Henry VIII’s Tonlet Armour

Tonlet armour

Dates from 1520 | English, Southwark (with earlier Italian and Flemish components) | Object number: II.7

YouTube link to Henry VIII's tonlet armour The Tonlet armour takes its name from its large metal skirt, or tonlet, which offered protection for the upper legs during foot combat. The tonlet was probably inspired by the male fashion for heavy fabric skirts, or ‘bases’.

This armour was made for the Field of Cloth of Gold Tournament. New rules for the event were announced quite late and there was little time to create new armour to conform to them.

This armour is composed of various pieces from already existing tournament and field armours. An example is that the greaves have slots in the back for spurs; important for a battle harness, but unnecessary for foot combat. Only the pauldrons and the tonlet were newly made by Henry’s armourers.

Henry VIII’s tonlet armour

This armour was made for Henry VIII to wear to compete in the foot combat at the Field of Cloth of Gold tournament in 1520. The combatants fought in an enclosed arena, so the tonlet gave essential protection for the legs.

Backplate and tonlet

The shape of this armour reflects male clothing fashions of the time. The backplate and tonlet mimic the form-fitting doublet with flared skirt that was popular in the early 16th century.

Tonlet decoration

The tonlet was hastily decorated with foliage and Tudor roses, one of Henry’s family’s symbols. The haste of the execution of this decoration is made apparent by a mistake in the pattern which appears on the back.

Left and right pauldrons (shoulder defences)

The pauldrons were made in the royal workshop especially for this armour. The right pauldron is decorated with an image of St George and the left with the Virgin and Child. St George is the patron saint of England, and was also considered a model of the chivalrous knight. The Virgin and Child was a symbol of piety and protection, and the Virgin Mary was seen as an important link to God for devout Catholics.

Modified bellows visor

The original slits in the visor for sight and ventilation were reinforced with interior pierced panels, presumably for enhanced safety. Compared with the unfinished foot combat armour, this bacinet offered greater protection by not having a long open slit for sight. Although seeing out of the bacinet was not impossible, it would be, to quote one of the Royal Armouries’ interpreters, similar to ‘trying to look through a colander.’

Makers’ marks on bacinet

The tonlet armour was assembled from various pieces of existing armour. The bacinet bears the maker’s mark of the Missaglia family of Milan, Italy. With Nuremberg in Germany and Innsbruck in Austria, Milan was one of the major centres of armour production throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The identification of sword cuts on the bacinet is debatable, although their location and appearance are consistent with examples on other armours. As the bacinet was part of an older armour, it is impossible to know whether these marks were from earlier combats or those at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

The vambraces (arm defences)

Unlike typical armours which have gaps in certain areas in order to allow for greater flexibility, Henry’s armourers employed cutting-edge technology to fill many of these gaps with extra lames, providing fuller coverage. This is most clear on the inside of the elbow joints and it greatly enhanced the protective quality of the armour, making Henry much safer when he competed.

The tonlet (armoured skirt)

The tonlet is constructed from a series of concentric plates, each one slightly larger than the one above it. One side is hinged, while the other opened and closed by means of a series of buckles. The overlapping plates allowed the tonlet to be quite flexible. The wearer’s mobility was further enhanced by the tonlet’s flared shape, allowing a good degree of leg movement. There are many depictions of this style of armour in tournaments, indicating that it was a popular one at that time. However, very few examples survive today.

The Bacinet’s collar

The armour was hastily decorated with etching and gilding in order to give the composite pieces a unified appearance. For example, the etched and gilded collar of the Order of the Garter around the neck of the bacinet links with the garter itself around the top of the left greave. Etching was done by creating a wax design on the surface, then covering the metal in acid. The acid would erode the steel but leave the wax design unmarked, which left a raised design on the steel. Gilding involved applying gold mixed with mercury so that it formed a paste that could be easily spread onto the armour’s surface. Heating the piece of armour drove off the mercury, leaving the gold adhering to the metal. This is known as fire gilding or mercury gilding.

Etched Garter on Left Greave (lower leg defence)

Members of the Order of the Garter wore a single garter as an emblem of this high honour. Henry VIII, who was himself a member, had the garter with its inscription HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE (‘Shame to him who thinks ill of it’) etched on the left greave of his tonlet armour.

The greaves have slots in the back to accommodate spurs. This is evidence that these originally came from a different armour, as foot combat did not require spurs. These greaves were probably from one of King Henry’s earlier field armours.

Leg defence

The leg defences were separate from this armour at some point, and reunited with the rest of the armour in 1947, initially on loan, having been in the collection of the Dymoke family, the hereditary Royal Champions, at Scrivelsby Court in Lincolnshire.

Want to know more?

The related documents below are free articles from Henry VIII: Arms and the Man.
This major publication Henry VIII: Arms and the Man and can be purchased from the Royal Armouries Shop.

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  • Published to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the accession of King Henry VIII to the English throne. This definitive publication illustrates and records over 90 Henrician treasures from the Royal Armouries own collections and from around the world.

  • Our top ten objects in the Tournament gallery.

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Come and learn a new skill at one of the free craft workshops hosted by the Commemorative Quilts and Textiles Group at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds.

06 June 2015


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Did you know?

So good they named it twice

Armour commonly and mistakenly referred to as ‘chainmail’ should correctly be called MAIL, which is derived from the Old French word MAILLE, meaning CHAIN. So ‘chainmail’ translates as CHAIN CHAIN!

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