The Almain Armourers' Album, a book of armour designs, is one of the V&A's great Elizabethan treasures.
The book was produced in the Royal Armoury at Greenwich, London, between 1557 and 1587, and charts some of the most spectacular armour ever made. It is known as the Almain Armourers’ Album after the German armourers employed by Henry VIII from the early 16th century ('Almain' is an archaic word for German).
The album contains 29 armour designs on 56 sheets, each showing a figure in full cavalry armour — posed to reveal as much of the armour as possible — with a sheet opposite showing alternative pieces which could be exchanged to convert the armour for lighter cavalry, infantry, jousting or tournament use. A few lost drawings have left tantalising imprints on the backs of other sheets indicating that the album was once larger. Several of the armours produced from the drawings survive, although some have minor alterations from the original design. These armours were beautifully decorated but they were not just for show. Men fought, jousted and skirmished in them, sometimes as organised sport and sometimes in the noisy, twisting, chaotic, blood-curdling arena of the battlefield.
A 'who's who' of the Elizabethan court
Annotations throughout the album record the customers for whom the armours were designed. This was an era in which Elizabeth's courtiers jostled for her favour by visible displays of devotion, bravery and theatricality. Elizabeth encouraged competition among her courtiers. With no king to fear upstaging, they took up the challenge. Clients paid up to £500 for a decorated garniture (ensemble) of armour, for which they required a royal licence.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and rumoured lover of Elizabeth I, commissioned several armours from Greenwich. Dudley was known by his rivals as 'the favourite' for his deep emotional ties with the Queen. Elizabeth herself referred to him as her 'eyes'. Two designs in the album are annotated for him including one decorated with his ragged staff emblem and lovers’ knots, a sign of his devotion to the Queen. Dudley hosted Elizabeth I at Kenilworth Castle in 1575 in one of the most famous events of her reign, a monumentally expensive three-week festival of theatre, dancing, jousting, hunting, boating and fireworks.
Sir Henry Lee
Sir Henry Lee was Master of the Armoury from 1580. As Queen's Champion and orchestrator of the Accession Day jousts — costly festivals of jousting, poetry, music and feasting, all aimed at glorifying the queen through performance — it was imperative that Lee would not be upstaged. His armours are some of the most flamboyant in the album. One armour commissioned by Lee in around 1585 is profusely decorated with quatrefoils (a symmetrical form made up of four lobes, usually semi-circular, arranged like the petals of a flower or 4-leaf clover), mimicking the fashion for clothing that was neatly slashed to reveal rich fabrics underneath. Under the armour, Lee wore green hose and stockings, a colour also used for the sword scabbard and baton. A green quilted lining, probably of silk, can also be seen inside the right cheek piece of the burgonet, an open-faced, light cavalry helmet.
Sir Christopher Hatton
The most lavish and perhaps desperate patron was Sir Christopher Hatton. Hatton, had at least three, possibly four, armours in the album, pieces of which survive from all of them. Like Dudley, Hatton was rumoured to be Elizabeth's lover. His correspondence with her was passionate and romantic. Hatton spent freely on the arts and his armour commissions were costly, made when he was also building Holdenby House and part-financing the voyages of Sir Francis Drake. His reckless spending left him at his death with an unfinished stately home and £42,000 in debt. The choices Hatton made for the decoration of his armour are an extension of his passionate correspondence with Elizabeth. The etched lovers' knots tied to the Tudor rose almost turn his armour into a love-letter in steel.
The Duke of Finland
The Greenwich workshop occasionally served an international clientele. 'Duke John of Finelande Prince of Sweden' was the son of the Swedish King Gustav Vasa and was Duke of Finland from 1556 to 1568. John appeared at Elizabeth's Court on several occasions early in her reign, partly in an attempt to broker a marriage between the Queen and his father. He was impressed by courtly life in England. The Calendar of State Papers Foreign for 1559 – 60 records that, "The Duke of Finland still rests here and increases daily from a good to a better courtier, by applying himself in the use of apparel, familiarity, and by play at the 'thenes' [tennis], and other exercises after the manner of the nobility of these new countries". His armour commission can be seen as an expression of this desire to ingratiate himself.
Artist and armourer
The stencilled designs, which were probably used as working patterns, were produced by Jacob Halder, who was originally from Landshut, in southern Germany, and is first recorded in a list of 'Almains' working at the Armoury in 1558. Halder was Master Armourer at Greenwich from 1576 to 1607 and died in 1608. We know that Halder created the designs because he tells us so on two occasions: "These peces were made by me Jacobe". Under his mastership, a combination of high quality construction and a prevailing fashion for outrageously shaped and coloured clothing brought Greenwich armour to its full flowering.
Etching, gilding and bluing
Many of the armour designs in the album are shown with a high degree of colour and decoration. Most of these patterns are on armours that date from the 1570s and 80s, when Elizabethan fashions were at their most extravagant. The patterns were drawn from a variety of sources. Printed pages for 'moresques' (a decorative motif) and arabesque designs, strapwork and mythological figures, for example, might be marketed directly at goldsmiths and embroiders but were also used by armourers and engravers.
The decorative techniques that enabled armour to keep abreast of contemporary fashion were acid-etching, gilding and bluing.
Etching on armour is like embroidery on cloth. Acid-etching creates a characteristic two-dimensional surface decoration to contrast with plainer areas of polished metal. It was used particularly for decorating items that require strength or may be subjected to hard or heavy usage, such as jewel and document caskets and locks and keys. An already-formed object is coated with an acid-resistant substance such as wax, into which a pattern is engraved free-hand, exposing the metal underneath. The metal is then immersed in a solution of hydrochloric or nitric acid and water until its exposed areas have been eaten away. The wax is then removed to reveal the pattern. Gilding or blackening might be added to accentuate the design. The technique creates a shallow relief making it possible to create highly decorated functional steel objects without compromising the structural integrity of the metal.
Many of the designs in the album are shaded in a variety of colours. Armours intended to be of plain steel are shown as white with light blue highlights. Many are shaded in a deep reddish brown. Where their corresponding armours survive – or are shown in colour in contemporary depictions – the armour appears an iridescent blue, the result of being heat-treated. X-Ray analysis of the armour design for Lord Buckhurst, revealed the reddish brown colouring to have been made from iron oxides with traces of zinc and lead.
Areas of light blue were analysed on the stirrups in the design for Sir Henry Lee's 1587 armour and revealed indigo as the source. Iron oxides were readily available in the workshop and using them in the designs to suggest large expanses of blue steel would have been cheaper than sourcing blue paints.
Dedicated leaders of fashion
The noblemen who commissioned the armours were the fashion leaders of their day. They were the chief beneficiaries of the sumptuary laws that regulated the cuts, shapes, materials and decoration of clothing according to status. With their position as noblemen however, came an obligation to present themselves in the most expensive and up-to-date manner. Their armour was a form of clothing. The exaggerations and distortions it imposed on natural body-shape flexed and contracted with contemporary fashions.
The early designs show the taste for plainer attire with vertical bands of ornament contrasting with undecorated areas in keeping with contemporary embroidered doublets (a short, close-fitting padded jacket). During the 1570s a swollen and exaggerated belly known as a 'peascod' characterised both doublets and breastplates. Some almost extended over the bottom of the breeches and hose which were worn high to emphasise long slender legs, a feature matched in the leg defences, which followed the natural profile of the entire leg.
The full flamboyance of the 1580s is shown in the armour for George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, which is decorated all over in Tudor roses, fleur-de-lys and lovers' knots. Clifford was a commander of the Navy who made his name and fortune as a privateer in the West Indies. When Henry Lee retired as Queen's Champion in 1591, Clifford took on the role. The armour is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and is the most spectacular survivor of the Elizabethan Greenwich armours.
A few of the later designs hint at the fashion to come in the early 17th century. This was characterised by a renewed emphasis on the swollen thighs with breeches worn to the knee where they were met with long leather boots, a feature which split the legs into upper and lower portions.
The Spanish Armada 1588
The album was probably bound in around 1585 – 7. The last few designs are on double-pages for armours made to face the threat of Spanish invasion. The last design in the album, only recently identified, is annotated 'Sur Bale Desena' and refers to Sir Horatio Palavicino (Valdesina), a wealthy Italian merchant and diplomat who was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1587. Palavicino became part of Elizabeth I's intelligence services and was rich enough to lend the Queen money. In preparation for the defence of Britain against the Spanish Armada, he raised and equipped a ship at his own expense. The armour from this design unfortunately does not survive.
The armour Henry Lee ordered to fight against the Spanish does survive in the Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers in London. Its design has no extra pieces for tournament. All the pieces of exchange are for use in battle. Much to Lee’s annoyance, he was posted to guard the north of England far away from the action: "My horses are in one place, my saddelles, furnyture, and armore in an other, and mysellf in the thurde".
The armour is quite austere, an early hint of the aesthetic that came to dominate men’s fashions into the 17th century. It is however beautifully etched with hop flowers and pomegranates. The design shows the armour was also intended to be picked out in red and green detailing, probably in enamels, an astonishing extravagance for an armour ready for battle.
Works of art
The Album bears witness to the great artistry, care and expense that went into producing good quality armour. These ensembles were the private yachts of their day: each would set its owner back the equivalent of around £2 million. Each of these armours was made-to-measure, reflecting its owner’s posture and vitality. Each piece was like a metal cast of the original wearer, light, flexible and mobile. Knights were expected to move gracefully and athletically in their armour which flexed in harmony with their body movements, smoothly and silently, a perfectly articulated protective shell. It was, according to the Spanish writer, Luis Zapata, "most unseemly for a jouster to move about in armour rattling like kettles".
Surviving armours in museums have often lost much of their decoration and colour. The Almain Armourers' Album offers a vivid glimpse into the world of courtly loyalty, entertainment and rivalry in Elizabethan England. Decorated with bands of etching, blued and gilt, matched with richly coloured silks and velvets, with dyed ostrich feathers sprouting from the helmet, on a horse armed to match, these extraordinary armours turned their owners into works of art.
Explore the Almain Armourers' Album in Search the Collections
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