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reading about the Field of the cloth of gold, I came across some paintings commissioned by Henry VIII himself.

This painting of Henry VIII embarking at Dover to meet with Francis I caught my eye as his ships where lined with different shields with different iconography.

Are these shields used by knights in the event of boarding, or to show which knights where on board that particular ship or just purely decorational?

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The shields or pavises along the side of the ship are a pavisade which is

A protective barrier made up of shields bearing the arms of those on board placed along a vessel's sides.

The Wikipedia Pavise article has a slightly more detailed description:

a decorative row of shields or a band of canvas hung around a sailing vessel to prevent an opponent from observing the activities of those on board and to discourage boarding.

enter image description here

The Mary Rose (launched 1512, sunk 1545) with pavises along the centre. This somewhat stylized depiction is from the Anthony Roll, presented to Henry VIII in 1546.

The Mary Rose

was lined with pavises. Originally these were the shields of the knights and men-at-arms positioned along the sides of the ship,....The pavises provided close quarter protection for the troops and gun crews in the waist. They were removable, allowing archers and hand gunners to fire out between them, and to allow borders to stream across onto an opposing deck.

Source: Peter McElvogue, 'Tudor Warship Mary Rose' (2015)

Rupert Holland's Historic Ships refers specifically to Henry Grace à Dieu (or Great Harry), the ship which took Henry VIII from Dover to the meeting with Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold:

It was usual for all vessels of that time to carry along their rails rows of shields called a "pavese". On the Great Harry, these shields or targets were displayed even around the tops. They were placed in groups of four, ornamented respectively with the following devices: the cross of St. George on a silver ground, a golden fleur-de-lys on a blue ground, the Tudor rose on a green and white ground, and a golden portcullis on a red ground.

As Henry was on a diplomatic mission, we can safely assume that the pavisade served more of decorative function on this occasion.


On the origins of the pavise:

Associated with the northern Italian town of Pavia — although perhaps only in legend — it is generally thought that these shields originated there sometime in the early to mid-thirteenth century.

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Burgundian pavise from around 1480. Source: Medieval & Renaissance Material Culture

It was supposed to have been used by Genoese crossbowmen at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 but their pavises were still with the baggage train when the Genoese were ordered into battle and subsequently put to flight by the English longbowmen. They began to be adopted by the English within 20 years of Crecy.

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    And given that they were functional, hanging from the side of the ship was a good way to keep them off of a crowded deck and to keep them from having to be brought topside from a crowded hold. – Amorphous Blob Aug 5 at 17:03

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