig. 2: Sword dance and play of the sword of the cutler’s guild of Nuremberg. Drawing, ca. 1570. (Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, HB 2286). Wikimedia Commons.
Cite this article as: Daniel Jaquet, "Dancing on the rope, swallowing knives, juggling with daggers. Sword players in the 15th century.," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 15/04/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1240.

Acknowledgement: This blog is an expansion of an excerpt of the monograph of Daniel Jaquet, Combattre au Moyen Âge: Une histoire des arts martiaux en Occident (XIVe-XVIe siècles) (Paris: Arkhê, 2017).

Title page image credits: Detail of the children of Luna, Mittelalterliches Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg, 1480 (taken from Christoph Graf zu Waldburg Wolfegg (ed.), Venus und Mars. Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch aus der Sammlung der Fürsten zu Waldburg Wolfegg (New York / Munich: Prestel, 1997)). Wikimedia Commons.


[1] quant ledit maistre ytalliens vint à juer, il paissoit tout les aultre de bien juer et faisoit chose incredible et non à croire à gens qui ne l’airoie veu, tent sus la petitte corde laiche comme sus la grosse. Et n’y ait homme qui sceust raiconter les tour qu’il faisoit sus la dite petitte corde, et sambloit qu’il ne touchait ny à_ciel ny à terre de legiereté qui estoit en lui. Et estoit ledit maistre cy bien acoustré qu’il n’y_ait seigneurs en Mets qui eust de plus belle roube qu’il avoit, et estoit maistre jueulx d’espees, de la haiche d’airme, de la courte daigue, de toutte airmes et du bouclier. Paris, BNF, nouv. Acq fr. 67120, edited by Fanny Faltot, Les Mémoires de Philippe de Vigneulles, unpublished PhD thesis, Paris, École des Chartres, 2015, pp. 128-129. I would like to thank the author for kindly sending me her edition.

[2] Alessandra Rizzi, Statuta de ludo: le leggi sul gioco nell’Italia di comune (secoli XIII-XVI) (Roma : Viella, 2012). The author mentions martial games, including shooting, throwing javelins and the so-called battagliole (team game including fencing).

[3] About fencing school see Daniel Jaquet, ’Die Kunst des Fechtens in den Fechtschulen. Der Fall des Peter Schwizer von Bern’, in Agon und Distinktion. Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag 2016), 243‑58 and Christian Jaser, ‘Ernst und Schimpf – Fechten als Teil städtlicher Gewalt- und Sportkultur’, in Agon und Distinktion. Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2016), 221‑42.

[4] See Stefan Krause and Christoph Kaindel, ‘Das Grosse Kartenspiel des Meister E.S. – Frühe gedruckte Fechtdarstellung’, Zeitschrift für historische Waffen- und Kostümkunde 55/1 (2013): 1‑18. The attribution to Master E.S. is a matter under debate, since these images are part of a relative large cycle. For a discussion about this matter, see Daniel Hess, Meister um das „mittelalterliche Hausbuch“. Studien zur Hausbuchmeisterfrage (Mainz: Von Zabern, 1994).

[5] I would like to thank Olivier Dupuis for sharing his discoveries back in 2013. The text is edited by Barbey (1911), quoted in Daniel Jaquet ‘Fighting in the Fightschools, late 15th – early 16th century’, Acta Periodica Duellatorum 1 (2013), 47-66 (54, note 29).

[6] Stephen D. Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik, 1997).

Upcoming international conference: Martial Culture in European Towns (1350-1550)

Next November (11-13, 2021) we will host our closing international conference at the University of Bern. Learn about the program and check our call for posters (open until May 30, 2021).