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Cleaning “Toiras” armours

Our conservator Ellie Rowley-Conwy tells us about cleaning our “Toiras” armours and her part in building a wall of armour.

conservator standing next to a row of Toiras breastplates and backplates

Ellie Rowley-Conwy

To some, it might seem that cleaning 113 pieces of seemingly identical plate armour would be repetitive or even, dare I say it, boring.

Perhaps this makes me sound odd but nothing could be further from the truth. Although superficially similar, each artefact offers its own challenges, details and insights.

Indeed, it is only by working with so many pieces that the unique nature of each piece stands out. Many objects in our collection are inscribed with the word “Toiras”, referring to the Marquis de Toiras who famously withstood the three-month siege of La Rochelle in 1627, and is the provenence for all of them.

Subtle differences can include the manufacturer marks that are often found on the inside; the size of the pieces giving information about the soldiers involved in the conflict; and the dents and damage present on the pieces which tells us about the objects’ working life.

Often the breastplates and backplates have been coated in a lacquer to protect them from handling and the environment. This can work well for a few years but, if left on for too long, it will yellow and become increasingly difficult to remove.

The first stage in the conservation process is to clean this off, using cotton swabs and an appropriate solvent that will remove the lacquer without damaging the underlying metal. Under the lacquer layer there can be remnants of thick wax, which was used in the past to help protect metal. This also has to be removed using a further solvent.

Any corrosion present on the object is cleaned off using, a specific abrasive material with an appropriate lubricant to prevent any scratching of the metal. The object is then coated with a protective conservation grade wax.

The result of all this hard work will be a very striking, full wall of breastplates and backplates, forming the backdrop for the Line of Kings.

Toiras series armours are on display in the Line of Kings in the White Tower at the Tower of London, and in the Hall of Steel at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

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