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Parts of a cavalry armour

  • Place of origin:

    Germany (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1620 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Iron, painted black and gold

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the late René L'Hôpital

  • Museum number:

    M.866-B-1927

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 7, The Sheikha Amna Bint Mohammed Al Thani Gallery, case CA19 []

This breastplate and tassets (thigh protectors) are all that remain of a Gemran cavalry armour of about 1620. By this period, improved firearms meant that, full body armour was restricted to cuirassiers, gun-toting cavalry officers who charged in squadrons. Most lighter cavalry and infantry valued mobility and restricted their protection to a buff coat with breast- and backplate, and open-faced helmet. The cuirassiers were wealthy officers. The high waistlines and exaggerated upper legs of their armour were in keeping with their expensive civilian dress. The armour may well have seen action during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) a protracted struggle that began as a localised, religious struggle between Protestant and Catholic and erupted into a dynastic and imperial war of attrition between the house of Habsburg and other European powers.

Physical description

Breastplates with tassets attached by hooks and eyes, from a half armour, painted black with gold painted borders of trophies of arms and figures

Place of Origin

Germany (made)

Date

ca. 1620 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Iron, painted black and gold

Dimensions

Height: 100.5 cm whole, Width: 41.5 cm whole, Depth: 20.3 cm whole, Height: 41.5 cm Breastplate, Width: 41.5 cm Breastplate, Depth: 20.3 cm Breastplate, Length: 59 cm 866A-right tasset, Width: 25 cm 866A-right tasset, Depth: 14 cm 866A-right tasset, Length: 59 cm 866B-left tasset, Width: 27 cm 866B-left tasset, Depth: 14 cm 866B-left tasset

Object history note

These are the remains of an armour worn by an early 17th century cavalry officer, or cuirassier. Cuirassiers wore three-quarter armour that covered the entire upper body as well as the front half of the legs down to the knee. Along with the breastplate and tassets (thigh defences) the armour would have been equipped with a closed or open-faced helmet, usually worn with a neck plate (gorget). A back-plate would also have matched the breastplate and the shoulders and arms would have been entirely protected with pauldrons and vambraces. Gauntlets may also have protected the hands although these were used less and less during the 17th century to allow the hands to be free to use firearms. The tassets extend down to the knee. Below the knees, boots replaced lower leg-armour.

This armour is painted black and is decorated with gold paint depicting trophies with scallpoed borders. Armour was primarily painted, usually with lampblack, as a protection from rust. However, painting was also a means of embellishment and in this particular case it imitates the etched and gilt borders found on more expensive armours, which in themselves recall the embroidery on contemporary doublets.

The armour may well have seen action during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) a protracted struggle that began as a localised, religious struggle between Protestant and Catholic and erupted into a dynastic and imperial war of attrition between the house of Habsburg and other European powers.

Historical context note

On the battlefield, cavalry were largely members of the aristocracy and more or less superceded the old medieval knights carrying lances. They carried expensive wheel-lock pistols in holsters worn at the horse's neck. Squadrons of riders charged in line on horseback and discharged pistols in unison, before doubling back round to be followed by a second line. 'One could see nothing but fire and steel,' wrote the French captain Blaise de Montluc.

This use of firearms on the battlefield had a marked effect on the production of cavalry armour. Not only were the officers using firearms, they were facing them. Armourers had to create thicker heavier armour and supplement it with extra reinforcing plates. The cavalry officer of the early seventeenth century had to choose between the extra protection of a full armour, or greater mobility with only a breastplate, backplate and helmet. Armour is often portrayed as declining after 1600 as the increasing lethality of firearms called for heavier and more specialized protection. Only the cuirassiers wore all-over armour. Lighter cavalry wore armour that only protected the head and vital organs: the image of the mid-seventeenth-century soldier in buff coat, breastplate and helmet is a familiar one.

Despite this utilitarian requirement, the parallels in shape between armour, even of 'munition' quality, and clothing throughout this period, and their in-tandem changes, identify armour as costume, as prone to transformations in fashion as architecture, painting and sculpture. The heavy armour that was produced was still fashion-dependent. The rising waistline of civilian dress was matched in armour, an area where one might expect mobility to be sacrosanct. The bulging torso became pinched and gave way to a rising waistline and inflated thighs, representative of the ideal body shape. The cut of hose was deliberately rounded at the sides, a feature replicated in the huge tassets that protected the thighs. The breastplate and doublet both became square with a more pronounced skirt below the waistline.

Descriptive line

Breastplate with articulated tassets (thigh defences) attached by hooks and eyes, from a half armour, painted black with gold painted borders of trophies of arms and figures, Germany, ca. 1620

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Patterson, Angus, Fashion and Armour in Renaissance Europe: Proud Lookes and Brave Attire, V&A Publishing, London, 2009, ISBN 9781851775811, p. 54, ill.
Blair, Claude, European Armour Circa 1066 to circa 1700, B.T.Batsford, London, 1958, p. 143-155

Labels and date

Breastplate and tassets (thigh protectors)
About 1620

By 1620, with improvements in firearms, full body armour was worn only by cuirassiers. These were wealthy, gun-toting cavalry officers who charged in squadrons. The high waistlines and exaggerated upper legs of their armour were in keeping with their expensive civilian dress.

Germany

Iron, painted black and gold

Given by René L’Hôpital [09.12.2015]

Materials

Iron

Techniques

Forging; Hammering; Painting

Categories

Arms & Armour; Europeana Fashion Project; Metalwork; War

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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