How to make a medieval shield

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This instructional post on How to make a medieval shield is a little off-topic from our usual castle content, but it is still relevant and hopefully of interest to you. I will be mixing our castle blog posts with related content covering subjects such as:

  • Medieval Reenactment
  • Welsh History
  • Arms and Armour
  • Castles in other countries around the world
  • My son and I
  • Family History
  • Rambling / Hiking
  • Camping
  • And more…

In this blog post you will learn about:

  • Medieval Reenactment;
  • My 15th Century ancestors;
  • Research methods for genealogical research;
  • Source Material;
  • The shield of Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales;
  • The materials and layers of construction of a shield;
  • And pictures of the shield at each stage of construction.

Medieval Reenactment:

I’ve been a historical reenactor for decades now, I first started when, at 16, my high school maths teacher, who always drew stickmen with swords and shields on the blackboard, told my friends and I; if we bought swords, he’d teach us to use them… A great recruitment strategy… However, swords are expensive, and I was the only one out of my friends who actually bought one.

Mr. Pinn was then somewhat obliged to teach me how to use my light arming sword, having me repeat the basic 5/6 points against a post (Pell) in his back garden for hours on end developing muscle memory for both the defensive blocks and the offensive swings.

He played a Teutonic knight back then, and I used to play a vintner (sergeant) of the Teuton Order, a lower-class soldier in a small retinue of Teutonic knights, a diplomatic envoy was our excuse for being in England fighting. My kit was basic and low quality but as good as it needed to be really.

From that moment on, and for the next twelve+ years, I was hooked, this was during my formative late teenage years where drinking, fighting and wenches was all I had on my mind. I only stopped when ill health (two rare lung diseases) made me too weak to put on my armour, let alone fight in it.

I didn’t do any shows for over ten years due to ill health and life dramas, then during the global pandemic I saw my old friends posting pictures of themselves in kit saying how much they were missing reenactment being stuck in lockdown with no events on, and this made me realise how much I missed it too. So, I decided to get my kit back together and start reenacting again.

When I did medieval events before I had a rough time-frame for my portrayal and kit which was the end of the hundred years war (1453) to the end of the War of the Roses (1487) so; 1453-1487, though I often did earlier shows such as the Battle of Hastings in Sussex (1066) and the Battle of Agincourt in France (1415) tailoring my kit as best I could to fit more into the earlier periods (more maille less plate armour etc.)

Unfortunately, most of my kit was lost or destroyed. Stored in a damp garage for years the metal plate armour was rusted through and falling apart and the soft kit (clothing, padding etc.) was either mouldy or eaten by mice. So, I had to start again from scratch.

My Family History:

I’m lucky in that I can trace my family history back to 1300+, We used to be wealthy landed-gentry before my ancestors recent and past squandered all the wealth away. My family has several notable family members in interesting political and religious positions over the years.

Whilst my name is in Burkes Landed Gentry, we no longer have any family lands or titles, and I am considerably poorer than my ancestors were. But I still had it in my head that I would love to portray one of my ancestors.

In this same timeframe of end of the hundred years war through the war of the roses (1453-1487) I found two ancestors that would be perfect to portray:

  1. Thomas de Spens- Built the hospital at Edinburgh and additions to St. Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen. He held the office of Ambassador to France. Archdeacon of Moray then Archdeacon of Galloway -then Bishop of Galloway – Whithorn. He held the office of Lord Privy Seal from 1458 to 1459. He held the office of Bishop of Aberdeen from 1459. He lived from 1415-1480.
  • And his younger brother; Patrick de Spens of Bohapple, Progenitor of the French Barons of Spens of Estignols, Laird of Bohapple, French officer in the ‘Garde Ecossaise’ from 1457, The king’s bodyguard for Charles VII from 1469.  Patrick was a well-known and royal favourite Scottish/French Baron. Louis XI entrusted him with the custody of the royal castle of Saint-Sever in 1463 during his trip to Aquitaine. In 1469 he became a guard du Roi, the king’s personal bodyguard, the highest honour. He lived from 1420 to 1485.

I thought about playing both of these ‘characters’ but I knew I would get more enjoyment from Patrick Spens’ (Known as Patris Spens to the French) so I started lots of research on this ancestor of mine to find out as much as I could about him.

I figure when I’m too old to fight I’ll likely get some religious kit together to play Thomas de Spens, but while I still have some fight in me, I’m going to get back on the battlefield.

I’ll likely talk more about reenactment, The Garde Ecossaise (The Scottish Guard), the Auld Alliance (the treaty and alliance between Scotland and France against England), battles and shows etc. in future blog posts, this was just some contextual pre-amble to introduce why I was making a shield in the first place!

Interested in starting reenactment?

NOTE: You don’t have to have a fancy family history to be a reenactor, most reenactors don’t portray a specific historical person, some do play recognised characters from history, and they have great accurate kit that represents that historical person, but in most cases they aren’t direct descendants.

Please don’t take my research and portrayal to be a requirement or standard undertaking. People of all ages, backgrounds and interests can, and do, take part in all aspects of reenactment, from Living history displays of cooking and camping, archery, fletching, medicine, weaving, tailoring, dancing, peasants, nobles and of course the battle reenactments. All are welcome, this is just some insight into my experiences and research for my character which is not strictly necessary.

I am in two medieval reenactment groups at the moment and they are always looking for new members,

If you are interested take a look at their pages:

1-Medieval Siege Society- I was in the MSS for many years when I used to do reenactment, when I got sick and could no longer fight, I stopped, at that point there were over 400 members, now I’ve re-joined and found that inter-politics has dwindled their numbers to around 50 members. They are still a good group with several friends such as Rob Chave who are still core members. They cover the same timeframe as me from 1450-1485 and do shows all over England, mostly in the South-East. You can find out more about the Medieval Siege Society on their webpage here:  

2-Medieval Combat Society- Earlier than I intend to portray covering the 1380’s. Once I have my 1450’s kit completed I can then retro-fit my kit by 100years by adding more maille and a tabard or Jupon (padded tunic/gambeson that goes over the armour) to cover my ‘futuristic’ armour that is anachronistic for the 1380’s. The Medieval Combat Society welcomed me into their group this year and they fight hard, including headshots which I enjoy. They do shows all over the UK including Wales. You can find out more about the Medieval Combat Society on their webpage here:

How to make a medieval shield:

So, I was intending to portray this ancestor, Patrick Spens, a noble lord, a Scottish peer, a French Baron and knight who was the personal bodyguard to Charles VII and his son Louis XI, living in the French court, never far from the king. The Guard Ecossaise (the Scottish guard) were renowned at the time as being the most extravagantly dressed soldiers of the period, having their liveries resplendent in silver silk brocade and encrusted with thousands of pearls with twelve colourful ostrich feathers bursting from the top of their open-faced archers sallets, all very rich, flamboyant and ornate.

To be in the Garde Ecossaise you had to be of noble birth, a lord and knight, it was originally only for Scottish nationals who migrated to France for the honour of the position. though beyond the 16th century this rule was no longer in place and it became a Scottish company in name only.

Unfortunately, I am significantly poorer than my ancestor would have been and can’t afford all the shiny new kit I need straight away, so I decided to renovate my old leg armour (which despite being orange with deep rust and rotten straps did eventually polish up quite well.) and to make as much of the kit I could myself.

Sewing the soft kit is slow but do-able, and making a shield was something I had done before and could likely do again. So even though it wouldn’t be the high-quality artisan best-that-money-can-buy version that my flashy ancestor may have owned my handmade wonky version is close enough to last me a few years till I can splash out on a top shelf version!


As you can imagine trying to find accurate and reliable information from people who lived 560+years ago is quite a challenge in and of itself. I can barely remember what I did last week let alone years ago. However, if you know where to look and can contact the right people then there is lots of useful archived information out there.

My main sources for accurate detailed images and information come from a few main sources, though I’ve managed to pick up lots of bits and pieces from other people and other sources too along the way.

Contemporary paintings:

During the 1450’s the French court of Charles VII and later his son, Louis XI, employed an official court artist, Jean Fouquet, to paint the king(s) and the court in all its sumptuous glory, these paintings, battle scenes, court scenes, religious scenes, and portraits were a status symbols intended to show of the rich rulers, piety, great wealth, luxurious rooms and spectacular opulence.

In 1455 Fouquet painted a religious scene called the Adoration of the Magi, in which King Charles VII is portrayed at the head of his company of personal guards paying homage to the Madonna (Magi) and the baby Jesus.

This anachronistic painting clearly shows in great detail the arms and armour, colours, liveries and shields of this company of noble soldiers by a contemporary artist who was there at the time, this gives us the most accurate and detailed image of what my ancestor Patrick Spens would have been wearing in 1455.


As Patrick served in France, I contacted the Archive Nationale and Biblioteque Nationale in Paris. As he was born and lived in Scotland, I also contacted the Company of Archers headquarters in Edinburgh, and St Andrew University. I read lots of non-fiction and a few fiction books about the Garde Ecossaise including:

  • Mr De Baucourt; History of Charles VII – Notes and Illustrations Vol. II
  • Scotichronicon – 1400’s Scottish history
  • Lamoral Le Pipre de Neuville; Abrege Chronologique- De l’elat de la maison du roi, leig 1734 vol I (3 Vols)
  • The Auld Alliance by Hubert Fenwick
  • The Auld Alliance by Gordon Donaldson
  • Quentin Durwood by Alexander Dumas
  • Bonner, Elizabeth. “French Naturalization of the Scots in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” The Historical Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, 1997
  • An interesting thesis on The Employment of Foreign mercenary Troops in the French Royal 1415 – 1470 by Brian G.H.Ditcham, M.A. Edinburgh University
  • And more during my research.

I learned lots about; Charles VII’s reign, his conflict with his son Louis XI, the Auld Alliance, the Scottish guards and my ancestors, the Burgundian wars, peace and politics between France and England the structure of French armies and more during my research. It was Professor Michael H. Brown, Professor of Scottish History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland who put me onto the works of William Forbes-Leith.

Consolidation of records by William Forbes-Leith

William Forbes-Leith was a Victorian historian who studied and wrote about many Scottish and French armies and figures. He was born in 1833 and died in 1921.

One of the works produced by Forbes-Leith was a detailed translation and consolidation of archived records of the Garde Ecossaise, the Scottish guards used by the French royals as their personal bodyguards.

In two large volumes he details the history of the Scottish guards in France, from their gifting by James I of Scotland to the French King Charles VII as part of the Auld Alliance in 1415, the treaty between Scotland and France to oppose English rule.

Forbes-Leith books cover the period from 1418 when the Scottish guards were beginning to work in France, through the 1429 Scottish assistance Joan of Arc in Orleans all the way up to 1830’s modern (to Forbes-Leith) version of the Scottish Guard.

The books contain narrative and context from Forbes-Leith and a wealth of contemporary information, largely taken from archived muster records and pay records of the guards.

It is fascinating seeing year-by-year what my ancestor was doing, who his friends and colleagues were, who his line manager was, where he went, his duties, his clothes, his allowance for bedding and horses etc. I’ve not had such easy access to historical records before and it’s all the more rewarding as it’s about my ancestor.

You can read digital versions of the books yourself here if you’re interested:

Forbes-Leith, William, 1833-1921: The Scots Men-at-Arms and Life-Guards in France, From Their Formation Until Their Final Dissolution, A.D. MCCCCXVIII-MDCCCXXX (2 volumes; Edinburgh: W. Paterson, 1882), illust. by H. de Grandmaison

The Renovation of the Black Prince’s Shield:

Another source that was really useful in learning how to make a medieval shield was a video I found of a historian who was restoring an old shield that once belonged to Edward the Black Prince.

Whilst the Black Prince is earlier than the timeframe I am portraying (1330-1378) early by almost 100years! the video is fascinating in that it details the different layers in which the shield is constructed.

I used this video as a historically accurate design in which to base the construction of my shield. I followed the layers of the black princes shield with some minor alterations.

Here is that short video which may help you in understanding the construction of my shield the video of the restoration of the Edward the Black Princes shield:

Discussion with contemporary historians and fellow reenactors:

The old paintings and consolidated records by Forbes-Leith are great resources and a lot better resources than are available for many individuals living five and a half centuries ago. They were very useful in gathering the information, but it was all still in theory and subject to the limitations of my own knowledge and understanding of what things mean. So, the next step I took was discussing my project with other historians and fellow reenactors. Two of which deserve special mention;

William Baskerville is a chap who really knows a thing or two about how to make a medieval shield, he makes exceptional shields, bucklers and pavaises, the style of which are unsurpassed. William was patient with my questions about his shields and updates and despair at the progress of mine. Baskerville shields are lighter and prettier than my attempt and when I’ve got everything else I need for my kit sorted and when this shield I made has been battered in many battles I’ll splash out on a Baskerville shield.

Rob Chave, I’ve known since he was little, born into reenactment Rob is an expert in his field, specialising in medieval tailoring. Robs research and knowledge is exceptional, a fount of information and expertise. Robbie made my arming doublet and will be making the ridiculously fancy silver and pearl encrusted livery coat for me next year! Rob has also been very patient in humouring me in regard to the updates and questions about my shield as I was making it. Robbie has been an expert for years and is now doing more commissions professionally.

I also had helpful discussions with:

  • Archive Nationale in Paris
  • Professor Michael Brown from St Andrews University
  • The French Institute in Edinburgh
  • Auld Alliance Museum in Aubigny-sur-Nere

The Shield:

Construction breakdown:

So as mentioned above there are lots of layers to the construction of the Black Princes shield and I emulated this with only minor changes.

Altogether the changes I made to the shield were minor and for convenience more than anything else. There are three main differences in my shield to an authentic medieval one:

  • Instead of two layers of fancy boiled leatherwork on the top like Edward the Black Princes shield, I just used another layer of gesso and paint instead.
  • Instead of using horse glue, which is smelly, gross and impractical to use as it must be kept warm to remain liquid, I used a modern cheat in using Polyvinyl acetate (PVA glue) instead.
  • Instead of using egg tempura, paint where pigments are mixed with egg to form a paint, as would have been the authentic historically accurate method, I again traded this in for an easier modern alternative; acrylic paint.

Other than that, the shield is authentic and accurate.

Layers of the shield:

The layers of the shield are as follows:

  1. Wood base layer– made from Poplar wood, for this shield the wood was wettened, using steam the wood is bent over a form to dry in the desired curved shape.
  2. Linen layer 1 – a light durable canvas made from flax plant fibres woven into a strong cloth is then stretched out over the wood base and glued on.
  3. Gesso layer 1 – Gesso is a mix of paint, glue and plaster which forms a smooth finish on canvases used in painting.
  4. Parchment layer – Parchment is made from specially prepared untanned skins of animals—primarily sheep, calves, and goats. It has been used as a writing medium for over two millennia. Vellum is a finer quality parchment made from the skins of young animals such as lambs and young calves.  I painstakingly made my parchment layer myself from thin rawhide sewn together, this was a disgusting job for anyone, all the more gross with my being vegan!
  5. Linen layer 2 – After the parchment layer had dried in place, I then tacked it down with medieval nails ensuring it didn’t buckle or raise in any area. I then stretched and glued a second layer of linen over the top.
  6. Gesso Layer 2– to seal in the materials I then added a second layer of gesso, in the Black prince’s version he had two layers of boiled leather in ornate patterns, mine is simpler and leaves a nice smooth finish on the shield.
  7. Paint layer 1– I have no artistic ability so I roughly painted the design on the shield from the Fouquet painting, only half of one side of the shield can be seen clearly in the picture so I had to make an educated guess with discussion with my reenactment friends on the best design from the available information as to the actual design and layout of the flowers (Lilies).
  8. Straps and ironmongery – Through the construction of the shield I used many small modern carpet tacks which look very similar to the medieval nails that were used in construction of the Black Princes shield. I purchased a steel boss (the domed metal middle bit of the shield) and that had to be bent into the right shape by my armourer to follow the curve of the shield. In addition to these nails and the metal boss in the centre I also added a series of straps and integrated a handle behind the boss too. The straps allow me to wear the shield in a variety of ways, on my back or front using the long Gaige strap, or on my fist and forearm using the adjustable straps, or by the handle in the middle, though this handle I found later is too small for me to use when I’m wearing my gauntlets.
  9. Paint layer 2- Finally once all the layers were done and the straps and boss were rivetted in place then I could do a final layer of paint tidying up the rough design I had put on, I mixed in more glue with the paint to give it some weather proofing/sealing and finally my slightly wonky but no-less beautiful medieval shield was complete.


Thank you for reading about how I made my shield, it took me over 50hours not including drying times between layers (more like 150hours in total!).

It’s heavier than expected, the medieval artisans who made the shields for the royal guards probably were more efficient than me and made smoother, straighter, lighter shields which would be more practical, but it certainly does the job, and I can’t wait to have it protect me and to be used offensively in my next battle!

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There will be more content about Reenactment, medieval arms armour and medieval life along with the usual castle content of the Welsh Castle Project still to come.

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- Dom and Indigo

2 thoughts on “How to make a medieval shield”

  1. This is really interesting!
    Where did you find out about your family history? I want to do the DNA test thing but don’t know I want a company having my DNA!
    Do you hit each other for real in that fighting?
    You said anyone can do reenactment, how much is it to join?
    Love the blog, keep up the good work!


    1. Hi Andy,

      I’m lucky enough to be able to trace my family back to 1300, we were once rich and featured in Burkes Landed Gentry etc. though my ancestors squandered the wealth before I could get my grubby hands on it!

      I haven’t done the DNA test, I’d be interested in trying it to see where the unknown people in my family tree come from.

      In reenactment it’s full weight steel weapons which can do a lot of damage, as it’s only for show we pull our blows in reenactment, it still hurts if you get hit and can cause significant injuries, broken bones, lost teeth etc. I’ve just started up with Buhurt which is full contact fighting, it’s like MMA but in armour so you hit each other with weapons, hands, knees, elbows, heads etc. it’s brutal, my first tournament in that is in a few weeks.

      Reenactment membership varies from group to group and is usually not much just to cover the insurance for the year, I’m currently with two groups, but it depends what period you want to portray and where you are, what shows you want to go to etc. take a look at the links in the post for the two groups I’m in.

      Thank you.

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