In this monthly blog series, our collections team write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. In this blog post, Assistant Curator of European Armour Keith Dowen explores the history behind our 17th century cuirassier armour.
On Wednesday 23rd of May 1618 two Imperial Lords Regent, along with their secretary, were hurled out of the window of the council chamber of Prague’s castle by incensed members of the dissolved Bohemian Protestant Estates. This event, which became known as the ‘Defenestration of Prague’, marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648); one of the most devastating conflicts ever to have taken place in Europe.
Beginning as a dispute over the right to the Crown in the Kingdom of Bohemia (now mainly the Czech Republic) it quickly developed to become an all-encompassing conflict over the political and religious settlement of Europe. Many battles were on a grand scale, the battle of Nördlingen in 1634 involving some 58,000 combatants. With firearms dominating the battlefield, the Thirty Years War was the last time the fully armoured cavalryman charged into battle. Known as ‘cuirassiers’, they were the elite heavy cavalry of their day, armed head to knee in plate armour and equipped with a sword and a brace of pistols.
The advent of firearms
From the early-16th century the widespread use of firearms on the battlefield had a significant impact on the nature of warfare. Significant technological advances enabled the production of increasingly reliable firearms which could be used from horseback. By the end of the 16th century , more lightly armoured cavalry, equipped with a range of short-barrelled flint- and wheellock firearms known as ‘shot on horseback’, were coming to the forefront of military tactics. Less encumbered by heavy armour these ‘harquebusiers’ as they came to be known, were ideally suited to a wide variety of tasks. However, the heavy cavalryman had not completely disappeared from the European battlefield.
Despite the advantages the light cavalry possessed, they were unsuited to full scale engagements with enemy formations. Instead the heavy cavalry were still very much seen as the real battle winners thanks to their defensive equipment and powerful horses. Eventually though the cost of equipping such men and procuring suitable mounts meant that by the mid-1630s few continued to wear full armour. Britain, which had largely remained on the side-line of events in Europe, continued to field fully armoured cuirassiers during the early years of the British Civil Wars (1638-1652), however, by 1643/4 they too had become a rare sight.
The Dutch cuirassier armour
The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds possesses one of the finest collections of 17th century battlefield arms and armour in the world. Among its many pieces II.140 stands out as a fine example of a typical Dutch cuirassier armour of the 1630s. During the Thirty Years War the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (the Dutch Republic) became known as the ‘arsenal of the world’ due to the vast quantities of arms, armour and munitions being produced there and exported on a truly international scale. Most importantly these arms merchants were able to provide large quantities of arms and munitions in a short space of time. As such Dutch arms and armour could be found the length and breadth of Europe.
Although at war with Habsburg Spain between 1568 and 1609 and then again as part of the wider Thirty Years War between 1621 and 1648, that did not prevent entrepreneurial Dutch arms dealers from supplying the enemy.
The armour II.140 comprises a helmet, a pair of pauldrons and vambraces to protect the shoulders and arms, a pair of plate gauntlets for the hands, short-waisted bullet-proof back and breastplates, a culet to protect the lower back and rump and finally a pair of knee-length tassets. From the late-16th century the wearing of greaves and sabatons had become increasingly rare, although they were sometimes incorporated into very quality armours. Instead, the lower legs were protected by stout leather riding boots.
The helmet is of a type known as a close-burgonet and incorporates a barred face guard fixed to the pivoting peak or fall. This style of helmet had become increasingly popular over the close helmet thanks to the improved air-flow and vision it afforded. The high quality of the piece is indicated by the traces of gilding not only on the barred face guard, but also on the numerous rivet heads, hinges, buckles and hooks found all over the armour. The skull retains its original quilted lining which is composed of wool between two layers of canvas faced with silk. The breastplate, backplate and upper section of the tassets all bear bullet marks as evidence of being ‘proved’ against firearms; and not, as commonly thought, as battle damage. Due to the preponderance of firearms on the battlefield, many pieces of armour were often made to be bullet-proof. This was often achieved simply by making the plates thicker. Of course the disadvantage of this was that it made the armour heavy and uncomfortable to wear. As early as 1587 Francois de la Noue, a prominent Huguenot captain, observed that
‘For where they had some reason….to make their armour thicker and of better proofe than before, they have now so farre exceeded, that most of them have laden themselves with anvils’. Consequently, many cuirassiers increasingly either refused to wear full armour, or discarded the heaviest elements.
The tassets and culet on II.140 have been designed in such a way as to allow them to be easily removed simply by un-buckling the short belt in front. Additionally, the provision of a swivel hook and pierced stud above the knees, allowed the tassets to be shortened if the wearer so desired.
During the 17th century, armour of the period if not left rough and ‘black from the hammer’, was blackened to produce an aesthetically striking yet sombre finish. At the battle of Breitenfeld in 1631 between the Swedes under King Gustav II Adolf and the Catholic League under Count Tilly, the cuirassiers of Baron Cronenberg are said to have been ‘sheathed from head to foot in black armour’. Certainly one of the most striking features of II.140 is its blue-black finish which lends it a menacing air.
Bluing, reserved for higher quality armours, was a technically more complex finish which involved evenly heating the metal to achieve the desired colour. Further attention to detail is evidenced by the fine hair-roping around the main edges of the plates. Although commonly seen on 16th century armour, by the 17th century this extraneous detail was largely reserved for higher quality pieces.
Although we don’t know who wore this armour, it is fascinating to think that it probably witnessed one of the momentous conflicts in European history. As for the Lords Regent, they survived the fall: according to the Catholic side they were saved by angels, whereas the Protestants claimed they had landed on a dung-heap.