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European Armour in the Royal Collection

An introduction to European armour in the Royal Collection

In order to pursue his ambitions in France, Henry VIII formed an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. This painting records their meeting and the main events pertaining to Henry’s first campaign against the French in 1513.

The composit
The Meeting of Henry VIII and the Emperor Maximilian I ©
Armour of Henry, future Prince of Wales for the field, tourney, tilt and barriers consisting of a close helmet with reinforces for the upper and lower bevors, a gorget, a cuirass and tassets, a pair of slightly asymmetrical pauldrons, a pair of vambraces

Armour garniture of Henry, future Prince of Wales, for the field, tourney, tilt and barriers: Tilt helmet showing the fastenings of its visor and upper bevor ©

The Royal Collection of European armour ranks among the most important of its kind in Great Britain today. It includes both complete and composite armours, as well as individual pieces.

Most of the European armour in the Collection was originally intended for defence in combat, either on the battlefield or in tournaments. Tournaments were not only a practice-ground for war, but also an opportunity for rulers and noblemen to stage lavish spectacles, asserting their wealth and dignity. Armour for these events was often highly decorated and made by the leading craftsmen of the time. As a result, it offers excellent evidence of contemporary tastes in fashion, as well as of developments in metalworking and design.

On his appointment as Principal Painter to Charles I in 1632, the Flemish artist Van Dyck - Rubens's most gifted follower - was required to specialise in portraiture. This is one of the chief paintings to result from his appointment, which revolutionised

Charles I (1600-1649) with M. de St Antoine ©

Bespoke armours were an expensive investment, and from the sixteenth century increasingly featured in paintings and miniatures as an important statement of wealth. They also pointed to the status and military strength of the owner.  For these reasons, armour continued to be incorporated in paintings and sculpture long after it had fallen out of practical use.  The depiction of armour in paintings, and in particular the reflective qualities of curved metal surfaces, has also given artists over the centuries a means of showing their technical abilities.  As a result, some of the most well-known portraits in the Collection depict British monarchs and their contemporaries in armour and its accessories. 

The display of arms and armour has also been a central element of the decoration of royal residences like Windsor Castle, St James's Palace and Hampton Court Palace. 

1. Sport and War

Armour was first and foremost practical, for use in battle or tournament

2. Power Dressing

Armour was a powerful statement of personal identity and status

3. Fashion and Accessories

Armour followed contemporary fashions in dress

4. Knightly Honour

Armour was regularly used in portraits to symbolise honour and chivalry

5. Design, Materials and Techniques

Armour was often at the cutting edge of technical development

6. Armour on Display

The display of armour soon became a central feature of royal residencies