Whether or not Welsh wore armor into battle has come up today because a reader of my books reported an ‘error’ in Daughter of Time saying that her ‘reading of history says that the Welsh didn’t wear armor in the Middle Ages’. That simply isn’t true. They did.
After I cooled down about the inherent prejudice that comment reflects, I decided a blog post was in order to address the matter.
Basically, history is written by the victors, and the English were particularly good at propaganda at a very early point. King Edward I knew very well what he was doing when he plundered Welsh records, took Welsh iconography as his own, and put himself in the lineage of King Arthur (who was, without a doubt, Welsh). Depictions of Welsh people in the Middle Ages are few and far between, and those depictions all come from English or English-adjacent sources. (Gerald of Wales, I’m looking at you!)
For example, Welsh archers and spearmen in English descriptions have no armor and are without a left shoe. Now, it may be that there was some advantage to not wearing one shoe, but the Welsh had held off the English and defeated them time and again in battle for two hundred years. They’d defeated the Saxons and the Romans before them. The idea that they wore no armor is, quite frankly, absurd and that they are depicted as such is a way of making them appear stupid, barbaric, uncivilized, and as ‘the other’ (in modern terms).
A non-Welsh example would be similar images of Irish people, kings included, also barefoot, bareheaded, and wrapped in blankets as they meet with their conquerors.
As Heather Jones writes: “the Welsh law tracts of this approximate period make an assumption that “standard clothing” will include both linen and woolen body garments as well as a cloak, and that hose and shoes will be normal wear, especially for those with outdoor occupations. So one must sometimes consider the comments of foreign observers with skepticism and look for possible political agendas.” http://heatherrosejones.com/welshfaqs/clothing.html
She further states:
The “one shoe” motif is one of those things that is nearly impossible to interpret. As far as I know, the only source for the motif is two drawings in a manuscript known as “Liber A” (Edwards, J. Goronwy ed. 1940. Littere Wallie. University Press Board, Cardiff.), a collection of legal documents from the reigns of Henry III and Edward I. The documents are grouped generally by subject matter, and groups of documents are introduced by a drawing related to the contents e.g., the Pope for the papal bulls. The sections on Welsh, Scottish, and Irish documents are introduced by figures presumably intended to represent those nations, but it isn’t clear how true to life they might be, or in fact if they have any relation to the people they are supposed to be depicting except in the English artist’s imagination. For example, McClintock is fairly well convinced that the Irish figures have no relation to reality. The two figures depicted in the Welsh-related section of the collection — an archer and a spearman — each feature only a single shoe, on the left foot. Other sources of information sometimes note people going barefoot (or bare-legged, which may or may not imply the same thing), but as far as I know, this one manuscript illustration is the only source for “one shoe on and one shoe off”.
So is it a representation of an actual Welsh practice of the day? Or is it intended to iconically represent “Welshness” in some way? Is it based on a misunderstanding (like the misunderstanding that led people to believe Jewish people had horns on their heads)? Or is it simply an imaginative whim of an artist who wanted to make them look “different” and made something up? How likely is it that an artist/scribe working most likely in London, copying out a stack of assorted legal documents into a single continuous manuscript, was a careful anthropological observer of contemporary Welsh dress habits? (Make that, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and Papal dress habits.) Maybe yes, but that’s unlikely to be how he got the job.