Knights are a popular subject for the makers of toy soldiers, and Britains made several sets of them over the years. When the first figures in the Deetail range were released in 1971, it was only a couple of years before sets of foot and mounted knights were added to the range. In line with normal Deetail practice, the new figures were provided with some opponents to fight, in the form of sets of foot and mounted ‘Turkish’ warriors.
‘Knights’ is a term that usually implies a mounted and armoured warrior of the medieval period, predominantly from Western Europe. This is a wide timespan, so we might be curious as to which era Britains had in mind for these figures. Furthermore, are they accurate? After all, knights were common figures in both history and fantasy (for example, the stories of King Arthur), so how careful were Britains to stick to the historical evidence?
The Deetail Mounted Knights
Both the Deetail sets of mounted and dismounted knights consisted, as usual, of six figures each. The mounted knights were also provided with two poses of horse. Let’s focus our attention on two mounted examples and their horses.
Britains Deetail 7739 Mounted Knights
Year first produced: 1973
L125 x W45 x H95 (max), Plastic+Metal 53g, Scale 1:32, Features: 2
The knights are moulded in cream plastic, overpainted silver, with just the crests on their helmets and the cross on the tunic of one of them picked out in other colours. Both figures are one-piece mouldings without the separate arms which were one of the features of earlier Deetail figures, though the weapons they carry are separate pieces and can be swapped (though naturally, not every weapon suits every pose).
Both of our figures are in combat poses, one mounted on a rearing horse and striking to his left with a flail, and the other charging with a couched lance. The lancer is covered from head to foot in armour, and so too is his companion, at least as far as we can see given that he is wearing a loose-fitting tunic. Both carry small shields adorned with heraldic stickers, and both the riders and horses have large and showy crests.
Both horses are black, with crests and reins picked out in one colour, and some silvered armour. Looking closely, it is possible to see that the fore parts of both horses are protected by a fabric and/or mail trapper, over which are some plate armour pieces. The head pieces (shaffrons) and chest protectors (peytrals) are picked out in silver, but the articulated plates covering the manes (crinets) are, for some reason, left unpainted.
The riders sit on a spigot projecting from the back of the horse, and all of the riders can be paired with either horse pose. Also swappable are the aforementioned weapons, and the saddles (which include saddle cloths moulded with them as single pieces).
Each horse has a green-painted mazak base inserted into its belly, which provides a stable and secure platform for the figure. The shaft is unsightly, but as the footprint of the base is quite small (matching that on the foot figures), the overall visual impact is limited. The bases carry the standard Deetail marks underneath
“BRITAINS LTD 1971”, “deetail”, “MADE IN ENGLAND”
There is a nice sense of movement and drama in these figures. But who are they?
The only description that Britains used for these figures is ‘Knights’, but this is a relatively loose term. Before looking at the figures themselves, there is one clue that we can consider. When the Knights were released, Britains paired them with a set of opponents that they called ‘Turks’. This suggests the Ottoman Empire, which came into prominence in the late medieval period, expanding from Asia Minor into Europe in the mid 14th century, and famously conquering Byzantium in 1453. During this expansion, a lot of fighting occurred between the Turks and their eastern European neighbours.
Turning to the figures themselves, there are several indications of the period that these figures represent. The most obvious is that they are armoured from head to toe in close-fitting plate armour, with minimal evidence of mail armour or other types of lesser protection. This type of defence came into use in the 15th century.
It’s probably not worth trying to date individual pieces of armour given the small size of the figures and the variation that existed in the real world, but it is perhaps worth mentioning that the flail holder is wearing a distinctive type of helmet. It is equipped with a ‘pig-faced’ visor (a visor drawn out to a point to provide for better ventilation and improved deflection of blows), which was in fashion for a few decades either side of 1400 AD.
Other hints include the presence of horse armour, something that became more common during the 14th century and – at least for some wealthy men – even more extensive with plate coverings for the rear and sides of the horses by the middle of the 15th. Conversely, as plate armour was adopted, shields became less common.
Overall, taking into account the dress of the figures and the identity of their opponents, we can say with reasonable certainty that these figures represent knights of the first half of the 15th century (1400-1450 AD). It isn’t really possible to narrow down the geographical origin of the figures within Europe, as armour styles were pan-European (at least amongst the wealthy elite) at the time. You can think of them as Polish or Hungarian nobles fighting the Ottoman Turks, or you can match them against other knights to recreate battles from the later phase of the Hundred Years War.
Having established who the figures are meant to represent, can we say whether they are accurately portrayed?
Let’s begin our examination with the weapons. Lances were certainly the sort of weapon you would expect to see a mounted knight use, and at 9cm long the weapon scales out at 1:32 to a believable 2.9 meters in length. The lance is held couched in the right armpit, with the hand protected by a handguard. The weapon is gripped no more than a quarter of the way along the shaft, a point of balance necessary for the tip to reach beyond the horse, and achieved by weighting the rearward portion.
The other knight wields a weapon sometimes mistakenly called a morning star, a weapon that did not have a chain but was simply a form of club or mace. The correct name for the weapon is a flail, and it’s a bit of a puzzle. There are a few images of them being used from the later medieval period, and this representation matches these quite well. However, they certainly weren’t common, and they must surely have been difficult to control, both in the wielding and in the recovery after a blow. However, since weapons were a matter of personal choice for knights, one can’t say that they were never used. And of course, it’s a striking look (pun intended)!
Both riders have sword scabbards, which is quite likely as they would need a backup weapon to use in close melee. Curiously, the scabbard of the flail-wielder is empty – maybe Britains expected this figure to hold a sword rather than a flail, and a previous owner has swapped the weapons.
Both riders carry shields, which are of a typical size and ‘heater’ shape (named in Victorian times after the shape of a clothes iron). Shields like this would have been common in earlier times but less so during the 15th century, as plate armour reduced the need for them. So, like the flail, not typical of our period but not impossible either. I suspect Britains chose to model the heater because it would provide a surface for the colourful heraldic stickers that are affixed. As far as I can tell, these are generic representations of the sort of device one might have found at the time, rather than specific historic allegiances.
When it comes to how the shield was held, however, there is a problem. The knight with flail, for instance, grips the shield by two straps placed one above the other, whereas the shield would instead have been held by straps side by side, so that it could be held level when the forearm is raised. This is probably not a mistake of research, but instead a compromise felt necessary to accommodate the awkward pose of the arm, which has probably been turned so as to enable the mould to be as flat as possible. Now, here’s an example of where the separate plug-in arm used in the US Infantry to facilitate good arm positions, but subsequently dispensed with, would have been so useful!
Turning to the helmets, both look like convincing 15th century armets or bascinets enveloping the whole head and face, complete with hinged visors and in one instance, a mail neck guard (aventail). I’ve mentioned the ‘pig-face’ snout above, but note how both helmets even show the ‘breaths’ (ventilation holes) in the visors. Although essential, breaths weakened the armour. In these figures, they are only to be seen on the right side of the visor, which was certainly popular in armour made for jousting where the left side was most exposed to your opponent’s lance and therefore needed to be as strong as possible, but I doubt was normal practice for combat where blows might come from any angle.
As befits the best-equipped 15th century knights, the whole body of these figures is covered with plate armour, with the exception only of the back of the thighs and the underarms, both relatively inaccessible to an opponent and difficult to protect with plates, especially while mounted.
To allow movement, the armour consisted of a large number of overlapping plates, and this is well-captured. To take one example, the right arm of the lancer shows 5 separate pieces:
- Gauntlet to cover the hand
- Vambrace to cover the forearm
- Couter to protect the elbow
- Rerebrace to cover the upper arm
- Pauldron to defend the shoulder
Note also how the gauntlet, couter and pauldron are correctly shown overlaying the vambrace and rerebrace.
Turning to the horses, the finest armours of the 15th century included defences for the sides and rear, but these may not have been widely used. The shaffron, peytral and crinet modelled are all perfectly reasonable for our period, though it would have helped if the crinet plates were painted silver rather than leaving them black. Note also that the peytral would normally have been loosely fitting and turned up at the front to allow the horse free movement of its front legs, but here it has had to be moulded flush with the chest of the horse.
Knights saddles were strongly built with high fronts (pommel) and backs (cantle) to protect the rider and help prevent him from being unhorsed, and these are clearly shown. I assume that the elaborate saddle cloths modelled with the saddles are meant to be fabric, but would have also provided some level of protection. The stirrups are moulded onto the knights’ legs.
And so, we arrive at the plumes and crests. Hmmm (sucking of teeth). There is no doubt that they make for showy figures, but could they possibly be practical decorations in a melee? I wouldn’t want to twirl a flail around my head if my helmet plume was flying, and note how the lancer’s vision is blocked by his horse’s crest. I can’t help feeling that these, especially the horse crests, wouldn’t have been used outside of the tournament.
So, there we have it. To their credit, Britains have made a well-crafted and largely accurate set of 15th century knights which gets a thumbs-up from me. There are a few elements where dramatic effect has been allowed to over-ride historical probability, particularly those annoyingly prominent horse crests and helmet plumes, but these do not detract from the overall conclusion. When it comes to accuracy, these figures owe much more to fact than fantasy.
Of course, there is one way in which these figures are most definitely not an accurate representation of the medieval fighting army. Knights were the best equipped soldiers in any medieval force and undoubtedly the most glamorous, but they were probably a minority and seldom fought alone. Where are the archers, skirmishers and less well-equipped spearmen that formed the bulk of any medieval army? Sadly, Deetail never bothered with them.
As already mentioned, the mounted knights were accompanied by three other sets of figures, including 7740 Dismounted Knights, 7749 Mounted Turks and 7750 Dismounted Turks. The Knights were popular subjects and new figures were introduced on several occasions:
- In 1978 a new set 7730 of Dismounted Knights was produced with six new poses (including an archer and thus probably not a knight).
- In 1984 a further new set was released with bodies separated at the waist so that the torsos could be paired with different legs to make a large variety of (often awkward!) poses. One set of legs was designed to sit astride the same horses described in this story.
- In 1986 the Knights and Turks were rebranded as Knights of the Sword and remained in production until 1998. Further figures were produced in succeeding years, but these were of poor quality so are best forgotten.
- The swansong of Britains medieval output occurred in 1996 when 7 new figures were produced representing the story of Robin Hood.