The Ailette

by Kent Zambelli

The ailette was a supplementary piece of armor that was attached to the shoulder of the knight starting in the early to mid 13th century.

Origination appears to have been in France but were used through Europe. Though disputed, two main purposes are cited for the use of ailettes: (1) decorative and communicate identity of the knight and (2) reduce impact of side sweeping and thrusting attacks. Numerous variations and styles were evident. See some examples within the essay.

Though most often leather, other materials such as parchment, quilted material and plate were used as well. Various shapes were used including rectangular (fig. 2), star shaped, lozenge (diamond shaped – Fig. 3a), and circular (Fig. 3c) are evident.

Most depictions show ailettes rectangular & flat in nature, but curved and “right angle” shapes were evident as well. Sizes varied, but one internet source suggests a size of at 7″ by 10″. From numerous artwork from throughout the period in multiple sources this appears very reasonable. These were called “tartschens,” or shields in Germany (Ashdown pg. 105). In another source, they are said to differ from “escutcheons”, being a small shield approximately 1/5 the size of a regular shield that carried the charge (coat of arms).

Ailettes were attached via leather/ silk cord or even rings to the upper arm/ shoulder at a right angle to the shoulder at a single point. The one pictured in Figure 1a is bent upwards at a right angle from the top of the shoulder while the ones pictured in Figure 2 show them flat and hanging off the tips of the shoulders.

Figures 1a & 1b
Figures 1a & 1b

As an armorial bearing, the ailette was decorated in the heraldic designs and colors of the knight and for tournament use occasionally decorated extravagantly. Ailettes found in the inventory of Piers Gaveston in 1313 describe attachments of pearls (Ashdown pg. 105).

Another source identifies the ailette as part of the heraldic clothing and “in fashion during the tournaments” of Lincolnshire Knight Sir Geoffrey Lattrell (Neubecker). The use of ailettes in England, during the early part of the 14th century is termed customary. This leads many to believe that use was decorative only. Designs were made on parchment or silk and attached to the face of the ailette. In addition, they were decorated with bells and tassels and many colors.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The use of heraldic designs on the shield and surcoat of the time period clearly communicated the knight’s identity in battle. It is possible that the ailette may have been effective under these circumstances as the shield and surcoat were not as effective in identifying the knight from the side. However, the short life of the ailette, less than 100 years, and the fact that its replacement did not help identify the knight may negate this view. As other shoulder and upper arm defenses supercede it, the ailette disappears and becomes rare after 1325.

There is question to whether ailettes were used as both defensive and decorative. Because of use by knights in tournaments, where the identity of the knight was not in question, some historians are led to believe that they were defensive in nature as well. One source states, [ailettes were] “decorative shoulder guards, often bearing the wearer’s arms” (Friar, pg.14)

The appearance of ailettes on both shoulders as well as on one side (the left) is mentioned (see Fig. 3a). Use on one shoulder would have been used to augment the shield. Ailettes worn during the joust are said to have been tilted forward from the shoulder, to aid in deflecting blows from the lance.

The function of the ailette was also to protect the neck. This was done by deflecting swipes from below the shoulder from being deflected toward the neck and could have been used to help absorb impact of blows directed at the neck. Though depicted on both mounted and foot soldier, clearly a knight on horseback would have received greater protection than those on the ground. A knight on foot against a mounted opponent might not have received any benefit as blows would likely be coming from above, not from the side.

Figures 3a and 3b
Figures 3a and 3b

As a protective device, the short life of the ailette indicates that other devices and materials provided better defense. Plate begins to replace leather; aventails on bascinets begin to be used. There is evidence that the gorget begins to emerge around this time as well. A later piece of armor, called the emerass is said to be a later form of the ailette. An emerass was “a plate of steel attached to the shoulder to cover a point between the breastplate and the upper brassant” (Franklyn & Tanner). Also, almost 200 years later, an extension of the pauldron, called the haute-piece, plays a similar defensive role. Thick metal plates protruded from the pauldron that were perpendicular to the shoulders.

Though sources disagree, evidence supports the dual role that ailettes played as both armor and a medium to carry the arms. Their use originated and centered around the tournament, but illustrations suggests they were worn during crusading as well. One point is clear across all sources in that the time span of the use of ailette was approximately 100 years and more specifically used around the period 1250 – 1350.

The bibliography used for this article is below and the reader whom wishes to continue researching will notice that both armor studies and heraldry sources will be helpful. Because of the specificity of the item and the relatively short use span, documentation is limited. However, even the cursory review of armor of the 13th and 14th century will yield illustrations that contain ailettes, even if no mention is made of the item.

For those wishing to create an ailette, I have provided a link below to a site with instructions the user may find useful. These instructions detail a rectangular example, but use of other shapes and sizes, as shown above, were in use.

European Arms & Armor, by Charles Henry Ashdown
Knights, by Andrea Hopkins
Arms & Uniforms, Age of Chivalry, by Liliane & Fred Funcken
Encyclopedic Dictionary of Heraldry, by Julian Franklyn & John Tanner
Heraldry – Sources, Symbols, & Meaning, by Ottfried Neubecker
Dictionary of Heraldry, by Stephen Friar

Misc. notes – unfortunately, the last 4 sources were reference books and thus I was unable to get scanned pictures. Numerous designs of ailettes were contained therein.