Royal Armouries

Breastplate

Images

monochrome photo of a breastplate with a large shot away section across the middle

Breastplate with firearm damage. (III.107)

  • monochrome photo of a breastplate with a large shot away section across the middle

    Breastplate with firearm damage. (III.107)

  • monochrome newspaper illustration of an armoured figure on horseback

    Figure of King James II in the Horse Armoury, The Penny Magazine, 1840.

  • monochrome newspaper illustration of a line of mounted armoured figures

    ‘Interior of the Horse Armoury’, anon engraving, The Penny Magazine, 1836 © Royal Armouries 2013

Date: 1590 | Object number: III.107

Statistics

Object Provenance: English or Flemish, about 1590
Object Number: III.107
Height: 57.5 cm (22.6 in)
Width: 39.8 cm (15.7 in)
Depth: 25.5 cm (10 in)

Breastplate

Description

Steel munition breastplate of peascod form with scalloped flange to lower edge. It was probably made to be bullet–proof, and has been ultimately tested to destruction. It very graphically illustrates contemporary firepower, showing the damage of having been hit by four small-arms shots and one cannon shot. The latter has blown away a large section of the lower left abdomen. A number of undamaged munition quality breastplates of this form have been preserved in Tower stores from the late 16th century.

With the growth in the power and availability of firearms in the 16th century, armourers fought back by “proofing” their product. A fixed charge was fired at the breastplate and the resulting dent showed their customers that it was resistant –not as many modern commentators would have one believe that it had been in battle. The practice continued into the 17th century, and James II harquebusier’s armour by Richard Holden (II.123) had a musket proofed breastplate and pistol proofed back-plate.

This particular breastplate was one of the star pieces in the late 18th century Guidebooks –not only because it is spectacular to behold, but also because its story contained a royal element. The only part to change in different editions is the ‘lateness’ of his Royal Highness:

‘Having entered the room, you first behold a vast number of iron caps and breast plates, most of which were in use in former wars; but the only one which was wont to be shewn as a great curiosity hangs upon a beam on the left hand as you pass thr’ the entry; it has the lower edge of the left side carried away by a slant stroke of a cannon ball; and ,as an old warder used to tell the story, the rim of the man’s belly that wore it, and part of his bowels, were carried away at the fame time; not withstanding which, being put under the care of a skillful surgeon, the man recovered, and lived ten years after. This story this old warder constantly told to all strangers, till his late Royal Highness Frederick Prince of Wales, coming to view the curiosities of the Tower, and it falling to the old man’s lot to attend his Highness, when he came to this breast-plate he repeated his accustomed tale: his Royal Highness listened to him with seeming pleasure, and when he had done, looking at him with a smile – “And what, friend”, said he,”is there so extraordinary in all this/ I remember myself to have read in a book of a soldier, who had his head cleft in two so dextrously by his enemy that one half fell on one shoulder, and the other half on the opposite shoulder; and yet, on his comrade’s clapping the two sides nicely together again, and binding close with his handkerchief, the man did well, drank his pot of ale at night, and scarcely recollected that he had been hurt.” This story, so seasonably applied, put all the company that attended his Royal Highness into a horse laugh, which so chagrined the old warder, that he never had courage to tell his story again, so the poor battered breast-plate has lain unnoticed ever since.”

With the re-arrangement of the exhibits along more scholarly lines in 1826-27, the breastplate is no longer mentioned, and so far has not been identified in any of the photographs or illustrations of the later period displays.

It is illustrated in C. Paggiarino, The Royal Armouries, Masterpieces of medieval and renaissance arms and armour, Milan, 2011, vol II, p.161

Statistics

Object Provenance: English or Flemish, about 1590
Object Number: III.107
Height: 57.5 cm (22.6 in)
Width: 39.8 cm (15.7 in)
Depth: 25.5 cm (10 in)

Related Objects

James II in the Line of Kings Click on the title link above to find out more.

Samuel Meyrick and the Rearrangement of the Horse Armoury, about 1824-1827 Click on the title link above to find out more.

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