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Armour for Astronauts

Henry VIII’s Foot Combat armour was so extraordinary that it inspired NASA scientists. Matthew Wood, Interpretation Officer at the Royal Armouries explores the story.

A cartoon knight jousts with U.S.A.F logos on it

‘All systems, go!’ Cartoon published in the Evening Standard for 19 April 1963.

The story of how The Royal Armouries collection helped get the human race into space

There aren’t many museums in the world who can claim to have an object that can link Henry VIII and space travel, but here at the Royal Armouries we have a suit of armour that does exactly that.

It all started with a letter

On 8 March 1962 the Master of the Armouries, Sir James Mann received an unusual request from the United States.  It was a letter from a man named Jerry Glacer, from the AiResearch Manufacturing Corporation. Jerry’s letter explained that his company were ‘…presently working on a proposal for the design and construction of a space suit for use by astronauts…’ and they needed help to develop a special exo-skeleton suit.  The suit had to protect the wearer from the exterior dangers of outer space while at the same time allowing them to move freely and do their job.  This problem was so similar to that faced by the makers of Henry VIII’s armour, that AiResearch Manufacturing Corporation were keen to investigate further.  Jerry finished his letter by requesting images of Henry VIII’s Foot Combat Armour and details of the joints, while offering to reimburse the Royal Armouries for their time.

A letter typed in typewriter font with a signature at the bottom

Letter from Jerry Glaser of AiResearch Manufacturing Company, a division of The Garrett Corporation to the Tower Armouries, 8 March 1962.

A space age problem with a 16th-century solution

What problem could space engineers have that could possibly have been solved by studying a suit of renaissance armour?  The answer lies with the one thing that is just as soft and squishy in space as it was in combat in the 16th century: the human body. Henry’s armourers and those American engineers needed to create a suit that protected the wearer from external threats.  In the 1520s those threats came from swords, pollaxes, spears and casting darts; in the 1960s the threats were the extreme temperatures, low pressures and radiation of outer space.  Threats like these require the entire body to be covered from head to toe, but the wearer still needs to move, to strike their opponent or to carry out tricky spaceship repairs. The way in which the problem of protection versus freedom of movement was solved in Henry VIII’s Foot Combat Armour is the reason why Jerry Glacer and his team at AiResearch were so interested in it.

A suit of Armour holding a pole-arm

Foot combat armour of King Henry VIII. Intended for the great tournament, known as the Field of Cloth of Gold, held between Francois I, King of France and Henry VIII in 1520, but never finished. Accession Number II.6

What made the armour so special?

The suit of armour commissioned by King Henry VIII was designed for combat on foot rather than on horseback.  This means that the armour has to protect every inch of the body.  To achieve this, the armour is built up in a series of overlapping plates of steel held together by sliding rivets, to ensure complete coverage and freedom of movement. Fully articulated suits of armour like this are an incredible technical challenge to make and very expensive to produce, meaning that few were ever made. As a result, they are rare objects today.

The armour is believed to have been made by the armourer Martin van Royne and his team.  The armour they were designing was to be worn by King Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.  The event was to be one of the most spectacular of the 16th century.  Henry had to make an impression on the French King, Francis I and he knew all the eyes of Europe would be upon him. His armour had to be fantastic enough to live up to the occasion. Sadly, a rule change at the last minute meant that Henry was not allowed to wear his armour for the foot combat at the Field of Cloth of Gold. The armour was, in fact, never used.

An articulated piece of leg armour

Henry VIII’s foot combat armour, about 1520. II.6. Culet piece designed to protect the small of the back, the buttocks and the back of the thighs

History repeats itself

After the rule change, the armour was sent to the tower, still rough, unfinished and ‘black from the hammer’, waiting for the next time it would be needed again. It remained lurking on display in the Horse Armoury at the Tower of London for centuries.  The armour slowly lost its blackened finish over the years, through some ill advised cleaning, and a polite adjustment was made in the 19th century to the gauntlets, neatly folding them over the crosspiece of a large sword, to conceal the codpiece from the prudish Victorian gaze. Apart from that, not much happened until the arrival of Jerry Glacer’s letter.

In March 1962 prints and plans were sent to the American engineers at AiResearch Manufacturing Corporation.  A space suit was designed and presented to NASA but disaster struck, as the $1.55 million contract was awarded to another company.  Although AiResearch lost the 1962 contract, they were awarded the contract for the advanced extra-vehicular suit (AES) in 1969.  However, in events which echo 1520, just as the suit was ready to go, the missions it was to be used on were cancelled.

So, in reality, Henry VIII’s armour never really made it into space. But NASA never forgot the role it played by inspiring their early designs which helped them get humans into space. That’s why, In the 1970s and again in 1989 NASA sent a space suit to the Royal Armouries to be photographed next to Henry VIII’s Foot Combat Armour.  Seeing the two suits side by side is a reminder to us all that it’s always worth doing your homework.  In fact, one NASA engineer, on seeing the armour ‘…observed that they wished they had seen it earlier in their development programme, since it would have saved them a lot of time and money.’  There is always something to be learned from our past.

A suit of armour and spacesuit standing side by side

NASA spacesuit with the foot combat armour of Henry VIII

 

If you would like to know more about Henry VIII’s foot combat armour and its link with NASA, then check this article from The Royal Armouries Arms & Armour Journal.

 

 

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