As you might suspect St George makes appearances throughout our collection but never more splendidly as on the silvered and engraved armour of King Henry VII, as Keeper of Tower Armouries, Bridget Clifford, explains.
You don’t get more English than St George do you? Well perhaps Henry VIII, the tubby bloke with poor marital history – six wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived – who usually tops the polls of monarchs people remember. So for the quintessential depiction of Englishness, Henry’s silvered and engraved armour decorated with scenes from the life of St George is a strong contender.
Made for the 23-year-old king, the man’s and horse’s harnesses were probably manufactured separately but were decorated by Paul van Vreland to match. Together they offered state of the art protection and a glorious opportunity for self-promotion. Today the complete harness gives us a unique snapshot of Henry VIII in 1514/5.
Tailor made to fit him, Henry’s armour reveals a well-proportioned, chunky (in a sporting way) fellow, tall even by modern standards (over 6 foot) at the height of his game. The horse harness is perhaps more generic, but the decoration reflects the wealth of the rider. Although today much of the original finish has been lost, patches of silvering remain. It was designed to catch both the light and the audience’s attention.
Looking more carefully, the observer can see fantastic decoration. The background is filled with intertwining branches culminating in Tudor roses or ripe pomegranates – his ‘n her family badges reflecting Henry’s union with Katherine of Aragon. Other emblems of the English and Spanish royal houses are scattered among the foliage, easily identified by those in the know and delivering a subliminal message – Henry and England have powerful allies by marriage.
Even God is on side – the illustrations of the martyrdoms of Saints George and Barbara on the horse’s bard seek their intercession with higher powers on Henry and Katherine’s behalf, while the motto “Dieu et Mon Droit [God and my right]” runs around the border. The illustrations of the saints’ lives make little concession to their origins – St George hailing from Lydda and St Barbara from Nicomedia in the 3rd century AD – both are shown in early 16th-century clothing and settings. However, this approach had the advantage that viewers would better understand the unfolding dramas.
The stars of the show are introduced on Henry’s cuirass. While on the back plate of the armour St Barbara demurely reads, it’s all action on the breastplate. A dismounted St George with conventional tassets and mail replacing a skirt raises his sword aloft for the kill. Beneath Tudor roses entwine with ripe pomegranates optimistically bursting in a suggestive way to wish Henry and Katherine a fruitful union – a sentiment clouded by the loss of their four children to date.
The tracing of this scene and subsequent ones were made by George Lovell, a distinguished designer of military firearms, to illustrate Sir Samuel Meyrick’s article in the early 19th century. Given the shaping of the armour and loss of original finish, even good photographs struggle to show the full detail.
A scaly reptilian dragon, with webbed feet, lies beneath George, vainly trying to coil its tail around his ankle and leg. The magnitude of the struggle is shown by George’s broken lance skewering its neck.
Meanwhile, on the front of the horse harness, George and his horse sporting the same style of armour as the one they are decorating continue their duel with an alternative dragon.
The story continues along the side of the armour. On the horse’s shoulder George, a successful Roman soldier is brought before Emperor Diocletian to explain his Christian faith and to recant.
Diocletian is distinguished by his seating and clothing. His canopied throne sets him above the rest of the court, and his high office is confirmed by the decoratively headed rod he carries in his right hand and the tips of the crown emerging from his turbaned hat. His robe has a wide ermine collar and jewelled borders and cuffs. This is true power dressing. To the right, George’s accuser stands in the foreground, possibly wearing armour – the banded decoration of his lower doublet suggesting armour plates.
Having failed to persuade George to recant by intimidation, Diocletian resorts to torture. In the first scene, an apparently unconcerned George coolly faces boiling in a brazen ox. The outcome does not look good –an anxious angel hovers above, George for all his serenity has sprouted a rayed halo and the robed official to the left is carrying a sword (although at this stage it appears still scabbarded).
Everyone else’s status is clearly delineated. Diocletian splendidly robed and staffed watches in the background, his plumed guard armed with staff weapons – a pointy backed glaive. Another has a shorter staffed weapon with 5-spiked head and falchion sword at his side. Meanwhile, those administering the torture are practically dressed in doublet, breeches, hose and flat hats. The fork wielder has an under bonnet secured by a chin strap. And should you have ever wondered what a 16th-century bellows looked like, now you know.
Having survived the boiling, George faces the rack.
The final chapter of George’s martyrdom is delivered on the top plate along the horse’s rump.
A robed and punky George (his rayed halo returned) kneels, while the turbaned executioner, sword in hand and sleeve rolled up, stands behind. His costume of slashed doublet, uneven slashed breeches with tied hose and fashionably prominent fabric codpiece is reminiscent of Landsknecht dress and suggests a military connection.
Diocletian accompanied by a guard and robed court official prepares to give the signal to proceed. Behind them, George’s greyhound (absent from the tracing) turns away. Above two angels wait to conduct George’s soul heavenwards to the seated figure of God enthroned among the clouds. In terms of ranking, God’s double crown and full beard emphatically trump Diocletian.
A final thought. It is tempting to speculate that William Shakespeare was familiar with this armour and may even have been inspired by it? How apt that Henry’s daughter could have watched an actor starring as her great – great – grandmother’s first husband rally his troops with the immortal words “Cry God for Harry, England and St George”.