The Law of King Athelstan states:

  1. Fourthly: that no shieldwright cover a shield with sheep's skin; and if he so do, let him pay thirty shillings. (http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/source/560-975dooms.asp)

What is the cause for this funny law?

  • 2
    i found this source, but it does not have any citations as to where he got his information. "One of Athelstan’s Law Codes states, “That no shieldwright cover a shield with sheep's skin; and if he so do, let him pay thirty shillings”. It’s thought that Athelstan wanted to make sure his shields were properly made and strong enough for battle, not inferior ones hidden by animal skins." - historum.com/medieval-byzantine-history/23401-brunanburh.html
    – ed.hank
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 12:26
  • 9
    I am not an expert on anglo-saxon shieldmaking, just a humble reenactor, but AFAIK, rawhide was commonly used in shield construction. But, also AFAIX, it was ox hide that was used. I am guessing that sheepskin is inferior to ox hide, making a sheepskin shield somewhat fraudulent? I am really just guessing here, but if I had the literature to look it up in, this would be my initial angle of research.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 13:35
  • I can't check the original, but books.google.co.uk/… seems to support the "ensure inferior materials/workmanship is not concealed by the skin" theory. Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 10:26

1 Answer 1


Because King Athelstan was concerned about the quality of soldiers' shields. Sheepskin was a cheap but poor quality option for covering shields.

A key theme of Athelstan's Grately Codes is dealing with theft and other forms of dishonesty.

To the king’s mind, theft constituted the greatest single problem and represented the most significant manifestation of social breakdown across the realm. He legislated repeatedly – even disproportionately – in his law codes for the prevention of thievery

Source: Athelstan: The First King of England by Sarah Foot

Among other things, Sarah Foot mentions

...directives concerning shield-making, the provision of mounted men for military service, bribery...

Geoffrey Hindley, in 'A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons', gives more details:

The largest pieces of equipment, helmet and shield, are at the same time the most majestic emblems. (Though even here makers might attempt to cut corners. King Æthelstan’s Grately code (c. 930) warned shield-makers not to use sheepskin, in place of true leather.)

(my emphasis)

As the shield was "the main form of defensive armour" (in 'Evidence for shield construction from the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery site of Tranmer House, Bromeswell, Suffolk'), the king would naturally have been concerned about the quality of his soldiers' shields. Sheepskin is not as durable as, for example, cowhide which

is well known for its toughness

When compared to sheepskin,

Cow skin leather is rugged and durable... It is thicker, stronger and less likely to tear or rip

Thus, the ideas expressed by SE:H users in the comments above are basically supported by the evidence here.

  • 7
    Cows have been known to enjoy scratching their backs on barbed wire. Just sayin'...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 15:50
  • 1
    Added links to your sources. As always, feel free to rollback. :) Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 19:10
  • 1
    @ sempaiscuba. Problem with google books (as I'm sure you're aware) is that the info you want often seems to be on the 'unavailable' page, unless you buy of course. Fortunately, in this case, I actually have the books :) Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 21:56

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