Knight or soldier in armour
- Place of origin:
England, Great Britain (made)
ca. 1450 - ca. 1470 (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
- Credit Line:
Purchased with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and The Art Fund
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
This unique oak figure represents a knight, one of three ranks of the retinue of a noble family. With two companion sculptures representing a squire and a man-at-arms, this figure would have been placed high on a screen in a great hall, still an important focus of noble living in this period. Linked to Kirkoswald Castle and Naworth Castle in Cumbria, they may once have held flags displaying heraldic devices of the Dacre family who owned both residences.
In medieval English figurative sculpture arms and armour denoted chivalrous rank and at least esquire status: the bulk of English knights were drawn from the squirearchy, families influential and important in their own county or shire, but not necessarily of enormous consequence at a national level. Entitlement to knighthood was by wealth; in the 15th century an income of £40 enetitled a man to become a knight. Arms and armour were very expensive, and came to imply by their presence in art noble status.
Oak figure of a knight or soldier in armour. The knight is clad in a suit of South German 'gothic' armour, with fluted ridges along the tassets that protect his thighs. Beneath these tassets a skirt of mail is visible. His neck and throat is protected by a bevor, with which he wears a sallet tilted back on his head. The sallet was the most popular helmet of the day and is the basis of most modern military helmets. Around his waist is a belt from which a kidney dagger (a somewhat implausible weapon for a knight).
Place of Origin
England, Great Britain (made)
ca. 1450 - ca. 1470 (made)
Materials and Techniques
Height: 113 cm, Width: 26 cm, Depth: 17 cm
Object history note
With his two companions (A.11 and A.12-2001), this figure provides a visual breakdown of the lesser nobility in later medieval England, and of the three ranks of nobleman generally to be found serving as henchmen in the retinues of more powerful lords. From the amount of armour that he wears, the figure here is clearly a knight. In medieval English figurative sculpture arms and armour denoted chivalrous rank and at least esquire status: the bulk of English knights were drawn from the squirearchy, families influential and important in their own county or shire, but not necessarily of enormous consequence at a national level. Entitlement to knighthood was by wealth; in the 15th century an income of £40 enetitled a man to become a knight. Arms and armour were very expensive, and came to imply by their presence in art noble status.
A suit of armour implied nobility for two reasons. Firstly because armour was enormously expensive - at least comparable to buying a topflight sports car today; with horse armour thrown in, the cost could approach something like that of a light aircaft in modern terms. Therefore, a man depicted dressed 'cap-à-pie' or 'head to foot' in full plate armour was obviously a man of considerable substance. If a figure was modelled in wearing less armour then this equalled lesser status. The stock armoured figure in sculpture of a knight sought to be a visualization of the core values of gentility, however much more idealistic than realistic this image was.
Secondly - and more importantly - armour, and crucially the sword, the most expensive weapons, and also the instrument by which a man was made a knight, spoke of aristocratic standing since it gave an impression of a fierce, manly caste of warlords, which is how the medieval English nobility liked to present themselves in the art and literature of their age. Christopher Given-Wilson wrote that 'is rare to find a member of the nobility who did not take up arms at some time in his life' ('The English Nobility in the Later Middle Ages: The Fourteenth Century Political Community', London, 1987, p.2). This is undeniably true. The gentle classes were never so narrow a group as to be only soldiers, but the most unlikely people - bishops, merchants, hermits - had a keen interest and often detailed knowledge in the military affairs and hardware of their day.
The knight we see here is clad in a suit of South German 'gothic' armour, with fluted ridges along the tassets that protect his thighs. Beneath these tassets a skirt of mail is visible. His neck and throat is protected by a bevor, with which he wears a sallet tilted back on his head. The sallet was the most popular helmet of the day and is the basis of most modern military helmets. Around his waist is a belt from which a kidney dagger (a somewhat implausible weapon for a knight). From the style of the armour, it seems unlikely that this figure was made before ca. 1470: a date of 1470-1490 seems more likely based on the armour.
The present piece and its companion pieces (A.12-2001 and A.13-2001) were originally at Naworth Castle, Cumbria, the seat of the Dacre family. The figures were first noted in 1772, in Francis Grose's 'The Antiquities of England and Wales', Vol 1, there described as being installed on the screen (probably designed by Vanbrugh) in the Great Hall, together with four heraldic figures of beasts. The beasts were also acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2001 (inv. nos.: W.6 to W.9-2000
Historical context note
These figures must have once been displayed high up on a wall in the great hall of a castle, since their backs are flat and unworked, and their heads thrust forwards and they face downwards. In the hands they would perhaps have held lances from which heraldic banners hang, making the three figures a vehicle for the display of the coats of arms of the Dacres and their kin and, as military-themed stands for heraldic standards.
In brief, we see here a knight, squire and man-at-arms of gentlemen or franklin rank. Knights were professional soldiers, well-versed in the arts and specialisms of war, from sieging to skirmishing. The knights, squirearchy and those of serious substance of England were consistent in their use of armour and weaponry as a means to communicate their status.
But at the very bottom end of the nobility, the trickle-down diffusion of weaponry and military costume as motifs of social, political and economic power dried up before reaching the minor gentlemen. The lesser gentry, a medley of respectable pillars of parish life, were excluded from this circuit of martial values which elevated the image of the armoured man to stand for everything they held dear, that summed up precisely what it was to be noble. To be noble was to be, at heart, a warrior. Some of this was make-believe: as many gentlemen were soldiers at some time in their lives as esquires or those of knightly rank. What mattered was the expression of class status as easily defined visual categories. In short, full armour stood for a higher breed of noble, something deeper and more profound than simply a soldier. An aggressive, warlike spirit of an officer class lies beneath the smiles of these three far from ferocious-looking men.
Figure, oak, of a man in armour standing, from Naworth Castle, Cumbria, England, ca. 1450-1470
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Emily Chappell, New Light on the 'Little Men' of Naworth Castle in the Victoria and Albert Museum, MA dissertation, Courtault Institute of Art, 2002
See 'Every Object Tells a Story' entry for these figures.
Bilbey, Diane and Trusted, Marjorie. British Sculpture 1470-2000. A Concise Catalogue of the Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2002, p. 22, cat.no. 24a
Williamson, Paul, ‘Recent Acquisitions (2000-06) of sculpture at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London’, in: The Burlington Magazine, CXLVIII, December, 2006, p. 890, fig VIII
Armour; Soldiers; Swords; Helmets; Knights; Dagger
Woodwork; Sculpture; Arms & Armour