The importance of the Alderney helmets and cuirasses is that they are not elaborately decorated, tailor-made, prestige pieces, but rather are authentic, dateable, warrior armour that was on its way to be worn by regular soldiers on the field of battle.
‘Elizabethan armour has received little scholarly attention. We quickly learned that there is no in-depth study of the subject to which we could turn for guidence. Furthermore, the archaeological record is thin and artistic representations are few, consisting mainly of cramped prints and idealized paintings, neither of which give much technical detail. Though bent and chewed up with rust, the Aderney panoplies, in terms of their information value (which is what archaeology is all about), provide the best document we have on how the nation armoured its fighting men during one of its darkest hours’.
‘From a fleeting review of the mentions and asides that appear in comtemporary sources, one comes away with a clear impression that, although there was constant improvement throughout the era, the general state of the nation’s armour before 1600 was very far from adequate …’
‘The Alderney assemblage shows striking similarities to the armour found in English armouries towards the end of the 16th century’ (T. Richardson, The Royal Armouries).
Portrayals of miliary activity during the Elizabethan period tend to focus on the navy and the exploits of Drake and his fellow sea-dogs; but in truth, the security of England at this time depended more upon its soldiers than its ships. From 1576 through to the end of the Great Queen’s reign, the nation had to be in an almost constant state of readiness to fight off invasion. In addition, England had become embroiled in what has been called ‘the stuggle for western Europe’. Between 1585 and 1603 no less than 100,000 men were drafted abroad. How a country, which was without a standing army, weaponed and armoured its fighting men, is a matter of considerable historical interest. No other archaeological site illuminates this issue better than the Alderney wreck. Elsewhere in this website we consider the firearms and swords the men carried; here our purpose is to look at the protective plating and helmets they wore.
The state of the nation’s armour
The military organization inherited by Elizabeth was largely medieaval in character; apart from its heavy ordnance industry, the state of the nation’s arms and armour could not have been much worse. These short-comings were particularly evident at the musters when the able bodied men of the town or parish assembled for training and inspection. The more affluent would-be soldiers had their own armour and weapons, but most depended on the public collections that were held in churches or other depots and arsenals. It was a system that bred neglect and inefficiency.
At the time of Elizabeth’s accession the armour in most collections was in poor condition, lacked funtionality and offered uncertain protection. Most of the older panoplies had been designed to stop or deflect arrows, swords and hafted weapons, but now, in the new age of firearms, they were obsolete. A trained marksman, with good bullet and powder, could kill a man in ordinary armour of older type at a range of over 600 yards.
Another problem was inadequate care and maintenance. No doubt some collections were better funded than others, and certainly some lord-lieutenants and muster-masters were more conscientious than others, but most of the publicly owed armour, especially during the first half of the Queen’s reign, appears to have been ill-fastened, pitted from rust and worn thin from years of scouring with sand. In addition, linings were often rotten from damp and in tatters from rodent activity. At one muster in 1559, the year after Elizabeth was enthroned, the soldiers refused the armour provided as unfit to wear.
As with firearms and bladed weapons, armour needed regular cleaning, burnishing, varnishing and oiling. In addition, the buff-leather linings of corselets and the buckram interiors of helemts needed frequent renewal, and straps, thongs and rose rivets required regular replacement. Of particular concern, were the buckles (that, for instance, held breast plates to back plates), for, as Humphrey Coningsby of the Hertfordshire men wrote, ‘in vayne ar the steele peeces, if the armminges that should hold them together be naught and unserviceable’. One enterprising individual, a certain William Poore, saw a business opportunity and approached Lord Burghly in an attempt to sell him a treatment that he clamed would stop armour ‘rusting, cankering or putrifying’.
Yet another problem was the lack of standardization and poor fit. In the collections, as indeed in the armour from the wreck, every piece was of contrasting size, shape and style. If the common soldier had any choice when he arrived at muster, he tended to take what was of least antiquity and most stylish, rather than what was in best agreement with his body. But, more often than not, it was a Hobson’s choice in which one got what one was given. Sir John Smythe, who pondered much on the weapons of his day, recommended that arms and armour be kept at home, for not only would this encourage better care, fit and compatability of the parts, but would avoid, at collection points, the comic situation in which people proceeded ‘in a hubbledehuffe disorderlie to arme themselves; whereof … little men doo put on great or tall mens armore, and leave litle mens armors unfit for great men to put on; according to the old saying, first come, first served’.
Proper military appearance was also a concern of Humphrey Coningsby who ordered the Herfordshire men to ‘weare their armour Just and Close to their bodies, Soldeor Lyke, and neate and fit and not neggligentlie or Looselye as though thei carried it in a fayre or market to sell it’.
The problem of the armour, however, was not just age, fit and condition, but also the quality of those who wore it, for many of the men that turned up for muster (which were as much social occasions as military events) were unfit to be hommes d’armes because of advanced years, ill-health or poor character. Lord Burghley, who was deeply concerned about the fighting capability of the nation’s troops, recognised that the muster system served ‘more for fashion than for substance of discipline’. From glimpses such as these, one cannot help but conclude that Shakespeare’s satirizing of the Tudor army, was not entirely undeserved.
The situation was best summarized by Lindsey Boyton in his book The Elizabethan Militia: ‘With munitions … Elizabeth’s government had to make a fresh start. In (Queen) Mary’s time a Spanish peer was said to have remarked contemptuously that England’s lack of defensive equipment would make her an easy conquest … even the armoury in the Tower of London was very meagrely stocked. Munitions of every kind such as gunpowder, and its component saltpetre, pikes, pistols, handguns, bowstaves, and body-armour, were needed at once and in immense quantities’.
To help redress the situation, Sir Thomas Gresham was entrusted with the procurement of arms and armour. From 1559 to 1563 he conducted his operations on what Boyton called ‘an immense scale’ throughout Flanders and Germany’. In October 1559 he brought £48,000 of munitions into England. Although great progress was made, there was still a long way to go before English soldiers could be considered a match for the best armies of Europe. This was well illustrated ten years later when the armour in the Tower of London, the national arsenal, was still so honeycombed with rust that the government was forced to to seek contributions to have it replaced. In the course of this they appear to have tried to pass on some of the older panoplies to the counties, for there is a record at that time of armour being returned to the Tower as too old and useless and ‘neere worn out in scowring’.
Advances in the equipping and professionalizing of the infantry continued throughout the 1570s and 1580s, but on the eve of the Armada, England was still no match for Spain’s finest. It is not clear whether he was referring to the men or their equipment, but when Elizabeth asked Sir John Norryes, England’s foremost soldier, what he thought of her army, he allegedly replied that ‘They were all wishing to have the Spaniards land, and every man was telling what feats he would do; he (i.e. Norryes) was the only man that was trembling for fear of it’.
Although there is no doubt that things had much improved by the time of the Alderney ship in 1592, the counry was still a long way from being able to supply its own needs, and the goverment, again and again, had to turn to the counties in order to weapon and armour its overseas troop levies. Cheshire, for instance, supplied armour to the government that it never got back, forcing Lord Cobham to write to Walsingham to ask how it was going to replace the county’s lost armour.
It was only around the turn of the century that England began producing good regular military armour of its own in quantity. A commercial catalogue from this period advertises armour that was ‘all English and no Flemish, and in goodness extraordinary’. During the course of the Virgin Queen’s reign, all aspects of the arms and armour industry, as well as the recruiting, training, organization and tactical deployment of its armies, came a very long way. ‘Elizabeth’s army’, wrote Professor Henry Webb, ‘appeared late on the battlefield of Europe. It came in confusion and, for a while, fought in disorder … (but by) combining theory with experience obtained in the field, (its leaders) helped it shed most of the medieval characteristics which had plagued the English army before the reign of Elizabeth – indeed, which had perniciously lingered on for some years after she had ascended the throne – so that by the turn of the century they had made it, with all its faults, a relatively efficient implement of war’.
The armour from the wreck
Most of the armour that people are familiar with from books and museums is what might be called heroic armour that has been elaborately engraved, embossed, guilded or damascened. The primary purpose of such suits was not to protect their owners upon the field of battle, but rather to proclaim their wealth and power. On the occassions when they were worn, it was for court ceramonials, triumphal parades, hunts, pageants and tournaments. The importance of the Alderney armour is that it is authentic field armour – impeccably provenanced and securely dated – that was on its way to be worn by men who, for whatever reason, were prepared to take up arms and go into mortal combat for queen and country. This was warrior armour, and as might be expected, it was entirely without theatricality; cost, protection and functionality were the only considerations in its manufacture.
The armour from the wreck consists of helmets, breast plates, back plates and tassets. A badly crushed piece of curved plating within a concretion is believed to be a collar, or gorget, to protect the neck, the lower edge of which went under the breast plate.
Decoration on the Alderney armour was modest; edges were often of roped design, petalled brass rivets were used to grip linings or fasten straps, two of the breast plates (nos. 187 and 192) featured pairs of incised lines, while another (no. 203) had a knurled border around the arm openings. The latter was reminiscent of cuirasses from Augsburg in Germany which have been dated to the third quarter of the sixteenth century. Such a piece serves to remind us that the Elizabethans were sourcing much of their body armour from protestant north Europe.
The helmets were of two types, burgonets and morions. Seven burgonets have so far been raised; these were helmets of older type that had been popular throughout the sixteenth century and lasted even into the seventeenth. They were peaked at their fronts, rimmed along the side and had a slight lobster tail at the back to protect the nape. The skull part of the helmet appears to have been made in two halves with a low, fore-and-aft comb covering the seam. On some the comb was low, on others it was more high-reaching. Earlier burgonets often took a face wrapper, but by the time of the wreck they were mostly open faced and hinged to take cheekpieces that were tied with thongs under the chin.
The other type of helmet was the morion, of which three examples have so far been excavated. They can be divided into two types; one, which rose to a pointed apex was called a ‘Spanish’ morion after its country of origin; the other, which is believed to have originated in Italy, was the ‘comb’ morion that had a fore-and-aft rib over its top. Both types of morions had cheek pieces that were tied together under the chin. Two of the morions were found stored one within the other.
Ten intact, semi-intact and fragmented breast plates – all of so-called ‘peascod’ type – have so far been recovered from the wreck. Two were found stored one within the other for shipment. ‘Perhaps with the exception of the helmet’, wrote D. H. Breiding of the Department of Arms and Armour at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, ‘no other element of armour has been as important an indicator of fashion throughout most regions of Europe as the breastplate. Its shape and profile changed according to the dictates of a general development in European male costume for the upper body’. We see this with the peascod breast plates from the Alderney wreck, all of which bellied out in a low-slung style which reflected the favoured form and line of men’s costumes during the last decades of the sixteenth century. The main features of the peascod are the medial rib, or keel, a cupped bottom and flanged rims over the thighs. The extent to which peascods and male-wear fashions were interlinked can be seen in the doublets and breast plates that feature in such famous representations as the c. 1583 Jodocus Hondius/George Vertue engraving of Drake, the c. 1590 Colonial Williamsburg picture of Raleigh, the c.1570 painting of Sir Philip Sidney in the National Portrait Gallery, and the splendid 1577 Cornelis Ketel full-length of Frobisher in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
At least one of the breast plates (no. 560) had two pairs of leather straps riveted to the flanges over the thighs. These were for the attachement of tassets, or overlapping horizontal lames to protect the upper legs. One of the concretions from the wreck is thought to contain a tasset, as its size and surviving curve is about right for the steel skirt that had to fit over the short puffed pants that were in vogue at the time.
Breast plates were worn by pikemen, halberdiers, some shot and all heavy horse; tassets in particular can be associated with the latter. So far only one back plate has been recovered from the wreck, suggesting that, by the 1590s, the the full front and back cuirass was losing favour.
A number of collections within Europe and the States contain Elizabethan armour that, when compared to the Alderney assemblage, rewards study. In particular mention can be of a series of breast plates and helmets in the Royal Armouries and the famous armours that belonged to the Earl of Pembroke in Glasgow (c.1575), Sir John Smythe at the Royal Armouries (c.1575), Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, also at the Royal Armouries (c. 1575), Lord Brockhurst in the Wallace Collection, London (c.1590), and Sir James Scudamore in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (c.1590).
The question that hangs over the the Alderney armour (and indeed the firearms and bladed weapons) concerns its role on the ship It is known that Norryes’ army in Britanny was far from fully equiped either in armour or weaponry, and it is entirely possible that the armour on the wreck was part of a consignment of general military supplies that was intended to make up the deficit; but, on the other hand, it is equally possible that it was the personal impedimenta of troops on their way to the war zone.
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