When we think of medieval kings then we usually have a certain image in mind that is oftentimes influenced by movies or video games. However, the question of what medieval kings wore is a much more complex one than these depictions suggest. The reason for that can be found in the length of the Middle Ages, almost 1000 years, and the cultural and geographical diversity of the Medieval world.
Because of that, I would like to present the specific clothing of Charlemagne, one of the most famous medieval kings who lived during the Early Middle Ages since that style of clothing did only slightly change until around 1100 AD.
An early medieval king like Charlemagne wore a linen shirt with a woolen knee-long tunic above it, linen pants or leggings, spats, leather shoes, and a blue woolen cloak. He was girded with a belt at which his sword with a golden or silver hilt was fastened. In the winter his shoulders and upper body were protected by a close-fitting coat of marten or otter skins.
So an early medieval king like Charlemagne wore the same Frankish style of clothing that was also worn by peasants, only that his clothes had more decorations on them and were made of better fabrics.
Let`s find out more!
What did medieval kings wear on a daily basis?
In the following, I would like to present the clothes that medieval kings like Charlemagne wore on a daily basis. But when we look at the clothes of Charlemagne but also at the clothes that knights wore outside of battle then there is one thing that is quite interesting
The design of the clothes of medieval kings did not drastically differ from the clothes that knights and even peasants wore. However, both the colors and the quality of the fabrics used differed between the clothes of medieval kings and peasants.
Here you can find my article with more information on that, a heavily debated law that limited peasants to certain colors, and the clothing of medieval peasants in general.
But let`s now look at the clothes that Charlemagne would wear on a daily basis.
Shirt & Tunic
Charlemagne wore a linen shirt as an undershirt and a woolen tunic on top. The woolen tunic was knee-long and was made of fabric panels that were sewed together on the sides of the panels. Both round and oval necklines existed in the Middle Ages and the tunic had long sleeves that were closed off with a bracelet or a decorative border around the wrist.
These medieval tunics were dyed in different colors and often had additional decorative borders, sometimes made out of silk, on them. You can find out more about how clothes were dyed in the Middle Ages and what colors were available in my article here.
The knee-long colorful tunics definitely left an impression but their length also made it necessary to wear either pants or leggings under them to prevent embarrassing accidents.
And that brings us to the next part of medieval royal clothing.
Pants, Leggings & Spats
As mentioned, while knee-long tunics looked good and were a staple in the wardrobe of medieval kings, knights, and peasants they still had one big disadvantage if worn on their own.
Several sources make fun of men who, well, involuntarily exposed their private parts because they did not wear anything beneath their tunics. To prevent these embarrassments medieval men wore either pants or leggings under their tunics.
Let`s first look at the pants:
Until around 450 AD the germanic tribes wore long pants, after 450 AD knee-long pants became more common. That once again changed with the Christianization of the Germanic tribes after which many of them (the Saxons and Anglo-Saxons being an exception) wore ankle-long pants that were combined with spats.
Most of the pants that Charlemagne (747-814 AD) wore were made of linen and ankle-long. But especially in war Charlemagne would also wear knee-long pants that were combined with spats and metal greaves. Do you want to find out more about early medieval armor? Then please feel free to check out my article here.
The ankle-long medieval pants were pretty body-hugging around the lower leg and wide around the upper leg and the buttocks. That effect was created with the help of strings with which the bottom half of the pants could be drawn together until the snuggly fitted the lower leg.
Another option that could be worn under the tunic was leggings.
Medieval leggings were made out of wool or linen and dyed in different colors and patterns. They covered the leg from the hip to the calves and were worn by men under their knee-long tunic.
Additionally, spats were combined with the pants or leggings depending on the circumstances. While most spats only protected the bearer against the cold, rain, or dirt there were also specially padded spats that were used as a piece of armor.
Especially less wealthy levied men who made up the majority of a medieval army, more on that here, could oftentimes not afford armor. And even if they could afford some armor then the legs were usually the last parts for which armor was bought. So in that case, padded spats offered some level of protection for an affordable price.
Do you want to find out more about medieval armies and to which surprisingly large sizes these armies could grow? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
In the Middle Ages, wealthy men could choose from a large variety of shoes and boots. Just one example. In the Viking trading city of Haithabu alone 10 different types and designs of leather shoes were found. Most of these shoes were made from goatskin, but some were also made from cowskin or calfskin.
In the Middle Ages shoes were available as slip-on shoes, sandals, loafers, or boots made from leather. The shoes were laced with the help of shoelaces in the shape of leather straps that were threaded through vertical slits and then tightened.
The majority of the shoes that were made for men were made of cowskin, some of higher quality and price were also made of goatskin. The leather for these medieval shoes was tanned with tannin that was harvested from the bark of trees like chestnut or oak.
Especially the shoes of high-ranking men were decorated with inner lining in different colors, gem trimmings, or gold embroidery lines. Additionally, there were also medieval combat boots that were reinforced with additional leather or metal strips.
The belt was another important part of medieval royal clothing. Charlemagne always wore a belt on which his sword was fastened. That sword with its golden and silver hilt was not only a formidable weapon but also an important status symbol.
One could even make the argument that swords during the Early Middle Ages were generally more of a status symbol than a battle-deciding weapon. More on the reasons for that in my article here.
So there we have the basic clothes that Charlemagne would wear on a daily basis. But two more pieces of clothing have to be mentioned.
Coat of Marten or Otter skins
In the winter a coat that was either made of Marten or Otter skins and that covered the shoulders, upper torso, and arms of the king protected Charlemagne against the cold. That coat was fastened with leather straps with which the coat could be closed on the back.
Since coats made from Otter skins were of better quality they were also more expensive than the coats made of Marten skins. However, there was a price limit that had been introduced by Charlemagne. According to that limit, a coat made of otter skins was not allowed to cost more than 30 sodi.
But apart from that fur coat that was only worn in the winter there was another coat was worn more often and independent from the weather.
The last piece of clothing that finalized the clothes of Charlemagne was his blue cloak, the so-called Sagum.
The Sagum, a cloak made of a rectangular piece of woolen fabric was not only used as a piece of cloth but also as a blanket when on a campaign. The cloaks that Charlemagne wore were blue and decorated with braid trimmings.
Here you can find out more about how the cloak was dyed blue and which other colors were available in the Middle Ages.
These cloaks, that by the way were also used by knights when they did not wear their armor, were held together at the neck with the help of a fibula. Do you want to find out more about what medieval knights wore when they were not in battle? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
And if you are interested in how effective the charge of a group of knights was then you might enjoy my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Mechthild Müller: Die Kleidung nach Quellen des frühen Mittelalters (Berlin 2003).
Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: Der Alltag im Mittelalter (Mainz-Kostheim 2001).