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.

 

 

Conservation Live! at the Royal Armouries: Siborne’s Waterloo Model

Conservation of Captain William Siborne’s remarkable model of the battlefield of Waterloo is now underway at the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

Conservation Live! of the miniature soldiers of Waterloo.

Conservation Live! of the miniature soldiers of Waterloo.

The model, which was completed in 1843, shows – in marvellous detail – the battlefield as it was at around 1:30pm on 18 June 1815. It is more than five metres long and two metres wide, and it comes apart into ten sections. The battlefield is populated by more than 3,000 finely modelled and painted lead figures including soldiers, horses and artillery.

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Section of the model before conservation.

The model has been on display at the Royal Armouries since 1996. Now, in advance of the bicentenary of the battle, it is being dismantled and conserved piece by piece as part of a Conservation Live! programme.

Cleaning the thousands of models on the battlefield is a slow and careful process.

Cleaning the thousands of models on the battlefield is a slow and careful process.

British soldiers in miniature - look closely and you can see their individual faces!

British soldiers in miniature – look closely and you can see their individual faces!

A Waterloo soldier supports his wounded companion.

A Waterloo soldier supports his wounded companion.

The detail on each figure has to be seen to be believed.

The detail on each figure has to be seen to be believed.

Conservator Cymbeline Storey working on the model.

Conservator Cymbeline Storey working on the model.

From March until May 1st 2015 museum visitors can meet the Conservator, discuss the conservation programme and watch conservation of the model taking place. At 11:00 and 2:00 visitors can attend talks with the Conservator, which is ticketed due to limited access, or simply drop in between 2:30-3:30pm. For more information on how to take part please ring the Royal Armouries on 013 220 1999 or email enquiries@armouries.org.uk. Alternatively, keep your eye out for further blog posts over the next few months as conservation work progresses

Cymbeline Storey
Waterloo Model Conservator

 

The Curator @ War – January 1915 : Three cheers for the back-room boys!

1915 appears to have dawned with business very much as usual – in fact ffoulkes only made 2 entries in the Minute Book. The arrival of W. Spooner RN as new Armouries cleaner was noted on the 11th January (presumably in place of H Evans who had died on 23rd December 1914), and the move of Charles I’s armour to the “centre of the small room” was recorded on the 12th.  The latter refers to the sub-crypt in the White Tower Basement where the Curator had moved the “valuable armours” in October 1914 as a precautionary measure against air raids – still to materialise.

This is hardly the stuff of an exciting blog- but Spooner’s appointment made me think about the unsung heroes of the Minute book and Diary – the Armouries back-room boys without whose support neither ffoulkes nor Dillon could have affected the modernisation of the collections and displays they achieved.

In 1913 Joubert’s new horse for Henry VIII’s silvered and engraved armour ascends to the top floor of the White Tower thanks to the muscle power of the Armouries’ team.  Identifying the individuals is unfortunately impossible – although the onlooker to the far right may be ffoulkes (prominent high white collars are a distinguishing part of his wardrobe in other photographs), and the supervisory, flat- capped gentleman in front of him may be Foreman Buckingham.

In 1913 Joubert’s new horse for Henry VIII’s silvered and engraved armour ascends to the top floor of the White Tower thanks to the muscle power of the Armouries’ team. Identifying the individuals is unfortunately impossible – although the onlooker to the far right may be ffoulkes (prominent high white collars are a distinguishing part of his wardrobe in other photographs), and the supervisory, flat- capped gentleman in front of him may be Foreman Buckingham.

Glimpsed occasionally in the background of unofficial photographs and recorded in the Receipts and Issues Books of the 1860s for payments due to them, the first comprehensive listing of the Armouries staff appears in the front of the Minute Book in 1913.  Employed by H M Office of Works, they were responsible for the maintenance of the displays and cleaning of the collection.  If objects were loaned out – and these were the days of gentleman’s agreements as well as formal loans when the military and diplomatic services could turn up and decorate their respective messes and embassies with material from stores – they would set up and dismantle selected displays off site. The high spot of this service was the decoration with Tower arms and armour of the annexe built onto the front of Westminster Abbey for the coronations of Edward VII and George V.  There were also annual trips to dress the Guildhall for the Lord Mayor’s festival in November.

Foreman Buckingham started life at the Tower as a Carpenter, and his involvement with the Volunteer Artillery undoubtedly proved useful. We have a number of his trophies  from repository exercise competitions showing his prowess in manoeuvring artillery over difficult terrain using minimal equipment – handy skills when relocating cannon about the site.  Both Dillon and ffoulkes praised his care and involvement with the collection, albeit a tad patronisingly.

A rare behind the scenes illustration from the Graphic of 1893 shows the team at work cleaning exhibits before opening, and is the only other illustration of this period showing the staff we have so far uncovered.

The tradition of facial hair among male members of the Armouries collections staff continues today, although the practice of wearing hats indoors has been discarded.

The tradition of facial hair among male members of the Armouries collections staff continues today, although the practice of wearing hats indoors has been discarded.

So what else do we know of these men?

Ffoulkes lists Foreman Buckingham, and cleaners T. Bishop, W. Williams, H. Evans, W. Brown, T. Riddles, G. Stewart and F. Davey; A.H Prince is noted in the Ticket Office, D. Nash in the parcels office (set up after the Suffragette outrage of February 1913 to accommodate visitors’ larger hand baggage during their visit) and W. Johnson as lavatory attendant.

Evans had served 20 years and reaching the age limit for employment received a 12 month extension on the 9th December. Following his death two weeks later he was awarded a “bonus” of £32-5-8d. Buckingham and Williams went off to war in September 1914.

Nash moved from the Parcels office and was appointed Foreman in July 1915. In April 1916 ffoulkes thanked Foreman Nash and cleaners Bishop, Davey, Riddles, Moncks and Stewart for their hard work arranging the new displays as all the White Tower floors were finally opened to the public. In October the Armouries staff was formally placed under the Curator’s control and Nash departed on active service with the London Regiment. He was replaced by T. Bishop.

From 1917 Nash was detailed to the War Trophies Section at G.H.Q in France collecting material for the War Museum. He returned from France early in 1919 and was promoted Armoury Supervisor enjoying an Armouries career of over forty years.  Bishop is recorded as leading man in 1922, resigning in April 1923.

F. Davey transferred to the National War Museum as Storekeeper in October 1917. Stewart remained at the Tower and retiring in April 1923 aged 71 years, while cleaner Moncks is first appears in the Diary in May 1915 gifting books to the Armouries.

And Mr Spooner?  He was suspended on 9th February 1915 “thro’ intemperance”.

Behind the Scenes…

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes at a national museum? Now is your chance to find out as our curatorial department plans a special day for you to meet the curators and get their hands on the amazing study collection.

Curatorial Manager Lynda Jackson tells us why the behind-the-scenes experience is a must for museum lovers.

While the galleries are home to a huge selection of objects, these displays represent only a small selection from the 70,000 plus arms, armour and archives that make up the Royal Armouries’ collection. These objects include a huge range of European and Oriental-edged weapons, firearms, armour and artillery, alongside original manuscripts, artworks and prints.

Senior Curator of Armour and Art Karen Watts and Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour and Oriental Collections, will guide guests through the collection and provide an opportunity to handle original pieces and view the study collections. Feeling the smooth finish of Greenwich armour, or the weight of an early matchlock, really helps visitors to understand how objects work and how they were originally made and used.

The session starts with a unique seminar in which Karen and Thom will discuss a range of special objects, including edged weapons, firearms and armour. Guests will then be given the opportunity to touch and handle these important objects. Most museums have large study collections in storage but few people get the opportunity to explore them with a world expert in their field.

Finally, it’s time to relax with pre-dinner drinks in the gallery and the evening is rounded off with a three-course meal in the Hunting Gallery’s Gun Room, hosted by Karen and Thom. This is a fabulous opportunity to view behind the scenes and a real treat for any lover of arms and armour.

This unique ‘Behind the Scenes’ experience will take place on 19 January 2013. For more information and to book, visit our website.