Britains Swoppet Knights: The Models.

Foot Knights, from 1959.

  The six Swoppet dismounted Knights all came in native silver plastic, in three sections: head, torso and legs. The only painting done as standard was the flesh colouring on the face, and the green base. On the underside of the base, they bore the inscription: "Produced by Britains Ltd"; underneath which there was the Herald "Made in England" trumpeter motif, the "Swoppets" logo with the leading arrow, and number in a circle: 0 for the figure with lance, 1 for the swordsman, 2 for the longbowman, 3 for the pikeman, 4 for the axeman and 5 for the crossbowman. Underneath that was the UK patent number, 812707, and the phrase, "and foreign patents".

Click here for larger picture

#1470 - "With Lance"

  This figure normally carried a lance, though, as with all the Swoppet Knights, he could easily be swopped to hold a sword, axe or other weapon in his versatile open right hand. The lance was made from high-density polythene, to avoid drooping, and could be either red or blue. (Unusual colours will be dealt with in the Equipment page.) The belt around his waist (normally either red, yellow or light blue) contained a sword which he usually kept in its sheath, and a dagger. The sheath, the only item of equipment common to all 14 Swoppet Knights, was made from a thin strip of metal foil, and was always coloured red and silver. Mind you, even then, there was a token of variety, as the stripes could be either horizontal or diagonal. The pennant at the end of the lance could be either white or black, and there were two types to choose from: flying either straight or wavy. The rose which adorned the pennant could be either red or white, though of course the white rose never went with the white flag - meaning the black flag was by some way the more common. The shield was one of many designs, in yellow, orange, sky blue or black, and the rose which adorned it was red or white. Needless to say, it was the same colour as that on the pennant. The rose fitted over a peg on the Knight's left arm, sealing the shield in position.

  The head came in several variants, and the visor was similarly variable. It was attached to the head by two very small and rather delicate plugs at either side of the eyes, and this meant that the visor was the most easily-mislaid piece of Swoppet Knight hardware. The plume or trappings (the somewhat fanciful pieces of plastic which trailed from between the top of the head and the crest) again came from a choice of many styles, generally in yellow, green, sky blue or purple, and the crest could be chosen from a very wide selection of designs - 18 at the last count. However, though the crest was either red or white in colour, there does not seem to have been any rule which said it had to match the colour of the rose on the flag and the shield. Further, pictures of yellow and sky blue crests in the Britains catalogues have led some to suggest that there were in fact four choices of colour, but these extra options were either very rare or non-existent, the latter in my opinion - unless anyone knows better?

The 15 bits that made up #1470
Click here for larger picture

#1471 - "With Sword"

  Possibly the most convincing of all the Swoppets, the bent legs and the anatomically accurate shoulder posture said this was a Knight who was built for speed - a perfect example of the Britains ability to capture, in Peter Cole's resonant phrase, "suspended animation". He carried his sword in his hand, drawn back and ready to strike, and his scabbard was consequentially empty. This was not by any means a fanciful pose: the received wisdom that Knights were unable to move on foot when clad in full armour is a fallacy. By the High Middle Ages, the weight of even the strongest armour was evenly distributed over the Knight's body, and a fit man could mount and dismount his horse easily, and during wartime would regard hand-to-hand fighting on foot as the norm rather than taking part in tournament-style charges against other horsemen.

  The armour was as intricately crafted as anything you'll see in a museum, meaning this Knight was in all probability a noble or captain, or some other person of influence. During the 15th Century, high-ranking fighters might travel on horseback (as would many men-at-arms), but would dismount on the battlefield. The reasons for this are essentially twofold. Firstly, in an age when personal bravery was perceived as the highest of all virtues, it was vital for a captain to have the confidence of his footsoldiers, and he would only get that if they knew he would not mount up and flee when the tide of battle turned against them. And secondly, since the Hundred Years War, the domination of the battlefield by archery meant that the horse was now too vulnerable to be as effective weapon of war as it had been in the earlier Middle Ages, save perhaps in a short and unexpected charge. The Knight's armour, perhaps meant to be of Italian origin, was ribbed and reinforced at key joints by overlapping layers. This was not for decoration, but intended to give added protection against crossbow bolts, which could otherwise prove all too effective against simple plate armour at close range.

#1472 - "Longbowman"

Click here for larger pictures

  Unlike their nobler peers, the archer and the crossbowman were extensively painted, a feature which can betray the poor state of a "played-with" example.

  Most of the variety of the Swoppet Knights of course derives from the interchangeable accessories. However, certain of the series came in more than one basic model, and the archer was a case in point, as Britains followed the Herald tradition of bringing out the same figure in several colourways, adding greatly to their collectability - and no doubt increasing sales into the bargain. There were at least two quite common versions of the Longbowman. One wore a dark green shirt and hose, with a white surcoat; the other a black shirt and hose, with a light blue surcoat. Both had silver mail shirts (hauberks) over the surcoat, and both had a brown wrist support on the left hand and brown shoes. Together with the green base and flesh-coloured hands and faces, this meant a total of five colours to be painted over the native silver plastic.

  The longbowman was unique in several respects: his weapon was not detachable; he had only one choice of helmet, a simple covering with no visor; and instead of the customary knife he was equipped with a sheath of arrows. The broken arrow at his feet is another quaint touch, and not altogether inappropriate, as during the Wars of the Roses both sides possessed longbowmen in equal measure, and these would spend large amounts of time shooting at each other.

Longbowman in light blue and white.
#1472 light blue

  Rare versions of the Longbowman almost certainly exist, though it's hard to establish for certain whether or not a particular colour scheme is a genuine Britains creation or has been painted on in later life by some adventurous enthusiast or unscrupulous seller. The version with the light blue shirt and hose, and white surcoat, does seem to crop up in a few places, and would appear to the Author's inexpert eye to be authentic - but who knows?

  The Plastic Warrior document talks of a "chocolate brown" colouring to the shirt and hose, though no photo has ever reached me. Peter Cowan's recent "Toy Knights" book contains a picture of a Longbowman with a pale yellow shirt and hose, and white surcoat, and it would seem unlikely such a distinguished author would be taken in by a fake. A dark blue version, more than a bit battered and easy to mistake for dark green in poor lighting but definitely blue, has also come to my notice, and appears genuine enought to me. The picture is not touched up in any way.

Longbowman in dark blue and white.
#1472 in navy

  The figure was fairly accurate in its depiction of a 15th Century archer. His armour would indeed be light, perhaps just a soft quilted surcoat or even non-existent, as mobility would be more useful than metal should he find himself engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. Similarly the visorless "sallet" helmet would not impede visibility, which was obviously of crucial importance to a longbowman. English longbow fire was a feature of the long wars against France, and the main reason for the successes of the early 15th Century. These victories had been obtained against heavily armoured and immobile mounted Knights, and (most notably at Agincourt) from behind a defensive wall of wooden staves. Different sources give different figures, but a consensus would seem to be that a trained archer could fire about 10 arrows a minute, and these could prove lethal against light armour at up to 150-200 yards. The effect of arrows on unprotected horses need hardly be described. However, by the time of the Wars of the Roses, many Knights did not fight on horseback at all, and those that did armoured their horses quite effectively. It would take a lucky strike from an arrow to inflict serious harm on a Knight in full armour, other than at the closest quarters.

Click here for larger pictures

#1473 - "With Pike"

  The pikeman also came in two colours, the tabard which covered the armour being in red and white. It's perhaps worth mentioning here that the effect of bringing out more than one basic model of this knight meant that any kid who had collected the essential set of six but found he had more money to spend could always be persuaded to fork out on all the archers, both pikemen and the three crossbowmen - another example of what today would be called clever marketing. He also had a choice of two weapons: a pole-axe, or halbard, with either a straight or a rounded blade. Either looked pretty terrifying, and indeed both variations on this theme were used by pikemen of this period.

  Of all the Swoppet Knights, this one relied most on paintwork for his colouring, and, sad to say, he is also the knight most often to be found looking battle-scarred. Both the red or white tunic and the edge of the pike (not self-coloured like the swords, but painted silver over the brown plastic of the pike) were susceptible to losing paint - this may or may not have mattered to the child of the 1960s, but is very important to collectors today. It is very rare indeed to come across a pikeman in mint condition, other than obviously "touched up" examples.

  It should also be mentioned that just about all authorities agree there were only the two colours for the tabard: red and white. The only variant I have ever seen (other than what are obviously repaints with some heraldic motif added to the plain colouring) is a light blue specimen, which seems in far too good paint condition to be anything but an imposter.

#1473 in blue - surely can't be for real?

  A figure of such evident craftsmanship ought to be beyond criticism, but it should perhaps be pointed out that, during the Wars of the Roses, it would be most unlikely that a Knight of high rank - and by implication heavily armoured - would fight with such a weapon. Far more typically, the halbard would be carried by a man-at-arms of lower status, and equipped with considerably less body armour, and, rather than being plain in colour, the tabard would most likely bear the coat of arms of the wearer's lord.

#1474 - "With Axe"

Click here for larger picture

  The axeman is perhaps the most "swoppable" of all the knights, comfortably exchanging lower limbs with most of the footmen, and all of the mounted figures. For no particular reason, most of the axemen's faces seem to have been painted with a heavy moustache. The armour, uniquely, is often painted with a brown markings on the chest and the thighs. Presumably these were meant to signify some kind of leather material used to fasten parts of the armour together? Once again, the blade of the axe is not self-coloured, and therefore often loses its silver sheen with age. The broken sword on the base is another of those quirky Britains touches that just add that certain je ne sais quoi to the knights. It was by no means insignificant, either, as the axe was often the preferred weapon of the nobility when fighting on foot, more effective than the sword against complex armour. Unlike the chain-mail worn in the early Middle Ages, 15th Century plate armour was very resilient against blows from a sword or other shearing weapon: at this point in history, more damage could be done to a metal-clad Knight by using a smaller but heavier instrument such as an axe. Strangely, the Swoppet Knights didn't include in their ranks a figure fighting with the mace, which was also prominent in hand-to-hand combat around this time.


#1475 - "Crossbowman"

Click here for larger pictures

  The crossbow may be thought of as a peculiarly French device, but it was indeed used widely during the Wars of the Roses. Nor was it the inefficient and ineffective weapon as which it is sometimes depicted. A crossbow could be fired about once every twenty seconds, though the range was of course less than that of the longbow. At close quarters, however, the crossbow was effective against all but the thickest armour, especially the newer steel crossbows which began to appear around the time of the Wars of the Roses. Perhaps because of the need to get close to the target, the crossbowman was generally used in conjunction with a footman bearing a large shield called a parvise. Historians infer from the lack of mention of this shield-bearer in French accounts of Agincourt that they had neglected to provide their crossbowmen with such protection on the day, which may explain the scale of the English archers' superiority.

  This knight was perhaps the least interesting of the series, as his kneeling posture limited his playworthiness somewhat. He came in at least three basic colours: under his substantial coat of chain mail he wore either a brown tunic over green doublet and hose, a black tunic over a light blue doublet and hose or, rather more rarely, a brown tunic over a buff (a sort of light orange) doublet and hose.

  The crossbowman had a box of bolts around his waist rather than a knife. He also came bareheaded, uniquely and perhaps a touch inaccurately. Once more the casual observer could be forgiven for overlooking the breadth of variety Britains had introduced in this range: though the hair style was a uniform mop, the colour was either black or brown. Hard though it is to make confident generalisations, the brunet barnet was more commonly found with the green and the buff figures, while the black hair almost always present on the blue crossbowman.

  There was a particularly subtle variation in the colour scheme for the Crossbowman. On some rare specimens, the mail coat would be painted over rather than the tunic, thus (for the figure with blue doublet and hose) the armour would be black and the shirt silver rather than the other way around, and (for the green doublet and hose) the armour would be brown and the shirt silver. Whether this was an intentional ploy by Britains, or just a slip by some ill-trained painter, will probably never be known. Also unknown is whether or not this reversal ever occurred on the buff figure. All I can say is I've never seen one.

The "wrong" crossbowmen.
#1475 with reversed colour schemes

  Again, Plastic Warrior provides further information which cannot be verified, namely that the Crossbowman actually came in four variations, which they list as "turquoise" (i.e. blue-green), "buff", "green" and "dark blue". I'm not sure whether what I call "light blue" is taken for turquoise, but I have never seen a Crossbowman in dark blue doublet and hose.

Some very unusual crossbowmen.
#1475 unusual paint schemes

  Some strange variations on the usual colour scheme that have been spotted are pictured opposite. The chocolate-brown figure, definitely a darker shade than buff, is most likely a repaint, albeit a fairly good one, though I'd hesitate to offer a definitive opinion either way. However, the cream figure is rather obviously a fake.

Mounted Knights, from 1960.

  Released in 1960, Britains' mounted Swoppet Knights were as superbly crafted as their foot soldiers, and every bit as imaginative. Their poses were equally lifelike and convincing, but also every bit as versatile. The horses' bases, self-coloured green, bore the legend: "15th Century Knights"; on the next line the UK patent number, 812707, "and foreign patents", and a "Made in England" statement; and on the bottom line "Produced by Britains Ltd" and the Swoppet registered trade mark.

  All four figures had completely different torsos to the dismounted Knights, and they all had distinct leg sections. However, the equipment - swords, daggers, shields, visors, plumes, crests etc - was drawn from the same source as that of the foot figures.

  They came mounted on beautifully proportioned thoroughbred horses, one of two different models, known to Britains enthusiasts as "rearing" and "galloping", which of course were available in more than one colour. The crest from the Knight's head was also reproduced atop the horse's mane (usually the same crest, but not always), the horse had a set of reins in one of four designs, in (usually) either white or sky blue. The saddle was in two colours also, black or a dark red/orange colour. The horse was covered either by a caparison in either royal blue or purple, or by a mesh coat which could be in red or yellow (though as ever stories of other variations abound) and in one of three designs. (For details of the Swoppet Knights' steeds, please see the Horses page.)

#1450 - "With Standard"

Click here for larger picture

  The flagbearer of the Swoppet Knights, this superbly sculpted figure carried the standard using a lance in red or blue. The lance was the same as that carried by foot figure #1470, as was the white or black pennant which it held, straight or wavy, and the red or white rose adorning it. He carried the traditional sword and dagger in his belt, and, as with all the mounted figures, had a shield on his left hand. (Apparently none of the Swoppet Knights were left-handed, by the way!)

  He was mounted on the "rearing" horse (most easily identified by its front left hoof being off the ground), most often a white one, though the brown/black version is not rare. Very commonly, the horse had the yellow or red "mesh" cover, with the full purple or blue blankets being unusual - but not unknown - for this figure.

  During the Wars of the Roses, most nobles had a personal standard, which they displayed in battle as a rallying point for the troops of their personal "retinue". In general, the pennants would have a small cross of St George in the flagstaff corner, while the remainder of the display area was taken up with the distinctive badges of the captain. These often included white roses for Yorkist leaders, and red roses for Lancastrians, especially towards the end of the wars, but also present were more personal motifs such as the falcon of Richard Duke of York, the swan of Margaret of Anjou, the ragged staff of the Earl of Warwick, the rising "Sun in Splendour" of Edward IV, the boar of Richard III and the dragon of Henry Tudor. It should perhaps be observed for the sake of completeness that some authorities would describe the swallow-tailed Swoppets' banner as a "burgee", maintaining that a true heraldic "pennant" has only one point.

Click here for larger picture

#1451 - "Charging"

  With his lance pointed right at the heart of his adversary, and his steed galloping full-tilt towards the enemy, few other knights could stand fast against this formidable warrior in the miniature battles played on kitchen tables. Mounted on the "galloping" horse, in either black or brown, he carried a lance in red or blue (without a pennant), plus sword, dagger and shield. For some unknown reason, the blue or purple horse's blanket is particularly common with this figure, and the "mesh" design fairly rare.

  The inclusion of this Knight, and the "Defending" figure #1453, plucked the Swoppets from the rather restrictive "Wars of the Roses" timeframe, and allowed them to be placed in just about any period when Tournaments took place. Jousting between individual mounted Knights, either to settle some quarrel or just for sport, originated in pre-medieval times and was to continue well into the Tudor era. In the early Fifteenth Century, a Knight would be somewhat unlikely to carry a lance into battle, though he would still need to be skilled in the use of such a weapon if he wanted to win a reputation at the lists. But, in later times, as a consequence of advances in armouring techniques, it became commonplace for a Knight to have a lance rest incorporated into his defences, around the right breast, in order to cushion the impact of a collision at high speed with another similarly armed horseman. The use of a large body of mounted Knights fighting with lances as a kind of early cavalry regiment was a feature of the latter stages of the wars between York and Lancaster. There are also stories of individual deeds with the lance as late as Bosworth (1485), when Richard III is said to have personally impaled Henry Tudor's standard-bearer during his last, desperate charge.

#1452 - "Attacking"

Click here for larger picture

  His hand pulled back and his broadsword ready to strike, this Knight was perhaps the most physically impressive even of the Swoppets. Although it's hard to explain why, this chap always strikes me as self-evidently the leader of the Swoppet Knights. As with foot figure #1471, his scabbard was empty as he held his sword in his hand. He rode the same "galloping" horse as #1451 (the right hoof being off the ground): brown and black steeds seem to have been equally widely in use. The horse was clad in the strapped caparison, either red or yellow (interestingly, the Author has never seen an original #1452 with either a purple or a blue blanket), and the Knight's shield seems to have been very commonly one of the smaller, rounder designs.

  Of course, one of the greatest virtues of the Swoppet Knights was the fact that you can swop just about any torso with any legs section, and the results will still look anatomically convincing. This is particularly true of the mounted figures, and indeed a larger collection of Swoppets might quite justifiably mix up the component parts of the models to add individualism to the Knights. However, sometimes the "wrong" combination can look a bit odd - not wrong, just unusual - so it's worth emphasising the differences between the legs sections of this model and the "Charging" Knight #1451. The "Attacking" figure #1452 sits slightly higher in the saddle and has small armour plates protecting his thighs. Also, the rearward extensions of the knee armour (poleyns, I think they're called) are much less elaborate on this Knight.

Click here for larger picture

#1453 - "Defending"

  A complementary figure to #1451, the defending Knight was probably meant to take on the "Charging" Knight at a Tournament, and seems to be warding off a blow with his shield. His equipment was the same as for #1451, his horse the "rearing" version as per #1450. The purple blanket was very often to be found on this figure, although all other designs are not outrageously rare.

  The main difference between the legs section of this figure and that of the Standard Bearer #1450 is that this fellow's legs are bent at a much tighter angle, almost 90°, giving his torso the appearance of leaning back as he absorbs a blow. Often this figure's torso is swopped with that of the "Charging" Knight #1451, but can clearly be distinguished by the fact that he is holding his shield away from his body, and by the rather exaggerated plates of armour protecting his elbows (couters).