When I was a child, The Armourer’s House by Rosemary Sutcliff, set in Tudor London,, was one of my favourite books. So when I heard that the Islington Archaeology & History Society had arranged a visit to The Armourers’ Hall, I jumped at it.
My first glimpse inside the Armourers’ Hall didn’t disappoint. I loved the red-carpeted staircase with a suit of armour either side and weapons on the walls.
The Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers is one of the oldest of the City of London’s Livery Companies, dating back to 1322, a time when a full suit of armour was essential for a knight going to war – it was part of a Knight’s Fee to fight abroad for his king for forty days year, if asked. Throughout the early Middle Ages, England was almost continually at war: in Ireland, Scotland and Wales (all hotly defended) as well as in France, where successive English kings claimed sovereignty over the French throne. In 1154, King Henry II ruled over a vast swathe of France, the Angevin empire to the east and Aquitaine in the south west but, after his death, the internecine fighting of his rebellious sons saw England’s French possessions gradually falling into French hands. The Hundred Years War with France began in 1337 and rumbled on until 1453, during which period, in spite of individual victories such as Agincourt in 1415, England gradually lost most of her remaining French territory.
The plus side for the Armourers was that making arms and armour was a very lucrative business and they became extremely wealthy.
The Armourers and Brasiers’ Hall
The Armourers and Brasiers’ Hall in Coleman Street in the City of London is still, unusually, in its original location – it escaped both the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the Blitz. The original hall dated back to 1346 when the Armourers acquired a humble dwelling known as ‘the Dragon and two shops’ and converted it into the Armourers’ Hall . It lasted nearly 500 years but the constant repairs became so expensive that it was eventually decided to pull it down and start again. The current modest, late neo-classical building by J. H. Good, pupil of Sir John Soane, dates back to 1840.
Even the doormat is warlike!
I like the new building; it has presence, but it’s not shouting out its importance and it fits in perfectly with the other buildings in Coleman St. And, being a Rosemary Sutcliff fan, I was thrilled to see the suits of armour standing guard on either side of the scarlet carpeted staircase, and an array of weaponry hanging on the walls. To my amusement, even the doormat depicted a ¾ length knight in armour brandishing a short, sharp weapon, with the legend underneath reading Make All Sure. Fortunately, our group was made very welcome and we were taken upstairs to the Livery Hall and offered tea, coffee and biscuits.
The Livery Hall, with arms and armour on the walls, and members’ shields on the panelling, the Company’s two mottoes ‘Make All Sure’ and ‘We are One’ gives a clear message: Don’t mess with us.
As one would expect, arms and armour were everywhere. I was particularly impressed by the pikes up to six metres long on the walls of the Livery Room, which is also used as a dining room. A row of pikes could hold off a cavalry charge. And if that didn’t work, the halberd, a blood-thirsty weapon topped with a spear, and with a sharp axe on one side and a hook on the other, would certainly pull a mounted knight off his horse and deal with him.
A crossbow bolt could pierce armour
However, by the early 17th century, a full suit of chain mail was becoming obsolete, militarily speaking. Arrows and spears, once the weapons of choice, were being replaced by muskets and swords, though pikes and crossbows were retained; a bullet or a crossbow bolt could pierce armour. The Armourer’s Hall has a fine crossbow which you would not want to be at the receiving end of.
Mitten Gauntlet for the Left Hand.
The arms and armour in the Armourers’ Hall show the skill and craftsmanship of the period. Contrary to popular myth, a soldier could move easily whilst wearing armour; chain mail was constructed to be flexible and a knight could mount his horse without having to be winched up by crane. Full armour weighed about 50 kilos, much the same as modern military equipment.
An intricately worked horse muzzle
There are also a few beautiful examples of horse armour on display but, generally speaking, horse armour was the exception rather than the rule.
I love this jug; it has real character
The Armourers became immensely wealthy – armour was extremely expensive – and they also invested in land – a few acres of scrubby marshland in Hammersmith turned out, in the long term, to be very profitable indeed. However, as the centuries passed, the Livery Company, shorn of its raison d’être, making armour, gradually became little more than a gentleman’s eating and drinking club with a few charitable activities attached.
Arms and armour on the staircase wall
The Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone was not amused. In 1878 the City Livery Companies commission was set up to steer the Companies into justifying their existence by contributing something to the welfare of others, or risk being disbanded altogether. In response, the top sixteen companies, which included the Armourers, founded the City & Guilds of London Institute to provide a variety of technical and vocational qualifications. In 1910 it merged into the newly-created Imperial College and the Armourers’ Company’s interest in material sciences survives as the Faculty of Engineering. As well as being involved in educational activities which reflect the Company’s traditional interest in cutting-edge metallurgy, the Armourers’ Company is also involved in a number of other charities and gives grants to various good causes.
The elegant Drawing-Room fireplace.
The Hall is not normally open to the general public but the Company Clerk, Peter Bateman, shows groups of interested people round and explains its history – which is how came to be there. We all thoroughly enjoyed his vivid account of how King Henry’s V’s army won the Battle of Agincourt, or more accurately, how the French lost the battle in 1415. It was a lively session as questions and answers flew back and forth. When he asked us if we knew the date of the Battle of Agincourt, a forest of hands shot up. I hope he was impressed! I certainly was.
The beer barrel is on the bottom shelf. I was struck by its resemblance to an upside down Medieval cannon – with added tap and elephant trunk handles.
Nowadays, you can hire various rooms for functions. The Livery Hall is perfect for banquets and there are plenty of interesting objects to talk about. I was intrigued by the beer barrel which looked as though it had started life as a bulbous Medieval cannon which had been upended and turned into something else but I was assured that it had always been just a beer barrel.
Charles Wood’s shield. I found it difficult to take this seriously. What was he thinking of?
The shields which adorn the panelling are those of current and former members. Sometimes, they represent the family coat of arms but not necessarily – acquiring a coat of arms is a very expensive matter and can cost up to £6000. Some of the shields are just designs the owner liked.
The Gold Drawing-Room. The newly-cleaned gold walls glow.
We then moved to the Gold Drawing Room, a beautifully proportioned and richly decorated space. It is dominated by two magnificent paintings, a portrait of Sir Henry Lee, Champion of Queen Elizabeth I, and his mistress, Anne Vavasour, one of Queen Elizabeth’s Ladies in Waiting, whose personal life was, shall we say, interesting.
Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley Park (1533-1611), Queen Elizabeth I’s Champion. Photo: courtesy of the Worshipful company of Armourers and Brasiers
Anne had an affair with Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford – whose wife was the daughter of Lord Burghley, the Queen trusted adviser. When Anne gave birth to de Vere’s illigitimate son, the Queen was furious and sent both Anne and de Vere to the Tower of London.
Anne Vavasour (1560-1650) Photo courtesy of the Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers
In about 1590, Anne married John Finch, a sea captain, and, at about the same time, she also became the mistress of Sir Henry Lee, twenty-seven years her senior and once adviser to King Henry VIII, and the Queen’s Champion (the Armourer’s Company owns his magnificent suit of armour). They lived together at Ditchley Park, his ancestral home until he died and she had another son by him. Queen Elizabeth stayed with them at Ditchley, so she can’t have been too displeased with Anne.
Later, Anne married again, the second time bigamously and narrowly escaped being publicly flogged. As we can see, she was no beauty, but men found her very attractive. She must have had something.
Seventy-two seal top silver spoons. According to Pevsner, their marks range from 1552-1627. Each new member had to provide his own, which accounts for the date range. They are extremely rare.
The Armourer’s Company is unusual in having a large collection of rare pre-English Civil War silver. Medieval silver was used both as a precious metal and as bullion. The Armourers had a valuable collection of silver objects, tankards, spoons and so on. When the Civil War started, the City Livery companies supported Parliament and they were expected to support Cromwell’s army financially. Most of Livery Companies melted down their silver plate to pay the sum demanded. The Armourers, who a hundred years earlier had resentfully sold off their plate to pay for Henry VIII’s wars with France, decided that this time they would raise a mortgage instead. They did, and kept their silver plate. It is now worth a fortune.
I really enjoyed by tour round the Armourers and Brasiers’ Hall and my grateful thanks to the Company Clerk, Peter Bateman, for his most informative and enjoyable talk.
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