It’s the movie that launched a thousand nerdy quotes at inappropriate moments. If you work renaissance faires or participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism, this is a required text. Monty Python and the Holy Grail turns 40 this year (making some of us feel very old), and in the UK and Ireland on October 14, 2015, a new ‘singalong’ version of the movie will be shown in 500 theaters, featuring a new filmed intro by the surviving Pythons. Not sure if us Yanks get any such special treatment, but considering how formative and influential this flick is, we here at Frock Flicks decided a little frock-along action was due.
Yeah, I know, “historically accurate costumes” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But costume designer Hazel Pethig — who also created costumes for all the Python TV series and movies, including A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures — did a surprisingly good job with Holy Grail, and on a shoestring budget. The entire film cost about £229,575 to make in 1975, and Pethig estimated she had only 1 pound to spend per costume! But she received nothing but praise from Monty Python animator, and this movie’s co-director, Terry Gilliam, in Fade In magazine in 2001:
Everything was done so unbelievably cheaply, but our costume designer, Hazel Pethig, was quite brilliant at making it look like some money had been spent. Partly because all that we were doing was all very well researched. It also shows you can fool the camera because if you’re making a big expensive film people would be embroidering all that stuff, and you’d be using hand-woven cloth, and then they’d probably be spending too much time thinking about that and then not getting the jokes.
In a magazine called Hot Dog in 2000, Pethig recalls the film:
I remember staying up through a night sewing the Castle Anthrax maidens’ costumes on a desperate high and Graham Chapman staying up with me, sitting there smoking his pipe, saying ‘Go to bed woman, go to bed woman, go to bed woman.’ He was so sweet, but I’d have to go hunting around the mountains for his crown and gloves because he’d leave them balanced on rocks and then move on.
The making of Holy Grail was itself a trial for most everyone involved. The budget was tight (hello, coconuts instead of horses!), the conditions were brutal, and the co-directors argued constantly. But the results are epic. Let’s dive in for a costume analysis, shall we?
The Historical Setting of Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The movie is supposedly set in 932 A.D., and, of course, the story is King Arthur, which is quasi-fictitious anyway. The person who might be the historical basis for the Arthurian legends could have lived in the 5th to 7th century, and 932 is right around the reign of Æthelstan, who was a king of the Anglo-Saxons and the first to proclaim himself King of the English in 927. But hey, whatever this is a comedy, who pays attention to the title cards, right? Other than all those moose and llamas…
In a way, it doesn’t matter because medieval clothing, at least for men, is somewhat vaguely defined from the 5th though 12th centuries, being mostly belted tunics and such. But for reference, here are a few examples of how ruling men were depicted in documents of the period in England. The garment shapes are simple, and the higher up in status a man was, the more decorative trims and jewelry he got. It’s also interesting to note the hair and beard styles.
What’s most distinctive about the costumes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail for King Arthur and his knights is the heraldry. It’s done well and very consistently throughout the film. Heraldry of this sort really got going in 12th-century Europe, so again, the movie’s internal date isn’t consistent, but the overall style is. Each knight (and villain, as we’ll see below) gets his own device, in appropriate colors, all of which are displayed on the knight’s tabard and shield and echoed by his retainer. The heraldic designs are simple and clear, very much within the realm of possibility for medieval accuracy, even if some (like Sir Robin’s) wouldn’t exactly have been used in the period. The original purpose of heraldry was to quickly identify people on a battlefield, and each of the Holy Grail devices do so effectively.
Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
King Arthur’s Costume in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Our hero in this tale is played by Graham Chapman (sadly gone from this world now). You know he’s the king because he’s not covered in shit. Supposedly Chapman was the only actor wearing real chainmail, weighing about 25 pounds. I suspect only the headpiece was actual mail, as it’s clear in some shots that Arthur’s mail has a supple movement and lighter weave that the other knights’ headgear doesn’t. Also, a full head-to-toe suit of mail would be awful expensive and unnecessary in non-fighting scenes.
All the rest of the knights wore faux chainmail made of knitted wool, a common theatrical trick. Carol Cleveland (who played Zoot/Dingo and was a Python TV series regular), mentioned this in a 2012 interview on The Void: “They had to put up with dreadful weather conditions, constant rain and cold and misery, wearing what were apparently these very itchy suits of chain mail that were made of wool and got very wet and smelly and heavy.”
Arthur’s heraldic device could be described, according to my sources*, as Argent, a sun in its splendor and mustachioed Or. Essentially, it’s a 12-pointed full sun with a mustache (much like Chapman’s), on a white tabard. Since he’s the king, he wears a crown-helmet combo, and his armor has fancy gold rivets and escutcheons, plus he has a bigger sword (y’know, from that strange woman lying in a pond).
Sir Bedevere’s Costume in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The king’s closest companion is Sir Bedevere, played by the underrated Terry Jones. Bedevere is key in the witch-judging and Knights Who Go Ni! scenes. His heraldic device is a white tree with blue, or in heraldic terms*, Per bend azure and argent, a tree blasted and eradicated counterchanged. The blue wraps around to the back of his white tabard. He also wears a very elaborate helmet with a face screen and silly feather decoration sticking out the top — this helmet, missing the screen and feathers, was apparently auctioned by Bonhams in 2007.
Sir Lancelot’s Costume in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
In most Arthurian stories, Lancelot gets it on with Guinevere, but no luck for John Cleese in this movie. Instead, he rescues Galahad from sexytimes at Castle Anthrax and destroys a wedding party at the Swamp Castle — weird subtext there, like Lancelot doesn’t want anyone to get laid. Anyway. Since he’s cast as “the brave,” his device is a dragon (though some suggest it’s a griffin or even a lion), and I guess because he sees things in black and white, that’s why the creature is on black and white, or to say it in heraldic terms,* Per pale sable and argent a dragon rampant counterchanged. In closeups, you can see that Lancelot’s belt is black-and-white checkerboard, which is a nice touch to tie the look together.
Sir Galahad’s Costume in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Poor Michael Palin! Long before he travels around the world on telly, he falls into the clutches of the lovely ladies of Castle Anthrax and just as quickly is ripped from their bosoms. He has perhaps the least interesting costume with a red-cross on white*: Argent, a cross gules. It’s basically the same as the Knights Templar, and the Victorian version of Galahad focused on the knight’s chastity and purity, so yeah, this symbolism (not to mention, the sketch) all fit.
Interesting, Galahad and Lancelot are the only two of Arthur’s knights without facial hair. Beards were not mandatory in this period, but they were certainly common in historical imagery. Having a couple characters without beards does give a little variety though.
Sir Robin’s Costume in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Brave Sir Robin bravely ran away! For the best heraldic joke of the movie, Eric Idle’s Sir Robin wears a chicken as his device with green and white checkerboard on his tabard, and the pattern continues to the back. His full heraldry might be described as* Quartely argent and checky argent and vert, in dexter chief a chicken sable reversed. His belt appears to be in a green and black checkerboard as well.
The Villains of Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The bad guys also get the full medieval treatment. Again, more 12th-century than 900s, but appropriately heraldic when necessary.
The Black Knight’s Costume
Bad guys tend to wear black, natch. His heraldry features a red boar, more specifically*, Sable a boar’s head couped gules. Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: A gentleman named John Waller was the fight director and period consultant for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and later he was the fencing arranger for 1995’s Pride and Prejudice. So the same man coached the “It’s only a flesh wound” scene and Colin Firth’s angsty “I will overcome this” fencing scene!
The Three-Headed Knight’s Costume
Sir Robin’s deadly foe wears a design that spells out the “Stop, talk to the hand!” gist of this sketch. This knight’s heraldry might be described as*, Bendy sinister argent and Or, in bend sinister three hands apaumy sable. The three-headed costume might also be described as “three guys standing really close and tied together with a belt.” Ya do what ya gotta do.
The French Soldiers’ Costumes
The taunting French soldiers fart in your general direction while wearing the most elaborate armor of anyone in the film. Maybe it was rented? Maybe it’s better because they’re French? Maybe you smell of elderberries?
The Knight Who Says Ni!’s Costume
The leader of the Knights Who Say Ni (played by Michael Palin) wears a whole lotta weird stuff — fur, antlers, a cape/shroud thing, and he’s several feet taller than anyone else. Under there somewhere is a helmet, apparently made of fiberglass, that showed up in that 2007 Bonhams auction. Though this auction’s helmet might be from another scene; I’m only seeing a slight resemblance. It’s definitely not one of the other main knights nor the other bad guys, so if anyone can ID where in the movie this helmet really belongs, please comment!
Other Costumes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Ladies of Castle Anthrax’s Costumes
Not only does the castle have a Grail-shaped beacon, it’s the one of the few times in this movie we see women with speaking roles (the other being the witch scene). C’mon, act surprised that Holy Grail doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test eyeroll. At least Carol Cleveland, who played Zoot and her identical twin Dingo, had a great time playing the Python’s glamour girl, both on TV and in their movies. She describes the Holy Grail filming in The Void in 2012: “I was wearing a nice, warm, long white dress, and I wasn’t working outdoors so I didn’t get wet.”
Zoot’s costume is the most covered-up of all the Anthrax ladies — she has what appears to be a two-layer gown, with lace on the outer layer, and a veiled pillbox hat in imitation of a wimple. The chain and gold medallion detail are rather cheesy, IMNSHO.
The other ladies are in thin white gowns, both long-sleeved and sleeveless, and some wear sheer wimple-like veils with gold circlets while others have their hair styled up — apparently, they had more hairpins back in 1975 than today. But all these women’s dresses look like a very slinky polyester, and while most everyone has their hair put up, the veils are made of poly-georgette instead of linen.
The Swamp Castle Wedding Costumes
On Sir Lancelot’s quest to save Prince Herbert from marriage, he plows through a wedding party at the Swamp Castle. This is one of the most elaborately costumed scenes in the whole movie. There’s a troupe of musicians, maidens dancing, random wedding guests, and guards all around the castle, who all begin happily cavorting and are soon dead and dying. It looks really good! I mean, not just the destruction, but the medieval-oid costumes. The color scheme and materials shown are harmonious — no obvious panne velvets, no screaming brights, not even big honkin’ metal grommets! Folks, this is how you do a simple background scene. Thank you!
Sir Robin’s Minstrels’ Costumes
Neil Innes played the lead singing minstrel and composed the songs for ‘brave’ Sir Robin. He had previously written music for the Python TV series and later worked with Eric Idol on projects including The Rutles (1975-6). One of Robin’s uncredited minstrels was Charles Knode, who also had an uncredited role in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), but more interestingly, he went on to be the costume designer for Braveheart (1995). Yeah, really.
All of the minstrels are wearing a mishmash of medieval pieces, but they look good. In particular, Innes is wearing a wicked-cool 14th/15th-century chaperon hat. Because you always give the featured singer a good hat!
So there ya go, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s good for more than just catch-phrases and the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.
*Many thanks to my friends Ken Mayer and Margaret Pye for the heraldic translations!