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There does not appear to be any evidence for large numbers of combatants wearing fabric over maille before the mid/late twelfth century. The surcoat seems to have developed as a result of the crusades, influenced by costume in the middle East, where coats or tunics frequently covered hauberks.

The surcoat should effectively be a sleeveless overtunic, made of linen or (for very high status) silk. It is strongly recommended that surcoats are made from light-weight material! The surcoat should be front and rear split and should extend at least to knee length. Surcoats should have generous holes (round or egg-shaped) round the armpit to ease movement. Surcoats may be lined in the same material as they are made from, in a matching or contrasting colour.

The surcoat may be in the same colours as the warrior’s shield and (if appropriate) heraldry - it is literally his 'coat of arms'. If a maille coif is worn, it would usually sit on top of the surcoat (and is therefore obvious in depictions). Even when heraldry was much more developed, plain surcoats are still depicted.

Surcoats may be worn by some (though not all) knights in the period 1150-1200. Surcoats may be worn by all knights, serjeants and militia from c.1200, though they are not compulsory. Urban militia and groups of serjeant-retainers accompanying a knight should have matching surcoats to reflect their origins or allegiance.

In the mid-fourteenth century, surcoats became much shorter, reaching to mid-thigh.