While Normandy was a strong and successful state the invasion of the much larger England was a formidable challenge, and many who owed military service to the Duke were not required to serve overseas, so William had to both persuade Normans to volunteer and recruit large numbers of mercenaries from all over Christian Europe. His promises of wealth and land in England, coupled with a contrived religious incentive (he had Harold excommunicated by an obliging pope to make his venture a ‘crusade’) meant his invasion force was drawn from far and wide. Much of his left wing at the Battle of Hastings was made up of Bretons (Brittany having a pro-Norman faction ruling at the time), but while the title of this set only mentions these men the text on the back of the box suggests the contents are meant to represent all the mercenaries.
The costume and armour is certainly very diverse in this set, with very little being in the classic Norman style as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Brittany was no more immune to prevailing fashions than Normandy itself and knights from there were dressed and armed much like any other from north-west Europe, mainly taking their cue from the Franks to their south. It is therefore probably erroneous to think knights from Breton appeared any differently to any of their neighbours, but as we have said the box implies these figures originate from all over Europe, with the Breton label being merely one of convenience. There is certainly plenty here that would have been a rare sight in what is now northern France. Round shields had largely given way to kite-shaped examples decades before Hastings, yet many are on display here – some being deeply curved. All seem to wear mail or other flexible armour, which is fine, but the assortment of helmets is a real surprise, with some looking like they came from Germany or even further east, and a suspicion that some are of a later date. To what extent this kind of look was seen during the invasion is impossible to know now – certainly sources such as the Tapestry are far from a balanced historical record and have never pretended otherwise – but we felt that there must be considerable doubt as to the numbers of men clad in this way, even considering the international flavour of the force.
In terms of the poses this is a fairly standard selection with no particular surprises, although we did like the man about to swing his sword across his chest (third row). The axe was not a popular horseman’s weapon at this time so we were pleased to see mostly swords and spears on display.
The usual Strelets stocky style applies to this set, with reasonable but not particularly refined detail. Mail armour is nicely textured but other types are quite chunky and items such as swords tend to be shorter and fatter than we would have liked. A number of the figures have ring hands, into which one of a good range of weapons fits well, and a small number of shields also need attaching to pegs, which aids customisation. Any flash at the seam between the moulds is minimal although as always the figures are attached to the sprue with thick feeds.
The horses are the same as those found in the Norman Knights set, which means that they are properly dressed but with a couple of dubious poses. However the men fit in the saddle reasonably well.
Taken as Breton knights, which we have to since that is the title, we seriously doubt that this collection of figures is typical of its subject. However it gains credibility when viewed as a cross-section of knights and adventurers from across Europe, although we remain to be convinced about some aspects. It certainly adds variety to William’s cavalry, which is often simplistically represented as a very uniform body of warriors, and it mixes well with the growing number of sets Strelets have already produced for this campaign, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary we would suggest these figures are only used in quite small numbers.