Royal Armouries

The 1540 Armour of King Henry VIII

Images

colour photo of Henry VIII's full-length armour

Armour of Henry VIII. English, Greenwich, 1540 (II.8)

  • colour photo of Henry VIII's full-length armour

    Armour of Henry VIII. English, Greenwich, 1540 (II.8)

  • monochrome photo of the date 1540 on an armour of Henry VIII

    Detail of armour of Henry VIII, English, Greenwich. 1540 (II.8)

  • monochrome photo of a large armoured codpiece from an armour of Henry VIII

    Codpiece of armour of Henry VIII. English, Greenwich, 1540 (II.8)

  • colour photo of Henry VIII's armour helmet with decorated banding

    Detail of helmet of Henry VIII. English, Greenwich, 1540 (II.8)

  • colour photo of close up of decorated banding on Henry VIII's armour

    Detail of decoration on armour of Henry VIII. English, Greenwich, 1540 (II.8)

  • monochrome photo of armoured figures on foot and horseback

    Figure of Henry VIII in the New Horse Armoury, 1870s. © Private collection 2013

  • three colour diagrams of different compositions of a garniture armour

    Arrangements of garniture pieces, armour of Henry VIII. English, Greenwich, 1540 (II.8)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of Henry VIII

    Carved wooden head of Henry VIII. English, about 1689-91 (XVII.1)

Date: 1540 | Object number: II.8, VI.13

Statistics

Object Provenance: English, Greenwich, dated 1540
Object Number: II.8, VI.13
Height as mounted, assembled for foot combat: 1880 mm (74.2 in)
Weight: 35.33 kg (77 lb 13 oz)

The 1540 Armour of King Henry VIII

Description

This armour is the greatest of the Greenwich garnitures made for King Henry VIII. It is possible that is was intended for wear at the tournament held during 1–5 May 1540 to celebrate May Day, which included tilts, tourneys and foot combats over the barriers. The two tournaments in January and May 1540 were the last Henry is known to have staged, but there is no record that he actually participated in them. No doubt his age (he was by this time 49) and his great bulk made this inappropriate.

The armour is readily identifiable with the ‘Complete harness parcell grauen and gilte with all manner of peces of advantage for the felde Tilte Turney and fote’ at Greenwich in the 1547 inventory of the King’s goods. Not only does the armour have all the requisite extra pieces, but it has a double set of them. Also it has the second of only two known examples of a feature now unique to the Greenwich workshop. This is an inner breastplate or ventral plate strapped to the body and designed to lift the weight of the cuirass and arm defences from the shoulders by means of the central bolt to which the breastplate and plackart were secured.

It is recorded that François I in 1520 disclosed this secret device to Henry, offering his armourers to make one for Henry if he sent one of his arming doublets for a pattern. The earlier example is on the ‘Genouilhac’ armour made for the King in 1527, and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Unfortunately the breastplate for the field, tilt and tourney of the 1540 armour is lost, and only that for the foot combat, which is not fitted for a lance rest, survives. The lance rest itself does survive. It is most likely that the armour had a reinforcing breastplate, like that of the ‘Genouilhac’ armour also, and a symmetrical right pauldron (without a cut-out for the lance) for use in the foot combat. The original foot defences, probably sabatons of plate, are also lost.

The groin defence, or cod piece, was intended to be worn for the foot combat together with the articulated culet or rump defence. It is of considerable size, and was reputed to have been used as a charm in the old days at the Tower; young women would stick pins into the lining in order to improve their prospects of conception. Unusually it is fitted with additional articulated plates at either side of the main plate. A substantial part of its original lining bands survive, though none of the original linings do.

Erasmus Kyrkenar was the Master Workman at Greenwich responsible for the construction of this armour. We do not know when he took over as master from Martin van Royne, as no lists of the workmen there survive between 1521 and 1540, but in the latter year ‘old Martin’ was still on the payroll, in second place and with a higher salary than Erasmus, either as a pensioner or some kind of Master Emeritus. The few surviving records of the works of his armourers from later in his reign show that they were not idle. Erasmus Kyrkenar’s accounts for the year 1536/7, for example, show that they were making a succession of armours, mostly garnitures for the tilt and field with extra pieces at £10–12, and for the field only at £8, to order for the nobility of England.

The armour is decorated with etched and gilt borders throughout. Most of these are narrow, and decorated with conventional scrolling foliage. Those on the two sets of tilt reinforces, however, are broad, and based on designs by Hans Holbein the Younger. His ‘Englischen Skizzenbuch’ (English sketchbook), executed between 1534–38 and preserved in the collection of the Kunstmuseum, Basel from the Amerbachkabinett (formed in the sixteenth century by Bonifacius and Basilius Amerbach, both professors of the University of Basel), contains several motifs which appear on the armour.

No. 1662.165.23 shows a foliage scroll with a merman holding a shield, found on the border of the grandguard. Another similar merman is found on the other grandguard. No. 1662.165.24 has a foliage scroll with sphinxes at either side of the floral spray shown next to the triton on the grandguard, and the winged cherub’s head found next to the floral spray and at intervals around the borders is close to those in no. 1662.165.11. Nos. 1662.165.28–9 illustrate cherubs like those found cavorting around the side edge of the grandguard. At the upper centre of one of the grandguards are the arms of England, supported by a merman, the sketch by Holbein for which is no. 1662.165.43, and a mermaid, while on the other one are the arms of the king with similar supporters.

The etching and gilding could have been carried out by Giovanni di Maiano, still in the King’s employ in 1542, or by Francis Quelblaunce, appointed in 1539 as ‘gilter and graver of the Kinges harnis’. The date, 1540, is etched at the front of the collar. It is perhaps the later of the two great Greenwich armours made for the King during this late period of his reign.

Armour garniture for field and tournament by Erasmus Kyrkenar.

English, Greenwich, dated 1540. Transferred from the Palace at Greenwich 1644. Used for the figure of Henry VIII in the Line after Meyrick’s reorganisation, 1826-27; Britton, 1830, no. 4; Hewitt 1859, II.6; displayed with the ‘Italian’ bard, VI.13–16.

Statistics

Object Provenance: English, Greenwich, dated 1540
Object Number: II.8, VI.13
Height as mounted, assembled for foot combat: 1880 mm (74.2 in)
Weight: 35.33 kg (77 lb 13 oz)

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