By Jonathan Davies
I like learning new things. This happens increasingly often. As I discover more and more, I realise that in fact know less and less. Ultimately, I will know nothing about anything, thereby achieving the highest level of ignorance. Very Zen you may say, but what has this got to do with anything? Well in my last visit to the Wallace Collection I learned a lot of new things and unlearnt a lot of old things, under the guidance of Dr. Tobias Capwell the Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection in London. I was visiting in order to choose some items to use as illustrations for my forthcoming Helion title on The Art of Tudor Warre 1485-1558.
The majority of the collection focuses on developments in arms and armour from the 14th to the 17th centuries although there are some earlier pieces as well as some later, including some magnificent firearms. As my particular interest is in late 15th to mid-16th century items I was in seventh heaven. It is not only the diversity but the quality of the artefacts that is so impressive.
Toby Capwell is not only an authority on arms and armour but is also founder of the Order of the Crescent, a jousting team which recreates (as accurately as possible) jousts and tournaments of the mid-15th century. He has a real understanding of armour, literally from the inside and he was able to guide my less experienced eye through the wealth of the collection.
Although many of the pieces are superbly etched, blued, and gilded, they were not merely for show. The term ‘parade armour’, is one which most readers will know. I have always assumed, wrongly again, that such highly decorated pieces were solely for display. In fact, a study of their construction shows that not only do they conform in stylisitc detail to contemporary armour, more importantly, from a metallurgical point of view they were often of the highest quality. One exceptional close-helmet Toby pointed out to me is fully etched and gilt, too expensive, one might think, to be used in combat. But not only does it feature a reinforcing plate on the left side of the skull, it also carries a number of obvious dents and dints from sword cuts, demonstrating that this piece has seen some hard fighting in the tourney or foot combat.
There is a very unusual painted helmet, with a grotesque monster’s face on the visor, which is an excellent example for the period. Evidence for painted armour is today very rare, having been aggressively over-polished by Victorian collectors for whom the ‘knight in shining armour’ was the ideal. Many more helmets were probably browned or blackened to help preserve them and avoid the tedious exercise of keeping them polished and rust free.
I left with a fine choice of swords, polearms, armour both plate and mail, as potential images for the book. The items were well made, serviceable pieces, well-suited to their purpose and a testimony to human ingenuity in the service of war.
One piece which I would love to include in a sequel to my current title is a complete armour from the justifiably famous Greenwich Royal Workshops. It was manufactured in the year before the Armada, for the commander of cavalry defending the south coast, Sir Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. Lush!
If you haven’t visited the Wallace collection and you happen to be visiting London then you should definitely go. It also has a very good restaurant.
About the Author
Jonathan Davies was a scholar of Sidney Sussex College Cambridge where he read history, before progressing to a career in teaching. He has spent the last 40 years mostly teaching medieval and Tudor history as well as leading a medieval/Tudor re-enactment group. He has followed the route of the First Crusade in an ancient ex-ambulance and has most recently completed a Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on foot. His first book for Helion, The Tudor Arte of Warre 1485-1558 will be published in the second half this year (2020).