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.
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.
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.
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.