Curator about & about: The Buff Coat of Sir Thomas Fairfax in York Castle Museum

From Keith Dowen, Assistant Curator of European Armour.

Recently I was very fortunate to be invited to examine the 17th century buff-leather coat reputed to have belonged to Parliamentary commander Sir Thomas Fairfax at the York Castle Museum. Fairfax was a highly talented and respected commander and is chiefly remembered for his victories over the Royalists at the battles of Marston Moor in 1644, Naseby in 1645 and the Siege of Oxford in 1645-1646.

Between the late 16th century and the Civil Wars (1642-1651) the amount of armour worn by soldiers on the battlefield gradually decreased. Armourers responded to the increase in the use and effectiveness of gunpowder weapons by making some armour thicker and thus heavier in order to provide better protection. The nature of warfare at this time was also changing; battlefield tactics emphasised smaller formations and lighter, faster moving troops. As a result soldiers discarded elements of armour that were felt to be too heavy or cumbersome.

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By the time of the Civil Wars, the lightly armoured ‘harquebusier’ had become the principal type of cavalryman on the battlefield. Usually armed with a sword and a short-barrelled firearm or pair of pistols, his defensive arms could comprise a back and breastplate and a type of helmet we often call a ‘lobster pot’. Such soldiers are popularly associated with the Parliamentarian side during the Civil Wars and are widely known as ‘Roundheads’, yet in reality harquebusiers were used by both sides. One item of defensive wear sometimes worn by harquebusiers was the ‘buff coat’. Made from oil-tanned leather, often cow or deer, buff coats provided good protection against edged weapons and flying debris whilst at the same time being relatively light-weight. 17th century portraits can be somewhat misleading at times, as many men chose to be depicted in full armour in order to associate themselves with the knightly figures of the past. Whilst it is true that some commanders continued to wear full armour on the battlefield, the majority chose to wear buff coats in the manner of harquebusiers.

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The first task undertaken by Dr Prior and Helen Thornton, of York Museums Trust and fashion student Glynis Hughs and myself was to assess the general condition of the coat and the main elements which it was made from. We found that the coat comprised eight pieces of buff-leather, one piece of thick felt for the collar, two sleeves made of a peach-coloured silk and braid made of gold and silver wrapped silk threads. Sixteen lacing holes ran down the front of the coat for the addition of decorative silk laces. Rust stains on the inside of the coat indicated where hooks and eyes were once located to fasten the coat together. Overall the coat was of medium size measuring approximately 43cm across the back of the shoulders and with a collar size of 46cm. Unlike most buff coats which would have been worn over a doublet, this one appears to have been worn over just a shirt as a waist-band had been sewn to the inside for the attachment of a pair of breeches.

Overall the design of the coat and style of braid points to a date of manufacture of around 1635-40. Between 1639 and 1640 Fairfax took part in the so-called ‘Bishops’ Wars’ against Scotland and led a company of Yorkshire dragoons. It is therefore possible that this coat was worn at that time as there is another coat said to have belonged to Fairfax at Leeds Castle in Kent which dates to around 1640-1650.

Though it was initially expected that the front of the coat would be thicker than the back, as any attack was more likely to come from this direction, the measurements we took did not reflect this (ranging from 4-9mm front and back). However, at the time of the assessment measurements were only able to be taken along the edges of the leather panels.

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Depending on the taste and purse of the individual, buff-coats could be either left plain or decorated. At first sight the applied braid on Fairfax’s buff-coat appeared rather dull, but when we lifted the arm the braid which had not been exposed to light shone-out brilliantly as bright as the day it was made. To say we all let out a gasp of amazement would be a bit of an understatement!

My special thanks to Dr M Prior of York Castle Museum for making the coat available for study and for such a rewarding day.

 

 

Otley War Memorial research

As part of our project on the history and memory of the First World War our team of adult learners, pictured above, is researching some of the names from the Otley war memorials.

Adult learners

There are several memorials in Otley to those who served in the First World War: a memorial plaque in the Parish Church; a memorial in Otley Methodist Church on Boroughgate and one in Our Lady and All Saints Catholic Church on Bridge Street. We’ve chosen six soldiers from the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment who are listed on the Otley memorials to find out more about. Most of our soldiers served on the Western Front and none survived the war.

In researching our soldiers we’ve made use of battalion war diaries, official records and memoirs of men who served in the same battalion at the same time to try to reconstruct their war service and the circumstances of their deaths. We’ve also investigated their family backgrounds using online census data and parish records. However, we know next to nothing about what kind of people they were. We don’t have photographs of any of them. While most of them died unmarried and therefore don’t have descendants that we know of, we are aware that there might be families in and around Otley who have connections to some of these men.

Do you recognise any of the names below? Do you have a family connection to any of them? If you have any information, anecdotes or family stories that could help our research we’d love to hear from you.

Joseph Bona was a Company Sergeant Major in the 10th battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He was killed on 18 October 1917 aged 25 and is listed on the Tyne Cot Memorial.

Fred Chippendale served at Gallipoli with the 8th Battalion. He was injured and subsequently died of dysentery on 22 September 1915. He is buried in the Cario War Memorial Cemetery.

Edgar Mudd is the only one of our soldiers for whom we’ve been able to find regimental records online. When he attested for the army in december 1915 he stated he was willing to serve “for any service where my being blind in one eye is not detrimental”. Edgar served with the 1/7 Battalion and was killed in action in France on 3 July 1916. He is named on the Thiepval Memorial.

Walter Rollin was born in Halifax and served with the 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He was killed on 3 March 1917 and is buried in Fins New British Cemetery, Sorel-le-Grand.

William Simpson served with the 2/5th and later the 5th battalion. He was killed in action aged 33 on 7 November 1918, just days before th war ended. He is buried at Maugeuge-Centre cemetery, having been exhumed from his original resting place in Mecquigeines churchyard and reburied there in 1950. The exhumation report includes his dental records and states that William’s size 9 leather boots and a jerkin insignia of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment were still on his body, together with a pocket knife and various coins.

William Swainston served with the 9th Battalion and was killed on 2 March 1916. He was originally buried in Zillebike and was exhumed and reburied in Sanctuary Wood Cemetery in 1927.

 

 

First World War Archives Project: An introduction

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For the centenary of the First World War, Leeds Royal Armouries is collaborating with a number of other heritage organisations to digitise archives relating to the Royal Small Arms Factory (Enfield) and Local Regiments.

The project is running until March 2016 and is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.

As the project develops we will be sharing any news, exciting discoveries, and points of interest on this blog – so keep checking back for the latest updates.

Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/1/1/4/4)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/1/1/4/4)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Royal Small Arms Factory

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Established in 1816, the Enfield factory developed into the main Government producer of military small arms during the First World War. The factory produced, among others, the famous Lee-Enfield Rifle which served the British Army as a standard issue weapon for over 60 years.

Below are a few thoughts from Philip Abbott, Archives and Records Manager leading the project at the Royal Armouries:

“Enfield was such an important Governmental factory because it was a fundamental pillar throughout the 200 years of the Industrial Revolution. The factory’s fascinating history is not just that of firearms production but of our industrial and social heritage, with discoveries such as staff registers and Minute Books. We will hopefully be able to link together projects and documents through the digitalisation process and discover new clues. One main aim of this project is to find out where original records of the Royal Small Arms Factory lie now and with whom, as many important documents remained in the possession of ex-employees and administrators”

“This specific area of the project advances our knowledge of the Royal Armouries collection and creates fantastic new partnerships, which helps create and support future projects.”

The project will digitise and make available records including staff registers, plans, technical drawings and photographs in order to create a valuable resource for researchers interested in the history of the factory and its employees.

Our partners are:

Enfield Museum
Enfield Local Studies and Archives
Royal Small Arms Trust
RSAF Apprentices Association 
Historical Breechloading Small Arms Association (HBSA)
Historical Breechloading Small Arms Association. Northern Group

Regimental and Corps Museums

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Regimental and Corps Museums of the British Army contain a wide range of archives, including personal diaries, photograph albums, battalion orders and trench maps.

Working with 7 regimental museum partners, the project will digitise First World War material from their collections in order to create digital resources commemorating the lives of the allied soldiers who fought on both the Western and Eastern Fronts.

Philip Abbott: “The important factor of Regimental Museum’s collections is that it’s about ‘ordinary people’, which is an aspect our own collection at the Royal Armouries can sometimes lack. We need that personal view for WWI items and documents, whether reflecting life in the factory as at Enfield or the trench via the Regimental Museums.”

“Regimental Museums have a wealth of the material we need, but need the resources we have available to bring it to the public. Therefore it’s a perfect partnership.”

Our partners are:

Green Howards’ Regimental Museum
The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding) Museum
The Prince of Wales’ Own Regiment of Yorkshire Museum
The Royal Dragoon Guards Museum
The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
The York and Lancaster Regimental Museum
The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum

Armourers course group photo - Enfield 1910

Illustrating Armour

The Royal Armouries, Leeds has teamed up with local artist Sean Casey to showcase some of his latest works inspired by the Museum’s collection.

Sean hard at work in the Tournament Gallery

Sean hard at work in the Tournament Gallery

The drawings Sean has produced at the Royal Armouries relate to a lifelong interest in armour, from playing with toy Timpo Knights, because he couldn’t get Greek warriors, but which were beautifully made all the same, to an admiration for the awe-inspiring skills of the people who produced the armour itself. For him war games, at the top of the landing steps, evoked childhood notions of a fairytale world of romantic heroism and honour, that gave way to the academic investigation into the true horrors of warfare, coupled with his feelings of pride in our armed forces.

Sean hopes that all those who see his artwork will gain an aesthetic pleasure through the medium in which the subject matter is presented – detailed and often intricate drawings that pay homage to the craftsmanship of the armourers themselves. An exhibition of Sean’s work is currently on display in the Tournament Gallery of our Leeds Museum.

Blogger: Projects Team