Line of Kings: Back to Front

Ellie Rowley-Conwy, the project conservator for the Line of Kings tells us about her part in building a wall of armour.

Line of Kings, Project Conservator, Ellie Rowley-Conwy  © Royal Armouries Museum

Line of Kings, Project Conservator, Ellie Rowley-Conwy
© Royal Armouries Museum

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 of the objects are inscribed with the word ‘Toiras’ across the front, referring to the Marquis de Toiras who famously withstood the three-month siege of La Rochelle in 1627, which is the provenence of all the breastplates and backplates.

© Royal Armouries Museum

© Royal Armouries Museum

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 exhibition, which will open at the Tower of London on July 10.

Blogger: Ellie Rowley-Conwy, Project Conservator, Line of Kings

Line of Kings: Return of the Prince

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections, welcomes back, a true treasure, the armour of Henry Frederick Stuart, which will be displayed within the Line of Kings this Summer.

After forming part of the very successful Lost Prince exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, we are delighted to welcome back the armour of Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales, to the Tower of London.

Henry was the eldest son of James I and was heir to the throne until his untimely death in 1612, aged just 18. This beautiful armour was made by Dutch armourers and was presented to Henry, the Prince of Wales, by Sir Francis Vere, a former soldier, under Elizabeth I, in 1607.

Henry was about 13 years old when he received this armour. Though only just a teenager, he was being prepared for a future role as king. He showed promise as a swordsman and jouster, was a keen huntsman and a patron of the arts, as well as a strong advocate for Protestantism.

Click to view image full screen.

The armour of Henry Stuart in pieces

The armour consists of 15 parts and is extremely delicate. It is transported in pieces, which are carefully unpacked before being reassembled in the gallery. Closer inspection of the armour reveals its true beauty, with wonderful gilt bands of decoration showing scenes from the life of Alexander the Great, including elephants. Therein lies a problem.  The decoration continues along the lames and, where these rub over each other, any movement erodes the surface. Older cleaning methods, using brick dust and oil, while keeping the bright sections glowing, have also left their mark.  However in spite of the passage of time, and elbow grease, this armour remains one of our treasures. With such delicate and beautiful armour, it is always a relief to see it finally reassembled and back on display.

Click to view image full screen.

Henry Stuart back on display

Henry Stuart’s armour will form part of our exciting new exhibition Line of Kings, opening in the Summer, so be sure to come and see it, in all its splendour, then.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Southampton and Shakespeare reunited!

The armour of the 3rd Earl of Southampton took a trip last week, from its home at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds to appear in a new exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World, at the British Museum in London.

The Earl of Southampton is the only acknowledged patron of William Shakespeare, and this three-quarter armour was recorded being worn by the Earl in a portrait. From this evidence historians were able to accurately establish the provenance of the piece. This beautiful armour has intricate gilded decoration in the Mannerist style fashionable in 16th-century Europe etched onto its original blackened steel surface.

Two people packing an armour

Packing the Earl of Southampton’s armour

The meticulous packing process took around 31/2 hours as each piece had to be cushioned in custom-made foam protection to ensure they were not damaged whilst in transit.

Three members of British Museum staff check the armour after transit

British Museum staff check the Southampton armour after transit

On arrival at the British Museum the condition of the armour was thoroughly checked. Royal Armouries Keeper of Armour, Thom Richardson, who had accompanied the armour on its journey, and Chris Smith, Deputy Head of Conservation based at the Tower of London , then reassembled it ready for display.

The Southampton armour will be on display in London from 19 July to 25 November.

The final assembled suit of Southampton armour ready for display at the ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ exhibition at the British Museum

What a corker!

XVI.258A – Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers Officer’s Helmet

Conservation work has recently commenced on a Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers Officer’s regimental helmet, which will shortly be going on display at the Tower of London. The helmet is of the Home Service Pattern design, introduced in May 1878.

Black and silver helmet with chin strap and spike

XVI.258A – Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers Officer’s Helmet

The body of the helmet is made of cork, covered in black cloth, with two seams on each side. The chin chain is made of interlocking silver-plated rings, backed with leather and velvet. This was attached to the helmet on two side rose bosses and, when not being worn, the chain would have been attached to a rear hook. All the metal components on the helmet are silver-plated.

There is a metal crosspiece with a spike and base on the top of the helmet and a metal plate badge on the front. The badge’s design comprises an eight-pointed star surmounted by a crown. A Garter belt is around the outside, inscribed with the motto ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense’ (Shame upon him who thinks evil upon it). The centre of the badge features the White Tower in the Tower of London as a symbol of the Tower Hamlets Regiment.

Silver badge with representation of White Tower and the motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense

Silver badge with the White Tower in the centre

The helmet’s interior has a leather layer and also a pink silk lining. The helmet features two retail labels for the hatters ‘W. Cater & Co. Established 1776, 56 Pall Mall, London’. The silk lining also features a name label for the helmet’s owner, ‘G.E. Colebrook’. George Colebrook was part of the 1st Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteer Brigade and was promoted to Lieutenant in June 1901. Sadly he is recorded as having died in a motorcar accident in 1903.

Silver chin strap with detached leather backing

Silver chin chain with detached leather strap

The helmet arrived in the conservation lab with tarnished metal components and a partially detached chin strap, where the original thread had broken leaving some of the rings hanging loose from the leather backing. Stay tuned to hear about the conservation treatment and repair to the chin strap, ready for the helmet to go on display.

Blogger: Philippa Beesley, Conservation Student

Here be Dragons

Today (Monday, January 23) sees the coming of the Year of the Dragon, and any Chinese Dragon stopping off to visit London’s sights might care to look up some of his occidental relatives among the exhibits in the Royal Armouries’ galleries at the Tower of London.

Henry Tudor – On entering the White Tower, Henry VIII’s silvered and engraved armour (II.5; VI.1-5) sports dragons on both the man’s and horse’s harness. Unfortunately both are being vanquished by St George – the one on the breast plate by George on foot; the other on the chest of the horse armour appropriately enough by the saint mounted.

Engraving of St George and the dragon

Engraving of St. George slaying the dragon on the horse armour of Henry VIII

Agincourt – Hurrying onwards, the first floor contains a veritable flight of dragons. Perhaps the most obvious – and certainly the oldest – are squeezed onto inlaid decorative plaques on the saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon (VI.95). Those joining the order founded by King Sigismund of Hungary in 1408, were presented with a sword and saddle. Indeed this may be the saddle given to Henry V of Agincourt fame in 1416.

Decorated saddle

Saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon possibly presented to King Henry V

Charles I – Continuing the Royal association, the case opposite the Gothic dragons of the 15th century holds the tiny 17th century armour (II.126) possibly associated with Charles I as a child. A spitting dragon crouches on top of the helmet, its tail curling down to the back of the neck. If you look carefully, the helmet surface is scaled, and a fearsome monster frames the wearer’s face, with growling companions adorning the pauldrons or shoulder pieces. At only 95 cm tall, this is still something of mystery armour. 18th century visitors were told that it had belonged to Richard, Duke of York – brother of the uncrowned Edward V persuaded into the Tower for security in 1485 and never seen alive again. By the 19th century, the armour was more accurately dated but attributed to Jeffrey Hudson, dwarf to the court of Charles I.

Dragon in steel on top of helmet

Dragon perched on the helmet of the armour possibly belonging to Charles I

More dragons – Darting back in time, the World Treasures’ case contains a roaring dragon’s head (VI.319). Made by the German armourer Kunz Lochner in about 1550, it was designed as part of a crupper fitting along the horse’s back, with the tail flowing from between its jaws. Today the rest of the dragon rests in Poland.

Dragon shaped decoration for a horses tail

Part of a horse’s armour for protecting the tail

Passing around the end of the case, and along the side of the main case to the displays of the Great Collectors, another dragon lurks, clinging to the side of a German horse muzzle dated 1569 (VI.400) . The fashion for such things was short-lived from the end of the 16th to the early 17th century, but they remain popular among collectors and this example was bequeathed to the museum by Dr Richard Williams in 1974.

Horse muzzle

Pierced steel horse muzzle decorated with dragons

The beasties decorating the sides of the wheellock pistols (XII.1250/1) slightly further along may be related to the wider dragon family, but only distantly.

pistol with dragon decoration

Detail of decoration which may be a stylised form of dragon

Power House – However, the most impressive of the White Tower dragons welcomes visitors to the Power House display on the top floor – a fitting reward for toiling up so many twisty stairs. Its body is formed from elements of all the Tower institutions celebrated in the wider gallery – from weapons of the Ordnance to coins from the Mint and much else between – it greets you with a dragon-like roar if you pass by its far side.

Dragon constructed from arms, armour, maps, coins and guns.

Impressive – 4m high, 3.5m long with a wing span of 5m and weighing 1200 Kg!

New displays – Finally on the way out, lurking in the shadows under the staircase in the Basement but moving to a more prominent position in the coming redisplay of the area, are a pair of Burmese dragons. Fabulously moustached, they sit atop a bronze bell (XVIII.19) dated 1797 and presented in 1874 by the Constable of the Tower Field Marshal Sir William Gomm, previously Commander-in Chief of British forces in India from 1850 – 1855.

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

The new displays open at the beginning of April, and this pair provides a fitting celebration of the Year of the Dragon.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Collections South, Tower of London

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

The Great Cover Up

Over the next few weeks, as part of the Museum’s preventative conservation programme, work will be carried out in the Royal Armouries stores at our Leeds Museum to cover all the large objects that are not stored on shelves or racking, this includes horse saddles and whole mounted armours.

Individual Tyvek covers, a non-woven fabric consisting of spun-bond olefin fibre which is water-resistant yet breathable, will be made for each object to protect them, particularly from dust, and will help reduce the need for additional conservation work to be carried out on these objects in the future. Images of the objects and their accession numbers will be attached to the outside of each cover making it easier to identify the objects.

Conservation Assistant Emily Ironmonger at work placing protective covers on a jousting saddle

Conservation Assistant Emily Ironmonger at work placing protective covers on a jousting saddle

Work has started on making covers for some of the mounted armours. It is quite a challenge to make covers for some of the objects, such as a large German jousting saddle dating from around 1500, as it is such an irregular shape.

For some of the more fragile, or awkwardly shaped objects like the saddle, covers with ties at the front will be made, making them easier to remove when necessary and prevent damage to the objects when uncovering them.

A wide-range of skills is certainly needed to work in the Conservation Department.

Blogger: Emily Ironmonger, Conservation Assistant