The Evidence for British Mailshirts



Iron Age Cemeteries in East Yorkshire. Dr Ian Stead, British Museum Press 1991 (way out of print)

Retrieval of objects from archaeological sites, Robert Payton, Archetype publications
Polden Hill Hoard, Brailsford, Proceedings of the Prehistoric society vol 41 1975
Stanwick Hoard, MacGregor, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society Vol 28, 1962
New mail closure, M C Bishop, Arma, 1989
Folly lane Britannia monogram, Glimour and Niblett, Britannia 14, 1999

It is believed that the "celts" invented mail sometime in the late first millenium BC. It proved to be so popular that it remained in use for another two thousand years, in one form or another. There have been enough fragmentary finds, and one complete set, which indicate that is was being used, although we are unsure as to how exactly how common mail was among the Britons.

The find at Kirkburn, which is very much pre-roman invasion by maybe a couple of hundred years, indicates that British Warriors are using what is termed the "italic" style of shoulder doubling with fastener. It is possible the shirt is roman in origin, but given other more fragmentary finds of mail then it's equally possible it is of native manufacture. The other finds are, on average, of larger section link than the typical roman types and often of the simpler butted construction method, which adds weight to the conclusion that mail is made locally for native consumption.

The popular myth of naked Britons relying on their own courage for protection against the Roman oppressor is one that is firmly embedded within us and finds of mail very much threaten that viewpoint. It is more true to say that warrior elites, of any period and culture, often display their status as both warriors and wealthy people with the trappings of their profession and mail (given it's likely cost in materials, skill and time) would be right at the top of that list.

Re-enactors have a habit of "dressing up" with the best that was available. After all, everyone wants to portray the wealthy, successful warrior. There is nothing wrong with this approach, as our feelings are that the activity of war was mostly carried out by this minority anyway.

The Kirkburn Mail 

This is the mailshirt found at Kirkburn in Yorkshire. Dated to the 3/2nd century BC

The links themselves are between 8.2 and 9.2mm in external diameter, constructed from iron wire 1.5-1.9mm thick.
Each is butt joined and linked in the typical one through four pattern .

No fabric or leather was found underneath the shoulder doubling although there were traces under the mail where it lay on the body (believed to be clothing). 

The mail is similar to Roman types, in design, shown on many monuments in that it has "italic" style doubling that extends from the back across each shoulder, and fastened at the front with clasps. 

In addition, the above picture is wrong in that there was only a single stud found in addition to the fastening. This was on the left shoulder. 
They speculate as to what it was far but having worn a baldric before, I used to drop an extra couple of links into my mail to seat the leather strap correctly and keep it out of my neck. While this made sense for me, unfortunately many period swords were worn on waist belts (although there were a number found at the kirkburn site which were situated to indicate they may have been worn on the back).

Other mail images 

Famous statue from vachere that you see in most "coffee table" books on the subject. Dating and interpretation are still open to debate. Gallic auxillia or native warrior ?? 

Pilier de Mavilly (cote d'or). early first century AD ? 
Further information on cape style doublings here

Other Mail Finds
Mail has been found at a number of other sites Britain, dispelling the myth that Mail is uncommon in this period. 
These are:
SiteMail typeOutside diameter of ringsGauge of wire
KirkburnButted8.2-9.2 mm1.5-1.6mm
Stanwick - c. 50ADButtedNot knownNot known
Lexden - 15-20BCriveted and welded5.5-5.8mm1.4-1.6mm
Baldock 20-35ADriveted and welded4.8-5mm1.2 -1.3mm
St Albans c 50ADriveted and welded6.8-7.1mm1.5-1.6mm
Maiden castle 1stBC to 1st ADButted@7mm@ 1- 1.3mm
Woodeaton c 1st ADriveted and punched7-7.5mm0.8 - 1mm
Hayling Island early 1st ADNot KnownNot KnownNot Known

It is interesting that continental mail, is often larger and coarser in comparison to the British finds. The stuff from Tiefanau and Thorsberg is 12 and 13mm in diameter.

Mail closures or clasps

There have been very few mail closures published and only one found in place with a complete shirt.
It was my belief that iron age closures were single piece affairs but the evidence does seem to point to a similarity between the Roman and late iron age examples, although many finds are ambiguous as to their context. It is therefore likely that British mail shirts, not only followed the same design for "italic" doubling on Roman shirts (or perhaps that Roman shirts copied the native types !) but used the same fastening techniques with similar closures.

The Kirburn clasp is the only one found in situ. 
It is made of iron but nobody (at the british museum) seems quite sure whether it is a single or two piece affair, but it follows the typical roman pattern.. The original is some 19cm across:

The studs that fit the fastenings are a stud and washer arrangement.

The stanwick find is 19th century and believed to be dated to 100 BC to 50AD. It contains a set of two bronze piece clasps and some rivets used for mounting .
The actual piece is only some 7cm across.

Also recovered are the rivets, with mail attached to the back.

Polden Hill is again a 19th century find and believed to be late iron age or early Roman. These clasps have alot in common with the typical roman types.


originals are 9.2cm.

These are a metal detector unstratified find as published in Arma and bear a very close relationship to the Polden Hill type above.

Other Articles on British Armour:
Cleaning and removing plating from Mail shirts
British helmets
Mail cape for a British Mailshirt