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Henry VIII's Court Armoury

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In the early 1500s court armouries across Europe were producing armour of outstanding quality. Henry VIII had received armours from Europe and wanted to make his own of the same or better quality. He opened his own court armoury at Greenwich and employed the best armourers from Europe to work there.

The Greenwich Armoury was an important step for Henry who wanted to become as powerful and influential as leaders like Maximilian I, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1508 to 1519.

Henry VIII's court armoury Henry VIII, c. 1520, © National Portrait Gallery, London Henry the 8th. king of england.
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Setting the standard - court armouries in Europe

Powerful individuals were key to the production of high-quality armour.

Maximilian I, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire employed armourers across Europe and established a court armoury at Innsbruck, Austria. Free from regulation and encouraged to express their creativity, Maximilian’s highly skilled armourers set the trend in armour design.

Under his patronage they produced some of the most technical and beautiful pieces ever to have been made.

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The flutes and twists on the helmet’s skull required extraordinary skill to achieve.

This helmet is all that remains of a complete armour that Emperor Maximilian had made at his court armoury and gifted to Henry VIII.

It is beautifully decorated and has a very unusual shape.

We think this gift prompted Henry to open his own court armoury.

A gift for show

The ‘Horned Helmet’, about 1512-1514, Austrian, Innsbruck, IV.22

Metal horse armour on a stand Metal horse armour on a stand

Originally glittering with gold, this armour was a gift to
Henry VIII from Emperor Maximilian I.

Goldsmith Paul van Vrelant was responsible for the decoration. Henry later hired him as his ‘harness gilder’.

Henry employed many workers from Europe to make sure his armour matched the quality and beauty of pieces like this.

Gold standard

Horse armour of Henry VIII (known as the Burgundian Bard), about 1500, Flemish, VI.6 -12

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Even though most of the gilding has worn away, there are still traces of Van Vrelant’s work present on the Bard.

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Held at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, this armour is an outstanding example of the high quality pieces produced in Europe.

It features small moving plates, or lames to protect vulnerable parts of the body such as the back of the legs and around the buttocks and groin.

The Greenwich armourers were able to build upon on this technology to develop Henry’s all-enclosing Foot Combat Armour.

Best in Europe

Foot Combat Armour, 1510, Niccolo Silva, Italian, Musée de l’Armée, Paris
© Musée de L’Armée, Paris
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There are no known surviving English armours from before 1511 when the Greenwich Armoury opened. Henry wanted to set a new standard.

Not only was the inspiration for the new armours taken from Europe, but also the materials, the methods and the men. Henry employed Italian armourers then quickly took on men from the Holy Roman Empire.

He wanted Greenwich to be as innovative, successful and influential as the European court armouries he had so admired.

A new start for English armour

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This is the earliest picture we have of the Greenwich Armoury. Henry chose to build his armoury at his favourite palace near London. Archaeological evidence helped identify the right buildings.

The Greenwich Armoury

The Greenwich Armoury, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / Bridgeman Images, c.1558
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The Greenwich Armoury

This is the earliest picture we have of the Greenwich Armoury. Henry chose to build his armoury at his favourite palace near London. Archaeological evidence helped identify the right buildings.

The Greenwich Armoury, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / Bridgeman Images, c.1558
Mounted horse armour Mounted horse armour

Italian style

This is one of the first armours made at Henry VIII’s Greenwich Armoury.

It has a distinct Italian style, for example, the flowers etched along the bottom edge.

The first armourers employed at Greenwich were Italian, they were considered to be some of the best in Europe.

Horse armour (known as the Italian Bard), about 1515, English, Greenwich, VI.14-16

close up of horse armour showing flowery designs

The flower decoration along the edges of the horse armour is typically Italian in style.

A set of metal Smiths tools A set of metal Smiths tools

Tools of the trade

These tools may have come from the royal workshop at Greenwich.

They have been kept in the Royal Armouries collection for as long as we know. The variety of hammers and stakes were used to produce different armour parts.

Identical tools can be seen in 16th-century drawings of armourers' workshops and their design remains largely unchanged today.
Armourer's tools, about 1520, English, Greenwich XVIII. 1624, XVIII. 1625, XVIII. 1626, XVIII. 1627, XVIII. 1628
A painting of a smithy a black and white drawing of four men, one who is standing while three smith armour

This illustration of Maximilian’s court armoury at Innsbruck contains tools very similar to those in the Royal Armouries collection.

Maximilian I, directing his court armourer Conrad Seusenhofer. 'Der Weisskunig' (Book based on Maximilian I’s life), about 1510-16
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In 1520, the Greenwich armourers were putting the finishing touches to Henry VIII’s Foot Combat Armour. It was a triumph. It matched, if not bettered, the armours of their European rivals.

With metal over every part of his body, the King would have been completely protected but able to move freely. The armour has 235 separate parts. It is an outstanding example of cutting-edge technology. Greenwich armour had arrived.

Unfortunately, a last-minute change to the rules of the Field of Cloth of Gold meant it was never worn.

A new standard

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Inspiring technology

This shoulder defence was made around ten years before the all-enclosing Foot Combat Armour.

The Greenwich armourers would have used technology like this for reference and inspiration.

It has small moving plates, or lames, that provide almost complete protection for the shoulder but do not restrict movement.

Pauldron, about 1500, Italian, III.1124-5

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The best armour

By attracting the best armourers to his workshop, Henry achieved his aim of creating world-class armour.

The armour was joined by sliding rivets and internal leathers and was designed to fully cover Henry’s body in steel plate.

Though other examples of all-enclosing armour exist, Henry’s is the most advanced.

Henry VIII’s Foot Combat Armour, 1520, Greenwich, English, II.6

three image of a suit of armour from diffrent angles Slide

Black from the hammer

When work stopped in 1520, the armour was left ‘black from the hammer’, unpolished, unfinished.

Misguided Victorian warders, at the Tower of London, polished the armour and now its original state can only be glimpsed in a few places.
Slide Back side of a pieceof armour with leather straps holing it together

Sliding rivets and leather strapping made complete protection possible.

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Elements of armour

Nowhere is the design more layered and articulated than around the king’s groin.

43 of the armour’s 235 parts are in this area alone. The codpiece was a feature of male fashion.

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Find out more about the exhibition objects

Learn more about the Field of Cloth of Gold

Henry VIII's Court Armoury

The English Preparations

A Fight for Peace

The Long Road to an Uneasy Peace

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