In a book I'm writing, a king has a bodyguard of a dozen elite swordsmen, trained their whole lives to protect their sovereign. Their capes are long and trail behind them. What are the disadvantages and advantages (if any) of wearing a cape during combat?
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Capes were used as impromptu shields. While not as effective as a solid metal shield, it often was able to block sword/mace blows (or in defense against wild animals).
You also get the benefit of being able to hide some weapons, like daggers, behind your cape/cloak. There is also the off chance that you can use your cloak to bind people's weapons, but getting that to reliably happen is a little tricky.
Since you may be wearing a cape or cloak anyways, to keep out the weather and whatnot, it's great that it can double as a shield. In a pinch, you can also use it to protect yourself from fire. (In case, say, the palace was burning down.)
However, there are some disadvantages:
Disadvantages that the others have stated:
Could get in your way
Could give the enemy something to grab (why cops are supposed to wear clipons)
Could give you some cover. The cape could be made of a material that could deflect shots to the back. This could be some high tech stuff, or even just a real fine mesh to stop an arrow. In battle the cloak could be held up as a makeshift shield. It would be heavier so that it wouldn't blow in the wind.
It could obscure your outline. The eye is good at picking out human shapes, so in dim light the cloak could be spread out a bit, break up the outline, and hide any shiny things like swords and armor.
Makes it harder for enemies to judge your strengths and weaknesses. You could come across as pretty non threatening, right up until you're ready to start something, by having your weapons drawn under the cape. likewise a cape could hide armaments and armor from others, giving you an advantage.
Insulation. being able to keep warm in the cold is great, and a cape would work well for this. Keep your arms and hands inside as you patrol out in the snow, or keep it around you as you hold your reigns while riding.
Cape length would be something to really consider. Something medium long, like a trench coat, could be useful. Something longer, floor length or more, would be more annoying than it's worth.
Any long thing which is connected to your body can be thought of as a handhold with which to restrict your movements, capes are no exceptions. They would definitely need to break away, or else you basically give your opponent easy control of your neck. They are also slow and get tied around you easily, so even if your opponents don't restrict your motion, you still have to limit yourself to motions which control the cloak well.
The biggest advantage of a cloak is it obscures your body position. It can be exceedingly difficult to determine the state of all of your joints, so any attack they might make has to be against an enemy with a level of unknown to it. This often calls for wider sweeping strikes which are slower, giving you a chance to attack faster.
A cloak could also be used to bind the enemy if you are clever, though this would almost certainly always involve grabbing the cloak in your own hands.
The Chinese often tied little pieces of red fabric to their weapons as a distraction. A cloak may be a bit excessive in this way, but you might still use it as such.
In general using capes or cloaks in combat is a well known trope, and most of the advantages and disadvantages have been discussed in other posts. Realistically, you would not want to have a full length cloak for most of the reasons given, but if you are going to use a cape or cloak in combat, then it should be no longer than waist or thigh length at the very most.
This also applies to other items of apparel used in a military/combat context. Oliver Cromwell's "Ironsides" cavalry during the English Civil War protected themselves from sword thrusts and strokes with thigh length leather coats (reinforced with steel breast and backplates). The "Three Musketeers" are correctly portrayed in short cloaks, and the ancient Spartans took off and rolled up their full length red cloaks prior to marching into battle.
So be fashionable by all means, but if you want to be effective and stay safe, then shorter capes and cloaks are better.
If you have ever been married, you will remember that a wedding dress is a nightmare to move in without tripping (either yourself or someone else). If you had the pleasure to walk with a beautiful bride then you also were
That's a big disadvantage is preventing or hindering cohesive combat for the dozen swordsmen.
With capes that drape to the ground, it will be very easy to trip your ally (or yourself). This picture, while of a wedding, is a nice indication of the problems of a full length cape for combat:
Additionally, if your team intend to have longer swords, they may easily get caught in the other members cloak if they draw them.
In SpellSinger, the main character (Jon-Tom) is persuaded to get a cape.
Later on, after winning a bit at gambling, he is told of the other virtues of the cape. Along the hem of the cape is a place for secret pockets (and a place to store one's valuables).
Putting rocks in the bottom of the cape helps reduce a prime problem with them - that they can blow over your head. But it also has additional benefits. This gives you several foot long (in the book it was described as five foot long) flexible club. Think of the rat tail towel in the locker room - with rocks in it. This is not something to the trifled with.
Too long? yes, they get in the way. The right size so you don't trip over them? An invaluable tool for smacking someone over the head with the weights that you need to have in there to keep it useful. And then you've got all those pockets for the secret things that a bodyguard needs... money, wire, various powders and the like.
The issue with your question is the "in combat" part. A cloak is primarily a piece of clothing and while it is used in combat, it is basically opportunistic use. In life and death struggle you use whatever is available. So if you wear a cloak you will use it, and if you commonly use a cloak, you will actually train the techniques for using it in combat.
But I doubt anyone has ever worn a cloak for its combat value. The non-combat uses are vastly more important. Which makes answering this question bit annoying.
Still, you asked what you asked, so I'll list the coincidental combat benefits and ignore the vastly more important non-combat advantages.
The first and biggest benefit is that you have it already for other reasons. It is basically a free weapon, there is no extra cost or weight. And you will almost always be able expect to have it with you, which is a big benefit compared to for example shields and bucklers.
It can be used as a shield. If you are expecting trouble you will take a real shield, but for a bodyguard an improvised shield you always carry with you even when no sign of trouble existed has great value. Typically this would be the old "hidden weapons and a surprise rush maneuver" done by would be assassins of your client. The weapons would typically be light enough to be stopped by a heavy cloak and you'd only need to defend until other guards can respond to the attack and eliminate the threat. A cloak is quite useful for such use.
Disadvantages as shield would be that it is not as good as a real shield and will take more damage from attacks than a real shield. Still as noted above a bodyguard needs to be able to protect himself and others even then not expecting a danger and not carrying a shield and in such cases the "shield" only needs to last until others can respond. So for bodyguards or others who wear cloaks and may need to defend against surprise attacks cloaks are useful as shields.
Note that when used as shield the cloak is controlled by your off-hand and as such doesn't restrict your mobility and weapon use like it would otherwise. So use as shield is also sensible alternative to dropping your pretty and expensive cloak to the ground where people will trample and bleed over it.
A cloak can be used as distraction by blocking the enemy line of sight so that they can't read your attack. Bodyguards are generally practised enough with their weapons to fully take advantage of this. As such use for feints can be expected.
A cloak can be used to entangle opponents, their weapons or limbs. Essentially it can be used for improved grip in grappling. Effect would be similar to opponent having easy to grab, restrictive and sturdy clothing. Bodyguards would realistically want to sometimes take their opponents alive for questioning so they would practise these techniques too.
Those would be the main advantages. Disadvantage would be restricted mobility and ability to draw weapons fast. But as mentioned the cloaks would be worn for the non-combat advantages they give and as such these disadvantages can be ignored then considering use of cloaks. The bodyguards would simply practise fighting while wearing cloaks. And how to drop it fast if they can get a real shield.
Something to consider is a certain category of people who combine cape wearing with melee combat: superheroes. The main hero I'm thinking of is Batman, who has several incarnation where his cloak has weights sewn in the ends that he can use as an additional weapon. His main way to use this is as a method to stun his opponents.
In case you're interested in some inspiration, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BadassCape is an entire article on Badass Capes as used in fiction. WARNING: TVTROPES ALERT! This website is useful for inspiration, but it's notorious for the ability to distract the reader.
Wearing a cloak is the only sensible option.
You have hired the 12 best swordsmen in the land. Everyone in the land knows you have done so.
Nobody is stupid enough to organise a fair fight - their 12 best swordsmen vs your 12 best. The king has better swordsmen, and they will win, even with a slight handicap of a cape.
If the opponent brings 12,000 swordsmen then capes or no capes, your 12 heroes are going to die.
So if your opponent brings swords, the capes don't change the outcome in any case.
But what about an opponent with a crossbow? The best strategy here is to block line of effect and/or sight to the king (stand between the king and the crossbowman) to block the first bolt, which will be the only one the assassin can fire. Capes will assist with this by blocking line of sight.
For about 27 years, I enjoyed associating with Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) people, in various cities, states, and countries. I was never with any single group for an appreciable amount of time, because I'd moved a lot due to my work, and I never "made a splash" or became even remotely well-known in any "Shire" (again, due to my work.)
However, I DID get to see a large number of sword-swinging types, and I'd watched the different fighting styles with interest.
In "Real World Combat," only one or two had the brains to drop their capes or cloaks when going into a fight. The rest? They had given me infinite practice in keeping a straight face and not laughing like a hyena when they had "wardrobe malfunctions."
Granted, it LOOKS simply fabulous! And in the winter, particularly when on sentry-go or if walking the battlements in the blowing snow, a heavy, hooded, woolen cloak with hood is a life-saver!
I'd "liberated" a Serbian military sentry's hooded woolen cloak (and still have it!) because it's so great in the winter. (The Serbian cloak also has a "shoulder-strap" so the wearer can open and fold it back, clear of the shoulders, when one's indoors.)
I also have an "Inverness hooded rain-cloak" in black, and had worn it when out all day in the driving rain. Nothing keeps one as dry and comfortable as an Inverness, in my opinion, if it's possible to wear it without arousing comment.
That said, I'd drop either one in the gutter in a heart-beat, if attacked! A cloak is too restrictive to wear during a fight, and it's even dangerous to try to pull it off and whirl it round one's weak-arm as a shield--- the bit with the cloak is distracting, and you'd not notice a clever killer making in with the death-blade!
Some of the very many goofs and foul-ups I'd witnessed with "Knightly Cloaks" have been these: Catching sword-point, pommel, or guard in the hem of the cloak, when either drawing OR wielding the weapon---while the "knight" was fighting with his garb, the peasant put out his lights. This was very, VERY common. Another beauty begins by crouching in a fighting stance, and as one maneuvered, one treads on the tail of the cloak . . . and when one TRIES to advance on the enemy, all he does is thrust his pelvis at the foe before dropping flat on his back, knees akimbo! Trying to get up while in a cloak, if one's slipped & fallen, can also be very entertaining.
Others in the melee can cause a cloaked knight problems, as well: Catching the point or guard of one's weapon in the hem of someone else's cloak is one very common blunder, plus there's the risk of standing on the cloak of a fellow knight--- he soon tries to move, and becomes completely distracted when he gets yoked back by the pinioning cloak, and falls on his tush.
They're also great if you intend to attack the wearer! Grabbing the hem and taking off at a run to his side or rear will suddenly slam the cloaked knight to the deck; grabbing it and running in front of Sir Knight will serve to wrap him in his cloak like a corpse prepared for the grave, because one can hammer him into the ground before he ever draws his weapon.
Plus, if one intends to ambush the cloaked knight, it's an easy thing to come up and slip a long bodkin-spike or dagger into his vitals--- his blood will be concealed by the cloak, and one may stroll away after sitting the cadaver on a bench, as though it is taking a brief respite.
The thing is, if a king brings in a dozen top swordsmen, an opponent simply has to bring in several top assassins. "Top Swordsmen" are useful only if they can draw blade. Suborn the sluts at a bordello and kill one or two of those "Top Knights" with too much poppy-wine; poison the fowl served at "Knights' Table" to eliminate a few more; post assassins with daggers along the route to the latrine to stab another "Top Knight" before dropping him down the "glory-hole" and into the feces below; do the same sneak-attack slaying of another Knight or two in the crowded market-place . . . and, oh my! The King has NO "Top Swordsmen!"
Only a hopping-halfwit or the village's arch-idiot would entertain the idea of squaring off against a "top Swordsman" in anything that even remotely resembled a "Fair Fight!"
Fancy bodyguards have a very long history of having been bumped off along the way to the assassination of their employers.
[Why had I never sought "King-ship?" I'd far sooner have the REAL POWER of advising the Crown, than the headaches of wearing the crown!]
The same reason real warriors and fighters don't have long hair; the opponent can grab and it will put them in serious trouble.
A lot of answer given... Used as defense, weapons,... This will also vary with the kind of gear those swordsmen are using : is it full plate armor or lighter leather jerkins, with broadsword, spear or rapier ? Heavier armor or weapons will have less utility for a cloak than the lighter equipment.
It can also be used as a message or as a decoy : "we are so good that even with those heavy handle hanging from our backs, we'll floor you" or "with our lovely cape, we shouldn't be too much of a threat... Then we'll gut you.". As an example, I'll talk about the French republican guard : they look quite ridiculous in WWI uniforms, but are still really well trained.
Finally consider that in most warrior culture there are things you just don't do (Roman and Greek soldiers used not many ranged weapon, for example, it was good for barbarian mercenaries). In your fiction, it could be grabbing one's opponent garment.