IRISH KERN, 14th-15th CENTURIES

An extract from Armies of the Middle Ages, volume 1
by Ian Heath



28.      IRISH KERN, 14th-15th CENTURIES

Monstrelet describes Irish foot-soldiers at Rouen in 1418 as 'having only a stocking and shoe on one leg and foot, with the other quite naked, having no trousers. They had targets, short javelins and large knives of a strange sort.' Froissart too records the wearing of trousers as uncommon, but it is worth bearing in mind that they had been commonplace during the Anglo-Norman era and were again in Elizabethan times, when they are depicted as tight-fitting with a strap under the instep just as they are described in sources several centuries earlier. The business of only wearing one shoe at first seems rather improbable, but we have already seen another instance of this custom in figure 24; in fact having the right foot bare for better purchase on slippery ground had been a relatively common practice amongst many peoples since ancient times. The baggy sleeves of the probably saffron-dyed leine worn here were copied from contemporary English civilian dress; a mantle would be worn over this in cold weather, or alternatively a long-sleeved jacket of which the sleeves could be unbuttoned on the outside to allow the leine's baggy sleeves to fall through. Hair was worn long, with a beard or at least a flowing moustache, which was so characteristic that in 1447 it was enacted that 'all who would be taken for English' must shave both lips.

Coming to the arms described by Monstrelet, the knife is a wooden-handled skene, described by Froissart as a pointed, broad-bladed, 2-edged weapon used to cut throats. The javelins or darts he mentions were capable of piercing haubergeons and plates according to one account; 3 were normally carried. Curiously, however, one of the most popular Irish weapons of both the preceding and subsequent periods does not occur in any of the principal accounts of the Hundred Years' War era, this being the axe. However, that it did remain in widespread use we know from frequent 14th century references to axes in Scotland being 'Irish' axes.

Shields are apparently not depicted in any Irish source of this era, that shown here being based on 16th century descriptions. They were principally round or oval and convex, and were made of wood or, among the Northern Irish, of basketwork. The shields of chieftains were clearly more ornate - a poem of c. 1300 describes one as white with dragons and golden branches painted on it, while a source of 1419 refers to an 'emerald-tinted shield with flowery designs' decorated with variegated pale gold bosses, bronze studs and 'twisted stout chains of old silver'.

One other weapon in limited use among the Irish was the bow. This is described by Juan de Perelhos, a Catalan knight who visited Ireland in 1397, as being 'as short as half a bow of England; but they shoot as far as the English ones.' In the 1360s we even find a certain Donald Gall being paid to lead 208 Irish archers in English service. Handguns were later introduced too, but not until the late-15th century, one source recording how in 1489 'a great rarity was sent to the Earl of Kildare, namely 6 handguns out of Germany', these being subsequently used by his bodyguard.



Next: 29. IRISH HORSEMAN c.1400 in Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 1 by Ian Heath