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Integral and Separate Coifs
at the Battle of Hastings 1066
by Steven Lowe

It has been something of an article of faith that in the 11th century, particularly at the Battle of Hastings, coifs, the hoods of mail armour worn under the helmet, were integral with the byrnie (mail shirt) rather than separate from it. However, it is by no means clear that this was the case. Though there are many figures in the Bayeux Tapestry without any demarcation between hauberk and coif, there are enough that do to make me fairly suspicious of any blanket statements.

If you want to investigate the Tapestry in detail, have a look at http://www.hastings1066.com/ or get one of the books available in any good library (usually called The Bayeux Tapestry and sometimes held under the "Needlework" section, for heaven's sake!), which contain the complete Tapestry frame by frame. One particularly good one (though I disagree with its conclusion that the Tapestry was produced in Normandy rather than England) is The Bayeux Tapestry: Monument to a Norman Triumph by Wolfgang Grape; Prestel, Munich and New York, publishing date unknown but some time in the 1990’s.

   We know that coifs were in use from scenes where warriors wear them without helmets, though of course this does not constitute proof that aventails were not also used. 

Dr Tim Dawson has alerted me to the fact that separate coifs are mentioned in the Strategikon of Byzantine Emperor Maurice (turn of the 7th century C.E.) - from Das Strategikon des Maurikios, ed. George T. Dennis, tr. Ernst Gamillscheg, Verlag Der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna, 1981, p. 338

Lines 19 to 21 read:

In order for it to seem to the opponents that there are many armoured men, it is good for those who do not have mail to wear the coifs of those who do, thus it will seem from a distance that they are armoured.

I have looked carefully at the Bayeux tapestry, and have found several pictures that are pretty definitely indicative of a separate coif.

             

And several figures have coifs shown a different colour from the hauberk.

      

As well as these, there are a great many which are equivocal at best, with coifs that may or may not even be of mail (perhaps it is a different coloured border that obscures the sides of the coif?).

      

The hauberks that are being carried to the ships show no obvious sign of an integral coif, though as they're seen from in front, the coifs may be hidden, hanging behind the hauberk. And in fact the one on the right shows a row mail rings at the neck, just where you might expect to see part of the coif.

      

However, there are Norman knights in hauberks, who are bareheaded, with again no sign of a coif hanging behind.

      

If a person is wearing a "bib" (ventail) as many of them do (see my article at http://www.geocities.com/egfrothos/Bib1.html), the line between the coif and hauberk would be obscured by the bib itself - a separate coif would be open at the front, not reaching under the chin, and the line of join would only be visible at the back. That the coif was open at the neck is confirmed by the figure here, and others elsewhere in the Tapestry.

Though the bodies shown in the Tapestry being looted show no sign of a coif attached to the hauberk, an integral coif probably wouldn’t be visible when the hauberk is being pulled off – inside out - over the dead person’s head, so perhaps we should not take any lessons from that, either way. An interesting detail which I had not noticed before writing this article, is that these hauberks all seem to be fairly tight at the neck, with what appears to be a fabric collar.

It also has to be stated that a non-integral coif is not all THAT visible as a separate item, anyway. Can you honestly say you can tell one from the other at any more than 10 feet? (Though Michael Boughey disagrees - in his own words “At least as constructed by many re-enactors, separate coifs stand out, possibly because of the untidiness of their fit.”) However, many of the figures on the Tapestry do show pretty unequivocal continuity between the hauberk and the coif.

             

It is as difficult to definitively document integral coifs as it is to document separate ones. Most contemporary pictures which show armour between the hauberk and the helmet are equivocal - they can be interpreted either way. However, the mail shirts that have been found from this period don't appear to have had integral coifs - the Wenceslaus hauberk in particular. I had been under the impression that the one found at Gjermundbu was also without a coif, but Anders Helseth has kindly pointed out that

“it was found in 85 pieces (Grieg 1947) and nothing of any certainty can be said about its function except that judging from the amount of mail it probably was a shirt.”

Given that there are so few of these finds, this in itself means nothing. But if it is evidence for anything, it's evidence for separate coifs.

In my opinion, the likely evolution is: hauberk plus

1)     helmet with aventail, then

2)     coif, then

3)     integral coif.

A coif provides more complete neck protection than an aventail – if it’s properly made, there is less chance of embarrassing gaps at the bottom to let a weapon in, because it is bedded down on the shoulders, not hanging from a helmet. A separate coif is somewhat easier to make than an integral one, and I think would have come first - I haven't come across convincing evidence in anything I've read or seen so far that integral coifs appeared like Venus, fully formed at birth. Even so, it might be considerably easier to cut off a head when there was a gap between coif and hauberk than otherwise, which is a possible explanation for the development of the integral coif. 

Of course I can't prove this - it's based simply on my own reading of the evidence.

I am quite happy to concede that integral coifs did exist, and that there are quite unequivocal examples in carvings from the 13th century. Michael Boughey has pointed to fairly strong evidence for them in Romanesque carvings from the 12th century, as well. However, what I'm talking about is the 11th century, particularly the battle of Hastings (but also the decades either side of it). The question is whether integral coifs were already in use during the 11th century, or not till later. 

The evidence by no means proves that all coifs were integral with the hauberk in our period, in either the English OR the Norman armies. I'm happy to be proved wrong if someone can make a convincing enough case. But I'm certainly not going to deny the evidence of my eyes because other people, with no better information than I, say something different.

I've been looking through my collection of contemporary (10th & 11th century) pics, and both seem to appear -there are slightly more pics of what look like integral coifs than ones which appear to be separate coifs (or possibly aventails) - at least one has both in the same scene.

      

While researching all this I came across another picture - this dates to between 1125 and 1150, and is from the Pierpoint Morgan library, M. 736, folio 7v. (For a more detailed view, see here). Note the demarcation at the neck, particularly obvious on the guy at bottom left, but evident in several of the others. It could be argued that it is the guige from the kite shield, but I don't think that’s what it is - on the guy at the bottom left, particularly, the line seems to indicate a separate coif, not a guige.

But now here’s the pie’ce de re’sistance – definitive evidence that separate coifs were used in the 11th/12th centuries - I was looking for something else entirely, when I stumbled upon this carved figure From Angoule^me cathedral, France, c. 1100. Funny how these things just happen. I don't think you can get much more definite than this.

      

I rest my case, m'lud . . .

Well, there it is. From the above, I don’t think there’s any doubt that separate coifs were in use as early as 1100, and the pictures from the Bayeux Tapestry at least, support an earlier date. But it seems that by the mid-late 12th century they had disappeared in favour of the integral coif, not to reappear till several centuries later.

For the Battle of Hastings, I think we can be quite confident that both types appeared on the field, and there are fair indications that other materials were also used to protect the neck. Whether aventails were also in use is uncertain, but certainly some contemporary pictures hint at it, and I can’t see why they wouldn’t have been used as well.

UPDATE 29 March 2003

I have received an interesting e-mail from Nicholas Churchill, which has made me take a new look at this subject, as follows:

Dear Sir,

I enjoyed reading articles you've posted on the net concerning ventails, and integrated vrs. separate coifs at Hastings. I wondered if I might ask a question, the answer to which I haven't yet found?

A ventail (as your photo illustrations show) was attached at the bottom to the hauberk. The upper part of the ventail could be attached to the sides of the maille hood, thus protecting the lower face. If both separate coifs and integrated coifs were used in the Conquest era, were ventails found on both as well? In other words, would a separate coif have had a "bib" or ventail attached to it instead of to the hauberk? Or did the separate coifs of 1066 have the integral triangular ventail that I though came much later? I have a removable coif that I would like to alter, if necessary, to make it suitable for circa 1066 use. I had though of "opening up" the face opening more, and attaching a bib to the lower rounded portion of the coif that drapes over the chest. Or would this be silly and inaccurate?

Thanks for your help!

Nicholas Churchill

Nicholas has raised a very interesting point, which has made me do quite a major re-think. If you look at the pictures in the article on separate vs integral coifs, particularly the last one, it seems that the separate coifs have "inbuilt ventails". This would make sense, as you can just pull it over your head and have your neck protected. Compare this to the integral coif, which would probably be considerably harder to put on, as it has to come over the head as part of putting on a much more cumbersome byrnie, and the chances of cutting off your nose or strangling yourself with your coif seem to me to be much higher. So it would make sense to have a separate ventail for an integral coif, and less necessary with a separate coif.

Having said all this, the pics in my article are somewhat equivocal. Certainly, the guy in the first pic seems to be wearing an integral coif open at the front, with a separate ventail. And the guy in the carving at the end, plus the 2nd, 3rd and 4th pics show seem to show separate coifs without separate ventails. But what are we to make of the guys in the 8th & 9th pics, who appear to be wearing integral coifs without separate ventails? That seems to contradict my theory. There is another way of forming an integral coif, which is shown on carvings from about 1200 onward, where the thing divides at the front rather like a pair of lapels, and would probably be easier to put on and take off, but the detail in 11th century pictures is not sufficient to see if this method was in use yet - in fact, if anything, they seem to show the "old" style, where it is a simple "hood" with a hole for the face.

On a separate point, much more germane to Nicholas' own query, I see no reason you couldn't still have the separate ventail with a separate coif. In fact, that's what I wear myself. But whether it's backed up by historical evidence (eg the Bayeux Tapestry) is another thing. Perhaps, at least on the evidence in the article (admittedly rather selective - there are many more warriors in the Tapestry than are shown here), the separate coif with its own built-in aventail is the more justifiable option.

In response to Nicholas' other question, as I suggested above, it's fairly easy (in my own experience, as I've used one) to put a separate coif on with an inbuilt ventail, without any need for the laced-up triangular ventail that seems to have come in somewhere about the middle of the 13th century. I'd say this type was necessitated by the fact that coifs by this time were integral.

I have had another scout through the Tapestry to see whether there is any correlation between evidence of "integral coifs with separate ventails" vs "separate coifs with built-in ventails" (if you see what I mean).

The results are still somewhat equivocal. Often it's not possible to see the point where the coif joins with the hauberk. Further complicating the issue is the fact that several of the coifs which I regard as separate have a coloured lower border, which is identical to the upper border of the "bib", except for missing the circular "blobs" at either end. Am I justified in assuming they are two separate categories? And there are many figures who wear a coif or aventail of some other material than mail.

For what it's worth, here are the results of my investigation:

SEPARATE COIFS:

With "Bib": 2

With "integral aventail": 25

INTEGRAL COIFS:

With "Bib": 7

With "Integral Aventail": 43

"BIBS" WITHOUT VISIBLE COIF: 11

"BIBS WITH COIF - fitting of coif uncertain: 19

INTEGRAL COIF - no ventail: 2

As well as this there are a considerable number of coifs where it is impossible to see whether there is any indication of a "bib" or and "integral ventail". I've left these out of the count.

Well, you never stop learning, do you? Fascinating stuff.

 

 

 


This page was last updated on January 3rd 2003


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