Drawing of Baron de Cosson © Royal Armouries

Baron de Cosson

Charles Alexander, Baron de Cosson came from a French family who had suffered greatly during the French Revolution, and emigrated to England. De Cosson was born in Durham on the 28th of August 1846.

In 1855 de Cosson travelled to Venice with his family stopping on the way in France and Italy. It was here that Charles’ main study and pursuit of ancient armour began. On this trip an old dealer in antiquities in Venice that his father worked with gave Charles a tiny suit of old Italian armour, only about 14 inches high, it was a model suit made for the amusement of young nobles.

After travelling the family returned to England. At first de Cosson’s collecting was limited to Roman coins, but his love of armour was reinforced when his parents took him in 1857 to see the Exhibition of Art Treasures of the United Kingdom collected at Manchester held at Old Trafford. This included the Meyrick Collection of arms and armour, some of which later passed into De Cosson’s own collection. His father gave him his first book on armour, a copy of Francis Grose’s Treatise on Antient Armour and Weapons, it was the first book on ancient arms and armour to be published in any European language.

He spent a short time at Salamanca University in Spain, but by 1868 he was in Paris, and then off to Wurzburg to attend the Etlinger sale where his collecting began. He bought a 16th century German rapier and a tilting helmet. From Wurzburg he travelled to Augsburg to see the Soeter collection, and then he returned to England.

In December of 1868 his father was ill, and moved the family to Seville for the warmer climate. His father died in 1871 and in the winter of 1872 Charles travelled with his brother to Egypt, Ethiopia and onto the King of Abyssinia’s camp at Gondar. The brothers were well received by King John who gave them letters to carry back to Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and the President of the USA. The King also gave Charles the Grand Cross of the Order of Solomon’s Seal and the order of the Holy Cross to take to the Prince of Wales. They spent several weeks with the King, and the King promised slavery would be abolished and that any person found to be buying or selling slaves would receive the death penalty.

Once back in England he began collecting fine arms and armour and soon became acquainted with dealers in London and Paris. De Cosson was the first author to distinguish the 15th century armet-a-rondel from the close helmets of later date and to identify the spurious 19th century forgeries of 13th and 14th century helmets made by Grimshaw and Pratt.

In October 1878 the Baron was invited to take part in an exhibition of cutlery at the Court of the Cutler’s Company. The Baron lent about 80 swords to the exhibition, it was open for 16 days and attracted 15,000 visitors. In June 1880 De Cosson was involved in another exhibition, this was of helmets and mail held in London at the Royal Archaeological Institute. De Cosson was tasked with describing the helmets in the catalogue. This proved to be a turning point in the serious study of armour, and confirmed De Cosson’s position as premier authority in England.

He founded the Kernoozers Club in 1881 (a society of collectors and historians of arms and armour), and became its first president. The club flourished, and meetings were held in members’ homes and were so popular that it became necessary to limit the membership to 20. The Kernoozers Club survived for 41 years. In 1890 the Junior Kernoozers Club was founded, this club later became the Meyrick Society.

In 1891 De Cosson befriended Guy Francis Laking, and some years later James G Mann. Mann went on to become Keeper of the Wallace Collection and Master of the Armouries in the Tower of London. Laking went on to become the Keeper of the King’s Armoury, Inspector of the Armoury at the Wallace Collection and Keeper of the London Museum. Laking’s youthful enthusiasm was quite contagious and they spent many hours together discussing arms and armour.

In the 1890’s De Cosson was busy assisting the Duc de Dino to form a collection of choice arms and armour. De Cosson was able to acquire more pieces for the Duc at the sale of the Frederick Spitzer collection. The entire Dino Collection sold in 1904 to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He also visited Germany, Austria and Switzerland and examined as many arms and armours as possible.

In 1901 the Baron moved his family to Florence, originally intending to stay for two months, but stayed for 25 years. He constantly travelled around Italy on the quest for arms, antique furniture and objects of art for himself or for friends. In 1906 he was offered the Keepership of the Museo Stibbert in Florence, but he declined.

In 1926 he visited the Church of Maria della Grazie and first saw the armoured figures of people saved from a violent death by prayer to the Virgin tucked away in the alcoves of the church. The armour had long been thought to be made of paper-mâché, but De Cosson thought that paint covered genuine amour. He told James Mann, who two years later inspected the figures and in 1930 was granted permission to dismantle and clean them, revealing six armours of the 15th century and ten from the 16th century.

Baron de Cosson died in Florence on the 8th of February 1929.