I’ve been meaning to post about this for sooooo long, but the catalyst to do it now is the new exhibition at the Tower of London, Dressed to Kill, which has huge amounts of Greenwich Armour in it.
Henry VIII was, frankly, a bit embarrassed at the rubbish quality of English armour. The Germans, Dutch, Spanish – pretty much everyone – did it better than us. It all came to a head when the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. sent him a marvellous (if damn weird) suit of armour in 1514.
The helmet’s all that’s left – and it’s definitely the maddest thing in the exhibition – it has rams horns and spectacles for starters, as well as a healthy five-o’clock shadow. But it was head and shoulders (sorry) above the best that England was turning out at the time.
Henry couldn’t be having that, so he decided to set up what today we would probably call something wanky like a “centre of excellence.” And since Greenwich was where it was all at, that was where he sited his new armouries.
I’ve been trying to work out exactly where they would have been, and from a rather obscure 1923 pamphlet about the Grey Friars of Greenwich (which I’ll write about as soon as I’ve stayed awake long enough to actually read it – it’s bloomin’ hard work…) I’m guessing it was pretty much where the King Charles building is now (the map’s not exactly easy to interpret, but the armouries were next door to the monastery.)
Henry headhunted all the best armourers from Europe, paying them huge fees to create some staggeringly beautiful armour. And what’s interesting is that despite its having craftsmen from all over the place, Greenwich soon developed an English style of its own – solid and austere, rather than fancy and curly (though when asked to, the royal armourers could curl with the best of ‘em…)
Erasmus Kreukener was Henry’s favourite – he specialised in gold inlay work. As you can see from this picture, Henry thought the sun shone out of…
Kreukener and his team developed techniques of covering all areas of the body, rather than leaving tantalising gaps and rendering the wearer vulnerable in places. They were also very good at recycling – for the splendid armour needed for the summit at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the rules got changed at the last minute, rendering Henry’s outfit ‘illegal,’ so the armourers cannibalised a half-finished set to look like a brand new outfit. It’s absolutely lovely – and has some great engraving on it.
It’s fascinating to see the way Henry’s girth spread from his first armour when he was young and handsome to his last set when he had, frankly, let himself go a bit. In the exhibition, by each suit of Henry’s armour, they say how old he was and how much he weighed when he wore that particular piece.
There’s always quite a bit of Greenwich armour in the Tower – it was moved there, if memory serves, during the Commonwealth, and opened to public view from 1660 (when word got round that if a childless woman stuck a pin in his codpiece lining, she’d conceive pronto – strange, really considering how much trouble Henry himself had begetting kiddies…) But at the moment, until next January, there’s even more, because they’ve been loaned stuff from all over the world.
There’s also some info about jousting at Greenwich, including a scoreboard from the Tilt Yard, and a couple of lances. Which reminds me. Dan sent me this article about how it could have been brain damage from a fall in the Greenwich Tilt Yard that sent Henry slightly potty. An interesting thought…
I know it’s ridiculously expensive to visit the Tower – I nearly fainted at the seventeen smackers they charge for an adult ticket. So I bit the bullet and became a member so I could return when I liked. If you go to everything they own at least once, you do save money.
I signed up while I was there and by direct debit, which means you can get 18 months for the price of 12. So if you see posts with Greenwich-related Hampton Court/ Kensington Palace/ Banqueting House themes, you’ll know I’m busy trying to get my money’s worth;-)
One more thing. There’s an excellent magazine that HRP have created to celebrate their two exhibitions to mark this year of Henry-mania. On one side it’s a Hello lookalike about his various wives (that exhibition’s at Hampton Court,) but if you turn it upside down, it’s about the armour, including a fun ‘interview’ with Erasmus Kreukener, and an article about how to wear armour called “Suits you, Sire…” The great thing about that particular publication is that it’s just £2.99.
Something reasonably priced from HRP. Must be some kind of miracle.
Oh – and if you go, don’t miss Beer and Gin, Greenwich’s very own Stadler and Waldorf.