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.


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.



Fakes and Forgeries: in conversation with Karen Watts

Saturday 7 February, the Royal Armouries will host a highly anticipated seminar day on ‘Fakes & Forgeries’. (#RAFakes)

Karen Watts, Senior Curator of Armour and Art at the Royal Armouries, is conducting a lecture at the event, so I asked her to talk a little about what the day will contain and some background information on why we should study these objects.

Why were there so many forgeries in the nineteenth century?

“The nineteenth century gothic revival created a rediscovering of the Middle Ages with the work of Walter Scott novels, such as Ivanhoe”.

“Suddenly it was the trend and pinnacle of fashion to have medieval objects up on the walls in the home of your castle, mansion or hall, but there weren’t enough originals left to go around. The huge demand for these items led to the creation of many fakes, some which were convincing and some far from it. Greed had a big part to play here, as those with big pockets dug deep for the most ‘exclusive’ items. Most popular seem to be helms due to the desire to create a real human connection to those medieval people on the battlefield or in the tourney”.

“The demand for these items meant that opportunists such as Thomas Grimshaw, a very famous faker who I’ll be discussing in my lecture this Saturday, could take advantage of the fashion and make their fortune!”

Possible drawing of Thomas Grimshaw by Wash, (I.143) © Royal Armouries.

Possible drawing of Thomas Grimshaw by Wash, (I.143) © Royal Armouries.

How many fakes do we have at the Royal Armouries?

“We have approximately 30 fakes within our collection and I will be highlighting a selection of them at the lecture this weekend – including a few which have been hidden in stores away from the public, so it’s a great opportunity to handle some of our objects that you may never have seen before.”

“My personal favourite of our fakes is Mr Smiley, a helm with breathing holes shaped in a large pair of smiling lips! (See image below). Original medieval helms had breathing holes or slots on the lower right hand side of the face and neck to allow the left side remain smooth – to deflect an opponent’s  lance.”

Image A14.53 © Royal Armouries.

Our poster boy, ‘Mr Smiley’. Image A14.53 © Royal Armouries.

What factors indicate something is a fake?

“Weight, decoration and construction are the commonest indicators that an object is not original.”

Have you ever been fooled by a fake?

“Not that I know of!”

Why is it important to study fakes in their own right?

“The history of fakes in the nineteenth century is not only military but a social history. By understanding why fakes were made we can better understand the social climate and romantic fashions of nineteenth century Britain, whilst using knowledge gained to detect new originals. These fakes are now products of their own history with their own stories to tell, and are collectors’ items in their own right!”

To hear more about gothic revival fakes from both Karen Watts and Ian Bottomley – Curator Emeritus (formerly Senior Curator of Oriental Collections, Royal Armouries), come along to the Royal Armouries Fakes & Forgeries seminar day, Saturday 7 February. To book your place, please visit the link below.


The Curator @ War: “Bah Humbug – stripping the Armouries decorations for Christmas” December 1914

Keeper of the Tower Armouries, Bridget Clifford, continues her posts on Charles John Ffoulkes, who was Curator of the Armouries from 1913-1938 – during which he took part in the World War I civil defence of London, completed the first and last complete modern printed catalogue of the Tower collection, and created a museum infrastructure within The Tower. After his retirement, he was awarded an OBE in 1925 and a CBE in 1934 in recognition of his work on the Imperial War Museum.

In 1914, as the rest of the country prepared for the festive period and the realisation began to dawn that the war would not be over by Christmas, ffoulkes continued on his mission to modernise the White Tower displays, following on from the work started by Dillon. Having judiciously pruned some of the more exotic elements of the collection in November, despatching Oriental, Classical and Prehistoric material to the British Museum, and with the prospect of the small arms stores being removed from the Entrance floor of the White Tower, he began to clear the decks – literally.

bahumbug blog

The photographs below give an impression of the ebullient displays from the later 1880s after the demolition of the New Horse Armoury. They come from The Photographic View Album of the Tower of London published by Valentine and Sons of Dundee but sadly undated.  This specific copy was annotated by ffoulkes and presented to HMS Tower 27th April 1917. Built by Swan Hunter and launched 5th April 1917, HMS Tower was an R class destroyer and is probably most famous for having the first modern ship’s badge, co-designed by Mr George Richardson, director of the shipyard, and Major Charles ffoulkes. The badge consisted of the White Tower and motto “God Save King George and his Tower” within a rope border, topped with a naval crown and with the ship’s name beneath.


This is the Council Chamber (today more prosaically titled second floor west gallery) before the removal of the sword railings (1913) and the filling in of the light wells in the floor. Perhaps the lights installed in 1884 were somewhat unsubtle – in his autobiography ffoulkes described them as “great arc lights like a modern railway station” (p.64) – and obviously space was at a premium as the exhibits crowded together in their new home.

At the Northern end Queen Elizabeth I and her page found temporary refuge before moving back to the crypt and thence to pastures new. Both look resigned to their lot – perhaps recognising worse was yet to come after their move to the Museum of London. Today the only survivor of this tableau is Queen Elizabeth’s head.  The rest were consigned to a museum store room in the 1930s where they remain immured (if not shattered) by enemy action during the Second World War.


However it was the Banqueting Hall (today’s first floor) that ffoulkes was targeting in December 1914. Finally he could be rid of the “elaborate trophies ….. and geometrical patterns of composed of tortured swords, bayonets and gun-locks bent and twisted in the Ordnance forges to conform with the lines of required designs. These were produced by Mr Stacy, Armoury Keeper, as a feeble imitation of the wonders produced by one Harris in the Storehouse which was burnt in 1841”. A little harsh on Mr Stacy, but ffoulkes had very determined views on the subject regarding “these typical products of nineteenth-century military art”  as “symptomatic of a period which could not produce simple railings without designing them as cast-iron spears with iron tassels”.


So the scrolling motifs of re-formed gun-locks around the light wells, pendant bayonets and other trophies of arms attached to the ceilings were removed, and the great flower heads (a little something for the lady visitor?) seen here flanking the opening in the North face of the White Tower were swept away.  A few decorations lingered on in more inaccessible places, but ffoulkes had placed his finger on the continuing dilemma of how best to display the interior of the White Tower? As he put it “Firstly it is a magnificent specimen of eleventh-century architecture, and secondly it houses a collection of arms and armour, many pieces having been exhibited here since the sixteenth century, if not earlier.”   Finding a satisfactory balance continues to exercise the minds of curators and architectural historians to this day, as these two aspects can at times be mutually exclusive.

(A footnote for the pedants among us – this view is of the first floor east leading to the Chapel of St John, while traditionally the Banqueting Hall refers to the west side of the floor. Even ffoulkes had to think twice – but it is clear from the new Guide Book produced in 1916 when the whole of the White Tower was given over to Armouries displays that the Sword floor was on the east side , with the Weapons room on the west. Happy Christmas!)

Curator @ War: The Curator goes to War, February 1914

Keeper of the Tower Armouries, Bridget Clifford, continues her posts on Charles John Ffoulkes, who was Curator of the Armouries from 1913-1938 – during which he took part in the World War I civil defence of London, completed the first and last complete modern printed catalogue of the Tower collection, and created a museum infrastructure within The Tower. After his retirement, he was awarded an OBE in 1925 and a CBE in 1934 in recognition of his work on the Imperial War Museum.

Mr ffoulkes’ second February in office, as the Armouries’ curator, was a quieter month than his first when the Tower had been subject to a Suffragette “outrage”.

The year 1914 saw him start to tackle an outstanding problem in the White Tower – the displays. He had continued Dillon’s work in re-organising the upper floor of the White Tower which had received the contents of the New Horse Armoury in 1881/2 before the latter’s demolition, but space was limited and he wanted to deliver a more didactic exhibit.

The New Horse Armoury constructed against the White Tower’s south side was a crenelated, single storey Gothic building housing the 19th century version of the Line of Kings display from 1826 – 1881. The building was less than universally popular and the displays although impressive were quite old fashioned for the new century.

An interior shot of the New horse Armoury from the 1870s. © Royal Armouries

An interior shot of the New Horse Armoury from the 1870s. © Royal Armouries

Initially, the displaced armours, horses and figures crowded onto the upper floor of the White Tower, replacing the Volunteer Armoury resident there since 1862. They progressed along the gallery from south to north, with an accompanying forest of staff weapons and munition armour bristling behind.

– The “Horse Armoury” as it first appeared in the upper or council chamber of the White Tower (west side). © Royal Armouries

– The Horse Armoury as it first appeared in the upper or council chamber of the White Tower (west side). © Royal Armouries

The space was lit naturally, by lights cut into the roof in 1812, when the area was under the control of the Record Office, and which were later enlarged by the architect, Anthony Salvin. In 1884, the Royal Engineers brought electric lighting into the gallery although ffoulkes found the hanging globes rather too harsh.

It was Salvin also who created the light wells in the floor in 1856 – the surrounding railing of Land Transport Corps’ swords dates from the same period.  It was these that ffoulkes attacked in the first instance.

In the foreground the hated “railings”; the figures have changed alignment, now riding out across the gallery.  The photograph was taken before May 1910 as the Yeoman Warder has the ER cypher (Edward VII 1901 – 1910). © Royal Armouries

In the foreground the hated “railings”; the figures have changed alignment, now riding out across the gallery. The photograph was taken before May 1910 as the Yeoman Warder has the ER cypher (Edward VII 1901 – 1910). © Royal Armouries

ffoulkes crowed in the Tower minute book (i.189) “13 Feb 1914 – After over 60 years the incongruous railings of Band [sic] swords round the well-holes in the upper Armouries were removed today” – and the diary (i.188) claims the holes were filled in.  Slowly but surely the Armouries was being propelled into the 20th century.

The shape of things that came. © Royal Armouries

The shape of things that came. © Royal Armouries

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries