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An Ardor for Armor

1.

Rushing downstairs, they found that a large suit of old armour had become detached from its stand, and had fallen on the stone floor, while, seated in a high-backed chair, was the Canterville ghost, rubbing his knees with an expression of acute agony on his face…. He had hoped that even modern Americans would be thrilled by the sight of a Spectre In Armour …. Besides, it was his own suit. He had worn it with great success at the Kenilworth tournament, and had been highly complimented on it by no less a person than the Virgin Queen herself. Yet when he had put it on, he had been completely overpowered by the weight of the huge breastplate and steel casque, and had fallen heavily on the stone pavement….”

—Oscar Wilde, “The Canterville Ghost,” 1887

We are witnesses here at a confluence of stereotypes. Hiram B. Otis, the American minister, has bought Canterville Chase, along with its furniture and ghost, “at a valuation,” since he comes from “a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy.” Because they are Californians, the Otis family are immune to the terrors of the English stately home. They clean the mysterious bloodstain from the library floor. They mock the efforts of the ghost to frighten them.

The Americans are comic stereotypes. The ghost, too, belongs to a stereotype cluster, along with the stain, the stained-glass window, the dark oak paneling, the armor. The idea of the stately home thus conjured up was, when Wilde wrote his story, of no great antiquity. Its literary origins are in the eighteenth-century Gothic novel—that is, in fantasy. But the actual homes of the gentry in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when Gothic began to thrive, were not predominantly furnished with ancient objects. There might be a few such items around, but, as Clive Wainwright explains in The Romantic Interior, “the overwhelming character would have been one of modernity, with new carpets, curtains, wallpapers, light fittings and furniture. In 1750, for instance, the style of these furnishings could have been neo-classical, Rococo, Chinese or Gothic, but all newly manufactured and thus new in appearance.”1

When Catherine Morland comes to Northanger Abbey, her head full of Gothic novels, she is distressed by precisely this newness and comfort:

The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fire-place where she had expected the ample and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain, though handsome, marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china. The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence, from having heard the General talk of his preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure the pointed arch was preserved, the form of them was Gothic, they might be even casements, but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions and the heaviest stone work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.

No painted glass, no dirt, no cobwebs. No tapestries, no ancient banners, no dark oak paneling, no suits of armor. When Jane Austen was writing Northanger Abbey (1798-1799), there were some houses which had adopted a Romantic mode of decoration, but they were either new or had been “earlied up.” They were conscious confections, exercises in style. They were, to use that useful term from interior decorating, “faux.” To fill a house with ancient furniture was a new idea, and a hard thing to achieve. Where was it all to come from? Who could supply enough of that dark oak, that armor?

The English Romantic interior of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, whose memory is kept alive in countless cartoon images of stately homes, was an example of a manufactured past. The dark oak furniture, for instance, was stained by the antique-dealing trade. Medieval or Renaissance oak furniture, unless painted, was left white. All that varnishing, staining, and polishing is an anachronism. But it is an anachronism that has proved too popular to reverse.

Some anachronisms are like that. The idea that King Arthur and his knights lived in the fifth or sixth century AD, but held tournaments in the manner of the fifteenth century, is too much of a money-spinner to drop. The idea that the medieval nobility would have displayed suits of armor all around the house, rather than storing it away in closets or armoires, the idea of an armory (like Horace Walpole’s at Strawberry Hill) on a landing halfway up the stairs, the idea of armor in the study, in the bedroom, the idea of a stove in the shape of a vast suit of armor (it was six foot six inches tall, and was designed by Sir John Soane for Lord Abercorn for the hall of Bentley Priory)—all these bright ideas belong to the history of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century interior design, rather than medieval history itself.

Armor exerts such a grip on the imagination that stories get spun around it. Sometime in the 1530s the Milanese armorer Filippo Negroli made the celebrated “bat-wing” armor for Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. (It was included in the recent exhibition of Negroli’s work, along with other armor, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.) Only a century later, when it entered the Medici collections, this suit was believed to have been made for Hannibal of Carthage by “Piripe, a most excellent sculptor who was then called Pifanio Tacito.” This totally fictional character was still nominally alive in the scholarly works of Wendelin Boeheim in the late nineteenth century.

Nor is modern scholarship free of plain fantasy. In the Royal Armouries Yearbook Volume 2, 1997, we read of a tournament garniture (adaptable suit of armor) supposed to have been made for Dudley, Earl of Leicester, for the tournament of Kenilworth in 1575 (just like the Canterville ghost’s armor). Citing the authority of the Dictionary of National Biography, the author, Erik Blakely, tells us that the tournament was witnessed by the eleven-year-old William Shakespeare “who, it was thought, was so impressed that he used what he saw at Kenilworth as a model for the fantastical vision of Oberon’s court in Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Unfortunately there is no evidence that Shakespeare witnessed the tournament at Kenilworth.

The Tower of London (where the Royal Armouries used to be until most of the collection was rehoused in Leeds) was one of the first places where a collection of old armor could be seen on public display. It was famous for the Line of Kings, models of monarchs on horseback, life-sized and clad in what was believed to be appropriate armor, and for the Spanish Armory, featuring supposed relics of the Spanish Armada. From the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth, these displays were much admired. But eventually it had to be admitted that there was nothing Spanish in the Spanish Armory, and that the Line of Kings, though it featured genuine armor, was riddled with errors and improbabilities. The man who in the 1820s reorganized the display, Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, is considered the founder of armor scholarship. By the 1860s James Robinson Planché, though an admirer of Meyrick, found that his work had to be done all over again.

The present [new] arrangement, the removal of the Banners bearing the names of Kings, Nobles and Knights who had never worn the armor attributed to them, and the placeing of small boards or cards with the proper description of the suits, weapons or other objects upon or in conjunction with each, will to a great extent I trust neutralise the evils ariseing from the inaccurate descriptions of the Warder, the absurdity of which is increased by each appearing to have his particular version of a translation or perversion of a fact.

The Tower should have a properly qualified curator, Planché argued:

The want of such an officer has not only lost to the Nation many varieties [of armor] now enriching Foreign Public and private collection but lumbered up the Tower Armoury with wretched casts barefaced forgeries and Modern imitations some of which have been purchased at considerable cost while objects of real value and interest have been rejected.2

If the Tower of London, one of the greatest armories of Europe, was stuffed with fakes, one may well ask whether anything was genuine, whether there is any real armor left in the world.

The answer is yes. Some things are real, and some of these survivals are surprising. It was the practice in medieval times to hang the “achievements” of the knight—his armor, sword, shield, etc.—above his tomb. Since the wrath of the iconoclasts in Britain was turned against religious imagery rather than against the monuments of the aristocracy, both the tombs and some of their achievements have been preserved. Some of the best medieval helmets in the Leeds museum come from parish churches. In Canterbury Cathedral, one can still, astonishingly enough, see the achievements of the Black Prince—his helmet with its crest, his silk and linen surcoat, his poplar shield, his gilt copper gauntlets, and his scabbard (the sword having been stolen long ago). One would have sworn that those would turn out to be fakes, but they are not. What is anachronistic about this tomb is the habit of naming it after the Black Prince. Edward III’s eldest son, Edward Plantagenet, was never known by this title during his lifetime (1330-1376), but only much later. During the Victorian era the belief was so strong that the Black Prince must have worn black that the magnificent gilt copper effigy was painted black in order to conform to legend.

The treasury of Prague Cathedral preserves the only surviving chain-mail shirt from the early medieval period—preserved on the grounds that it supposedly once belonged to King Wenceslaus. Plate armor, as developed from around 1350, is extremely rare in the early years. From the whole fifteenth century it is said that only about a dozen complete suits of high-quality armor have survived, and there is only one matching Gothic war harness for man and horse in existence (and even that has been shown to incorporate later elements), in the Wallace Collection in London. We are told that around 95 percent of today’s surviving armor is post-Agincourt (that is, post-1415), and the bulk of that 95 percent will be sixteenth or seventeenth century.

What happened to medieval armor will not be a mystery to those who knew Vietnam during the war, and who were impressed by the speed at which all metal was gathered up and recycled. Society was always short of metal. The notorious figure of the battlefield scavenger (as for instance Thénardier in Les Misérables, robbing corpses at Waterloo) is supposed to make our flesh creep. But he or she is much better understood as an exemplar of enterprise in poverty. The North Vietnamese made a propaganda point out of the recycling of metal from planes they had shot down (remember the ring and the comb they presented to Mary McCarthy in Hanoi, which gave her such an aversion). How many battlefield meals one saw in Indochina being cooked in odd objects such as helmets and those M16 ammunition boxes. When Sir Walter Scott visited the battlefield of Waterloo, hoping to find the armor of a cuirassier, he saw the Highlanders “frying their rations of beef or mutton upon the breast-plates.” This sight must surely be about as old as the breastplate itself.

  1. 1

    Clive Wainwright, The Romantic Interior (Yale University Press, 1989), p. 1.

  2. 2

    Sarah Barker Bailey, “J.R. Planché’s rearrangement of the armour in the Tower of London,” in Royal Armouries Yearbook, Vol. 2 (Leeds:Royal Armouries Museum, 1997), pp. 137-143.

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